The Dallas story behind the viral Cowboy Caviar TikTok debate
A lot of things are trending on TikTok: The Renegade, the pink sauce, the “quiet weaning”. But one viral food trend has a history in Texas: Cowboy Caviar.
The long-standing bean dish enjoyed a resurgence this year when it was popularized by Wisconsin TikToker Bria Lemirande in June. With over 1.8 million followers on Lemirande, it didn’t take long for other TikTokers to follow suit.
But TikTok’s popularity has cast aside much of the dish’s history and cultural nuances.
The name Cowboy Caviar – also known as Texas Caviar – actually has a history in Dallas. It was created by Helen Corbitt, the legendary culinary director of Neiman Marcus in downtown Dallas, in the 1940s. Since then, it’s been a potluck staple for many Texans, and it’s even been fried at the State Fair of Texas. Although variations exist, the dish consists primarily of corn, black-eyed peas, black beans, onions, and salad dressing. Lemirande added feta and even mango.
But many on TikTok have also pointed out that this dish is another example of cultural appropriation. Commentators called it “a complicated pico de gallo” and “pico de gallo but colonized”. Others called him corn salsa.” The debate, largely driven by TikTok’s Latino community, not only divided foodtok, but also showed the complex nature of food history and culture.
But is Cowboy Caviar pico de gallo? Not really. Pico is a salsa from Mexican cuisine made with chopped tomatoes, onions and serrano peppers, with salt, lime juice and cilantro. Traditionally, it does not include beans or corn.
So is this cultural appropriation? José Ralat, taco editor at Texas monthly, defines cultural appropriation as “the co-option of another culture’s artifacts and tradition for the financial benefit of the dominant culture”. However, it doesn’t always have to be for financial gain and “can be for prestige” too.
Ralat does not believe that Cowboy Caviar appropriated Mexican culture, but rather another culture. “It’s sort of an adaptation of Hoppin’ John, so in this particular case, you could say it’s cultural appropriation,” Ralat says. “But it’s not a cultural appropriation of Mexican food, it would be more African American food.” Hoppin’ John is a black-eyed pea and rice dish popular in the southern United States with a history traced back to slaves in West Africa.
Ralat sees the Cowboy Caviar trend as another example of how quickly misinformation can spread on social media. “It really shows how sensitive we are,” says Ralat. “If another Latino said that X is actually Y, I’m not going to believe them based solely on the color of their skin or their ethnicity. I’m going to treat them like I would treat anyone else – with a lot of skepticism .
However, the Cowboy Caviar debate has no clear answer. Adan Medrano, a Texas chef and food writer, wrote this essay on cultural appropriation in the food industry in 2020. He says there are several questions people should ask themselves when cooking to avoid appropriating a culture: “Do I Are we, really, in this context, erasing someone’s voice… is who erasing their agency? ‘un? Am I unfair because of my access to capital, money and resources, while the creators of food do not have access to them?
Medrano says Cowboys Caviar is very similar to a cactus and bean salad, called ensalada de frijoles con nopales.
“Cowboy Caviar, like nachos, like chili con carne and other dishes, sidelined the voice and agency of… Native American Mexican women,” Medrano says.
For Medrano, failing to recognize the dish as a larger part of Mexican gastronomy is a case of “historical amnesia,” and he urged writers to learn more about Mexican cuisine and history.
“They can do it, but keep in mind that when you do it, enjoy it, so it’s not just delicious on the palate, so it’s intellectually delicious…you understand the ancient nature of ingredients because they are native to Mexico and Texas and this land.
Lemirande has since apologized to those offended by her making of the recipe, and she promised to be more aware of the culture behind the recipes she recreates. But what we can take away is this: it’s more than just a TikTok trend.
Jennifer Igbonoba is a freshman at George Washington University and a graduate of Rockwall High School.