From chili smothered atop a bag of crunchy corn chips topped with American cheese at a Friday night football game to a finger-lickin’ piece of fried chicken at Sunday lunch, Texas cuisine comes in all forms—and hits home in all the right places. But just what are the ten quintessential Texas dishes? Executive editor Patricia Sharpe researched, argued with her peers and editors, and argued some more to come up with our list. And she even went as far as to ask chefs from across the state to tell us exactly how to prepare the beloved dishes we’ve come to call Texas comfort food. Get your cast-iron skillet ready. Here’s the story behind the story.
How did you decide what to include? How did you narrow the list down? Did you try to choose the “classic” dishes or the current “trendy” dishes?
Over the years, I had done informal polls of half a dozen of my native Texas friends, asking them what they thought our most classic dishes were, so I had a lot of research—and a list of about twenty dishes. I sat down and narrowed these to about fifteen or so (the long list included fajitas, Texas caviar, King Ranch casserole, fried Gulf Coast shrimp, Frito pie, pecan pie, and a few more). After that I had a meeting with two other editors and we argued for about half an hour to get the list down to ten. “Trendy” dishes weren’t ever considered. We were going classic all the way.
How did you track down the various people who have mastered these dishes? Are these people you have grown to know personally, or do you put your ear to the pavement to hear who the best of the best is?
I knew a lot of them personally, like Tom Perini, our cover boy, whom I met when he was catering barbecue for then-Texas governor George W. Bush. I knew Lisa Wong from having eaten at her restaurant, Rosario’s, in San Antonio, and loving her tacos and pozole—I knew she would have a good recipe for migas. I didn’t know the chili cook-off queen, Christine Knight, but how could you go wrong with the winner of the Terlingua chili cook-off? That was a no-brainer.
Are there any dishes you felt you may have left out?
Oh, man. I know we’re going to get hate mail for leaving out fajitas and King Ranch casserole. I may have to change my phone number and start wearing a disguise.
Writing about food can be a difficult task. How do you go about knowing exactly how to execute writing a culinary feature?
First, I flipped through the many Texas cookbooks I have to see what I liked about them. I have to say that Texas Home Cooking, by Cheryl Alters Jamison and Bill Jamison, was one of the most fun. And so comprehensive. I loved their little nuggets of information and tips and irreverent sidelights tucked in among the recipes. Second, I thought about what I personally wanted to read. Finally, I’ve always wanted to write about Texas dishes of bygone days, and this was my chance.
There aren’t a lot of vegetarian friendly dishes in Texas cuisine. Do you think that will change over the years, or do you think Texans will remain faithful to meat?
I don’t see our love of beef changing any time soon. I tried and tried to come up with something green for the list and the best I could do was fried okra. Maybe collard greens. Oh, and jalapeño poppers (which I sort of included in the dove recipe). But none is a major, integral part of our Texas heritage and identity.
What Texas dish did you grow up eating? What should every Texan grow up eating?
Pan-fried steak. Honestly, I didn’t know there was any other way to cook a steak except score it with a butcher knife, dredge it in flour, and fry it to a cinder. (My mother came from the “well-done” school of meat cookery. She hated to see any juice, or God forbid, any blood coming out of a piece of meat.) It wasn’t until I left home and got married that I learned you could cook a piece of meat any color but gray.
Is there a classic Texas cookbook out there that you keep on your shelf?
As I said, Texas Home Cooking by the Jamisons; it’s the Texas Joy of Cooking. Grady Spears has about half a dozen cookbooks, including A Cowboy in the Kitchen. Tom Perini’s Texas Cowboy Cooking. For barbecue, and its history, Robb Walsh’s Legends of Texas Barbecue Cookbook—it has great archival photos, too. Melissa Guerra’s Dishes From the Wild Horse Desert. Lou Lambert, our steak expert, will have Big Ranch Big City Cookbook out in September. I’ve seen proof, and it’s going to be good. I could go on and on—somebody stop me now.
In your thirty years at TEXAS MONTHLY, how have you seen Texas cuisine evolve?
The iconic dishes have hardly changed; the favorite steak has gone from a T-bone to a ribeye, but that’s about it. Now, among the trendy dishes, the modern restaurant dishes, we’ve gone from being a state (and a country) that follows the rules and the recipes to one that takes classic cuisine as a jumping off point and goes crazy from there. Chefs used to take pride in executing the classics of French and Italian (and other) cuisines with loving fidelity. Now everybody does his or her own thing. It’s all about creativity and novelty.
What do you think distinguishes Texas cuisine from the rest of the nation?
We have had so many flags fly over our state—just look at the cookbook from the Institute of Texan Cultures (in San Antonio) named The Melting Pot to see the incredible variety of our national heritage. But mostly, it’s our unique way of blending our three major culinary traditions—Southern, Mexican, and Western (ranching)—that makes us different from any other state.