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It's not Tex-Mex: New documentary digs deep into Texas Mexican food, history

Addie Broyles
Austin 360
Food writer and filmmaker Adán Medrano has spent the past four years working on "Truly Texas Mexican," a new food documentary about Texas Mexican food and culture.

Nopales, venison and mesquite are as much a part of the foodways of Texas as tacos, tamales and tortillas. 

Food is where Adán Medrano's new documentary starts, but the film, "Truly Texas Mexican," which launched on Amazon Prime this week, weaves through history, archaeology, feminism and spirituality, leaving viewers with a deeper understanding of Texas-Mexico history, which typically skips over the first 10,000 years of the region. 

Food history in Texas often leaves out the voices of women and immigrants, too, says Medrano, a San Antonio native who grew up in Houston, went to graduate school in Austin and lived all over South America and Europe for a former job in philanthropy. 

Medrano has a radio, television and film degree from the University of Texas and in 1976 founded the San Antonio CineFestival, the first and now longest-running Latinx film festival in the U.S. 

He studied the various foodways of wherever he lived, and he eventually attended and graduated from the Culinary Institute of America in San Antonio. He now writes food articles and cookbooks about Texas Mexican cooking. His most recent book, “Don’t Count the Tortillas: The Art of Texas Mexican Cooking,” came out in 2019. 

In his first cookbook, “Truly Texas Mexican: A Native Culinary Heritage in Recipes,” which came out in 2014, Medrano explored the indigenous cuisine of South Texas and North Mexico, a distinct ecological and cultural region centered on the Rio Grande.

Brownsville-based artist Celeste de Luna is one of the subjects of "Truly Texas Mexican," a new food documentary that explores food, feminism, history and culture in Texas and along the U.S.-Mexico border.

It had been years since he’d made a film, but not long after the book was published, Medrano connected with director Aníbal Capoano and cinematographer Gabriel Bendahan, both of Uruguay, to tell these stories visually in the form of a TV show or a documentary. 

Medrano reached out to some of the subjects of his 2014 book to set up interviews with them at archaeological sites, open-air markets, family-run restaurants and home kitchens.

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‘Where are the women?’

From the outset, Medrano knew he was making a movie about women's history as much as he was making a movie about food. 

“I knew we had to center this story on the women who, with very little support or budget, sustained us with nourishment and memories," he says. “At every turn, we asked, ‘Where are the women?’ These are the authorities.”

Along with producer Virginia Diaz-Laughlin, Medrano says the team wrote and edited the film so that food was the launching point to share deeper thoughts about negotiating land, borders, belonging and bodies.

Food is always so much more than what people are eating. A new food documentary called "Truly Texas Mexican" explores the historical roots of Texas Mexican food and culture, including the erasure, appropriation and racism that many people with indigenous ancestry have faced. This menu from a San Antonio bakery is one such example.

As San Antonio historian Graciela Sanchez told the story of her grandmother selling food at the “puestos,” she explained that as the first restaurants in the city, they were well received, until white patrons wanted to be served by white staffers. Tex-Mex became code for Mexican food without the Mexicans, Medrano says. (Now, that term is widely used for a popular, Americanized version of Mexican cuisine found in restaurants around the country.)

The chile queens of San Antonio sold dishes such as tamales, arroz con pollo, nopalitos, capirotada and carne guisada, all of which Sanchez’s mother made when she was a child and still makes today. “We are the bridge between the past and the present,” she says, looking back at how food connects her with her ancestors. 

Medrano says it was his mission to show up to people’s homes and workplaces without a pre-written story to tell. “I am not the knower here,” he says. “I am the learner. I did not want to be the voice of authority. I just asked open-ended questions and let them talk.”

We get to see Maria’s Restaurant owner Maria Sanchez sit at a table in her establishment, which is now a destination of its own in downtown McAllen, and tell the story of starting the restaurant, washing dishes, cooking and serving the food all by herself during the early days. "If my mom can do it, I can do it, too," says daughter Maria Jilma Sanchez, now a second-generation owner.

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"Truly Texas Mexican" features Texas cooks, historians and anthropologists talking about the history, food and culture of Texas.

In another scene, Homero Vera, founder of a now-defunct newsletter about South Texas culture that earned a loyal following, prepares a meal with his wife using his grandmother’s century-old molcajete, which she used every day for decades. 

Medrano's niece, Christine Ortega, leads a backyard cooking of cabeza de pozo, the pit-buried cow's head that their ancestors would have made for generations before. 

“This strength, this knowing, this understanding has sustained our communities for generations. It shows the wisdom of native voices,” Medrano says. “But it’s not in the public sphere.” 

Reconnecting with nature

The film takes Medrano out of the kitchen and into the land. Vera and Medrano travel to La Sal del Rey, a natural salt lake north of Harlingen that drew indigenous peoples from hundreds of miles away.

With anthropologist Alston V. Thoms, Medrano visits a part of the Camino Real at the Land Heritage Institute archaeological site along the Medina River south of San Antonio. The north-south highway system served much of the southern half of North America, traveled by native peoples who walked all the way to the Midwest along a road lined with pecan trees, mesquite trees and flint rock.

“We can say that food has nationality, but before that, it had roots in a landscape, in nature,” he says. “That’s a much better way to talk about food.”

In this scene from "Truly Texas Mexican," food writer Adán Medrano and South Texas native Homero Vera walk along the shore of La Sal del Ray, a salt lake north of Harlingen.

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In the final scenes of the movie, Medrano meets with an indigenous elder named Larry Running Turtle Salazar in Corpus Christi.

“Native people in the state of Texas are the forgotten people, period," Salazar says. "All we have in Corpus is the name of streets.” 

Salazar takes Medrano to the 41NU2 burial site in Corpus Christi, a sacred place for the Karankawa people that now has newly built apartments nearby. His group raised money to create a memorial to honor the people who died there, but the site is still poorly represented in the state's education curriculum and plaques at historical sites. 

"We learned the religion, the culture, the language; we became Mexicanos in our own land in order to stay among the bones of our people," Salazar says.

"Truly Texas Mexican" is now streaming on Amazon Prime.

On the border

The U.S.-Mexico border is a looming figure throughout the film, and Medrano spends some time along the border fence with Brownsville-based artist Celeste de Luna.

She recalls going to a wedding in Mexico when she was a child, but when border security became tighter and the wall grew longer, her family lost touch with the families on "el otro lado." “We’re losing connection to food, family and language,” she says.

Historically a gathering place for both sides, the river is now a "death sentence" for the area, she says. Many people pass through, but few move freely.

"It's an isolated place," she says, geographically, politically and socially. The Sarita checkpoint to the north is part of that marginalization. As a kid, she remembers the stress and fear of interacting with border patrol agents. “We would get to the checkpoint and my mother would (tell us to behave). We had to perform our citizenship." 

Through Medrano's lens, the border becomes a place of connection with one another and, for indigenous Texans like him, a reconnection to the past.

“The border has been seen as a dividing mark of countries, and a wall makes that more stark, indeed,” he says. “But a border is a space of encounter where you bring ideas to share and face differences in a way that makes you grow. 

“If Texans were to see ‘the other’ as a source of learning and enrichment, we would be better off as a state.” 

Food writer and chef Adán Medrano shops at Houston's Airline Farmers Market in "Truly Texas Mexican."

A proposal for the future

Medrano and his crew had finished shooting by the time the coronavirus pandemic hit, and they spent the past year editing the film and securing distribution. 

“When I first started making films in my 20s, it was a way of expressing ideas I had myself, but as I began to make more, I wanted to make art so that other people can access it and put their own memories and understandings on what they are seeing on the screen,” he says. 

The film, which won best U.S. documentary feature at the New York Independent Cinema Awards, debuted March 1 on Amazon Prime. It received support from the Texas Film Commission and from several other organizations, but it was privately financed. 

Medrano is already working with educators in the U.S. and Mexico to use the film as a teaching tool for students who are learning about the history, food or people of the region.

Even though it unpacks difficult subjects of grief, loss and assimilation, "Truly Texas Mexican" is ultimately an uplifting story. 

“Tejanos came from a history of destitution and dispossession, and we came out whole enough to offer a gift of hospitality,” Medrano says. “From the margin of suffering comes wisdom and a proposal for the future.”

These ancho chile meatballs are from Adán Medrano's 2014 book, "Truly Texas Mexican," which is also now a documentary film streaming on Amazon Prime.

Chile Ancho Meatballs (Albóndigas de Chile Ancho)

These albóndigas are moist and delicious even on the second day and will keep in the fridge for 5 days.

For the adobo:

  • 4 ancho chiles
  • 1 white onion
  • 3 garlic cloves
  • 2 teaspoons fresh Mexican oregano
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 tablespoon canola oil
  • 2 cups tomatoes, diced
  • 2 cups chicken stock
  • 1/4 teaspoon sugar
  • 1/2 tablespoon white vinegar

For the meatballs:

  • 1 pound ground pork
  • 1 pound 96% fat-free ground beef
  • 1 egg, beaten
  • 2 teaspoons salt
  • 3 ounces bread slices, crust removed, broken up into 1-inch pieces (about 1 1/2 cups or 3 slices)
  • cup milk1/2

Heat the oven to 400 degrees. 

In a bowl, pour the milk, add the bread, and set aside. 

In another bowl, mix together the pork and beef. Add the beaten egg to the meat. Squeeze excess milk from the bread and mix it with the meat using your hands or a large spatula or spoon. Add 8 tablespoons of the ancho chile purée to the meat and mix thoroughly.

Form the seasoned meat into 40 balls that are about 1 1/2-inch in diameter and place them on a large cookie sheet.

— From "Truly Texas Mexican: A Native Culinary Heritage in Recipes" by Adán Medrano  (Texas Tech University Press, $29.95)

This grapefruit pie, whose recipe appears in "Don't Count the Tortillas" by Adán Medrano, is also featured in a food documentary.

Grapefruit Pie

Brownsville artist Celeste de Luna made this dessert for Adán Medrano in his new food documentary, and the recipe appears in his 2019 cookbook, "Don't Count the Tortillas." It's a South Texas pie that is perfect for people who love the tangy sweet flavor of grapefruits.  

— Addie Broyles

For the crust: 

  • 1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1 stick cold unsalted butter, cut into 1/2-inch cubes
  • 3 to 5 tablespoons ice water

For the filling:

  • 4 large grapefruits, peeled and sectioned (such as Ruby Red)
  • 1/4 cup water
  • 1 envelope unflavored powdered gelatin (1 tablespoon)
  • 1 3/4 cup red grapefruit juice, fresh squeezed from 2 grapefruits (adding water if needed to make 1 3/4 cups)
  • 1 cup granulated sugar
  • 1/8 teaspoon salt
  • 2 tablespoons cornstarch

Heat the oven to 375 degrees. In a food processor, place the flour, salt and butter cubes and pulse 3 times so that the mixture looks like coarse meal. Pulse once more if needed. 

Drizzle 3 tablespoons ice water over the mixture and then pulse until a dough begins to form and stick together. If the dough needs more water to stick together, add 1 tablespoon at a time.

When the dough is formed, turn it onto a lightly floured surface and divide it into four portions. Take each portion and smear it on the surface with the heel of your palm, in a forward motion. Do this twice so that the butter is distributed well. After you’ve smeared all four portions, combine and mold them into a 5-inch disk. Wrap in plastic and chill in the refrigerator for at least one hour. It’ll keep in the fridge for up to three days.

On a well-floured surface, using a well-floured rolling pin, roll out the dough to make a 13 1/2- to 14-inch round. Place it in a pie pan, trim off the excess dough and crimp the edges. If there’s a tear in the pastry, use some of the excess dough to patch it up. If you have time, chill the pie shell for one hour. 

With a fork, pierce the bottom and sides of the crust so steam won’t form bubbles. Bake for 20 to 25 minutes, until the crust is a golden brown. Let the crust cool completely.

To prepare the filling: Peel the grapefruit, using a sharp knife. Start by slicing off the top and bottom (north and south of the orb) revealing the red flesh. Lay the grapefruit flat on one of the cut edges and slice, top to bottom, all around it, to cut off all the skin and white pith. The pith is bitter, so review your work to make sure you’ve removed all of it.

To section the grapefruit, use a sharp knife to make an incision just inside the membrane on both sides of each section, then with the knife remove the section that has become dislodged. The membranes are bitter, so make sure none remain attached to the sections. You’ll get the hang of it and quickly become an expert. When you’ve sectioned all the grapefruits, set aside.

In a small bowl, add 1/4 cup water and sprinkle the gelatin evenly on the surface of the water. Set aside and let the gelatin rehydrate. This will take 5 to 10 minutes. 

While the gelatin is soaking, combine the grapefruit juice, sugar, salt and cornstarch in a saucepan over medium heat. Stir until it begins to boil. Then stop stirring and cook it for one more minute until the mixture thickens and becomes clear. Remove it from the heat and very gently stir in the rehydrated gelatin until it is completely combined. With the spoon, check to see that there are no lumps. Let it cool so that it begins to thicken.

To assemble the pie: Spoon some of the slightly thickened gelatin into the pie shell, making a 1/2-inch layer, then place in the refrigerator for an hour to set. Remove from the refrigerator and arrange the grapefruit slices on top of the gelatin layer, in circular fashion. Pour the rest of the gelatin mixture to fill the pie shell and place in the refrigerator to set, 3 to 4 hours or overnight.

— From "Don't Count the Tortillas: The Art of Texas Mexican Cooking" by Adán Medrano (Texas Tech University Press, $29.95)