Chili-ing Out

Why can't they make Texas food outside Texas?

A couple of housecleaning items seem appropriate before we address this week's topic. After all, in less than two months we've managed to...well, let's just get right down to the mea culpas: Sorry, Greg, but Kinella is the correct spelling after six martinis; we entered Shade, Cuba Libre and Mick's Bar under the mistaken impression that patrons welcome cowbells and loud novelty horns; JELL-O shots and digital cameras do not mix well--we know that now; nor do JELL-O shots and a chance encounter with our editor's car.

Now on to the Burning Question, researched during a sudden, unannounced swing through some of the less populated areas of the country.

Over the past 40 years or so, global fare gradually shifted from ethnic enclaves tucked in American communities to prominent spots on supermarket shelves. A country known for burgers and fries, steak and potatoes, and that awful sweet potato dish covered in marshmallows learned to embrace ingredients from Ethiopia and Thailand and everywhere in between. Diners across America these days select from a range of reasonably authentic flavors from around the globe.

Yet few people outside this state seem to understand Texas cooking.

Oh, they list chimichangas and chicken-fried steak on menus, sure. While hiding out in...um, touring Washington, North Carolina, we ordered sopapillas at a local establishment. The waiter brought out scoops of ice cream rolled in corn flakes. During a brief stay in Macomb, Illinois, we suffered through a happy hour of cloyingly sweet margaritas. Somewhere south of Fargo, North Dakota, we dined on chicken-fried steak drenched in suspicious brown gravy. Oh, and in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, bowls of chili contained ground beef, cheese and (gasp) beans.

"They try to do it everywhere," says Marc Cassel, executive chef at the Green Room, "but it's horrible."

And it doesn't make sense. French restaurants in Dallas may struggle to find a decent facsimile of European foie gras, but hunks of beef and piles of flour exist in every community. Salt, pepper? Readily available. Tortilla chips? We found them in Columbus, Nebraska. Chiles? Everywhere.

So what gives?

Dallas-area gourmands blame familiarity more than anything else. "Food can be duplicated, but it's never as good as the environment it was created in," claims Stephan Pyles, consulting chef at Dragonfly and Ama Lur. "The best Cajun food is in Louisiana, the best French in France, the best chicken-fried steak in Texas. That's just the way it is."

When he puts it that way, you can't help but be proud.

Even the state's most successful culinary export, the array of combo plates known as Tex-Mex, falters elsewhere. "That's why it's called Tex-Mex," explains Paul Rodriguez of Mia's. "Once it crosses the border, it's just not authentic. The emphasis is truly on Texas." Indeed, in neighboring New Mexico they stack flat tortillas, top the concoction with a fried egg and call it an enchilada. And at a stop in Alexandria, Louisiana, we poked at bland fajitas spiked with shrimp fit only for a can of Campbell's cream of shrimp soup.

Perhaps ignorance plays a role in this as well. Just as Americans considered chop suey a Chinese dish way back when, non-Texas types deem greasy, dripping quesadillas--the kind we shoved aside at a place in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania--authentic Tex-Mex.

Or perhaps authenticity is more subjective than most of us would prefer to admit.

According to some stories, Mexican laborers working on the Texas range created fajitas in the 1930s. (One story has an Aggie researcher learning, after two years of study--probably taxpayer-funded--that his uncle invented fajitas. This same researcher now works for the Bush administration.) Others claim Ninfa's in Houston introduced fajitas to the world in 1973. We're not even going to mention Blimpie's chicken fajita sub.

Well, except just then.

Nachos first appeared, supposedly, in 1964 at the State Fair in Dallas. True staples, such as the tortilla, are often local versions of more universal foods--in this case flatbreads, which exist in most cultures: naan in India, pita around parts of the Mediterranean, Italian pizza or the unleavened bread of Exodus fame. The venerable chicken-fried steak resembles schnitzel. And while people ate stuffed breads thousands of years ago, it took an accidental meeting of burritos and a deep fat fryer one evening in Arizona to invent the chimichanga, or so we're told.

Simply put, recipes vary from family to family, region to region, and evolve over time. Jambalaya, for example, is what happens when you try to cook up paella in the swamps of Louisiana.

"You say 'Tex-Mex'--well, what is that?" Pyles asks. "You take Tex-Mex to Kansas City and it becomes something again." He once opened a Southwestern restaurant in Minnesota, then quickly adapted the menu to local tastes after a series of complaints ending with phrases like "doncha know" and "you betcha." "It's a constant metamorphosis."

Monica Greene, who introduced authentic Mexico City cuisine to Dallas when she opened Ciudad with chef Joann Bondy, readily agrees. "The ingredients for Tex-Mex are widely available," she says, "but you have to adapt to the taste of a community."

Thus we end up with Cal-Mex, New Mex-Mex and even Mex-Mex. Might as well add Okie-Mex, Mo-Mex, Ver-Mex. "Even though this is more authentic, you may think this other tastes better," Pyles says with a shrug. "It's all relative."

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