Authentic flavor highlights Latino Culture Fest

Photos by Sarah Ann Jump/The Herald
Terry Fogle of Huntingburg claims victory in the taco eating contest during the 6th annual Latino Culture Festival at Huntingburg City Park on Saturday. For more photos from the festival, click here.


HUNTINGBURG — Southridge YoungLife leader Terry Fogle shoveled down eight tacos Saturday evening to win the Latino Culture Fest’s first taco-eating contest. He’d never participated in an eating contest before, though he said he’d been preparing for this one his whole life.

“I love tacos,” he said.

Miranda’s, a Jasper Mexican restaurant, donated the tacos for the contest. Like all the food at the festival, the tacos were authentic Latin American. But what does “authentic” mean when it comes to Latin American food? And how close do Mexican restaurants in the U.S. come to authentic dishes?

According to Estela Escalera and her sister Maria Perez Escalera of Dale, it’s all about the ingredients.

“Authentic food must have authentic ingredients,” Estela said.

For Mexican cuisine, that means spices sourced from Mexico, and fresh meats and vegetables.

The sisters are well versed in authentic Mexican cooking. They grew up in Guanajuato, a state in central Mexico, and their mother taught them to cook at a young age. The recipes almost always called for chile peppers, garlic and tomatillos, also known as Mexican husk tomatoes. Although the pair doesn’t run a local restaurant, their love for cooking and knowledge of Mexican cuisine led them to have a booth at the festival.

The sisters brought those flavors to their taco stand at the Latino Culture Fest. Their tacos included corn tortillas filled with steak, chorizo and al pastor. Mexican chorizo is a pork sausage spiced with Mexican chile peppers, and al pastor is pork meat spiced with Mexican spices, chiles and pineapple. The dish originated with Lebanese immigrants in central Mexico.

The Escalera sisters describe their food as authentic because they use spices from Mexico and serve their tacos in corn tortillas, the traditional Mexican way. Mexican restaurants in the U.S., they said, get close to traditional Mexican on some of their dishes, but are usually a mixture of Mexican and Tex-Mex, which is a mixture of Mexican and American cooking.

The only boy performing with the Mexican cultural dance group, Diego Sanchez of Dale, 7, looks on as Keyla Lopez of Dale, 8, admires her dress before the group performs during the 6th annual Latino Culture Festival at Huntingburg City Park on Friday evening. For more photos from the festival, click here.

“Sometimes ingredients from Mexico are hard to get, so they (the restaurants) substitute it for something close,” Perez said. “But it doesn’t taste the same.”

That said, Tex-Mex is its own culinary tradition rooted in Texas’ Tejano culture, which belongs to Texans of Mexican or Spanish descent who lived in the area before Texas became a republic, according to food blog Serious Eats.

Mexican and Tex-Mex cuisine are similar, not identical. Take, for example, tacos. Authentic Mexican tacos are always served in soft corn tortillas and topped with cilantro and white onions. Tex-Mex tacos, on the other hand, are served in soft flour tortillas or crunchy taco shells and often topped with lettuce and shredded cheese.

There was no Tex-Mex served at the Latino Culture Fest over the weekend, but Mexican cuisine wasn’t the only food on the menu. Several stands also served authentic recipes from El Salvador, a Central American country south of Mexico. Some of those dishes included pupusas, which are thick corn tortillas stuffed with a savory filling. They’re a Latino festival favorite, and the favorite of County Commissioner Elmer Brames, who won the first eating contest, featuring local officials, at this year’s festival. For the contest, local officials were blindfolded and fed various dishes from the festival’s booths. After a taste, they had to guess the dish.

Brames competed against Huntingburg Mayor Denny Spinner, Jasper Councilwoman Nancy Eckerle and Ferdinand Town Council President Ken Sicard. His win, Brames said, was pure luck.

“I do eat a lot of South American food,” he said. “But it was luck.”

More on