Texan cuisine is as diverse and rich as the state itself, reflecting its historical and cultural influences. The popular saying “everything is bigger in Texas” can certainly be related to the culinary scene, emphasizing the state’s diverse and expansive food culture. Portions are typically large, and the flavors are bold and big, reflecting the state’s wide-ranging culinary influences and styles. Texas is known for its large-scale agriculture and cattle ranching, which underpins its food industry. One notable event that exemplifies the Texan love for big portions and hearty meals is the Big Texan Steak Eating Contest, held annually in Amarillo. In this contest, participants compete to devour a massive 72-ounce (roughly 2kg’s) steak, complete with all the traditional trimmings, within an hour. The event has gained national attention, attracting competitive eaters from around the country, and has become an iconic symbol of Texas’s larger-than-life food culture.
The annual Texas State Fair is a grand spectacle filled with a medley of experiences, from the energetic fair rides and live country music performances, to baking competitions and impressive rodeo events. It also features some uniquely Southern and delightfully quirky deep-fried foods. Chicken Fried Bacon, inspired by the chicken-fried steak, is a double-fried delight with an irresistible crunch that has quickly become a fan favorite. A sweet counterpoint is the Fried Banana Pudding, a fresh take on a classic Southern dessert that balances savory flavors with tender caramelized banana encased in a crispy exterior. Cajun flavors come alive in the Fried Gumbo Balls, a Louisiana-inspired dish that offers a burst of savory gumbo flavor with each bite. Lastly, the Fried Butter, which surprisingly looks like oversized hush puppies, is described as a warm, crunchy, and buttery biscuit, providing a once-a-year indulgence that’s absolutely worth it. If you find yourself amazed at some of the wacky but DelicioUS! foods on offer at this annual fair, we urge you to take a look at the winning dishes at the 2022 Texas State Fair.
The History and Influence on Texan Cuisine
Texas cuisine is a flavorful blend of multiple influences that have shaped the state’s unique culinary identity over time. One of the most iconic elements of Texas cuisine is Texas Barbecue, which is considered the “Holy Grail” of all Texas cuisine and is a must-try food in the state. The Texas barbecue tradition dates back to German and Czech immigrants who brought their traditions of smoking meat with them across the Atlantic. Texas barbecue is now considered its own distinct food group. Central Texas-style barbecue, characterized by tender dry-rubbed smoked beef brisket and peppery sausage with minimal use of sauce, is the most iconic. Did you know that Aaron Franklin was known for this popular style, and began serving barbecue out of a trailer in Austin? His flawless brisket sparked an American barbecue renaissance, emphasizing locally raised meats, experimentation, and the creation of an urban barbecue culture.
Mexican influences are another significant factor in Texan cuisine, most notably exemplified by Tex-Mex. Tex-Mex originated as a mix of native Mexican and Spanish foods when Texas was part of New Spain and later Mexico, especially in the South Texas region between San Antonio, the Rio Grande Valley, and El Paso. This cuisine originated from the Tejano people of Texas and has spread to the rest of the country. As of April 2023, Tex-Mex cuisine had surpassed Italian food as the most popular cuisine in America. It is characterized by its heavy use of shredded cheese, beans, meat, chili peppers, spices, and flour tortillas. Tex-Mex dishes incorporate flavors from other spicy cuisines, such as the use of cumin introduced by Spanish immigrants to Texas from the Canary Islands.
Let’s not forget breakfast tacos, a Texas staple, which started in northern Mexico as “tacos de guisados” and migrated north to Texas. Breakfast tacos in Texas are typically encased in flour tortillas and include a wide array of fillings selected by personal preference, including scrambled eggs, bacon, chorizo sausage, roasted potatoes, and cheddar cheese, among others. The first recorded mention of the phrase “breakfast tacos” was in a 1975 entry in “The Arizona Republic” about a dish served in San Antonio. The popularization of tacos, in general, is attributed to the desegregation of Mexican-versus-American foods during the late 20th century, which led to traditional Mexican dishes becoming mainstream. If your tummy is screaming to try out a great recipe for breakfast tacos, click here for one.
The cultural diversity of Texas has significantly contributed to the culinary richness of the state, creating a blend of flavors that are as diverse as the people themselves. The impact of various cultures, such as Creole, Cajun, and European, has been profound, influencing traditional dishes and introducing new ones.
For example, the King Ranch Chicken Casserole, a staple of Texas cuisine, is thought to have been influenced by immigrants from the Canary Islands. Cream gravy, also known as Texas cream gravy or country gravy, is another example of a food item with cultural influences. It’s a traditional Texas food, and it’s made from the drippings left in the pan after meat has been fried, and often served on top of homemade biscuits. While the gravy’s origins can be traced back to Europe, it’s been embraced by Texans and is now a part of the state’s culinary identity.
Houston, the fourth largest city in the United States, is a shining example of this culinary diversity. With a food scene that embraces a wide range of cultures, Houston showcases the impact of international influence on the Texas food scene. For instance, the Mahatma Gandhi District is known for its Indian and Pakistani restaurants, while Chinatown and Midtown offer a variety of Asian cuisines. Other areas like The Heights and Montrose are known for their eclectic mix of eateries. The city hosts numerous food festivals and culinary events throughout the year that highlight its food diversity. These include the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo‘s Championship Bar-B-Que Contest, the Houston Soul Food Festival, and many more.
The Texan Beverage Scene
Did you know that Dr. Pepper, a unique soft drink with a blend of 23 flavors, has a rich history that can be traced back to Texas? The drink was created in the 1880s by pharmacist Charles Alderton in Waco, Texas. Alderton worked at Morrison’s Old Corner Drug Store where he liked to experiment with the soda fountain. He came up with a blend that was originally dubbed a “Waco,” and it was here that Dr. Pepper was born. The drink quickly gained popularity and became a symbol of Texas beverage innovation. You can even visit the Dr. Pepper Museum to pay homage to the carbonated creation on your next trip to Texas.
Texas is also home to a vibrant wine culture, with nearly 400 wineries spread across the state, making it the fifth largest wine producer in the United States. The Texas Hill Country is a particularly notable region, attracting almost 1.75 million visitors per year. The majority of Texas wineries have evolved into stylish destinations, offering unique tasting rooms that often take advantage of the beautiful outdoor spaces. Most bottles of Texas wine are priced between $25 and $50, with some higher-end options also available. Much like the Western Cape in South Africa, the climate and terrain in Texas lends itself nicely to the production of grapes for wine, so it’s no surprise that Texas is also becoming known for wine tourism.
Did you know that Texas is home to a vibrant craft beer scene, boasting over 300 breweries across the state? From the bustling beer culture of Rainey Street in Austin, featuring renowned breweries like Independence Brewing Co., known for its Convict Hill Oatmeal Stout, and Austin Beerworks with its popular IPAs, to Houston’s oldest craft brewery, Saint Arnold Brewing Company, recognized for its consistent and diverse offerings. San Antonio’s Ranger Creek Brewing & Distilling offers a unique ‘brewstillery’ tour showcasing both beer and bourbon, while in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, breweries such as Rahr & Sons and Peticolas Brewing Company offer traditions steeped in history and award-winning brews. Each city in Texas brings its unique flavor to the craft beer trend, making the state a must-visit destination for beer enthusiasts. The Let’s Texas website provides great information on the brewery industry in the state, where you can read more.
In the vast economic landscape of Texas, agriculture shines as a critical cornerstone. The state’s varied geography supports a diverse array of farming and ranching activities, from citrus orchards flourishing in the Rio Grande Valley to cotton fields blanketing the Panhandle. You can find rice cultivation along the Gulf coast, robust sheep and cattle ranches in the western plains, and thriving timber industries nestled within the verdant Piney Woods of East Texas.
Long before European settlers set foot on its soil, Texas was already a bustling hub of agriculture. Indigenous communities, such as the Caddo tribes in the eastern regions, were known for their maize, bean, and squash crops, according to the Texas State Historical Association. Western Pueblo tribes demonstrated significant agricultural innovation, cultivating food crops and cotton, and developing early irrigation techniques. Upon their arrival, Spanish settlers introduced livestock like hogs, goats, sheep, and cattle, broadening the state’s agricultural profile. As more settlers flowed in, the scope and scale of Texas farming and ranching expanded to include everything from quaint family-owned farms to sprawling cotton fields to huge cattle ranches, like King Ranch, which is the largest ranch in the United States and covers more area than the state of Rhode Island.
The face of Texas agriculture has undergone substantial transformation since those early days. Progress in farming techniques, enhanced seed variety, and the incorporation of modern technologies like mechanization, electricity, and paved farm roads, have propelled the state’s agricultural industry into a new age. In 2021, Texas’ agricultural sector generated $24.9 billion in cash receipts, contributing around 5.7 percent of the total U.S. figure and making the state as the fourth largest producer in the country.
Statistically, Texas’ role in U.S. agriculture is undeniable. As per data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), Texas boasts 246,000 farms, which constitutes an impressive 12.3 percent of all U.S. farms — more than any other state. Furthermore, its 51 million hectares of farmland account for 14.1 percent of total U.S. farm area, dwarfing the agricultural area of Montana, its closest competitor, by more than double.
Cattle farming holds a particularly prominent position in Texas agriculture, accounting for more than 40 percent of cash receipts, far exceeding that of the runner-up, milk production. Together, cattle, milk, and broiler chicken—Texas’ top three agricultural commodities—made up almost two-thirds of the state’s total agricultural cash receipts in 2021. This underlines the immense influence of these commodities and, more broadly, the paramount role Texas plays in U.S. food production.
The culinary tapestry of Texas is as rich and vast as the state itself, spanning from its vibrant craft beer scene to its diverse range of cuisine. Whether it’s the mouthwatering Tex-Mex, the revered Texas barbecue, the innovative creations of the Texas State Fair, or the cherished breakfast tacos, each dish serves as a testament to the state’s diverse cultural influences and its robust agricultural industry.