For many people in Canada and the United States the idea of ‘Mexican food’, usually something involving ground beef and refried beans piled high with cheddar cheese, resembles what we would call ‘Tex-Mex’ more than traditional Mexican cuisine. The term TexMex originally referred to the Texas Mexico Railway (around 1900), and it wasn’t until the 1960’s that the term was applied to cuisine. However, the origins of the Tex-Mex style go back over 100 before then.
Texas and Mexico were originally a part of the Spanish settlement in the new world, from the 1500s all the way until the 1800s when Texas became independent and eventually joined the United states. During that time the cuisines, cultures and peoples were all linked in a combination of European and Mexican cultures. It was during the 1870’s that the first dish we would come to refer to as Tex-Mex made its appearance in southern Texas – chili con carne. Served from small small shops and roadside stands, a group of Hispanic women known as the Chili Queens popularized this dish. Travellers spread word of this delicious chili, and it even made an appearance at the World’s Fair in Chicago in 1893.
Another staple of Tex-Mex cuisine appeared around 1910, with the introduction of the Combo Plate. We are very familiar with this now, but at the time adding beans and rice to a meal was revolutionary. Restaurants around Texas adopted the idea quickly, and started adding sour cream and cheese as well. The introduction of refrigeration and mass-transit (the railroad) around the same time helped speed this process up.
The regions of southern Texas, San Antonio, El Paso and the Rio Grande, continued to pioneer this new style of food. The tale goes that a man named Nacho invented the now-famous tortilla chips topped with melted cheese dish in the 1940s. The ranching culture of the area introduced beef to the mix as a popular ingredient. Dairy came from other parts of the United States and was added liberally to meals.
The term ‘Tex-Mex’ started popping up in the 1960s, and in 1973 the very popular cookbook “The Cuisines of Mexico” was published by author Diana Kennedy – this book very clearly outlined the ideas behind Tex-mex cuisine, and the term became commonly used. As the popularity of this type of food spread around the world in the 1980s and 1990s, the general understanding of Mexican food evolved to be synonymous with Tex-Mex for many people. However we can easily spot the differences:
Traditional Mexican food largely uses soft corn tortillas, although flour tortillas are seen occasionally. For Tex-Mex flour tortillas and hard corn ‘taco shells’ are the star.
Cheddar or Monterey Jack cheese is often liberally applied to Tex-Mex dishes, whereas traditional dishes would contain far less cheese, and probably more likely a Cotija or other soft cheese.
Fajitas aren’t a traditional Mexican dish at all. Neither are Nachos. And Burritos are very different, including only a few simple ingredients instead of the full meal we see in most places.
Smaller meals, or a fiesta of small portions, might be found at a traditional eatery. If your plate is overflowing with side dishes, cheese, guacamole, rice and beans you are probably eating Tex-Mex.
While its important to understand the origins and differences between Tex-Mex and Mexican cuisine, we would never try to truly compare them. Both have delicious components and both are enjoyed around the world. Mexican cuisine inspired Tex-mex, and Tex-Mex helped popularize Mexican foods. as always, follow your tummy – try everything, then make or order food the way you think tastes best!
That’s all from Mr. Burrito for now. Be sure to share this post and subscribe below for updates.