Tex-Mex, Poor Man's Cake and Other Depression-Era Cuisine

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 Chili
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.
Of 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.

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 Toast
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.
None 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.

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.

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11 thoughts on “Tex-Mex, Poor Man's Cake and Other Depression-Era Cuisine”

  1. I have a similar recipe in some of my vegan cookbooks for the chocolate cake you described. It's comical to see that a more ethical/"healthy" (it's still cake afterall) version of a classic cake is deemed the " Poor Man's Cake".
    I'd love to see a post or hear your thoughts on the ethics of eating from your point of view. I personally have a tough time understanding how Christian conceptions of justice and morality can coexist with the horror that is the meat/dairy industry. Its implications are far reaching (ex. Hungry people are constantly kept at armslength from resources that could be readily available if we abandoned the extremely wasteful practices of the modern meat/dairy industry), and the fact that so many Christians and secular "ethical" people ignore this is frightening.
    I'd love to hear your thoughts Dr. Beck.


  2. I have had both of those dishes: cream & peas over toast and fried bologna. C&P over toast I loved. The fried bologna, not so much! Thanks for making me think of them though - I haven't thought of them in years and years.

  3. I figured you were going to get spiritual when you said: "I think this is how 99% of the world operates: Just saying stuff without really knowing what you are talking about." I can certainly see where you might have gone with that...
    On the other hand, I remember fried bologna (why is it spelled that way?). My favorite idea of gravy on bread or toast would be a nice roast beef gravy. MMmmmMMMM! And no peas, thanks.

  4. Hi Jordan,
    I don't have much to say except that this is a huge blind spot, weakness and source of guilt in my life.

    I have tried to go vegetarian but struggle with the effects on my family. My kids hate vegetables and one basically only eats hamburgers. My wife isn't interested in this and she cooks for the family. So... What is the family meal going to be like? Should my wife prepare three meals every day? One for her, one for the boys and one for me? In short, it's hard to have only one vegetarian without placing burdens on the family. I tried it for a week, to see how it would work, but it didn't go well. No excuses. Every year I revisit the decision and think of ways to make it work in my family context. I think about this all the time.

  5. I understand. You could look into buying organic, "free range" meats. It certainly helps, as it at least helps the overall goal of sustainability (though it's still not THAT sustainable).
    I'm the only vegan in my family, but fortunately for me, they're very supportive. I went vegetarian when I was 14 and I had to learn to cook for myself pretty quickly. Over the years (I'm 20 now) I've become quite efficient at preparing quick, healthy and ethical meals. But, I could easily see where the problem of cooking for yourself could arise in a family situation such as yours. The one thing I would suggest (if you decided to go veg) is to cook every now and then and slowly warm your family up to the idea. There are an innummerable amount of delicious veg recipes on the web, and a lot of them will convince even the most devout carnivore.

    Thanks for responding Dr.Beck. It's good to see that you have given the problem some thought.

  6. "Stir fry", in vogue today.

    I ate it (don't know how many times) and got sick of it. My mother explained that growing up poor (in Hawaii during WWII), it simply was a way to spread out a small single slice of meat to feed the family. Furthermore, pork was essentially the only meat easily available.
    BTW, she also fried bologna and also chopped bologna and used left-over rice to make fried rice - that I enjoyed.

    Gary Y.

  7. I'm not a kid of the Depression, but my folks were and some of the hold overs they fed me that I can remember was chipped beef and cream on toast. I found the meat weird, being that it came from a glass jar and was so salty it was nearly inedible. Also they would make a lot of meals with offal: liver, kidneys, tripe. I couldn't stomach any of that and still can't to this day. But I have fierce memories of feeling like I'd eaten a salt block with the chipped beef.

    That said, I love nothing more than to get a cooked chicken from the grocery store, shred it up, add gravy, peas and corn and pour that onto buttered toast. Yum!

  8. Both my parents were depression-era babies. Beans and cornbread were a normal supper meal, and with the leftover cornbread, they poured milk over it and ate it like cereal for breakfast.

  9. *chuckle*

    Don't get too fired up about that so-called "organic" and "free-range" meat. Research in that area is showing that the life-cycle costs PER UNIT MEAT PRODUCED tend to be greater with those niche items than the conventionally produced stuff. Because we eat beef by the ounce and not by the unit of carbon emissions (for example), that implies that you're affecting the environment less over the meat's full production cycle if you eat conventional beef instead.


  10. I'm way late, but I would also add that Tex-Mex restaurants also serve a specific kind of pureed pico de gallo as a salsa. Lime and cilantro are also a frequent ingredient. Lastly, if 'fajitas' are on the menu, you're probably not at an authentic Mexican restaurant.

    Thanks for the post!

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