Texas is the state where everything is BIG, and where personalities are larger than life. It’s a state made rich by oil … and as home to the nation’s space program, it’s given the state and its food a reputation that is literally out of this world. But at its very heart, Texas is cowboy country. A cowboy heart beats strong in its wide range of cooks … from down-home barbecue legends to five-star chefs catering to Texas billionaires. That cowboy spirit is infused in every dish from goat meat gorditas to rattlesnake and rabbit sausage and, of course, barbecue. Spanish, Mexican, Eastern European and French influences in the 19th century have made the cowboy culture all the more precious to the Texan mindset. They are ferociously protective of it –Texans see themselves as Lone Star Staters first, and Americans second.
What few people know is that Texans dine out more often than anyone else in the entire country. Texas started out as cow country, but in 1930 C.M. Joiner struck oil 100 miles east of Dallas – the largest oil discovery on earth at that time. Dallas, Houston and San Antonio are among the nation’s ten largest cities. The only state with 3 top ten cities within its borders.
Now if there’s one food Texans are fiercely proud of it has to be barbecue No, not like that barbecue you think you know from say Memphis or the Carolinas … Texas barbecue is all about the beef. And the techniques they use were brought to the Lone Star State by German immigrants who blended local Mexican and Caribbean influences that they found in Texas that dealt with the preparation of pork and applied it to beef.
That’s why the Mikeska family is as comfy BBQ-ing sweetbreads as they are cooking ribs-dubbed by Texas Monthly magazine as the “First Family of Texas Barbecue”, Tim Mikeska is the owner of Mikeska’s Bar-B-Q in Taylor and they’ve been serving barbecue for more than 50 years. This family of settlers of Czech origin came to Texas more than 150 years ago. What did I eat there? Well I piled my plate high with …
*Smoked Tex-Czech Stewed Sweetbreads- As a 3rd generation Texas Czech Family, the Mikeskas took a traditional homeland Czech dish that was passed down many generations in their family, and “Texa-fied” it by marinating the sweetbreads in brisket seasoning, smoking it over oak wood, and then adding a stew mix of chopped Texas sweet onions and celery.
*Smoked Mutton Ribs – Awarded the “Best Offbeat BBQ” honor by Texas Monthly magazine. Tim marinates and then smokes the breast of lambs. Lamb breast is the thick fatty flank of breast/brisket meat still attached to the upper rib. It’s very fatty and can be very chewy but if prepared right, it’s superb. It was a very popular item back in the day when Texas was still predominantly using manual labor to pick their cotton. It’s still one of the cheapest cuts of meat in existence today.
*Smoked dove hearts with jalapeno peppers and smoked wild dove breast stuffed with jalapenos and wrapped in bacon. Oh my lord it was good.
*smoked liver sausage-another Tex-Czech dish
*smoked head cheese – another very old family recipe
I love state fairs, and they say that everything is bigger in Texas, and the annual State Fair of Texas is no exception. The State Fair of Texas is the largest state fair in the U.S. when measured by annual attendance and its 212-foot Texas Star Ferris wheel is the largest in North America. The foods of the Texas State Fair fall into a few categories: There’s the true Texan foods, unusual desserts, most-bizarre creations … but more than anything else they love to fry food. There’s deep fried peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, fried cookie dough, fried peach cobbler on a stick, zesty fried guacamole bites, deep fried lattes, fried chili Frito burrito, fried hot dogs, Chicken Fried Bacon, Fried Banana Split, Fried Grilled Cheese Sandwich, Texas Fried Jelly Belly Beans, Deep Fried S’mores, Fried Chocolate Truffles, Fried Dinner Roll, Fried Cake on a Stick, Texas Barbecue Eggrolls, “Jalapeno” Deep Fried Gorditas, Fried Apple Pie, Fried Snowballs, Fried Honey Bun, Ignited Moon Pie, Beefy Fried Queso Bites,¬ Chick-a-Mole Bites, Crispy Fried Cantaloupe Pie and fried banana pudding. I could list about 100 more but I am getting queasy just writing this down.
Our guide through this culinary maze of western culture was Abel Gonzalez a famous fixture at the massive fair. This Texas sized character is the guru of the most unusual fare at the fair. Abel is a computer analyst most of the year, and the son of a restaurant owner, and he works at his family-run stand. In 2005, judges and fairgoers picked Gonzales’ fried PBJ and Banana Sandwich as the tastiest new food item at the fair. He sold about 25,000 during the 24-day fair. In 2006, he came up with a new artery-clogging concoction, fried Coke. Gonzales deep-fries Coca-Cola-flavored batter. He then drizzles Coke fountain syrup on it. The fried Coke is topped with whipped Coke flavored cream, cinnamon sugar and a cherry. Gonzales’ diet-buster won the creativity honor at the Big Tex Choice Awards Contest. This last year his new creation was called Fire & Ice. Fire & Ice is a pineapple ring that is battered and deep-fried, then topped with banana-flavored whipped cream that’s been frozen in liquid nitrogen. The smoking concoction is ladled with strawberries and syrup. Fire & Ice was a finalist in last year’s Big Tex Choice Awards competition. If you hit the Fair next year, tell him I sent you and say hi … and bring the Pepto!
Nowhere will you find that cowboy spirit stronger … nor the scenery quite so stunning as in the Texas Hill Country. It is literally deep in the heart of Texas … these rolling hills and wide open spaces west of San Antonio and south of Austin are what the New York Times labeled this year as its #1 tourist destination. German and Czech pioneers settled in these hills and today they’re still welcoming new immigrants. I spent a day with Paula Disbrowe, the author of Cowgirl Cuisine, co-author of several other cook books and a freelance writer whose work appears regularly in The New York Times. We explored the unique foods of the Texas Hill Country-which is the area between Austin and San Antonio and west of those two cities riding shotgun style in an old pick-up. The first stop was the Mi Tierra café in San Antonio for a morning cafe con leche and plates of huevos rancheros. We stopped in at Dziuk’s Meat Market in Castroville to sample a local cuisine called Parissa — which is a steak tartare flavored with Tex-Mex seasonings, cheap cheddar cheese and lime juice. It’s a popular appetizer in bars and for some strange reason fans of the dish would rather see it come from a nasty roadside stand than from any other type of establishment. Odd. Next stop was a local institution called Mac and Ernie’s, which is known in the region for its goat burgers, but also offered the best chicken fried steak I ever ate, and the worlds best chocolate pie. We stopped for sweetbread gorditas at Live Oak Gorditas in Uvalde and made our final stop at Tommy Lee Jones’ fave bar, the Liberty Bar in San Antonio. This place is nearly as old as the State of Texas and is still packing in cowboys and city folks alike with pure Southern Texas cooking.
Paula is without a doubt the most well informed, gracious and adventurous guide we have ever had on the show. And the fact that she is 6 feet tall, has super model hotness and long red hair, wears little short frocks with cowboy boots and drives a 50 year old truck has nothing to do with that assessment.
For unusual, bizarre and alien food that was quite literally out of this world, we headed to the Johnson Space Center outside Houston. It’s the home of NASA, the nation’s space program-mission control for all space shuttle flights, and mission control for the U.S. portion of the International Space Station. And since NASA hasn’t been recruiting any chefs for missions into space … all the food cooked for space travel is made right in Texas. Makes sense, after all an astronaut is little more than a cowboy in a space suit. When you think of space food, you’re thinking Tang … or one of those ‘meals in a pill’ type of scenarios, right? Not at all. In fact the NASA Space Food Systems Laboratory is really just a big kitchen … but at the helm aren’t chefs, they’re “food scientists.” A lot has changed since we first sent men to the moon in the Apollo missions 40 years ago. What NASA has learned from putting men and women in space, especially on longer Shuttle missions and even longer missions on board the Space Station is that food is THE most important component to maintaining the mental health of its astronauts. In an environment where so much is out of the control of the astronauts, having meals that appear to be home-cooked is now deemed critical to mission success. Sorry, Tang, you’ve been grounded. Interestingly astronaut ice cream is not served on missions, it gums up machinery, the Russians supply half the food for the International Space Station, the garbage is jettisoned during return to earth and burns up in the atmosphere, the mylar in common potato chip bags was developed by NASA and since space food goes non-nutritive after 18 months, the challenge facing scientists in 2015 with manned Mars missions is feeding our space cowboys on the 3 year roundtrip mission.
While Dallas was built with the wealth of oil, its sister city Fort Worth was and is a cow-town– built on the fortunes of cattle ranchers … fiercely proud … a city where it’s not about the size of your wallet-it’s your belt buckle that matters. And the size of your appetite. And I didn’t come here looking for a simple steak. Where does a Dallas billionaire or an east Texas cowboy go for a little rattlesnake, antelope, rabbit, deer, elk and the like? At my pal Tim Love’s Lonesome Dove Western Bistro in Fort Worth. Fancy yes, but in a down home Texas way since Tim is a born and bred Texan with a personality as big as the Lone Star State. As the foremost pioneer of urban Western cuisine, Love wears his signature cowboy hat in place of a toque. The innovative menu at his critically acclaimed Lonesome Dove Western Bistro in the historic Fort Worth Stockyards is influenced by all of the ingredients and cultures that have been a part of the West since the first adventure began on the Goodnight-Loving and Chisholm Trails-with an added level of modern sophistication. Don’t miss the buffalo rib eye or wild boar when he offers it as a special.
I love to hunt and hunting is an important part of the Texas economy and plays an integral role in the management of Texas wildlife populations. With more than 913,000 hunters, Texas ranks second in the nation for number of people engaged in hunting. Many Texans will tell you, if you want something to eat … go shoot it yourself and I went to the Laguna ranch just north of the Rio Grande outside Laredo. This 12-thousand acre cattle ranch is a hunter’s paradise. My guide was master outdoorsman Jerry Gonzalez of Pedernal Bowhunts, a company that outfits hunts on several ranches here in Deep South Texas. The critter I went on the prowl for was the javelina, a strange-looking critter sometimes referred to as Ranch Rats or Skunk Pigs. Though some people think javelinas are a type of wild pig, they are actually members of the peccary family, a group of hoofed mammals originating from South America. Many people refuse to eat Javelina because they have a musk gland that smells terrible, like rotting garbage, and one butchering or shooting misstep can make the meat taste bad. But if skinned properly, you can remove the gland without ever squeezing or puncturing it and your meat will taste pretty darn good. After the hunt we enjoyed a traditional barbacoa breakfast, a whole cow’s head cooked overnight in a pit in the ground. The head was better than the javelina, but it was a great way to end our Texas sized adventure.