The Alamo and the Tex-Mex Tradition

It's complicated

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By David Hammond

"I'm so glad," said Alamo Historian Bruce Winders, "that many of the young people who come to visit the Alamo have never heard of John Wayne."

Winders didn't say that because he isn't a fan of the Duke; rather, it's because the 1955 movie about the near-mythic battle of the Alamo, with John Wayne as the doomed Davy Crockett, and Jeff Chandler as the equally doomed Jim Bowie, has indelibly colored the perception of many regarding the nature of the battle and who was fighting whom for what.

Suffice it to say that the battle of the Alamo in San Antonio, Texas, was a relatively small skirmish in a larger Mexican Civil War, and that those "defending" the Alamo, like Crockett, were in a sense invaders themselves. Far from fighting for freedom, some of those "defenders" were agents of forces that looked to extend slavery into Mexico, where it was forbidden, to support the cotton industry. Other who fought and died in the battle at this old Spanish mission were Tejanos (indigenous people who spoke Spanish and lived in what is now Texas) who simply wanted to create a separate Mexican state within the larger union of Mexican states.

It's complicated.

Equally complicated is the San Antonio tradition of Tex-Mex cuisine, which has long been considered a bastardization of authentic Mexican cuisine, but which is a tradition all its own, worthy of respect.

In fact, Tex-Mex is probably the kind of Mexican food many of us eat most of the time.

In The Tex-Mex Cookbook, Robb Walsh does a thorough, scholarly job of explaining the history and traditions behind this oft-dissed culinary tradition.

Dishes like nachos, chile con carne, fajitas and several types of enchiladas seem to have been created north of the Rio Grande, but there are many ingredients – like flour tortillas and cumin – that occur both in northern Mexico and southern Texas.

Fascinating to me is that San Antonio was settled, in part, by Canary Islanders enlisted by the Spanish crown to settle in the area.  This group of people from islands off the coast of North Africa brought with them cumin, which is very popular on tables in, for instance, Morocco, where the typical tabletop condiments are salt, pepper and cumin.  Cumin is indigenous to the Mediterranean, and it was brought to the New World by the Spanish. What seems to have happened is that the popularity of this condiment in the north of North America spread south, so that now cumin is associated with "authentic" Mexican cuisine, when in fact it may have been a relative newcomer to the Mexican table – and it may have come originally to what is now San Antonio, Texas.

It's complicated.

At any rate, my trip to San Antonio increased my respect for Tex-Mex food, which is indeed different from the way Mexican food is prepared in more southerly states of Jalisco, Guerrero and Yucatan. It also increased my regard for Tex-Mex food, which is probably what most of us know as "Mexican food."

If you like Mexican food at places like La Majada Express, what you're liking many times will be a menu items derived from the Tex-Mex tradition. And the food at the very good Maya del Sol is more "fusion," which reflects the history of San Antonio which, like Texas, has lived through six more or less major cultural influences and six flags (Mexican, French, Spanish, Republic of Texas, CSA and USA), all of which have left their mark on the food of this region.

Complicated.

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