A Brief History of Austinites ‘Discovering’ Mexican Food

Feb 24, 2016

There’s a war going on. And, like most unnecessarily irksome dustups involving Austin, it centers around tacos – specifically, breakfast tacos.

The first shot was fired last week, when Eater Austin’s Matthew Sedacca asked the world to give Austin a big pat on the back for creating the phrase breakfast tacos. Then, San Antonio responded in kind by asking Austin to exile Sedacca for that “churlishly negligent” premise; and OC Weekly emphatically sided with the Alamo City yesterday.

It’s a discussion focused less on histrionics and more on the history of the breakfast taco – read: cultural appropriation. Needless to say, it’s not the first time Austin media claimed to have “discovered” Mexican fare.

Tortillas, in one form or another, have existed for thousands of years, with evidence of some iterations in Mesoamerica stretching back to 700 B.C., according to Paula E. Morton’s 2014 book “Tortillas: A Cultural History.”

“What is certain is the corn tortilla evolved to become a mainstay of the Mesoamerican cuisine and culture sometime after 300 B.C.,” writes Morton. “And long before the Hispanic era.”

Needless to say, it took time for some Anglos in Texas to discover them, but when they did they were amazed by the “popular cake” that had, as one writer called them in an 1874 article from Austin’s Intelligencer-Echo, a “discernable relation to a piece of good, strong buckskin.”

"It is composed simply of finely ground indian meal, moistened and laboriously ‘worked’ until its glutinous element is fully developed, then make into thin cakes about the size of a dinner-plate, and finally baked or rather heated on a griddle, just so much as not to destroy its tenacity and flexibility. These two qualities are essential to a good tortilla, for it is valued not for its intrinsic merits as an article of safe and easy digestion, but is used as a wrapper for baked frijoles, chiles, or bits of boiled beef."

An 1887 article, "A Mexican Dinner, Delicacies That Were Not Appreciated by Americans” from The Austin Daily Statesman, sought to shed further light into the intricacies of Mexican cuisine, while demeaning the culture that produced it as well. It describes a litany of Mexican staples.

  • Caldo  – “A good many of the guests thought “Caldo Mexicano” meant cold Mexican and they were wondering how they would be served, when little tea cups filled with greasy soup were brought on…The proper way to get rid of soup is to drink it. The Mexicans did. The American guests did not. They smelled it and smiled.”
  • Arroz Seco – "Plates containing boild rice mixed with boild carrots and hard boiled eggs chopped fine were next…The rice was very red, having been stained in the boiling by the carrots. Some liked it."
  • Chile Relleno – “Green peppers were hollowed out and the shell was filled with chopped chicken with a few raisins mixed in it. The pepper was then dipped into batter and fried in a pan of hot lard. This dish was very much in favor."
  • Frijoles – “Everybody nearly took to the ‘frijoles,’ chocolate colored beans. They were tender and were dressed in a sauce that was very palatable. The ‘frijole’ has quite a reputation in Mexico as the baked bean has in Boston.”
  • Tamales – “The most unique dish served was the ‘taumales,’ [sic] a croquette made of corn meal, raisins, nuts and fruits. It is boiled in a corn husk and looks a good deal like a boiled pig’s foot at a distance when removed from the corn husk.”

Finally, a 1915 Statesman article titled simply "Enchiladas" ruminates on a Collier's Weekly magazine of the week before, which spelled the name of the dish "anchilladas." 

The paper suggests the misspelling represents a greater cultural misunderstanding of a country that was in the midst of a revolution, but also – like the present day Mexican cuisine-inspired war of words – took the ignorance of others quite personally: 

"[W]e venture the assertion that if the word had been French or German or Italian or almost anything except Spanish, Collier's would have had it right. And if it referred to something beside a Mexican dish, more of the editors and proof readers on Collier's would have known something about it..And just when our utter lack of understanding of Mexican affairs in Washington is most palpable, here comes grand old Collier's Weekly...to get something wrong that could have been written right without much trouble – except that it pertained to Mexico."