Tex-Mex: A hybrid of hybrids

What a lot of people in my part of the world call “Mexican food” is actually Tex-Mex. Tortillas, spices from North America (and Europe), meats not native to the Americas (beef, chicken, domestic pig,) cheese (introduced), with veggies from the Old and New World . . . Which also describes a lot of Mexican food as well, unless you stick with 100% pure Native American dishes, if you can find them.

Tex-Mex began when Anglos met Hispanic Texicans (the generation of 1820-1850)*. Southern food, and northern food, and European food, met what was available in Texas. Spices from the Old World – cumin, sage, paprika, garlic, black pepper – met different peppers. Beef and cheese encountered pinto beans and tomatoes, and tomatillos (little green not-exactly-tomatoes). San Antonio is often credited as the home of Tex-Mex, but it might just be the largest city where blending occurred. Chili-con-carne is native to San Antonio, that everyone agrees on. Usually. Mostly.

The term Tex-Mex wasn’t really used until the 1960s and 70s, when “ethnic food” cookbooks became more common, along with more exotic ingredients, and authors started trying to distinguish real Mexican food from the versions found in Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and California. Until that point, people called it “Mexican food.” You know, crunchy tacos, burritos with refried beans in them, nachos, quesadillas and that “you’re doing what to corn chips” wonder, Frito™ pie. And canned chili, of course, be it Wolf Brand (the Redquarters staple, bought by the case), or Hormel, or other kinds. It tastes great, but . . . it’s most decidedly not really Mexican food. OK, guacamole is, until it gets “improved” or “adjusted” into Tex-Mex.

So, one of the “what is that?” regional favorites, Frito™ pie. You need:

Fritos™ corn chips (if you use other corn chips, it becomes a sort of nachos. Still good, just not authentic)

Canned chili, heated to the appropriate temperature (NO beans)

grated Cheddar cheese

other toppings to taste

Dump the corn chips in a bowl and spread around to make an even layer. Add chili to the chips. Cover with cheese. Add preferred toppings. Eat one chip at a time.

For a less “what we eat at high school foot ball games) version, you start by making your own chili:

1 lb ground beef, not too lean

Garlic and onion, chopped fine

tomato sauce, one can [or one can diced tomatoes OR one can RoTel tomatoes]

Tomato paste, one can (smaller can than sauce)

Chili powder to taste (this is a spice blend, not powdered chilis)

Brown the ground beef. Add garlic and onion, sauteing until the onion is transparent. Add tomato products and stir well. Add chili powder to taste (it tends to be mild, so you can go up to a quarter cup. I’d start low and add more as needed). Reduce heat and simmer for 30 minutes or so to allow flavors to darken and blend.

Proceed as with first version, perhaps top with salsa and sour cream if daring. Most of us stop with the cheese. It is not gourmet food, and is not supposed to be.

*Until the 1960s or so, it was customary inside the state to refer to the first generations of Texans as Texicans. Then came the Texians, and then Texans referred to those born after 1900 or so. You no longer see the different terms unless you are reading older books.


11 thoughts on “Tex-Mex: A hybrid of hybrids

  1. I love Frito™ pie, but I do add sour cream on top. And home made chili is best, unless you are in a hurry!

  2. Oddly enough, I’m making chili today, but no pre-mix chili powder. Most of the brown spices (including dried chili peppers) go in when the meat is almost cooked. The rest and the herbs (oregano, basil, some thyme) go in the pot with tomatoes and mild peppers. Slow cooker for about 8 hrs on low. Very warm and filling — and warm for cold hands.

    Outgrew the taste for that pie, but the narrow or wide chips are great for scooping.

  3. I haven’t seen Texican used outside a historical novel, but I have seen Texian used in advertising in Houston.

    Most people don’t realize how big an impact Europe had on (surviving) cultures in the Americas. The biggest change was horses – the Spanish horses, and later others, made the stereotypical Plains Indian lifestyle possible.

    • The Comanche (and others) also copied the Spanish hunting and fighting style, using lances to spear bison (buffalo), and riding them down as the Spanish did.

  4. Yeah, I get a craving for Frito pie every now and then. There’s a can of Wolf brand chili and a small bag of Fritos sitting on my counter I may well have for lunch today. The local grocery store quit carrying Wolf Brand, but thankfully Walmart has it.

    I must disagree about the beans, though. For eating straight or with Fritos (and I just spoon up the mix; eating Frito by Frito is too messy and slow for me), I’m agnostic about beans. Now, if I’m making chili cheese dip (one pound of Velveeta to one can of chili; melt Velveeta in pot, add chili, mix thoroughly, heat, enjoy), I’ll use the Wolf Brand with no beans. And if I’m making my own chili, I’ll add beans.

    And anyone who’s read the great Houston Post columnist Lynn Ashby knows all about Texians.

  5. The local taqueria does both a variant of Frito pie, as well as one using Mexican Fries* instead of the corn chips.

    Refried beans, guacamole, salsa and sour cream with a choice of meat: Carne Asada, Adobada, Chicken, and either shredded or ground beef. They’ll offer it with the carbs on the side, but I prefer the all-in-one. Great lunch, especially when reading a Kindle.

    (*) Very thinly sliced potatoes, fried to French fry consistency, not to potato chip levels.

    I had to give up on their chile [verde|colorado]. Their interpretation of hot is a few notches higher than mine, and I thought I had a high tolerance.

  6. In Idaho, Frito pie is made single serving in the Frito bag at the food vendor. Carefully open the single serving bag, dump a scoop of warm canned chili in, add cheap processed cheese shreds. Shoo the customer away and take the next customer’s money.

    I’m now curious about the route of importation!

  7. My grandmother, from a family that arrived in Coryell County in Central Texas in 1854, defined Texican as present before the War of Independence, Texian as present before the Civil War and Texan as everybody else.

  8. Ah yes, Frito pies in the bag… Many a night’s meal camping, and quite a few nights in the military. Thankfully, ‘most’ exchanges carried Wolf chili!!!

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