The Texas Legislature is wrestling with mighty subjects this session, mainly how to repair the damage they did last session with their smoke-and-mirrors budgeting, their mean-spirited war against poor, pregnant women, their deliberate procrastination in naming an official state pie, their immigration policies, the drought, the… Wait a minute. No life of pie? We have the official state tree, the pecan. Our official snack, tortilla chips and salsa. The grapefruit is the state fruit while the official state vegetable is not the Legislature, as many think, but the 1015 sweet onion, and the state pepper is the jalapeño. The official dish of Texas is chili. Texas’s official dance is the square dance or the Texas Two-Step, depending on how much official state tortilla chips, salsa and chili you’ve had.
But we had no state pie, until finally a new legislator, Rep. Marsha Farney, Republican from Georgetown, won approval of her bill making the pecan pie the official state pie. It was her first bill, and she is clearly bound for greater glory. Her colleagues asked for amendments that only Texas pecans be used in pecan pies statewide, and that it formally be declared illegal to include chocolate. In honor of Farney’s measure, the state Capitol cafeteria sold pecan pie.
So now is a good time to take a look at what Texans eat and why — besides pecan pie. The early settlers (hold on, this isn’t a history lesson — I’m trying to make you hungry since I hate to eat alone) ate what the Indians ate: bear meat, deer tongue and, in the case of the Karankawas, unsuspecting visitors. We have long had beef, including barbeque, ever since Spaniards brought the first cattle to Texas in the 1600s. Two centuries later, Travis’s last letter from the Alamo ended with, “We have since found in deserted houses 80 or 90 bushels & got into the walls 20 or 30 head of Beeves.” So we know what their last meal was. In the 20 years after the Civil War cowboys drove five to 10 million cattle out of Texas to the north. “Out of Texas” was the problem. The ranchers could get a lot more money for a steak in Chicago or New York City than in Waco. Thus Texans raised and sold great steaks to Yankees, but were stuck with tough T-bones to gnaw on.
We hear a lot about buying and eating “local products,” as though Mister Grocer invented the idea of consuming what comes from the backyard garden. Silly idea. Local products were all that Texans had to eat until the refrigerated rail car was invented. Before then, Texans ate what was near. A side story: The last train robbery in Texas was the Holdup at Baxter’s Curve in 1912 out near Sanderson. The theft was thwarted (try saying that three times quickly) when David A. Trousdale, an express messenger for Wells, Fargo & Co., who was being held at gunpoint, noticed an ice maul, a heavy hammer used for cracking blocks of ice, on the top of a barrel of oysters. Whack! The main point being that in West Texas in 1912 you could get fresh oysters.
Nevertheless, when I was growing up in Dallas, we had one seafood restaurant, Jay’s Marine Grill. Fishermen probably loaded their catch on a truck in Galveston which was driven at 45 mph up Highway 75 and got to Dallas the next day. And tasted like it. For years, if you wanted lobster in Texas, you got frozen lobster tails from South Africa. Then I saw live lobsters floating in a tank at a grocery store in Kerrville.
Today there are many excellent eating oasises (oasisi?) around the nation — New England clams, Louisiana Cajun, Kansas City steaks, and New York City is undeniable a feast. But Texas has a particularly firm hold on good eating. Here is why: We are surrounded by good food. As we have discussed before, Texas ranks second for total agricultural production. We are first in cabbages, and cattle and calves. Texas is the leading producer of pecans, second in sorghum grain and fifth in rice. Finally, Texas is especially fortunate to be the home of the Texas Aggies, who can grow moss on a rolling stone. All of this may explain why, among the states, we are 10th in the percentage of obese adults and 37th in overall health. And don’t forget Houston was crowned the Nation’s Fattest City
The Texas restaurant scene changed drastically when mandatory BYOB, which held back good restaurants for decades, was abolished. There’s profit in booze. And it is my theory that we are lucky in our geography. To the east we have Southern cooking which has seeped into Texas, particularly after Katrina when 250,000 Cajuns fled here and many stayed. (Wouldn’t you?) To the south we have that wonderful influence of Mexican food, blended into our own Tex-Mex. We have the ranches to the west, only now our steaks stay here. Did I mention Gulf seafood? And Texas has become a magnet for foreigners, particularly in Houston, bringing their own gastronomy of yak fat, ox colon and filet of python.
A good way to appreciate our varied foods is to visit the State Fair of Texas in Dallas next fall and wander through the Agriculture Building. There you will see agricultural products you never thought of as being Texan, like Christmas trees. But there are also honey, fruits and veggies, pork and beans, wine and roses.
How good do Texans have it? Remember that on Sept. 17, 1989, Boris Yeltsin toured the Johnson Space Center and was on his way back to Ellington Air Force Base when he decided to visit a Randall’s grocery. For 20 minutes he wandered the aisles, and commented, “Even the Politburo doesn’t have this kind of choice. Not even Mr. Gorbachev.” He left a changed man, and when he returned to power, began dismantling the Soviet Union. You can look it up. Paper or plastic?
Ashby eats well at email@example.com