Pralines and Pushcarts
From Pushcarts to Paris
A six-part history of Tex-Mex
In the good old days, Texans went to "Mexican restaurants" and ate "Mexican food." Then in 1972, The Cuisines of Mexico, an influential cookbook by food authority Diana Kennedy, drew the line between authentic interior Mexican food and the "mixed plates" we ate at "so-called Mexican restaurants" in the United States. Kennedy and her friends in the food community began referring to Americanized Mexican food as "Tex-Mex," a term previously used to describe anything that was half-Texan and half-Mexican. Texas-Mexican restaurant owners considered it an insult.
By a strange twist of fate, the insult launched a success. For the rest of the world, "Tex-Mex" had an exciting ring. It evoked images of cantinas, cowboys and the Wild West. Dozens of Tex-Mex restaurants sprang up in Paris, and the trend spread across Europe and on to Bangkok, Buenos Aires and Abu Dhabi. Tortilla chips, margaritas and chili con carne are now well-known around the world.
In this series of six articles over the next six months, we reconsider Tex-Mex in light of its international reputation as America's most popular regional cuisine. First up: pralines and pushcarts.
Obidia Rodriguez ladles silver-dollar-size dollops of hot candy onto waxed paper to cool. Then she dips the ladle back into the syrup simmering in the steel bowl on the hot burner; the recipe includes sugar, water, pecans and nothing else. The pecan pieces in each praline amount to little more than one whole pecan, but still they tint the sugar the color of café au lait and give the brittle candies a strong nutty flavor. Rodriguez is a tiny woman who is missing one eye; she tells me in Spanish that she has been making pralines here at Loma Linda Mexican Restaurant for the last 11 years.
Old-fashioned pecan pralines like these were once served at nearly every Mexican restaurant in Texas. And I always wondered why. Then I started researching the history of Tex-Mex, and I came to understand the significance of the candies.
In 1938, a 67-year-old Mexican woman named Juanita Garcia was interviewed by a writer named Ruby Mosely, who was working for the WPA. Garcia's family crossed the border at Del Rio in 1877, when she was six years old. "This was free country, everything free, pecans, wood, water, wild meat," Garcia told Mosely. Garcia married a ranch hand and got a job cooking on the ranch.
"The cowboys all time make say they like me to cook, make good tamales and all Mexican food. Then I make a try plenty hard to please them so they tell me a good cook .Mexican people want more than anything for courtesy, compliments and kindness ." When her husband hurt his back, Juanita Garcia had to provide for both of them.
"We make a little save on the ranch money, put up a little business, make hot tamales, enchilada and pecan candy. Pecans all time free. We make wholesale, retail and peddle Mexican foods. Ranchmen all time buy from me, me work hard, make good business," Garcia said.
Pecans were evidently a major source of income for Mexican immigrants. I also came across many Depression-era photographs of Mexican pecan shellers and candy sellers in the WPA archives. Gathering pecans, shelling them, drying them and making them into candies required a lot of labor, but no more capital than a pot and some sugar.
The patty-shaped pecan-and-brown-sugar praline was introduced into Texas from Louisiana. The name is derived from a French candy, also called a praline, which is made with almonds. Like a lot of Tex-Mex traditions, pecans and pecan pralines don't have much to do with Mexico. But they have enormous significance for Mexican-Americans in Texas. Which makes it kind of touching that old-line Tex-Mex restaurants like Loma Linda and Molina's keep the pecan praline tradition going.
With its shabby red vinyl booths and embroidered velvet decorations, the original restaurant of the once-popular Loma Linda chain is something of a Tex-Mex time capsule. It was purchased by Thad and Joyce Gilliam, who have tried to preserve the landmark. The restaurant on Telephone Road still serves the coffee-shop variety of Tex-Mex that was popular when it opened in 1956. "That lady still eats here sometimes," the manager says, pointing to a photo taken in 1949.
To modern tastes, the seasonings are extremely bland. The salsa looks like spaghetti sauce and doesn't have any bite. I order a plate of beef enchiladas ($5.95) with two fried eggs on top ($1 extra). The beef is hamburger meat, the enchilada sauce is thin chili gravy with only a hint of chili powder and comino, and the topping is processed cheese. For some, this is comfort food; for others, it is the tastelessness that gave Tex-Mex a bad name.
Ever since the term "Tex-Mex" was first applied to Texas-Mexican food about 30 years ago, Mexican restaurant owners have tried to convince us their cooking is something else. Their marketing efforts have given us such confusing monikers as Fresh-Mex, Mex-Mex, Mix-Mex and, of course, "authentic Mexican." Which all amounts to a lot of denial. Hey, it's a free country. They can call it anything they want.
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?
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."
Even if they aren't exactly what they used to be, I am thankful I have had a chance to taste Berryhill's cornmeal tamales. I am also thankful that Loma Linda's original location still survives, even if few people like this style of Tex-Mex anymore. Tamale vendors and praline makers began the Mexican food tradition in Texas, and I'm glad there are still places where these memories are preserved. For me, these restaurants are more than a place to get a bite to eat; they are a chance to experience culinary history.
Get 'Em While They're Hot
Several American folk songs are based on the cries of tamale vendors, most notably bluesman Robert Johnson's "Hot Tamales," which includes the lyric "Hot tamales and they're red hot, yes she got 'em for sale!" Songs of other Texas tamale hawkers have been set down in musical notation by a folklorist named Elizabeth Hurley. A few of the pitches once heard on city streets in Texas: "Hot tamales, floatin' in gravy, suit your taste and I don't mean maybe." "Hot tamales, two to a shuck, one fell out, and the other one stuck." "Hot tamales and enchilollies, get 'em while they're hot!"
Berryhill Hot Tamales, 2639 Revere, (713)526-8080; and 1717 Post Oak, (713)871-TACO.
Get the Food & Drink Newsletter
Our weekly guide to Houston dining includes food news and reviews, as well as dining events and interviews with chefs and restaurant owners.