Texas was first inhabited by native Indian tribes. The Spanish were the first Europeans to arrive, claiming Texas for their mother country in the sixteenth century. The French briefly laid claim to Texas in the 17th century but their expedition's leader, Lasalle, was murdered by his men and the territory reverted to the Spanish, who established numerous missions throughout the territory. Texas remained a province of Mexico even after that country achieved independence from Spain, and in the early 19th century pioneers flowed in both from the Spanish-speaking south and the English-speaking north. Eventually, however, relations became strained between the Texans and the government in Mexico City, and after years of skirmishes Texas declared itself a republic in 1836, and in 1845 became the 28th state of the USA.
With its long ties to its southern neighbor, it is no surprise that the food of Texas shows strong Mexican influences - so much so that a whole new cuisine grew up here called TexMex, combining traditional Mexican cuisine with some uniquely American twists. Familiar Mexican dishes can be found everywhere: beans and rice, tamales, empanadas… but a traditional Mexican cook might do a double-take at "brunch burritos" - tortillas wrapped around scrambled eggs, chilies, cheese and salsa - or dishes like enchilada casserole and TexMex quiche!
Poultry, sorghum, corn and wheat are important agricultural products in the state, but this is, above all, ranching country and Texas - with over 140,000 cattle producers! - is undoubtedly best known for its beef. In fact, the two most typically Texan dishes are centered around beef: barbecue and chili.
When they say "barbecue" in Texas, they're talking about the food, not the thing it's cooked on. (The heat source is known as "the pit.") To make authentic Texas barbecue, naturally you have to start with beef (not pork, as is common in other southern states), preferably a big piece of brisket. The meat is marinated with spices for hours, or even days, before being cooked very slowly over the low heat of hardwood coals which imbue it with a mellow smokiness. The process takes hours, during which it is basted or "mopped" until succulently tender and flavorful. Then more sauce is added and the meat is sliced and served to a hungry crowd, accompanied perhaps by corn on the cob, potato salad and a cold beer or frosty glass of iced tea.
Another uniquely Texan menu item is chicken-fried steak. Sound confusing? It's really just what it sounds like: steak prepared like fried chicken. It is first seasoned and tenderized, breaded by dipping into flour, egg and sometimes bread crumbs, and then fried in a cast-iron skillet. It's served with "cream gravy" made from the pan drippings, browned flour and milk. And incidentally, for a Texan to say that something is "fine as cream gravy" is high praise indeed!
But if we had to pick just one dish that symbolizes Texas, it would probably be chili. Be careful, however, what you call "chili" in Texas. Purists insist that it should contain no beans, and the beef must be cut into cubes, not ground. It is then browned and braised in a mixture of tomato sauce, meat stock and spices. There are as many chili recipes as there are cooks in Texas, with thousands of subtle variations in seasoning and technique. Every summer throughout the state you'll come across more "cook-offs" than you can shake a stick at, attended by fanatical chili chefs vying to have their recipe judged best in the county.
If you don't want beef (use caution when admitting that!) Texas offers lots of other tasty options. Over 3 million pounds of oysters are harvested here each year, and there are shrimp and red snapper from the Gulf of Mexico. Naturally this warm-weather state also provides a mouth-watering variety of fresh fruits and vegetables. But whatever you dine on, save room for pie. The official state tree of Texas is the pecan, and no matter where you travel in the state a delicious pie made with these nuts will never be far away. Another staple is peach pie. Parker County is the official peach capital of Texas and a summer celebration there features entertainment, arts and crafts, and of course all kinds of luscious peach desserts, including pies, cobblers, and peach ice cream. One bite and you'll be, as they say down here, happy as a gopher in soft dirt…
Photo by J. Griffis Smith/TxDOT, food styling by Fran Decoux Gerling, props courtesy El Interior of Austin. Courtesy of the Texas Department of Transportation, Travel Division
And thanks to the Texas Beef Council for their kind assistance.
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