Southwestern Food Traditions

A combination of Native American, Mexican and Anglo cuisines

Some people, particularly those who travel primarily along interstate highways, are convinced that American food has become increasingly homogenized. True, I have eaten remarkably similar-tasting hamburgers at places cartoonist Gary Trudeau (with apologies to Zonker) refers to as McFriendly’s in Seattle, my hometown of Topeka, and close by Duval Street in Key West. The truth is, however, if you look around and explore interesting corners of America, regional cuisine is very much alive. Nowhere is this observation more true than in the desert Southwest.

Presentation of the food makes it more appealingThis country developed as a conglomeration of distinct geographical regions more or less isolated from one another, much like individual countries. Newly arrived immigrants tended to settle according to nationality, forming tight urban and rural enclaves with strong threads of language and cuisine. In each region, people brought with them ethnic customs and adapted them to indigenous and available local food ingredients. Americans have, over time, taken Old World cuisines and combined them with regional traditions to create foods that are uniquely American. Local restaurants, including many in the desert Southwest, have worked mightily to keep regional cuisine alive.

Throughout America, local eateries, particularly (especially) non-franchised ones, revive and continue to redesign classic dishes. In the Southwest, these range from distinctive meals served in Texas to dishes served in Nevada or Baja California. A hamburger served at McFriendly’s in Houston near Interstate 10, in no way resembles a sweet-tasting rattlesnake burger served in a café located near I-40 in Arizona.

In Texas, the reigning king of comfort food has long been Chicken Fried Steak, or as Texans affectionately call it, CFS. Although not official, it is considered to be the state dish of Texas.

Why is this southwestern delicacy called Chicken Fried Steak? What you get is supposed to be a piece of steak, fried in a pan the same way you would make old-fashioned fried chicken. However, these days, 99 percent of restaurants selling “fried” chicken actually use a deep-fat fryer to cook the birds. Thus, not surprisingly, most restaurants also use a deep-fat fryer to cook a piece of beef that supposedly resembles fried chicken. The term “chicken fried” is confusing. A more accurate description of what you’re getting would be “pan fried.”

About that piece of beef. It may be tenderized round steak or “cubed steak.” But I have no idea what cut of beef a “cubed steak” comes from (I probably don’t want to know). Perhaps it might help to raise the discussion to a slightly higher level.

Pasta and beef which may be bisonSirloin works well in preparing Chicken Fried Steak and is not really all that expensive. A food connoisseur does (should) not want to use an expensive tender cut, which would defeat the whole purpose of the dish, which is delicious, relatively inexpensive food. Who in his or her right mind would really want to chomp down on a chicken fried filet mignon? Therefore, we arrive at the properly descriptive and tempting “Texas-Style Pan Fried Sirloin,” made like fried chicken with a milk-based gravy derived from drippings. This CFS can be cooked in a large cast-iron skillet using very little oil.

Classic accompaniments would include mashed potatoes, gravy and a veggie. I like horseradish on beef (it’s best if you don’t know how this combination got started in medieval Europe, but it did have something to do with a lack of refrigeration). If you have never sampled this concoction, do give it a try. The horseradish adds a slightly sour tang that wonderfully compliments the beef.

A “fajita” is a generic term used in Tex-Mex cuisine, referring to grilled meat served on a flour or corn tortilla with condiments. Though originally only beef was used, popular meats today also include chicken, pork and shrimp. In restaurants, the meat is often cooked with onions and bell peppers. Popular condiments include sour cream, guacamole, salsa, cheese and tomato. In restaurants, the fajita meat is traditionally brought to the table sizzling on a metal platter or skillet, with the tortillas and condiments served on the side.

Texans would like to lay claim to the fajita, but historians give actual credit to Mexican ranch workers living in West Texas in the late 1930s. After a steer was butchered, workers received the least desirable parts as partial payment of their wages. Because of the meat’s toughness, the workers learned how to make good use of a beef known as “skirt” steak.

In Spanish, fajita is the diminutive form of the word faja, which translates to “belt” or “girdle” in English. Butchers in west Texas used the word to refer to the diaphragm muscle of a steer. The food became popular in restaurants such as Ninfa’s and other Tex-Mex food emporiums in Houston and San Antonio.

The cuisine of New Mexico is a blend of Native American, Mexican and European food traditions. It is America’s oldest culinary heritage with roots that can be traced back to the Anasazi, who were the primary ancestors of today’s Rio Grande Pueblo Indians. Because of a few (extraordinarily delicious) common dishes, there is a tendency to lump the cuisines of the desert Southwest together; however, the food of New Mexico is distinctly different from the foods of Arizona, Baja California, Texas, Nevada and elsewhere.

When Coronado and his compatriots ventured north from Mexico City in the 16th century and entered “Nuevo Mexico,” they quickly discovered that indigenous Native Americans utilized every edible animal and plant part available. Those “Indians” hunted deer, rabbit, quail, bison and pronghorn; harvested acorns, berries, herbs, mushrooms and mesquite seeds; and ate various assorted cacti. The Anasazi also depended on a few domesticated crops, particularly corn, beans, squash and chilis. These early foods became the foundation of New Mexico cuisine.

In Native American culture, corn was the primary plant food. The “corn cuisine” of the Southwest includes red, yellow, and white, and the distinctive New Mexico blue corn that have been cultivated for centuries. Corn is ground into meal and flour for use in breads and tortillas.

In the Southwest, a meal may be based around beans, often served with a taco or burrito.

Domesticated beans predate corn and were farmed some 10,000 years ago in South America. Bolitas were the first beans cultivated in New Mexico but were eventually supplanted by pinto beans that have a higher yield per acre. Although pinto beans are most commonly used today in New Mexico dishes, other beans are popular as well. The purple Anasazi bean, for example, was found in prehistoric cliff dwellings and is now grown widely throughout the state.

Another cultivated vegetable, squash, was a staple in the diet of the Anasazi and was passed down to Navajo and modern Pueblo peoples. Several ancient squash varieties are still grown in New Mexico gardens, including the blue-fruited Acoma pumpkin, the green-striped Santo Domingo squash and the Calabaza Mexicana, or long-neck pumpkin.

While corn, squash and beans are certainly nutritious, the vegetables by themselves are rather bland and need an “oomph” to provide spice. Domesticated in Latin America some 10,000 years ago, chili peppers did in time (obviously with human help) migrate northward, along with other staples of New Mexican cuisine. Small, early chilis were used primarily to add heat to dishes; however, with extensive cultivation the pods grew larger and came over time to be used for taste purposes as well.

After Spaniards began establishing settlements in New Mexico, the cultivation of chilis exploded all over the territory. Several different varieties were grown, including poblanos, pasillas, serranos and jalapenos; however, the long, green, easily recognizable New Mexico chili peppers did in time come to reign supreme.

In the 1840s, New Mexico territory began to be settled by Anglo pioneers. With the new arrivals came new food crops, including tomatoes, asparagus, onions, lettuce, apples and pecans. Also, along with settlers came the railroad, and with it a man named Fred Harvey, who had a profound influence on southwestern cuisine. Through his association with the Santa Fe Railroad and his popular lunch stands, Harvey brought to New Mexico innovative taste sensations wherever the railroad put down tracks. Having a meal in the restaurant at Fred Harvey’s El Tovar Hotel on the south rim of the Grand Canyon is an unforgettable culinary experience.

Recent years have witnessed further innovations in New Mexico cuisine. Availability of foods from around the world, coupled with experimentation by innovative chefs, has led to development of what is known as “New Southwest Cuisine.” Features of this cooking include the use of locally grown vegetables, the introduction of exotic chilis that will more than make one’s mouth water, and the introduction of wild game to produce innovative food combinations based on traditional dishes.

In New Mexico, the mixture of three cultures – Native American, Hispanic and Anglo – plus the contributions made by creative chefs, has produced the most distinctive of all southwestern desert cuisines. Despite its uniqueness, however, this style of cooking has only recently gained the recognition it deserves.

The Southwest is well known for its tempting Mexican food; residents of Tucson, Arizona are not hesitant to proclaim their metropolis the “Mexican Food Capital of the United States.” The city has its own version of Tex-Mex victuals, popularly known as Arizona-Sonoran cuisine. Because southern Arizona was once part of the Mexican state of Sonora, this style has long been considered the “soul food” of Arizona.

The chimichanga, or “chimi,” has achieved cult status all over southern Arizona. A chimichanga is a burrito prepared with a choice of meat, vegetables and spices, deep-fried and served on a bed of lettuce with cheese and hot or hotter sauce. Arizonans take their chimis seriously and prefer large, overstuffed versions.

Nevada culinary traditions revolve around Basque, African-American, Asian and American Indian food. The state has a sizable Basque population. Basque cuisine, like the Basque themselves (who inhabit the western Pyrenees between France and Spain) has always been imbued with mystique. This rugged Basque homeland holds the roots of a rich culture that stretches back millennia. Food is central to the life of the Basque people, both in Europe and Nevada. Treasured recipes are passed from mother to daughter, while Basque men often gather in gastronomic societies to flaunt their culinary prowess.

Traditional Basque food is simple, fresh country fare. Fish figure prominently in dishes, along with locally grown ingredients, including lamb, eggs, wild mushrooms, beans, corn and apples. Sauces are flavored with fresh herbs, peppers and tomatoes.

Contemporary Basque cuisine retains the focus on simplicity but is lighter, with exotic additions such as truffles and pineapple. Many Basque chefs infuse their recipes with humor, playing with textures (vodka in gelatin form, for example), sensation (such as fizzy dried fruit), and traditions, including smoked sea salt.

Native food is an indelible part of a region’s culture. The manner of speaking, the celebrations, history, traditions, beliefs and food define the characteristics of a people. In Mexico, food is a mosaic of colors, flavors, ingredients and aromas. Baja California is no exception.

Baja’s gastronomic delights have as their foundation the culinary customs of the peninsula’s people, who have long utilized the sea as a source of nourishment. This fact explains why several distinctive Baja dishes are based on the fish that swim in nearby waters.

Fish tacos have long been an Ensenada delicacy. This delightful way of eating food folded around a filling combines the traditional corn tortilla and Mexican salsa with an abundant regional food resource. When visiting Ensenada, take time to sample the incredible fish tacos sold in cafes located in and around the town’s Black Market. Enjoy.

by Joe Zentner

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