Mesquite grilling was a plot by Texas ranchers to get a bunch of Californians to clear their rangeland for nothing—or so went the joke that made the rounds in Texas back when folks on the West Coast first went crazy for Southwest cuisine and the sweet, tangy flavor of mesquite smoke.
Unloved by cattlemen, hardy mesquite was a favorite of the region's native peoples. They ground the tough little tree's seed pods to make flour, they wove the bark into sturdy cloth, and the thorns were handy for needles. In the northern Mexican desert, Spanish herdsmen began the practice of burning down mesquite wood and cooking over the aromatic coals. Cabrito al pastor—baby goat cooked over mesquite coals, "in the style of the shepherd"—is still the signature dish of the Mexican city of Monterrey.
In the 1980s, Texas chefs exalted that cooking style, and soon everyone found out what norteño cooks had long known: mesquite smoke, compared with that of other woods, burns hot and quick and, because of the bark's rich mineral deposits, gives food a flavor like no other. Soon, mesquite-grilled steaks and chops were on lots of menus, and mesquite-burning grills were installed in fine restaurants, in Tex-Mex fajita joints, and even at upscale hamburger chains like Houston's Becks Prime. In 1979, Ranchmen's Manufacturing of Dallas, one of the large companies that bought and sold mesquite wood at the time, had around 1,000 customers. By 1984, the company had more than 12,000.
The American love affair with mesquite is all the more interesting when you consider that mesquite grilling wasn't common in Texas until relatively recently. Outside of river valleys, there were very few mesquite trees in South and West Texas before the Civil War; those areas were an ocean of prairie grass. Wildfires and the hooves of millions of buffalo kept the brush under control until cattle ranchers and their wide-roaming herds spread mesquite seeds far and wide. Today, the trees cover more than 56 million acres in South and West Texas, and, because a new tree can grow from a tiny piece of root left in the ground, mesquite will be plentiful for a long time to come. So, fire up the grill, and burn all the mesquite you like.