In the December 2013 issue, we’re running a story on San Antonio’s annual Tamales! Festival, which takes place this year on December 7 at the former Pearl Brewery complex, a 22-acre site that now boasts restaurants, shops, apartments, and—soon!—a boutique hotel. With free admission, free parking, and more than 40 vendors offering treats ranging from tamales to kettle corn, Tamales! is a great kick-off to the December holidays. I attended the event last year in preparation for this year’s story, but first—to get an idea of the hard work involved in making tamales—I attended a tamales-making workshop at the Witte Museum hosted by longtime tamales queen Gloria Solis.
Gloria walked us through the labor-intensive process, showing us how to make beans (for bean tamales), season and mix the masa, spread the masa on corn husks (I never imagined that husks had a “good” side and a “bad” side), and steam them until they’re done. (I will admit to feeling a bit deflated when I posted a photo of my tamales to Texas Highways’ Facebook page, only to read comments from a reader whose tamales turn out far prettier than mine. Upon seeing my stack, he suggested that I should depart immediately—and permanently— for another state.)
So it’s funny what we hold close to our hearts, culinarily speaking. At the same tamales class, I encountered a family from Pennsylvania who didn’t know what tamales were, and then confessed that they weren’t even sure what pinto beans were. So I got to thinking about food items that we take for granted.
For example, I’m always surprised when non-Texans find the idea of a breakfast taco unappetizing—until I realize they’re thinking Taco Bell instead of fluffy scrambled eggs wrapped in a flour tortilla, hot off the griddle.
What are some of our regional specialties? I always think of a neighbor who claimed that a favorite treat in Wichita Falls is a dish of vanilla ice cream with Fritos. I tried that combo, and actually liked it (sweet, salty, creamy, crunchy)—but I’ve never been able to find anyone else in Wichita Falls to corroborate that “regional specialty.”
But recently on a trip through Corsicana, I encountered a mysterious and apparently widely praised sauce known as “Orange Dip,” which might take the cake. There’s a restaurant in Corsicana called The Old Mexican Inn, which has been owned by the same family since the 1940s and has a basic, straightforward Tex-Mex menu full of things like taco salads, tortilla soup, and multiple combo platters featuring tacos, enchiladas, and Mexican rice. The service was prompt and friendly, and my bowl of tortilla soup proved savory and well-balanced with chicken, vegetables, and melted jack cheese. But The Old Mexican Inn is famous for two things: Its $1 frozen margaritas and its Orange Dip. I’ll have to return sometime at cocktail hour to try the margaritas, but I DID try the Orange Dip. And I’m confused.
Is it mayonnaise with ketchup and perhaps some juice from a jar of pickled jalapeños? Corn oil mixed with Thousand Island dressing? I tried to figure out the ingredients but couldn’t. And while it’s certainly worth tasting, I wouldn’t drive out of my way for the Orange Dip. Although plenty of people do. Later in my trip, I met a young girl and her grandmother on a boat trip in Jefferson, and sometime during our small-talk, they mentioned they were from Corsicana. I asked them about the Orange Dip, and their faces lit up. “Oh yes!” the older stranger commented. “I’ve been eating the Orange Dip since I was a teenager!”
What are some regional food specialties in your neck of the woods?