Most Sundays, flour speckled my grandmother’s laminate-wood countertops, a consequence of hand-making dozens of tortillas for the week. Nearby, reused jam and spaghetti-sauce jars waited to be refilled with fresh salsa, a mild concoction crafted from the chile pequín in Nana’s backyard. Her homemade cooking was popular in her San Antonio community. Neighborhood kids would plan visits to my nana’s house on specific days depending on their hankerings. Some came for fried chicken, others for fideo or arroz con pollo. (My father said one of his friends was known in the family for having polished off “two whole birds by himself.”)
But the real crowd-pleaser was Nana’s breakfast tacos. In a stroke of entrepreneurial spirit, one of my father’s six siblings began to feign hunger in order to resell some of the coveted breakfast tacos. My uncle’s little business was a big success at his Catholic high school, and Nana’s blend of fluffy eggs with chorizo, ham, or potatoes folded into one of her warm flour tortillas was the key.
My uncle’s side hustle was not unlike other Texas Mexican businesses around the state that have women to thank for their prosperity. For more than a century, Mexican and Indigenous women have helped turn Tex-Mex into an internationally recognized cuisine, and they have long been the backbone of some of the state’s most famous institutions. The problem is, these women often don’t get the credit they deserve.
On a worn page of a 1923 recipe book, an etching of a red, white, and blue–colored bottle of Eagle Chili Powder accompanies a write-up that lauds the spice. “It was only when Gebhardt succeeded in preparing and blending these spices into piquant perfection of Eagle Chili Powder that Mexican dishes really became practical so far as American homes were concerned,” reads the page from Mexican Cookery for American Homes.
The Gebhardt company, founded by German immigrant and entrepreneur William Gebhardt, published the book to familiarize Anglos with ancho chiles, which were the key ingredient in the spice mix. The blend made chiles available throughout the country and easy to use at home. By 1915, the company was producing 18,000 bottles of chile powder a day and was raking in $1 million in profits a year, making the Gebhardt name synonymous with Tex-Mex food.
However, decades before Eagle Chili Powder hit grocery-store shelves, Mexican and Indigenous women gathered to sell chili con carne in open-air food stands in San Antonio plazas. From the 1860s until the early 1940s, these women were a downtown staple, and they became known across the country as the Chili Queens. Gebhardt, who lived in New Braunfels and later in San Antonio, explained away the pesky origin story of chili with ads such as, “The ‘Chili Queens’ may have given it the name . . . BUT Gebhardt gave ‘Chili’ its flavor . . . San Antonio style.”
Gebhardt isn’t the only non-Latino who gets credit for a Tex-Mex cornerstone. There’s also the Swiss immigrant in New York who invented Velveeta and who sometimes gets applauded for the eventual creation of chili con queso, as well as several early-1900s Anglo restaurateurs, such as the Chicago businessman who owned the Original Mexican Restaurant in downtown San Antonio and found inspiration from comida casera for his popular combo plates. “Food industrialists not only appropriate the recipes but then transform them and call them Tex-Mex,” said the University of Texas at San Antonio professor Lilliana Patricia Saldaña, who teaches a course on Mexican American and Indigenous foodways. “Then, they say that their recipes are more palatable to the American public.”
Food scholars, like Saldaña, told me that to truly understand Tex-Mex, it’s important to look beyond the printed historical record. Adán Medrano, a chef, writer, and documentarian who focuses on Texas Mexican food, said that the cuisine’s most famous dishes, like chile con queso, have their roots in recipes from women native to northern Mexico and South Texas. “The people who did all the cooking and were in charge of domesticating plants, selecting plants that were not poisonous, and creating the cooking technologies like earth ovens, steaming, roasting, and baking were women,” Medrano said. “And because of these techniques and their ability to source from the land, they created a very specific flavor profile that is delicious.”
There are a few reasons why these women have been largely overlooked in the history books. For a good part of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, compared to white men, Mexican and Indigenous women didn’t have the same access—including privilege, money, and connections—to print and disseminate their recipes. Another tricky factor is that women in the Latino community often don’t write out their recipes and instead pass down their culinary traditions orally.
My father learned to cook from his mother, Herminia, whom we called Nana. My grandmother didn’t write down her recipes. She tasted her mole and adjusted it based on el sabor. When Nana taught others to cook, she did so by telling stories and interpreting the taste, smell, touch, and appearance of the dishes. My father, in turn, instructed me in the same way. You’d be hard-pressed to find a written recipe from the Mexican side of my family, and I’ve learned that this isn’t unique to my relatives.
Meredith Abarca, a professor of food and foodways at the University of Texas at El Paso, says Mexican American families often re-create dishes through sensorial language rather than documenting them with the written word. “Cooks do have a specialized language,” she said. “The tanteo [rough estimate], when you put it in your hand, you feel it. You smell it. You can see it. You can hear it. The reason why we don’t write the recipes down is because we are using a totally different language.”
To better understand the recipes and histories of women like Nana, I needed to tap into these sorts of oral-storytelling traditions. Back in February, I called Diana Barrios Treviño, who is a friend of my padrino and the daughter of Viola Barrios, the woman who opened the famous San Antonio restaurant Los Barrios. Diana recounted stories of her mother, whom I think of as the matriarch of San Antonio Tex-Mex food. I grew up eating Viola’s puffy tacos, caldo de pollo, and tamales, and I still stop to indulge whenever I’m back in the Alamo City.
Diana told me Viola started planning to open her first restaurant after her husband passed away in a car accident in 1975. Born in Bustamante in the Mexican border state of Nuevo León, Viola spoke very little English and turned to the restaurant industry to provide for her children. By that point, she had practiced her family’s recipes for years. The dishes were good enough, she hoped, to take a leap and open Los Barrios in 1979, with a few thousand dollars from her savings. The restaurant became an instant hit—people lined up around the block.
Eventually, the eatery expanded into a local chain, and Viola continued to build Los Barrios until her death in 2008. By that time, Los Barrios was a national success. (The Today show and the New York Times featured flattering coverage of the food over the years.) One of the secrets to the restaurant’s popularity, Diana said, is staying true to some of her mother’s traditions and principles. “We never skimp on our ingredients, because my mother never did, and she said she never would,” Diana said. “You can go to Los Barrios, and I guarantee you there’s a dozen employees who have been with us over thirty years who will tell you about what they learned from her. When they train new employees, they say, ‘Señora Barrios did it like this.’ ”
Viola Barrios is just one of many enterprising women who became successful through their Tex-Mex restaurants. There’s also Tula Borunda Gutierrez, who opened the first-ever Texas Mexican restaurant in 1887 in Marfa. Then there’s Adelaida Cuellar, who began the El Chico empire in Dallas in the 1940s. Cuellar started with a food stand selling tamales and chili at the Kaufman County Fair in 1926 before taking the leap with her sons to open their first restaurant. The chain grew to encompass locations in fourteen states at one point and created over four thousand jobs, according to Adelaida’s son John Cuellar. Although the family sold the business in 1998, Cuellar says the remaining restaurants still serve dishes tied to Adelaida’s original recipes. “The family was very instrumental in creating a cuisine,” he told me. “Our matriarch, Adelaida, had a dream, but I think our reality turned out to be even greater than her dream.”
These are examples of Mexican women who got their due when it came to having their names identified with Texas Mexican food. But despite such success stories, the cuisine is often dismissed as simply an Anglo interpretation of Mexican food, rather than a blending of cultures, ingredients, and recipes from the region and the women native to it. Even though my nana and other women might not achieve widespread recognition for their food, I’ll do my best to honor them by passing down their recipes—by word of mouth and with pen and paper.