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Taco Art: Gauguin or Cezanne?

The artists who paint still lifes of tacos and other dishes on the exterior walls of restaurants and food trucks never cease to amaze me. I suspect there are few talented art students putting themselves through school this way.

Their artworks serve the extremely utilitarian purpose of advertising the variety of choices on the establishment’s menu: a useful service for those who can read English and an vital one for those who can’t. Sometimes their efforts are cartoonish, sometimes merely commercial, but quite often they create images that belong in the realm of folk art.

I posted this photo on Twitter with the headline: “If Gauguin painted tacos.” My wife, who has an MFA in Art, suggested: “It looks more like a Cezanne.” What do you think?

Perfect Gift for Oyster Lovers!

A limited number of signed copies of Sex, Death & Oysters are now available at Kitchen Chick in Galveston and El Real Tex-Mex in Houston.

One night at  Gaido’s, the historic seafood restaurant here in my hometown of Galveston, my wife and I were being seated at one of the popular tables near the windows when I overheard a conversation between a guy at the next table and his waitress. They were talking about oysters.

51fbp8aclnl-_uy250_“Have you ever read Sex, Death & Oysters? Now that’s a great book,” he told her. It was the moment of a lifetime. I smiled from ear to ear. My wife heard him too, and she prodded me to go talk to the guy.

“I’m glad you liked the book, I’m Robb Walsh, I wrote it,” I said as I extended my hand to shake. His iaw dropped. We both sputtered in laughter and incoherent mumbling about the odds of such a coincidence.  It was like a scene in a Woody Allen movie. When we recovered from our surprise, we talked about books and oysters for a few minutes and exchanged cards. Turns out it was his birthday. I told him I would come by his shop and sign his book if he wanted.

Last weekend, I gave a talk about oysters at the Grand Soiree, part of the Dickens on the Strand celebration. After my speech, I ordered a beer, The lovely young woman who filled my glass with a draft said, “After I read your book, I went to the Galway Oyster Festival. It was wonderful,  I met the world champion oyster shucker who gave me a few tips backstage,”  Turns out she not only tended bar, she also shucked oysters for a living. It’s kind of amazing how this particular book resonates with the small, but passionate population of avid oyster fans.

Sex, Death & Oysters has been unavailable for awhile, The only copies on Amazon were used or slightly damaged and bookstores haven’t carried it for years. Alicia Cahill at Kitchen Chick, the kitchen equipment and cookbook store in Galveston, told me she had a standing order for the book, but her distributor couldn’t find any. For my oyster talk at the Grand Soiree, I talked the publisher into doing another small printing. So for a little while, you can actually buy a new paperback.

It is the perfect gift for the oyster lovers on your Christmas list.



Chile con Queso vs. Cheese Dip

A Wall Street Journal reporter who grew up in Arkansas wrote an article titled:
Don’t tell Texas, but Arkansas is laying claim to queso. I am quoted in the article recounting the time I was invited to judge their “Cheese Dip Derby” up in Little Rock. I declined, of course.

There has been much ado from these parts. Even a little sympathy for the hapless Arkansans.

And today I have received many emails and tweets asking about the history of the dish.

Some credit Switzerland’s fondue, recipes for that melted cheese dip first appeared in a cookbook in 1699.

In the WSJ article, I read that Lisa Fain is tracing the dish to Northern Mexico. The article also says she is working on a Queso book.

Rachel Ray makes a fusion Queso/Fondue with “mystery meat” that sounds perfectly awful.

The history of chile con queso, cheese dip, fondue is confusing because of the mix of languages. Are we looking for the earliest cheese dip? That would be fondue in Switzerland. Are we looking for the earliest Mexican queso dish? Queso Fundido in Chihuahua? Or are we looking for something specifically called Cheese Dip? The WSJ article seems to say that chile con queso and cheese dip are the same thing. Is the claim that it was invented in Arkansas in 1935 tongue-in-cheek?

Thanks to Barry Popick at the Big Apple for his post on Chile con Queso (December 23, 2006):

According to Barry, the first use in print seems to be from 1920 in Iowa, which would contradict the claim that “cheese dip” was invented in an Arkansas Mexican restaurant in 1935. The article seems to be referencing a culinary experience while traveling elsewhere. Several other citations point to the popularity of chile con queso in Southern California. There also a recipe from the LBJ Ranch.

17 June 1920, Nashua (Iowa) Reporter, pg. 3?, col. 6:
Pepper is the source of Mexican revolutions, according to many people. Hot tamales, chili con carne, which means pepper with meat; chili rellenas, chili con queso, or pepper with cheese; all the other hot dishes that delight the Mexican palate, are supposed to incite these fiery Latin-Indian folk to actions that people of more mien would not contemplate.

18 May 1937, Modesto (CA) Bee and News-Herald, “Foreign Cookery Is Studied By Women,” pg. 12?, col. 4:
Mrs. R. B. Hogancamp, chile con queso,…

27 December 1940, Los Angeles Times, pg. A5:
Walt and Sit Candy—the latter in a bright Yuletide red felt chapeau—were raving over the chile con queso.

4 November 1947, Chicago Daily Tribune, pg. 25:
Chili con queso made a bigger hit at my table than even the sout-of-the-border barbecued chicken. Chili con queso is a cheese and pepper toast, um-mm, but good!

Chili con Queso
1 chili peppers
1 onion
2 cups tomatoes
2 eggs
1 cup grated yellow cheese
1/2 teaspoon chili powder
1. Chop peppers and onion fine and saute in a little fat. Use a green pepper if chili peppers are not available.
2. Add tomatoes, stir well, and add while stirring, the well beaten eggs.
3. Add salt to taste, cheese and chili powder, stir and cook until cheese is melted and serve hot on toast.

1 February 1954, Los Angeles Times, “Recipe of the Week” by Lola Turley, pg. B6:
This modern version of the traditional Spanish chili con queso, was sent to us by Mrs. Lois Marie Young of El Paso, Tex., and is made with green chilis blended with creamy, smooth cheese and a dash of lively tabasco. This tempting dip is a savory change from the usual line of “nibble foods.”
Chili Con Queso
Use two and one-half cups canned tomatoes and one small can green chilis. Put both in top part of a large double boiler, place directly over flame. Cook slowly until mushy, adding a little water if necessary. Remove from flame and place over boiling water. Add approximately two pounds cheddar cheese, cubed, slowly and cook until the cheese has melted. Flavor with a dash of tabasco. Serve with tostados, crackers, potato chips or anything with which to “dip.”

1 October 1964, Washington Post, pg. D1:
LBJ RANCH dishes will include chili con queso, pickled okra, guacamole and chili dip. All are favorites of the President and First Lady.
(…)(Pg. D14—ed.)
Here are the recipes from the White House.

Chili con Queso
1 No. 2 can tomatoes
1 large onion chopped fine
1 bud garlic chopped fine
1 tsp. salt
4 tbsp. chili powder
1 tbsp, powdered comino seed
1 tsp. oregano
1 lb. aged cheddar cheese
Simmer all this except cheese slowly for about 2 hours, covered, stirring often. Uncover, turn heat up high and stir constantly until all fluid is gone and you have a thick paste. This paste can be frozen. If so, set out to thaw a couple of hours ahead allowing for about 30 minutes in a double boiler before serving time. Add to it, in double boiler, 1 pound best aged cheddar cheese cut up in chunks.

Cover and let stand over water that is simmering, not boiling, as boiling water tends to make cheese stringy. Stir occasionally to mix well. Taste and add salt if needed.

Serve in a chafing dish with large size fritos if desired, but tortillas quartered and fried in deep fat are better.

Join Pableaux Johnson and Bryan Caswell!

The Red Beans and Rice Roadshow comes to Houston!
Guest Chef: Bryan Caswell at Reef
One night only!

For Tickets click here!


Day of the Dead, Oaxaca 1997

Our Dia de los Muertos ofrenda from 2015

Our Dia de los Muertos ofrenda from 2012

Bread of the Dead (Natural History Magazine, November 1998)

Francisco Marquez and I are sitting at the farmhouse table, drinking hot chocolate and eating sweet pan de muerto, the bread of the dead. It is the morning of November first, Dia de los Muertos, the Day of the Dead. As we talk, just beyond the dining room’s open-air doorway, three baby turkeys peck at the bare dirt in the courtyard. Several radios are playing in other parts of the village, and boys are yelling down by the river. But by far the loudest sound is the frantic mooing of cattle. “They want to eat too,” Francisco chuckles.

His wife, Margarita, shows me the kitchen. It is in a shed made of sticks fastened together vertically, so the light on the dirt floor is striped. Mole negro, the deep black sauce which is traditional on Dia de los Muertos, is cooking in a cazuela, a clay pot that sits directly in the coals of the wood fire. Two dead chickens are lying on the dirt floor waiting to be plucked. “Chickens to eat with the mole,” Margarita explains. In the poorest houses, the mole negro is eaten in a bowl like a soup. To have chicken with the mole is a luxury.

In bags throughout the house, there are many more loaves of pan de muerto. I ask how many loaves of bread the family bought. The week before Dia de los Muertos, she says, it is the custom for the family to buy a ten-kilo sack of flour and take it to the baker along with five dozen eggs and the other ingredients needed for the sweet egg bread. Most families also bring along the papier-maché decorations that are inserted into each loaf. The papier-maché ovals have little faces painted on them; when the pan de muerto is finished, each loaf of bread represents an individual soul. The baker prepares the family’s entire order of pan de muerto at one time. The ten-pound sack of flour yielded 130 loaves this year, including the tiny loaves for the angelitos.

Pan Muertos

Pan Muertos

“The angelitos are here now,” says Francisco, as he shows me the family ofrenda which dominates an entire wall of the living room. There are tiny cups of hot chocolate and little loaves of bread on the altar. Angelitos are the souls of dead infants, including the souls of miscarried and stillborn children.

“Has your family lost many children?” I ask.

“No, not so many,” he says. “But that’s not important. Some of the spirits don’t have families to go to, so we have to put out food and drinks for all of them.”

The ofrenda is the center of the Day of the Dead celebration. It is an altar that is generally built of three tiers, each smaller than the one beneath it, like a pyramid. The tiers are covered in cloth, and an arch of sugar cane stalks is formed above the altar. It is decorated with the marigold-like flower known as zempoalxochitl (“flower of the dead” in the Nahuatl language).
On the top tier, there are often photos of deceased friends and relatives or religious statues and candles. Most of the rest of the altar space is covered with special foods and beverages, especially pan de muerto, fruits, and hot chocolate.

“The angelitos will leave at noon, and then we will put out the food and drinks for the adult spirits,” Francisco says. I am not wearing a watch, and neither is Francisco. I look around the house, but I don’t see any clocks. I wonder how he can be so precise about the timing.

It is very warm indoors, so Francisco and I go outside and sit on a porch facing the courtyard. An old woman walks by carrying a bundle of firewood, which she drops outside the kitchen before she enters. “That is my mother,” Francisco says. Her name is Vincenta, she is 76, and she has the classic hawk nose and high cheekbones of a full-blooded Zapotec.

Suddenly, the church bells begin ringing and fireworks explode all over the village. A parrot in a cage hanging from the eaves above us begins to shriek. I marvel at how perfectly the village is synchronized. There is never any doubt about when it is precisely noon on November first in the village of San Lorenzo Cacaotepec.

Francisco looks squarely into my eyes. “The angelitos are leaving now,” he says with a quiet smile. Vincenta and Margarito come out of the kitchen carrying a bowl of black mole, a bottle of mescal and glasses and some pan de muerto, which they take into the living room to place on the ofrenda. Francisco and I go watch.

“My father was born here on this farm 85 years ago,” says Francisco. Crispin Marquez worked so hard that people called him El Machin, “the machine.” As soon as Francisco was born, people called him El Machin Chico, “the little machine.”
Francisco says that he has no photo of his father to mark his altar. But because El Machin loved mescal and mole negro, every year the family gives him those things. El Machin Chico pours El Machin Viejo a hefty shot of mescal and places it on the ofrenda. .

Francisco leads me back to the porch and insists that I join him in a shot of mescal. I understand that I am not just joining El Machin Chico in this mescal, I am also joining El Machin Senior, and to refuse would be an insult. I can also see that by this logic I could become very drunk, very quickly. After a few, I say my good byes and head off for the village center.
The farm and the countryside are lush and green. By comparison, the village, with its rutted roads and open sewers, is not much to look at, but I spend the rest of the day there gladly. I visit ofrendas, give and receive loaves of bread, and eat and drink with the people of the village and all their dead friends and relatives.

I am surprised to see a Dia de los Muertos ofrenda in the village church. I grew up a Catholic, and I was aware that November First, All Saints’ Day, formerly known as Allhallows, had inspired Halloween, or Allhallows Eve. But Halloween is far from an official Christian holiday. In my community some fundamentalist Christians have complained that Halloween decorations should be banned from public schools. And yet here in Oaxaca, Dia de los Muertos is perhaps the most important Catholic holiday of the year.

As it happened, Davíd Carrasco, a professor of Comparative Religion at Princeton, was in Oaxaca for Day of the Dead. I called him at his hotel and we discussed the ofrendas we had seen that day. Carrasco was particularly interested in the similarity between the modern ofrenda and the ancient ceremonial pyramids of Mesoamerica, which were also heaped with fruits and flowers. The holiday predates Catholicism’s arrival in Mexico, Carrasco has written, but Catholicism cleverly expanded to include it.

I talked to several other trained observers about the ideas behind Day of the Dead, such as the belief that your life on this earth depends on treating the dead well, and that if the dead are not properly worshiped, your own economic security and health could be jeopardized. I heard about villages where people spend all night in the graveyard to welcome the dead back, and I heard about fear of the vengeful ignored dead and of angry spirits with no homes to go to.

In Dia de los Muertos, you can find layers upon layers of meaning stretching back into prehistory. But after spending the day with El Machin Chico and his family, I came to a very simple understanding of the holiday. Dia do los Muertos is a time for the living to join their dead family and friends in a joyful feast.

That night, I had a dream in which I saw the face of a crying baby. I woke up and thought of my first and only son, who was stillborn. At the suggestion of the grief counselor at the hospital, my ex-wife and I gave the child a name: Andrew, after my grandfather. We had a brief memorial service, and for a few years we lit a candle on his birthday. But since the birth of my two daughters, I had rarely thought of him.

But this year, I plan to celebrate the Day of the Dead. My ofrenda will have an old black-and-white picture of my dad and a sonogram of Andrew on the top tier. Underneath that, I’ll put out a glass of Scotch and a ham-salad sandwich for Dad and a tiny cup of hot chocolate and a sweet bun for Andrew. Then, on November first, all three generations of us will sit down and enjoy a meal together.

The Bread of the Dead
AUTHOR: Walsh, Robb
PUB. DATE November 1998
SOURCE Natural History; Nov98, Vol. 107 Issue 9, p66
SOURCE TYPE: Periodical
DOC. TYPE:Article

Goodbye Hot Sauce Contest!

Preliminary Judges at Serrano's Back Room, 2010

Preliminary Judges at Serrano’s Back Room, 2010

I am announcing my retirement from the Austin Chronicle Hot Sauce festival. The Chronicle has graciously bought me out of the event we founded together 27 years ago. I am happy to turn the judging over to a new generation of hot sauce lovers and wish the festival continued success. It was a great run, and I got to hang out with a lot of wonderful people. I will miss seeing everybody!

The El Paso Boys, Phil Born, Dave Walsh

The El Paso Boys, Phil Born, Dave Walsh

Lisa Gray, Gustavo Arellano, John Morthland (red cap)

Lisa Gray, Gustavo Arellano, John Morthland (red cap)

Daniel Vaughn and Joe Nick Patoski

Daniel Vaughn and Joe Nick Patoski

Katie, Robb and Julia Walsh

Katie, Robb and Julia Walsh

Pozo-cooked Barbacoa

Swiss-Mex Enchiladas

IMG_4964Enchiladas Suizas are a new item on the menu at El Real Tex-Mex Cafe. In fact we use the Suizas sauce on several enchiladas plates including the Chicken Enchiladas Suizas, Avocado Enchiladas Suizas, and Crab and Avocado Enchiladas. Enchiladas Suizas means “Swiss-style Enchiladas.” 280 photo by Laurie Smith - Version 2Our Suizas sauce is a bechamel sauce with sour cream and seasonings.

I noticed that the recipe of the week at the Houston Press website is also enchiladas Suizas. The recipe given comes from food TV celebrity Marcella Valladolid, a native of San Diego and it includes tomatillos.

Brooke Viggiano at the Houston Press quotes another writer from San Franciso who credits the name Suizas to Mexico’s Swiss immigrants. If anyone has any information on the location of a Swiss Colony in Mexico, please fill me in! There were only 5,000 Swiss in Mexico in 2011 according to Wikipedia, and I can find no mention of an earlier Swiss migration.

imgres The image of La Lechera, as the fetching Swiss Milkmaid on the Nestle label is known in Spanish, and this restaurant recipe for enchiladas Suizas supplied by Nestle using its canned milk supports an alternate explanation.

IMG_531320 years or so ago, when I was interviewing Chef Michael Cordua of Americas and Churrasco’s fame, he offered a personal view on the history of Tres Leches cake. Cordua explained that here in the United States, canned milk isn’t held in very high regard by chefs.

images-1But he said that during his childhood in Nicaragua, canned milks, which were usually imported to Latin America from Switzerland, were a luxury. Local fresh milk was suspect as it was frequently stretched with water (often contaminated). According to Cordua, the original Tres Leches cake recipe was printed on the back of a Nestle milk can–the 3 milks were Nestle evaporated milk, Nestle sweetened condensed milk, and whipped cream or another milk. The theory that Suizas, or “Swiss-style,” is a reference to Swiss canned milk is pretty persuasive.

Post Script: A Saveur article with recipe suggests that Enchiladas Suizas was invented at Sanborn’s Cafe in Mexico City in 1950 and that the name does indeed refer to the liberal use of dairy products.

The Seedy Side of Galveston

Seeding Galveston is an urban gardening project that has transformed some weedy vacant lots on Galveston Island into thriving community gardens.
collage-2016-04-30The largest plot, at 33rd and Avenue N, is a full-fledged urban farm. Tomatoes, eggplant, sorrel, cucumbers, cabbage, green beans, herbs, collard greens, several kinds of chard, kale, and potatoes are all planted there now. Along with all the vegetables, there are also dairy goats, laying hens, and honeybee hives.

On Wednesday mornings from 9 am to 11 am, you can buy fresh vegetables, eggs, honey and whatever else is being harvested that day at the farm stand set up by the front gate. A plastic supermarket bag full of greens goes for $2. IMG_5514

If you would like to volunteer, show up on Saturday morning in your gardening gear and do some weeding, watering, or whatever else needs done–you will be paid in fruit and vegetables.

collage-2016-04-30 (2)The vision behind Seeding Galveston is provided by veteran urban gardeners, Debbie Berger and John Sessions. The pair have been honored for their work with UTMB and other community organizations–both for making fresh produce available to those who need it, and for helping those who teach children and the disabled using gardening as a learning experience.

If you’ve ever visited the Galveston Farmers Market on Sunday, you’ve probably noticed Seeding Galveston’s half block “rent-a-garden” area at Post Office and 25th. There individuals and organizations use the raised beds to grow their own vegetables.

collage-2016-04-30 (1)When I visit the Wednesday morning market at N and 33rd, I buy a lot of French sorrel. Its long been a favorite ingredient of mine and you can’t find it at the grocery store. The past few weeks, I’ve been trying out some new sorrel recipes–including several from former Israeli spy Yotam Ottolenghi.

It’s amazing stuff!

Texas Barbecue Revisited

The 2nd Edition of Legends of Texas Barbecue Cookbook went on sale April 19.611+TY6qkoL._SX390_BO1,204,203,200_

There are some great new photos from Robert Jacob Lerma, 32 new recipes from famous Texas pitmasters like Joe Burney and Aaron Franklin and cook-off competitors like Robert Sierra and Ernest Cervantes. There’s also new information about community barbecues in Texas.

My original copy of Legends of Texas Barbecue has been with me since the beginning. It’s badly worn with dog-eared pages and plenty of grease and barbecue sauce stains. A lot has changed since those days, and Robb Walsh has been there to help shape and document the evolution of Texas Barbeuce. This new edition is a must-have.”
-Aaron Franklin
Author of Franklin Barbecue: A Meat-Smoking Manifesto

“Legends of Texas Barbecue Cookbook was the first book to celebrate the great variety of barbecue styles across the state. The updated second edition provides more rich history that adds to the nuance of Texas barbecue. Walsh brings back all of your old favorites, and introduces a bevy of talented new pitmasters from all over the Lone Star state.
-Daniel Vaughn
Barbecue Editor, Texas Monthly