Texas Caviar – A Name For Many Dishes

Written by Daltry Russo

Something I considered to be a sacred family recipe was my mom’s famous “bean dip;” a combination of beans and corn with a few other flavors and a bunch of love. This recipe was perfect for a single mother with three children because it was easy to make, able to rest in the fridge for days, and consisted of five cheap ingredients. In the summer, my siblings and I would live on the big batches of bean dip my mom had pre-made and the Frito Scoops we used to transport it into our mouths. I always assumed the recipe was a product of Portland, Oregon (it consisted of simple, semi-fresh products and lacked any added spices or flavoring). Later in my life, I had observed the fact that none of the family members on my mom’s side knew how to make the dip except for her. I became more confused when I walked into a Trader Joes in New Orleans and saw a version of my mom’s dip in a jar with the label, “Cowboy Caviar,” being sold for $11.00. My mom ended up telling me that she obtained the recipe from my dad’s mom, who is deeply rooted in Texas. This “bean dip,” “Cowboy Caviar,” or “Texas Caviar,” whatever you call it, did indeed originate in Texas as a homemade dish made on New Years, although it is now a packaged dip that is sold all over the country.

The first Texas Caviar contained black eyed peas for a very important reason; it is a tradition for Texans and other Southerners to eat black eyed peas on New Year’s Day. There is no way of knowing specifically how this tradition started, but there are a few estimated guesses. First, it’s important to understand that black eyed peas started as a part of West African cuisine and came to America because enslaved people planted them, in order to feed themselves. A recent Modern Farmer article written in December of 2021, references the classic Southerners saying, “Eat poor on New Year’s and eat fat the rest of the year.” It can be assumed that because of this relationship towards slaves, black eyed peas were known to white people as “food for the poor,” which would explain why white people chose to eat them on New Year’s. However, there is evidence that people of color have been taking part in this tradition long before that. Many African Americans cook black eyed peas on New Year’s Day, believing in the mystical powers of the bean. The Modern Farmer Article references a newspaper piece from The Broad Aux, a black newspaper, in 1904, about a lady being gifting black eyed peas;

“…with the request she should cook and eat them all on New Year’s Day; If she did so she would have plenty of money all the year round.”

This article was published in Utah, long before black eyed peas had been introduced to Helen Corbitt.

Ultimately, black eyed peas became an essential part of New Year’s Day for Texans, although people would struggle with how to serve them. In 1985, The Austin American Statesman brought up Helen Corbitt, a New Yorker who moved to Austin. It was said that she wanted to make a “healthy dish” for a New Year’s Day party that involved black eyed peas. In 1957, she published her recipe in Helen Corbitt’s Cookbook. Instead of pickling just the peas, Corbitt decided to pickle the entire dip altogether;

Pickled Black Eyed Peas (Texas Caviar)

2 (No. 2) cans cooked dried black-eyed peas

1 cup salad oil

¼ cup wine vinegar

1 clove garlic or garlic seasoning

¼ cup thinly sliced onion

⅛ teaspoon salt

Cracked or freshly ground black pepper

Drain the liquid from the peas. Place peas in pan or bowl. Add remaining ingredients and mix thoroughly. Store in jar in refrigerator and remove garlic bud after one day. Store at least two days and up to two weeks before eating. You’ll need a plate and a fork for these. (Or a tortilla chip).

(Pictured above; my rendition of Corbitt’s dip)

Notes On Making It: Very simple, pretty gross looking. Had to substitute wine vinegar for white vinegar. Do not like that it only calls for one garlic clove. Added two. Learned that “salad oil” was a term in older cook books that meant oil with little or no flavoring. I used olive oil, which probably wasn’t what Corbitt had meant, but I stand by that choice.

Notes On Taste: HAVE NOT TASTED YET

In 1955, Corbitt took her recipe to Neiman Marcus, the famous department store that is all over the south, when she became the director of restaurants there. She brought Texas Caviar with her and allowed Neiman Marcus to seek and receive a trademark for it in 1960. This was all before grocery stores started packaging food like dips and spreads to sell at high quantities. Instead, Neiman Marcus would sell this dip over the counter in the deli section of their store, where food was made fresh. It wasn’t until later, approximately 1980 that things like guacamole, hummus, cheese dip and other spreads were made with more preservatives to last longer in a package on the shelf. According to the article, “Bean Dip” in the March 2016 issue of Texas Monthly, the company Frito-Lay happened to be a pioneer in the journey of packaged dips by making its first original canned bean dip in 1956. The dip they made was called Fritos Brand Jalapeño Bean Dip. Although this sounds like a very normal thing you could buy at the store, it was very revolutionary at the time, and therefore Frito-Lay took a marketing approach of celebrating new food that was out of the ordinary. Their target market was people with adventurous taste buds, and in their commercials they would act as if they were daring the listener to try it. It was in a tin can and did not require refrigeration, so it was also marketed as being outdoor friendly and perfect for barbecues. Although it first lacked popularity due to the horrible taste, it opened the door for dips like Texas Caviar. Buying something that could’ve been homemade ended up saving people time in the kitchen, but also made people more dependent on grocery stores. Kids were, and now, raised without knowing how to make something so simple as a cheese dip because it would be faster and sometimes cheaper if it was bought ready to eat.

In a Southern Living Article titled, “Everything You Need to Know About Cowboy Caviar, the Perfect Potluck Dish,” writer Taylor Tobin discusses how there is not one recipe to make Texas Caviar. Toblin quotes chef Albert Gonzalez, owner of the restaurant “Provision,” in Austin, when he is asked how exactly to make it, “Start with the basics and then add your own flair.” With a lot of traditional recipes, especially ones having to do with traditional practices, people like to give respect to the original chef by not altering it, treating the recipe like it is sacred. Because the general flavors of this dish are so simple and easy to follow, it has been spread into kitchens of all kinds and everyone does not seem to have any problem with making it their own. Originally, there was pickled black eyed peas, onion and garlic in a bowl. Then people started adding black beans, corn, tomatoes, avocados, and anything else that one thought to sound good. Dorie Greenspan, a well respected chef born in Brooklyn New York, created a version of Cowboy Caviar with jalapeños, bell peppers and cilantro. Greenspan also used a lime vinaigrette dressing instead of pickling the dish, creating a very fancy, flavorful dip. Most recipes of Texas Caviar seen trending all over the internet don’t even use black eyed peas, and instead use a mixture of any other kind of bean and corn. Trader Joes came up with a packaged Cowboy Caviar that consists of zero black eyed peas and has green salsa in it.

Dorie Greenspan’s Cowboy Caviar

INGREDIENTS

For The Vinaigrette:

1/4 cup olive oil

Finely grated zest and juice of 1 lime (preferably organic)

1 teaspoon ground cumin or more to taste

3/4 teaspoon sea salt

1/2 teaspoon smoked paprika (sweet or hot)

1/2 teaspoon honey

For The Salad:

Two (14-oz) cans any variety beans or black-eyed peas rinsed, drained and patted dry (or substitute about 2 cups soaked and cooked beans)

3 scallions white and light green parts only, thinly sliced

1 garlic clove germ removed and finely chopped

1/2 red onion finely chopped or diced, rinsed and patted dry

1/2 bell pepper finely chopped

1/2 jalapeño seeded and finely chopped

1/2 to 1 cup raw or cooked corn kernels (optional)

2 to 3 medium tomatoes finely chopped, or one (14 oz |400 g) can diced tomatoes, drained

1/2 cup finely chopped fresh cilantro

1 small avocado finely chopped (optional)

Salt

Hot sauce (optional)

Tortilla chips for serving (optional)

(Pictured above; the vinaigrette for Greenspan’s recipe)

DIRECTIONS

Make The Vinaigrette:

  1. In a jar with a tight-fitting lid, combine the oil, lime zest and juice, cumin, salt, paprika, and honey and shake to blend. Set the vinaigrette aside until needed. (You can refrigerate the vi.)

Make The Salad:

  1. In a large bowl, toss in the beans, scallions, garlic, onion, bell pepper, jalapeño, and corn, if using, and stir thoroughly to combine. If you’re going to serve the salad now, add the tomatoes and cilantro and avocado; if you’re going to refrigerate the salad—a good move—hold off and add them just before serving.
  2. Toss the salad with about 3/4 of the vinaigrette. Add hot sauce, if you’d like, and, if you’ve got time, cover and refrigerate for at least a couple of hours and up to overnight.
  3. When you’re ready to serve, add the tomatoes and cilantro and avocado, if using, if you haven’t already, and give it a taste. If desired, adjust the amount of salt, spices, and you could even add some hot sauce if you’d like. If the salad has sopped up the vinaigrette, toss it with a little more. Taste and, if desired, add more salt.
  4. Serve chilled or at room temperature, with or without chips.

(Pictured above; My rendition of Greenspan’s dip)

Notes On Making It: Very fun to make, although it took the longest out of the three recipes. Although still pretty simple, there were a lot of ingredients and it ended up creating somewhat of a mess in my kitchen. Very fresh, and definitely the most aesthetically pleasing one. I think making a Texas Caviar this fancy defeats the purpose of it being a quick and easy recipe. It also kind of takes out the irony in the name; that this caviar is made of cheap ingredients.

Like the last one, I do not like that it only calls for one garlic clove. Added two.

Notes On Taste: It was amazing. I loved the cumin in it. I am always a fan of more vegetables.

(Pictured above; roommates demolishing Greenspan’s dip during craft time)

The “true” Texas Caviar can be warped into whatever you want, which is why it has become so popular. People love a simple, healthy recipe that they can make their own. And although it is sold in stores, we still pass this recipe down from generations. When I touch my mom’s bean dip to my lips I remember playing on the swing-set in my backyard, long car rides to my grandmother’s house, late night block parties in the summer, dozens of camping trips, etc. This bean dip gives me memories from taking my first steps well into my adulthood. The first time I was stoned at seventeen, I ate a whole bowl of it and nearly threw up. I never got sick of it. Now, I make the same bean dip for my friends and new memories are added to it every time.

There is culture in the variations, and maybe also tradition in declaring which version is better. My mom’s dip, in particular, has another name that is used by all my friends and family members; “crack dip.” I did not make that up. Once you try it, you will know why.

Kathy Russo’s Bean Dip (or Helen Viola’s Texas Caviar) AKA Crack Dip

Two cans of beans

Two cans of corn

Two limes

Some Pace Picante Salsa (You kind of just have to know)

Bunch of cilantro

Drain water from canned beans and corn. Put into a bowl. Put the Pace Picante Salsa in it (maybe one and a half small jars, or maybe half of a big one. This is a really important step and will determine the entire taste of the dip but again, you just need to practice it). Juice the limes into the bowl. Chop the cilantro into fine pieces and add that. Mix. Serve with Frito Scoops. Keep it in the fridge until your kids clean it out.

(Pictured above; my rendition of Russo’s dip)

Notes On Making It: Still fun to make, and I can make it in my sleep. Took me ⅓ of the time to make compared to Greenspan’s dip, and it was even a little faster than Corbitt’s dip too. That is probably because you don’t have to measure anything out, and that it’s all really equal parts. The only thing you really have to spend time on is cutting the cilantro. Used a whole small jar of picante and it seemed to do the trick for this one. Didn’t have Fritos, but will be buying some now.

Notes On Taste: Nothing like it.

(Pictured above; the Russo bean dip in all its glory)

Works Cited:

Crider, Kitty. “Texas caviar brings luck for the new year” Austin American-Statesman [Austin, TX], 26 Dec 1985, p. 56.

Corbitt, Helen L. Helen Corbitt’s Cookbook. Houghton Mifflin Company, 1957.

Tobin, Taylor. “Everything You Need to Know about Cowboy Caviar, the Perfect Potluck Dish.” Southern Living, Southern Living, 18 July 2022, https://www.southernliving.com/food/appetizers/texas-cowboy-caviar. 

Greenspan, Dorie, and Ellen Silverman. Everyday Dorie: The Way I Cook. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2018. 

“Snack Engineering.” National Museum of American History, 13 Apr. 2021, https://americanhistory.si.edu/food/new-and-improved/snack-nation/snack-engineering. 

Rosner, Helen. “The Restaurant at Neiman Marcus, the One Place in Hudson Yards That Feels like New York.” The New Yorker, 1 Apr. 2019, https://www.newyorker.com/culture/annals-of-gastronomy/lunch-at-neiman-marcus-the-one-place-in-hudson-yards-that-feels-like-new-york. Freeman, Debra. “Why Do We Eat Black-Eyed Peas on New Year’s?” Modern Farmer, 12 Jan. 2022, https://modernfarmer.com/2021/12/black-eyed-peas-new-year/#:~:text=One%20theory%20is%20that%20the,peas%20were%20for%20poor%20people.

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