Known as Cowboy Caviar, Texas Caviar, or Southern Caviar, it’s a dish of many names. The first time I was introduced to it was my senior year of high school. I was sitting in my best friend’s kitchen, New Year’s Eve, home late from a night out. We were four ravenous 18 year olds, craving a midnight snack as a final festivity before we officially called it a night. Her mom came out from the living room and knew exactly what we needed. She opened the fridge and pulled out a big ceramic bowl, filled with what looked to be something like a salsa. She placed the bowl in front of us on the island and went to the pantry to grab a bag of new tortilla chips. Too hungry to question what I was eating, I dug in. Catching a glimpse of the black eyed peas in the mix, I smiled, my superstitious side showing. A timeless tradition, our collective mother for the night had made sure we were starting off our new year with a little luck, courtesy of those tiny beans.
The memory sticks with me. Partially because of how good that salsa concoction was, but mainly because it was the perfect moment. The perfect people with the perfect food, and the perfect flavors. Cowboy caviar has a way of curating those moments, making sure they’re nothing short of magical.
While I discovered it my senior year, the dish has been around long before that New Years Eve. A salsa and a salad, a dish versatile enough for any meal or occasion, cowboy caviar originated in Texas in the 1940s. There are rumors about where and when it started, some calling it a poor man’s caviar creation, others crediting it to Helen Corbitt, a chef in Austin, Texas, creating the dish when she was told to make something using only Texas ingredients.
The dish has been a cookout staple for decades. While originating in the South, it quickly became a national sensation. It took awhile, but TikTok finally caught on, making the dish the official snack of the summer. While the base is pretty steady, creators have been finding ways to put their own spin on the meal. Tiktoker Bria Lemirande, the internet’s queen of caviar, has been posting her recipes for others to follow, often throwing in new ingredients and adding additional elements to the traditional recipe. Originally made with black eyed peas, black beans, corn, chopped bell peppers, and onions, dressed with a mixture of olive oil, lime juice, vinegar, and garlic, recipes have been popping up with their own flare, adding mango, avocado, or even feta to the mix. The prep is so easy; it’s one of my favorite things to make as a college student struggling to find her way around a kitchen. I’ll eat the mixture with chips, put it in rice or quinoa to make a salad, or simply eat it with a spoon. It’s just that good.
Even though the internet seems to just now be catching on to cowboy caviar, when asking my mom about it, she mentioned how it was often a signature dish of military spouses, a community I grew up in. Ask my best friend and she’ll say her mom has been making it since she was a little girl deep in the heart of Georgia. Ask my cousin and she’ll tell you her dad makes it for every summer cookout they have in their hometown of New Braunfels, Texas. Now, I bring it to every event and dinner party I have in Boston.
This summer, you’ll find me perfecting my own cowboy caviar recipe. Experimenting with flavors, attempting to add my own flare as wild as the west, and as tasty as the Texas original.
Cover photo courtesy of Craving Home Cooked