Spend any time in Texas during winter and you will learn to appreciate this most unpredictable of seasons. In South Texas, where I come from, the wind comes roaring off the immense warm bath of the Gulf, beckoning parrots to squawk in pecan trees. Thousands of grackles hold court over the heads of shoppers in H-E-B parking lots, and are made melancholy by the vast, desolate sky tinged with blue-grey. During this time, the palate craves the tastes and textures of warmer seasons. When the north wind rustles the ebony and anacahuita trees of my hometown of Harlingen, it is time to make caldo.
Depending on whom you ask, caldo is either a soup or a stew, but the truth is, a real caldo is neither. A soup is a sopa and a stew is a guiso, like carne guisada, the gravied friend of a warmed flour tortilla. But a caldo is a broth. This broth is a remnant of the barest of times in winter, in which people—be they in colonial Mexico where caldo was refined or in the pioneer fringes of old Texas—had to cook with whatever ingredients were available in the vegetable garden. A caldo was usually prepared for New Year’s Day or Epiphany, and made again during Candlemas on February 2, when those unlucky enough to find the bean in the rosca de reyes, or king cake, on January 6 were obliged to throw a party.
Nowadays, caldo can be made conveniently. Store-bought vegetables are cut into large pieces and dropped into a hot pot of boiling stock made with collagen-rich oxtails. A few potatoes provide carbohydrates. Handfuls of pale green cabbage provide the roughage and bulk to support the tender points of meat. The connective tissue in the oxtails dissolves into the boiling broth, fortifying the soup and giving it an almost velvety mouthfeel. If the oxtails have been seasoned well with the holy trinity of garlic, cumin, and black peppercorn, they will lend a warmth that will banish Old Man Winter to the land of wind and ghosts where he belongs. To finish the soup, halved cobs of corn are rolled in like logs, adding a touch of sweetness and crunch and rounding out the palette of warm colors that makes this dish so inviting. The bowls are prepared and the family summoned. Someone is made to venture out into the cold to fetch hot corn tortillas from the tortilleria, or else Grandma volunteers to smash corn masa on a hot griddle. A nearby skillet prepares the necessary accoutrement of Spanish rice. Then, when the ingredients have been procured, the broth is ladled into bowls, each with a portion of luscious oxtail. The gold-ringed soup, rich in fat, carbs, salt, and vitamins, is a restorative.
Caldo is highly versatile and easy to throw together—unlike its finicky cousins pozole and menudo, it does not require one particular ingredient to work. The more ingredients added to the broth, the richer it becomes. A typical dinner of caldo comes with sweet cold-weather treats such as buñuelos or sopaipillas. Capirotada, a raisin-and-rum-soaked bread pudding, is often served as a finisher for caldo during cuaresma, the onset of Lent, when in South Texas the Hong Kong orchids burst forth in hot pink splendor. The merienda, or afternoon coffee hour, brings a respite of appetite-suppressing black coffee, before the caldo is reheated and the soup served again, richer and more satisfying than before. The adventurous might toss in a few rounds of sliced serrano pepper or diced cilantro and onion. Or the soup can be deconstructed, with the boiled portions and rice spooned into a tortilla like a taco. Sterling additions are sautéed onions and green bell pepper, a secret ingredient in South Texas kitchens. The tortillas can be torn up and tossed into the soup too. Just as there are many ways to dance the taquachito, there are many ways to eat caldo.
Caldo is a pan-American dish. Its roots lay in deeply scented, richly colored European, Native American, and Black cuisines. Like many similar dishes worldwide, it is a food of those who know how to stretch meals. I grew up poor in a three-bedroom shotgun house in Harlingen, and caldo was served for particular scenarios: while convalescing from the dreaded catarro (cured with a mug of tea, brewed from the leaves of the orange trees that grew in my front yard); surprise visits from old relatives whose appearance came suddenly with the arrival of the northers; or just for the hell of it, when the cold invaded the drafty spaces of the old house. All my grandfather had to do was ask and my mother would lovingly deposit the vegetables in a great Dutch oven on the range top, and in an hour the soup would be hot and ready, ebullient and fragrant. The cooking smells would mingle with the thick layer of smoke coming from the living room, where my grandfather would puff a Sam Houston cigar and watch the evening news. When the repast was finished, the soup was ladled into a gigantic Tupperware container and relegated like a sarcophagus to the back of the refrigerator to be excavated throughout the week. The oxtail bones were given to the family dog. The entire ritual, however simple, could beckon the sun to emerge after days of cold and wind. At the end of it all, the doors of the house would be opened, and it would be 70 degrees again.
Even when I was 650 miles from home, while studying anthropology at Texas Tech University, the call of caldo was too good to miss. One dreary January evening in 2011, I took a trip to a little Mexican restaurant on Clovis Road, Montelongo’s, where, by chance, caldo happened to be on the menu. The house caldo—a rare offering, I was told—was served steaming hot in a large ceramic bowl. Large pieces of celery, carrot, potato, and shredded chicken swam in a broth lightly spiced with red chili pepper. Calabacitas, or summer squash, made a guest appearance, their unmistakable yellow-green flesh like sumptuous little pillows of flavor. Lubbock has amazing Tex-Mex fare, and this caldo, with its faint echo of New Mexico cooking, remains one of the best iterations of Panhandle Tex-Mex I ever ate.
Caldo is but one of a handful of soups and stews meant to animar los espíritus, cheer the soul. Caldo is at the versatile end of the continuum, while Texas-style chili is at the opposite end, intransigent and uncompromising, and somewhere in-between is fideo. These dishes have the effect of relieving hunger pangs with simple ingredients in a spectacular way; of unifying, partly because of the way the soup is communally served; and of providing avenues for individual expression. Caldo can be augmented to satisfy most appetites. It can be spiked with hot sauce, filled with plump, ridged Mexican macaroni, or given an umami kick with cubes of diced queso oaxaqueño or panela enchilada. The vegetal additions come with a host of nutritional benefits, drawing from the richness of the earth. The anti-inflammatory qualities of the spices are badly needed in the midst of cold and flu season. Carbs are good too, and the tortillas and the potato are more calorie-dense, encouraging total satisfaction. But all this pales in comparison with the good that caldo does for the soul. Tex-Mex is a cuisine of cultural dialogue, and the miracle of caldo is its universal popularity and simplicity. Anglo Texans can find parallels in flu-busting chicken soups, but in Tex-Mex caldo, there are herbal, tonic notes that bring subtler flavors to the fore without taking away any of the richness and body of a traditional soup.
If one of these nights you find yourself shivering in one of those blue northers that come roaring with special vehemence from the Great Plains, I invite you to gather what you have and make caldo. Make it your own. Share it with your family. Toss a log on the fire and make some tortillas or jalapeño cornbread. When you eat it, let the broth glide effortlessly down your throat. Be satisfied. When the cold fades and the sun returns, you will know what I know—that caldo is magic, a blessing, a gift from one Texan to another. And you will have one more weapon to fight the cold.