Texas Food at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival in Washington, D.C.
On a purely mathematical level, musicians had it far easier than chefs at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival in D.C., which this year sought to teach sunburned tourists on the ways of Texas. After all, a single song, delivered with a well-tuned guitar and a clear voice by, say, Guy Clark, could entertain thousands under some ambitiously named tent (Opry House?) on the National Mall. One overpriced meal, however, could satisfy only one (decidedly unfinicky) appetite. If that.
The logistics of feeding a festival crowd made it nearly impossible to replicate the barbecue and Tex-Mex plates that have cemented Texas' reputation among food lovers across the globe. But the Smithsonian organizers also didn't do themselves--or the hundreds of thousands of people at the festival--any favors by the limiting the dishes sold or blurring the lines between authentic Texas food and poor, commercial knockoffs.
Case in point: the "Taqueria Tejas" tent, which was manned by the kindly folks at La Mexicana Bakery in Manassas, Va., located just outside D.C. ("The owner's from Texas!" the woman taking my order was quick to add.) The menu was limited to three items--fajitas with corn tortillas, cheese enchiladas, and taquitos, all prepared in advanced and held in Styrofoam to-go containers guaranteed to trap moisture and turn everything soggy. But more to the point, the line between Mexican and Tex-Mex cuisines was so blurred as to become indistinguishable. Did anyone on the Mall, for example, understand that the version of fajitas popularized in Texas (the famous tacos al carbon at Ninfa's in Houston) come wrapped in soft flour tortillas, not corn? And where the hell were the tacos at this taqueria?
At least at the barbecue tent, operated by Capital Q (yet another D.C. business run by a Texas expat), they could put together a decent menu reflective of Lone Star State 'cue. The options were limited to pork ribs, brisket, and "Texas" sausage; the problem, of course, was that the meats had to be cooked in commercial, gas-powered smokers, not the traditional wood-fired pits that turn out the succulent stuff throughout Texas. This citified, festival 'cue wasn't fooling the purists. "The barbecue is bullshit," one Houstonian told me on the Mall. "They ought to be arrested for impersonating Texas barbecue."
The best food on the Mall, it turns out, couldn't even be eaten. Pitmaster Louis McMillan of McMillan's Bar-B-Q in Fannin (a Top 50 performer in this year's Texas Monthly list) was slow-cooking meats in an oil-drum smoker near the Lone Star Kitchen demo area. Likewise, Bill Avila, owner of the recently shuttered Avila's in El Paso, prepared a tasty looking papas con chorizo, while chuckwagon boss Tom Nall cooked up a mess of cowboy cuisine, including chicken fried steak. But because these dishes weren't produced in an officially inspected kitchen, the food had to sit there, undisturbed and uneaten, as the audience gnawed on their nasty approximation of Texas cuisine. - Tim Carman