Texans love our “cookin’”. In the spirit of “everything being bigger”, we have one of the widest varieties of cuisine anywhere. Cultural influences from all over Europe, the Southern States, Mexico, and increasingly more and more Asian cultures help shape a culinary tradition wider than a West Texas sunset. There are the Texan staples of chili, steak, barbecue, and chicken fried steak that stand out so much in the minds of people outside of the Lone Star State, but wild game and regional delicacies are also very important parts of the Texan culinary tradition.
Chili, being the official state food, is an almost essential part of any Texas winter, where Texans want something to warm themselves from the “frigid” temperatures that may hover around the freezing point. Traditionally made with meat that has been either ground or cut into bite-sized chunks, properly-made chili also includes plenty of chili powder and other spices. Tomatoes are optional, but beans are not to be included in traditional chili. It is usually served in bowls with cheese and onions on top and saltine crackers on the side.
The leader in beef production needs to boast this with great steaks. Cooked over propane, charcoal, or a smoky wood like Mesquite, Texans love their steak. There is almost always a steakhouse in any Texas town you visit, and some take their meat to extremes, like the steakhouse in Amarillo that serves a 72 ounce porterhouse and will give it to you free if you can finish it, your salad, potato, roll, and glass of sweet tea in an hour.
Barbecue is something that people from Texas, Kansas City, Tennessee, and South Carolina will always argue over. Each place thinks they make the best, but Texans have quite a claim to this. Texans love their beef brisket, and slow cook it for hours to get a piece of meat that literally falls apart. Smoked with a sauce that is a great mix of spicy with just a little sweetness, It is sold by the pound in many restaurants, while others serve a specified pre-priced amount of slices or chopped beef. BBQ sandwiches, popular for their low cost, are usually made with chopped beef and are best eaten smothered in sauce. Chicken, sausage, and sometimes quail are also popular alternatives that are all equally delicious in their own way. Texas barbecue even influences the beer, with Shiner’s Smokehaus brew that, in the words of my brother, “tastes like you’re drinking barbecue.”
Chicken frying is a very popular style of preparing meat in Texas and the rest of the South. The process of chicken frying beef, deer, or any other meat is almost identical to making fried chicken. The batter is made with eggs and flour, it is coated thick over the meat, and is then fried until the batter is nice and crispy. Chicken fried steaks (or chicken fried chicken…you would think it is a redundant name until you have had it) is usually served with a thick cream gravy made with milk, flour, and fat and usually seasoned heavily with black pepper. Remember to always call it by its proper name. It is “chicken fried”, not “country fried”. Texans usually judge and avoid restaurants that call it by the latter and quite improper name.
Wild game can be found all over Texas. Many Texans live for the moment when the sun comes up on September 1st to mark the start of dove season, the chilly days of November and December for deer season, and those days where they decide to make good use of the all-year, no limit feral hog season. Other animals, such as quail, pheasant, duck, pronghorn antelope, and alligator are hunted in Texas regions that those animals thrive in, but the first three animals are the ones most consumed by Texas hunters and those lucky enough to know a hunter willing to share.
Dove is hunted not only for the challenge of hitting a small, fast bird, but also for the tender breast meat that makes a fine appetizer. Usually wrapped in bacon, dove breast is left on the bone and is grilled or broiled in the oven. Some people also marinate it in Italian dressing to further lock in the flavor.
Venison is eaten in a variety of ways. The hams are usually roasted slowly over low heat to keep the meat from drying out. The back straps and tenderloins, usually known as the best parts of the deer, are grilled or pan seared and have immense flavor. Deer ribs are commonly chicken fried, as there is little meat on them and it would dry up if cooked other ways. Other parts of the deer are usually ground to make chili or sausages.
Feral hogs have overrun much of Texas after years of living in the wild. They do a great deal of damage to properties ranging from farms to golf courses. Texas has an open season on these destructive beasts, and hunters use rifles, shotguns, pistols, dogs, knives, traps, and now helicopters to take them down. People will often pay hunters to come kill the hogs on their land. These destructive critters multiply like rabbits, and the old saying is that “for every six piglets that are born, seven survive”. Along with being a fun adventure for many hunters seeking different ways to hunt with a little danger involved, hog meat is also incredibly delicious. Eaten much like deer, hogs can also be used for their bacon, and pork chops a plenty can be had with a successful hunt.
Regional cuisine in Texas varies from place to place. East Texas (essentially everything east of Dallas) has a strong culinary connection to the rest of the South. Pork chops, catfish, cornbread, and fresh vegetables are all staples here. Central Texas has varying cuisines, with local German and Czech populations giving Texans the chance to have authentic schnitzels, bratwurst, kolaches, and other fare from the old world. The Gulf Coast offers a wide range of seafood, both commercially and recreationally caught. Mexican food in Texas varies by region, with many cities further south offering authentic Mexican food like menudo and carne guisada and places further north offering “Tex-Mex”, which is nothing but Mexican food which has been “Americanized”. In cities like Houston, Richardson, Killeen, and College Station there is a large population of Asian immigrants who have their own markets and restaurants to suit their tastes. You might not expect to be able to get great bulgogi or pho in the same place as you would some of America’s best BBQ, but you would be surprised if you really go out and see the “little Seoul” and “little Saigon”s that have sprung up in Texas cities.
Along with food, Texans have to have great drinks. Dr. Pepper is headquartered here, and it, as well as Dublin Dr Pepper that is made with sugar cane instead of corn syrup, is very popular. Sweet tea is a must in many homes and dining establishments, and Texans will often drink it like water.
Texans are passionate about beer and wine. Breweries like Shiner, Lone Star, (512), St Arnold, and Southern Star all grace Texas with great beers. Almost any sort of beer imaginable is made in Texas, from the standard Shiner Bock to the specialty (512) Pecan Porter (think Guinness with notes of pecan). Texas also has several wineries, with most common wine styles being produced here.
Of course it would be wrong to not mention Whataburger when talking about Texas food. Whataburger is more than just a hamburger joint. It is a part of Texas culture. Texans love Whataburger and often have traditions of coming to these orange and white buildings after high school football games, church, or after a long night of partying with friends. Whataburgers are open 24/7, and serve their wide, mustard and mayonnaise-clad hamburgers, “Whatachicken” sandwiches, chicken strips, and the rest of their lunch and dinner menu all day and night. Breakfast, with favorites such as taquitos and the “breakfast on a bun”, is served right alongside the rest of the menu from 11pm to 11am.
Texas has a cuisine that is as large as the state itself. Texans will know exactly what I mean, and people outside of the Lone Star State would be well-served to come find out.