Fajitas: The Humble Beginnings of an Icon
Order fajitas anywhere in America today, and expect the familiar: bustling Tex-Mex waiters, Mexican beers, margaritas, and colorful, sizzling platters of marinated beef, chicken, or vegetables hot off the grill, alongside pico de gallo, guacamole, rice, and beans. No other dish so universally evokes the cuisine of America’s southern border, where the beef trade of Texas meets the flavors of the Mexican ranch.
But for all the familiarity of today’s America with Tex-Mex’s signature dish, it may come as a surprise that neither the term fajita nor its common preparation surfaced in print until 1971. In fact, fajita probably wasn’t commonly heard of in Dallas, a considerable Tex-Mex hub, until 1982. The Los Angeles Times published an article explaining the newfound popularity of the then-recently imported dish, to a completely unaware readership, in 1985!
True to its Tex-Mex roots, fajitas spent most of its existence in relative obscurity, known only to Mexican ranch hands who developed the preparation during South Texas cattle drives over the middle decades of the 20th century. As cattle were often butchered to feed the traveling workers, the steaks and roasts were reserved for owners and higher-ups, while the Mexican hands, or “vaqueros,” received a portion of their pay in the form of less desirable beef portions: organs and “scrap” cuts like the skirt steak, from the diaphragm. Not surprisingly, the Mexican hands developed a common preparation for the skirt meat they were provided, in this case cooked over fire and served with flour tortillas.
But evidently, the term fajita did not take on significant meaning until decades later, when restaurants in San Antonio and Brownsville popularized specialized preparations, and solidified a lime-based marinade as the norm for tenderizing the steak overnight. When the dish spread as a restaurant favorite, first around Texas, then to the nation, then to the world, it had taken on the accoutrement now virtually inseparable from the term fajita: rice, beans, pico de gallo, onions, and bell peppers. These luxuries, however, were probably completely unknown to the vaqueros who developed the original preparation with what modest materials came their way on cattle drives through Texas. Fajita comes from the Spanish diminutive of faja, meaning “belt” or “strip,” and referred simply to the strips of skirt meat to be cooked over the fire. Not until the dish was co-opted by restaurants was the meat associated with the grandiose presentation of today’s Tex-Mex tradition.
Ask a purist in South Texas, and you’ll likely hear scorn at the term “chicken fajitas” or “vegetable fajitas,” as straying from the tradition, born from necessity, of using the unwanted skirt steak as the only true fajita meat. But look deeper into the history of Tex-Mex’s poster dish, and you could argue that as soon as the skirt meat left the trail, or as soon as it saw a lime or a grilled bell pepper, the dish had been separated from its pure origin long before it saw a vegetarian form.