Everyone is familiar with the zesty crunch of a good plate of nachos. To the uninitiated, it could seem that these simple but delectable creations have always been with us. After all, who would need to invent a nacho? Take some cheese, put it on a deep-fried chip, top it with sour cream or guacamole, and it’s finished. But where did it actually start? A quick Google search confirms officially that it all began in Piedras Negras, Mexico in the early 1940s by a man named Ignacio “Nacho” Anaya. The story goes that Anaya threw the blessed union of cheddar cheese, tostadas and jalapeño slices together (using remaining ingredients from the day) to appease some last-minute patrons to the Victory Club restaurant where he was employed. For whatever reason, the gamble worked; the dish was a huge success, and the recipe stuck. Now, nachos are devoured in restaurants all over the world. From the sloppiest ballpark concoction to the most distinct gourmet creation, nachos, like so many other dishes native to the Southwest, are standout symbols of a cuisine that has been birthed and re-birthed countless times throughout history: Tex-Mex.
When you think of Tex-Mex, many tantalizing images come to mind. Whether it’s the cheesy goodness of a plate of enchiladas and refried beans, the toasted aroma of a bowl of freshly made corn chips or even the sweet temptations of post-dinner empanadas or sopapillas, this hugely popular fare has been a mainstay of U.S. culture since before the second World War. While Texas and Mexico are the obvious inspirations, Indian influences (such as the addition of cumin) are also credited to the perfection of the recipes. Also, despite the misleading sound of its handle, Tex-Mex isn’t, strictly speaking, Mexican food at all. It’s a purely American concoction crafted on American soil; but it has been made famous by the talented Mexican chefs and culinary artists who grew up enjoying more traditional versions of these one-of-a-kind creations in their family kitchens.
In fact, Jorge Cortez, owner and operator of Mi Tierra in San Antonio’s El Mercado (or Market Square), doesn’t see this unique collaboration as any kind of who-did-what at all. He sees it as a natural progression of history and inspiration. “Tex-Mex evolved according to the tastes and influences of the country,” he states. “It stands right alongside the music, tradition and unique artistry of the region. It’s what America is about.” One need only experience the aromatic emanations from the 24-hour Mi Tierra itself to tell you that Cortez is right on the money. It isn’t a competition, or question of authorship. The winners are the patrons.
Strictly speaking, the purely Mexican originations of Tex-Mex actually tend to lean more towards a simpler, more old-fashioned style of cooking; with the spices, time-honored recipes and much-loved ingredients getting their basis in Mexico’s customs. However, the U.S. eventually brought something decidedly different to the table. The American influences led to the “beefing” up of the spices, the sauces, the meat and the overall heartiness of the dishes. It was this combination that led to Tex-Mex evolving into much of what it has come to look like today. Now characterized by large portions, an affinity towards beef and pork, flour and corn ingredients, and an assortment of beans like black and pinto, Tex-Mex has become a beautiful amalgamation; a distinct blending of sensibilities born out of these separate cultures and turned into something wholly original. To some, it’s the perfect plate.
Cortez even wryly volunteered that he loves to tell his cooking staff a tall tale of the Mexican and American ranchers who went to work together with their homemade lunches in tow. According to Cortez’s made-up story, “The Mexican rancher had a dozen enchiladas made up of simply corn tortillas and meat, while the American brought his wife’s homemade chili.” Curious, they decided to share their meals, and to their delight, enchiladas with con carne sauce were born. As any lover of Tex-Mex can attest, that particular dish has been a staple of the fare for generations.
While Tex-Mex endured some backlash because of its tradition-bending, supporters like Cortez are happy to argue that the flavors are simply a well-orchestrated symphony “originated in the markets and plazas” of the Southwest region. Starting with eager-to-please restaurateurs serving up generous portions of food to soldiers, families and the myriad travelers and newcomers to San Antonio and the surrounding areas, and continuing right into the modern area where Tex-Mex is found in some form in many places throughout the world; the sights, sounds and smells of this delicious cuisine are as far-reaching as the influences it draws from. At its best, Tex-Mex cooking seems to represent many of the melting-pot aspects of the country. Not much unto itself, but melded together it becomes something greater than the individual ingredients alone. Like a good plate of nachos, it’s the layers, not the individual parts that create the masterpiece.