The mouth watering aromas of fresh corn on the cob, cabrito, pan de campo and a variety of steaming stews and carne guisadas wafted thru the smoky air The annual Linn San Manuel Cookoff is a celebration of South Texas cuisine, and this years 25th anniversary edition featured dozens of top notch Valley chefs.
"This is the granddaddy of all the Valley cookoffs," said rancher Felo Guerra, who is one of many community organizers. "Years ago we decided to try and preserve some of the old customs and recipes."
The Cookoff has developed into the primary fund raiser for the fire department, church and school as well as the local boys and girls club and the 4H. Proceeds from the event also provide scholarships for many students who reside in the ranching community north of Edinburg.
There are raffle items and an expansive silent auction, but many of the hundreds of people who attend the Cookoff come primarily for the temping foods cooked right on the spot over smoldering mesquite coals. Hungry patrons purchase a handful of tickets and then stroll the grounds sampling a variety of South Texas cuisine.
Area ranching families are well represented, and they compete among themselves and others for top honors in various categories from fajitas to pan de campo. It is the singular event that annually brings local friends and families together at one venue. Melissa Guerra, who grew up on the nearby McAllen Ranch, is a respected chef and author, and she was on had to lend her expertise.
Guerra's ancestors have been ranching in South Texas for eight generations and she has written two books on South Texas cooking including the Texas Provincial Kitchen and Dishes from the Wild Horse Desert, which was nominated for a James Beard award. She has also enjoyed four seasons as host of the Texas Provincial Kitchen, a cooking show airing on PBS affiliates around Texas and across the nation.
"When I started writing my book, Dishes From the Wild Horse Desert, this was the only place I wanted to take pictures because everybody had their South Texas outfits on, their South Texas dishes out, everyone was smiling having a good time...this is the very best of who we are."
"Everybody who comes here form beyond the Valley are always amazed by the richness of our culture, and we not only have a very rich Hispanic culture, but there is a lot of influence from the Scotch-Irish, German, Polish, Greeks and others," Guerra said, as she watched her brother James McAllen deftly flip a fresh disk of pan de campo into a hot Dutch oven. "There is more than just the meeting of Mexican and United States. It is actually the meeting of a lot of different nationalities that came here to make a living."
Just behind the McAllen chuck wagon, the unmistakable aroma of mesquite barbeque beckoned. John Trevino of Weslaco has just lifted the lid on his smoker, revealing a tantalizing rack of ribs. They are incredibly tasty and tender, and as Trevino beamed over his culinary creation he shared some of his secrets to award winning barbeque, "Long cooking, plenty of spices, put them at about 250, smoke em real well, and the result is you can cut them with a fork."
"We are just as important of a cuisine as Provence or any of the little regions in France," Guerra said. "We are very isolated and very eclectic in what we do, and we are just now finding our niche in the world market and in the world palette."
"A cuisine is often defined as what people can initially get for free, from hunting game, what they can get from the brush, the forest," she continued. "You can see that in France, with the different mushrooms available seasonally in different regions, in Italy, the seafood available on the coast. Whatever the land can provide easily and quickly and at the cheapest cost, that is what defines best a cuisine. And for us it is venison, mesquite smoke, chili piquin. That's who we are, and it is something we do very well."
"You know in New Your City there are actually quite a few Tex Mex restaurants, but none of them get it right, because they don't have mesquite smoke and they don't have chili piquin. These are two things that we have that are free, and we use them liberally."
Many of the foods like pan de campo or cowboy bread, are traditional recipes originating form cattle roundups and trail drives. At a nearby fire, Cornelio Alvarez Jr. from Rio Grande City plucked a golden brown orb of pan de campo from his Dutch oven. "It comes from back then," Alvarez said. "It is kind of like a survival type of deal, cowboys back on the ranch they learned to cook with what they had."
Michael Ramirez and his family brought their modern chuckwagon from Rio Grande City and prepared everything from mesquite smoked meats to the traditional South Texas condiment called pico de gallo containing, onion, tomato, cilantro, chili and more. "This food and the way we prepare is a chain of hand me downs from our ancestors," Ramirez said. "We have to teach our children what a tradition this type of cooking is, and we can't let anyone forget this style of cooking the vaquero way."
"Cooking is really the only thing we still teach in the oral tradition," Guerra said. "It is the only thing we really have left. The folklore is kind of gone. The costumes are kind of gone. The kitchen is where the oral tradition lives and lasts."
If you missed this year's Cookoff rest assured that next Decembers will be just as tasty. Mark your calendar for the first Saturday in December which will be December 6, 2008 for the 26th annual Linn San Manuel Cookoff.
However, if you can't wait that long to sample the tempting varieties of South Texas cooking, I highly recommend the annual Wild Game Dinner in Rio Grande City at the Fairgrounds on February 23 at 6 P.M. This outstanding event is a culinary extravaganza, and you will be able to savor all types of wild game from rattlesnake to quail.
If you are interested in obtaining a copy of Melissa Guerra's book, Dishes From the Wild Horse Desert, you can contact her at 688-5831 or www.melissaguerra.com.
Copyright 2007 Richard Moore