A specter haunts Texas—The specter of the ruination of real Texas food. Ominous forces are conspiring to lay our precious state cookery low: Eastern food intelligentsia and New Southwester cuisinoids, outside agitators and native false prophets, mesquite abusers and cilantro junkies. They threaten the very thing by which we truly know and identify ourselves as Texans, for our food is what defines our culture and separates us from the rest of humankind.
The hour is late. We must wake up to the titanic food struggle now facing Texas. We must understand what great Texas cooking really is and protect it against its despoilers. Should we fail, we will have sacrificed not only our souls but also something far more important—our sacred Texas right to eat well.
It wasn’t until the Williamsburg economic summit meeting last May that I realized we were in big trouble. Lately I tend to date things according to Williamsburg; it looms in my mind as a culinary watershed, for it was then that my feelings of unease about this New American Cuisine business crystallized. New American Cuisine had been okay by me as long as it was a bunch of New Yorkers roasting muskrat or Californians fooling with arcane varieties of lettuce. Closer to home, if preparing and presenting our regional dishes with more finesse produced a nice bread pudding soufflé at Brennan’s, then I was for it. It was all a bit precious, perhaps, and certainly self-important, but hardly what you’d call sinister.
Then came Williamsburg, when chief American food guru Craig Claiborne summoned some big-deal regional cooks to do their stuff for President Reagan and the assembled heads of state. Sounded harmless: a chance to show off for the honchos, celebrate American cooking, pat ourselves on our 207-year-old back. But wait—the woman chosen to provide the Mexican portion of the menu announced she’d be serving fish tamales. To make matters worse, the barbecuing chores were assigned to one Jane Butel, a New Mexican turned New Yorker who just happened to be marketing a line of Southwestern seasoning mixes under her Pecos Valley brand. Butel’s credentials included a compendium of chili recipes and another tome called Tex-Mex Cooking. By Butel’s own admission, most of her alleged Tex-Mex recipes were New Mexican and therefore an alien enchilada; the publisher, she explained, thought “Tex-Mex” in the title would make the book more marketable.
If Butel’s willingness to misrepresent the contents of her Mexican cookbook for the sake of marketability seemed disturbing, her barbecue cookbook seemed even more so. There was that embarrassing title: Finger Lickin’ Rib Stickin’ Great Tastin’ Hot & Spicy Barbecue, A Passionate Cookbook. More significant was Butel’s qualified advocacy of liquid smoke, to say nothing of a passel of recipes for something called oven barbecue and even a recipe that included a sour cream sauce. As a naturalized Texan with a proprietary interest in barbecue, I was appalled to think what Butel might foist off on poor Mitterand and Thatcher. Why Mr. Claiborne would want to bypass certifiable Texas barbecue geniuses like the Schmidts of Lockhart in favor of a professional food marketer was beyond me; why he had chosen a fish-tamale maker over San Antonian Mary Treviño, whose sopa azteca would move the most obstinate foreign minister to tears, passed understanding.
Williamsburg furnished incontrovertible evidence that false prophets were at large doing objectionable things in the name of Southwestern food in general and Texas food in particular. In the wake of the summit, an outside agitator materialized. Claiborne cohort Pierre Franey came to Houston and announced patronizingly that while Texas barbecue had its merits, we really ought to do something about those heavy barbecue sauces. I consoled myself with the thought that a man who would take a job with Howard Johnson’s could hardly be expected to get the point about barbecue. Still, his comments rankled.
Then the weird articles started appearing. A New York magazine cover story touted Mexican food as the coming thing and showed photos of dishes so gussied up as to be unrecognizable to any clear-thinking Texan. Here in Texas there was an article about how trendy it is to grill with mesquite. It ran with a photo of Amy Ferguson, a young French chef in Houston, sheepishly tending an outdoor grill in a derelict alleyway of the sort where winos usually collapse. A second story detailed a Texas regional menu Ferguson had worked up: watermelon soup, mesquite-grilled quail, sautéed cactus, green salad with rose petals and tequila-and-lime vinaigrette. Next came a piece wherein Robert Del Grande, the chef at Café Annie in Houston and a gung ho exponent of the New American Cuisine, offered up an all-mesquite-grilled menu: tortillas with smoked salmon and nouvelled-up garnishes, grilled mushrooms, grilled lamb with cilantro mustard butter, white beans with grilled red onions, grilled bananas for dessert. Just for the hell of it he threw in a recipe for cactus pizza with cilantro and chorizo. At least neither Del Grande nor Ferguson (both of whom are genuinely talented chefs, by the way) was serving all those New Southwestern dishes in their decidedly frenchified restaurants. Maybe we were safe. Like the architectural oeuvre of Michael Graves, the more outré Southwestern creations seemed to exist mainly on paper, a Fig Newton of the food press’ imagination.
What the food press imagined became horribly clear when the Dallas Times Herald ran a massive three-part series trumpeting the “Dawn of a New Cuisine.” With high seriousness, writer Michael Bauer heralded “the emerging cuisine of the Southwest” and “the impact the cuisine is having from coast to coast.” Besides using the word “cuisine” more times than one would have thought humanly possible, Bauer gushed over such dishes as pork tenderloin smothered in mango cream sauce and ecstatically proclaimed that now Texans would have a chance to eat brave new Mexican food in brave new upscale surroundings. Southwestern cuisine “has been taken out of the back rooms and into the elegance of continental restaurants,” intoned Bauer—ominously, for those of us who prefer to eat in back rooms. As a portent of the future, he interviewed “food concepts designer” Anne Lindsay Greer, who had just published her Cuisine of the American Southwest and who can outré with the best of ‘em. Greer tints her pasta with green cilantro or red chile and tosses it with pinon nuts. She grills oysters with cilantro pesto.
Most depressing of all, Bauer pointed his readers toward some Dallas restaurants that were actually doing this New Southwestern number. Drawn by morbid curiosity, fearing the worst, I headed north. At the sleekly deco’d Genaro’s Tropical, I was met with quesadillas that were served, so help me God, with a pseudo hollandaise sauce. Also on tap were some odoriferous seafood nachos made from elderly red snapper. What else can you expect, I asked myself glumly, from a Mexican restaurant that keeps a glass dome full of Neuhaus chocolates by the cash register and sells them for a dollar a pop? Next on the New Southwestern itinerary was Turtle Cove, a bait-camp-meets-Versailles place that mesquite-grills everything except its salads. There I discovered that mesquite-grilling a speckled Gulf trout can be risky business indeed; my poor fish was afflicted with a nastily toughened skin and a dryish interior. But the trout was in no wise as ludicrous as the restaurant’s mesquite-grilled vegetables, thin leaves of zucchini that tasted entirely of mesquite smoke and not in the least of squash. Next morning, the newspaper told of a chic new eatery called the Pollo Club that would serve mesquite-grilled chicken, shrimp, and fajitas. Of course, the restaurant’s name (since changed to Chickeria) was to be pronounced like the game, not the Spanish word for chicken, but what the hell, this was Dallas. I fled from the New Southwestern cuisinoids back to Houston, where my neighborhood bistro promptly proceeded to serve me … oysters in cilantro pesto.
By then I was fairly demoralized. I’ve never felt ambivalent about cilantro; I’ve always like its impertinent astringency, its slap-you-up-side-the-head green taste. But suddenly all the wrong people were eating it for all the wrong reasons. Like mesquite chips and tomatillos and red and green chiles, not to mention tequila and cactus pads and seafood in unfamiliar contexts, cilantro seemed to be headed toward the land of culinary ephemera. It might even, with a bit of bad luck, become the kiwi fruit of the eighties. Leave cilantro alone, I grumbled. Let’s not ruin a perfectly nice herb, of which a little has always gone a long way, by pressing it into service willy-nilly. Ditto for mesquite. A little discretion, please; a little care for the appropriateness of things. Perhaps remedial organizations were in order: Cilantro Anonymous or the Society for the Prevention of Mesquite Abuse. Maybe a contingent of food police to seek out and chastise offenders of common culinary decency.
Even Bigger Trouble
As if the New Southwestern false prophets and the outside agitators were not enough, a dangerous breed of food posturers also appears to be in the ascendant: the Neo-Texas entrepreneurs. The most successful of these consummate marketers are Dallasite Gene Street, he of the multitudinous Black-Eyed Peas, and San Antonian Cappy Lawton, papa of the Mama’s chain. Street and Lawton typify the Neo-Texas genre in their obsessive attention to atmospherics and archetypes. Their restaurants are crammed with nostalgic Texas arty-fax: ceiling fans, taxidermy, crockery, quilts (Lawton’s 1776 Corporation actually employs someone whose job is to purchase collections of Texana). Their menus bristle with every sacred culinary cow in the state repertoire, from the obligatory chicken-fried steak to King Ranch casserole to fried okra. It’s largely mediocre food, but that’s not the point—not to their ceaseless regiments of customers or to the Neo-Texas boys themselves. One of the Cappy Lawton’s corporate lieutenants once asked a friend of mine what she looked for in a restaurant. As she laid out her standards, a look of dawning comprehension spread over his face. “Oh, you mean it’s the food that’s important to you,” said the Neo-Texan, chewing the idea over as if hearing it for the first time.
Of course, the Neo-Texas places aren’t selling food, they’re selling a framework of signs and symbols to urban Texans. One of the strangest things about the Neo-Texas restaurants is their almost shrill jingoism: they beat you over the head with relentless reminders that you’re in Texas eating Texas food. Even the menu prose reflects a pep-rally mentality, a propagandistic tone. Perhaps the best example of Neo-Texas menuspeak is the appearance of chicken-fried chicken—a truly mind-boggling redundancy—on Lawton’s Mama’s Restaurant menu. The Neo-Texas restaurants are essentially made-up places built on shifting cultural sands. Their ethnocentricity is probably nothing more complicated than a response to rapid social change as Texas transforms itself from a rural to an urban culture. Newly urban folks removed from the small towns of their youth find reassurance in the blatant iconology and familiar dishes of a Texas Tumbleweed, a Mama’s ersatz Hill Country café, a Black-Eyed Pea. Recently arrived Northerners find affirmation of a new identity; Neo-Texas joints convince them they’re going native. All parties find a usable—albeit phony—past in such restaurants; the country pose makes patrons feel rooted at the same time that the safely middle-class stylization of food and décor befits their status as city folk. This is powerful stuff—more powerful, in many cases, than the lure of a properly nasty barbecued pork rib or a really soulful chicken-fried steak.
The Neo-Texas phenomenon might be easier to take if only its entrepreneurs would sell their wretched food quietly. But whereas Texans once could live in peaceful ignorance of the doings of Messrs. Lawton and Street, now their every move is fodder for the press. We must read about the peregrinations of Street in his lavender jet, the Pea-Aire, as he globe-trots about, making plans to open a Mexican restaurant in Paris. (Tamale’s, his quasi-Mexican effort here at home, can’t even turn out decent chicken tacos, but why should a little detail like that stand in the way?) We are told that Cappy Lawton is the Texas version of the famous California neo-chef Alice Waters—a patently absurd comparison. While Lawton’s many kitchens churn out indifferent chicken-frieds and vegetables suffocating in black pepper, the innovative Waters, who owns a single small restaurant and upstairs café in Berkeley, is combing the countryside for just the right cheese, the perfect local fruit, the best possible oysters. Just because one Lawton enterprise, Cappy’s restaurant in San Antonio, serves a few Gulf seafood dishes with some tequila and cilantro thrown in doesn’t put him in Waters’ class, and it certainly doesn’t make him a standard-bearer of some fictional new Texas cuisine. That the Texas food press makes him out to be one is a measure of its gullibility.
There is genuine danger in the Neo-Texas food entrepreneurs’ rise to power and influence. Given enough ersatz cobbler, moribund fried okra, and insanely peppered cream gravy, our numbed palates may forget what real Texas food was like. Already Neo-Texas joints are popping up on every other street corner, places named the Texas this, the Longhorn that, the Bubba’s whatsit. Meanwhile the best Texas cooks pass into history, and the roster of real Texas eating places shrinks. Fred Fountaine will retire from his hallowed barbecue pit at Louie Mueller’s in four years or so, but it’s a safe bet that hordes of greaseless, preppy County Lines will spring up to take his place. As Carolina Borunda Humphries fixes her last Tex-Mex plate on that wood-burning stove in Marfa, Gene Street or Cappy Lawton or someone just like them will be opening up a branch in your neighborhood.
Danger lurks in the New Southwestern claptrap as well. We seem to be falling prey to our own regional insecurities—aping the New American Cuisine, following California’s lead, cooking and eating whatever the food press expects us to. Is the word out that New Southwestern cooks will use lots of red and green peppers? Our trendy eateries dutifully trot out the red and green peppers. It’s just another way of forgetting who we really are and what our food is really like. A cuisine assumes a sense of history, a conscious combining of disparate elements. Food writers and high-profile cooks and restaurant marketers can’t create a new cuisine by fiat; it happens slowly and organically, the way it did in France and China. America is only now in a position to have a cuisine at all, let alone a new one. Nattering about some New Southwestern Cuisine is really jumping the gun.
The movement to celebrate American food is well and good. Texas food is eminently worth celebrating, but in these perilous times we must pay heed to how and where we do it. If we ignore the crisis as a trivial matter, soon all Texas will be divided between the Black-Eyed Pea faction and the mesquite-abuse cult. The forces of evil will have usurped our food, and we’ll have nobody to blame but ourselves. Texans’ unite! We have nothing to lose but bad meals. We have the most intimate expression of our culture to win.
The Importance of Eating Tex-Mex
Every society needs its nursery food-soothing, predictable dishes that give comfort in time of adversity. In wimpier parts of the country, nursery food runs to the bland likes of rice pudding and milk toast. In Texas it’s Tex-Mex, that utterly reliable laundry list of nine basic items, combined and recombined, eternal verities. Even the sound of the litany is reassuring: enchiladas and tamales, rice and beans, tacos and chalupas, nachos and guacamole, chile con queso. There’s that dependable note of comino, the familiar strains of commercial chili powder, and—perhaps most gratifying of all—the gooey unity conferred by a coating of melted cheese and chili gravy. No surprises here; this hyped-up nursery fare makes no untoward demands on the palate (outlanders mistakenly think it’s hot stuff, but Texans know the picante factor is just a function of the table salsa). It makes no untoward demands on the brain, either. Only the combinations change; the momentous choices and exotic stimuli posed by Mex-Mex menus are but a distant nightmare to the diner pondering the Number One versus the Senorita Special.
Like all true nursery food, Tex-Mex harks back to childhood: the Wednesday Mexican plate at the elementary school cafeteria, the family’s weekly foray to eat your favorite gringofied enchiladas at the city café. Tex-Mex legatees know that rational dining standards don’t apply to their Tex-Mex restaurants. The attachment is emotional. Sneers and remonstrations (“Too greasy.” “But they use Velveeta!”) will not sway the true believer a jot. The Texan stands by his Tex-Mex restaurant. For without ever having to articulate it, he knows that his reason for being there is profoundly remedial—an antidote to traffic snarls, modern romance, a puny spell. Let the rough beast slouch toward Bethlehem. I’ll be sitting under the Christmas lights at the Spanish Village in Houston, listening to the police sirens wail down Almeda Street and taking solace in the Regular Dinner.
“When in doubt, fry” has always been the unspoken credo of Texas kitchens. During his trek across East Texas in the 1850’s, Frederick Law Olmsted was driven to distraction by the ever-present “fry”—usually salt pork or bacon—served forth with cold corn pone and bad coffee. Hill Country Germans were perhaps less prone than their Anglo-Southern neighbors to fry by reflex (Olmsted spoke gratefully of two meat courses at a New Braunfels inn, “neither of them pork, and neither of them fried”), but a 1916 Fredericksburg recipe for “A Good Steak” is vintage Texas, calling for the meat to be egg-washed and floured before it is fried in lard and butter.
It is in that spirit that Texans have undertaken to fry everything from grits to ice cream (curiosity seekers can order that unfelicitous East Texas specialty in places like Dolly’s Ice-Cream Parlor in Cleveland). We fry little fruit pies. We fry cornbread in hushpuppy form or, less frequently nowadays, as hot-water cornbread cakes. When times got hard, we fired bologna and served it with red-eye gravy and white bread. An Austin native I know recalls her mother’s fried meat loaf with some nostalgia. We fry sliced tomatoes and onion rings and turkey and jalapeños. One Lufkin barbecue joint goes so far as to deep-fry its yeast rolls. Texans happily eat fried things they’d never touch otherwise: calf testicles, rattlesnake meat, chicken livers, gizzards, and okra. The admonition to “eat your vegetables” is more palatable to many Texans if the vegetables happen to be fried. Gene Street’s Dixie House in Dallas even fries corn on the cob, an idea destined to go down in history as a dreadful mistake. Texans are not averse to entire meals that have been fried, symphonies in brown, like the classic seafood platter (relieved only by a dab of coleslaw) or chicken-fried steak with french fries.
So what does it all mean? Part of it is the legacy of the frontier, where frying offered a degree of protection against bad ingredients and bad cooks. Frying also cushions us from the shock of the new: somehow, new, unaccustomed foods like frogs’ legs or sweetbreads lose their terrors when hidden beneath that familiar gold-brown mantle. The main thing, though, it that when properly done, fried food tastes great. There is no more perfect way of cooking an oyster than quickly frying it in a cornmeal crust—its natural juices are miraculously sealed in, and the contrast of the light, crackly exterior with the oyster inside is as stirring as anything you’ll experience in a la-di-da restaurant.
That point seems to be lost on certain evangelists of the New Southwestern Cuisine. They find mesquite-grilling, roasting, and broiling socially acceptable, but frying? How gauche. Next thing you know, they’ll be advocating that we broil our catfish. Life could be lived, however, without the knee-jerk wholesale frying that Texans are wont to engage in. Unfortunately, all those Neo-Texas restaurateurs have sized on frying, comfortable old culinary shoe that it is, to establish their country-boy credentials. Just a few weeks ago Jim Byrnes, the young owner of Houston’s Lone Star Cafes, earnestly assured a newspaper food columnist that readers could prepare a whole dinner in one fryer, so that “main dishes like fried chicken can be served with the necessary accompaniments like fried okra and onions.” Necessary to whom?
Frying has a further public relations problem because so few people do it well. Some shiftless cooks resort to commercial batters; others batter and bread so mercilessly that the results are a crust not unlike boiler plate. And rare is the cook who superintends his grease with sufficient care—keeping the temperature hot enough that the food doesn’t get grease-soaked and throwing the grease away when it’s worn out. Happily, there are a few practitioners around who may yet preserve this fine art for posterity. When the Frying Hall of Fame is built, it had better have places for Cap’n Dave Smith of Cap’n Dave’s Seafood and Waylon Whipple of Mr. Whipple’s in Houston, the crew at Captain Benny’s, the fry cooks at the King’s Inn in Loyola Beach, the catfish maestros up at the Lakeview Lodge, and Bill Knox of the Running Bear in Holiday Beach.
The Texas Palate
One of the best things about living in Texas is that we have our own food. Think about it—you could be stuck in Washington, D.C., where deprived citizens do not have so much as a single civic dish to call their own and must spend their miserable lives eating the food of others. The lucky Texas cook and the even luckier Texas eater, on the other hand, have an embarrassment of riches specific unto themselves. Nowhere else did the antebellum South collide with Mexico and meet a large mass of Central Europeans and produce a whole breed of chuck-wagon cooks, with a bunch of food-crazy Louisianans and conservative Midwesterners throwing in their two cents’ worth on the fringes. The inspired mishmash that resulted is all ours: our food is Texan, not Southwestern.
The main thing about the collective Texas palate is that it ain’t subtle. A Texan wants his food to speak with authority; he’s got to have emphatic quantities of pepper and salt, jolts of red and green chile, big Tex-Mex doses of comino, unrepentant amounts of onion (raw “eating onions” are paramount, which is why those yellow Granexes we grow down in the Valley are so sweet that they throw your recipes off when cooked). A certain amount of garlic is okay by us; likewise lime, cinnamon, and the Southwestern marjoram called oregano. Texans find it natural to use salt pork and bacon as flavoring in slews of dishes. Is it smoked? We like it. Even the national sweet tooth is writ larger here—not always a good thing, but a fact of Texas life.
Given our enviable indigenous food, it would behoove a grateful populace to give credit where credit due rather than riding off pell-mell into the cuisinoid sunset. We owe a lot to the Southern influence in East and Central Texas: our manifold corn dishes, from grits to hushpuppies; the buttermilk school of baking; pork and chicken dishes (even East Texas barbecue bespeaks the barnyard rather than the cattle range). Not to mention the only decent Texas vegetable genre, which is the Southern black way of simmering anything green for hours with a bit of fat meat and finishing it off with an African shot of vinegary pickled pepper juice. Let them eat green beans al dente in New York. I want mine swimming with salt pork and new potatoes in a mess of pot liquor, thank you very much.
Texas owes a massive debt to its Mexican cooks. Theirs was the first modern Texas food, arriving with those ill-fated seventeenth-century Spanish missions and developing along both norteño and Tex-Mex lines. The former contributed a taste for grilled and roasted meats (particularly beef), which derived from Northern Mexico’s Spanish rancho culture. The latter, Texas’ own native style, added chili con carne and all that that entails. By now the tortilla, the bean, and the chile are central to life as we know it. No other branch of cookery has had such a galvanic effect on the state; no other branch has affected so many other styles and been changed so little in return.
Central Texas’ European—the Germans, Czechs, Alsatians, and to a lesser extent the Poles and Wends—deserve a vote of thanks for establishing a vital smokehouse tradition in the state. Taking a cue from their Mexican neighbors, they came up with sausages far livelier than any in the old country. The Germans in particular fell hard for the romance of Texas beef, setting up the premier meat markets and turning themselves into such superb barbecue pitmasters that sauce was (and still is) beside the point. The best steak chefs in Texas have always been Germans. And the Europeans gave Texas serious pickling, baking, and beer-drinking traditions. Remnants of their illustrious corridor of icehouses still stretch from San Antonio to Houston, fading reminders of the way beer was meant to be drunk: bottled, iced down to a fare-thee-well, and wrapped in a scrap of paper.
The Texasmost of all cooks worked on the cattle range, where out of dire necessity they created the first cooking style to be wholly identifiable with the state. Beef, beans, bacon, and sourdough were the range cook’s central realities. What couldn’t be cooked in a single Skillet or a Dutch oven didn’t get cooked at all. Milk and vegetables came from a can (there were no kitchen gardens on the sea of grass); that legacy lingers on in West Texas eateries, where the vegetable kingdom is often represented by a lone sprig of parsley. With all its limitations, cowboy food left an indelible imprint on Texas. Our lingering taste for the flavor and texture of range beef, our consuming interest in chili and chicken-fried steak—the very dishes that make the most of such beef—and the short shrift we give to vegetables all spring directly from the back of the nineteenth-century chuck wagons.
The Jalapeno as Totem-Missing Link
In some strange way, Texans’ sense of identity is tied to the jalapeño. This is a relatively recent development; when I arrived here in 1965, the jalapeño was not yet a cult object. Now it has penetrated every level of life, from the high (Mark White wagging a jalapeño pepper at Congressman Kika de la Garza is one of the weirder images in recent memory) to the mundane (the pages of any Texas community cookbook attest to the jalapeño’s ubiquity). There is something disarmingly childlike in our fixation on these little green bullets: they’re like our secret handshake, our fleur-de-lis, a Masonic rite that sets us apart. Oh, we feign delight when an outlander measures up to the jalapeño challenge, but how much greater is our pleasure when he can’t take it. The jalapeño has become a litmus test for imperially minded Texans.
The catalog of current jalapeño usage is dazzling in its catholicity. Apart from its natural role in nachos and table salsas, the jalapeño has found a home in ranch-style beans, hamburgers, jellies, quiches, pizzas, and potatoes (the Tassos baked potato at San Antonio’s venerable Barn Door is laced with chopped jalapenos). It is a necessary barbecue adjunct. The jalapeño shows up in tourist tomfoolery like lollipops and jellybeans; grandstanding bartenders use it to make daiquiris and to garnish the rims of Bloody Mary glasses. It has infiltrated party food, that great culinary leveler, in the form of sundry quasi-Mexican dips and pickled jalapeno boats stuffed with Middle-Americana like tuna salad and pimento cheese. Even as you read, Washington-on-the-Brazos herbalist Libbie Rice Winston is aging her 1983 vintage jalapeno wine; it is said to have the qualities of a Spanish sherry, and then some. If Texans hold any truth to be self-evident, it is that there is nothing that would not be improved by the addition of a little jalapeño.
The jalapeno’s most significant function has less to do with matters of taste than with cultural linkage: it has been a cement in Texans’ vision of themselves as a single people. It has insinuated itself all over the cooking map, in Smrkovsky’s knockout Czech sausages at City Market in Schulenburg, in Deep South cornbread and hushpuppies, in Louisiana-style dishes like gumbo and red beans and rice. The jalapeno, in fact, is virtually the only thing we all agree on. The one drawback to its primacy is that other, equally worthy chiles have been eclipsed as a consequence. But perhaps that is as it should be: so plump, symmetrical, and comely is the jalapeño that it makes the Serrano look niggardly, the poblano awkward, the tiny pequin negligible. As totems go, it’s the best-looking one on the block.
The Modern Kolache and Other Unnatural Disasters
As long as we’re taking stock of Texas cookery, how about a little of that self-criticism the Maoists were so good at? There are certain recent developments on the food front that are appropriate to view with alarm.
•In the best of times, kolaches, the Czech version of the Danish, never had a shelf life of more than about twenty minutes, so people were always trying to palm off stale ones on unsuspecting wayfarers. Now insult is added to injury in the form of viscous commercial fruit toppings with only the most tenuous connection to Mother Nature—sticky peach glue, icky cherry goo, and worse. The only cook I’ve been able to find who still makes her fillings from dried apricots, apples, and prunes the way her Czech forebears did is Mary Vitek of Vitek’s Kolache Bakery in Fort Worth.
• The machine age has not been kind to margaritas. I’d rather attend Colander-Head Night at my local Showbiz Pizza than drink the awful sweet-sour junk that emerges from frozen-margarita-machine spigots. What happended to cocktail shakers? What happened to those funny little Mexican limes? What happened to pride of craftsmanship, for gosh sakes? Just asking.
• Given the prodigious amounts of iced tea Texans consume, you’d think it wouldn’t be too much trouble to brew fresh. But no. Everywhere Texans must endure the Curse of the Instant Iced Tea, even in places that should know better.
• More and more restaurants are resorting to canned mustard greens because it’s too much trouble—there’s that phrase again—to wash all the bugs and grit off fresh ones.
• Considering the short time fajitas have been with us, they have entered a state of devolution with astonishing rapidity. Far too many of these charcoaled skirt steaks seem to have been marinated in sugar and soy sauce so that they come out tasting like fajitas teriyaki. Some versions eschew the soy sauce but use so much sweetener that the fajitas turn into meat candy. (Are you listening, you folks at Tenochtitlan in San Antonio?) A couple of Houston restaurants are serving a blasphemous version called chicken-fried fajitas. One of the first priorities of my proposed food police will be to raid Mary Nell’s in Houston and explain to proprietor Mary Nell Reck—an accomplished cook in other respects—that selling beef stew on pita bread as fajitas is unconscionable, pico de gallo or no pico de gallo. And while we’re at it, let’s go on record against (1) those restaurateurs who rename any cut of beef on their menu fajitas just to cash in on the craze and (2) that annoying affectation, now sweeping San Antonio, of selling fajitas by the kilo.
• A permanent injunction, please, against perfidious cooks who extend their guacamole with all manner of fillers. You know the cheapskate guacamole I mean—pasty, chalky, pallid mush. Recipes calling for deviant ingredients have exacerbated the guacamole crises. Houston’s new Junior League cookbook contains a version incorporating blue cheese, mayonnaise, and artificial bacon bits, to cite just one chilling example. The only permissible elaborations on the elemental version (the roughly mashed, unadorned avocado at Austin’s El Taquito Chef provides a point of reference) are grated onion, lime, chopped tomato, salt, and cilantro. Period.
• Nachos, our nosh of choice, are in dire peril. On the froufrou front, they’re becoming increasingly rococo as frenzied restaurateurs pile them with everything but the kitchen sink. On the degenerate front, ballpark nachos show signs of conquering the universe. Those paper bowls full of mass-produced corn chips, runny processed-cheese sauce, and carelessly strewn jalapeños are not what you’d call goodwill ambassadors for Texas cooking.
• Biscuits are in a general state of decline outside a ten-block stretch of Fort Worth’s West Magnolia Avenue, where you can still get splendid specimens at the Summerhill House (a.k.a. Dorothy’s) and the Paris Coffee Shop. Elsewhere, biscuits seem to grow heavier as the century marches on; they spend debilitating amounts of time in warming bins across the state. Few are the principled places, like Van Dyke’s in Amarillo, where sourdough biscuits are still baked in continuous shifts so that they come out of the oven and immediately onto your plate. While we’re on the subject, what’s with the tiny aluminum tubs of “Mixed Fruit Jelly” that certain restaurants try to pass off as fitting biscuit accompaniments? I mean, what kind of fruit goes into that mongrelized mush, and who decides? The public has a right to know.
• If our beloved Legislature cared anything about the bust-up of Western civilization, it would license all Texas pie makers immediately. Under the Pie Rehabilitation Act, crust workshops would be mandatory for periodic license renewal, and use of canned fruit fillings would result in an automatic $100 fine. Anna Woods of the Rusk St. Manor in Marshall, who buys yard eggs especially to use in her coconut cream pie filling and whose meringue is like a billowy cloud, would be honored in a special resolution. Freelance piewoman Billie Anderson of Houston would be appointed pie maker to His Majesty Mark White.
• Statewide, cobblers are in every bit as woeful a condition as pies. Same crust crisis. Same filling fiasco. Worse yet, the Neo-Texas entrepreneurs all feel obliged to put a token cobbler on their menus—invariably topped with that most overrated of Texas food totems, Blue Bell ice cream—but do they think they’re fooling anyone with that spongy, sticky, biscuity sludge that passes for cobbler dough? Yuck.
• Someone ought to organize ceviche seminars for those misguided restaurateurs who feel the need to cook the fish that goes into this newly fashionable dish, thereby turning it into ceviche stew. Let’s get one thing straight, guys: “ceviche” means raw fish that acquires a cooked texture from the workings of lime juice. Cooking the fish first shows a pusillanimous failure of nerve.
Skeletons in the Closet
And then there are the perennial Texas gastronomic embarrassments that it is time to consign to oblivion. I’m talking about things that can’t be ruined because they were terrible to begin with. No bleeding-heart whimpering; we must disown the following while we can.
Pralines. Face it, they’re always disgusting. Some are just less disgusting than others, but their identifying characteristics remain the same—stultifying sweetness and horrifying graininess. Sure, they’re the traditional finale to a Tex-Mex meal, but couldn’t we make do with flan, empanadas, bunuelos, or the kind of mango ice cream they make at El Mirador in San Antonio? If any sentiment lingers on behalf of pralines, consider that Ronald Reagan recently wrote Mi Tierra vice president Simon H. Castillo thanking him for a gift of the candies. “I became very fond of this type of confection when I was in Williamsburg for the economic summit,” Reagan alleged. Hey, a guy who’ll eat jelly beans will eat anything.
Not only do peanut patties have all the charms of pralines, they often are possessed of a bizarre pink color besides.
It has come to my attention that certain pinto bean recipes involving Dr Pepper are circulating in the state. This will not do.
Somewhere in Texas, some misguided soul is dropping peanuts into a bottle of Dr Pepper. This shameful practice must be stopped.
And somebody should do something about Big Red, a few retrograde bottles of which are still hanging around. So poisonously sweet and artificially crimson is this liquid that its half-life is probably in the neighborhood of 100,000 years.
Who would eat a salty, Styrofoamy Frito when there are real tortilla chips to be had? The same people who’d eat Doritos, that’s who. There’s no excuse for this when infinitely preferable substitutes—like El Galindo Natural Tortilla Quarters from Austin or the Avis of commercial tortilla chips, El Rio brand—are available. Restaurants have no business buying their tortilla chips, but the only obligation for folks at home is not to buy bad ones.
New skeleton in the closet: Bellville Potato Chips. Texas needs a boutique potato chip about as much as it needs Doritos. The country-slick packaging touts these chips as “the thicker, tastier gourmet potato chip.” Thicker, yes, but greasier and more inert-tasting as well. An idea whose time has not come.
The popularity of whole wheat tortillas in Austin can only be regarded as a granola-brained corruption of the genre. This sort of nonsense does nothing for Austin’s reputation.
Much as it pains me to admit it, 99 times out of 100 jalapeno jelly is a cloying, misbegotten substance that has few—if any—suitable uses Understanding Texans should pledge henceforth to refrain from giving it to unsuspecting non-natives as gifts and (even more important) from pouring it over bricks of cream cheese to serve at parties.
Ritual Meals/Food Rituals
We have reached a moment at which tinkering with certain hallowed dishes seems inevitable and possibly even healthy. But let us not lose sight of some things that do not bear tampering with—particularly ritual Texas meals that have been perfected over generations, the parts of which exist in a harmony that can only be mucked up by a little poblano chile here, a little cilantro there. If you changed the elements of these food entities one iota, they would simply cease to be themselves.
Take the catfish dinners served up around Caddo Lake. Every serious eater in Jefferson, Marshall, and Karnack knows exactly what to expect when he goes to the lake lodge of his choice. First, big bowls of coleslaw and green-tomato pickles—quartered, sweet-hot ones—materialize with a basket of cello-wrapped crackers. The pickles have a magical way of cutting through the heaviness of the fried items that follow: French fries, hushpuppies, and the catfish themselves, either filets or whole headless fingerlings with jauntily curved tails, which is the way serious catfish people insist on eating them. Aside from the filleted-or-whole question, the only other variable is the use of jalapenos in the hushpuppies.
Another meal governed by strict conventions is the Arkansas Traveler: split cornbread smothered with roast beef and brown gravy, served with those big-awkward Texas fries, pinto beans, and a slab of onion. You can still get this old-timey configuration at a few Fort Worth eateries like the Paris Coffee Shop and even the Cattlemen’s (lunch only).
Then there’s Frito pie, a.k.a. chili pie, which is either a lovable eccentricity or an abomination, according to your principles, but is nevertheless unvarying in its construction. The purist version, such as the one served at the Big Freezer in Pharr, calls for a bag of Fritos with its front torn off. A suitable amount of chili is ladled in, followed by some grated Longhorn cheese and freshly chopped onion. THIS DISTH MUST, REPEAT, MUST BE EATEN OUT OF THE SACK WITH A PLASTIC FORK OR SPOON, lest the whole effect be lost. Cynics may carp that this classic Texas junk-food dish is a recent aberration, but historians will be glad to note its appearance in the 1946 Fredericksburg Home Kitchen as Chili-Frito Loaf, submitted by Miss Viola Mae Schmidt.
The Brown Pig sandwich served at Neeley’s in Marshall since 1927 is another Texas meal to which the strict constructionist approach applies. Far greater than the sum of its parts, the Brown Pig depends on grilled buns, tender pork shredded to the consistency of baby food, a sweet-hot-smoky barbecue sauce, a discreet sprinkle of chopped lettuce, and a dab of mayonnaise. The locals order two as a matter of course; some returning servicemen have been known to stop in for a Brown Pig even before seeing their parents, an attitude Marshallites seem to find perfectly understandable. Could the Brown Pig be improved? Unthinkable.
In Praise of Iceberg
In these days of ever-more-esoteric salad greens, iceberg lettuce has fallen on hard times. While mache, arugula, and radicchio are the stuff of New Yorker cartoons and fawning press notices, poor unfashionable iceberg gets put down by food writer after food writer. I admit to having taken some cheap shots at iceberg myself, back when I had less to say and more to prove. Iceberg salads can be terminally boring, of course; endless bowls of roadhouse iceberg globbed with unspeakable commercial dressings haven’t helped the lettuce’s sagging reputation.
But enough already. It’s up to right-thinking Texans to restore some measure of dignity to the head lettuce of our childhood. Iceberg was never about taste (it hasn’t any to speak of) iceberg was always about texture. It’s crisp and crunchy and brisk. Asians value all sorts of relatively bland ingredients, from sea slugs to gelatinous fungi to bean curd, for texture alone; ironically, Thai and Chinese cooks in Texas understand iceberg better than do the status-conscious cooks who have deserted it in droves (just try to imagine Uncle Tai’s squab packages wrapped in leaf lettuce, for example).
Iceberg’s highest and best use is in Tex-Mex food, where trendier lettuces just won’t cut it. There is nothing sillier or more pointless than a plateful of chalupas and tacos showered with romaine strips. Equally pathetic is the use of leaf lettuce in the complex layering of the genuine Texas hamburger, grocery-store genre, to which iceberg is absolutely essential. Iceberg snaps nicely in this context, whereas fancy lettuce slides and tears.
Iceberg even has its rightful place in the salad world, though that place is small than Texans once thought. The original Hoffbrau steakhouse salad, an inexplicably wonderful wilted-lettuce affair dressed with brazen quantities of garlic and chopped olives, simply wouldn’t work with any other greens. And the unapologetic wedge of iceberg served with the house vinaigrette at the Warwick Hotel’s venerable Sunday brunch is a model of structural and conceptual integrity.
Recently some upscale Texas restaurants have tried to rehabilitate iceberg for their own miserable ends. The menu at Turtle Cove, the Dallas mesquite palace, goes so far as to list two salads: Romaine with Dijon and Lemon and Iceburg with Ranch Dressing. I can’t help but think that if this gesture bespoke sincere affection rather than crass co-optation, they would have at least spelled “iceberg” correctly.
Shut Up and Eat
It is all very well to have standards in cooking, as in life. But it is also well to remember the uselessness of pontificating where matters of the kitchen are concerned. A cook either has the art or has not. Take Chef Latin, the kitchen master at the Nacogdoches soul café of the same name.
Not long ago I ate a lunch at Chef Latin’s that broke every one of my rules about the Way Things Are Supposed to Be. The fried chicken was cut into boneless strips, a sure way, in the gospel according to Cook, to reduce flavor. The black-eyed peas were not fresh. Both the peas and the fresh cabbage needed shots of vinegar from a bottle of pickled peppers to bring them to life. The gravy on the mashed potatoes had almost certainly had congress with a can of cream-of-mushroom soup. The cornbread was a sissy latter-day version, sweet and devoid of the crisp, browned bottom crust that comes from cooking it in a heavy iron pan. There were oleo pats. I strongly suspect that the iced tea was instant. My view consisted of a red-mud driveway containing a hearse. In the window sat a sign announcing, “We welcome American Express,” seldom a good omen when you’re after country cooking. Everything, in short, was all wrong. And I can hardly wait to go back.
Big As a Culinary Ethic
Bigness is a concept central to Texas thought. Its culinary applications are familiar: the Big Iced Tea in a quart-size plastic tumbler; Texas Toast, the consort of cheap steaks, sliced as thick as an arm; Beeg Margaritas that would be regarded with gaping astonishment south of the border. In Amarillo a restaurant called the Big Texan serves a 72-ounce steak (that’s four and a half pounds of red meat, sports fans). Who among us has not uttered that ultimate chicken-fried-stead encomium, “It’s so beg it hangs off the edges of the play!” Texas eateries like Chicken Charlie’s in Balmorhea and Goodson’s in Hufsmith have actually made their reputations by serving food bigger than anyone else’s. The cream pies we hold dear are inevitably towering, formidable affairs. As a tribe we tend to want even our hamburgers big: double meat, double cheese, with layers that slip and slide and reach up inexorably.
In part, our affinity for the outsized is an expression of that don’t-fence-me-in expansiveness Texans imagine they are heir to. Part of it may be the folk memory of the not-so-distant rural frontier; 150 years ago, Texans were eating like field hands, and every calorie counted. The dark side of big is the hereditary insecurity of Texans in the face of Eastern savoir faire; the remnants, lingering on, still whisper that we can assert ourselves through quantity.
Small wonder, then, that nouvelle cuisine never took Texas’ big cities by storm. Three snow peas on a plate, no matter how cunningly arranged, is not our idea of a good time. We want something we can bite into, evidence of substance and reality, an anchor to the here and now. That’s why true Texans will never be satisfied with the itty-bitty biscuits and orange muffins served at Jefferson’s Excelsior House. Those miniature tacos, those teeny-weeny burgers, those little beef-n-buns served at society dos? A mere perversion of the upper class.
Unfortunately, a symbolism so readily grasped is also readily co-opted. Neo-Texas food entrepreneurs have embraced big with a will, from Big Iced Tea to Gene Street’s grotesque mutant at Tamale’s: a hamburger and a hot dog smothered in chili and barbecue sauce, served (where it belongs) in a trough. As the Ching scholar and gastronome Yuan Mei observed during a banquet where boiled swallow’s nest was served in flowerpot-sized vases, “We are here to eat swallows-nest, not to take delivery of it wholesale.”
Why Dallas Will Never Be Taken Seriously As a Food Town
There is no median cut-through on Inwood to give the southbound gastronome access to Sonny Bryan’s. Case closed.
I wish there were some way to write this story without mentioning steaks. Four or five steaks a year are plenty for this kid, but for most Texans steaks are a cultural imperative—a sign of the old beef lust that held over with hats and boots from the nineteenth-century cattle culture. What I want to know, all you steak lovers out there, is whether you’ve given any thought to what makes a real Texas steak, as opposed to the steak you get in New York or Cleveland. I thought so.
Now here’s the deal, as John Zentner (who happens to be West Texas’ foremost meat man) is fond of saying. You’ve got your big-city steak, a three-inch thick, satiny tender one that costs a small fortune. Odds are, it’s broiled or charcoaled so as to have a thin charred crust. It sits politely on your plate, minding its manners. Then you’ve got your real Texas steak, a sprawling, disorderly plate-filler cut about an inch thick and threatening to lap over onto the table. You can afford it. It bears more relation to a range cow than to a pampered feedlot animal. It conforms to a ranchman’s idea of tender, which is chewy tender, meaning you don’t have to saw it. And it tends to be cooked one gradation more than the way you ordered it, a holdover from the days when cowboys wanted their beef bloodlessly well done. Some cuts are more Texan than others, so it’s likely to be a T-bone rather than a city-slicker K.C. strip or a ditsy little filet. Better be a big T-bone—order one under sixteen ounces and John Zentner figures you might as well stay home. And it better be pan- or griddle-grilled the old cowboy way, with the drippings to add flavor.
One more thing: real Texas steaks do not come in boxes. The self-respecting steakhouse owner insists on a cold locker full of swingin’ beef, aging as it dangles, from which he cuts his own steaks. There are no exceptions to this rule.
150 Years of Bad Coffee
Texas has a proud tradition of bad coffee. Frederick Law Olmsted first noticed it, bewailing “the black decoction of the South called coffee, than which it is often difficult to imagine any beverage more revolting.” It’s tempting to romanticize the Arbuckle’s brand camp coffee served forth by range cooks, but the odds are that after being boiled tempestuously with the grounds and given a toss of eggshells to settle out of the debris, it was wicked-tasting stuff. Over the decades it became gospel that Texas coffee was black and mean and macho; even today, a traveler who requests cream in West Texas is regarded with the contemptuous sidelong glances served for sissies.
There might have been hope for good Texas coffee once, but it never panned out. That Mexican cafe con leche never caught on in these precincts in a tragedy. That the German kaffeeklatsch succumbed to the Mr. Coffee age is an incalculable sadness. Even the doughty drip coffee of Cajun imports has taken a strange regional turn; the Beaumont coffee roaster, Texas Coffee Company, turns out a dark-roasted drip grind called Seaport that is so eccentric it could take years of getting used to. “Drinking the coffee most of the United Stated drinks is like eating a half-baked cake,” expostulated Texas Coffee president Joseph “Pep” Fertitta to a reporter. Agreed. But drinking Pep’s coffee is not unlike drinking some particularly ornery bayou water. Kinda grows on you, though.
The best Texas coffee, if the truth be known, is made by Houston’s Vietnamese community, who swear by New Orleans Café du Monde coffee with chicory for their tiny drip pots. Speculating about why Texans have blown their other coffee options seems as fruitless as trying to figure out why so many of us require our coffee before a meal instead of after.
If there is hope for the fitting and proper evolution of Texas food—as opposed to its simple preservation—it lies not with the pseudo home-cooking entrepreneurs or with trendy restaurants playing to the whims of the food press. It resides instead with a handful of Texas restaurants that have spent years experimenting and reinterpreting without self-congratulatory fanfare.
One such is Jeffrey’s, the Austin restaurant that consistently serves some of the most interesting food in the state. There’s a definite French influence at work here, but Jeffrey’s sauces have a vigor and snap that seems distinctly Texan, and its continually changing menus have a genuine regional bias. It shows in the lively flounder ceviche, the haunting smoked quail appetizer, a sturdy, fragrant, pork-and-cabbage soup of the sort that ought to come out of Hilly Country restaurants and never does. It is manifest in a new yet old-fashioned peach roll made with fresh local peaches and in a red-peppery crawfish etouffee that could hold its own with any in Lafayette. Even Texans’ subterranean, ranch-inspired penchant for variety meats gets its due; Jeffrey’s version of sautéed sweetbreads, simplicity itself, is like Mario’s in San Antonio to the third power, and liver in a sparkling, lime-flavored demiglace evokes the tropical Valley.
Alana’s in Austin was in decline until recently, when it instituted two daily prix fixe dinners that have a real Texas bent. (Variable menus that respond to the market are perhaps the best measure of a serious regional restaurant, since they display a concern for food sources rather than the easy buck.) Alana’s strong suit has always been fresh Gulf fish, particularly redfish in various guises—a refreshing specialty, considering the banality of much Texas seafood cookery. This is no mesquite-grill-anything-with-fins-on-it operation, either. Alana’s snapper a la Reyes arrives wearing a tactful sauté of poblano chiles and onions; another night’s grilled redfish may be graced with peppery deviled oysters. And a couple of Alana’s nonfish dishes serve the status of new Texas classics: the poblano soup, wonderfully pully with white cheese, is to Texas what onion soup is to France, and her pecan tart is just about the only version of pecan pie worth eating, frenchification be damned. There are worrisome signs at Alana’s—I view the appearance of sautéed quail with cilantro butter with some alarm—but perhaps the restaurant has the stuff to triumph over trendiness.
At Ouisie’s, a historically erratic Houston neighborhood restaurant currently enjoying one of its ups, an innate Texanness outweighs various irritations. Sometimes the goods are homely classics redone: pimento cheese, a bowlful of lavishly garnished black beans, hamburgers with green chile and jack cheese. Sometimes they’re Texas basics that few restaurants bother to get right, like buttermilk pie, broiled whole flounder, or a pull-out-the-stops chicken-fried steak dinner replete with corn, pudding, greens, black-eyed peas, and mashed potatoes. And occasionally the kitchen gives an entirely new twist to Texas verities. Got some tamales? Stuff a game hen with them. Fresh redfish? Give it a startling dusting of cayenne and serve it with a garlicky sauce. Oranges? Macerate them in bourbon and mint. This is thoughtful, unhackneyed regional cooking that doesn’t need to grandstand or play more-up-to-the-minute-than-thou.
Even hoary old Brennan’s can show the upstarts a thing or two. Having failed at the important task of bringing great New Orleans creole cooking to Houston, the management wisely switched gears and hired ambitious young chef Mark Cox, who got busy ferreting out Texas cottage suppliers in the boondocks. They keep him furnished with Hill Country venison in tenderloin, smoke, or sausage form from Mike Hughes’ Broken Arrow Ranch in Ingram, fresh herbs and lettuces from Hearne, New Braunfels pheasant, chickens that scratched at Mount Pleasant less than 24 hours ago. Cox seems to be still feeling his way: his grilled redfish may not make your heart beat faster, but he does a marinated Gulf crabmeat salad that takes a backseat to none. Okay, Brennan’s New American Cuisine advertising takes a preening attitude that can make your skin crawl, but Cox’s food speaks louder than words. His is the kind of enterprise cooking that other restaurants would do well to emulate.
Cox’s concern for local food sources is a rare but not extinct impulse. In the meantime, concerned Texans must scout roadside vegetable stand, pick-your-own places, or the few markets like Jamail’s in Houston, the Whole Foods Market in Austin, and Queen’s in Fort Worth that actually seek out small local suppliers. Our activist new agriculture commissioner, Jim Hightower, plans to publish a guide to Texas cottage suppliers next year—”everything from cabrito to sweet corn,” he promises.
Should our public institutions fail us, it may behoove Texans to take matters into their own hands. Maybe it’s time to polish up those old hunting and gathering techniques before everyone forgets how to go oystering and berrying and nut-picking. There are frogs and flounders to be gigged, mustang grapevines and agarita bushes to be plucked. Even if the forces of culinary darkness triumph, there will still be plenty of good Texas food out there. We’ll just have to go get it.
The Truth About Chicken-Fried Steak
Ahem. This is going to win me as many friends as David Stockman made by telling the truth about trickle-down, but here goes: the truth about chicken-fried steak is that it’s almost never any damn good. During my many years on the lookout, I have encountered only four that seemed acceptable. One was the legendary version at Massey’s in Fort Worth. Another was a shamelessly funky rendition at Gennie’s Bishop Grill in Dallas. Two were uptown Houston numbers, one at Ouisie’s and the other a Confederate House Chicken-fried ribeye that would be rejected out of hand by purists, who contend that anything made with a cut of meat better than round steak is not a CFS. Maybe there are more good chicken-frieds out there somewhere, but after suffering so many inferior specimens, I don’t feel inclined to search for them.
The problems are these: chicken-frying is a miserable thing to do to a piece of beef in the first place, and too many things can go wrong. The meat can be too tough or too hideously tenderized. The frying job can be heavy-handed or grease-besotted. The gravy can turn into a stiff, tasteless sludge, with nary a redeeming speck of pan cracklings, or it can be overdoctored with black pepper in an attempt to hide its shortcomings. Too many restaurants have resorted to frozen, commercially breaded patties, a distressing development aggravated by the use of frozen, corrugated french fries on the side. Even rabid CFS nuts, who take a broader view of this sacred cow than I do, admit that the unofficial state dish (chili is official) has fallen upon evil days.
CFS probably seemed like a good idea at the time, when some poor ranch cook or other was pondering how to render some no-account range cow fit for human consumption. But in these days of comparative milk and honey, our collective clinging to this dish of expediency seems hugely sentimental. Chicken-fried steak currently has far more importance as a symbol than as a meal; to order a CFS is to make a statement, a declaration of Texanness.
In a way, I’m grateful to chicken-fried steak. It keeps a certain segment of the populace off the streets: they’re either eating chicken-fried steaks, talking about eating chicken-fried steaks, reminiscing about chicken-fried steaks they have known and loved, or discussing the finer points of the dish. Like whether a brown gravy turns it into a veal cutlet, or whether it’s better to have a country-fried steak that has been single-dipped in flour and fried in just a little grease or a true chicken-fried that has been soaked in buttermilk, double-dipped, and fried in a vat of grease. Fascinating stuff like that. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got to go apply for an unlisted phone number.
Great Moments In Texas Culinary History
1868: Herr Harnisch, proprietor of the Harnisch & Baer Ice Cream Parlor, introduces the miracle of charged soda water to San Antonio and uses it to produce America’s first ice cream soda.
Circa 1875: The state’s first artificial ice is made at Jefferson.
1963: Van Cliburn eats seventeen biscuits with his meal at Green Pastures in Austin.
Circa 1964: LBJ establishes his credentials as a serious eater by telling a cook, “I’m the president of the United States, and if I want more ice cream, I’ll have more ice cream.”
1970: When protesters at a University of Houston rally take up a “Free Lee Otis” chant, it never dawns on Governor Preston Smith that they’re referring to imprisoned black activist Lee Otis Johnson. Ever the country boy, the guv responds: “Frijoles?”
1974: Spot Baird, an East Texan, serves possum and yams to visiting Soviet cosmonaut Aleksei Leonov.
1976: President Gerald Ford, who once told novelist John Hersey that eating is a waste of time, proved it by trying to eat a tamale, shuck and all, during a visit to the Alamo.
1977: Tommy Hamby, owner of the original Hoffbrau steakhouse in Austin, declines to go franchise in the face of tempting offers from various entrepreneurs. He gives them his recipes and his blessing and tells them, “You can do whatever you want, but I’m not interested.”
1979: Upon arriving in Houston, celebrated Hunan chef “Uncle” Wen-Dah Tai makes the only fitting culinary gesture: he decides to use jalapeños in a chicken dish.
1981: Alana Mora, of Alana’s in Austin, refuses to serve redfish to State Senator Grant Jones, a leader in the fight to ban commercial redfish fishing and sales.
1982: On a space shuttle flight, astronaut Bill Lenoir becomes the first man to eat jalapeño peppers in outer space.
Not-So-Great Moments In Texas Culinary History
1894: William Gebhardt produces the first commercial chili powder in New Braunfels.
Circa 1930: Will Rogers refuses to go on the road without a supply of canned chili.
Circa 1940: Alice O’Grady, famed proprietor of San Antonio’s old Argyle Club, anticipates nouvelle cuisine by serving gelatin molds ensconced on a bed of pink shredded lettuce, garnished with blue morning glories.
1958: An ad campaign is launched urging people to heat Dr Pepper to make a festive cool-weather drink.
1978: Ignoring the issue of mutual exclusivity, Texas A&M research scientists develop the so-called mild jalapeño.
1982: Jalapeño-eater Bill Lenoir becomes the first on his space shuttle mission to come down with space sickness.
1982: Casting common decency to the winds, researchers at Texas A&M develop guacamole made from English peas.
1983: Dallas heiress Caroline Hunt Schoellkopf—she of the Mansion on Turtle Creek, the Remington, et alia—publishes a cookbook consisting entirely of pumpkin recipes.
1983: The Salgo Corporation in Richardson publishes its Real Texas Chili Rodeo Recipe Collection; it uses chili powder in carrot cake, cookies, and a tequila-grapefruit cocktail appropriately called a Prairie Dog.
Hall of Fame
Not only does Houston’s Lorene Brenner run the best steakhouse in Texas, she is also that rarest of heroes in the restaurant world, the unstinting perfectionist. After 47 years on the job, she still insists on broiling all her steaks personally (that’s 175 to 200 a night) while keeping a gimlet eye on everything down to the busboys. And she’s a food hero for an even more refreshing reason: she and her son, Herman, have rejected numerous offers to sell out, franchise, or otherwise proliferate Brenner’s steakhouses over the face of the earth.
LBJ’s cook brought corned beef hash spiked with jalapeños to the White House. The Washington elite may have ridiculed Lyndon and Lady Bird as “Colonel Corn Pone and his Pork Chop,” but the Johnsons and Zephyr knew what they liked and ate accordingly. Probably the same Washingtonians who scorned those Texas vittles as hick stuff are now clambering aboard the New American Cuisine bandwagon and would love a crack at Zephyr’s hash. Fred Fountaine Barbecue adept, Louie Mueller’s, Taylor. One of the last of the old-time barbecue greats. Fred still rises at four in the morning to fire up his ancient, blackened pit, whose vicissitudes he knows better than a mother knows her own child. Fred is against air conditioning because it would ruin his communion with his pit’s drafts and eddies. He even swears, he can tell by his pit when it’s going to rain. An expatriate Rhode Island boy, Fred says it took him thirty years to get his barbecue right. It was worth it. Captain Benny Hienemann Emperor of oysters. The only appropriate response to the man who brought cultivated Matagorda Bay oysters to the attention of Houstonians is “Thank you.” The only appropriate response to the man who sees to it that his cooks fry those oysters the way angels would is “Thank you very much.” Frederick Law Olmsted Texas’ first food critic. Strong culinary convictions manifest themselves in the young Yankee journalist’s account of his 1854 horseback ride across Texas. Fred could really work out on such subjects as lardlike butter and stale, “micaceous” cornbread. But he rejoiced at the wheat bread, salads, vegetables, and peach compotes served up by Hill Country Germans and Alsatians. And his recipe for mesquite-grilled rabbit à la Texas Ranger is enough to put the fear of God into even the most addlepated mesquite abusers. Sadie Thornhill And Martha The two best-known chili queens in late-nineteenth-century San Antonio. One a gringa, the other Hispanic, they exemplified the democratic spirit that has—until recent distressing developments—been central to the Mexican food experience in Texas. All manner of people crowded together at their open-air stalls for Tex-Mex goodies. Later chili queens were shut down in the forties, but their spiritual successors are staging a comeback—just check out the fajita and gordita stands in San Antonio’s mercado on weekends. Helen Corbitt Texas’ food doyenne. Through her years in charge of Neiman-Marcus’ famous Zodiac Room and her immensely popular cookbooks, the sensible Corbitt made Texas food safe for the upper middle class. Her significance is as a popularizer of modified indigenous dishes; her poppyseed dressing, avocado soup, tamale pie, Prairie Fire bean dip, and Texas caviar (marinated black-eyed peas) obviated the need for fancy-schmancy Continental dishes at affluent Texas dos. Corbitt’s was a tearoom cuisine with a Texas soul.
Meat cutter extraordinaire, Kreuz Market, Lockhart. Johnny is living proof that it pays to know the man with the knife at your barbecue joint of choice. Not only can Johnny recommend the day’s optimum cut (the pork tenderloin? the prime rib?), he can also, if he feels like it, see to it that you get the best possible pieces precisely the way you like them. The importance of establishing a personal relationship with someone of Johnny’s caliber cannot be overestimated by the barbecue connoisseur.
Radical restaurateur. He makes an unlikely revolutionary in his white slacks and lavender Izods, but Mario Cantú performs an incalculable public service for the people of Texas: he runs the best big all-around Mex-Mex eatery in the state, and—better still—it’s open 24 hours a day. Not only does the guy furnish a grateful clientele of San Antonians and assorted pilgrims with distinguished sweet breads, tripitas, beef tips, and chilaquiles; he has also created one of the great casual all-walks-of-life dining venues in Texas.
Texas’ herb missionary. Through her Hilltop Herb Farm in Cleveland, her wonderfully eccentric public meals, and her interesting jellies, teas, and relishes, Mrs. Hill has probably done more than anyone else to persuade Texans that there is life after oregano and cumin.
The woman who al carboned Texas (see Hall of Shame). Her charcoaled beef and pork tacos with pico de gallo changed the eating habits of more Texans than any development in recent memory. Her green sauce will go down in history.
King of the cowboy cooks. Bolt, a range cook for the Pitchfork Ranch near Guthrie, was one of the few such to record his chuck-wagon know-how for posterity. His cookbook, Forty Years Behind the Lid, includes definitive recipes for jackrabbit chili and sourdough biscuits. Bolt and his peers personified grace under pressure: given a Dutch oven and some live coals, there was virtually nothing they couldn’t cook.
Texas’ first world-class steak maestro. So celebrated was his technique that San Antonio gastronomes of the 1880’s organized the Beef Steak Club in his honor; they made it their business to see that no stranger of note left town without sampling one of Ernst’s steaks. As picky as any apostle of the New American Cuisine, Ernst broiled his beef over mesquite-wood coals. His chef’s temperament involved a cheering lack of greed: after cooking a set number of steaks, Ernst would close up and go home, unfed customers notwithstanding.
Hall of Shame
The rapid expansion of her restaurant empire and the consequent decline of her food would be no more of a betrayal than, say, Liz Taylor’s getting fat were it not for one thing: Ninfa’s chain still feeds on the Mama Ninfa myth, her “I struggled greatly to bring you great food” legend. So when she doesn’t bring great food, people tend to take it personally.
Yeah, Mayor Maury was a great guy in other respects, and he probably meant well, but closing down the San Antonio chili queens’ open-air stalls back in the forties was a dire deed. Maury should have known that a culture without street food is no culture at all.
Yes, he goes by only one name. Chandler fathered a dangerous mutant: the soulless Texas barbecue chain. The dual barbecue-hamburger concept at his Luther’s restaurants in Houston was a direct cop from venerable Otto’s. Although his barbecue just sort of lay there on the plate, Chandler was depressingly successful at fooling large numbers of people large amounts of time. He finally sold the whole shebang to Chart House and went West. Good riddance.
It bought Luther’s on the theory that barbecue is idiot-proof.
Alice Waters can breathe easy: the only thing revolutionary about Lawton’s 1776 Revolutionary Restaurants (Mama’s, Mama’s Cafes, Cappy’s) is the zeal with which he markets them. The fundamental misfortune of his food is that it doesn’t know when to quit. Mama did not cook like this, unless our memory fails us (which may be what Lawton is counting on). Lawton’s success is frightening in terms of what it says about the Texas palate; perhaps we get the food, as well as the government, we deserve.
As if her spurious tomes on such inalienable Texas fare as chili, barbecue, and Tex-Mex weren’t enough, now she’s coming on like a spokeswoman for Southwestern cooking. With friends like her, who needs enemies?
Inventor of the appalling jalapeño lollipop. But then, what can you expect from a man who’s president of the Armadillo Breeders Association?
Another el fako soul-food profiteer, d.b.a. Prufrock Restaurants and grossing $35 million a year. Street’s linchpin Black-Eyed Peas, which breed like particularly objectionable rabbits, depend so heavily on stodgy, graceless fried things that you can develop vascular problems just by walking in the door. What Street is very, very good at, though, is cost control: knowing exactly how many thousands of chicken-frieds sell weekly. At least Street doesn’t have the New Southwestern Cuisine pretensions that Lawton does, but his food is even worse.
God knows what misbegotten ideas this Dallas writer’s New Southwestern Cuisine series gave to aspiring restaurateurs and food profiteers. So red-chile-tinted are Bauer’s glasses that if you told him that grilling with huisache chips was the next big thing or that within the year we’d all be sucking East Texas honeysuckle blossoms in place of an after-dinner cordial, he would probably report it with a straight face.
Frank G. Liberto
As president of San Antonio’s Liberto Specialties, Frank claims to be the originator of concession-stand nachos—the loathsome kind you get at the sports stadium. More incriminating still, Liberto has spread the ballpark nacho plague to all fifty states plus Canada, Japan, and the United Kingdom.
The Ultimate Texas Menu
Pecan waffle (Avalon Drug Company, Houston)
Eggs decorated (Night Hawk, Austin)
Chilaquiles con pollo (Mario’s, San Antonio)
Sourdough toast (Van Dyke’s, Amarillo)
Eggs over easy (Rovan’s, South Padre Island)
Grits (Rovan’s, South Padre Island)
Huevos rancheros (Cortes Deli, Houston)
Migas Deluxe (El Taquito Chef, Austin)
Biscuits (San Jacinto Inn, Houston)
Potato-and-egg taco (Esther’s, Rio Hondo)
Cinnamon rolls (Dietz Bakery, Fredericksburg)
Glazed doughnuts (Lone Star Bakery, Round Rock)
Poppyseed muffins (Highland Park Cafeteria, Dallas)
Pepper bacon (Dozier’s Market, Fulshear)
Old-fashioned peach preserves (Das Peach House, Fredericksburg)
Regular or No. 2 nachos (Cyclone Anaya’s, Houston)
Caldo azteca (El Mirador, San Antonio)
El Mirador Special (El Mirador, San Antonio)
Grilled sweetbreads (Mario’s, San Anionio)
Regular Dinner (Joe T. Garcia’s, Fort Worth)
Carnitas (Ninfa’s, original Navigation Street location, Houston)
Fajitas (Rosario’s, San Antonio)
Green enchiladas (Mario’s, San Antonio)
Enchiladas rojas (San Miguel, Austin)
Quesadillas Huitlacoche style (Guadalajara, Dallas)
Tacos de cochinitas pibil (Merida, Houston)
Tacos chivero (La Fogata, San Antonio)
Refried beans and rice (Armando’s, Houston)
Medium tamales (Galindo’s Market, Houston)
Frijoles a la charra (Rosario’s, San Antonio)
Molcajete de guacamole (Doneraki, Houston)
Chorizo con huevo (Fuentes Cafe, San Angelo)
Corn tortillas (San Miguel, Austin)
Flour tortillas (La Fogata, San Antonio)
Green salsa (Ninfa’s, Houston)
Red salsa (La Fogata, San Antonio)
Brown Pig (Neely’s, Marshall)
Pimento cheese (Harris County Heritage Society Tearoom, Houston)
Barbecued links (Hillje’s Smokehouse, El Campo)
Sliced brisket (Sonny Bryan’s, Dallas)
BLT (Bon Ton, La Grange)
Hot dog (City Market, Schulenburg)
Arkansas Traveler (Paris Coffee Shop, Fort Worth)
Meat loaf sandwich (Ethel’s Southern Cafe, Houston)
Matagorda oysters on the half-shell (Captain Benny’s, Houston)
Fried jalapeños stuffed with shrimp (Ninfa’s, Houston)
Cold crab claws (Sartin’s, Sabine Pass)
Smoked quail (Jeffrey’s, Austin)
Poblano soup (Alana’s, Austin)
Queso flameado with poblano chiles and onions (Cadillac Bar, Houston)
SPECIALTIES OF THE HOUSE
Roast quail (Cadillac Bar, Houston)
Chicken-fried steak, lower end (Gennie’s Bishop Grill, Dallas); upper end (Confederate House, Houston)
Boiled crawfish (Blue Oyster Bar, Houston)
Whole catfish dinner (Lakeview Lodge, Jefferson)
Fried chicken (Chef Latin’s, Nacogdoches)
Meat loaf or smothered chicken plate lunch special (This Is It Bar & Grill, Houston)
Alligator stew (Cap’n Dave’s, Houston)
Barbecued pork loin (Kreuz Market, Lockhart)
Barbecued chicken (Blue’s BBQ, Nacogdoches)
Barbecued ribs (Luling City Market, Houston)
Barbecued ham (Inman’s, Llano)
End piece of brisket (Louie Mueller’s, Taylor)
Beef sausage (Louie Mueller’s, Taylor)
Barbecue sauce (Luling City Market, Houston)
Stuffed flounder (Clary’s, Galvesion)
Fried flounder (Bud’s, Raymondville)
Fried oysters (Captain Benny’s, Houston)
Pepper shrimp (Benno’s, Galveston)
Smoked flounder (Mesquite Inn, Riviera Beach)
Broiled speckled trout (Schrenkeisens’ Fulton Beach)
Barbecued crab (Sartin’s, Sabine Pass)
Snapper a la Reyes (Alana’s, Austin)
Shrimp gumbo (Rusk St. Manor, Marshall)
Crabmeat with black butter (Maxim’s, Houston)
Cayenne redfish (Ouisie’s, Houston)
Sixteen-ounce strip (Brenner’s, Houston)
Eleven-ounce T-bone (Hofbrau, Houston)
Large sirloin (Hoffbrau, Austin)
Pan-fried T-bone, any size (Ranchman’s, Ponder)
Zentner’s Daughter special cut (Zentner’s Daughter, San Angelo)
Rose O’Texas tenderloin (Cattlemen’s, Fort Worth)
Wilted lettuce with olive-and-garlic dressing (Hofbrau, Houston)
Heart of iceberg with vinaigrette (Warwick Hotel Sunday brunch, Houston)
Charlie Bell salad (Maxim’s, Houston)
Bombay salad (King’s Inn, Loyola Beach)
Marinated crabmeat (Brennan’s, Houston)
Fruit salad with poppyseed dressing (Confederate House, Houston)
Spinach salad (Yacht Club, Port Isabel)
German fried potatoes (Brenner’s, Houston)
French fries (Lucky Lindy’s, Amarillo)
Ranch fries (Hofbrau, Houston)
Onion rings (Curley’s, Uncertain)
Baked potato (Brenner’s, Houston)
Green beans (Ranchmann’s, Ponder)
Mashed potatoes (Chef Latin’s, Nacogdoches)
Baked squash casserole (Highland Park Cafeteria, Dallas)
Bowl of cream gravy (Highland Park Cafeteria, Dallas)
Greens (This Is It Bar & Grill, Houston)
Yams (Frenchy’s, Houston)
Hushpuppies (Cap’n Dave’s, Houston)
Mabel Bruce’s green tomato pickles (Lakeview Lodge, Jefferson)
Louise Smrkovsky’s dill pickles (City Market, Schulenburg)
Cornbread (Rusk St. Manor, Marshall)
Yeast rolls (Mrs. Bromley’s, Clarendon)
Pumpernickel and rye (Dietz Bakery, Fredericksburg)
French bread (Paris Bakery, Houston)
Pecan fudge ball (Confederate House, Houston)
Coconut pie (Rusk St. Manor, Marshall)
Sweet-potato pie (Swann’s, Hempstead)
Tequila-and-lime sorbet (Tony’s, Houston)
Chocolate pie (Petersen’s, Palacios)
Apple strudel (Brenner’s, Houston)
Peanut butter pie (Gennie’s Bishop Grill, Dallas)
Peach pie (Matt Garner’s, Houston)
Lime tart (Alana’s, Austin)
Blackberry cobbler (Ranchman’s, Ponder)
Fresh-brewed iced tea (Rusk St. Manor, Marshall)
Agua de sandia (Rosario’s, San Antonio)
Fresh limeade (City Drug, Jefferson)
Margarita (Spanish Village, Houston)
Ramos Gin Fizz (Cadillac Bar, Nuevo Laredo)
Buttermilk (Pickett House, Woodville)
Shiner beer (Spoetzl Brewery, Shiner)
Lemonade (Taco Hut, Houston)
Licuado de plátano (Armando’s, Houston)
It is purely depressing to think how many worthy dishes are vanishing from the state repertoire, public and private. Does anyone still make cantaloupe pie the way they used to on the Texas & Pacific Railroad? What about vinegar pie made with vinegar from Panhandle apples? Wendish fig pie seems lost to the ages as well, along with venison shortcake, corncob jelly, venison tamales, and Hill Country farm cheeses, not to mention crummin, that soothing crumble of cornbread and sweet milk that was Sam Rayburn’s favorite dish (nowadays, John Connally seems to be the only Texan who’ll swear allegiance to crummin in public). In the midst of massive culinary erosion, you’d think our most promising young chefs would have the decency to whip up some fresh Hill Country peach ice cream instead of noodling over trendy recipes for prickly pear sorbet, if you see what I’m getting at and I think you do.
Fortunately there are a few food establishments where ancient splendors are being preserved for posterity, or at least for the next few customers.
The Nutt House in Granbury still makes the most elemental hot-water cornbread—just meal, water, and salt, patted out into little cakes and deep-fried. Very nineteenth-century.
You bag the goose, and your hosts at the Farris 1912 Hotel in Eagle Lake will cook up a rich, mysterious goose gumbo so dark it’s almost black. They will fix it only if you give them enough geese to serve all your fellow guests, though, so get cracking.
Beans and bacon, the hallowed cowboy breakfast, can still be had at the estimable Van Dyke’s in Amarillo.
A strong German baking legacy once made the Hill Country a bastion of homemade bread. Sadly enough, the puffy modern loaves on sale at every third place of business are usually the over-sugared, bleached-out kind. But at Dietz Bakery in Fredericksburg, the pumpernickel is dense, sour, and dark as night, the moist unseeded rye a gentle incarnation of German brown bread. Both are baked in a brick hearth that has been in use for two generations. Speak up quick if you want them unsliced, and get there before 1 or 2 p.m. or the townsfolk will have cleaned the place out.
They’re not as thrilling as they were back when wild turkeys swarmed over the Hill Country, but you can still get turkey tamales at the Hill Country Store in Goldthwaite. It’s the thought that counts.
Buttermilk pie seemed headed for extinction, but currently it’s enjoying a revival, the standardized reality of factory buttermilk notwithstanding. The best recent version is the tart, simple one at Ouisie’s in Houston; the most disappointing, the harsh, overlemony one at Cappy Lawton’s various Mama’s outlets. In this case, the thought does not count.
Whole mustang-grape preserves that are sublimely tart and runny can be ordered from Fredericksburg’s Das Peach Haus, along with that disappearing Texas delicacy, agarita jelly (it’s a notorious pain to make, but the results taste subtly and elusively of Christmas). Owner Mark Wieser, the Gillespie County judge, buys his mustang grapes and agarita berries and wild plums from local farmers and foragers. He also turns out old-fashioned peach preserves, unthickened and possessed of a startlingly fresh flavor. Modernity has sneaked in by way of a few artificial colors, but in other respects Das Peach qualifies for a culinary preservationist’s award.
Dewberry cobblers were once as common as the canned, sluggish peach kind are now. Those who hit Marshall’s Rusk St. Manor on the right spring day, though, when a customer has brought in a bucket of newly picked berries, can vie for the dewberry cobbler with the regulars—some of whom have been known to squabble over the lastfew portions.
Pioneer records show that Hill Country families once spent entire days simmering watermelons to make a thick brown jam that lasted all winter. Jefferson’s Ruthmary Jordan, proprietor of the bed-and-breakfast Pride House, still puts assorted melons to this forgotten use. At first blush, her ginger-colored melon preserves may strike the palate as oddly unidentifiable, but a couple of mornings later, you’re hooked.
The Truth About Pecan Pie
Pecan pie simply doesn’t wear well. Not that the pecan is not a noble nut, the gem of the Texas river bottomlands and all that. Historically, Texas pecans have had lots of splendid applications: as embellishments to chicken salad and corn pudding, as adornments to fudge ice cream balls and waffles, or simply spiced and candied to be served at Christmastime. Pecans are exceedingly pleasant on top of yam pie or fudge pie. But somehow in the context of pecan pie, the magic flees after the second or third bite. It’s not so much the pecans themselves (although cooks who don’t bother to taste before they bake often inflict stale nuts on hapless diners); it’s all that Karo syrup in the custardy base. Even when the filling isn’t cloying—the pecan pie at the Barn Door in San Antonio comes to mind—the whole effect is so rich and nasty that finishing a piece becomes an act of heroism. Or foolhardiness, at the least. Maybe it’s time to admit that pecan pie was a bad concept and move on to new territory.
Texas was a Southern state first of all, so the first Texas cooking was Southern cooking. We owe a lot to it; our manifold corn dishes, from grits to hushpuppies; the buttermilk school of baking; pork and chicken dishes The tradition is kept alive today at East Texas spots like Chef Latin’s eponymous cafe in Nacogdoches, where one can get a mean plate of overcooked vegetables, and other delicacies.
As Southern food crossed the Sabine into Texas, so did Mexican food cross the Rio Grande to become our most durable and universal cuisine—is there a town in Texas where you can’t get a plate of enchiladas? The cradle of Texas Mexican food is San Antonio, and the classic modern-day practitioner is the dapper Mario Cantú, whose Mario’s Restaurant is a little more Mex-Mex than Tex-Mex.
In the mid-nineteenth century, immigrants from Eastern Europe added the third major food style, which flourishes in Central and Southeast Texas. Master meat smokers, the Europeans brought us barbecue and sausage. A little down-home cross-pollination produced such no-place-but-Texas results as Roy Smrkovsky and Willy Jurak’s jalapeño sausages at the City Market in Schulenburg.
It’s time to give ice some long overdue consideration as a principal Texas foodstuff. I grew up in Vermont, where ice was something that clinked around in your glass, cooling your drink during infrequent spells of warmish weather. Our winters were full of it, so ice had no special status as a precious substance. One of several culture shocks that smote me in Houston was the far more appreciative attitude Texans took toward their ice. At the home of a well-to-do Memorial family, I watched in amazement as all of them began chewing their ice cubes with obvious relish. They were…eating it! Far from constituting grounds for being sent to bed without dessert, this behavior was acceptable—nay, desirable.
Eighteen years later, I have developed the critical standards necessary to ice connoisseurship—an insufficiently recognized field of Texas endeavor. One wants one’s cubes to be on the small side, so as to fit more easily into one’s mouth. And one wants them a tad cloudy: crystal-clear ice, pretty as it looks, is the rock-hard, tooth-breaking kind. A satisfying crack is paramount to the ice aficionado’s enjoyment of his cube; that opaque Dairy Queen type of ice, honeycombed with air, is simply too easy to chew—and not nearly noisy enough. It almost goes without saying that shaved ice is a pernicious modern mutant. I propose that it be outlawed everywhere but movie theaters, where good eating-quality ice would drown out the dialogue.
Where to find respectable ice? The party ice machines at the San Antonio-based HEB chain of grocery stores is one infallible source. My fondest personal ice-cuisine recollections center on a paper cup full of cubes acquired at Inman’s smokehouse in Llano. They lasted clear to Austin and proved a great comfort during a hot, horrid traffic jam on 290. Slowly and methodically chewed, in fact, an average serving of ice cubes can induce a blissful, almost trance-like state. Just think of those ice cubes as our own little frozen mantras.