Culture

The Brief And Surprising History Of Tex-Mex Food That You’ve Never Heard

Handfuls of shredded yellow cheese. Flour tortillas. Corn chips dripping with melted queso.

While many Americans think of these dishes as examples of authentic Mexican cuisine, they are completely wrong. 

Indeed tacos salads and sizzling fajita platters are delicious, but they are properly considered Tex-Mex food. That label wasn’t used to describe the unique border region style food until the 1960s, but the origin of Tex-Mex goes back more than a hundred years to a time when Texas was still a part of Mexico. Over the ensuing decades, different ingredients and cooking styles combined along the border to become what we today call Tex-Mex. 

Tex-Mex was first used to describe a railroad.

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The term “Tex-Mex” didn’t originate with the invention of quesadilla triangles. The origin of the term can be traced back as an abbreviation for the Texas-Mexican Railway. First chartered in 1875, the 52-mile line was created to deliver sheep from Texas ranches to customers along the Gulf of Mexico.

An English gastronomer popularized the name of the cuisine.

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Eventually, the moniker would be applied to the Texas-take on Mexican food.  The first usage has been traced to a 1963 article in the The New York Times Magazine, but the term didn’t really take off until the publication of the 1972 book “The Cuisines of Mexico” by food author Diana Kennedy.

Kennedy used the term to draw an important distinction between authentic Mexican cuisine and the Americanized version that was popular in Texas. Mexican restaurant owners took offense to the term at first but most eventually embraced the new descriptor.

Diana Kennedy received the Order of the Aztec Eagle.

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In case you are wondering why an Englishwoman would be such an expert on what constitutes real Mexican cuisine, Kennedy wrote several books on the subject based on her more than fifty years of travels in Mexico. She has been called the “grand dame of Mexican cooking” and was decorated with The Order of The Aztec Eagle in 1981. That is the highest honor the Mexican government can bestow upon a foreigner. 

Tex-Mex has its roots in Spanish Missions.

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The establishment of Spanish missions in Mexico, and what would later become the southwestern United States, brought together Aztec staples like beans, with European ingredients such as rice. The Spanish also brought with them many flavors that are essential to Tex-Mex cuisine including olive oil, rice, onions, garlic, oregano, and cilantro.

Tejanos blended Mexican and American cooking styles.

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Tex-Mex cuisine really started to separate itself from traditional Mexican dishes in the home kitchens of Tejanos living north of the Rio Grande. Tejanos were descendants of the original Spanish-speaking settlers of Tejas. After Texas became an independent state and later part of the United States, Tejanos maintained their identity and overtime combined their traditional family recipes with the influx of new flavors that arrived in the area as Americans migrated to the state.

Railroads introduced new ingredients north of the Border.

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The advent of the railroad changed America in many ways, one of which was the ability to send food products and livestock across regions.  Flour, lard, bacon, and molasses made their way to Texas ranches, along with cast-iron skillets and Dutch ovens. Mexican ranch cooks learned to incorporate these ingredients and tools to gain favor with Anglo palates.

Spanish immigrants brought the cumin.

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Cumin isn’t often used in Central Mexican recipes, but it’s a Tex-Mex favorite. New Spanish immigrants to Texas brought a taste for the spice with them by way of the Canary Islands.

Tex-Mex moved from the ranch to the streets.

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From the ranches and home kitchens, Tex-Mex foods such as tamales and enchiladas became street food staples in Texas cities starting in the 1880s. Towards the beginning of the 1900s, health safety laws put many vendors out of business. This is the time when you start to see the first indoor restaurants serving Tex-Mex food.

Chili con carne gave many Americans their first taste of Tex-Mex.

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A stew of ground beef and chilis (and sometimes beans), chili con carne became a popular dish in San Antonio during the 1880s with parlors popping up on every corner. Famous “chili queens” served up the concoction by the bowl-full to hungry locals and travelers. The essential Tex-Mex dish found an even bigger audience at the 1893 Word’s Fair in Chicago, thanks to the appearance of the San Antonio Chili Stand.

Burritos were born on the border.

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Another quintessential Tex-Mex meal is the burrito, a flour tortilla stuffed with various ingredients. Meaning “little donkey” in Spanish, it is believed that the portable meal got its name in Ciudad Juárez during the Mexican Revolution from a street vendor who served them from the back of his donkey.

Nachos are named after a Mexican chef named Ignacio.

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While the tale of the burrito is likely a folk legend, the origin of the term nachos is much more likely to be true.  Ignacio “Nacho” Anaya is credited with creating the dish of fried tortillas to serve a group of hungry American women taking a tour of Piedra Negra in the 1940s. The world was never the same again.

Refried beans aren’t fried twice.

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The term refried beans is actually a mistranslation of the Spanish term frijole refritos. Rather than the prefix “re” meaning to do again, it is actually an intensifier. A more accurate translation would have been “well-fried beans.” 

Otis Farnsworth is the father of the combo plate.

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What goes great with refried beans? Rice of course. Chicago native Otis Farnsworth is credited with being the first to pair the two together. Farnsworth opened one of the first Tex-Mex restaurants in 1900 in San Antonio. His restaurant was called the Original Mexican Restaurant. 

The origins of the chimichanga is a matter of dispute.

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The chimichanga is another Tex-Mex dish that was first created north of the border. Two restaurants, both in Arizona, lay claim to creating the first chimichanga. El Charro Cafe in Tucson claims that the original owner accidentally dropped a burrito in the fryer, and spoke the name as she avoided saying a similar sounding Mexican curse word. Macayo’s Mexican Restaurant in Phoenix claims to have invented the chimichanga after deep-frying unsold burritos so they’d keep longer. The owner, Woody Johnson, named them chimichangas, which is supposed to mean “toasted monkeys.”

Taco Bell made Tex-Mex an American staple.

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A milestone in Tex-Mex history happened in 1962: Glen Bell opened the first Taco Bell in Downey, Calif. Bell started out in business with a hot dog stand in San Bernardino. After seeing long lines at a Tex-Mex restaurant across the street that served hard shell tacos, Bell decided to change his business model. Eventually, Taco Bell would expand to 7,000 locations, bringing Tex-Mex to the masses.

The first international Tex-Mex restaurant in Paris opened in 1983.

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According to the Houston Press, the first restaurant to bill itself as “Tex-Mex” didn’t open in the United States, but in France. Claude Benayoun tasted Tex-Mex food in Texas while a college student in California, and returned to Paris with the idea for a new exciting concept. The restaurant closed its doors for good just a few a years ago.

The 1986 movie “Betty Blue” made Tex-Mex even more popular in Paris.

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Benayoun’s restaurant was not an instant success, but the 1986 movie “Betty Blue” would go on to change all that. The movie features a scene of heavy tequila drinking, and (SPOILER ALERT) the movie ends with the main character forlornly eating chili con carne after mercy-killing his lover. The movie led to an explosion of Tex-Mex restaurants in the city, according to the Houston Chronicle.

Chuy’s in Austin, TX claims to be the first self-proclaimed Tex-Mex restaurant in the United States.

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Mexican restaurants in America were slower to embrace the term Tex-Mex. Now a major chain, the first Chuy’s opened on Barton Springs Blvd. in Austin, Texas in the early 1980s. Its owners, Mike Young and John Zapp, added the words “Tex-Mex Deluxe” to their menu in 1986.

The longest operating Tex-Mex spot is in Dallas

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Restaurants throughout Texas were serving up Tex-Mex food long before anyone started calling it by that name. El Fenix in Dallas is considered the oldest Tex-Mex restaurant in operation today. It was founded in 1918 by Mexican immigrant Miguel Martinez. Martinez is also credited with inventing the first tortilla-making machine.

Tex-Mex can be found all over the world.

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Tex-Mex is a global phenomenon. You can find Tex-Mex restaurants everywhere from Switzerland to Thailand.

Some Mexican restaurants in the U.S. call themselves “Mex-Mex”

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Lots of restaurants that took offense to the label “Tex-Mex” took to calling themselves Mex-Mex, either in protest or to signify that they have more authentic dishes.

READ: Latin America Truly Is A Food Oasis And Here Are Some Of The Best Dishes

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The Little-Known Underground Railroad That Ran South to Mexico

Culture

The Little-Known Underground Railroad That Ran South to Mexico

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Latinos make up the largest minority group in the country, yet our history is so frequently left out of classrooms. From Chicano communities in Texas and California to Latinos in the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s and the Underground Railroad – which also had a route into Mexico – Latinos have helped shape and advance this country.

And as the U.S. is undergoing a racial reckoning around policing and systemic racism, Mexico’s route of the Underground Railroad is getting renewed attention – particularly because Mexico (for the very first time in history) has counted its Afro-Mexican population as its own category in this year’s census.

The Underground Railroad also ran south into Mexico and it’s getting renewed attention.

Most of us are familiar with stories of the Underground Railroad. It was a network of clandestine routes and safe houses established in the U.S. during the early to mid-19th century. It was used by enslaved African Americans to escape into free states and Canada. It grew steadily until the Civil War began, and by one estimate it was used by more than 100,000 enslaved people to escape bondage.

In a story reported on by the Associated Press, there is renewed interest in another route on the Underground Railroad, one that went south into Mexico. Bacha-Garza, a historian, dug into oral family histories and heard an unexpected story: ranches served as a stop on the Underground Railroad to Mexico. Across Texas and parts of Louisiana, Alabama, and Arkansas, scholars and preservation advocates are working to piece together the story of a largely forgotten part of American history: a network that helped thousands of Black slaves escape to Mexico.

According to Maria Hammack, a doctoral candidate at the University of Texas at Austin studying the passage of escapees who crossed the borderlands for sanctuary in Mexico, about 5,000 to 10,000 people broke free from bondage into the southern country. Currently, no reliable figures currently exist detailing how many left to Mexico, unlike the more prominent transit into Canada’s safe haven.

Mexico abolished slavery a generation before Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation.

Thirty-four years before Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, in 1829, Mexican President Vicente Guerrero, who was of mixed background, including African heritage, abolished slavery in the country. The measure freed an estimated 200,000 enslaved Africans Spain forcefully brought over into what was then called New Spain and would later open a pathway for Blacks seeking freedom in the Southern U.S.

And he did so while Texas was still part of the country, in part prompting white, slave-holding immigrants to fight for independence in the Texas Revolution. Once they formed the Republic of Texas in 1836, they made slavery legal again, and it continued to be legal when Texas joined the U.S. as a state in 1845.

With the north’s popular underground railroad out of reach for many on the southern margins, Mexico was a more plausible route to freedom for these men and women.

Just like with the northern route, helping people along the route was dangerous and could land you in serious trouble.

Credit: Library of Congress / Public Domain

Much like on the railway’s northern route into Canada, anyone caught helping African-Americans fleeing slavery faced serious and severe consequences.

Slaveholders were aware that people were escaping south, and attempted to get Mexico to sign a fugitive slave treaty that would, like the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 that demanded free states to return escapees, require Mexico to deliver those who had left. Mexico, however, refused to sign, contending that all enslaved people were free once they reached Mexican soil. Despite this, Hammock said that some Texans hired what was called “slave catchers” or “slave hunters” to illegally cross into the country, where they had no jurisdiction, to kidnap escapees.

“The organization that we know today as the Texas Rangers was born out of an organization of men that were slave hunters,” Hammack, who is currently researching how often these actions took place, told the AP. “They were bounty hunters trying to retrieve enslaved property that crossed the Rio Grande for slave owners and would get paid according to how far into Mexico the slaves were found.”

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Police Identify, Arrest Man Accused Of Destroying Beloved Jesus Statue In El Paso Church

Things That Matter

Police Identify, Arrest Man Accused Of Destroying Beloved Jesus Statue In El Paso Church

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An important Jesus statue in an El Paso church has been destroyed and police have arrested the suspect. The statue in St. Patrick’s Cathedral was taken down and decapitated and the person police suspect to be responsible has been arrested.

Earlier this week, a 90-year-old Jesus statue was decapitated by a vandal who destroyed the St. Patrick’s Cathedral.

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We are saddened to announce the vandalism at St. Patrick Cathedral earlier today. The Cathedral was vandalized this morning at around 10:00am. A suspect came into the sanctuary at St. Patrick Cathedral and destroyed the almost 90-year-old statue of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, which was located in the center behind the main altar of the church. The church was open and available for prayer. A suspect has been detained by the El Paso Police department. The police are currently continuing their investigation into the vandalism. The Rector of St. Patrick Cathedral, Fr. Trini Fuentes, said, “I am in shock and we at the Cathedral are heartbroken over such an unexpected situation.” Bishop Seitz also expressed his sadness about the damage caused to the historic Sacred Heart of Jesus Statue. “This statue is one of my favorite representations of Jesus—his arms open wide in welcome, his heart aflame with love for us. I would often take inspiration from this image as I prepared for Mass.” “As sad as I am to see a statue attacked and destroyed, I am grateful that it was not a living person,” Bishop Seitz added. “But a statue, particularly this statue, concretizes and connects us to persons and ideals that are not visible to our eyes. They reveal to us realities that are close to us, but unseen,” he said. “At this point we do not know anything about the person who carried out this assault, but he certainly must be a person who is greatly disturbed to have attacked this peaceful place in our city and this image of the King of Peace. I hope this might be the impetus for him to receive the help he needs. He will be in my prayers,” Bishop Seitz added. “I am devastated at this irreplaceable loss as I know members of this parish community and the whole Church of El Paso will be. In this moment we will reach out in confidence to the One this statue represented and I know he will console us,” Bishop Seitz concluded. St. Patrick, Patron of Ireland and our Diocese, Pray for us.

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The community was rocked when the damage was reported. The statue has been behind the church’s main altar for decades. The vandal attacked the statue at around 10:00 a.m. when the church was opened for prayer when the vandal attacked.

El Paso police have arrested a man in connection to the vandalism.

According to a press release from the police department, 30-year-old Isaiah Cantrell has been arrested for the vandalism. The damage to the statue is estimated to be about $25,000 and Cantrell’s bail has been set at $20,500. El Pasoans are angered at the man for destroying the irreplaceable statue.

“This statue is one of my favorite representations of Jesus—his arms open wide in welcome, his heart aflame with love for us,” Bishop Seitz said about the destruction of the historic Sacred Heart of Jesus statue. “I would often take inspiration from this image as I prepared for Mass.”

Statues like the Sacred Heart of Jesus statue are important to communities that are used to seeing them. The destruction has left clergymen and parishioners angered and saddened by the loss of the statue. It is a historic part of the El Paso religious community having overseen masses since before World War II.

The Diocese of El Paso is raising money to help St. Patrick’s Cathedral.

The funds raised by the Diocese of El Paso and the Foundation for the Diocese of El Paso will be used on the St. Patrick’s Cathedral. The money raised will be used to fix the shattered statue as well as add security and do renovations to the famed church.

“I am devastated at this irreplaceable loss as I know members of this parish community and the whole Church of El Paso will be,” Bishop Seitz said. “In this moment we will reach out in confidence to the One this statue represented and I know he will console us.”

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