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Pralines and Pushcarts

A six-part history of Tex-Mex

But let's face the facts. Dunking chips in salsa isn't authentically Mexican. Neither are margaritas, frozen, on the rocks, with salt or without -- the cocktail does not exist in interior Mexico. Likewise, there are no nachos, crispy tacos, crispy chalupas, chili con queso, chili con carne, flour tortillas or fajitas in Mexico City. (Which has caused more than one Texan to observe that you can't get any decent Mexican food down there.) This stuff was all invented along the Texas border. And if it isn't Tex-Mex, then what is it?

The problem is that the term "Tex-Mex" has developed two definitions. In Paris and the rest of the world, it means an exciting cuisine from the American West with tacos, tortillas chips, margaritas and chili. But in Texas, some people still think of it as an insult, meaning Mexican food that isn't authentic.

Tex-Mex has gone out into the world and made a success of itself. Maybe it's time we embraced it here at home. If the rest of the world thinks Tex-Mex is an exciting American regional cuisine, why argue?

Pralines became a Tex-Mex staple to cooks like Obidia Rodriguez because of the cheap ingredients.
Troy Fields
Pralines became a Tex-Mex staple to cooks like Obidia Rodriguez because of the cheap ingredients.

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Tex-Mex: 1. Designating the Texan variety of something Mexican. -- Oxford English Dictionary

"Tex-Mex" entered the language as the nickname of a railroad. You can still see it painted on the boxcars of the Texas-Mexican Railway, which was chartered in 1875 and connects the Mexican border at Laredo with the port of Corpus Christi. This part of South Texas was the homeland of the Tejanos, the Mexicans who pioneered Texas before the Anglos arrived.

Until the mid-1800s, Tejano cooking was more or less identical to the cooking in northern Mexico. But after the Civil War, the food began to change. With the arrival of the railroad, cowboys and cattle ranchers began to get their provisions from the United States. American ingredients like flour, lard, bacon and molasses became more common. Cooking equipment like cast-iron skillets and Dutch ovens made frying and baking easier.

Having learned how to please Anglo palates, Mexican ranch cooks like Juanita Garcia put their experience to work. Mexican vendors began selling tamales, enchiladas and pecan candies from carts and food stalls in Texas cities before the turn of the last century. Their heyday ranged from the 1880s until about 1910, when new public health laws put many of them out of business.

Houston's long love affair with Tex-Mex began with the street vendors. Although the business was started by Hispanics, the tamale vendors in East Texas also included African-Americans and American Indians, who sold their own unique style of tamales. Customers were loyal to the vendor and the cooking they liked best.

One of the last of Houston's old-time tamale men was an American Indian named Walter Berryhill. Dressed in a white jacket and top hat, Berryhill sold tamales from his pushcart in River Oaks. Like many of the vendors in Houston, he adapted the standard Mexican tamale recipe to his customers' tastes, substituting cornmeal for the fresh masa and concocting his own chili gravy.

Every good tamale salesman had a gimmick. Berryhill's was his top hat and white coat. In San Antonio, provocatively dressed young women called the Chili Queens flirted with customers (a time-honored sales technique that can still be witnessed at Hooters). But the sales pitches that tamale vendors are best remembered for are their distinctive cries and songs (see "Get 'Em While They're Hot").

Walter Berryhill rigged his pushcart with a propane burner to comply with health department regulations and kept selling tamales long after most other vendors had disappeared. When Berryhill retired in the mid-'60s, a lawyer named Bob Tarrant bought his recipe and his pushcart, mainly because he liked the tamales. Decades later, Tarrant met Chuck Bulnes, who was running a business called Texas Tamales, and proposed that they open a restaurant with Berryhill's tamale recipe.

Berryhill's pushcart is now chained to a pole at the corner of Westheimer and Revere in front of Berryhill Hot Tamales. Inside the tiny restaurant, there are a couple of tall tables and a bar, as well as a few more tables outdoors. They sell five kinds of tamales based on Walter Berryhill's recipes -- beef, pork, chicken, bean and spinach. The tamales are three for $3.49; six for $6.29; and a dozen for $9.29; three tamales on a platter with rice and black beans is $4.99. I tried all five flavors.

These unique tamales have the flavor of Southern corn-bread stuffing and a heaviness that's very satisfying. The bean and spinach tamales are vegetarian, made without any lard. The beef, pork and chicken tamales have lots of meat, and Berryhill's chili gravy is served on the side. The meat tamales taste good with the mild chili gravy poured over the top, but I suspect Berryhill would have had the same complaint about these tamales that I do: There's not enough lard in them.

Berryhill's current owner, Jeff Anon, says that the amount of lard called for in Berryhill's original recipe has been substantially reduced. "Lard gives tamales a gelatinous sort of texture," Anon says. But the modern diner doesn't like lard, so the recipe had to be compromised. The tamales aren't served in chili gravy anymore, either. "We put the chili gravy on the side, because when people opened the tamale, they got it all over their clothes," Anon says. "But it's Walter Berryhill's chili gravy recipe."

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