When William Longworth told the story of Silver Creek to J. Frank Dobie it was in a San Antonio restaurant. It must have been a Mexican restaurant, as Longworth had a plate of enchiladas. According to Dobie, Longworth dipped his fork in the enchilada sauce and sketched out the mine site on the table cloth. That probably happened around 1927.
Growing up I used to order enchiladas whenever we went to the local Mexican cafe in our small town in south-east New Mexico. It was different from what passes for Mexican restaurants these days. There were saltine crackers, not fried tortilla chips, on the table. There were two coffee cups of salsa on each table, the red sauce was hot, and the green sauce carried a warning from the surgeon general. There were no fajitas. People mainly ordered tacos (crispy shells with beef) or the enchiladas. Those enchiladas something else. They were not rolled, rather they were flat. There were three corn tortillas, with a little cheese between each tortilla, the whole assembly smothered in from-scratch chili sauce, more cheese on top, and (optionally) a little bit of ground beef on top. The whole thing was baked in an oven and when the waiter said “hot plate” he really meant it. I would cut up the enchilada with my fork into wedges. The sauce was what made it. An option was to top the enchilada with a fried egg, which some people liked. In those days there were no rice or beans on the side, just the enchilada.
Mexican cuisine is one of the most misunderstood, and abused, cuisines in the world. First, there is no single Mexican cuisine. What was in the American south-west was mainly what was in northern Mexico, mainly the state of Sonora. The Hispanics on the north side cooked the same sorts of foods people on the south side cooked, but surely did evolve along in their own way as well. There was really no issue of what was authentic or not.
San Antonio was an epicenter of Mexican food in the early 20th century. Anglos and Hispanics rubbed shoulders at the tables of the”chili queens,” who nightly served up spicy foods in make-shift diners. It may have been at one of those tables, perhaps in a tent, where Dobie and Longwroth met, or it could have been in one of the very early Mexican restaurants.
The food was too spicy for some. Proper enchilada sauce is almost pure chili pulp. The best sauce is made of dried chilis that are soaked in hot water. The reconstituted pulp is scraped out of the skins, and that is pretty much that. Maybe a few spices added, maybe some broth if it is too thick. It is lovely stuff, but too much for some people. So an abomination called chili gravy was born. A brown flour roux (gravy) that has some chili powder added. Really gross stuff.
With the abominable chili gravy, the sauce could no longer be the main attraction, so filling had be added. Beef, chicken, or a whole lot of cheese. To better hold the fillings the tortillas were rolled around the filling. But, in some rare restaurants the enchiladas with the original flat style, with incredible scratch-made sauce with out any flour, can still be had.
Anyway, here is a recipe as close I can come to what the Mexican Cafe served decades ago. May not be Kennedy* approved, but it is the real-deal. I would wager it is close to what William Longworth had when he talked to Dobie.
Again, a proper home made sauce consists of the pulp of New Mexico chilis. Dried chilis have their stems cut off, they are placed in boiling water for a time and then the re-hydrated pulp is scraped off. Proper enchilada sauce is mostly chili pulp that has gone through a blender. It is not tomato based, and may not have any tomato in it at all. When I have made it before I would only add tomato sauce if the chili pulp was too hot to handle. Great stuff, but time-consuming. It is also iffy if one does not have a source of consistent chili pods. One batch will be hotter than the surface of the sun and the next will be mild as ketchup. Old El Paso brand red enchilada sauce from the grocery store is not that bad. There are also some canned sauces from New Mexico restaurants that can be ordered on-line. This recipe is for one serving, but it can be scaled up easily.
- Preheat oven to 400 degrees and place an oven-safe dinner plate in the oven.
- Heat a skillet on the stove, preferably cast iron, on medium heat. Pour a little peanut oil (high smoke point) into the pan and put a cast iron bacon press on the pan to pre-heat it. After it heats up, cook 3 corn tortillas, one at a time, between the pan and the press until they are slightly firm (cook on both sides). Traditionally, they would be immersed in hot oil, but this method uses less oil. Put the tortillas on paper towels. 3 tortillas are just right, 4 is too many, 2 is not enough.
- In a stainless steel, or in a non-stick, frying pan heat up the enchilada sauce.
- Grate at a cup or two of colby-jack cheese.
- Take the hot plate out of the oven. Put a little of the grated cheese in the middle of it.
- With tongs dip each tortilla into the sauce in the frying pan, put it on the plate, and put some cheese on top of it. Repeat two more times, but before putting the cheese on the top tortilla, pour out most or all of the left over sauce on top of the stack. Some people put finely diced onion in with the cheese, but personally not my thing.
- Put the plate in the oven until the cheese melts completely.
- Meat enchiladas can be had by frying some ground meat. Cook it (over cook it) and chop / smash it up into small pieces. Put it on top of the enchilada, on top of the last layer of cheese, before putting the enchilada in the oven.
- Traditionally, finely chopped raw onion is served on top of the enchilada when it comes out of the oven.
- It is traditional to offer guests the option of a fried egg on top (put the fried egg on top after the enchilada comes out of the oven). Personally, not my thing, but some people love it.
*Kennedy was a New York Times food critic who went to Mexico City to discover that the food there was not at all like the Mexican food in the American south west (or northern Mexico, either). Thus she could sneer at all the yahoos in America who liked their tacos and enchiladas. If a food critic from Mexico City wanted to see what the fuss about barbecue was all about so they went to New York City, they would soon conclude that anyone making Memphis, Texas, Kansas City, or Tennessee style barbecue were phonies, as none of that was at all like what was served in New York. The food critic may have speculated that the real American peasant food was the hot dog, and obviously the so-called barbecue was a corruption of the New York hot dog.
Threw away a AM/FM/CD stereo today. Had it for about 5 years. Used it maybe once a week. Made in China. It was by Crosby. Looked at how it was put together, and it was obvious that there was no intention of it ever being repaired.
5 years seems to be a long life for anything made in China. Wonder if anyone has ever considered the environmental impact of making China the world’s manufacturer? I have electronics not made in China, that run and run. A old Montgomery-Wards VCR made in Malaysia, bought in 1996, that still works. A record player made in Japan in the early 1990’s, that still works just fine.
The nasty stuff going to landfills (circuit boards, and all manner of heavy metals and plastics), the fuel used and the pollution made shipping stuff across the ocean, and the pollution by the factory that makes the stuff–am I the only one that sees something wrong with so much attention placed on the point-of-use efficiency of a given item, but not a care in the world how often that item has to be replaced and how many of them end up landfilled? I would rather pay more for something that lasted longer, and could be repaired when it did fail.
Fun link for the day, the fashion show from True Stories. About as practical as any other fashion show, but more fun. The song sung in the background is a little haunting if one listens to the words. As sung by this actress, the song is not available for purchase, a pity.
Found a channel on youTube of a guy who recreates a lot of the day to day life of the 1700’s here.