Culinary Traditions of the Rio Grande Valley
For some complicated reason, we find ourselves attempting to describe the difference between authentic Mexican food and what is served here in the Rio Grande Valley at local establishments labeled as Mexican food.
We know the Rio Grande Valley well, and we know it is the best place to spend time during the winter months for many reasons. But on the top of the list is our food culture. But because we are not food critics, or culinary gurus, we like to read what experts write on the subject to shed light on the characteristics that mark the difference between these two gastronomic traditions.
To fully comprehend the different traditions and variations of Mexican food – recognized by UNESCO as a patrimony to humanity – we look for information to shed some light on the subject. The “Mexican” food we savor in the Valley was somewhat inspired by authentic versions, but is far from being the real thing. So what should we call the food served in the Valley? We cannot dismiss it as a “bastardized northern Mexico food with too much of everything” as some say, but define it as Robb Walsh does.
According to this interview we found online, Robb Walsh, author of The Hot Sauce Cookbook, explains why Tex-Mex is a legitimate American cuisine. He said it has been in Texas for a long time, dating all the way back to the Spanish missions, but we always called it Mexican food. He refers to Diana Kennedy’s book Cuisines of Mexico where she writes about what most of us deduce; that so-called Mexican food north of the border is not really Mexican food.
Tex-Mex is a Texas version of Mexican food and it is a commercial cuisine for the most part. It mostly exists in restaurants, but it was adapted from Tejano home cooking. The Spanish pulled out of Texas in the late 1700s and left behind Spanish-speaking mission Indians who became known as the Tejanos. They came from Native American stock and they were really not Mexicans; they had never lived in Mexico. They had been acculturated by the Spanish missionaries here in Texas.
Tex-Mex cuisine is descended from their tradition, and also from a lot of Canary Islanders who were brought to San Antonio by the Spanish to try to expand the colonization of Texas. The Canary Islanders brought with them a Berber flavor signature — Moroccan food. There was a lot of cumin, garlic and chili, and those flavors, which are really dominant in chili con carne, became the flavor signature of Tex-Mex. It is very different from Mexican food people enjoy in Mexico. Diana Kennedy is prone to say that Tex-Mex includes way too much cumin. But if you compare it to Arab food, you suddenly understand where that flavor signature comes from. The Splendid Table interview by Francis Lam.
So that explains the cumin! And the hard shells, and the ground beef, sour cream, chili sauce, and American cheese. It’s Tex-Mex! But it is also important to note that the Valley boasts a good number of authentic Mexican food restaurants that have opened since the influx of Mexican Nationals investing in the Valley began. But even those have somewhat adapted dishes to cater to the local culture. Mi Puebito and Gazpacho’s in Brownsville. Arturo’s in Weslaco and in Nuevo Progreso, Mexico, El Pastor in McAllen, and La Fogata in Mission are among the restaurants where people delight on authentic Mexican dishes.
Even better are the prices! In some of these Mexican food establishments, lunch specials range from $4 to $7 dollars! These are large portions too. Another reason to spend time with us in the Rio Grande Valley.