It has been said that there are two kinds of people in the world: Texans and those who want to be. It has been said, as well, that Texans have a tendency to tell "tall tales" and exaggerate a bit, and the first statement probably fits into this category. However, Texans enjoy a lifestyle that has great appeal: a casual elegance with good times, good food, and carefree entertaining. We would like to share this feeling of Texas and hope that through these pages you will find not only a collection of recipes but a way of life that can be adapted anywhere.
Part of the appeal and uniqueness of Texas comes from its variety. Within its boundaries there are dust-blown plains in the Panhandle, golden sun-drenched beaches on the Gulf Coast, verdant pine forests to the east, and desert sands and rugged mountains to the west. The cultures and traditions are as varied as the topography, and these variations are exemplified in "Texas food."
Some background may be helpful in explaining the influences of these various cultures as well as why these recipes, passed to us through the generations, are considered staples of the Lone Star State.
Our family background in Texas began with John Coker, a young man who left his native state of Alabama in the early 1830's for the wide open spaces of what is now known as Texas. John found himself in the middle of the Texas Revolution and joined Sam Houston's forces at the Battle of San Jacinto. Under General Houston's orders, John Coker and six other men led by Erastus "Deaf" Smith were sent out to destroy Vince's Bridge. They accomplished their mission on the morning of April 21, 1836. With this bridge destroyed, General Santa Anna and his Mexican army were trapped. Later that afternoon, General Houston and his army made a surprise attack and, with no place to retreat, Santa Anna and his men were defeated. It was this battle that won Texas its independence from Mexico.
Those who fought were rewarded with gifts of land. The Texas Legislature gave John Coker one-third league of land (1,920 acres) situated in what is now San Antonio. John, a bachelor, sent for his family in Alabama. One of his brothers, Joseph Coker, with his wife and their eight children, began the trek by covered wagon to join him. Joseph's wife died during the trip, and he and the children continued the journey, arriving in Texas in 1840. They settled on part of the land which had been given to John. Here our great-great-great-great-uncle John and great-great-great-grandfather Joseph began a new life. Even today, that area in north San Antonio is known as the Coker Settlement.
Our next ancestor to arrive in Texas was Heinrich Conrad Friedrich Christian Bremer, who sailed from Verden, Germany, with his wife, Judith Annette Christiane Bremer, and five children and landed at Galveston on November 22, 1844. One more child was born during the voyage. Heinrich was a member of the Society for the Protection of German Immigrants in Texas, and this entitled him to a piece of good land--the size according to the number in his family. After arriving in Galveston, the family sailed to Port Lavaca on Matagorda Bay. From there they made their way north by wagon until, on March 21, 1845, they reached their settlement--New Braunfels, Texas. Heinrich Bremer is listed as one of the founding fathers of New Braunfels, and there and in the surrounding areas he helped to settle over 135 years ago his descendants have lived ever since. Today, living in San Antonio, we are only twenty-five miles south of the place our great-great-great-grandfather Heinrich helped to settle over 135 years ago.
Other members of our family came to Texas more recently. Our paternal grandfather, Adolph Erben, was a descendant of a former Catholic priest who came from Austria to Texas. Adolph married Hertha Bremer, Heinrich Bremer's great-granddaughter. Our maternal grandfather, Hurcell Paul Orndorff, came to Texas in 1916 after joining the army in New York. His express purpose in coming to Texas was to help capture Pancho Villa. He met and married Mary Adeline McClaugherty, Joseph Coker's great-granddaughter. Mary's father, John McClaugherty, was a descendant of James McClaugherty, who came to America from Ireland in 1786.
The story of our family is not unique; it is characteristic of many pioneer Texas families. Texas became a great cultural "melting pot." First there were the Indians; then the early Spanish, French, and Mexican colonizers; then immigrants from all over the United States and Europe. From this mixture of cultures and peoples came Texas food and eating customs which we know and cherish today. The predominant influences today are those of the German, Deep South, and Spanish/Mexican cultures.
We learned from our German heritage that mealtime is an important part of the day, not only for sustenance but as a time for family and friends to keep in touch. We are ever mindful of the fact that love and care should go into the preparation of food, whether the preparation takes five minutes or five hours. Then, when it is prepared, everyone, including the cook, should sit down and leisurely enjoy the meal as a celebration of life and in gratitude for the bounty on the table.
The Deep South influence gave us much more than cornbread and grits. The hospitality the South is so famous for and its easygoing ways are an integral part of Texas.
The southern lifestyle complements the Spanish/Mexican influence in Texas, where the slogan "mi casa es su casa" (my house is your house) is said with sincerity. The foods and cooking techniques adapted from our Mexican neighbors are, to most Texans, indispensable, as is the relaxed attitude about life which we share.
The appreciation and awareness of our past contributes much to our modern life. However, there are also many advantages to cooking in the 1980's. What took Grandma hours to do can now be done in minutes without sacrificing authenticity, good taste, or hours of the day. A Texas cook can be as relaxed with a party for forty as with four and should have just as good a time as any of the guests. A spur-of-the-moment party is a delight and, with the host at ease, the get-together goes as if planned for weeks.
This blending of old and new is the most important factor which contributes to the "casual elegance" and down-home goodness of Texas food and entertaining. It is this feeling we want to share.
The ingredients in this layered casserole combine for a Tex-Mex fiesta in one dish, A lasting Texas favorite, it can be prepared ahead and frozen, before baking, for 2-3 months.
- 2 2½-pound chickens
- 4 tablespoons butter
- 4 tablespoons flour
- 1 cup milk
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 1/2 teaspoon garlic powder
- 1 1/2 cups canned tomatoes, chopped
- 1/2 cup canned green chilies, chopped
- 1 onion, chopped
- 12 corn tortillas
- 2 cups grated Longhorn or Cheddar cheese
Cover chickens with water in a large pot and simmer 45-60 minutes or until tender. Allow to cool, then remove skin and bone. Reserve stock.
In a saucepan, over low heat, melt butter, add flour, and blend until smooth. Combine 1 cup of the reserved stock with milk and gradually add to flour mixture, stirring constantly until thickened, to make a cream sauce. Remove from heat and season with salt and garlic powder. Stir in tomatoes, chilies, and onion and set aside.
Bring remaining chicken stock to a boil. Dip each tortilla in stock to soften. Cut tortillas into 2-inch strips.
To assemble casserole, cover the bottom of a 9-by-13-inch casserole with one-third of the tortilla strips. Layer half of the boned chicken over tortillas and top with half of the creamed tomato mixture. Sprinkle 1 cup grated cheese over sauce. Add another layer of tortillas, top with remaining chicken, spoon over remaining cream sauce, and top with remaining tortillas. Sprinkle remaining cheese over top.
Bake at 350° for 30-40 minutes or until sauce is bubbly and cheese has melted.
Yield: 8 servings