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.