So, is it Foreign Food or Not?

It has been observed on multiple occasions that Mexican food in Texas and Mexican food in Mexico share only names in common, if that much. OK, tortillas are flat rounds of bread, and tacos mean “fillings inside smaller, folded tortilla,” but past that the commonalities start to fade. Mexican food beans in Texas are usually pinto. In Mexico they are all sorts of beans, including black beans. Cheese, a staple of Texas Mexican food, is used more sparingly south of the Rio Grande. Mole sauces never appear in Texas, unless you are at a dedicated Mexican restaurant, not chain Mexican.

This leads to a great philosophical question: is Tex-Mex a foreign food or not?

I don’t cook Tex-Mex at home, because my parents are not fans of it, and the things I like don’t always agree with them. I love legumes. My parents do not. I like carne con chili colorado, fresh tortillas, fire-house chili, and other things. As a result, once or twice a year, we go out for Mexican food, and it is indeed Mexican, not Tex-Mex.

Is Tex-Mex “foreign” or American, or is it one of those things that’s gotten so mixed and blended and Americanized that its “all of the above?” Granted, Tex-Mex in Maine or deepest, wildest New York City (or Miami) is probably foreign. The Tex-Mex I had in Salzburg, Austria was very foreign (I had to gently explain that pinto beans need to be cooked for six hours, not forty-five minutes. It wasn’t bad, aside from the very, very firm beans, but it wasn’t Tex-Mex).

This all came to mind because Day Tripper last night was about ethnic food in Texas. Cuban, Czech, German, Asian Indian, Middle Eastern, Korean, Japanese (sushi as never, ever dreamed of in Tokyo), true Mexican . . . Now, Czech and German are as native as Mexican, almost (a few decades newer to the area but not too many), so they might not count. But what about Tex-Mex? Is it a foreign food, like Italian, or native, like pizza has become?

I’m inclined to think that it is domestic, or at least so domesticated that it might as well be moved to the American Food aisle at the grocery store. At least in Texas and New Mexico, Arizona as well, probably. More beef, a lot more cheese in different kinds from what’s used in Mexico, different spice combinations, all that suggests that it’s gone the way pizza did.

Alma’s pinto beans:

1/2 pound dry pinto beans, picked through (no rocks, please) and rinsed.

2 T butter and 2T flour OR a silver-dollar sized piece of fatback or salt pork (or a similar sized piece of bacon if so inclined)

beef broth

chili powder or powdered chilis (note: they are not the same thing!) to taste

I prefer the overnight soak for beans, so pour the beans in a large bowl (four times the original volume of your beans is a good start). Cover with water. Every hour or so, change the water, or change once or twice, soak overnight, and then change the water again*. Plan on a 4-6 hour cooking time (longer is OK). Drain the beans.

Melt the butter in a large, heavy pot. Add the flour and brown over medium-high heat, watching and stirring. You want a rich dark tan. When you reach that point, add the beans and stir well. The beans need to be coated in the browned flour. Now add broth (2-3 cups or so) and water to cover the beans. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to a low simmer. Ignore for 2-3 hours, although checking the water level is a good idea. Keep about half an inch of water over the top of the beans. Dry is bad.

After 2-3 hours, add spices to taste. I often toss in some garlic just after the butter browns, then add either a tablespoon of chili powder (Gebhardt’s is a family standard) or a teaspoon of powdered chilis. Stir well, add a little liquid if needed, and ignore until the beans are done to your preferred tenderness. Use a slotted spoon to drain the beans as you serve them.

I only use half a pound at a time because I’m cooking for one person. This is a very easy dish to scale up, as you can imagine. Beans are either a serving, a few servings, or a mess-o-beans, sort of like a mess-of-collards and other greens.

*I find that changing the soak water reduces some of the side-effects associated with legumes. The fast-soak (boil, then let sit, then cook) method doesn’t seem to work as well, but feel free to experiment.


21 thoughts on “So, is it Foreign Food or Not?

  1. Multiple water changes help a lot. Most of the year, the change can go right to garden or houseplants. I like the butter and flour prep, may try vfc that nect.

  2. When I want to cook beans, I will use the slow cooker to cook a pork or beef roast first. The beans soak while the roast cooks for several hours. When the roast is done, I take out the meatand see how much juice is left, I usually have to add a couple or three cups of beef stock, to which I add a chopped large onion, a jalapeno or two, chili powder and a few sprinkles of Julios seasoning mix and crush a couple of cloves of garlic into it. Cook on high for an hour or so, then mix with an immersion blender and throw in the drained/rinsed beans, while continuing to cook on high. IN about 3 hours you can smell that the beans are done. The leftover beans taste even better when left overnight in the fridge.

  3. *giggles*

    I had the joy of hearing someone go truly epic in their rant on how something or other was NOT authentic Mexican food, threw a bunch of both ‘my grandma’ and study-related claims around, and just totally bouncing off the wall….

    The person being lectured waited quietly and then explained that they were from a different area of Mexico, and identified exactly where the lecturer’s grandmother was from and what area’s food they’d studied.

    Similar things with Chinese and Japanese food, too.


    Dang it, now I’m drooling….

    • One of my aunts is Chinese via Hong Kong. Her opinion of PF Chang’s is that it is probably authentic Chinese food *somewhere*. China is a very big place after all, and they cook things in all kinds of different ways.

      • *nod*

        Part of why I love food– you take four different localities, and give them the same supplies, you get four different things with distinct taste profiles; you take one group and give them access to four different local supply chains, and you get four different things with similar taste profiles. (Say, what they do with “hot” and how they handle “salty” or even how they treat meat.)

        It’s simply delightful!

    • In the town in Southern California where I grew up, there was a very popular family-owned Mexican restaurant – Los Amigos, where the lead cook was the Grandma who had learned to cook Mexico City style; very, very different from borderland Mexico-style. They had a version of chilies rellanos that I loved, which was more like a baked egg souffle with a cheese-stuffed poblano pepper in it and a splash of a very delicate tomato sauce over top… nothing like the battered, deep-fried stuffed pepper version available here in San Antonio.
      The thing about Mexican food, of most versions, is that it is basically peasant food, and very cheap to eat well. (A bit like Greek food, I always thought: a small palette of ingredients and spices, and infinite variations.)

      • Oh, yeah, I think I’ve had that with the eggs, but not like a souffle. I don’t remember if it was called chiles rellenos, though. And the cheese-stuffed pepper, no. And it was normal red sauce on top.

        There’s a lot of ingredients, depending on where you are. Within those areas, maybe not so many. Also, there’s a lot of greens and stuff that get added in that area of Mexico, at home, but not so much at a restaurant. That show Pati’s Mexican Table is good at showing a lot of the variations and regions.

        In general, I’ll eat whatever you give me, and probably be happy. The only thing that bothers me is calling things bratwurst that don’t fit my specific mental image of bratwurst. One of these days, I might like Wisconsin bratwurst, and I know there are literally thousands of different bratwurst varieties in Germany. But that one thing, it bothers me. I want _my_ bratwurst, not something kinda like it, and the easily available companies changed the recipe. Sigh.

  4. TexMex IS it’s own cuisine. It’s been ‘simmering’ for well over 100 years in the border areas of Texas, Arizona, New Mexico etc. We are lucky to have a true Mexican restaurant down here, Chuy’s and yes, they do mole, and do it well. And his ‘salsa’ is of the nuclear variety. We’ve speculated that he’s chained his abuela to the kitchen. And did I mention homemade tortillas that are a meal in themselves?

    • Abuela will pick up the big wooden spoon, and shake her head and frown, then go back to ordering around everyone. Better to face death than her frown. A friend took me to lunch at a family-run restaurant in NM, and you could see her back on one wall, eyes missing nothing. The food xxv was excellent.

  5. Question: Would Italians (for example) recognize the food in Italian restaurants in the US as True Italian Food? 😈

    • *Gets the giggles*

      There was a big to-do at one point, folks had an Italian tour group and thought it’d be fun to take them to various “Italian” food places and see what their favorite was.

      … it was Olive Garden.

      You know, just like Italian-American families tend to like.

      • Oh? I’ve a NY Italian-American friend that hates Olive Garden with an undying passion. Tastes, they do differ.

        Though I think anyone with a palette would agree that the Chinese takeout place in my rural hometown was pretty bad. My Hong Kong born wife’s private comment after my Grandmother insisted on taking us there: “are you sure it’s really supposed to be Chinese?” To be honest, I’m still not entirely certain it was intended for human consumption.

        • Oh, goodness, yes. Ancestry isn’t destiny– as best I can tell, the pattern goes off of what you grew up eating. And everybody has some food that the rest of the family liked and they didn’t, right? (Garbanzo beans. *shudder*)

          Hehe, has she tried that canned chow mien in the “international” section yet?
          *mischief smile*

  6. Amusingly, (re: types of beans) which kind doesn’t matter much to me. Now, the cooking duration? That might be significant.

    And while I can deal with most “greens” collard is perhaps THE exception as it resembles lawn weeds. Yes, I could with dandelion more easily. I know, that’s… at least a little bit odd.

  7. When I lived in Southeast Pennsylvania, the “Philadelphia” magazine had an article on what constituted “ethnic food.” One conclusion was that in Philadelphia, Chinese food was ethnic but Italian food wasn’t.

  8. Random thoughts:

    Tex-Mex is Texian food. Tain’t furrin if you are livin’ and eatin’ in Texas. My little south Texas city has two Whataburgers, two Dairy Queens, three Sonics, at least half-a-dozen BBQ brisket restaurants, about three decent independent “American” food restaurants and one non-chain burger joint, and dozens and dozens and dozens of Mexican/barbacoa restaurants. Breakfast tacos are ubiquitous, doesn’t matter what the “orientation” of the restaurant is.

    A retired USAF NCO and his german wife or girlfriend in Germany set up a Mexican restaurant in Moenchengladbach, a fair-sized city. He soon found that nearly all his business was coming from the rather small town of Geilenkirchen, 40km away, because there was a NATO airbase there with a lot of Americans. IIRC he eventually moved to the GK area, but other than that Mex style food was scarce in Germany. I took some of my German buddies to that restaurant one time, but even the mild spices were too fiery for them. Germany makes some excellent food, but “spicy” is not really on their menu. As a trivia note, the aforementioned restaurant owners were African-American and blonde German, but they appropriated very well.

    Also in Germany my American supervisor’s wife, born and raised in Limerick, Ireland, made Mexican…well, American Mexican…well, Irish-American Mexican food for a dinner one time. They invited some German military guys over for dinner. [important context: German military sent to NATO had excellent technical and military English language skills, but often got befuddled by “social” American English] One of the Germans got ahold of a jalapeno and it didn’t go well for him. He got red-faced, started wiping sweat from his face, and said “Oh Mrs. Supervisor, that pepper is so hot, I have sweat on my foreskin!”

    Now THAT’s when you know it’s spicy hot!

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