Texas anthropological food event connects the past and present

Tacos of Texas podcast host Mando Rayo shares what he learned from the Encuentro conference.

By Kristen CabreraOctober 18, 2023 2:20 pm, ,

Food is much more than sustenance – it can provide a community, a connection to loved ones, or a tie to one’s own history and ancestry.

So when taco journalist and Tacos of Texas podcast host Mando Rayo heard about a two-day, anthropological culinary event in Houston, he just had to be there. Rayo joined the Standard to talk about Encuentro, an event that examined native food and its connections to the Texas landscape and familial stories. Listen to the interview above or read the transcript below.

This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity:

The Texas Standard: You’re going to have to tell me about this anthropological culinary event. I’m trying to picture what that actually means.

Mando Rayo: Yeah. No, I mean, it was quite an amazing event.

It’s called, “Encuentro” or “Encounter,” like how we kind of come together around food, but also history and as well as the stories behind the food. It was put on by the Texas Indigenous Food Project and Adán Medrano, you know him from our previous episodes on redefining Tex-Mex and his book “Truly Texas Mexican.”

It was a lot of food writers, some scholars, chefs and cooks that gather to really go over some of that history of what was part of this region – the land of Texas and northern Mexico – pre-colonization. Like, what were some of those cooking methods? What were some of the foods that were eaten?

And then really thinking about, the transition post-colonization, of how some of that food was either adopted, some cooking techniques – and then post-colonization around, really going deeply into some of the cooking methods around, say, with introduction of cabrito or goat or beef or pork, as well.

So I know we’ve been learning a lot through you. Did you learn a lot at this event? Maybe you can share something with us that you picked up on?

I did. You know, you always have to have that curiosity mindset, you know?

And so for me, it was kind of a deep dive into understanding this region that we call Texas and northern Mexico, and what was around there. And then we often talk about beef barbacoa, and the pozos, or the in-ground oven, but we learned around the Native American techniques around that. “Earth ovens” is what they were called that we actually, the colonizers, adopted or got from Native American people here in this region. How they would slow cook certain vegetables – root vegetables – in order to make them more edible.

And then part of the process is learning some of these stories, too, from the chefs themselves. Like, what did you grow up with? How did you do it? And what are the stories that we hold dear.

Like Chef Nadia Casaperalta, out of South Texas. She made this rabbit consomé. It was just like this idea is pre-Hispanic or like, what wildlife was out there that a lot of the Native folks ate here in this region. But also, for her, sharing the story about her grandmother like – “hey, you know this food was meant to be eaten. These animals, they were honored because they were sacrificed to feed families.”

So these are the kind of the stories that came out that really gave a historical perspective, yes, but also connected it to our own personal stories growing up.

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You know, tons of food for thought, obviously. But what about food for the tummy? Did you get to taste test some of these recipes?

Oh, yes are you kidding? Yes.

I’m sure you found the food. What did you find?

Not only were scholars invited to talk about that history, but as well as the chefs. There was a course for every conversation, if you will.

We tried the rabbit consomé, but we also tried post-colonization where Luis Olvera from Trompo, out of Dallas, he made this cabrito and salsa verde, as well as some things as basic as chilaquiles that were made by Cochinita & Co, out of Houston – so using the dried red chilies in something as basic as corn tortillas. We definitely kind of had like this big mix.

Even if you think about the Gulf Coast area, chef Vianney Rodriguez, you know her from Tex-Mex Queen, she made these albondigas, which is meatballs, but made out of shrimp. They were definitely the hit of the conference.

» MORE MANDO: What’s the perfect bean and cheese taco? Mando Rayo set out to find it in San Antonio

When you go down to an event like this, do you bring your microphones for the “Tacos of Texas” podcast or are you sort of taking this all in and this becomes sort of grist for what you might be talking about later on?

No, for this one we definitely planned for it.

Our story producer was there, Sharon Arteaga, and Nick Worthen who’s our sound engineer. We all went down there ready to engage in this conversation, record it as it happens. We did interviews there, we covered some of the conference.

I also took my walkman, and I recorded it on tape. You’ll see that as part of a fun element in the podcast, too.

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