The Texas Cowboy Cookbook by Robb Walsh Review

If you expect to see a photo of John Wayne in this photo-packed, recipe-packed history of the Texan cowboy, you will not be disappointed.  Author Robb Walsh has found a defining picture of Wayne, a publicity still in which he is clean-shaven, immaculately groomed, carefully posed with rifle and horse. But on other pages throughout the book are shots that tell us Wayne was merely a pretender to the myth, for the real cowboys show several days stubble, their clothes are decidedly not ironed, and we see more ropes than rifles.  And the faces in the photos may be of Spanish cowboys, African-American cowboys, or white cowboys. One consistent quality unifies these faces: they all look like they’ve been working hard.

Walsh knows that an attempt to demystify the legends only makes them more mythological.   He revels in the mix of myth and history, in the shifting borderlines, in the immigration patterns, especially those that happened after the Civil War.  Speaking of food, he tells us, “Cowboy cooking is part of the same mythology, and it enjoys the same romantic reputation.  In reality, the cuisines of the Texas cattle raisers come from a wide variety of ethnicities and a timeline that crosses four centuries.”  He unearths recipes that reflect the shifts in Texas history, from the chiles brought in by the Spaniards to the barbecue brought by freed slaves.   Not forgetting the cowgirls, (even a few of pin-up quality),  there are a few refinements to what we deem cowboy grub.  The recipes run the gamut from a real Texas Chili to Cowboy Beans to the African- American Sweet Potatoes Baked in Cane Syrup and Cane Syrup Pecan Pie to a classic Hill Country Peach Pie to the newer Texas cooking such as Robert Del Grande’s Coffee-Rubbed Beef Tenderloin or Rio Ranch Cinnamon Chicken with Pan Gravy and are chosen to represent the gifts brought by various ethnic settlers

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This is a well-researched written history as well as a picture book, but the fun comes from Walsh’s ability to integrate the writing and photos.  He traces the myth perpetuated by Hollywood with pictures of the early western in its heyday with shots of Wayne, of James Dean in Giant, then goes on to show a few of the West Hollywood anti-heroes, such as the actors in The Wild Bunch (a realistic movie version of the border)), of Midnight Cowboy, with Jon Voight playing the naive Texas cowboy/hustler afloat in New York City.  There’s a shot of Ralph Lauren, the Bronx-born clothing designer who has fortified the legend through fashion while across the page is a poster from Brokeback Mountain, the film that told us there were tragically damaged by the myths.

The archival material may be the most fun to look at, and we admire a shot of Pancho Villa, just as poised and proud as Wayne, though astride the horse he rode, another shot of tired cowboys eating lunch, yet another of the makeshift tent protecting food at the side of a wagon.  Throughout the book are sidebars on related people of the west.

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Walsh has put together a book that entertains, but if you read the bibliography that follows at the back of the book, you will know how heavily researched and documented his material is. Hats off to Mr. Walsh!

About the Author: Robb Walsh is the author of four previous Texas cookbooks, including The Tex-Mex Cookbook. He also reviews restaurants for the Houston Press. He lives in Houston, Texas.

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