Enchiladas, tamales, tacos, refried beans, rice, all swimming in lard and American cheese. Despised by foodies, some upper class Mexicans, CW (conventional wisdom) health food types and followers of paleo alike. Childhood comfort food for me (although I guess I should say Cal-Mex, since I grew up in Southern California. Some dishes such as burritos are Cal-Mex not Tex-Mex, to be way too technical.) (See also my chili recipe.)
Food snob Diana Kennedy wrote “Far too many people outside Mexico still think of them [Mexican foods] as an overly large platter of mixed messes, smothered with a shrill tomato sauce, sour cream, and grated yellow cheese preceded by a dish of mouth-searing sauce and greasy deep-fried chips.” The Cuisines of Mexico
OK, it is not Mexican “cuisine.” Got it. It is proudly one of the oldest American (U.S.) foods. It has a very long tradition of its own going back to American Indian food and some of the earliest Spanish settlers.
Tex-Mex uses lots of cumin, a wonderful spice that is not often used in Mexican cooking. Settlers from the Canary Islands brought it to what is now New Mexico in 1731. (Technically, it was used some before that, but the Canary Islanders used much more than the previous Spanish settlers.) The heavy use of cumin is one of the things that Mexican food elitists despise about Tex-Mex. Also, to some members of the upper classes, things like refried beans and corn tortillas are peasant food. Food similar to Tex-Mex is eaten by poor Mexicans, especially in northern Mexico.
Mark Sisson praises cumin. Smart Spice: Cumin
As is usually the case with spices that have been in use for thousands of years, cumin appears to provide a number of potential health benefits, from anti-glycation agent to antioxidant to anti-osteoporotic, and much more.
CW health food nuts are appalled by the lard and American cheese, of course. Pfft! Lard is good for you. And for sure real cheese is better than “American cheese product.”
So how is Tex-Mex in terms of primal? That depends. Let’s go through some of the dishes and ingredients.
- Refried beans – See my bean post. Primal and Paleo would say to avoid or eat once in a while as a cheat or 20% (Primal). Many people around the world need beans to get enough protein. Beans are high in carbs so you should avoid them if you are trying to lose weight (fat). If you eat them, they need to be soaked as was done traditionally. Should be made with lard (or at least olive oil), not some health food oil like canola.
- Spanish rice (White rice with tomatoes, herbs and spices) – See my rice post. Primal and Paleo would say to avoid. But not everyone can do perfect Primal or Paleo. But if you are having Mexican or Tex-Mex food, why waste your carb allowance on rice? A recent study in Costa Rica of nearly 2,000 men and women, found that people who regularly swapped a serving of white rice for one of beans had a 35 percent lower chance of showing symptoms that are usually precursors to diabetes.
- Flour tortillas and burritos – Avoid them. For tortillas, go for the corn ones.
- Corn tortillas – Primal and Paleo would say to avoid or eat once in a while. But corn tortillas are an important part of the Tex-Mex tradition. I eat a few each week. I’d eat more except for having to limit my carbs. Note: The corn used in Mexican and Tex-Mex cooking is processed with lime to make it digestible (nixtamalization).
- Tamales, tacos and enchiladas – Again, for Primal and Paleo, the corn means something to eat once in a while or not at all. But again, the whole world can’t do strict Primal/Paleo.
- Salsa – Fresh salsa is fine. Make at home or check the ingredients. But if you go out to eat, order a different appetizer, if you want one, and tell the waiter/waitress to not bring chips and salsa. Few of us can restrain ourselves from eating too many while waiting for our order to arrive. (If you can, go for it.)
- American cheese – Use a good cheddar or jack, pastured if you can afford it, when cooking at home.
- Sour cream – Use real, whole milk sour cream if you can handle dairy.
- Guacamole – Pile it on.
- Fajita meat – Now we are talking primal! How about goat?
If I go out for Mexican food, which in my area usually involves the option of classic Tex-Mex dishes or “authentic” Mexican ones, I usually order carnitas fajitas, “hold the beans, rice and tortillas.” If I decide to have one of these three, it would be either tortillas OR beans. But I feel very satisfied with the pork, guacamole, salsa and sour cream. At home, I typically a couple of corn tortillas and a small serving of beans.
Hungry for Tex-Mex? I recommend: The Tex-Mex Cookbook: A History in Recipes and Photos by Robb Walsh. Yes, the book has recipes for the worst sort of Velveeta cheese Tex-Mex. But lots more! Want a recipe for cooking a cow’s head? Now that’s primal! (Personally, I’ll pass.) Also lots of recipes for salsa, chili, fajitas and other stuff that is, or could be, primal.
(Mini-rant)Why is it that food snobs love the “authentic” cuisines of foreign countries, but think that as soon as immigrants from those countries (Ireland, China, Mexico, Italy) arrive here, they immediately start turning out slop? Corned beef, chop suey (which is actually authentic Chinese food), Tex-Mex, deep-dish pizza, etc. None of these foods is high cuisine or very healthy, but they are not slop. Food snobbery infuriates me. Grrrrrrr!
Clip Art Credit: Gnokii