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How to Be a Texan

How to Be a Texan

With easy-to-follow steps and illustrations for dozens of activities, this friendly guidebook provides all you need to be an authentic Texan, whether you’ve recently arrived in the state or you just want a refresher on the finer points of Lone Star lore.

May 2016
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206 pages | 6 x 8 | 58 b&w illus. |

There are certain things every Texan should know how to do and say, whether your Lone Star roots reach all the way back to the 1836 Republic or you were just transplanted here yesterday. Some of these may be second nature to you, but others . . . well, maybe it wouldn’t hurt to have a few handy hints if, say, branding the herd or hosting a tamalada aren’t your usual pastimes. That’s where How to Be a Texan can help.

In a friendly, lighthearted style, Andrea Valdez offers illustrated, easy-to-follow steps for dozens of authentic Texas activities and sayings. In no time, you’ll be talking like a Texan and dressing the part; hunting, fishing, and ranching; cooking your favorite Texas dishes; and dancing cumbia and two-step. You’ll learn how to take a proper bluebonnet photo and build a Día de los Muertos altar, and you’ll have a bucket list of all the places Texans should visit in their lifetime. Not only will you know how to do all these things, you’ll finish the book with a whole new appreciation for what it means to be a Texan and even more pride in saying “I’m from Texas” anywhere you wander in the world.

  • Texas, the Texas Identity, and Me
  • I. Talk Like a Texan
    • Essential Vocabulary: Words and Phrases (and One Hand Gesture) You Oughta Know
    • ¿Hablas Spanglish?
    • A Highly Idiosyncratic Selection of Favorite Texas Sayings
    • You’re Saying It Wrong: A Pronunciation Guide to Places in Texas
    • Root for the Home Team
    • Don’t Mess With Texas: More Than a Slogan
  • II. Look Like a Texan
    • Buy Custom Cowboy Boots
    • Attach Spurs to Those Boots
    • Choose a Belt Buckle
    • Wear a Cowboy Hat
    • Get Big Hair
  • III. Rites of Passage
    • Handle the Texas Flag
    • Take a Bluebonnet Photo
    • Attend Fiesta in San Antonio
    • Celebrate Juneteenth
    • Go to a Star Party
    • Build a Día de los Muertos Altar
    • Survive Cedar Fever
    • Shoot a .22
  • IV. Tend the Ranch
    • Go Water Dowsing
    • Build a Barbed Wire Fence
    • Shoe a Horse
    • Cut the Herd
    • Rope a Calf
    • Brand the Herd
    • Barrel Race
    • Wrangle a Rattlesnake
  • V. Hunting and Fishing
    • Cut for Sign
    • Tie a Texas Rig
    • Noodle for Catfish
    • Hunt for Dove
    • Bag a Javelina
    • Field Dress a Deer
    • Tan a Hide
  • VI. Cook Like a Texan
    • Pork Tamales
    • Chili and Frito Pie
    • Texas Caviar
    • Breakfast Tacos
    • Barbacoa
    • Brisket
    • King Ranch Chicken Casserole
    • Fried Chicken
    • Kolaches
    • Pecan Pie
    • Margarita
  • VII. Relax Like a Texan
    • Spit Watermelon Seeds
    • Play 42
    • Float the River
    • Tailgate
    • Two-Step
    • Square Dance
    • Cumbia
  • VIII. Tour Like a Texan
    • The Texas Capitol Building
    • Barton Springs
    • Gruene Hall
    • Cadillac Ranch
    • Dealey Plaza
    • Southfork Ranch
    • Spindletop
    • Mirador de la Flor
    • The Alamo
    • The Window Trail at Big Bend National Park
  • Acknowledgments

Texas, the Texas Identity, and Me


Texas is a state of mind. Texas is an obsession. Above all, Texas is a nation in every sense of the word.

John Steinbeck, Travels With Charley: In Search of America

Once when I was a kid, my mother made an offhand comment that forever shaped my perspective of my home state. I don’t remember how it came up, though I assume it was during
one of my obnoxious inquiries into her and my father’s travels around the world to places far from our Houston home, like the tulip nurseries of the Netherlands, the Swatch stores in Switzerland, or the clean, cobbled streets of Germany. All I really recall is her telling me, “When people asked me where I was from, I never said America—I always said Texas.”

I loved this detail. So much so that I vowed if I ever went abroad, I’d do the same. Invoking Texas—a place so universally recognized nearly everyone on the globe can point it out on a map—seemed to me to be a special privilege. At the very least, it could be an interesting conversation starter with exotic strangers.

When I embarked on my first big international trip, a ten-day excursion to Australia (a fitting destination as I always imagined it to be the Texas of the Southern Hemisphere), I figured this quirky fantasy would finally play out. As with most long-imagined daydreams, it didn’t happen quite the way I thought it would. About halfway through the trip, my husband ordered a drink in a hotel lobby in Sydney. A man approached us and, with a broad smile on his face, declared, “I know exactly where you’re from.” In this case, it seemed we didn’t have to identify as Texan; my husband’s distinct (and charming) twang identified us.

Of course I’m proud to be American. I’m just also very proud to be Texan. I recognize this may seem silly— arrogant, even—but as any native Texan can attest to, we come by this inflated sense of self honestly . . . in part because the indoctrination starts so early. Like every kid in the United States, at the beginning of every school day I pledged allegiance to the United States of America. And, like every kid in Texas, I then pledged allegiance to the Lone Star State (“Honor the Texas Flag; I pledge allegiance to thee, Texas, one and indivisible”). By mandate of the state’s board of education, the seventh-grade curriculum includes a Texas history class, where children learn about how Spanish explorers discovered our lands and how Sam Houston fought for those same lands. Even when I was in college at the University of Texas at Austin, students were allowed to take three credits of Texas history as a substitute for the American History requirement.

This Texas pride extended far beyond the classroom. There was almost no sight more ubiquitous to me than our state flag, and I long believed the myth that it was the only state banner that could legally fly as high as the American flag (a commonly repeated falsehood that sounds like it certainly could be true, given that Texas was once a sovereign nation). When companies mold products into the shape of Texas—from pies and waffle makers to a 168,000-gallon pool in Plano—it seems to me less like a marketing gimmick and more like a really good idea.

This almost blind affection for Texas became that much more apparent when I moved away to Chicago for graduate school. I lived in the Windy City for a year, and while the Midwest was friendly and I saw distinct seasons for the first time, I longed for home. I missed the shimmer of the Capitol Building ’s pink granite on a sunny day; the April bloom of spring bluebonnets and Indian paintbrushes dotting the highway in Washington County; the land so long and flat in northwest Texas that when the sun sets, it looks like it’s on a slow collision course with the earth. Perhaps most deeply, I missed my personal soul food: Tex-Mex.

I thought the homesickness was natural, a knee-jerk reaction to leaving something familiar for something different. So I did what anyone with a strange obsession does: hurtle myself full force into it. I thickened my accent (none of the Midwesterners I spoke to knew what to make of the phrase “fixin’ ta”). At potlucks, I made enchiladas, chiles rellenos, and fried chicken. I bought cowboy boots (that I never wore) and a stitched-leather belt. But most formatively, I became enamored of Texas Monthly, “the National Magazine of Texas.” My parents had subscribed to the magazine off and on for years, and when I moved away, they mailed me old issues in care packages (along with my favorite tortilla chips and Wolf Brand Chili).

When I got a job at the publication just out of journalism school, it was my greatest dream realized. And during my decade-long tenure at the magazine, first as a fact-checker, then as the author of “The Manual,” the column that shaped this book, and now as the editor of Texas Monthly’s website, my love for Texas has certainly intensified.

But it’s also become significantly more nuanced.

Before, I was a bit of a Pollyanna about what it means to be Texan, buying into and repeating the myths. As I learn more about the state—and I do every day—I recognize it’s a complicated place with a complicated history. When Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca washed up on what is now known as Follet’s Island, near present-day Galveston Island in the sixteenth century, he represented the start of a wave of conquistadors intent on exploiting new lands for gold, riches, and resources. The Alamo, which we are to never forget, has been the subject of innumerable books and papers extolling the “victory or death” attitude of the men inside the besieged church, but less ink has been spilled on explaining why the Mexicans were attacking them. When Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, abolishing slavery effective January 1, 1863, word didn’t reach Texas until June 19, 1865, more than two years later, a travesty that meant enslaved men and women in our state lived an awful life that much longer.

Our recent history is also fraught. The assassination of John F. Kennedy, one of the greatest tragedies our nation has ever known, happened in 1963 in Dallas, earning Big D the unfortunate moniker “City of Hate,” a disgraceful nickname it’s been unable to shake, even decades later. Before Enron went bankrupt in 2001, becoming a textbook example of corporate greed run amok, it was one of the most visible business presences in Houston, a city that basked in the money while it lasted and turned on the company when it fell from grace. Even a place as culturally porous as our 1,200-mile border with Mexico remains one of the most controversial sites in the United States, sparking eternal debates over how to protect our international boundaries and manage immigration.

I understand that the rest of America—and the world—regards us warily, their negative preconceived notions born out of the stereotypes and misconceptions perpetuated by popular culture. But while our rancher roots, unassailable swagger, and maverick mentality might give someone the impression that we’re a bunch of uneducated rubes or stubborn mules steadfast in our ways, Texas is always shifting, morphing, and evolving. We’re not resistant to change; rather, we encourage discourse and argument, all in the name of sharpening and improving ideas. It’s no accident that NASA chose Houston as the home base for its Manned Spacecraft Center, that our doctors performed the first heart transplant in the US, that one of our oilmen is the father of fracking, and that Texas has produced countless other inventions and innovations. It’s just that in our path to modernization, we’ve never been willing to forget our past. Texas is a pioneer state, and what is a pioneer but a person who paves a new trail with the bricks of tradition.

At times, when I’ve imagined living elsewhere, I remind myself of what the true Texas identity is—or actually, of what it has become—and I’m confident that it continues to represent the philosophies and values I hold important. I still want to tell the world I’m from this place, for this detail to be a conversation starter with exotic strangers.

This book is one more step on my quixotic quest to illuminate others about what it means to be Texan. In it, I lean into the enduring myths. And I deliberately curate what some might consider a Texas experience that kowtows to the clichés of our state. Sure, most people who own this book won’t likely ever have the chance (or the cojones) to ride a bull, or the materials to tan a hide, or the patience to bake kolaches. But that doesn’t mean that in a definitive guide to being Texan, you shouldn’t be given the tools and advice to hop on and ride or roll up your sleeves if you’re so inclined.

Some Texans who pick up this book might question or laugh at the topics I’ve chosen to include. Go ahead. Because just as there’s more than one way to skin a deer, there’s more than one way to be Texan. And I partake in and relish many of our newer traditions: I’ve stood in line at Franklin Barbecue in Austin and eaten Vietnamese crawfish in Houston. I’ve zipped down I-10 going eighty-five miles per hour. I’ve trekked across state borders to gamble in Oklahoma and Louisiana. I’ve paid entirely too much for expensive leather goods simply because they were crafted in-state. But this isn’t meant to be a reflection of the modern “Texas experience” (and now for my next book . . . ); rather, this book is evidence that this place I love is the sum of all of those parts. Our culture has evolved in many ways, but Texas—maybe more than any other state—actively lives in its history. And it is that history that I want to be a part of for years to come.


“Valdez’s book is a must-read manual for anyone looking to learn more about the wild and wonderful state.”
Texas Monthly

“If the title’s not enough of a selling point, consider a few of the important life lessons that editor Andrea Valdez’s essential Texas tome will teach you, including, but not limited to, how to brand the herd, how to host a tamalada, how to survive cedar fever, how to cook brisket, how to noodle for catfish, and how to float the river.”
Texas Monthly


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