I just returned from Galveston, Texas, where I attended the Foodways Texas Gulf Coast Gathering.
In a very Alice in Wonderland moment, I found myself at a breakfast table in the restaurant of the Hotel Galvez on the last morning, drinking a bracing and necessary cup of coffee with the royalty of the Texas oyster trade.
A particularly excellent apple pie recipe–which is another happy story for another happy time–is chiefly responsible for my seat at the table. But there I sat, cognizant of the unique fly-on-the-wall opportunity. Next to me sat Jon Rowley of Seattle, my pie co-conspirator and a highly regarded lover of oysters and consultant to the seafood trades on myriad topics.
Next to him sat Tracy Woody of Jeri’s Seafood, then the inimitable smiling Jim Gossen of Louisiana Foods (who along with his wife Diane could likely be known as patron saints of Gulf seafoods). Jim is warm, funny, and kind. Aside from his massive effort on behalf of Foodways Texas this weekend, I will forever know him as a man who offered, a week ago (without knowing me from Adam’s housecat) to FedEx a pound of leaf lard to me during a small pie emergency I was experiencing. And, this he offered to do in the midst of a family wedding he was attending in Louisiana. Now I ask you, if a total stranger to you needed lard for a pie crust that you likely would never taste, would you step out of a family wedding celebration to offer to save the day? That is Jim Gossen and this weekend was peppered with moments of his having gone out of his way to ensure that everyone around him was smiling.
Next to Jim sat Robb Walsh, the cookbook author, writer, and peerless Texas food lover who is helping to spearhead a true revival of the Gulf oyster. And, finally Misho Ivic, the owner of Misho’s Oyster Company in San Leon.
I couldn’t help but think of how amazing it was that I had ambled and bumbled my silly self into such an interesting seat, but this is what Foodways Texas is about right now. It is the seed of a movement, primarily populated by some of the most important and most interesting people in Texas food. And I just so happened to come across it during its infancy.
Foodways Texas is the younger sister, in a manner of speaking, of Southern Foodways Alliance, an organization begun in the last decade which has set about documenting, from a perspective of academic passion, the culture of southern foods. Foodways Texas is similar in its pursuit, but focuses on Texas. Foodways Texas is being run through The University of Texas at Austin. They will take oral histories from the roots of our food cultures.
Although focusing on a single state, the scope of the project is very ambitious considering the state in question and the numerous and intersecting food cultures nurtured here. Individually, we have ranch heritage, Gulf heritage, Cajun influences, Latin and specifically Mexican influences, not to mention the Vietnamese and other long-standing Asian traditions in Texas. Barbecue alone overlaps a number of these. Then you must also take into account the social food cultures, so to speak, with the junior leagues, the football moms, all of our pie baking grandmothers, and the old-school cafeteria ladies. Not to mention the whole body of recipes that were taught to now-adult children by beloved housekeepers, cooks and nannies.
All of this coalesced with a renewed passion for a local and more personal agriculture, knowledgeable and aware consumption, and an appreciation for the vast “protein resources” we have available in Texas. This includes the taking of game birds, feral hogs, sport fishing and even by-catch brought up by the tons in the Gulf that is rather casually disposed of because, as of yet, there is no real market for the various fishes. In our group were a number of the most interesting and passionate of the young chefs of Austin, Houston and Galveston. The discussions at the symposium ranged from how to make (we) restaurant patrons aware of some of the incredible currently non-commercial fishes that live and thrive in abundance in the Gulf, such as the Ribbon Fish, Almaco Jack, Big Eyes, and Rainbow Runners, just to name a few mentioned by P.J. Stoops of Louisiana Foods. If we don’t know about them, how can we create a demand? These chefs have taken on the challenge of showing us the bounty in our own backyard. Of note, including the panelists discussing the matter, Brian Caswell of REEF, Jesse Griffiths of Austin’s Dai Due and P.J. Stoops of Louisiana Foods, other chefs in Texas who are going out of their way to promote these underutilized resources, according to the panelists, are Chris Shepherd, Randy Rucker, Richard Knight and James Silk, and Randy Evans.
Our welcome dinner was cooked by the notable Tim Byres of Smoke Restaurant in Dallas. We were served a gorgeous meal of oyster soup, shrimp cocktail with an ash salsa, and fire roasted drum. We toasted the achievements and 90th birthday of Dr. Sammy Ray, the Texas A&M University marine scientist who has truly dedicated his life to oysters and the Gulf.
The next day, we spent an entire day listening to speakers whose areas of interest were so diverse as to include All Girl Tomato Clubs of the early part of the last century, dive bars and restaurants of the Coast, Vietnamese fishing communities, and a photographic trip from one end of the Texas coast to the other by Joe Nick Patoski. Patoski’s talk tempted me to actually spend a spring going from one end to the other, crossing bridges, kayaking, watching turtles run for the waves, bird watching and beach loafing. Someday. For lunch, you ask? Chris Shepherd of Catalan in Houston teamed up with Louisiana Foods to serve us some exceptional gumbo, fried oyster hand pies and most curious of all, Oyster Drills. Oyster Drills are salt water snails that wreak havoc on the oysters. They “drill” holes in the young oyster shells and suck out the contents. Oystermen take a great deal of pleasure in watching people eat Oyster Drills. We decided that we simply needed a little butter and garlic to make a real go of it.
I honestly thought I was in an alternate universe. There I sat next to Jon Rowley. In front of me was Bud Kennedy of the Fort Worth Star Telegram, and his gorgeous wife (who had on killer cowboy boots) Shelly Seymour, who is a documentary producer. Robb Walsh was directly in front of me. And, that man is a hoot. His wife, Kelly, also quite wonderful, was right behind me. I scanned the front row and saw Marshall Wright, a favorite photographer whose work appears in many great publications as well as on his own blog Eat This Lens, sitting next to The Homesick Texan, Lisa Fain. Scanning just a bit further revealed a whole row of cool–the incredibly gifted photographer and very nice person Jody Horton, passionate advocate of all things local Jesse Griffiths, P.J. Stoops, and Chris Shepherd. And, sneaking in for a moment was Penny de los Santos, another of my favorite photographers. All around me were the most interesting food and media people in the state: Randy Rucker, Paula Disbrowe of Southern Living, Hannah Raskin of the Dallas Observer, Greg Morago of the Houston Chronicle, and Bryan Caswell. And, always in sight and always helping out in any capacity was the beautiful Laura of the blog Fluffy White Icing. And everyone else, notable and normal, were lovely to the last one. I sincerely thought I had died and gone to Heaven. And what’s more, this whole group was nice, kind, generous, and excited about Texas foods and Texas food culture. It was cool. I don’t know how else to say it. It was absolutely cool. And the trains kept running right on time thanks to director Marvin Bendele, a host of student volunteers, and all of the Lousiana Food folks.
Of particular interest to me during this symposium, was the emphasis on the Gulf oysters. I have said it before, I am an oyster novice. But I have developed a fast love for the Gulf bi-valve. As a being, I find it fascinating in that it becomes a part of its environment. By that I mean that because it lives by filtering gallons and gallons of water a day, its very essence resembles the discrete area in which it lies. It is a living representative of the health of the water, the salinity of the water, the availability of fresh water to the reef, and notably the pollution that we allow to enter the water. But each reef has a personality, so to speak. And out of thousands and thousands of acres of oyster reefs, we still market our oysters as “Gulf oysters,” be they from Texas, Louisiana, Alabama, or Florida. However, in fact, we should be celebrating and marketing each oyster producer and reef, much like they are celebrated and marketed on the Pacific and Atlantic Coasts.
And, thus, the highlight of this symposium was our dinner at Gaido’s restaurant. The oystermen in attendance (and I include the tireless oyster women such as Lisa Halili with that term), along with Jim Gossen and Robb Walsh, arranged for an oyster appellation tasting in which premium oysters were served to all of us based on their place of origin. And it was telling. The shuckers stood behind a long table laden with 12 different varieties of Gulf oysters and handed the half shells to each of us just as they were opened. Each oyster was chosen with care from the best of the reefs, and we got to enjoy them straight from the hands of the shuckers. Now, for the first time in my experience, I had oysters the way they were supposed to be. They were cool, fresh, and a small mirror of the places from which they came. We had nine varieties of Texas oysters as well as Louisiana, Alabama, and Florida oysters. It was a spectacular show. John Tesvich of Louisiana’s AmeriPure Oysters stood behind the table and shucked his oysters for us personally. And though there were crackers and little bottles of Tabasco at our disposal, most of this group relished the opportunity to consume these gifts unadorned. Casey Gaido treated each of us to a huge and stunning stuffed flounder and massive trays of cooked oysters (Rockerfeller, Bienville…).
[Pictured: Greg Morago (top left), Marshall Wright (top middle), Amy Evans Streeter (top right), Jenny Wang, Diane Gossen, Sally Drews (bottom left), Jody Horton (bottom middle), Randy Rucker (bottom right)]
What did I take from all of this? In a state that practically invented geographical swagger, we sometimes treat the fruits of our waters as though they were merely decent enough to deep fry and not much else. I too love deep fried everything, but we have oysters that are good enough to compete internationally. We have delicious fish with strange names that are going to waste largely because we don’t know what we are missing, quite literally. We have wonderful families who have been in the seafood business for generations and gumptious entrepreneurs who have made their names competing in our busy waters. We have good local Gulf fish and fresh water fish all around us. As for the oysters, we need to eat them and love them. We need to educate ourselves about these appellations and ask our oyster bars and restaurants to seek them out from the suppliers. The oystermen work incredibly hard, here and everywhere else. We should be more than willing to pay a small premium for premium oysters from particular reefs especially given how inexpensive Gulf oysters are to begin with. And if you walk into a local restaurant or oyster bar in Texas and order Gulf oysters and you are told that they don’t carry them on the half shell because they are not good enough to compete with New England or Pacific oysters, you tell them to call me.
And I’ll tell ‘em to call Jim Gossen, Robb Walsh, Tracy Woody, Dr. Sammy Ray, Misho Ivic, The Halili’s, or John Tesvich.
If this sounds fun to you…If you like this kind of eating, and if you like such people, and you love Texas, Texas Culture and every little thing about Texas, consider joining Foodways Texas. And, when they say they are coming to town to put on a gathering, get up and go. You will not regret it. I met more interesting people and I learned more interesting things than I have packed into one weekend in a very long time.