I traffic in recipes, in ways to make food. But sometimes I take a recipe and step back a few paces, and think about the ingredients and where they came from, how they got to my kitchen, such as when cumin came to the west with the Spaniards in a time of conquest and imperialism. Or, sometimes I will write about how a recipe was made by my mother and her mother before her, and that my grandmother learned it from her aunt, or something of that nature. When I do that, instead of merely reciting a list of instructions teaching a way to make a food, I am talking, on a personal level, about foodways. And I could talk about and dissect my family foodways, my history and place, as studied through the lens of food, all day. This you know.
But, this past weekend, I was privileged again to join my friends of Foodways Texas for our 5th Annual Symposium in San Antonio, Texas to discuss foodways on a much larger scale. Our theme was The Texas Mexican Table with talks that ranged from ancient native American root eating and cooking practices to the history of chili, and we stopped at many points between, and we ate and ate and ate, as if to drive home the talking points with flavors that would never let us forget. It is easy sometimes to forget facts but it is hard to forget a wonderful flavor. And wonderful flavors can often help us learn about less-than-savory facts in a much more pleasant way. Perhaps that is part of the Greek tradition of inviolable host and guest relationships. When you have fed someone and given them shelter, such as San Antonio did for us this past weekend, then San Antonio could tell her story and the story of her earliest children with her guests showing rapt attention and due respect. San Antonio was the perfect setting for this symposium.
As it does every year, the symposium began on Thursday as we all gathered at the Menger Hotel and familiar faces started popping up. I have called it a family reunion before and truly, as each year passes, it becomes more so. I miss these people, and it is always wonderful to see them again, and to meet the newest members of the family, as well. We took a short journey out to the Mission San Juan de Capistrano which is simply stunning. The old mission is still a functioning church, but it dates back to 1731 at the San Antonio location, and is now a National Historical Park. It is a breathtaking and heartbreaking old structure. We ambled about as the sun set and learned about the incredibly simple but ingenious methods used to irrigate crops at the mission from its beginning. The rangers described the methods as well as the history of the Spanish Crown, the Church and the friars who built, or rather, caused the mission to be built, and how, for good and bad, it irrevocably changed the face of the area, of what Texas would be, of who its citizens would be, and what would happen to those who were already here when the Spanish “discovered” the area.
Our dinner feast was prepared by Rico Torres of Mixtli in San Antonio. Venison in mole, carne in a spicy red sauce, and a salad made with nopales are only a few of the offerings that were carefully designed to honor the foods that had been utilized in the area for hundreds of years.
Mi Tierra supplied breakfast on Friday morning. Yes, Mi Tierra. I know.
We held all of our substantive talks at the Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center and we were greeted and welcomed by the executive director, Jerry Ruiz. It is anchored by the main theater structure which was lovingly preserved and kept and is now the home to all manner of cultural offerings. One entire outside wall of the structure is a massive mosaic prayer candle with the Virgin of Guadalupe gracing the front. It was amazing. The neighborhood was covered in murals that were so colorful and rich. Kudos to the people who have worked to keep this community asset available to the city.
We started our talks with a subject close to my heart. I’ve spent the last few weeks chasing wildflowers in Clay County, documenting their arrival and celebrating their beauty. Alston Thoms of Texas A&M showed us native plants whose roots formed the basis of the diets of the indigenous peoples of Texas. He also showed us the earth oven techniques used by people since the beginning of cookery in the area. Pits were dug and lined with fire wood. Stones were layered on top. The fire would burn and heat the rocks to incredibly hot temperatures. The rocks would fall to the bottom of the pit and then act as an oven. Food was rolled up in mats or baskets, covered with green materials and then covered up with earth. The ovens could stay hot for up to 72 hours and slowly transform pounds and pounds of roots and other foods into sweet, softened, delicacies. Maybe delicacy is a strong word, but Thoms described how the green materials provided moisture and the long cooking transformed Inulin, long chain carbohydrates, into sugars and caused the vegetables and roots to sweeten. He described many of the flowers I had been photographing days before, like the royally hued burgundy Winecup which I thought to be only lovely, but in fact has edible roots, and was part of this pre-historic diet. Thoms described the travels of Cabeza de Vaca and how he spoke of the people he encountered and named them according to what they ate….”the fig people” or the “fish and blackberry people.” Of course the figs mentioned were cactus tunas and the blackberries were dewberries, but still, I have never so appreciated Cabeza de Vaca’s story. Through the lens of food, it is history I will not soon forget.
Thoms knows these things because he has replicated the cooking at A&M and studied the efficacy of the cooking techniques. He knows of the ovens because he has worked at the Richard Beene archeological dig where these cooking sites have been discovered. Funny that I had only days before been walking with my friend Lori through a 10,000 year old burial site that she shared with me and we had discussed the burial practices of these ancient peoples, only to come to San Antonio and continue the conversation in terms of their cooking practices. It was fascinating and deserves more of your time. But, I’ll move on since this is already becoming one of my War & Peace posts.
Rachel Laudan of Austin spoke to us about semitas, which are a dessert-ish flat-bread-ish cookie-ish food which was historically made with rough brown flour. She described the origin of bread and how the availability of milling affected the sorts of breads that people ate. In the new world, if you lived on the frontier or you were poor, you would not have access to the whitest fluffiest wheat flours. The world of corn and wheat would collide and metates (a mealing stone or mortar) and comals (a griddle of sorts) were used in the art of bread baking, yielding a flat bread made with bran and coarse flour, flavored with anise and sometimes containing raisins and nuts. There are modern sorts of semitas, made in more or less traditional forms, and some things called semitas that are made and marketed like mass-produced cookies. But the lovely image Laudan described was of women selling semitas in markets or on the streets, a “shadowy presence.” Semitas are associated with an informal sort of business. The availability of cheap white bread came with the large mills such as Pioneer and changed the nature of semitas which are often now made with white flour and made brown by the use of syrups and such. But the name semitas, and its related names will now remind me of this early food and the people who made it and sold it. It is a great early foodways topic.
Adán Medrano is a fascinating gentleman. He introduced us to something I had not yet thought of, a peer-reviewed historical cookbook. He wrote Truly Texas Mexican, and described to us what Texas looked like in biological terms instead of merely geopolitical terms. He traces his family history to the indigenous peoples of the area, not to the Spanish or Mexican, and seeks to inform and celebrate their foodways. “The food of the area is truly in my blood. Our heritage goes back 10,000 years,” he said. He spoke to us of the names we remember from school, the Tonkawas, Karankawas and the many Coahuiltecan speaking tribes. He spoke of the huge losses suffered by the natives due to exposure to diseases brought by the explorers and the fact of intermarriages with Mexican people of Texas and the idea of “ethnogenesis.” He told us, “Food is central to our identity.” He continued, “When I cook in the kitchen, I know I am recalling thousands of years of culinary techniques.” Medrano started the conversation of the difference between Texas Mexican food and TexMex, and Mexican food which is many things and represents so many states and regions. Mexican food is not one food type, and it is likely not what you think it is. And in learning the differences in regional foods we surely celebrate all sorts of people and traditions who deserve not to be treated as a monolithic culture. It is all so much more nuanced and interesting than that. Adan and his colleague Kevin Babbitt of La Cantera then treated us to a cooking demonstration. This was such a rich talk. I cannot do it justice, but one of the lovelier things Medrano said when talking about the traditional grinding tool, the molcajete, which is never to be thrown away in a family, incidentally, was that “to me, the molcajete is a metaphor for Texas Mexican cuisine…when we meet another culture we can create harmony.” This was something we would discuss all weekend, the blending of cultures and traditions and how ancient ingredients were combined with imported ingredients such as cumin to form whole new cuisines and traditions.
Sylvia Casares, the dynamic and intriguing owner of Sylvia’s Enchilada Kitchen in Houston, treated the whole crowd to a beautiful enchilada dinner, cheese and beef, beans, tortillas, and one of my favorite red sauces of the weekend. We drank agua de jamaica (a hibiscus agua fresca) and ate family style, and it was a wonderful feast.
We continued with Gustavo Arellano, the unapologetic, funny, syndicated columnist of “Ask a Mexican” and OC Weekly food editor and author of Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America. He regaled us with “The Past, Present, and Eternal Glories of Border Cuisine.” He thankfully defined for me two California border specialties I had yet to encounter, The Sonoran Dog (a bacon wrapped hot dog with lots of stuff on top) and the California Burrito which is generally burrito-like but is then stuffed with french fries. As someone with an old habit of stuffing fries onto my hamburger, I think the California Burrito might be something I’d like to see. Hope for Texas to regain top influence in the world of border foods? Guisados and Breakfast Tacos are our current strong suit up and comers, Arellano speculated.
We next entered the world of the Quinceañera. Rachel González-Martin of UT at Austin showed us a bit of her research on this traditional coming of age celebration and how the tradition has changed over time. Now, interestingly, the celebrations are less and less about traditional foods and customs and more about “purchased foods” which have a patina of affluence. “Chicken breasts and rice pilaf instead of cabeza,” for instance. We talked about the cakes and dresses and the traditions of Madrinas and Padrinos.
Finally, we heard a wonderful talk by Ellen Riojas-Clark about Tamaladas, or the get-together at which tamales are made. Riojas-Clark, who teaches tamale making at the Guadalupe Center, told us that through a tamalada, we learn history, culture, traditions, recipes, story telling, family collaboration and chisme. Chisme is gossip. You have to have gossip for a proper tamalada. And, lipstick.
She was sharing wisdom, an incredible and fun speaker. She taught us that to test your masa, you have to see if a rolled up ball of it will float in water. She has even been known to use a well rinsed top loading washing machine for soaking the ojas (dried corn husks). Do not agitate, she said. Spin, yes. Agitate, no.
She described a social gathering of the highest order and told of her tia who would ensure that you had your very best apron, best earrings, your bracelets (no rings, of course) and lipstick. Then music and “a little bit of libations.”
Riojas-Clark reiterated that a molcajete (the stone mortar) was never to be let go of, and that it was to be passed along in a family. Grinding and tapping she said, “There is nothing more beautiful than this sound. I’m not a musician but that sounds like music to me.” She then led the whole group in a tamalada, teaching us how to spread the masa and fold the tamales.
Friday evening, Foodways Texas presented a Lifetime Achievement Award to Irma Leal, the lovely matriarch of the Leal family and originator of Leal’s Mexican Restaurants and products. What she and her late husband, Jesse, began as a tortilla factory, went onto become a family of beloved restaurants. Robb Walsh gave a moving introduction about the family. We watched the sons of this beautiful family dance with their mother in turn. Truly a lovely group of people. My friends and I enjoyed a conversation with one of Irma Leal’s sons, Victor, during which he described how beautifully his parents used to dance together, and how they loved each other. Seeing Irma’s family in attendance to celebrate her was one of the highlights of the weekend.
Speaking of dancing, Eva Ybarra must be noted. She is a force. Small in stature until she begins belting out her songs, you immediately see that her roots go far below the ground into the very soil and she stands head and shoulders above us all. She played an accordion that was decorated with countless jewels and cried out and sang in a manner filled with incredible emotion. And while her accordion was amazing it was her voice that was her true instrument.
Two pig heads, 4 pig feet, 2 tails, hominy, chiles and a few other special treats. This is the general recipe for Mark and Kelley Escobedo’s menudo, which they served for breakfast Saturday morning along with breakfast tacos from El Milagrito. The real treat for me, though, was seeing the gigantic cauldron and steel wood fired cooker they used for the massive batch. I can admit that menudo is not something I have had much of. I’m not squeamish, per se, but when I’m trying something new it is nice to have it prepared by people with such exacting standards. Mark and Kelley are not just carrying on a traditional way of making this meal, but they are also raising their own pigs. They own South Texas Heritage Pork and they raise a cross between the English Large Black and the Tamworth. Mark referred to them as “Iron Age pigs,” which I found interesting. The English Black was apparently a pig that excelled in the area of lard production, and you know how I feel about that.
One of the most interesting panels was a group discussion by members of the most notable families in TexMex. Gloria Reyna represented Matt’s El Rancho, John Cuellar represented El Corazon of Dallas, but is also a member of the family responsible for the El Chico chain of restaurants. And, Roland Laurenzo spoke about El Tiempo Cantina, and his family which created the famed Ninfa’s as well as El Jardin.
When Cuellar asked later for a photo I had taken of the panel he said he needed it because it was an image of the “Mount Rushmore”of TexMex. What a great line! All the panelists told us about how their families got into the business, how their siblings, aunts, uncles, grandmothers and cousins played a part, and how they are serving generations of Texans. One noted that they had a customer who first dined with them in a high chair and was now coming in a wheel chair. We all have “our” Mexican food. People remarked of being a Ninfa’s family or a Mi Tierra family. I get that. We are a Mia’s family. We often remark to our 12 year old daughter how her first visits to Mia’s were spent in a car seat ON the table. I look forward to parking my kids and myself at a table at El Corazon in Dallas very soon, too.
Gloria told of how her dad said to her mom, “Just cook like you do at home for the kids,” and thus an Austin institution was birthed, that has served the likes of Stevie Ray Vaughn and just about every Texas political star you could name. She explained the genesis of the famous Bob Armstrong Dip as something that was whipped up on a whim and turned into a staple of the menu.
Robb Walsh is our resident historian. I don’t think that is his official title, but the man knows more about Texas foods than just about anyone I’ve ever met. He talked about the Chili Family Tree. “Chili is the mother sauce of TexMex,” he began, and then led us through the very first notations of this famed dish in the Americas, explaining the influence of migrants from the Canary Islands whose flavor profile was cumin, lots of garlic and chiles. He noted that the North African influence on chili was apparent from the very beginning.
He explained how the Texas Longhorn cattle were mostly valued early on for their hides and tallow and that chili came as a solution to making the very tough meat palatable and useful. We touched on the use of chile powders (and chili powder), chili served on pasta, and the always contentious issue of beans in chili, which resulted from meat rationing during the war and efforts to stretch the meal by adding vegetables.
We had the long awaited “Taco Panel” next. Don’t you wish you had been me this weekend? How do I deserve to have a “Taco Panel” happen in my life? Armando Rayo, Mario Montaño, Vianney Rodriguez and José Ralat (Dallas’ own taco laureate), explained their craft of writing about, and telling stories of, tacos in their own mediums. It was great fun, ranging from very traditional notions of tacos to their admitted experiences with “survival tacos” (whatever can be found to wrap in a tortilla) and one of Ralat’s kiddo’s faves, a crispy taco that has tater tots in it. The conversation ranged from wonder at how little people know of tacos outside of the standard crispy beef taco to their own feelings about being a cultural ambassador who explains tacos to the unknowing. Vianney spoke of “pivotal tacos” that changed her life, and spoke of growing up in a family where tacos were the staple, “I didn’t get baloney and cheese.” She explained “Comida is the foundation” of everything. Ralat went on to say, there are very few “inauthentic tacos” and that “tacos are about a time and a place.” He explained how even the fusion tacos we see on menus tell a story about how cultures combine foods to come up with a whole new sort of regional food. José Ralat writes for Cowboys & Indians Magazine and is just one of my favorite people in the food world. You can also find his work on The Taco Trail. He will get you where you need to go for great tacos.
Chris Dunn and Robert Cappy Lawton gave us a fun talk on enchiladas ranging from Aztec times to the TexMex incarnations of enchiladas. They have done a book together on enchiladas, and Mr. Lawton owns Cappy’s in Alamo Heights. If you recognize Chris’ name it is because he is kind of a bad-ass. I wish I had a better term for that, but he has written some of my favorite country songs and worked with many of my favorite artists…and then dove headlong into the world of food. So let’s stick with bad-ass, shall we? Next, we wandered over to the Pearl Brewery grounds for a superb lunch by Iliana de la Vega of El Naranjo of shrimp cooked in a wonderful green sauce with pepitas, and rice and beans. After, we walked around the expansive grounds seeking coffee to perk us back up for more learning. I was humored to find a demonstration of partner yoga going on in a green space. I imagined the hilarity that would ensue if after these days of gluttony I attempted to perch my rear atop the feet of one of these strong men. Not-gonna-happen.
Did I mention that you can do a whole dissertation on taco trucks? You can. Robert Lemon talked to us about “Taco Trucks as Transformative Spaces.” He spoke of the version of taco trucks that follow migrant workers and cater to very distinctive regional fare from various areas in Mexico, creating a “community social node.” He said, “They become experiential portals” to give the migrants a sense of identity and memory. It was a very wonderful way of illustrating how Anglos often look at Mexican food as a monolithic thing, but that it is so much more nuanced than that, encompassing a huge variety of spaces and traditions, with differing preparations and ingredients distinctive to particular areas.
Deborah Vargas, of the University of California in Riverside talked about Tejano music and how it fits into the culinary landscape. She gave us a much deeper understanding of the work of Eva Ybarra and her predecessor Lydia Mendoza. Vargas talked of the accordion as a “sonic compass of Tejas” and explained the distinctive nature of South Texas conjuntos, the slower pace, and the distinctive counter clockwise motion of the dance that accompanies it. She showed us documentary clips and photos of Lydia Mendoza and a family tamalada, and explained that much like with the taco trucks that followed migrant workers in more recent years, musicians followed the pattern of migrant workers, as well. She described Mendoza as something of a cultural historian, too, saying–I’m paraphrasing here–“everything she touched, tasted, heard, or felt was channeled through her music.” Vargas said that “all elements of her cultural senses and sensibilities are central to her music making.”
Amy Evans is one of our best foodways documentarians. An incredible artist, she also spends time doing oral histories of our greatest food creators, many names that you have never heard, but whose work and traditions have influenced the Texas foods we eat daily. She sat with Sylvia Casares and they spoke of Sylvia’s path to becoming a noted restaurateur and they also spoke of traditions and how even a less than historically deep dish such as the Luby’s enchilada plate holds a soft spot in the hearts of many Texans. Amy introduced us to the work of Lisa Wong of Rosario’s in San Antonio and how her heritage as a granddaughter of a Chinese immigrant plays into her culinary work and also tells a story about the earliest migration patterns in San Antonio and South Texas, and how the Chinese workers who built the railroads played a big part in the history of Texas food traditions. Evans also spoke of Yolanda Showalter of Jacala Restaurant.
Sylvia was kind enough to share a recently found photograph of her own grandmother dressed all in black, in mourning, wearing an apron and making tamales, reinforcing what we heard so often, that a tamalada was an integral part of the gathering of families, not only to make food, but to connect, collaborate, and share a rich food history.
Great news! Our last panel, led by Will Burdette and Melanie Haupt was a quick preview of the new Foodways Texas podcast, which will be called The Range. Over the next year, leading up to the next Symposium (which you need to attend…if you haven’t figured that out already) they will publish podcasts of interviews and talks that will play into the topics that will be touched on at the Symposium. You will get to hear the voices and ponder the ideas shared by some of the people who shape our food-view, if you will. Sign up. I think this is going to be a fun way to connect to the work of Foodways Texas all year long.
The last night of any Foodways Texas Symposium is always bittersweet. In a sense, it is the first slow paced moment to connect with everyone, but it is also the time that we use to say goodbye for what might be another whole year, before the family gets together again. And, I do mean family. In a sense, Foodways Texas is a tamalada. It is a family table where we break bread (or tortillas) and share plates of food and ideas and traditions. We, no matter our background or heritage, meet and celebrate what we have in common, as well as these wonderful bits of history and influences, that we did not already understand. I feel richer both in knowledge and friendship at the closing of the weekend.
Luis Olvera of Trompo in Dallas put on a wonderful display of his work for our final dinner. The hot fired trompo spun and Luis patiently cooked onions to just that perfect and sweet golden hue. We ate enchiladas from La Fonda on Main and paletas from SA pops in San Antonio. Esquire Tavern served Mezcal to the brave. St. Arnold Brewing Company provided an endless stream of beer for the parched. It was a sweet ending to a lovely weekend.
Our next family reunion will be in Austin in the spring. After five years, I haven’t missed one and I’m looking forward to the next one, as well as all the fun Foodways events in between. Perhaps I’ll see you at BBQ Summer Camp in College Station this June. Perhaps I’ll run into you at our favorite BBQ joint, taco truck or oyster bar somewhere in Texas. Perhaps we will meet only on Twitter and share our favorite Texas foodways. I hope so.
I’m honored to tell you that I am now on the Advisory Board for Foodways Texas, so one thing is for sure. Wherever I run into you, I will encourage you to join Foodways Texas, not only because it is fun, but because I want you to help me support this growing organization that is documenting the food cultures of Texas, and celebrating each and every one of us, whatever stripe, color, background, history or tradition we each bring to the table. I have learned more about Texas history, really world history, through the lens of food than I ever did in school. Everyone is welcome at this table.
Thank you to our many sponsors and volunteers who make these symposia possible. And thank you to our fearless leader, Marvin Bendele, who somehow pulled off one of our best symposiums ever, mere days after defending his doctoral dissertation at The University of Texas. Congratulations, Marvin!