On Sunday, the University of Texas at Austin’s student-run newspaper, The Daily Texan, published a column titled “Tex-Mex might be a pillar in Texas culture, but that doesn't mean it’s good food.” Written by freshman Audrey Larcher of Austin, the opinion piece urges readers to part with the idea that Tex-Mex food is even worth eating. I’m not going to speculate on the motives of an author of whose residence, ancestry or eating preferences I have no knowledge. But the article misses the mark of critique with insensitive language and a misinformed idea of what Tex-Mex constitutes.
Larcher begins by presenting Austin restaurant Matt’s El Rancho as Exhibit A in the case against Tex-Mex. As a true backhanded compliment, Larcher describes Matt’s El Rancho as “classic, hearty food” yet “outrageous” that “people have consumed Tex-Mex and honestly believed it tasted good.” The restaurant recently celebrated 65 years in business, a significant achievement in an industry frequently opening and closing new eateries.
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Perhaps the greater point was to criticize the growing love for melted cheese. While I do enjoy a good cheese dip for tortilla chips, I don't quite get America's obsession with queso, either. Like getting coffee, drinks and frozen yogurt, enjoying queso has become a social activity. Tex-Mex, though, is certainly more than this appetizer.
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Larcher goes on to describe the staples of rice, beans and tortillas as “bland,” “lackluster” and “flavorless,” more suited to a “West Campus apartment meal.” These staples are considered plain and cheap, ignoring the connection the dishes have with working-class Tejano families.
Observing the creativity and labor that goes into the dishes would have been insightful. Anyone who has made tortillas by hand can vouch for the time-intensive process. Rice can be flavored by lime, cilantro, and notably, cumin. Beans are served in various styles such as refried, charro and borracho and flavored with fresh ingredients. Also, what Larcher sees as inferior meat selection is seen by others as a resourceful use of as many parts of an animal as possible.
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I invite the author to ponder this: Would this critique be appropriate if another cuisine with immigrant roots dominated Texas? Would it be as easy to broadly label Italian, Cajun or Japanese food as simply "distinguishably disgusting?" Personal preferences can diminish something that, critically speaking, is an enjoyable or acclaimed product. I, for one, don't drink much wine and generally avoid it. But in turn, does all wine deserve the "disgusting" label? Are those who toil to create it wasting their time for no reason? This word choice is unfair at best and heartless at worst.
In another part of the article, Larcher writes, “Texans should also look to other facets of our state’s cuisines, such as Czech and other Central European influences, and embrace their important role in our cookbooks.” The suggestion toes a problematic line of swapping a culture born from Latino households native to Texas for one stemming from white colonists. We can’t forget more than one-third of the state’s population identifies as Hispanic. Texas is also home to the most populous city in the U.S. with a majority of Latino residents, San Antonio.
Should all Texans explore the diverse foods to be found in the Lone Star State? Absolutely! The world is better when we can enjoy a Czech- inspired kloblasnek (incorrectly thought of as kolaches), Cajun seafood, Southern comfort food, barbecue, Tex-Mex tacos and the vast options of Asian cuisine. The numbers happen to work in Tex-Mex’s favor, but diversity is the strength of Texas.
Lastly, we need to talk about an earlier version of this Tex-Mex takedown. In the original publication, Larcher wrote, “it isn’t just not that great, it is white trash snack food wearing an inauthentic Mexican mask.” The phrase “white trash” has since been removed. Notably, the ranching of beef cattle and introduction of wheat flour play an crucial role in the creation of Tex-Mex. As Thrillist puts it, “Tex-Mex is a distillation of Northern Mexican and Texan rancher cuisines into one bready, cheesy bundle.” A blanket statement calling Tex-Mex "white trash" uses language created to intimidate and discriminate. It also erases the identity of the people behind the cuisine's origin: Mexican-Americans in Texas.
I get it. Tex-Mex isn’t perfect. Finding vegetarian or vegan options can be challenging. Sometimes Tex-Mex is not kind to the waistline. But there is a significant population that creates, consumes and makes a living from it. The opinion piece published by the Daily Texan sacrifices careful, considerate criticism and opts for a culturally insensitive hot take. Texas’ motto is friendship. As Larcher wrote herself, “we deserve better.”