Dining With W

The big, varied tastes of Texas ride into town as George W. Bush moves into the White House

January 17, 2001|By Robin Tunnicliff Reid | Robin Tunnicliff Reid,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

A Texan will take up residence at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. this week, but look for more than steak and tacos to be served on the White House china.

Numerous culinary influences are at play in the land of George W. Bush - Mexican, cowboy, Southern, Cajun, creole and even German - and they've been building on each other since long before a Bush entered U.S. politics.

Toss in the wide assortment of ingredients found in a state whose topography includes moss-draped bayous in the southeast, vast plains in the northern Panhandle and the balmy waters of the Gulf of Mexico, and you're talking big variety. Big is good here in the land of big hair, big hats and movies like "Giant."

"It's big spices, big presentations," said Dotty Griffith, dining editor and restaurant critic for the Dallas Morning News who outlined the state's culinary roots in Caroline Stuart's "The Food of Texas" (Periplus Editions, 2000, $18.95). "It's an amalgam of Southern influence, ranch influence and a coastal influence. The nearer you get to the border, it gets more Mexican. We eat well here."

George W. Bush is said to favor Tex-Mex foods like quesadillas and salsa, but the president-elect has a wide range of tastes. His other favorites are reported to be peanut butter-and-jelly sandwiches, coconut-cream pie, watermelon and diet sodas.

Griffith, a native Texan, says the first known Texas chefs were Native Americans whose sophisticated agricultural and cooking techniques impressed Spanish missionaries who arrived in the 16th century. Certain tribes, the settlers observed, could prepare corn 40 ways.

Spanish explorers from Central America were responsible for introducing chilies, the fiery namesakes for the official state dish of Texas. But nobody is really sure where and when chili was born. Some believe it was a chef from the Canary Islands who threw some chilies into a beef stew when he'd run out of curry.

Another school of thought holds that the inventors were San Antonio's "chili queens" who peddled chili con carne from their street carts. Then, there's a theory that chili came from chuck-wagon chefs - usually named Cookie - who prepared food for cowboys during long cattle drives. Cookie was often short on black pepper and long on some not-so-prime meat.

"You didn't want to kill your profit," Griffith said. "So, you'd kill a steer and use every part."

Nor would any Cookie worth his boots mix beans in his chili. "They're a side garnish," Griffith said. "That's their proper place in Texas chili."

While Spanish influences pervaded West Texas, Southern cooking dominated the eastern portion. Settlers from Arkansas and other parts of the South came to Texas in the early 19th century, bringing with them the culinary traditions of African slaves. Closer to the Gulf Coast, Cajun and creole styles trickled over, bringing shellfish and rice dishes to the Texan table.

As the century continued, boatloads of Germans flooded Texas to escape turbulent times back home. According to "The New Texas Cuisine" by renowned Texas chef Stephan Pyles, by 1860, Germans outnumbered Texans of Mexican origins. He and Griffith credit the evolution of Texas barbecue to these immigrants, skilled in the ways of smoking meat and making sausage.

The most familiar type of Texas cuisine, Tex-Mex, trickled over the border from Mexico, which is itself the home of a surprising number of complicated regional cuisines.

"You crave it, you never get tired of it. There's something addicting about it," said Rob Wilder, owner of the Austin Grill restaurants in Baltimore, Cambridge, Mass., Washington and its suburbs.

His addiction began in Austin, where he'd moved shortly after college in the '80s to help friends run a chain of ice-cream shops. In 1988, months before George Bush was elected president, Wilder opened the first Austin Grill in Georgetown. The fun, hearty fare took off like a galloping mustang.

If recent history is a good gauge, the odds are good that Texas cuisine will creep back into the White House. Lyndon Johnson liked his barbecue, recalled Henry Haller, who was LBJ's executive chef (as well as that for Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan).

"Did they ask me to make it? Heck no," he said. "They shipped up the barbecue king from Texas. He taught me something. This guy was fantastic. I couldn't have done it."

The Swiss-born chef had to master quite a few cooking styles during his tenure at the White House.

"Can you imagine the switch?" he asked, recalling the changeover from the Carters' greens and fried chicken to Nancy Reagan's heavily decorated, colorful dishes and ban on pies and biscuits.

Haller suspects Bush will bring barbecue back. "There's nothing wrong with that. Everybody likes barbecue."


Serves 4 to 6

2 avocados

1 tablespoon fresh lime juice

2 tablespoons diced tomatoes

1 tablespoon diced red onion

1 teaspoon minced serrano peppers

1/4 teaspoon minced garlic

1/2 tablespoon chopped cilantro

1/2 teaspoon salt

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