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October 10, 2023

Inside Houston’s Encuentro: The Native American Roots of Texas Mexican Food

By: Mando Rayo

The complex cuisine of Texas goes back before the land was known as either Texas or Mexico. In this episode, we visit Houston’s two-day, anthropologic culinary event Encuentro. We learn about the Native American roots of Texas Mexican food from both scholars and chefs present at the event.

The full transcript of this episode of Tacos of Texas is available on the KUT & KUTX Studio website. The transcript is also available as subtitles or captions on some podcast apps.

Intro Hola! ¿Qué tal? Mi nombre es Andrea Daniela and this is mariachi. ¡Amor a México! ¡Si Señor! Houston’s first and only all-female mariachi group. And tacos sound like…cumbias. Laughing with friends. El molcajete cual la salsita. Música original mexicana. La parilla prendida. And love. [mariachi music plays and fades into intro music]

Mando Rayo What’s up, taco world? I’m taco journalist Mando Rayo and welcome to the Tacos of Texas podcast season tres, tres, tres, produced by Identity Productions in partnership with KUT and KUTX Studios. And we’re back exploring taco culture in Texas through the eyes of the people in the Lone Star State. So grab an old family recipe book and some nopalitos and get ready for some muy tasty taco conversations. In today’s episode, I’m sharing a report from the two-day anthropological culinary event that I was able to attend in Houston, Texas, called Encuentro. The gathering was put on by the Texas Indigenous Food Project, who led discussions about the Native American roots of Texas Mexican food. At Encuentro chefs, scholars, and friends came together to document and discuss the oral traditions, the enduring techniques, and cutting edge practices in contemporary Mexican and Texan kitchens. We’re talking about age old recipes like atole, tamales, consommé, cabrito, albondigas, y mas. The event was invite-only. But guess what? I’ve got your invitation to take a look inside this Encuentro in today’s Tacos of Texas episode. I snuck my little Walkman into the event and will be playing back some of the sound bites that I captured on cassette tape. It’s a little nod to our team-wide favorite podcast by Rob Harvilla. If you know, you know. The first thing I recorded on side A is Alan Medrano, founder and host of the Food Conference, welcoming us to Encuentro.

Adán Medrano Thank you very much for being here. This is a encuentro, and I want to take to heart, the meaning of the word encuentro. Encounter. So during these two days, the purpose of the meeting is for you all to encounter one another. And I will introduce three groups. Now, it’s my honor to introduce three groups who will form the encounter. We are here to learn, to exchange, to take a deep dive into how the power of food connects us to one another. In Texas, which is an ancient site. So the three groups that we will experience and engage with are the ten visiting chefs, the three invited scholars. And the third group is the VIPs: media, journalists, food writers and stakeholders of food in the state of Texas.

Mando Rayo Encuentro’s format was really cool because it was divided into three panels where a scholar would discuss a certain part of Texas food history’s timeline. Then three chefs would go up and present a dish that they had prepared for us and share a story about that dish. When all the chefs of that particular panel had shared their stories, a curtain would open on the stage and we, the guests, were able to partake of a meal made by these three chefs. After the meal, we’d gather again for a Q&A and discussion and went through, looked at food ways of the ancestors of today’s indigenous Texas Mexican American communities. The Coahuiltecan, Caddo, Karankawa, Tonkawa, and other Native peoples of south Texas and northeastern Mexico. Remember, it wasn’t until 1846 that Texas became a part of the United States after being a republic for only ten years. Before that, it was land that belonged to Indigenous tribes for centuries. Tribes that were either driven out or erased by policies like this one that Adán shared with us.

Adán Medrano This is the Standing Committee on Indian Affairs in 1837 right after, right after Alamo hands this report to then-President Sam Houston. And they say this is the Standing Committee on Indian Affairs. The people called Lipan, Karankawa, and Tonkawa. Your committee considers as part of the Mexican nation and no longer to be considered as a different people from that nation. So from that point on, our Native American roots and our names get dissolved.

Mando Rayo Encuentro explores the impact, Native history, and unique flavor profile of Texas Mexican food also called “comida casera.”  Comida casera is a homestyle cooking of Mexican-American families of south Texas and northeastern Mexico.

Adán Medrano We’re talking about southern Texas and northeastern Mexico. And it resembles Mexican food because it is a Mexican gastronomy. You know, Oaxacan Mexican food there, the yellow, you know, Jalisco Mexican food, you know. Sonora Mexican food. Each one of these an expression of Indigenous history within Mexico and Texas Mexican. Texas Mexican food is simply another regional expression of the larger Mexican gastronomy.

Mando Rayo This gathering took us on a journey through the timeline of Texas Mexican food. We’ll start with the Indigenous people who ate in sync with the seasons, the land, and even the Gulf of Mexico. It was a time of trusting that the land would provide both sustenance for the day and defenses the body needed to survive the seasons. Then we discussed the merging of Indigenous and Spanish foods. Looking at both native ingredients that have been grown in the Texas Mexican region for a millennia, and how they blended more and more with Spanish ingredients that arrived. [guitar plays] As I will walk you down this Texas food history timeline on today’s episode, I will also take a few detours to share some of my favorite stories and also a couple of interviews I was able to get with guests because this event wasn’t just about history. The centerpiece of it all were the stories that we got to share. But let’s start with orienting you on the timeline, the pre-Hispanic days of Texas. According to Texas Beyond History, a public education service of the Texas Archeological Research Laboratory at the University of Texas at Austin, the earliest universally accepted evidence for human occupation falls into the Paleo Indian period of 11,000 through 7000 B.C.. There are several waves of population that archeologists can trace in this area, but they see the most occupants at about 1000 B.C.. In Dr. Mario Montaño’s commentary of his culinary showcase, starting in 1519, Alonzo Pineda arrived at the mouth of the Rio Grande, followed by a couple more expeditions which documented Indigenous people as, quote, “savages and creatures that they only observed from afar.” The Humanities Texas site says that Spanish explorer Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca first set foot on land that would become Texas in 1528, arriving near Galveston Island. Álvar provides the first written accounts of the foodways of Native Americans living along the Gulf Coast in south Texas and northeastern Mexico. According to Cabeza de Vaca, a typical seasonal round for the Galveston area started with mussels, oysters, shrimp, and other shellfish in coastal bass, followed by a few weeks of eating blackberries on the coast. In the summer, they moved inland and harvested berries, hunted small animals, and feasted on prickly pear tuna. In the fall, they pecans, piñones, and mesquite. They’re a lot of these foods gave them just the amount of body fat they needed to survive the winters. Our scholar on the first day of Encuentro was Dr. Leslie Bush, a paleoethnobotanist who specializes in identifying and interpreting plant remains found on archeological sites. This is what she had to share as she prepped us for dinner that night.

Leslie Bush The history of cooking in the Texas Mexican region extends at least 15,500 years to a time when the climate and the plants and the animals were very different from today. The earliest evidence for Indigenous food right now, I checked this morning, comes from the people who hunted and gathered near what we now call the Gault site, which is north of Austin. And the animal bones tell us what meats and organs and viscera were on the menu in those days. And they’re not just the big animals like Pleistocene, mammoths, and horses and bison, but also deer and turtles, ducks, birds and rabbits.

Mando Rayo And for those of you who think barbacoa was for beef or lamb only, let’s learn about the beginnings of the Bosso or Earth oven cooking.

Leslie Bush Around 8300 years ago, we see a revolution in cooking. And this is a time when the climate has settled into modern patterns, and the revolution is when people incorporate Earth oven cooking into their repertory. So shout out to the chefs. It’s sometimes also you’ll hear it called pit hearth cooking. And pit cooking often uses rocks as heating elements. They absorb heat from the fire and then release it slowly over a period of 1 to 3 days or so on, on sort of the same principle as as a modern crock pot. And you can see the advent of Earth oven cooking in the deposits down to the bottom layers here of Eagle Cave, which it’s a rock shelter west west of Del Rio. And the earliest levels with the small out from the triangles are working bones and stone tools, and the bones are bison bones down here. And the soils in those lower levels that if you can see them here, that they’re tan in color, they’re not darkened by charcoal or decayed plant material like those, those middle upper levels are. And the dark layers show that relatively sudden and very sudden we start with right through there. That’s 8300. Right, that line. Relatively sudden turn to earth oven cooking and in the region and how the earth oven cooking persisted over the millennia through. You can see the dark, dark soil persisting through through the upper levels. Here’s a. There we go. Here’s a hearth where lechuguilla hearts were cooked. We did this in out at the [unintelligible] campus in December of 2022 and to provide the moisture that you need in Earth ovens. Green, some kind of green waste material, is necessary. We used lechuguilla, lechuguilla leaves because we were cooking lechuguilla hearts in the in the earth oven and that packing, the green packing material surrounds the food and it protects the food from the heating elements below and from the dirt that you put on top of the food. And again, we use the lechuguilla leaves. The prickly pear pads are one of the more common things people used in the past. Green grasses also work, grapevines, and so does wet cannabis that you often see used in pit hearth cooking today. After the cooking is finished, 1 to 3 days later, the food is dug out and the rocks get piled up around the cooking cars. And that makes it easy for archeologists. And one important, another important thing to notice about this technique is that it’s not a single person endeavor. This, it takes a community with different people having different roles. You need somebody to gather the rocks, somebody gathers the fuel wood, the plants, process the plants, gather the packing material, dig the pit, monitor the pit, plug any holes where moisture heat might be leaking out. Somebody has to keep track of the children. It takes a village to do this kind of cooking, and all kinds of animals can be cooked in the earth ovens as cows and pigs often are today. But a real critical advantage over them cooking is really on the plant side. The long, slow cooking can turn plants that aren’t really edible when they’re raw or when they’ve just been quickly roasted. It turns them into edible, nutritious food for humans. And that’s especially true for the underground plant organs or low to the ground plant organs like bulbs, tubers, leaf bases, agave hearts, and rhizomes.

Mando Rayo How interesting is that? These practices have been around for a millennia, whether it’s a modern day pozo or the pit. Let’s think about that the next time someone says they discovered or invented pit earth cooking, This part of history shows us where we’ve been. And part of that is the nature-nurture part of the conference, understanding our foods, stories, and the conveniencas, how we come together, cooking together, and eating together, all while understanding the stories and recipes. Which leads me to one of my favorite stories from Encuentro with chef Nadia Casaperalta.

Nadia Casaperalta What I have for you tonight is a very special dish. I’ve only had this dish once and I was about seven or eight years old, and it was in my grandmother’s house. So I would love to dedicate this dish to her, Fermina Rodriguez Valenzuela. I don’t want to summon her right now. [audience laughs] She’s still alive, but I don’t want to summon her. We’ll get to that part of the story tomorrow. But we’re in the deep dive because there’s two parts to this dish. There is a recipe and then there is life lesson, teaching, trauma. I don’t know. Right. So the dish I have for you today is a rabbit consommé with small, tiny pieces of carrots from our student farm at UTRGV down in Edinburgh. And then a wild rice with petals of verdolaga leaves. And I say there’s two parts to this dish, because the first part was I went to my grandmother’s house after school, I got home, I started picking figs from her higuera, started eating, and she said, “Deja comer, stop eating. I have dinner ready.” I said, “Okay.” Popped a few more, right, I’ve always been a good eater. And when I sat down, I saw this beautiful, consommé. It was so clear. You could see everything in it. And there’s this beautiful white meat. And I’ve never had this dish. So I eat it, and I instantly I’m blown away. And I’m like, “Oh, my God, Grandma, what is this? Qué es esto? Nunca lo hemos comido.” And she says, “Tu conejo,” [audience reacts] We could laugh about it now. So I had a dilemma and it was so delicious. I didn’t cry because of my connection to my rabbit. I cried because I had an ethical decision as a seven, eight year old that it was so good and I wanted to finish eating it, but I knew that that was going to be the wrong decision. I think that’s the second part of my grandmother’s lesson. See Fermina is a shaman, but a shaman that is not romanticizing colonialismo. It puts food on the table. so, te quita los males, If you want to hex somebody, you go to Fermina. So I think in a way Fermina was also trying to identify what kind of lightworker I was going to be. If I was going to have a shadow side or a light side. And like I said, tomorrow or in the deep dive, if we can get a little bit more into it. So today, I implore you, if you come from a different dietary restriction background, if it doesn’t pertain to your health but is ethical, if you consent, please try something that is very near and dear to my heart, but also to the sustainability of our people.To Fermina, this was not a pet. It was a source of food and it was a source of food that came from the land. I wasn’t able to understand the consommé until I was taught a French technique in culinary school and actually realized that having a, making a consommé, clarifying it, is such a difficult process. So she honored that animal, and I hope you enjoy it today. If you don’t, that’s okay, smell it. Because the broth is, it sings. It’s a very humble soup. It’s it’s very minimal, as our consumption used to be and should be now in the future. So thank you. Enjoy it.

Mando Rayo Did I enjoy it. Dinner was fantastic the first night of Encuentro. The consommé de conejo was wonderful. We had quail. We had tamales made by mesquite. And one of the hits of the night was Vianney Rodriguez’s of Aransas Pass albóndiga de camarón: shrimp meatballs. Can you believe that? I got to sit down with Vianney and learn more about this recipe from her mother’s inventiveness on the Texas Gulf Coast. Here’s a little part of our conversation.

vianney Rodriguez I’m telling you, my mom, my mom, in the summer we lived, we I’m born and raised in Aransas Pass and home of the Shrimporee. Everybody knows Shrimporee, the locals, you know, they’re like it’s shrimp capital of Texas. And they do. The Gulf produces a majority of the shrimp that sustains Texas. So in the summers during the year, she was a teacher’s aide and in the summers to earn extra income because the teachers aides don’t, don’t earn income in the summer she would work the docks. So she would sort, peel, pack for shipping, you know, shrimp, sell the entire summer. So she would work, come home with a little bag of shrimp and she would cook. You know, she was like fascinated with shrimp. And I loved seeing it because she’d be like, “Let me try this and let me try this.” So we had it fried, grilled, sauteed, like we had it all. She would put some away for Lent because Dios guarde la hora. There’s not, there’s not shrimp for Lent. So she would put some away for Lent and she would make calditos or whatever, but she would use it all because she said, “Son los regalos del mar,” like you know, the mar is feeding us and we have to honor that. So she would cook the shrimp, she would use the shells to make broth if she wanted to make caldito. Other ones she would dry out for later to store in the pantry. If she wanted to hydrate them in arroz or she would use them to fertilize because she was passionate about growing blackberries and flowers and tomatoes. So she would put all that in her fertilizer. So she used every little part of the shrimp, which I thought was I mean she’s, to me, she’s a genius. So but then one day she was like “Puedes a la albóndigas.” And I thought, okay, you know, and I I’m so used to the ground beef albóndigas that she got the camarón and she diced it really fine. And she mixed it with arroz that she had made the night before, the leftovers. Slid the little jalapeno in there and made a little spicy broth. And I was like, I was like, “Oh, my God, Yeah. Where, where has this been?” You know? So it was like, like literally love at first bite. I’ve never forgotten that flavor and I’ve carried that flavor with me.

Mando Rayo It’s definitely a flavor that I haven’t forgotten since dinner that night. The next morning, Encuentro started with a delicious breakfast and panel with a theme of “conviviencia” or coexisting and sharing of something together. Dr. Lilliana Patricia Saldaña set the tone for the breakfast, explaining that the recipes of the showcase represent the resilience of Native ingredients that have been grown in Texas Mexican region for a millennia, and also the culinary confluence of Spanish and Indigenous ingredients.

Lilliana Patricia Saldaña I want to begin by saying that this morning’s delectable breakfast menu represents the integration of ancestral foods in our day to day diet and the continuity of culinary traditions from preparing chilaquiles, nopalitos, atole, and the amazing grape dumplings that I have enjoyed with my cafacito this morning, the dishes that are made with millinery plant foods that have sustained our families and communities in this region and beyond. The beauty of these foods lies in the Intergenerational conviviencia of preparing these foods as recipes and family stories are shared and passed down from elders to the younger generations.

Mando Rayo Here’s some of what she explained to me in a sit down interview.

Lilliana Patricia Saldaña Conviviencia is a word in Spanish that means to coexist and to to live together. And so for me, you know, when I think of recipes or culinary knowledge or culinary techniques that have been passed down from generation to generation, I always think about how we teach and how we learn these techniques or these recipes in conviviencia with others. Right? I’ve learned a lot about how, you know, my ancestors, particularly the matriarchs in our families, used to prepare foods. And some of those methods have been lost because of migration. We learn through storytelling. Yeah, we learn it not just from a book, not just by reading a chapter or memorizing it. We learn in community with others, in dialogue with others. And so, you know, this is one of the reasons why I, you know, I spoke about intergenerational conviviencia is the generational knowledge that is passed down, you know, from an elder or maybe a knowledge keeper in the family. And sometimes some of that knowledge is lost in our families, or maybe the elder or the matriarch or the patriarch has passed away. So, you know, we reach out to other members in our community who can share that knowledge. There is no such thing as like an “authentic” dish because all dishes change over time.

Mando Rayo The food served at breakfast were chilaquiles rojos, atole, and grape dumplings. A great example of both the theme and part of the timeline that we are in now, where Spanish were arriving and bringing new ingredients, was Diana Parton Smith sharing of her family’s grape dumplings.

Diana Parton Smith I realized that grape dumplings represents me. It is a mash up of pre-colonization food and colonization food. And I am a mash up of that as well, because prior to colonization, all of our food came from the land that we had lived on for thousands and thousands and thousands of years. In 1849, when the Caddos were removed from Texas and moved up to Anadarko, we didn’t understand that land up there. We didn’t understand what was growing. We didn’t understand exactly how to use that land to feed us, and we weren’t moved that far. When you look at other tribes that were moved thousands of miles away, they went from someplace like the piney woods to the desert. They really didn’t know how to use that land to feed themselves. So they gave us their version of food to take the place of it. So that meant they gave us white flour, white sugar, powdered milk, and as time came on, canned meat and canned cheese. So the grapes are made from the land. And in a way that we’ve always processed grapes, you have to boil them down to make them sweet. But the dumplings represent colonization and represent the foodways that came to us through colonization, because we had to learn how to use that flour. And so it’s a mash up, a pre and post. So the dumplings represented not just me, but it represented the, it represents the first Caddo recipe that I was ever taught at Caddo camp in our in our, in our tribes. It was taught to me by an elder whose guided me my whole life since I started my work, walked back down to Caddo-ness. And it is the first Caddo recipe that I could consistently reproduce for my family and for my community.

Mando Rayo [music break] [crunch sound effect] Oh, it’s taco time. And now here’s a word from our sponsors from me. [crunch sound effect] Vamos a Chuco Town, con Visit El Paso. It’s the hometown of this taco journalist. The University of Texas at El Paso, also known as UTEP, is an urban public research university. It is the second oldest academic component of the University of Texas system. UTEP was founded in 1913, and this year marks its 110th birthday. UTEP is also the second largest university in the United States to have a majority Mexican-American student population. The campus covers over 366 acres overlooking Ciudad Juarez and the Mexico-United States border. UTEP’s areas of study are divided into nine colleges and schools, each offering undergraduate, graduate, and postgraduate degree programs. It’s better at Bliss. Neighboring northeast El Paso is Fort Bliss Army Base, home to the largest training area in the United States. Fort Bliss was originally established in 1848. The base is comprised of over 1.12 million acres of land and has over 38,500 active duty military personnel, soldiers, family members, and civilians, muchas gracias to our friends at Visit El Paso for sponsoring this podcast episode follow Visit El Paso on Instagram and Facebook @visitelpaso or on their website at Visit El Paso dot com. [crunch sound effect] No fees equals more tacos at Amplified Credit Union. With fee free banking at Amplify, you’ll never pay another account fee, overdraft fee or transfer fee ever again. And no fees means un poquito mas de sabor. It’s not a bank. It’s a credit union. And their goal is to remove the obstacles that stand between their members and financial success. So they turned off all their bank fees. Because it’s not just about giving back. Sometimes it’s about not taking in the first place. And you know what? Amplify is the first financial institution in Texas to put an end to bank fees. Amplify charges zero dollars in overdraft fees. That’s right. Zero. Amplify offers fee free banking to both personal and business members. To learn more, go to go amplify dot com slash tacos. [music plays] And now back to our timeline. In 1689 and 1690, Alonzo De Leon leads two expeditions from 35 miles below Eagle Pass to Beyond the Brazos River, which is pretty close to the Whataburger in Alice, Texas, if you know what I mean. He arrives with food products like wheat and beef, and these parts become part of the Indigenous foodways, as exhibited in the lunch menu showcase that features carne guisada, mollejas asadas, cabrito en salsa, and flour tortillas. Each of these dishes reveals the newly arrived products that are interpreted through Native techniques and an Indigenous palate. And to fully understand the impact of introducing these new foods, let’s hear from a specific case from Dr. Mario Montaño.

Mario Montaño Understand they’re coming to settle the border now and Jose Candor was an owner of mine and related to the upper class. But he liked to also settle things and get prestige he’s, he e funded his whole expeditions, [indistinguishable] out reach. But along with his expeditions, he brought a lot of Mexicans. He bought Creoles. He brought also Native Americans with him. He had seven teams of [indistinguishable] from over here from a little pass to the Rio San Juan. So there were seven, all of them coming in at different from different parts to settle the border before we know today they had the South Texas border. And as a result, Native Americans were exposed to cows, pigs, goats and sheep. Look at it. And all this that they brought with them. And they were very serious. There were seven teams coming in from different areas to settle. Now, what I want to stress today, because it’s going to reflect our lunch, is that this candon on a rise there. Like I said, in 1750, in 1757, seven years later, the Spanish government commissioned a survey of those villages, those towns that were settled there, and they registered that in 1757 there were 2600 head of cattle saying 2000 head of sheep and goats along with 17 ranches all right there with their own people. Then by 1835, between the Rio Grande and the Nueces River, they recorded 350 ranches and 3 million head of cattle. So you can understand how that would affect the dye.

Mando Rayo Where’s the beef? Well, I guess you can say it all came in through South Texas just hearing these stories. You know, why beef is deep rooted in the Texas diet. And there’s nothing like a South Texas diet quite like the carne guisada taco, which was served to us by the enchilada queen herself and James Beard semifinalist chef Sylvia Casares. Chef Sylvia served the carne guisada plates when the curtains open onstage after the final panel. But you know me, I always need a taco. So she made me a carne guisada taco. But she also treated all the other guests with that special touch that tocque de amor with freshly made flour tortillas from her mom’s comal, which she brought in from her home. Here is my conversation with chef Sylvia Casares after I ate so much carne guisada, I was ready for a nap. She starts by explaining carne guisada to our listeners.

Sylvia Casares If I have to describe it to somebody who’s never had an it’s Mexican style beef stew, I felt like carne guisada is definitely an ancient food that brings home lots of good memories for a lot of people as well as, of course, flour tortillas, arroz y frijoles. So I just, I just wanted to bring up some good memories of of eating in our mothers’ and grandmothers’ kitchens. And for me it’s always a trip home when I when I have that dish. Yeah.

Mando Rayo It takes you right back.

Sylvia Casares Yeah. Yeah, we’re there.

Mando Rayo Oh, man. Well, when I had it, you made it. You know, everybody got the dish, right? But I got the taco.

Sylvia Casares Yeah, I singled you out and I asked you, “Do you want a taco?” And he said yes.

Mando Rayo Yes. So delicious. So delicious. Now is the carne guisada you made it very specific to? Is it a Brownsville style? Is it a border style?

Sylvia Casares I’m going to say it’s kind of a little bit of a Brownsville or border style. We do the Texas Trinity, which is the comino, ajo, pimienta negra – black pepper paste, with it. And that’s certainly a basic technique used in, you know, all of my recipes. But then we also season with chile guajillo. So and then a little bay leaf and you know seasoned with all natural ingredients and just cook simmered slowly to tenderize it you know remove all the fat. I mean it’s a very hearty meal. My mom used to put some potato in it. My recipe in the cookbook does call for adding a potato as an optional. But not everybody does it. I mean, this is cattle country. And so we found creative ways to work with beef.

Mando Rayo Mm hmm.

Sylvia Casares And the tougher cuts of meat, because that’s what that is, you know?

Mando Rayo So what’s one thing that you’re kind of walking away with from Encuentro around everything that we learned today?

Sylvia Casares I like to say that our style of cooking, I say it’s the original fusion food.

Mando Rayo Mm hmm.

Sylvia Casares Because it was created probably in the in the 1800s or 1700s. And they came and bring you introduce them to something new. And then they start they bring it into and fold it into their style of cooking. I read somewhere where Tex-Mex is the oldest regional cuisine in the US.

Mando Rayo During the Encuentro, I love the stories and creativity that the chefs are bringing to the literal table. I’m a big fan of chef Luna Vela, which you might remember her from our Decolonizing Maiz episode. Here she talks about making something that is true to the land and yet modern in familiarity: tamales de mesquite.

Luna Vela I’ve been trying to make this this for a while. It’s a mesquite tamale. Mesquite is something that I started learning more about recently. I don’t know for a long time, Like whenever I was taught about Mexican food, it was a lot of like, you know, “maiz like the foundation maiz wasculinary and maiz was life.” And you know, like relearning that my corn wasn’t really harvested back in these regions until after the conquistadors. I was just like trying to really score what that was. So last year I went to my hometown of Monterrey for the first time after eight years and not being able to go back and Barrio Antiguo, which is like the old center of town, I ran into an anthropologist wearing the Colombiano hat, and he was just selling books out there. And he also writes books. And one of them was called an antle de mesquite, which is named after the history of growing up in México and then south Texas. And there there is just like one paragraph that mentioned mesquite tamal, mesquite tamale. It was just like how it how they describe it in the book it was like a dry cake using like the mesquite flour that people would describe in metate and use a and that was way to preserve. Like it was a preserved food so that meant the tamale would last like months and months. And I was trying to figure out a way to recreate that. It’s something that I have never seen or heard of before or had. And remember growing up in McAllen and like, you know, in my family’s like lens like there was always mesquite there and I remember like great looking at smelling it but not knowing how to work with it or how to eat it. So this is like a year of work, trying to recreate it in the way that I thought had to do it. Like first they tried using like pecans to like, make a butter and like use of this base for the tamale. At the end of it, I made them using pork fat because it’s something that was also close to own, like recognizing that I’m like, that’s kind of what like my palate wants in creams in some ways, but also using a good amount of mesquite flour in the masa to get that flavor that I want. So it’s whiskey flour, some blue corn that we use from the restaurant from Oaxaca, some pork fat. And then on top, I was just trying to honor things that were gifted to me. So they’re mole is made with some native chilos. Some chitlepin that being that was gifted by my friend from the Sonoran Desert. There’s also mesquite flour in the mole and then some duck that was used to make it. And then it has a little of nopalito de gallo using nopales that I got next to my apartment. [crowd laughs] And yeah, it’s just a very homey dish, there’s no failing in it. I just wanted you all to taste like the actual masa to get a flavor of what mesquite tasted like and try to meet people in the middle with the texture of tamales that we know from, like growing up, but just trying to only the land In the same way.

Mando Rayo Identity plays a large role in our food and food culture, whether it’s something you grew up with or even a recipe that you learned later in life. I’ve always said you can’t separate the culture from the tacos, and these stories and cases show how connected we are with our foods. Luis Olvera from Trompo in Dallas explains his connection to cabrito en salsa from his hometown of Monterrey, Mexico.

Luis Olvera My name is Luis, and I have been honored to showcase cabrito en salsa, which is something that is very, very close to my heart and my family. I was very fortunate. And then my parents migrated to Dallas, Texas, from Monterrey shortly after. In my family, the men do a lots of cooking. If I if I if somebody asked who is my favorite cook in my family, I couldn’t pick a single person because my dad, who was a jack of all trades. If he was met with any kind of cooking challenge, he has built his own ataud. He had built a pozo in our back yard, you know, smokers, grills, anything that you say has to be made by so-and-so or can only be brought from wherever, he’s going to make it. And and we’re going to use it for sure. So I was very lucky from a very, very early age in my back. I didn’t learn until I was an adult that you’re not supposed to kill animals in your backyard. I did not mean that growing up because, you know, I was seven the first time that I skinned and my first rabbit, I got to see cows, pigs, goats, all kinds of animals, armadillos, snakes get, you know, killed and processed in the backyard and then turned into something very, very cool. And it was all trial and error. And, you know, you have something as simple as cabrito en salsa that is also so complex that sometimes you’re not able to appreciate every layer of it. So I hope that today my and all of my experiences translate into the food that you’re tasting. I will say that there is a little tiny portion of salsa de chile pequin  that is going to be at the table that is very rich and it’s very spicy. So I would say just put a little bit on your on your bowl if you can. Oh, and then the last thing I brought the cabritos from Monterrey because it’s the only way to do it. So these are these are two week old goats so they only have milk and I my dad smuggled in chile pquin a long time from a goat from from Mexico, and he grows it in his backyard so I’m using his chile pequin and the best mariano in the world is from Nuevo León and so I also am using uh. Well I got it from Nuevo León. Thank you everybody. [applause]

Mando Rayo How’s that for a brief history of Texas Mexican foods? The Texas Indigenous Food Project tells us that understanding these foodways strengthens memory and fosters community cohesion and coherence. And we got a little taste of that. And man, did it fill my soul, my yearning for understanding food and food culture, our Indigenous practices, but also understanding, you know, post colonization and why I love my carnitas so much. Special thanks to the person that made this possible, the host of Encuentro, Adán Medrano, and shout out to all the chefs that are practicing Texas Mexican foods. Chef Victoria Elizondo from Houston, Texas. Chef Roberto “Bobby” Gonzalez from Laredo, Texas. And chef Rebel Mariposa from San Antonio, Texas. This has been the Tacos of Texas podcast, developed and produced by Identity Productions. If you enjoyed today’s episode and are craving more taco content, go to our website at www dot identity dot productions. Or follow us on Instagram, TikTok, Facebook and YouTube @identity.productions and @unitedtacosofamerica. This is your host, Mando “Tenoch” Rayo. Vamos a las tacos! On the next próximo Tacos of Texas: “Archiving Our Food Histories.” In this episode, we sit down with El Pasoans who are archiving their food histories on websites and cookbooks.

Outro The Tacos of Texas podcast is presented by Identity Productions in partnership with KUT and KUTX Studios. Our host and producer is Mando Rayo. Our audio is mixed by Nicholas Worthen and Ever Calderon. Our story producer is me, Sharon Arteaga, and our creative producer is Dennis Burnett. Music was created by Peligrosa in Austin, Texas, and King Benny Productions, located in the Quinto barrio of Houston.

This transcript was transcribed by AI, and lightly edited by a human. Accuracy may vary. This text may be revised in the future.


December 19, 2023

Bonus Episode: The intersectionalities of Black Mexicans with Chef Adrian Lipscombe. 

Chef Adrian Lipscombe grew up in San Antonio and we’ll discuss Texas foodways from her Black heritage to growing up in the gateway to South Texas, San Antonio. Chef Lipscombe is the founder of the 40 Acres Project, a city planner and Culinary Diplomat with the U.S. Department of State.


December 12, 2023

Bonus Episode: Regional Taco Flavors of Texas

From border to border, El Paso to Brownsville and a little in between, we’re gonna talk tacos regionales and just like the musica itself, there’s many elements and things that go into them. Our guests include Miguel Cobos from Vaquero Taquero and Paola Gabriela from Visit El Paso.


November 7, 2023

Taco Pop Culture: A Taco Talk on All Things Tacos on the Interwebs

Stephanie Guerra, of Puro Pinche, hangs with us in the studio to talk taco pop culture.


October 31, 2023

Black Mexicans, Part 2: Tracing the foodways of Black Seminoles and Mexicans in Texas and Mexico

There is so much untold and uncovered history of the African diaspora, especially that within the lineages of slavery. Food can signal a variety of possibilities within history, and in this episode, we examine the melding and the migration of Black Seminoles across Texas and into Mexico. We join Windy Goodloe and Corina Torralba Harrington, […]


October 24, 2023

Black Mexicans, Part 1: Tracing the foodways of Black Seminoles and Mexicans in Texas and Mexico

There is so much untold and uncovered history of the African diaspora, especially that within the lineages of slavery. Food can signal a variety of possibilities within history, and in this episode, we examine the melding and the migration of Black Seminoles across Texas and into Mexico. We join Windy Goodloe and Corina Torralba Harrington, […]


October 17, 2023

Archiving Our Food History: What Goes Into Researching and Saving Oral Recipes and Histories.

In this episode, we talk to Dr. Meredith E. Abarca about putting together her online archive El Paso Food Voices. Author and blogger Yvette Marquez-Sharpnack shares how she has used her cookbooks as a way to archive her family’s recipes.


October 10, 2023

Inside Houston’s Encuentro: The Native American Roots of Texas Mexican Food

The complex cuisine of Texas goes back before the land was known as either Texas or Mexico. In this episode, we visit Houston’s two-day, anthropologic culinary event Encuentro. We learn about the Native American roots of Texas Mexican food from both scholars and chefs present at the event.


October 3, 2023

Salsa Magic

This episode includes a breakdown of the salsas that complete our favorite tacos, from taqueria style, to hot sauces. It includes the science of peppers to a local hot sauce brand’s origins. Then we’ll go into my home kitchen to make one of my favorite salsas and how to pair them up with your favorite tacos.