These days, when you open a menu and see a Southwestern salad with cilantro-jicama vinaigrette and roasted pecans, or you stop at a market to pick up a container of grilled corn with black beans, you’re glimpsing Texas culinary history. Those spunky, spicy flavors with a Mexican lilt, that “Southwestern” name—they’re the result of a movement that took the country by storm four decades ago.
The new Southwestern cuisine (as it was called back then) touted the region’s indigenous ingredients and seasonings, mainly Mexican and Southern. It was centered in the fine-dining scene, and during its heyday, “Southwestern” was the buzzword of the moment. Chefs wanted Southwestern plates on their menus, diners wanted to taste Southwestern flavors, and restaurant critics wanted to cover the unfurling development. I was one of those writers, watching as a handful of young chefs created dazzling, sometimes wild dishes that brought national attention to Texas foods other than barbecue, Tex-Mex, and steaks.
I followed the movement as it rose, slowed down, and finally became mainstream. As time passed, I almost forgot about it. Then, sometime around 2013, I found myself at a food festival, reminiscing about the old days with one of the early Southwestern chefs. He recalled a pilgrimage that he and other chefs made to visit renowned cookbook author Patricia Quintana in Mexico, how they almost got lost in the countryside, and how they ate their way through Mexico City. I realized somebody needed to record this history so it wouldn’t be forgotten. That person was me.
I dug out my recorder and started calling chefs. I also spoke with influential figures in the food world, including a newspaper’s dining section editor, an instructor at the Culinary Institute of America, and even the famously demanding cookbook maven Diana Kennedy, who was somewhat annoyed by the Southwestern chefs’ experiments with traditional Mexican cuisine. When I finished reporting, I stitched the best quotes together to form a narrative, which ultimately became the first draft of “And They Said, ‘Let There Be Cilantro.’ ”
I’ve been at this job for nearly fifty years. I’ve watched the Texas food scene expand from an afterthought into a major national presence, and that process started with the Southwestern movement. I have loved watching it grow and feel gratified to have had a small part in preserving its history.
This article originally appeared in the January 2023 issue of Texas Monthly with the headline “Behind the Story.” Subscribe today.