Best Of The West 2012: Tex-Mex
Why it's the most popular regional cuisine in the world, as well as the most divisive.
Photography: © Laurie Smith/Courtesy Ten Speed Press
Believe it or not, Tex-Mex is the most popular American regional cuisine on the planet. There are Tex-Mex restaurants in Paris, Bangkok, Abu Dhabi, Tokyo, and Mexico City. A young man who runs a Tex-Mex restaurant in North Vietnam contacted me not long ago trying to find a source for corn tortilla mix in Asia. Which begs two questions: Why is Tex-Mex so well loved around the world, and why is it so frequently reviled at home?
As for the first, a Frenchman once told me, “Because it is the food of the frontier, of cowboys and Indians.” Which explains why French Tex-Mex restaurants are decorated with photos of Geronimo and have names like the “Indiana Café” (a popular Parisian Tex-Mex chain).
As for the second, blame Diana Kennedy. While promoting her landmark 1972 book, The Cuisines of Mexico, Kennedy drew a line in the sand between “authentic Mexican food” and that stuff that was served in “so-called Mexican restaurants north of the border.” American food lovers on the East and West Coast were taught to hate “Tex-Mex” from the time the pejorative term was first introduced in the 1970s (before that, Texans simply called it Mexican food).
So if it isn’t Mexican food, then what is Tex-Mex? Kennedy convinced American foodies that Tex-Mex is Mexican food that’s been bastardized by a bunch of inept gringos. Funny that nobody ever says Cajun food is French food that’s been messed up by a bunch of inept Louisianians. In fact, both Tex-Mex and Cajun food are American regional cuisines created by cultures with foreign roots.
Kennedy, who grew up in England before moving to Mexico City, had probably never heard of a Tejano (as Texas-Mexicans call themselves). And neither had the vast majority of Americans. They had no idea that Tex-Mex is the bicultural cuisine of Texas-Mexicans and that they were putting down a very old Latino-American culture when they trashed Tex-Mex.
I am afraid that the continuing resistance to Tex-Mex in the rest of the United States all comes down to one very controversial word: Velveeta. It is impossible to make the quintessential Tex-Mex cheese dip called chile con queso or old-fashioned cheese enchiladas without the processed cheese. Why? Because Velveeta melts faster and doesn’t harden and congeal like regular cheese. You can add cheddar or jack or even Gruyère to Velveeta and the prepared cheese product will make the other cheese melt better, too.
Countless well-meaning Tex-Mex restaurants have attempted to “lighten up” the cuisine by getting rid of the Velveeta and the lard. In 1941, Felix Mexican Restaurant on Westheimer in Houston proudly proclaimed “We use Oleo” on their menu. Strange how frequently our efforts at enlightened healthy eating look ridiculous in retrospect.
Healthy or not, the French are right: Tex-Mex is frontier food; it is not meant to be refined. Which reminds me of a famous quote from Dave Hickey, a Fort Worth, Texas, art critic. While reviewing a rock opera for the Village Voice in the 1970s, he opined that rock ’n’ roll is like Tex-Mex — as it improves in quality, it ceases to be what it is.
And if Diana Kennedy doesn’t like it, well, as we say in Texas: “Bless her heart.”