Tex-Mex in a Can (with Bonus Chili-Burger Recipe) — 1953/1954
by Paula Bosse
by Paula Bosse
So the other day I was browsing through eBay, hoping to find something Dallas-related that I’d never seen before. And a Cuellar’s (“QUAY-YAR”) recipe pamphlet popped up. And it is fantástico! I remember El Chico frozen dinners, but I don’t remember El Chico canned foods, and that appears to be what the Cuellar family of Dallas started off with when they decided to branch off from their expanding Tex-Mex restaurant dynasty. The canned foods first appeared in late 1949 or early 1950 under the “El Chico” brand, and just as it was really starting to take off nationally, the company was forced to rename the line “Cuellar’s” in 1953 because of a copyright lawsuit; in 1954, after a year of court appeals, they were allowed to go back to using “El Chico.” (Read more about this manufacturing business in my previous post, “El Chico Foods/Cuellar Foods.”) Initially, the company produced only canned goods. Including, yes, tortillas in a can. TORTILLAS. IN. A. CAN. It appears this circular tin originally came with a dreaded key to open it, like Spam and canned hams. So if you wanted some tortillas, you really had to put the work in (and make sure you were current with your tetanus shots).
In addition to the tortillas (which I assume were flour tortillas, but I’m not entirely sure about this), the line of El Chico canned Tex-Mex foods included staples such as chili con carne (with beans and without), tamales (wrapped in corn shucks), enchiladas, beans (fried and not), enchilada sauce, tamale sauce, hot sauce, green chiles, jalapeños, menudo, “taco filler,” taco sauce, Mexican-style spaghetti (!), something called enchimales, and Mexican-style rice (I have never heard of cooked rice in a can). And, I’m sure, many more products. One newspaper ad touted the fact that you could concoct a full meal for a family of 6 using only 5 El Chico canned foods for $1.85 (which, somewhat shockingly, is the equivalent today of about $22.00).
El Chico canned food ad, April 1951
But back to that recipe pamphlet I stumbled across on eBay, which would be from 1953/1954, the period when El Chico was forced to use the “Cuellar’s” name for their canned foods. The recipes are interesting — not only were these dishes unfamiliar and “exotic” to most people in the U.S. at the time (meaning that El Chico felt the need to inform readers that “‘tacos’ in Spanish means ‘sandwiches'” and that quesadillas were “cheese turnovers”), but the recipes also have occasional odd little flourishes which seem unusual and may indicate restaurant hacks or traditional preparation tips I am unaware of (guacamole salad calling for a teaspoon of butter, for example). You’ve got recipes for alarming dishes such as “Tongue a la Cuellar” (first ingredient: “one large or two small tongues”). not-alarming-but-unusual dishes such as scrambled eggs made with a can of chili and hominy, as well as the more mundane dishes like tacos (in which the cook is instructed to use toothpicks to keep the tortilla “closed” during deep frying).
But my very favorite recipe is something so spectacular that I can’t believe this hasn’t made its way to the State Fair of Texas food tents. Seriously, if any of you SFOT food vendors or maverick entrepreneurs decide to develop this dish, please remember you learned about it from me as you rake in the cash!
Okay. Take a deep breath, because this is just GREAT.
“CUELLAR CHILI-BURGER — WITH CHEESE”
- Place a can of Cuellar Chili con Carne in refrigerator overnight.
- Remove both ends of can and push chili con carne out
- Using sharp knife slice chili into approximately 1/4” slices
- Dip slices in regular pancake batter and fry in deep fat
- Have buns ready with slices of cheese melted on same
- Place fried patty, along with diced onion, on buns and serve — will make from 8 to 10 chili-burgers
Wow! It’s a chili-burger without a burger. How does this even work? Granted, this was back in the day when canned chili was very, very fatty — I remember opening cans of (delicious) Wolf Brand chili as a kid and marveling at the orange congealed grease (come to think of it, I’m pretty sure I probably used the open-can-at-both-ends-to-push-it-out technique, a la jellied cranberry sauce, and it retained its can-shape in a saucepan until heated). But wouldn’t these slices just disintegrate while deep frying, even if they were really cold (frozen even) and really congealed? My brother has suggested it might work along the lines of a Baked Alaska, in which the ice cream inside the dessert doesn’t melt as it bakes. Regardless. The joy I’ve gotten from reading this recipe and envisioning a bizarro dish made from deep-fried slices of canned chili dipped in pancake batter makes up for the fact that I will never attempt to make it (molten, melting “chili patties” on a hamburger bun would not only be unbelievably messy to eat but perhaps physically painful as well). But I fully endorse and applaud the concept of the Cuellar Chili-Burger — it’s brilliant! “Fair food” ahead of its time. Thank you, Cuellar test kitchen! (Dear readers: PLEASE MAKE THIS AND SEND ME PHOTOS!)
REAL MEXICAN FOOD MADE BY A REAL MEXICAN FAMILY
For authentic Mexican Foods you should select only the Cuellar label. The emblem of the “Sombrero” and the “Smiling Mexican” will always be your assurance of the very finest of ingredients, blended for flavor-association and pleasing, invigorating taste treats that are invariably thrilling. So different! So exotic! So wonderfully blended that you will make Cuellar Foods a regular eating habit in your own home — and a new and exciting experience for your guests.
Cuellar Foods, Inc.
Sources & Notes
Most images in this post are from the recently ended eBay sale, here (scroll down).
This pamphlet inspired my previous post, “El Chico Foods/Cuellar Foods,” which contains a history of El Chico’s food manufacturing business.
Copyright © 2023 Paula Bosse. All Rights Reserved.
[…] The frozen dinners ultimately took over the manufacturing side of Cuellar foods, and at some point, the canned products eventually faded away. As I said, I remember the frozen dinners, but I don’t remember the canned foods at all. But I find them so interesting that that they are going to get their very own post — check out that post here. […]
Those round, flat cans contained corn tortillas. I was born in Dallas in 1949 and don’t remember ever seeing a flour tortilla until at least the mid to late ’60s. My mother got creative (or lazy) making school lunches for 3 kids and started including canned tamales in a soup thermos. I have vivid memories of the messy unwrapping process, hands covered in red oil. Such fun!
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By the 1960s my contact with Mexican food was in Austin rather than (as formerly) Dallas and I agree that flour tortillas were not seen in Austin restaurants until some time in the ’60s.
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I don’t remember flour tortillas in restaurants until fajitas were popularized about 1982.
My Mexican relatives were making them from at least the late 60s on, at home, so probably for 10 or 20 years before that.
Delicious! Home made tortillas!
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