I want to start off by stating wholeheartedly that I love tacos. In fact, as a San Antonio native hailing from the literal birthplace of Tex-Mex, it is essentially preprogrammed in my DNA to love all things tortilla-related. However, while it may sound sacrilegious, after reading about the campaign led by taco journalist and author Mando Rayo and state representative Gina Hinojosa to enact legislation designating tacos as the official state dish of Texas, I felt compelled to set the record straight and explain why this is such a bad idea.
The Current Situation: Chili
We should begin first by assessing the current state dish situation. As you may or may not know, chili currently holds the title as the official state food of Texas. In 1977 the Texas Legislature proclaimed chili the state dish "in recognition of the fact that the only real 'bowl of red' is that prepared by Texans."
While that may be hard to disagree with, the true importance of chili as the Texas state dish is far more complicated and deeply rooted in Texas history and tradition — this is no trivial matter.
Chili is Authentically Texan
While the origin of chili may never be fully resolved and legends of its beginnings include everything from tales of Spanish nuns to stories of a range cook in Marfa, Texas, most historians agree that the earliest written description of chili comes from Houstonian, J.C. Clopper, who described the stew after a visit to San Antonio.
Although chili has some traditionally Spanish ingredients, this is the extent of any connection to Mexico. In fact, unlike tacos, which have been an integral part of the Mexican diet since the 18th century, chili, according to the Diccionario de Mejicanismos, is a "detestable food passing itself off as Mexican, sold in the US." There is little doubt, though, that chili was popularized in great part by the state's cattle trade and chuck wagon days when it became a staple food.
The Truth About Tex-Mex
I get the logic behind the idea to make tacos the state dish: Texas is melting pot of Texan and Mexican cultures (hence the whole Tex-Mex thing) and what better to represent that than the taco? Chili, I would respond. Although Tex-Mex is generally defined by copious amounts of shredded cheese, ground beef, and flour tortillas and in the form of enchiladas, chalupas, burritos, and — of course — tacos, chili really is the OG Tex-Mex.
Before the "combo-plate-style" Tex-Mex of an entree served with rice, beans, and sour cream gained popularity in the early 1900's, it was chili that first introduced introduced Tex-Mex into the mainstream. Although we have established that chili really has nothing to do with Mexican food (but then again, nor do chimichangas), the story of Tex-Mex really begins with the Chili Queens of San Antonio.
The Chili Queens were a group of Mexican women who began serving chili in the 1870s alongside a variety of other Mexican and Tex-Mex dishes, ultimately giving rise to the Tex-Mex tradition.
So, while most Texans profess their great love for tacos in all their many forms, I feel that this is an insufficient argument for establishing tacos as our state dish. In a way, I believe such an argument is analogous to arguing that falafel be the state dish of New York. Although falafel is a popular food in New York City, in no way does falafel represent or evoke the history and tradition of the city. Therefore, I stand by my conviction that chili truly is the most worthy option for the state dish of Texas.