“The Paula Deen of Tex-Mex Cuisine” Award
I coined the phrase, “Paula Deen of Tex-Mex” in order to prompt debate and discussion about high fat, bad taste and diabetes. I will not be naming any Tex-Mex award recipients but rather asking you the question: what would be the criteria for such an award?
Our Texas Mexican cuisine suffers today from kitchen staff who don’t know about cooking and chefs who don’t know about history.
The result is restaurant fare, Tex-Mex, that is culturally unaware and dangerously unhealthy. But that’s not the full picture because, happily, the future looks good when grounded in tradition.
I will describe one restaurant, among very many, that is cooking Texas Mexican food that is traditional, delicious and healthy. Then I will list the criteria that one might use to personally evaluate candidates for “The Paula Deen of Tex-Mex Cuisine” award.
Why it matters
Eating should not kill us, it should strengthen and revive. Yet cooks who pour on high fat, processed cheeses and creams are contributing directly to our becoming sick with diabetes. “A person with diabetes has a shorter life expectancy and about twice the risk of dying on any given day as a person of similar age without diabetes.” (CDC, 2011)
When we eat non-traditional Texas Mexican food (high fat and few nutrients) we are making ourselves sick. “If current trends continue, 1 of 3 people born in the United States in 2000 will develop diabetes during their lifetime. (CDC, 2011) The risk is higher for African Americans and Hispanics (2 of 5) and for Hispanic girls and women (1 of 2).
We also obscure our true identity. Our roots are with the Texas Indians who were decimated by wars, disease and ethnic cleansing policies. They endured and became the Mexican people of this region. Initially Texas Indians used little fat. It was only after the encounter with Europeans in the 1500’s that the cuisine incorporated pigs and lard, products that the newly arrived settlers brought with them. This was not a problem because the use of fat is healthy and delicious when used judiciously and balanced with exercise.
The less we know about our Texas history, the poorer is our cuisine. The stereotypic myth of “the greaser” is still embedded in our thinking and therefore partly to blame for certain cooks believing that high fat is culturally Texas Mexican. It is not.
The 1914 film, “Broncho Billy and the Greaser,” depicts the deeply held derogatory “greaser” stereotype that I believe is at play even today. It is an erroneous look at us through our cuisine and it ignores nuance, subtlety, flavor contrasts and the importance of technique . “The Mexicans were derogatorily called ‘pepper bellies,’ ‘taco chokers,’ and ‘greasers’ during the latter part of the nineteenth century. (Rafaela G. Castro, 2001)
Alex’s Tacos in Seguín, Texas
If you believe stereotypes, you’d expect a taco joint to be “greasy.” Chef/Owner Yuli Sandoval Salgado says that her customers don’t like to see fat streaming in their plate. “The majority say, ‘no grasa’ (no grease) .” Besides, she adds, “people shouldn’t eat that much fat.” (Sandoval, personal communication, April 27, 2012)
Chef Sandoval uses very little oil to cook her beans and uses a slow-cooking technique to develop the flavor of the protein in beans. She chooses not to use any lard at all, going back to pre-1500 history to renew Texas Mexican cuisine. In this picture of her absolutely delicious chorizo breakfast, you can see that there is not an over-use of oil which would drown the hint of cinammon and clove in the chorizo. In many urban “Tex-Mex” restaurants their chorizo oozes rivulets of flavor-destroying oil.
Alex’s Tacos was founded by Alejandro Flores 30 years ago and Chef Sandoval began working there as a cook 12 years ago. When Mr. Flores passed away four years ago, she purchased the restaurant from his son and has continued the tradition of delicious Texas Mexican food cooked in traditional ways.
Thank the maker for traditions renewed. In this plate of Nopalitos, Chef Sandoval features a red Guajillo sauce. A little use of vegetable oil heightens the velvety mouth feel. Of course she uses only fresh nopales, cactus paddles, and de-thorns them there in her kitchen. Her customers will immediately reject canned nopales. “El sabor de lata!” she exclaims. The flavor of a can! (Sandoval, personal communication, April 27, 2012)
Notice also the un-greasy potatoes. The chef first cooks them by boiling them. She then dries them to develop an interior crumbly texture and finally finishes them by browning in a little oil. They are just right.
Where was Chef Julie Sandoval Salgado trained? At home and at this restaurant. This is just delicious traditional home Texas Mexican cooking. I wish there were culinary courses about the history and techniques of traditional Texas Mexican cuisine with chefs like Sandoval as teachers.
“The Paula Deen of Tex-Mex Cuisine” award
The Paula Deen of Tex-Mex Cuisine award highlights wrong-headed and dangerous cooking. I believe that it is based on ignorance, willfull or not, about ingredients and the art of cooking. Here are the criteria I would use to make such an award.
1. Making light of and even glorifying excessive use of high fat, leading to obesity which is clearly linked to diabetes.
2. Ignoring cooking techniques that develop flavor and instead favoring the add-on of ingredients like hot chiles, cumin and oregano in thoughtless, one-dimensional ways.
3. Using various chiles only for their heat, level of capsaicin, and ignoring their distinctive flavors.
4. Unwilling to learn about the history of Texas Mexican cuisine and its variants.
5. Cooking as if it is only a matter of putting things together without any intellectual understanding.
What are other criteria that you would use in awarding “The Paula Deen of Tex-Mex Cuisine” award?
!Buen Provecho! To Your Health!
Castro, R.G. Chicano folklore: a guide to the folktales, traditions, rituals and religious practices of mexican-americans. 2001
CDC. Diabetes successes and opportunities for population-based prevention and control at a glance 2011. Retrieved May 2, 2012 from: http://www.cdc.gov/chronicdisease/resources/publications/aag/ddt.htm