On Friday evening of the 3rd Annual Foodways Texas Symposium on BBQ I found myself casually sitting in the hotel lobby chatting about the world with Justin Fourton of Pecan Lodge BBQ in Dallas, and Tim Byres of Dallas’ SMOKE restaurant. What other event would place me in such proximity with the best of Texas’ food doers and thinkers? I thought to myself, what other organization pulls together guys like this and still has room at the table for the home cooks and food fans? Justin, along with his wife Diane, had just rolled in to town and was getting ready to spend a day of cooking on our behalf. He should win an award for having pulled a giant truck and trailer carrying his storied smoker, Lurlene, into the depths of the tight hotel underground parking garage…where, confronted with a dead end, he managed to back that beast of a trailer back and around so that he could head out to work smoking magic in the morning. I’ve always been impressed with trailering skills. Go figure. Be sure to read PART I of my post by clicking this link.
I awoke on Saturday, both nervous about moderating a panel discussion on hunting later in the day, and happily looking forward to, yes, more food. When we arrived on the UT campus for the next round of presentations, I was charmed to be handed a beautiful gift box…my breakfast…put together by Robert and Kaci Lyford of Patina Green. The giant biscuit, fresh strawberries, Canadian bacon, jalapeno peach jelly and jalapeno farmstead cheese were wrapped and tied beautifully in a brown box and twine. Everyone got one. I may have made that sound like it was just for me. I kind of felt like it was just for me.
The day, commenced in such a visually as well as gustatorily compelling manner, proceeded in a similar way as three of the best chroniclers of Texan ways took the stage. Wyatt McSpadden, O. Rufus Lovett, and Jody Horton presented some of their most notable photographs of BBQ methods and names, along with artists from the Okay Mountain Artists Collective and moderator Andrea Mellard. As someone who dabbles in the art of photography, I found the hour humbling and inspiring. O. Rufus Lovett had commented the day before that he was a photographer of the human condition. That term sounds negative or sad in the abstract, but when you get a chance to see the expressions, presence and context of his subjects, it becomes clear that the gift these men possess is well stated in that old adage about a picture being worth a thousand words. Though a thousand words wouldn’t be sufficient in these cases. And the condition is life, in its various forms made permanently concrete in an image. The photos of the pitmasters, in particular, describe long hours, harsh conditions, and dedication. McSpadden has been photographing BBQ culture for years. Lovett traveled with Robb Walsh to create their latest book called Barbecue Crossroads. And Jody presented lovely work gleaned from his recent efforts on Tim Byres new book Smoke.
[Tiffany Derry and Toni Tipton Martin]
John T. Edge is a person whom I have been following a great deal recently. He is the director of the Southern Foodways Alliance, which is similar in nature though larger in geographical scope. He is a columnist for Garden and Gun and has also written for the New York Times. He followed up the photographers and talked to us about the notion of the pitmaster, and the historical foundations that make it a meaningful term.
Next up, yes…little ol’ me. I had the honor of taking the stage to ask questions of Jesse Griffiths and Georgia Pelligrini about their love of hunting and preparing game in their work as chefs. For me, it was one of those talks that I could have engaged in for hours. Texas is a hunting mecca. But in my years in the blind and in the field, I had never really paid a great deal of attention to the obvious connections between hunting and the food that resulted. The memories and sensations of my hunting past are all about family and the landscape, and the sounds, and the good feelings. Jesse and Georgia both raised that subject with a dose of holistic purpose. Neither grew up hunting, and both began hunting with a firm grasp on the culinary skills that raise the game, so to speak, to a new level. I have always been fascinated that there existed in Texas hundreds of thousands of hunters, yet they have been somewhat ignored in the culinary “glossy” media, if you will. With the exception of a beautiful photo and recipe book put out by Tosh Brown several years ago called Grazing Across Texas, there just hasn’t been much out there, save message boards, community cookbooks, and such, for the folks who hunt and eat game all the time. I’m glad that Jesse and Georgia have added their weight to the enterprise and hope that with the success of their books, more will follow. Jesse’s book, in particular, with step-by-step photos of the processes of cleaning and butchering game, as well as uncomplicated but lovely recipes, is a great addition to any hunter’s library.
The French Legation is a hidden jewel of a spot for gatherings. We headed there by bus and stepped through a gate into another time. As we headed up the hill, we were greeted by a scene that could have been laid out for that magazine spread wedding that you were never invited to attend. Spring is afoot in Austin and the setting for our lunch by Dallas chef Tiffany Derry was beautiful. She served us wild boar ribs and barbecued chicken, but her sides were sublime. I think we are all collectively ready for a season of heirloom tomatoes and she didn’t disappoint us. Collard greens and banana pudding rounded out my plate and made for a very pleasant lunch. I had the honor of sitting with Texas Monthly editor Patricia Sharpe, and we talked about the storms and fires that live in the collective consciousness of all Texans, as well as simple things like the birthday cakes our mothers used to make for us.
The rowdy table (just kidding), containing friends Steff Childs, Lisa Fain, Marshall Wright, Jessica Timmons and other constantly entertaining people, rang a bell overhead indicating that more food should be consumed and that anyone trying to take away unfinished serving plates might be injured. Kudos to the chef. It was a lovely meal.
[My overburdened dinner plate]
We wrapped up our afternoon at UT with poetry, and a talk on Texas music and BBQ. Great is the lecture that starts with a Robert Earl Keen tune. Ed Dougal and Professor Jeff Savell then spoke with Lisa Powell about what sustainability means in the context of beef and firewood. I had not given much thought previously to the forestry considerations of all of the wood we consume in this pursuit. But, it is a lot. Dr. Savell is a giant in the world of beef. His work at Texas A&M is beyond notable. Having him at the symposium adds to the discourse immeasurably. On top of that, he’s just fun to talk to and his wife Jackie is a dear. It is nice to feel like you have known people for years on end, even when you have only just met them recently. But they are just those kind of people. Dr. Savell and his colleagues taught me a thing of two about BBQ at last year’s Foodways Texas BBQ Summer Camp.
I was a little melancholy when the symposium talks ended. It went a little too fast. I wanted more time. I wanted to learn more. But, there is always next year, thankfully. And, little did I know at that moment, I still had one major feast ahead of me. We returned to French Legation for dinner to find a little neighborhood of smokers on the grounds. Justin and Diane were completing work on sweet potatoes and greens, and smoked pork belly. Greg Gatlin of Gatlin’s BBQ had prepared smoked fish with a wonderful pineapple salsa and spicy boudin.
Wayne Mueller was slicing tender smoked beef. Hugo Ortega served us a dish punctuated with cactus paddles and spicy salsas, and the gentlemen of Martin’s Bar-B-Que Joint in Nolensville Tennessee joined the party with some truly succulent and perfectly (very) spicy smoked chicken. My plate was comical.
I kept shoving things together and making more room as I walked past the offerings. It was beautiful, smoky, inventive gluttony. I do not exaggerate when I say it is one of the finest plates of food I’ve ever consumed. Each outfit shot for the stars and brought something unique and interesting to the table, but each perfectly suited to the subject matter at hand. I was also very, very happy and that always makes things taste extra wonderful.
I joyfully took possession of a pie from Bud Royer of Royers Round Top Cafe which had been left to the side. They were serving perfect slices of pecan pie and I asked what was up with the abandoned pie that had the best parts left…lots of crust with plenty of pecans stuck to the edges. He grabbed it and dropped a giant scoop of Amy’s ice cream right into the tin. I returned to my seat victoriously with what amounted to a quarter of a pie and a big scoop of Virginia Wood’s homemade cobbler, as well. There is nothing quite so jubilant as eating pie straight from the tin, under the stars and strings of lights, listening to a fiddle and a bass, laughing with friends, and talking about the next time we could all get together again.
So, another Foodways Texas Symposium is in the books, and I am left to wonder what the theme will be for next year’s reunion. I always come away with new friends and a better sense of my old new friends. Thank you to Marvin, Elizabeth and the rest of the Foodways Family who worked tirelessly and joyfully to make this such an extraordinary event.