Don't Mess With Texas Caviar

This bean salad is barbecue's best friend, and so much more than a TikTok trend

Texas caviar
Photo: The Picture Pantry / Alamy Stock Photo

Recently, I wanted to impress my girlfriend's family, so I filled two large Tupperware bowls with a fresh bean salad from Texas, a.k.a. the homeland. That's where my people hail from. Her sisters, their partners, and children were all attending a pig roast in the mountains of upstate New York, and I volunteered to make my favorite picnic-friendly side dish, Texas caviar. It is all the rage right now, thanks to TikTok. The pandemic had put the kibosh on large parties, but tests were taken, and everything would be outside, and food is meant to be shared.

I like to think of myself as a snob about three things: barbecue, beans, and Stephen Sondheim. So I know what I'm doing when it comes to legumes, at least. And my taste in musicals is exemplary. I don't consider pig roasts barbecue. A pig roast is a pig roast, which is fun. Yes, it's slow-cooked, but it's also the whole hog. Roast pig is what bearded lords eat on Game of Thrones.

A thick pork shoulder smoked forever and shredded? Well, that's closer to what I think of as barbecue. I don't want to take anything away from the Carolinas. Pulled pork is excellent, even when drenched in condiments.

There is no such thing as barbecue chicken; that's just chicken slathered with sweet ketchup and grilled. Authentic barbecue doesn't need sauce. Maybe a few squirts of Frank's Red Hot. Authentic barbecue doesn't need help. Just time and fire.

The one true barbecue is brisket, sauceless and sliced. Barbecue is a sexy, sloppy dance between slabs of tender, slow-cooked beef and a cold side dish that complements the moist, smoky meat. And yeah, sorry, there's no better word to describe brisket than moist. Moist. That's just what it is. If you ever find yourself ordering a couple of pounds of brisket from a shack in the middle of nowhere Texas, ask for your brisket moist. Trust me.

Texas caviar is just a side dish, bright, fresh, and crunchy. It stands up to summer. Other classic barbecue sides include a nice vinegary coleslaw, pickles, thick slices of tomato and white onions. Mayonnaise-based salads, while delicious, were not designed to sit patiently under the hot Texas sun. And Texas caviar is the best of the bunch.

Legend says the name comes from the black-eyed peas resembling fish eggs. I don't see it. I always thought "Texas caviar" was a wink to unpretentious folks. Back East, the swells eat caviar. Once upon a time, Texas had a sense of humor about itself.

Oh, to answer the question, I know you're thinking: Sondheim's best musical is Company, followed by Sweeney Todd, which is about, among other things, meat.

I suppose the Texas I know is as much myth as fact.

My mom would tell me stories about Sunday meals prepared by my Abuela long ago and how the family would grow as the neighborhood smelled what was cooking -- poblanos, lard, steamed masa, pico de gallo. These were the years before the state desegregated, long before I was born.

It is good to gather and laugh and eat during hard times.

I was not raised in Texas, but I know some things. I can make chili (duh), con o sin frijoles, chicken-fried steak. I know how to make tamales, but they're time-intensive.

Texas caviar has been a trend in my house since I was a kid; my old man loved it. But this past summer, the salad has become a full-blown phenomenon thanks to TikTok and a person named Bria Lemirande, who made the salad for her 1.8. million followers. After that, the recipe went viral. Her followers made their own versions, and their followers did the same. The recipe has also been written up on countless blogs, including the New York Times. Everything old is new again.

Lemirande called it "cowboy caviar" in her original video, which is incorrect. It's Texas caviar. Lone Star State food. The salad was created in the 1940s by Neiman Marcus culinary director Helen Corbitt in downtown Dallas. Since then, it has become a regional legend, a beloved feature of backyard parties and church potlucks. It used to show up on barbecue joint menus and in cafeteria lines. My mom made it occasionally out of obligation. It was just a thing Texans of a particular generation knew how to whip up.

Texas caviar is an inexpensive plate filler. This is fitting because barbecue is food for the paycheck-to-paycheck class. Moneybags eat rare steaks, and the little people get the fatty scraps that must be cooked forever to be edible. It sits in the pit while you work. But a little heat and patience can transform tough-as-leather brisket into a melt-in-your-mouth main course, and a scoop of beans — hot or cold — is a feast for a rancher.

I like to imagine New York-born Corbitt putzing around her kitchen, experimenting with the flavors of Texas, or as I like to call it, Occupied Mexico. That's a little joke I like to tell that my mom finds funny, and sometimes I tell it when I'm hanging out with one of those Texans who think Texas is a personality just to see how they'll react.

Corbitt stole bits and pieces from local cultures when creating Texas caviar. The star of the dish are black-eyed peas, an underrated legume that is best known in the deep South as the most essential part of a pot of Hoppin' John, a simple, hearty stew made from black-eyed peas, rice, and ham hock, turkey neck, or bacon.

That dish's origins can be traced back to enslaved African people, traditionally eaten on New Year's Day. A bowl of Hoppin' John on the first of January is supposed to bring luck and peace in the coming year, but it's worth making any time. It's inexpensive and savory, real stick-to-your-ribs eats.

Texas has a vibrant Black community, especially in Houston, one of the country's great, messy metropolises with the best culinary scene in the state (sorry Austin). Texas caviar is also made to please Midwestern tastes. The state was "settled" by all kinds of white people, especially Germans, who love a substantial salad.

Because of its newfound popularity, some commenters are pointing out that Texas caviar resembles a fresh salsa, which isn't wrong. It is pico de gallo-adjacent, which I can make blindfolded. My mom taught me her Latina secrets when I was young, so I know how much garlic to put in stuff (all of it). The holy trinity of my household was onions, garlic, and cilantro, and those ingredients went into everything: enchilada sauce, meatloaf, and chicken soup.

My Texas caviar is the correct recipe. As you probably guessed, you'll want to finely dice up fresh cilantro, white onions, and garlic. Next, cut up Roma tomatoes into small chunks. I like to scoop the seeds out of the Romas because there is such a thing as too much tomato juice. A red pepper, chopped. A jalapeno, also deseeded, chopped. Maybe a poblano? That's my idea of pushing the envelope. Then it's a couple of cans of drained black-eyed peas. You could soak and stew them, too, but God Almighty and Helen Corbitt want your bean salad to be a quick and easy dish to prepare. Then, squeeze some limes liberally.

The new Texas caviar trend is welcome. I want people to enjoy this simple bean salad, but I admit I'm a bit of a traditionalist regarding the recipe. I've seen videos of fresh-faced gourmets adding corn, avocados, and feta, and none of those things should be added to Texas caviar. I've also seen all sorts of dressings, including chipotle-based ones, which is also incorrect. These TikTokers also add all kinds of unnecessary beans. This is a one-bean recipe. Sorry if that seems harsh, but it's the truth.

Black-eyed peas are beans, not peas. Peas and beans are legumes, but there are differences, one of which is that peas are usually green. Black-eyed peas are not only beans but are, in my opinion, a top three bean. The number one bean is the pinto, the alpha bean. The pinto is life. I was raised on a steady diet of pintos. There was a pot of them cooking on the stove every day from when I could walk until I walked out the door to go to college. Then black-eyed peas, which have a ton of personality. Black-eyed peas are toothsome and earthy and confident. I always have bags of dried pintos and black-eyed peas in my pantry in case I come down with an intense fever for beans.

My third favorite bean is the cannellini, and that is because I am a fancy man. And then there are all the others: black, kidney, garbanzo. There is no such thing as a bad bean. All beans are good, but some are just superior.

The secret ingredient to Texas caviar is pre-made, bottled "zesty" Italian dressing. I cannot stress this enough: it must say "zesty" on the bottle. This is the kind of dressing a suburban pizza parlor pours over their house salad of iceberg lettuce. It's tangy and sweet and should taste like lemons, oregano, basil, and mysterious chemicals. Black-eyed peas are the star of Texas caviar but zesty Italian dressing binds the visible elements like invisible dark matter.

Salt and pepper, mix, let it chill and settle in the fridge for a spell. How long is a spell? I dunno. An hour?

I did not attend that pig roast. We planned to visit friends further upstate, where New York suddenly, quietly, becomes Alabama. I wanted to impress my girlfriend's family, so I sent them with a bean salad that would complement the juicy, fatty pork but could also stand up as a meal to any vegetarians in attendance. It makes for pretty good leftovers too.

I wanted to impress my girlfriend's family, so I jumped at the chance to feed them and their friends like good Texans. I like to think of it as cultural exchange. I didn't make anything fancy, just Texas caviar, budget-friendly and tasty, it's the perfect dish to serve when you have company.

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