When Adán Medrano was growing up in San Antonio, the food in his home was not really the type of food that was being served at Tex-Mex restaurants catering to tourists along the River Walk.
For one thing, “you’d never find cumin in our food,” he said.
Let that sink in a little, especially if you grew up with one of the many American cookbooks that told you a dash of cumin would add a Mexican touch to your cooking. Even the original “Joy of Cooking” suggested you add it to your “beans, rice dishes and enchiladas.”
So, Medrano, who started the city’s Chicano Film Festival back in the 1970s, felt the need to capture the story of his people’s food on paper. The end result is “Truly Texas Mexican: A Native Culinary Heritage in Recipes” (Texas Tech University Press, $29.95), which is a savory combination of social history and cookbook.
This Thursday, San Antonio can get a taste of what Medrano is talking about when Nao, the Culinary Institute of America’s restaurant at the Pearl Brewery, showcases his dishes in a special meal that includes a meet-and-greet with the author as well as an autographed copy of the book.
It’s a homecoming in a number of ways for Medrano, who left San Antonio in 1985. After living in a number of other places, he settled down in Houston, where he works in the communications business. In 2010, he returned to his home city in order to get his certificate from the CIA. As part of his school work, he studied the cuisines of Argentina, Peru and other countries of Central and South America. He also took Iliana de la Vega’s course on the foods of the various regions of Mexico. He learned a great deal, he said, praising the CIA for being “a very strong program.”
It wasn’t always easy. Going through any of the institute’s various programs requires “rigor,” he said, “not just in the kitchen with ingredients but intellectual rigor.”
Still, for as much as he learned, he noticed that something was missing. “I didn’t see anything written about my people and what my people ate,” he said in a recent telephone interview.
So he decided to fill in the gap himself. He used the determination he cultivated at the school during the three years it took to research and write “Truly Texas Mexican.” To help him, he started Adán’s Blog, in which he writes about food, people and culture as well as providing a series of mouthwatering recipes, such as a vegan posole that calls up the days before Europeans brought pigs to the New World.
Medrano reaches back thousands of years to examine what the indigenous people of the area ate and how they prepared it. Their use of roasting, grilling, boiling and curing as well as their hunting and gardening techniques tell of who they were and how they lived in the region, which he sees as running largely from Eagle Pass to San Antonio and Victoria and on down to Brownsville.
The foods evolved when the Spaniards and other Europeans brought ingredients such as onions, garlic and cows to the table, and they were eventually incorporated into the dishes made with duck, turkey, rabbits and deer, not to mention corn, that were already in abundance here, Medrano said.
Somehow that food remained in the homes of Texas Mexicans, while Tex-Mex food, with its processed cheese and heavy accent on frying, grew popular in restaurants. Today, you’ll find a mix of both styles of cooking in places, such as Mi Tierra, which have longstanding family ties as well as roots in the community, he said. If Medrano has a soft spot for the landmark restaurant, owned and operated by the Cortez family, it is because he can remember eating there after selling produce at the market when he was just 6 years old.
Tex-Mex has had its story told in the works of writers such as Robb Walsh. Now it is time for the Texas Mexicans to have their foods and their heritage acknowledged, which is what Medrano’s book provides. The 100 recipes are laid out in easy-to-follow instructions that could very well challenge your notion of what an enchilada is all about (hint: it’s not the melted Velveeta or ground beef at the center).
Medrano knows that many people who pick up his book will likely think it’s about Tex-Mex. He hopes that when they start trying the recipes or reading the stories behind the dishes that they’ll learn about the differences and why preserving that heritage is so important. He’s received a great deal of praise from chefs who love the distinction the Texas Mexican name brings; the list includes local favorites Diana Barrios Treviño and Johnny Hernandez.
At this point, however, Medrano is largely a one-man ambassador of his cause. He seems to enjoy the mission, whether he’s addressing an academic gathering or talking with people at a dinner like the one planned for Thursday, because he gets to share ideas, stories and even recipes with anyone interested.
“I’ll have an opportunity to talk with the guests,” he said in anticipation of the Nao feast. “That will be really nice.”
The Adán Medrano dinner at Nao, 312 Pearl Parkway, begins Thursday at 5:30 p.m. with a reception with the author, followed by dinner at 6:45 p.m. The evening includes the meal, the chance to meet the author and an autographed copy of his book for $80. Call 210-554-6484 for reservations.