16 December 2009

Tex-Mex: Jewish food traditions

If one really wants to learn about how Jewish customs are manifested in a still-secret community, take a look at food traditions in southern Texas and northern Mexico.

In this article from the Harlingen News in Texas, read about how these customs - in food, oral traditions, culture and secret religious customs - are still part of the folklore, habits and practices of the early settlers' descendants in this geographical area.

In northern Mexico and what today is Texas, the Jews of Nuevo Leon and its capital, Monterrey, Mexico, lived without fear of harrasment from the Holy Office of the 1640’s and beyond.

Many of the leading non Jewish families today of that area are descended from secret Jewish ancestors, according to scholar, Richard G. Santos.

Santos states there are hundreds, if not thousands of descendants of Spanish and Portuguese Jews living today in San Antonio, Texas, USA and throughout South Texas. Not all are aware of their Jewish heritage.

Santos is a renowned San Antonio, Texas scholar in ethnic studies of South Texas secret Spanish Jewry.
Back in 1973, when few people knew anything about this, he presented a paper to the Interfaith Institute at the Chapman Graduate Center of Trinity University on secret Sephardic Jewish customs in the same region.

Historically, most scholars accept that the founding families of Monterrey and the Mexican border area of Nuevo Reno de Leon are of Sephardic origin. The Diccionario Porrua de Historia Geografia y Biografia states that Luis de Carvajal y de a Cueva brought a shipload of Jews to settle his Mexican colony – with some Jews being converts to Catholicism from Judaism and others “openly addicted to their (Jewish) doctrine."

The late Seymour Liebman, a specialist on colonial Mexico's secret Jews, explained in his book (“Jews in New Spain”) that Jews settled in areas far from Mexico City to escape the 16th century Inquisition.

Conversos colonized the Mexican states of Nuevo Leon, Coahuila, Tamualipas and into what would become the stateof Texas, in the 1640s-1680s and later. Most of Texas’s Spanish-speaking immigrants came from Nuevo Leon, Tamaulipas, and Coahuila (the old Neuvo Reyno de Leon) from the 1680s.

Those who settled in today's southern Texas in the 17th century brought Jewish food customs, such as pan de semita or Semitic bread eaten around Passover and Lent.

According to Santos, the memories of delicious Jewish pastries eaten around the world in today's Sephardic Jewish communities today still live in Tex-Mex pastries, such as pan dulce, pan de semita, trenzas, cuernos, pan de hero and pan de los protestantes (Protestant’s bread).

Pan de semita is considered a 17th century recipe for unleavened matzoh, and it is never made with lard, forbidden by Jewish law. The article offered a quick recipe of 2 cups of flour, 1/2-2/3 cup water, a few tablespoons of butter or olive oil. Mix it together and bake it.

Today, according to the article, all Mexicans (regardless of religion) eat it in the geographical area detailed above.

Santos himself descends from colonial-era Conversos and he details a special kind of pan de semita - including raisins, pecans and vegetable oil - made only in Texas and along the border. This is another sign of Jewish dietary rules. According to Jewish dietary laws, pan de semita with butter couldn't be eaten with meat, but made with vegetable or olive oil, it could.

Santos' recipe: 2 cups flour, scant cup water, a handful (Note: Tracing the Tribe is not sure how to measure a handful of oil) olive oil, mixed with 1/2-2/3 cup each of raisins and pecans. Knead and bake at 350 until lightly browned and easy to chew.

In Guadalajara, semita de trigo substitutes milk for water. In Texas and in Guadalajara, there is semita de aniz (anise), but neither of these include raisins and pecans. Only olive oil or butter is used.

The article also covers the special method of chicken slaughter used today and in the 1640s.

Another Passover/Lent custom is eating cactus and egg omelets (nopalitos lampreados). The only bread eaten is the unleavened pan de semita.

In Texas, Mexican Americans throw a piece of bread dough into the fire before making tortillas or bread; a very Jewish custom. Some do not eat pork on Fridays or after sundown on Friday.

Capirotada is another food eaten around Lent and Passover. It is wheat bread with raw sugar, cinnamon, cheese, butter, pecans, peanuts and raisins.

The Inquisition preserved these ingredients and even recipes in its archives, so we know Conversos in the 1640s used them. (NOTE: In the old days, lard was the preferred fat to use in cooking and baking; olive oil and other vegetable oils were not as common. Only those people who needed to use these oils for religious dietary reasons would go out of their way to acquire them, when lard was all around. Anyone not using lard would be suspect!)

Mexican Americans eat meat on Fridays, even before the Catholic church relaxed the rule about not eating meat. Older women cover their hands while praying, a custom that may come from Jewish women covering their heads.

The Inquisition, according to the article, never was established in what is today's Texas, which encouraged settlement by Converso families.

Some 16 families from the Canary Island arrived in 1731 and founded San Fernando de Bexar township - today's San Antonio. Many Canary Islanders were Conversos.They married with families from Nuevo Reyno de Leon, many of whom were Spanish and Portuguese secret Jews who moved there because the Inquistion wasn't there.

Although not all Mexican Americans are of Sephardic origin, many continue to transmit oral Sephardic traditions.

Read the complete story at the link above.


  1. Thanks for posting this. As a native Texan with Jewish roots, I really enjoyed reading about the heritage of our border people. An interesting cookbook, Dishes of the Wild Horse Desert, by Melissa Guerra, mentions Pan de Semita and relates what the article states about its background.pasadena1

  2. Anonymous1:17 PM

    Hi Bookie, I too am a native Texan,although I dont know if I have Jewish roots? how can I find out something like that?