If you're a child of the '70s or '80s, then the phrase "Tex-Mex" may have a special place in your heart. It was during those years that a boom in that style of food took hold of the country. Plates of chile con carne, nachos, chile con queso, and heaping helpings of pork and cheese made their way into chain restaurants and homes. No doubt, your mom tried out her recipe for "fajitas" a few times before saying "the hell with it" and loading up the minivan for a night out at Chili's.
But then, over the years, something happened. The term has become a dirty word that culinary aficionados do their best to avoid. "Tex-Mex is an abomination!" they'll say. "It's inauthentic and only the choice of the ill-informed and willfully ignorant masses!"
Of course, that kind of sentiment is a huge overreaction. (Tex-Mex has been around for a lot longer than the boom of the '70s and '80s would have you believe; it was only then that certain dishes were bestowed with the memorable and rhymey phrase.) But how did we get to the point where Tex-Mex is so ridiculed?
In an interview over at the Houston Press, Gustavo Arellano, author of "Taco U.S.A.: How Mexican Food Conquered America," has a few thoughts:
"In some ways, people feel cheated," he explained. "They feel that Tex-Mex masqueraded as Mexican food for all these years." And now that more of mainstream America is discovering what they perceive to be "authentic" Mexican food, the more they're turned off by the lard-and-cheese-laced plates that most Texans adore. Outside of Texas, says Arellano, the tide has turned against Tex-Mex despite its deep roots in our country.
Arellano blames the spread of this sentiment on ill-informed celebrity chefs who now have a multitude of ways to reach their scores of fans:
"[Rick] Bayless and [Diana] Kennedy validate the suspicion that people have with regard to Mexican food," he said. The suspicion that it's an interloper, meant to confuse us and steer us away from the "real" thing.
Of course, that kind of point of view is simply not true. Whenever you're dealing with cultural dishes, you also have to keep in mind that you're dealing with imaginary borders that have been instituted by governments. Yes, now it may take plenty of ID to get over the border between Texas and Mexico, but it wasn't always like that. Southern Texas and northern Mexico have the same climate and nearly identical geology, so of course they're going to have similar foods to work with and the same ideas when it comes to recipes. Let me put it like this: Who would you think has more in common with it comes to culinary influences, Vancouver and Seattle? Or Seattle and Miami?
Foods and dishes have a way of forgetting about border guards and political policies and instead simply turning regions into true melting pots, as it were. And if that food originated in a part of Mexico that's somewhat near the Texas border, allowing for it to spread a bit further into America, it doesn't mean it's inauthentic. It just makes it different.
So, if you don't like Tex-Mex food, fine. Don't eat it. But feeling that it's less "real" than "actual" Mexican food is a point of view that's not based on reality.
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