Tex-Mex: Culinary Sham or Authentic Cuisine?

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Tex-Mex: Culinary Sham or Authentic Cuisine?

Why the emergence of a now-ubiquitous food category can’t be explained by existing marketing theories.
Superstar Chef Bryan Caswell's Tex-Mex food haven El Real occupies a converted movie theatre and lights up Westheimer street in Houston| REUTERS/Richard Carson
How did Tex-Mex become a marquee cuisine? No one's exactly sure. | REUTERS/Richard Carson

Sociologists and organizational researchers for years have been studying the ways in which social categories such as “nouvelle” cuisine or “craft” beer or smartphone “apps” or “crossover” SUVs emerge and enter the public vernacular.

But a new study coauthored by Glenn R. Carroll, the Laurence W. Lane Professor of Organizations at Stanford Graduate School of Business, singles out one of the most familiar categories in American dining — so-called “Tex-Mex” food — to see if existing current theories explain how that hybrid strain of Mexican cuisine became such a ubiquitous part of American dining culture.

His conclusion: They don’t.

“We took a ‘new species’ and tried to use available theories to see what explains it best,” Carroll says, referring to a study he recently completed with Dennis R. Wheaton, a former dining critic at Chicago magazine who also holds a doctorate in sociology. “Turns out, none of them explain it very well. So we need better theories.”

He says the emergence of Tex-Mex as a dining category defies the two prevailing ideas about how new categories emerge. One way is when someone articulates an idea and then champions it in some way to promote it and persuade others — the “social activist” theory. The nouvelle cuisine category, for example, gained popularity after being promoted by chefs such as Henri Gault, Paul Bocuse, Michel Guérard, and Alain Chapel, who obviously were hawking the kind of food they cooked.

The Anti-Prophet of Tex-Mex

But in the case of Tex-Mex, the opposite happened. The food started appearing in the late 19th century but the label emerged in the late 1960s — perhaps because it rhymed and was easy to remember — and was being commonly used by the 1980s. But the big bang actually happened in 1972, when food writer Diane Kennedy penned her influential The Cuisines of Mexico. While she never used the term Tex-Mex in the cookbook, she drew a bright line between the types of Mexican food served on either side of the U.S.-Mexico border and advanced the idea that Americanized Mexican food was inferior and inauthentic compared to the cuisines of Mexico.

We took a ‘new species’ and tried to use available theories to see what explains it best.
Glenn Carroll

Carroll calls Kennedy the “anti-prophet” of Tex-Mex. Her criticism resonated in Mexico, which at the time was promoting its regional food as world-class cuisine. Critics there piled on, including Nobel Prize-winning poet Octavio Paz, who considered food cooked in the U.S. melting pot a bastardization of his native country’s foods. (He famously used the word “abominations” in that context.) With critics in both countries disparaging Tex-Mex cuisine, the label’s connotation was entirely negative.

And yet Tex-Mex continued to thrive in restaurants specifically aimed at non-Mexicans, as well as in the form of Americanized Mexican snack foods such as corn chips, bean dip, crispy tacos, and burritos. “Kennedy and her ilk were hardly there to explain and promote the category,” the researchers write. “Rather, they intended to protect the purity of the Mexican category and used the Tex-Mex label in derogatory and denigrating ways to do so.”

The Fallacy of Clustering Theory

A second theory of category emergence is called “similarity clustering,” in which opinion makers try to make sense of something by clustering it with phenomena that have similar features. (That’s how vastly different regional cuisines of China — Cantonese, Sichuan, Hunan — are reduced to “Let’s get Chinese!”) After conducting a survey in which they asked participants to compare American, Mexican, and Tex-Mex food items and identify the ones that were “more authentically Mexican,” the researchers concluded that clustering theory doesn’t really explain it either.

“The survey results were all over the place,” says Wheaton. “There’s no consistency about what people consider Tex-Mex relative to Mexican.”

Adds Carroll: “I was one of the people who first advanced the clustering theory, but I’ve come to disbelieve it.”

Carroll and Wheaton say Tex-Mex typically implies unique items such as chili con carne, nachos, fajitas, and combination plates slathered in yellow cheese. The researchers also say Tex-Mex recipes often include cumin, corn chips, chili powder, and commercial ground beef instead of shredded or chopped beef. Critics dismiss Tex-Mex as inauthentic for those and other reasons, most notably by pointing to the world’s 9,000 Taco Bells and Chipotles, as well as the countless El Toritos, Chi-Chi’s and other restaurants serving similarly mass-produced cuisine.

America’s Oldest Regional Cuisine?

The researchers also considered whether the “intense, protracted, and bitterly divisive” ethnic dynamics of class and status along the U.S.-Mexican border — between Mexicans and poor Mexican-American immigrants, as well as between white Americans and Mexican-Americans — played a role. They believe such tensions did influence the emergence of Tex-Mex, as did geographic settlement patterns of immigrants, but also say those realities offer no simple, complete explanation.

Carroll and Wheaton do suggest that Tex-Mex today is undergoing something of a “reinterpretation,” in which previously disenfranchised and disparaged groups sometimes begin using in a positive way the labels once foisted upon them.

But in the end, the rise of Tex-Mex remains somewhat of a mystery. In a quote included in the researchers’ paper, Texas food writer Robb Walsh suggested that Kennedy’s dismissal of Mexican-American food simply backfired. “We can all thank Diana Kennedy for inadvertently granting Tex-Mex its rightful place in food history,” Walsh wrote. “By convincing us that Tex-Mex wasn’t really Mexican food, she forced us to realize that it was something far more interesting: America’s oldest regional cuisine.”

From a sociological standpoint, Carroll finds the study’s conclusions no less interesting: “To me that’s the takeaway from this study. There are just a lot of categories we can’t account for fully with received theory.”

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