The Tex-Mex Cookbook, or The Whole Enchilada And Then Some

San Antonio cajeta flan cake
San Antonio cajeta flan cake

Robb Walsh’s “Tex-Mex Cookbook” is more than a mere collection of authentic (and excellent) Tex-Mex recipes: it’s a loving tribute to the development of Tex-Mex cuisine, Tejano culture, and the pioneering restaurants (and their owners) that launched Tex-Mex into popular American culture and beyond.

The book begins, appropriately enough, with a short primer on Tex-Mex in a chapter called “That Loveable Ugly Duckling.” Walsh explores the exact meaning of Tex-Mex: is it Americanized Mexican food, or that hybrid blend of Mexican and Indian cooking found only in Texas? The following chapter is a wonderful collection of Tex-Mex dishes (burritos, enchiladas, chimichangas, fajitas, refried beans), ingredients (including a photo guide to fresh and dried chiles) and kitchen tools (which are easy enough to find if you live near a large Mexican (or Hispanic) community: the tortilla press, comal, and molcajete).

The recipes begin in chapter two, starting with old-fashioned cowboy breakfasts: cooked pinto beans with a touch of bacon grease, fried onion and garlic, and chiles, Ox Eyes (skillet eggs in hot sauce), migas, nopalitos and eggs, and cowboy coffee (with a touch of cinnamon and orange peel).

The remaining chapters explore the development and marketing of chili (including ample vintage photographs of San Antonio’s legendary Chile Queens at work), the rise of the Tex-Mex restaurant in San Antonio and Houston, San Antonio puffy tacos, “junk food” Tex-Mex Frito pie, bean dip, nachos, and chile con queso. There are a few sweet desserts to round out your meal, including several praline recipes, cookies, and a decadent chocolate caramel flan cake.

The recipes are clearly written and easy to follow, but it’s the historical sidenotes and many rare photos that I found so intriguing about this book. There are interviews with pioneering Tex-Mex restaurant owners, tidbits of Mexican and Tejano history and lore, and snippets of WPA reports documenting food in Texas in the 1920s and 1930s, and stories about the Anglo marketing of chili powder, canned tamales, Pace salsa, and chain restaurants like Chili’s (complete with vintage advertising and recipe books). The book closes with a look at Tex-Mex’s global spread to France (helped along by the 1986 film BETTY BLUE (37°2 le matin) (DIRECTOR’S CUT) (IMPORT, ALL-REGION)), South America, Thailand, Japan and the Middle East. And for those who love a good tipple, yes, there’s a chapter devoted to the invention of the frozen margarita, fruit margaritas, and sangria.

There’s something here for everyone, but the health-conscious beware; authentic Tex-Mex is all about the flavor, which includes large amounts of rendered lard (fresh, not store-packaged, hydrogenated, and flavorless) and occasionally Velveeta (chosen for its ability to stay soft after the food cools). There’s also some cuts of meat that many Anglos will find unappealing: cow head (used for barbacoa) and beef tongue (menudo, or tripe soup, is curiously absent here). And tender palates beware: Tex-Mex and Mexican food make ample use of the hottest chiles (serranos and habaneros), although you can substitute less-spicy ones (but you’ll lose some of the flavor). If you live in a small town, you may have difficulty in tracking down Mexican ingredients such as masa harina, piloncillo, and dried chiles, but Walsh thoughtfully includes several mail-order (and Internet) sources.

A fantastic gift for fans of Tex-Mex (what most Americans call “Mexican”) food, expat San Antonians, or anyone who’s interested in culinary (and regional) history will enjoy the Tex-Mex Cookbook.

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