Mama's Got a Brand-new Bag

Mama Ninfa brings home fajitas

The fajita craze caught on for a number of reasons: First, old-fashioned Tex-Mex had given Americans a craving for Mexican flavors, but the low-fat movement made many diners wary of lard-laden mixed plates. Grilled meats and flour tortillas were a better fit with the new diet. Second, the emphasis on fresh salsas coincided with the skyrocketing popularity of chili pepper-based ethnic cuisines. And third, fajitas seemed more authentically Mexican than Señorita Platters and the other Tex-Mex dishes that were making their way toward the bus tray of history.

The fact is, of course, fajitas with spicy salsas and fresh flour tortillas didn't originate from Diana Kennedy's cookbook or interior Mexico. They came from those Hispanic West Texas ranch hands and restaurants of the Rio Grande Valley. It was more authentic, all right, but it wasn't authentic Mexican; it was authentic Tejano.

"I grew up in the lower Rio Grande Valley," says Mama Ninfa. "I was just serving the same kind of good, honest food at my restaurant that we used to eat at home. Fajitas were an old family recipe." Cooking steaks or fajita meat on a backyard grill and serving the meat chopped up with condiments and flour tortillas was a typical backyard barbecue for Tejanos in the lower valley.

Ninfa Laurenzo in her wedding finery
Troy Fields
Ninfa Laurenzo in her wedding finery
The original Ninfa's made fajitas popular.
Troy Fields
The original Ninfa's made fajitas popular.


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Grilled meats are a tradition in northern Mexico as well. But the difference between Tejano cooking in the valley and northern Mexican cooking is the ingredients. Modern American beef, for example, is much more tender than the tougher range-fed beef across the border, so it lends itself better to grilling. In Mexico, cowboys had to pound and marinate the diaphragm muscle to make it tender enough to eat. Tejano butchers, on the other hand, were getting thick, tender skirt steaks from Midwestern meat packers that required no preparation at all. So in reality, it was the widespread distribution of American corn-fed beef that "invented" the fajita craze.

Under the smiling face of a young Mama Ninfa, I drain my frozen margarita and roll up the remainder of my onions, peppers and fajita meat inside the last homemade tortilla. The waitress tells me that nowadays the fajitas at Ninfa's are seasoned with garlic powder and pepper and doused with soy sauce to give them a deep color and salty flavor before they are grilled and chopped. I'm not surprised to learn that an Asian ingredient is being incorporated into the cooking at a popular Houston fajitaria. The innovations that occur when cultures mix is what makes America (and Tex-Mex) great.

Once Diana Kennedy made the term Tex-Mex common, variations began to appear. Californians started calling their steak burritos "Cal-Mex," and New Mexicans called their stacked enchiladas "New Mex-Mex." Restaurants that offer authentic Mexican dishes in Houston now advertise themselves as "Mex-Mex," and those that offer a large selection boast a "Mix-Mex" menu. At least one restaurant chain has attempted to trademark "Fresh-Mex."

Meanwhile, Tex-Mex has begun to be used retroactively. Once the term was widely understood, it became logical to use it to describe Texas-Mexican foods throughout history. The term is now used by culinary folklorists to describe a cooking style whose history goes all the way back to the Spanish introduction of European livestock and cultivated crops in 1581.

Today, 28 years after The Cuisines of Mexico was published, many of its authentic interior Mexican dishes look like museum pieces from the baroque era. And Tex-Mex is no longer an insult. We can thank Diana Kennedy for inadvertently granting Tex-Mex its rightful place in food history. By convincing us that Tex-Mex wasn't really Mexican food, she forced us to realize that it was something far more interesting: America's oldest regional cuisine.

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