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Texas Born, Texas Bread

by Mike Cox
Mike Cox

Pop test! Name the official state bread of Texas.
a) Flour tortillas
b) Sourdough biscuits
c) Corn bread
d) Pan de campo
e) All of the above

OK, that's something of a trick question. As far as most Texans are concerned, the answer is "e," all of the above. But in its wisdom, the Legislature in 2005 passed a bill declaring pan de campo as the Lone Star State's most representative carbohydrate. And then Gov. Rick Perry signed the measure into law.

Somehow, no matter my long and abiding interest in things Texan, I had missed the memo on this weighty action on the part of our lawmakers, not to mention the debate leading up to the passage of the bill. (Actually, it was a House concurrent resolution.)

My lack of awareness might have continued even longer had I not been invited to speak at the Dobie Dichos, a pre-event of the now 27-year-old George West Storyfest held every first weekend of November. The menu at the Dobie gathering, which honors the memory of Texas tale-teller J. Frank Dobie, who was born in Live Oak County, consisted of chili con carne and pan de campo.

Chili con carne, of course, is chili with meat. (And no beans, as God intended.) By Legislative fiat, chili has been the official state dish of Texas since 1977. After grabbing my bowl of red, as the late Dallas Morning News columnist Frank X. Tolbert liked to call chili, I espied a platter of what looked like sliced wedges of white cornbread. But no corn had been harmed in the preparation of this side dish, which despite its romantic- sounding name is plain ole camp (campo) bread (pan).

My slice of pan de campo tasted great, and as I ate my chili, I regretted not having grabbed more than one piece. I wouldn't have minded a second bowl of chili, either, but I didn't want to seem overly gluttonous.

Like chili con carne, pan de campo is not a new South Texas menu item. It developed on South Texas ranchos, where vaqueros cooked their camp bread in a Dutch oven heaped with glowing mesquite coals. They mixed flour, baking powder, lard, salt and water; formed the dough in a circle and baked it quickly.

The result, assuming proper preparation and cooking, was a round of white bread no more than an inch-and-a-half thick with a hard, brown exterior and a soft center. The hard exterior was intentional. Today, we would call it "the wrapper." Back before preservatives, a firm crust enabled the pan to last longer in the field.

While nothing would have prevented Anglo or African-American chuck wagon cooks from preparing pan de campo for use on long trail drives from South Texas to the cattle markets in Kansas and elsewhere, sourdough biscuits became the traditional trail drive food. That distinction was debated following the introduction of the pan de campo-for-state-bread bill, but overwhelming sentiment for biscuits failed to rise.

As the Texas State Historical Association explains in an online article on pan de campo, the bread grew in reputation as a campfire staple for festivals in South Texas. When Duval County began holding an annual pan de campo cook-off and festival in San Diego in 1978, the popularity of the bread rose faster than dough made with too much baking soda.

Making pan de campo is not difficult, though doing so on a South Texas ranch would have been a bit more complicated, given the lack of modern kitchen conveniences. I made my first batch the other day to accompany some venison chili. It came out ok, but I realize now that I hadn't flattened the dough enough, I didn't use enough baking powder and I baked it too slowly.

Pan de campo ingredients are simple:
2 cups of unbleached, all-purpose flour
1 heaping teaspoon baking powder (emphasis on "heaping")
1 teaspoon salt
1/3 cup of Crisco (another recipe says 3/8 cup cooking oil)
1/2 cup of water (or cold milk)

Mix the ingredients in a large bowl and then cut in the shortening with a pastry cutter. If you don't have a pastry cutter, a knife and fork will do. Next add only enough water or milk to produce a thick dough that does not stick to the sides of the bowl.

That done, put the dough on a floured surface and knead it until it melds smoothly, but not for too long, and shape it into a couple of rounds about a half-inch thick. (Another recipe says to cover the dough with a moist towel and let it rest for a while, which is what I did. That gave me time to stir my chili and have a couple of dips of guacamole.)

After the dough and I had taken it easy for a while, I placed one round in a cast iron skillet and the other in a topless Dutch oven and put them in the gas range at 350 degrees.

I'd like to report that my first-ever pan de campo came out of the oven golden brown and just as tasty as the bread I'd had at the Dobie Dichos. Alas, I don't write fiction. While pan de campo de Miguel tasted OK, it had not browned as much on top as I would have liked and it was still a bit doughy inside.

I now know that the dough had been too thick. Also, I think I should have set the oven at 400 degrees, because it seemed to take forever to bake and it shouldn't have.

Maybe the Legislature should mandate that only Dutch ovens with mesquite coals on top can be used to make pan de campo.



Mike Cox
"Texas Tales" - December 3, 2015 Column

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