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The Historian's Corner

Sam Houston: Father of Tex-Mex Cooking (part 2)

Sam Houston had a colorful life: governor of two states, president of Texas, general, and that's just in the public service sector. The profession he was fondest of wasn't one in a state house or warhorse saddle: his vocation of choice was that of chef. In that calling, he practically single-handedly invented Tex-Mex cooking.

Zzzptm historical researchers are proud to have discovered Houston's culinary diaries and are restoring them in the soon-to-be-published book, Sam Houston, Bringer of Enchiladas. We've hit a few snags in trying to find a publisher who won't send a rejection slip, so we've decided to put another installment online, for all the eager historical cooks out there who really go for kitchen re-enactments of actual cooking events.

And now, another excerpt from Sam Houston's culinary diaries...

September 24, 1844: The heat has finally broken. Weather cool and clear today, perfect for a day of experimentation in the kitchen. During August, I had some ideas regarding what makes food taste good. I believe two factors will get anything to taste in a manner fit for a Caesar: frying and putting cheese on top. To-day I shall work with lettuce.

September 25, 1844: Lettuce did not work out. No matter how I fried it or what manner of cheese I put on it, it failed to taste good with but one exception. If I battered it and double-deep-fried it and smothered it in melted cheddar, I could almost stomach the stuff, but fell ill shortly thereafter. I reckon the Good Lord didn't intend for lettuce to be prepared in such a fashion. To-day I shall see what I can do with carrots.

September 26, 1844: Carrots were not meant to be fried, nor do they go well with cheese. The combination of the two produced such an abomination I felt fit in burning rather than burying, as I had done with the fried lettuce au gratin. I was very frustrated after the carrot experiment, but hope to have excellent results to-day with rhubarb.

September 27, 1844: Confound my theories! They have brought me such suffering! I am about to swear off vegetables altogether, after the horrors I created with the rhubarb yesterday. As it is, I will no longer try to fry or coat with cheese any vegetable or fruit from this day forward. Instead, I shall try steak to-day.

September 28, 1844: Putting the cheese on the steak reminded me of a dish I had once supped upon whilst visiting the fair city of Philadelphia. It is tasty, but not what I was looking for. When I fried the steak after coating it in batter, I found it tasted better with gravy than with cheese. I was so excited about this Houston-Fried Steak, I introduced it to my friends that evening. All seemed genuinely thrilled with it and requested the recipe, which I was most happy to oblige them with. I will continue my experimentation to-day with mutton.

September 29, 1844: Fried mutton is not very good with anything. Also, I heard rumors Mirabeau B. Lamar referred to Houston-Fried Steak as "chicken-fried steak". I don't cotton to such a slur on my good name. Were I Andrew Jackson, I would challenge Mr. Lamar to a duel over it. As it is, I shall fight his slanders in the public eye. I plan to have someone open a restaurant and sell naught but Houston-Fried Steak. To-day I shall work fry and coat with cheese the noble catfish.

September 30, 1844: Everyone knows fried catfish is delicious, but who knew it could be ruined with a slightly runny camembert cheese? I think I need a break from all my failures in the kitchen and will leave to-day for a hunting trip.

October 14, 1844: I return from my hunting trip to discover I am betrayed. The gentleman I had hired to run my restaurant no longer offers Houston-Fried Steak, but the same dish with the less appealing name of "chicken-fried steak". I demanded to know why he changed the menu. He replied he didn't have any customers with the old menu, but has been doing excellent business with the new listing. I would close the place down were it not making so much money. I shall try my theories with venison to-day.

October 16, 1844: The venison did not work out. Rather than waste the good meat entirely, I made it into a seasoned sausage and enjoyed it greatly. I did not go to the kitchen yesterday, I was so frustrated. How could my theories be so wrong? So many things taste good fried and so many things taste good with cheese: how could the combination of the two produce such nightmares of the super table as they do?

October 17, 1844: Success! I had a dream early this morning in which I took a corn tortilla, fried it, and covered it with melted cheese. I rushed to the kitchen and tried it out. The result was heavenly! I was still making these delicious Houston-fried Mexican Breads with Cheese when a group of friends dropped by to see what I was up to. They sampled the dish I had created. I was not ready to share and, in my greed, cried out, "Not yours! Not yours!" My friends heeded not my admonition and instead turned it against me, mockingly calling the food a bowl of "not yours" as they ate them as fast as I could cook them.

These were, of course, what later became known as "nachos", a corruption of the original, more humorous name of "not yours". Later Tex-Mex chefs have built upon this foundation Sam Houston provided the world with. It should be noted Houston had later success with a fried flour tortilla covered with cheese. He originally wanted to name it a "Houstofrito" but, no doubt under the influence of the diplomatic Lorenzo de Zavala, relented and accepted the simple, non-partisan name of "quesadilla".

Quite often, Houston's kitchen was a political one, but stomachs know no partisan loyalties. This probably explains the failure of the general popluace to embrace Houston's creations while they still bore his name, but how they could not get enough of them once the name became a little less high-falutin'.

The next Historian's Corner...

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