Mexican food from Texas is a staple of the state’s cuisine. But it’s not Tex-Mex cuisine we’re talking about. A new documentary traces the food and the Tejano community through the people who are fighting to keep traditions of their ancestors alive. Author and chef Adán Medrano has been working on the project for three years. The resulting film is called “Truly Texas Mexican.” It’s based on a book Medrano published in 2015. He told Texas Standard that both projects seek to share knowledge of comida casera – the homecooking of Mexican families in Texas, to a wider audience.
“Tex-Mex is great. We all love the gooey cheese and the margaritas, but this other, the precursor to Tex-Mex – the Mexican- American families cooking deer, nopalitos, cactus, all of these other recipes – were not widely known,” Medrano said.
Medrano says Mexican-Americans in Texas today can trace their ancestry back to the first people who stepped onto Texas soil. Cooking methods including roasting, steaming and boiling, and the use of animals and plants that were native to the state, have been passed down through the generations.
Social consciousness and sharing are part of the story Medrano wants to tell.
“I’ve always looked at food as a way to gift somebody,” he said. “My mother did it with me, and that’s how I learned what food was. So I learned food is hospitality.”
Medrano translates activism into hospitality and openness to the other, and he links Mexican-American foodways to the oppression of Mexican people.
“The basic idea of the film is tacos, feminism and cultural resistance,” he said.
“Truly Texas Mexican” profiles the first Mexican chefs in San Antonio, dubbed “chili queens” by Anglo writers.
“These women are the ones who popularized the urban understanding of Mexican food,” Medrano said. “And it is [in] copying them that Tex-Mex was born. The women were chased out of downtown San Antonio. People wanted Mexican food without the Mexicans.”
By tracing these early chefs back through their people’s history, Medrano shows that women were at the heart of creating the cuisine that became what we think of as traditional Mexican food.
Medrano says carne guisada exemplifies the cuisine he’s talking about in the film – a stew cooked on the stove, historically made with deer meat.
“The reason that it’s Texas Mexican is that we flavor it with what I call the Texas Mexican ‘trinity of spices,’ which is garlic, black pepper and cumin,” he said.
He says this particular trinity of spices is specific to Texas and southeastern Mexico.
Aside from its heritage, Medrano says there is a difference in the way ingredients are used.
“We use chilies for flavor, color, aroma,” he said. “We don’t use them just for the heat.”
He says maximizing the heat of a dish is a “male chauvinist” approach.
“Truly Texas Mexican” premieres this week on streaming services, including Amazon Prime Video.