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Adán Medrano. Photo: Truly Texas Mexican / Houston Chronicle
Adán Medrano. Photo: Truly Texas Mexican / Houston Chronicle.

How Tex-Mex reduced Texas Mexican culture to tortillas and frijoles

San Antonio chef Adán Medrano presents Truly Texas Mexican, a new Amazon Prime documentary about the cultural history of Texas and Mexico through food. 

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Globalisation is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it brings us closer to cultures we would not otherwise have access to; on the other, it tends to simplify them into a product detached from its roots and often very superficial.

It happens on all fronts and especially with food. After all, how many times have you heard "why don't we go eat Mexican", when actually they are talking about Tex-Mex, the bleached and "re-appropriated" version of Mexico's vast gastronomic heritage. 

Bringing back to Texas what belongs to Texas; or rather, finding the cultural roots of the state's most typical Latin dishes and linking them to history, archaeology, feminism and, yes, spirituality, are the premises of a documentary recently released on Amazon Prime that will make your mouth water as well as your guts ache. 

Why? Because you'll learn from chef and food writer Adán Medrano that we've eaten up 10,000 years of Mexican Texas history without even realising it, ignoring the women, the migrants and also the dishes and flavours that are unique to the region. 

The documentary is based on the first book by Medrano, who was born in San Antonio but has lived in different countries throughout South America and Europe, always fascinated by the gastronomic customs of those places.

Published in 2014, Truly Texas Mexican: A Native Culinary Heritage in Recipes explored the indigenous cuisine of South Texas and northern Mexico across the Rio Grande. A territory that is much more than tacos, tamales and tortillas. Where there are equal parts nopales, deer and mesquite, as well as fields, open-air markets and, of course, private homes where tradition is cooked. 

So this professional chef with a degree in radio and television thought: "Why not tell the same stories I had access to through a camera?" Said and done, Medrano got in touch with the Uruguayans Aníbal Capoano and Gabriel Bendahan, filmmaker and director of photography respectively, to go from dish to screen.  

They, the female chefs of tradition

For Adán Medrano, the indigenous gastronomy of Texas and Mexico is inseparable from the history of women, although they have never been given a proper mention. 

"I knew we had to focus this story on the women who, with very little support or budget, sustained us with food and souvenirs," he told Austin360. "All along we were asking, 'Where are the women? These are the authorities."

In that way, food becomes a resource to talk about many other issues that are tied to recipes and food, such as borders, feminism, the question of belonging or land.

For example, the first Mexican food restaurants in San Antonio were "puestos", as historian Graciela Sánchez, whose grandmother ran one of them, explains in the documentary. While they were initially celebrated by white customers, there came a point when white customers wanted to be served by white staff. This gave rise to Tex-Mex, a sort of Mexican cuisine without Mexicans, which over time has established itself as the popular version of Mexican cuisine, widely spread throughout the country. 

But there was a time when food was linked to the road, the landscape and the land. That's why chef Medrano visits places like the salt lake La Sal del Rey, where indigenous peoples came to settle, and also the archaeological site of the Land Heritage Institute, south of San Antonio. Walking the same trail that native peoples walked to the Midwest, dotted with mesquite trees and sharp flint boulders. 

"We can say that food has nationality, but it used to be rooted in a landscape, in nature," Medrano said. "That's a much better way to talk about food."

At one point in his adventure, the chef is led to a cemetery in Corpus Christi, a sacred place for the Karankawa people that is now lined with flats. An indigenous elder complains that in Corpus the native people of Texas are forgotten, that only the street names remain. 

"We learned the religion, the culture, the language; we became Mexicans in our own land to stay among the bones of our people," the veteran told him.

Adán Medrano is also the founder of the oldest Latino film festival in the United States, CineFestival San Antonio, and the author of books and articles on gastronomy. His latest book, Don't Count the Tortillas, hit bookstores in 2019.

Truly Texas Mexican is a piece of cultural history full of flavours, smells, nuances and, above all, history.

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