The plate of three pork tamales at Spanish Flowers arrived crowned with the classic Tex-Mex trifecta of cheese, chili gravy and raw onions, but it didn't appear to be what my dining companion had expected. He curiously inspected the diced white onions before turning his attention to the dark reddish-brown sauce that had been ladled over much of the plate. "What is this?" he asked, dragging his fork through one thick puddle, tentatively testing its texture.
"That's chili gravy," came my bemused reply. "Have you never seen chili gravy before?" He had not—but it wasn't his fault; the lifelong Vermonter was visiting Houston for the first time. In Vermont, he and his girlfriend explained, the only consideration given to Tex-Mex is as "really bad Americanized Mexican food." Having eaten plenty of Tex-Mex food north of Denton, I understood immediately—Tex-Mex has never been fully appreciated outside of its home state, due in part to the mangling of the cuisine that takes place the further away from Texas that one gets.
And it occurred to me then: could good chili gravy be the lynchpin of "real" Tex-Mex? I scanned my memories for all the terrible Tex-Mex meals past, eaten in places like Rochester, New York and Manchester, England. What did all of those meals have in common? A distinct lack of chili gravy. In Rochester, my cheese enchiladas came out as flour tortillas filled with shredded Cheddar and topped only with what appeared to be a Cheddar-Mozzarella blend. In Manchester, the enchiladas were topped with ketchup. Both meals were relatively flavorless and dry despite being loaded with greasy wads of cheese. And while both meals are certainly extreme examples of Tex-Mex gone wrong, I realized something I'd known deep down inside all along: Tex-Mex isn't the same without its mother sauce.
I am, obviously, the very last person to have this realization. Texas cookbook author (and former Houstonia food editor) Robb Walsh practically wrote a thesis on the subject in his Tex-Mex Cookbook, in which he called chili gravy the "lifeblood of old-fashioned Tex-Mex." Enchiladas aren't the same without it, and neither is a plate of tamales—at least not if you're going to call them Tex-Mex tamales. (Tamales in the husk, by the way, were what my Vermont friends were expecting.)
When people talk about authenticity in food, I always think of the old ship of Theseus paradox—the paradox that poses the question: when something has had all of its components replaced, does it still remain fundamentally the same thing as it was originally?
When a Korean dish is made in Italy with the only ingredients available to the Korean chef who's trying to make bibim naengmyeon and can't find buckwheat noodles or anything resembling gochujang paste, is it still bibim naengmyeon when he's finished even though it's made with linguine and Calabrian chili pepper paste?
What about the recipe for your grandmother's prize peach pie, which you now make for your own kids—but subbing out the lard and white flour Nana used in lieu of vegetable shortening and whole wheat flour? Is it still your grandmother's peach pie?
Chili gravy itself can be submitted to this same line of inquiry, especially when examining its roots on the Texas frontier. "Chili was made by simmering virtually worthless minced beef in precious tallow with chiles and spices," says Walsh. "The orange grease that rose to the top of the chili was never discarded. It was either sopped up with tortillas or crackers, or skimmed off and mixed with flour and stock to make a gravy. And that’s where chili gravy comes from." The chili gravy you find most often in today's more health-conscious kitchens, however, is a bit different.
"Today, Tex-Mex restaurants approximate that old-fashioned chili gravy with a roux made of vegetable oil, chili powder and flour to which stock is added," says Walsh. Is it still chili gravy? In my estimation, yes. The effect is still the same; the flavor of musky cumin and smoky dried peppers is mostly intact. After all, it's the deep red chili powder that makes the gravy. Removing the spice blend would be to alter chili gravy to the extent that it's become something else entirely.
I think the same argument can be applied to chili gravy's lynchpin status within Tex-Mex cuisine. By eliminating chili gravy from dishes that traditionally feature it as an ingredient—especially enchiladas and tamale plates—are you effectively creating a new cuisine? Something that, as some Vermonters recently suggested, could be called "really bad Americanized Mexican food" perhaps? Or, like the ship of Theseus, could many different components and ingredients be changed before someone calls its original authenticity into question?
At least one definitive answer did present itself last night—a finite point of no return. "In Vermont," my dining companions mused as they finished their plates of mole enchiladas and onion-topped tamales, "most people think Taco Bell is Tex-Mex." That is not Tex-Mex, a fact which couldn't be diminished even with a heaping ladle of chili gravy.