Chefs Dinner Culinary Showcase

May 19, 5:00 PM
Nature / Nurture

  • Consomé De Conejo, Butterflied White Rice, Brunoise Carrot, Micro Verdolaga
    Chef Nadia Casaperalta, Elsa Texas

  • Cold Smoked and Roasted Quail with Grandmother’s Dried Fruit Stuffing, Accompanied by Pecan and Endive Salad with Chapote Dressing
    Chef Roberto Gonzalez, Laredo, Texas

  • Albóndigas de Camarón con Caldito de Jalapeño y Tomate
    Chef Vianney Rodriguez, Aransas Pass, Texas

  • Mezquite Tamal with Mole, Nopal Pico De Gallo
    Chef Andrés Garza, Austin, Texas

Comentario on the Culinary Showcase by Dr. Leslie Bush

“The Dawn of Texas Mexican Cooking: Indigenous People and Landscapes”
by Dr. Leslie Bush

Extrapolating past cuisine from the dry bones and bits of plants left on archaeological sites can be a tricky practice. We have only the ingredients – or most of them — along with abandoned tools and ruins of cooking facilities. To make the past truly come alive, archaeologists also rely on written accounts from later times (Maya and Aztec codices, accounts of European explorers and missionaries) and the knowledge held by descendants whose cooking practices continue to draw on ancestral ingredients, techniques, and relationships with land and family. The expertise of chefs adds a particular magic, turning ingredient lists into recipes and recipes into fragrant, fully-textured dishes to be enjoyed in the present with all our senses.

The indigenous ancestors who first came to the Texas Mexican region ate not just Ice Age mammoths and bison but also small animals like raccoons, birds, snakes, rodents, turtles, deer, and the rabbit we’ll sample tonight. Plants don’t preserve as well as animal bones on archaeological sites, but we know these early ancestors ate tree nuts, chenopod (a relative of quinoa), amaranth, sunflower, and the pads and tunas of pricklypear cactus. In warmer times after about 8,000 years ago they developed techniques to turn indigestible roots, tubers, and leaf bases of agaves, sotol, camas, onion, arrowroot, and Indian breadroot into caramelized seasonal staples through long, slow cooking in rock-lined pits.

According to Cabeza de Vaca, a typical seasonal round for the Galveston area started with mussels, oysters, shrimp, and other shellfish in coastal bays, followed by a few weeks eating blackberries on the coast. Moving inland, people enjoyed the abundance of summer harvesting berries (persimmon, lotebush, condalia), hunting small animals, and feasting in the pricklypear tuna grounds. Fall brought pecans in the north of the Texas Mexican region, pinyons in the west, and mesquite in the west and south. Fall and early winter game provided important dietary fats. In late winter the people in Cabeza de Vaca’s account moved back to the coast to harvest aquatic tubers (arrowhead and lotus) and the shoots of cattails, while other groups focused on terrestrial resources such as sotol and agave. Spanish colonization brought goats, sheep, pigs, coffee, peaches, oranges, limes, and olives that indigenous people also made room for, further expanding the framework of traditional foodways.

We might call the lands they lived on “wild,” but ancestors carefully managed their territories, weeding root grounds, pruning cane and willows to produce the correct widths and lengths of shoots for basketry, and burning prairies to encourage tender grass for game animals. Agriculture was known but not generally practiced here prior to colonization. Instead of guarding granaries, ancestors in the Texas Mexican region relied on plants to store surplus energy under the ground. They also carried the abundance of tuna and nut seasons into the lean winters as body fat — on themselves and on the animals they hunted. In short, they had confidence in their abilities to work with the land to provide food as needed.