Along the Mexico and United States border exists a very specific culture. Mexican-Americans who live in Texas, are referred to as Tejanos. Like just about everything else in Texas, the Mexican-Americans who live and grow up there have a unique experience compared to other parts of the country. Tejanos are the originators of TexMex, using both what they know from Mexico and what is available in the United States to create a comfort food loved both within and outside of Texas today. The cuisine exemplifies a personal struggle myself and other Mexican-Americans experience throughout their lives. “Ni de aquí, ni de allá,” which means neither from here nor there. The struggle to balance both cultures while feeling as if you do not fully belong to either one is at the core of the TexMex debate.
In addition to the internal cultural struggle, there also comes a confusion which I think has led to the stigma attached to TexMex. For those outside the Mexican community or unfamiliar with traditional Mexican cooking, it can be easy to mistake a TexMex dish as traditional Mexican food. I grew up pretty much knowing burritos were absolutely not authentic Mexican food, and I never associated nachos with Mexican food at all, but I’ve come to learn that is not the case for everyone. When I was in college an organization whose members were friends of mine, held a “Taco Night” as a philanthropy event. The tacos they served were filled with carne asada (skirt steak), a more traditional Mexican style; the toppings available included onion, cilantro, and salsa. A girl in my sorority attending the event asked, “Where’s the cheese?” Myself and a number of other Mexican students looked at each other with that knowing glance.
There are prominent differences between TexMex dishes and traditional Mexican plates, but does that necessarily mean one is “less Mexican” than the other? José R. Ralat, taco editor at Texas Monthly and author of American Tacos: A History and Guide says TexMex is Mexican food, and he is willing to die on that hill.
The name TexMex started out as a simple abbreviation for the Texas and Mexican Railroad, chartered in 1875, according to History Channel. The term evolved into a way to refer to the Mexican-Americans of Texas, which then became Tejanos , and eventually landed as a way to refer to the region’s cuisine mezclada (mixed cuisine).
Although the majority of the discussion surrounding TexMex has to do with its Mexican origin, other cultures influenced its creation. Prior to Spanish colonization, Native Americans lived on the land that is now Texas for thousands of years. Texas and Mexico were both under Spanish control until 1821 when Mexico gained independence, and then in 1845 Texas became part of the United States. Those original “Tejanos” and, even more so their offspring, were some of the first to experience the “otherness” of being multicultural. Imagine the combination of land-hungry colonizers moving west, Native Americans fighting against the white-out of their culture, and a people who were not considered Mexican because of a new border but at the same time were not part of the colonizing group either. This history of colonization and land disputes gave way to the creation of Tejano culture and a genre of food to match.
The proximity and availability of ingredients played a driving role in the creation of TexMex dishes. “TexMex isn’t a confined box. It’s a living cuisine and it’s changing. It’s always changed in reaction to market supply and demand, population shifts, and trade routes,” says Ralat. A great example of this can be found in the use of flour tortillas in TexMex food. In Mexico, corn is more readily available than wheat flour, which is in abundance in the United States.
Growing up I loved flour tortillas, but I always knew corn was what was considered the truly authentic tortilla. Going back about 10,000 years, corn was domesticated in Southern Mexico. At Familia Kitchen, a website I contribute to that serves as an authentic treasury of Latino/a/x family recipes, Karina Corona writes, “Corn is so much a piece of Mexico that the Nahuatl speaking peoples of Mesoamerica referred to corn as ‘tlaolli.’ Translation: ‘our sustenance’.” This is not to say Mexican people do not make or enjoy flour tortillas, but that type of tortilla was introduced much later. The Houston Chronicle notes that European colonizers looked down on corn and for that reason wheat flour, which was more readily available north of the Rio Grande, was introduced.
Cumin, another key to TexMex dishes, is an ingredient that was imported from India and did not make its way into Mexican recipes until Spanish influence put it there, according to research from Stanford University. Ralat describes cumin as “the defining spice in TexMex.”
Melty, yellow cheese is also on the list of non-Mexican ingredients that set TexMex apart from other regional food. Mexico has plenty of delicious white cheeses like Chihuahua, cotija, Oaxaca, but the yellow stuff is super American.
Mixing together these Mexican and non-Mexican ingredients led to menu items enjoyed across the country today. First and foremost, the combo plate is a staple on many Mexican (not just TexMex) restaurant menus. This platter includes an entree with rice and beans as sides and is usually topped with cheese and/or sour cream. Otis Farnsworth, a Chicago native, is credited as the inventor of the combo plate, having served it at his San Antonio restaurant in the early 1900’s.
Though more than one chile con carne origin story exists, the most widely accepted one, as reported by Texas Monthly, is that the famed Chili Queens of Texas popularized the dish. Chili, with its own long, intricate history, is one part of this dish as well as chili peppers, a mix of spices including cumin, and topped with shredded cheese. The Chili Queens sold the dish in San Antonio’s city plaza along with bread and water for the low price of 10 cents.
Nachos, I have never considered Mexican in any way, but the story of how nachos were created pinpoints them as being created on the Mexican side of the border. The story behind this one, as told by Mental Floss, tells of a maître d’ named Ignacio, also known as nacho, who improvised an appetizer for some military wives. But once again, the incorporation of yellow cheese speaks for the “American” side of the dish.
Like Ralat, I did not grow up eating TexMex, but I have grown a new appreciation for what the food represents. And although I am not a culinary professional, my view is that cuisine can be fluid. Rather than try to create rigid labels to categorize a dish, it’s better to acknowledge and celebrate the role that dish plays within the history of a culture.
Ralat has this to say for those who dispute the merits of TexMex as Mexican food, “It was Mexicans who invented TexMex and Mexicans eat TexMex. Mexican immigrants and Mexican Americans opened TexMex places in order to give their children a better life. I think that is a very important point in that people disparage TexMex as being Americanized or ‘bastardized’ Mexican food when in fact Mexicans had a lot to do with how it developed. And it allowed them to send their kids to school… to college. That’s important.”