I grew up in Pennsylvania before there were national Mexican food chains. So the first time I ever went to a Mexican restaurant was when I came to college in Texas. I found the menu completely baffling. I could order tamales, burritos, enchiladas, chimichangas, fajitas. I had no visual image what any of this even looked like. I didn't know what queso was, so the phrase con queso just flew right past me.
I eventually got my bearings.
After getting a handle on the menu I thought I was finished. But then I would hear people say things like, "I don't like Mexican. But I love Tex-Mex." Apparently, all this time I had been eating in two different kinds of restaurants. Some were Mexican. Some were Tex-Mex. But to my eyes the menus looked the same. How could I tell which restaurant was Tex-Mex and which was Mexican? "Well," people would say, "a Tex-Mex restaurant combines Mexican food with a Texas influence." That much seemed obvious to me. I'm not an idiot. So, I would ask, "And what, exactly, is the 'Texas influence' part? How is the 'Mexican' menu different due to the 'Texan' twist?" No one, you might be surprised, had an answer. Everyone around me was saying the word "Tex-Mex" with some even claiming they preferred "Tex-Mex" without, it seems, having any clear idea what they were talking about. Which, I guess, is not surprising as I think this is how 99% of the world operates: Just saying stuff without really knowing what you are talking about.
Finding this situation unsatisfactory I did what I like to do best: Research. So I began to hunt for the origins of Tex-Mex and the differences between it and Mexican food.
The story goes back to the Great Depression. Mexican food began to make big inroads into White culture in the decades before the Great Depression. Much of this was happening in Texas. However, during the Depression certain modifications happened to Mexican dishes that created the fusion we now call "Tex-Mex." Two of the most important were the following:
1. The Introduction of ChiliOf course, over time Mexican and Tex-Mex dishes have been so blended that it's hard to tell sometimes if a given establishment is one or the other. Regardless, the cheese and chili markers are the best way I know of to distinguish between the two.
During the Great Depression meat quality dropped. So, to make meat edible chilies were made. This both softened tough meat and covered the flavor of poor meat with lots of spices. The proliferation of chili eventually lead to it becoming combined with Mexican dishes. One of the clearest differences between a Mexican restaurant and a Tex-Mex restaurant is seen in how they serve an enchilada. In a Mexican restaurant the enchilada comes with a red sauce on top. This is traditional. By contrast, a Tex-Mex restaurant will have chili on top of an enchilada. In short, when people say they prefer Tex-Mex what they are talking about, if they know it or not, is that they like chili on their dishes rather than red or green sauces.
2. Yellow Cheese
During the Depression the US government, to help with food shortages, would issue big blocks of American cheese. This yellow cheese was, because it was available, also incorporated into Mexican dishes. Traditional Mexican dishes use a white cheese. In short, another clear sign you are in a Tex-Mex restaurant is that all the cheese and queso are yellow rather than white.
For some reason I was thinking about all this on the way to work today. (I'm a very strange person.) I was thinking about how the Depression affected family meals. The creation of Tex-Mex was driven by people mixing the food they had on hand. In that case, chili and yellow cheese. This made me think about other Depression-Era recipes in my family.
The best Depression-Era recipe in my family is The Beck Chocolate Cake. Of course, that's its name in our family. The cake is more commonly known as Poor Man's Cake. It's called Poor Man's Cake because the cake requires no dairy products. No eggs. No butter. No milk. Ingredients in short supply during the Depression. Surprisingly, the cake gets its body and lift from the chemical reaction between baking soda and vinegar. That's right. No eggs or milk but vinegar! You'd think such a cake would be horrible. But it's wonderful. When made right it is one of the moistest cakes you'll ever eat.
Here are two other Depression-Era recipes from my youth:
1. Cream & Peas Over ToastNone of this has anything to do with psychology or theology. I was just musing today about making due, living simply and being creative with what you have.
Ever had this? I love it. It's just toast covered with a simple cream gravy with peas in it. I still love this dish. When I was a first year Assistant Professor Jana and I were broke. So we had this dish quite a bit. It was very cheap and I loved it.
2. Fried Bologna
This is more a childhood memory. Anyone ever have fried bologna as a kid? When meat was scarce or too expensive my mom would fry bologna for us. It is an attempt to make the bologna into a thin sort of steak or pork chop. It's not really the same of course, but I do remember liking it as a kid. I can still hear the bologna sizzling.
Maybe, on second thought, there's some theology in here after all.
Please feel free to share any other Depression-Era or Hard Times recipes from your life or family.