Do you ever land in a room of people and wonder how you ever got so lucky as to land in the same room with them, even if for a brief moment? That is what it is like for me when I get to go to a Foodways Texas event. Given my adoration of Texas, Texas foods, and Texas traditions, the company I keep at these events is humbling to me.
The name of the conference this year was Texas Preserved. The simple symbol of a canning jar illuminates the greater truth about and goal for the group, which is to make sure that we don’t lose the history of our precious, varied, fragile, and dynamic food culture. All states and regions bring their own rafts of history and family traditions to food culture. Your grandparents, their ethnicity, their economic status, and the truths of the physical landscapes in which they were raised speak about who you are at this very moment. Were your grandparents farmers, were they city people, were they rich, did they kill their own animals to feed their families, did they barter eggs for meat or butter, or did they revel in the existence of a big grocery store that brought the world to their somewhat remote lives? Did they pass these traditions down to your generation or did they scrub and sanitize their background to seem shinier and better, leaving you without the true family food picture? The story of who you are can be told in so many ways by what you serve your family, or where and what you choose to eat.
Before we even started the event, I made my way out early in the morning to eat breakfast tacos and re-visit some old haunts in the light of day. I went to UT back in the mid-1990’s and I’m afraid I misspent many study opportunities. But seeing the Broken Spoke neon, even at 7 a.m. brought a smile to my face and was a nice way to start a weekend about history.
We spent three days in a non-political gathering at the Blanton Museum on the campus of the University of Texas in Austin. Our group was populated by every imaginable perspective and collection of experiences. Fishermen, ranchers, grocers, slow food advocates, chefs, journalists, students, professors, photographers, and food lovers all gathered with the common goal of learning about each other and supporting an organization whose mission, in the most blatantly awesome academic endeavor, is to document our shared food history. You can argue all day about the way things ought to be, but history is history, and it makes us who we are. So hearing a talk about sugar cane production in Texas and its nexus with the slave trade, and later the prison labor leasing trade, tells us a little something about the pies that our great-great-grand-mothers served with pride and love. It tells us about the hands that, along with our great-grandmother’s hands, gave us that pie. This can do nothing but make us more appreciative of our own lives, more aware of the toils of our forebears, and more careful about how we proceed now. It makes us conscious of the unwritten food history that lies before us. It is fabulous, exciting, and inspiring stuff.
Be forewarned, this is one of my War & Peace posts. But I hope you stay with me, because I want you to help us document the past and shape the future.
MM Pack led the charge with the aforementioned talk about the sugar cane trade in Texas. She is a food writer and a historian and she has looked into the sugar cane trade from its inception in Texas and before. Sugar cane came over to the Americas on Columbus’ second voyage and was taken to Haiti. By 1520 it had arrived in Mexico and by the 1750 there was a sugar mill in San Antonio. It was not a viable business for small farmers or families because it was an exceptionally labor intensive trade. Therefore, slave labor was employed in large numbers to grow, harvest and process the sugar. I was surprised to learn that after the emancipation, when the sugar producers found themselves lacking in sufficient labor, they started in Texas the extremely dubious practice of leasing and subleasing convicts to do the work. Prisoners of the state were leased, which was a benefit to the state that not only was making money on the deal but didn’t have to actually keep the convicts. The problem is that many, if not most, of the men were recently freed slaves who had been rounded up for small infractions and essentially put back into slavery. By the early 1900’s sugar cane was being imported, the nature of the industry changed, safety improved, efficiencies occurred, and eventually the state decided they could make more money having their prisoners work on the prison farms. But the origins of the sugar trade in Texas make one think long and hard about how we get some of our most basic staples. And, I believe that from now on when I taste sugar I will be more appreciative of the unpaid labors that went into bags of sugar in the past, and more cognizant of how the industry got such a strong foothold in Texas. Like so many other things I learn at these symposiums, it had just never occurred to me before. I hope MM writes many books and articles on the subject because I will devour them all.
We heard a talk by Zachary Moser, Eric Leshinsky and Pricilla Weeks about the Shrimp Boat Projects. These individuals have, it seems, become shrimpers in an ongoing effort to investigate the regional identity of the Gulf Coast. The iconic shrimp boats represents the region, but they wanted to look past the symbol and view shrimping in the greater context of the region. Exhausted of having their home defined by disasters such as spills and hurricanes, they set about an exploration of labor, ecology, economy, and culture and are trying to use all of this to facilitate the creation of art and to advocate for the shrimpers, who they see as a few steps away from obsolete, unless we begin to value the industry. And, by that they mean that we need to SEE the shrimpers, their families, their struggles, and their mounting expenses in the face of incredibly cheap and questionable imports and VALUE them. They opened my eyes to the struggles of the industry in Texas and left me puzzling a bit about what I, as a mere consumer, could do about it. The obvious answer is to buy Gulf shrimp, for a start. Buy it, ask for it, insist upon it in my grocery store. I’m hopeful that Weeks, Leshinsky and Moser will keep us talking about this. But the mazes of regulations, the increase in recreational use of every inch of the coast, lower prices and increased costs of inputs make this look like a very tough way to make a living. However, Texas will lose not only boats, but an entire cultural paradigm if we lose the shrimpers. The boats aren’t decorations.
With shrimp on the brain we headed to a bycatch lunch prepared by Justin Yu of Oxheart Restaurant in Houston. It was held at Fiesta Gardens and it was lovely. One of my favorite moments of the whole lunch though, was that many of us were sweltering a bit in the gorgeous Austin sunshine and like good little attendees we were mostly just going to soldier through it. Then we turned to face a small commotion as all the ladies at one of the eight-top tables rose, grabbed the edge of the table, lifted, and proceeded to take themselves and their gorgeously plated hors d’oeuvres and Texas Sake to a patch of shade. Immediately the rest of we sheep cheered and followed suit, and large and well appointed tables were roaming all about the property. It was funny.
Bobby Heugel of Houston’s Anvil Bar & Refuge started the afternoon talks with a history of cocktails and drinking in the South. Much like the sugar talk, I was very interested at the notion of looking at history through the lens of cocktails, and there was quite a story to tell, about race, religion, status, prohibition and the modern day remnants of prohibition (dry counties). Bobby is a great speaker, and a great advocate for the art of the cocktail. I think a wise person would seek out his counsel at Anvil and have some hands-on history lessons. Just make sure to take a cab home.
Stephanie McClenny of Confituras in Austin gave a great little talk on canning jams, jellies and preserves. She is a lovely person and it was pleasant to hear about all of the unique Texas foragables which I will be hunting down around the state this year…first and foremost, Mayhaws, which I am ashamed to say I knew nothing about. But I’m also ready to get going on Mustang Grape Jelly and I’d love to try my hand at some prickly pear jelly, as well. Preserving fruit is a way of trapping a moment of beauty in a jar. I really do like the parallels between canning and the greater “history canning” that Foodways is doing.
On Saturday, we started the day on a sober note discussing the drought. A panel including a grape grower from the High Plains (Neal Newsom), a Gulf Seafood Distributor (Jim Gossen), an animal sciences professor (Jeff Savell), and a Certified Professional Hydrologist (Raymond Slade) gave us all a lot to think about concerning water use in Texas. Bottom line, I’m getting a rain barrel and I will not be building any new subdivisions in Texas. If Texas doesn’t handle its water use and balance competing interests we are going to flat out kill a number of iconic Texas industries. Did you know that the Texas oyster industry is completely dependent on the availability of fresh water coming into the Gulf from the Trinity River Basin? The drought and competing water uses have made things very grim. While we would love to be celebrating the Gulf Oyster Appellations that we were introduced to at last year’s symposium, we instead talked about the drought and the red tide, and how they are affecting the oysters. Fascinating, but grim.
STOP…this is my favorite one of all. Penny de los Santos talked to us about preserving food culture with our cameras. I am a big fan of Penny’s, to the extent that I babble like a lovesick puppy when I talk to her. She is that good. Her work is part celebration, part ethnographic, and part feast. She not only shoots beautiful static food shots where the subject sits and pretty much behaves, but she also travels to beautiful, but dangerous places to document their food cultures. Her photos have immediacy, intimacy, and an air of appreciation. I suppose some of that is a result of her background with National Geographic. But she is also giving of her time, happy to answer all manner of questions, and supportive of her peers. If you want to see Penny in action, you need to watch this Ted Talk.
Come to think of it, I was very lucky to spend the weekend with not only Penny, but two of my other favorite Texas photographers, Jody Horton and Marshall Wright. There are no two nicer men that I can imagine. They, like Penny, give freely of their experience and insights and it is nifty to get to watch them interact with people as they go about making photographs. Texas has a very deep bench when it comes to photographers and these three are just the tops in my book. And, all three of them were right there with us.
We all ate lunch at Springdale Farms, which, though right in the middle of East Austin, feels like it is out in a pastoral rural setting. It was transportive. Rows upon rows of fresh vegetables greeted us as we walked from the bus…even artichokes blooming from huge, spiky, wonderful plants. Matt McCallister of CampO in Dallas served us an urban garden meal. It is fun to see a mobile kitchen, sous vide and all, out in the middle of a garden.
We returned to campus for another round of engaging talks on such phenomena as country food and demand for “country” fresh foods in urban settings, historically, by Rebecca Sharpless. This was followed by a presentation on the Future of Soul Food by Naya Jones, Kevin Thomas, and Hoover Alexander. We watched films from the Texas Iconic Restaurant Oral History Project, in which students are taking oral histories from some of our favorite restaurants in Texas like Matt’s El Rancho, Joe T. Garcia’s, The Bluebonnet Café and Zentner’s Daughter. The interview of Betty Zentner was warm and interesting and filled with family history. She has a voice that fills a room. The oral histories are accompanied by a montage of still photos and it gives the voice the predominant role and makes every nuance and accent meaningful. Prior to dinner we listened to a panel on Heritage Breeds and Sustainable Farming. Moderated by Karla Loeb, the panel of Morgan Weber (Revival Market, Houston), Craig Haney (Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture) and Taylor Boetticher (Fatted Calf, Napa) discussed “old” breeds of pigs, geese, cows and other edible creatures that have been brought to the brink of extinction in our commercialized and efficiency priority food industry. I get it, but I never thought about it much. We breed animals for hardiness and for fast growth and for big cuts of meat, essentially. In doing so, we have let a lot of very interesting animals fall by the wayside as non-commercial and unimportant. What we will be left with is one or two breeds of each of these animals and that leaves us not only in a very boring place, but one in which we are highly susceptible to catastrophic losses should one species be wiped out by a disease to which it was genetically prone, unbeknownst to us. Plus, some of the traits for which we breed animals commercially do not prioritize taste, at all. So, leaving all of the environmental and ethical issues aside (not that I should), if we even chose to merely prioritize and demand superior taste and texture in our meats, according to our experts we could bring back many of these breeds. But, breeding animals can get very pointy headed, indeed. Lots of jokes were made about weekend warrior type farmers who buy a few “heritage” pigs or chickens and just let nature take its course. This is a costly passion, at the moment. These meats, while superior, are expensive. Most families would have to choose to eat far less meat but to buy exceptional meat on the few times that they do consume in order to afford the premium. I generally agree with that notion. I also have great sympathies for families with very limited time and budgets. It is an interesting conversation, to be sure.
But we were able to see the heritage breed conversation in action at our dinner at Boggy Creek Farm, another of the East Austin hidden jewels. This was, in all sincerity, one of the nicest meals I’ve ever enjoyed. The farm itself is something out of a dream, but 100% Austin. It was said that Sam Houston walked these beautiful acres. Morgan Weber supplied Red Waddle pigs which were roasted in huge cuts on cinder block cookers. Chef Sonya Cote did a masterful job of putting together salads and jellies and oyster cornbread to go with the succulent pig, which was served in giant piles that we tore apart with our hands. It was messy and gorgeous.
Lights were strung over a horseshoe snaking table packed with reveling souls. Every last person was smiling. I sat with Robb Walsh and Lisa Fain who is widely known as The Homesick Texan. They have both recently put out cookbooks that are musts for any Texas cooks or folks who just love Texas food. My friends Leanna Fossler, Jessica Timmons and Laura Davenport were right there with us. Thank goodness Jessica keeps a knife in her bag. She saved the day on carving the pig.
Everywhere I turned, under the stars and lights strung between poles, was another interesting and smiling face: Terri Taylor, editor of Edible Dallas and Fort Worth, Patricia Sharpe, Executive Editor of Texas Monthly, Jim and Diane Gossen of Louisiana Foods, Katie and Julia Walsh, Geralyn Delaney Graham, the Freidkins, the Higdon’s, Bud Kennedy of The Ford Worth Star Telegram, Shelley Seymour, Stephanie McClenny, Robert and Kaci Lyford of Patina Green, Greg Morago of the Houston Chronicle, Neal and Janice Newsom of Newsom Vineyards, the Vestals, Marshall’s pretty wife, Katey, Kristi Willis of Edible Austin. Naming names is dangerous because lovely people were the rule, not the exception. People slipped in and out of the symposium on both days and I was particularly pleased to cross paths briefly with Austin’s Addie Broyles and Paula Disbrowe. But if I named the whole list of attendees you would surely find a pleasing crowd.
And just when you think you’re finished learning for the weekend, Tom Perini puts on a chuckwagon breakfast which included a wonderful explanation about the origin of chuckwagon cooking on the cattle trails of Texas. Standing behind an antique chuckwagon outfitted with every authentic bit of gear that a working chuckwagon would have, he explains how camp cooks would go about feeding a small army of cowboys on a two month trip up the trail. For instance there was a hand cranked coffee grinder attached the back of the wagon. Tom explained that the coffee bags would contain a peppermint stick along with the beans so that whoever accomplished the job of grinding the coffee got to keep the peppermint stick. It was just a little reward for the person tasked with that little bit of morning work.
[Tom Perini and his chuckwagon…and other very nice colleagues from Perini Ranch in Buffalo Gap]
He also explained that the wagon had to always be early and travel ahead of the cowboys to set up camp and begin the meal preparation, which he thought went a long way toward explaining the stereotype of the camp cook as a cranky beast. He lovingly assumed that we might not have the stomach for a truly authentic chuckwagon breakfast, which may have included a green organ meat stew, and instead served us tortillas and scrambled eggs and sausage and a big serving of beans on the side. The coffee was boiled in huge kettles over coals. Linden Hodges of Perini’s explained to me that the coffee was made by simply boiling the coffee grounds in water. When I asked him how they strained out the grounds he responded that you simply pour a little cold water on top of the boiled coffee and all of the grounds sink right to the bottom of the kettle. And the coffee was great. It made me feel kind of silly about all the fancy French presses I have bought over the years. It was a fantastic meal and a wonderful presentation and wonderful way to wrap up the symposium.
I needed many more days to sit and talk to everyone that I met only in passing. Everyone had a story, a place, a perspective. Everyone was there to celebrate Texas and Texas culture. Everyone cared about the direction of the Texas food and agricultural industries. And, best of all, everyone was committed, not only by attending but often through generous sponsorship, to making sure we preserve Texas food culture, the good, bad, ugly, and wonderful. Because, it all tells a story about who we are.
I drove back to Dallas the slow way, to try to come down from my weekend one mile at a time. Texas is in full bloom west of I-35. As I drove on, I considered my version of Texas, my views of it, my notions, and how different they are from someone who say, grew up in Galveston. But my Texas life has taken me from San Antonio, to Fort Hood, to Wichita Falls, to Dallas, to Austin, to Fort Worth, and back to Dallas again. I feel lucky to have seen so much of it from fishing boats and car windows and on foot. And the food has been wonderful. I’m so glad there is a group who is celebrating this intersection between history and food, and making it a whole lot of fun along the way.
Many thanks to the Foodways Texas team for putting this great Symposium together for all of us. Marvin Bendele, Elizabeth Engelhardt, Lisa Powell and Brook Greer were tireless. And, they had many other helpers behind the scenes and all around us to help make this run smoothly (not to mention…lots of generous sponsors). Wonderful job! For my fellow attendees, if I have mis-linked you, failed to link you, or misrepresented the nature of your talks in any way, please feel free to let me know. Add any comments that come to mind here. I’d also be pleased if anyone wanted to add to the list of great folks in attendance with links and all. I’m happy to do a Twitter list if anyone is interested. Thank you all for making this such a great weekend. For the rest of you, JOIN US!
Friends, I implore you to discover what Foodways Texas is all about. You will love it. It is a hoot to attend these gatherings of friends, to be sure. But, they are doing important work documenting our shared history. We are supporting that by getting together and diving into fabulous food and drink, and hearing important, interesting and funny stories about our diverse food cultures. It is truly one of the best win-win scenarios going in the state. Come join me in this fun so they can keep doing what they are doing.