Giving Tex-Mex Its Due

AP Photo/Larry Crowe

Texas’ size and cultural diversity have blessed it with delicious geo-culinary diversity: chili in the west, barbecue in the middle and east, and Tex-Mex in the south. Yet somehow barbecue gets most of the attention.

At Eater, Meghan McCarron lavishes praise on Tex-Mex, the state’s homegrown style of Mexican food. Derided as cheese-covered food for white people, Tex-Mex gets overlooked or mocked for being more Tex than Mex. McCarron argues that the culinary establishment doesn’t treat Tex-Mex, both beloved and maligned, with the respect it deserves. Tex-Mex isn’t all frozen margaritas and fajitas, estúpido. This is a proper rural tradition, she says, and “the most important, least understood regional cuisine in America.”

Adding insult to injury, while corporate chains like Applebees serve bowls of queso and bland fajitas, the demand for low prices — and the white food media’s barbecue bias — threaten the family restaurants that serve fresh, scratch Tex-Mex. McCarron’s thoughtful, deeply researched call for canonization cannot be ignored.

What does barbecue have that Tex-Mex doesn’t? It has meat, it has fire, it has an aura of mastery — and, currently, it’s associated primarily with Anglos, and the area in and around Texas’s famously progressive, and also profoundly segregated city, Austin. The state has a robust tradition of black pitmasters; Franklin Barbecue is located in what was formerly Ben’s Long Branch Bar-B-Q, a black-owned business in a historically black neighborhood, originally created by Austin’s segregationalist 1928 city plan. Black pitmasters at restaurants like Sam’s Bar-B-Que and Hoover’s still smoke nearby. And Mexican pit-smoked barbacoa, a weekend staple in the Rio Grande Valley, existed before Texas was Texas.

But the “easy story” of central Texas barbecue, as Daniel Vaughn calls it, disseminated across the country, is about, and told by, people who are almost entirely white, and male. Each of these cooks and obsessives are individually passionate and often brilliant — and some, like Aaron Franklin, are downright leery of their own fame — but the aggregate effect is Texas barbecue being treated with almost comical importance, driven by a self-perpetuating cycle where tastemakers champion genuinely wonderful food made by people who look like them. (This isn’t an issue just in Texas barbecue, but that obsessive model kicked off our smoke-worshipping zeitgeist, and created a model for, say, the Ugly Delicious barbecue episode, which featured no black pitmasters).

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