It is official. Foodways Texas events are not, in fact, conferences on the studies of food, culture, history, gender, politics and agriculture or practical laboratories on culturally steeped cooking. Well, actually the events are both of these things. But in a greater sense, they have taken on the air of a big family reunion (and the side of your family that you love), with more long-lost, heretofore unknown cousins showing up all the time. And those cousins show up with beer, BBQ, and pie.
I just returned from the 3rd Annual Foodways Texas Symposium in Austin Texas. This one was called “Our BBQ, Ourselves” and was a 3 day journey through more aspects of BBQ than you could possibly have imagined that one family of food has. The following two photos are not technically a field trip for this symposium, but on my way from Dallas to Austin on Thursday night I cut off of I-35 at Temple and headed on the side road to Taylor, Texas where I had to make the terrible decision of “Taylor Cafe or Louie Mueller?” No one should be forced to make a decision like that. And the fact is that I shouldn’t have made any decision. I should have gone to both. But time was short and I still had to make it to Elgin for a spell. The opportunity to see Vincel Mares sitting at the counter of the Taylor Cafe won out this time. He was honored at the Symposium last year and I wanted to see his legendary establishment. As luck would have it he was sitting right where he always sits, greeting every customer as he or she walked through the door. The Taylor Cafe is visually everything you want an old joint to be. It smells like smoke and history and beer. It was the right place to sit for a moment and listen and taste and see and think about what the weekend was going to be about. We all have our favorite joint, our favorite styles, and traditions, but the enduring fact is that Texas BBQ means something. BBQ is not unique to Texas, but Texas BBQ, even in its varied forms, is unique.
[Taylor Cafe, Taylor, Texas]
You want to get people to show up to a conference on time, or even early? Tell them Aaron Franklin will be serving his BBQ for dinner on the opening evening. I was not the only person in attendance to note what a great thing it was to get a shot at Franklin BBQ without having to stand in line for an hour and a half (or three). Though, as was amply discussed, in a lot of ways the line is part of the fun. Say hello to the people in front of you and the people behind you, unfold your lawn chair, pull out a beer and get to know your fellow travelers on the BBQ trail.
And, perhaps of critical importance to this discussion, I think the take away from the weekend was a very intense appreciation for how hard people in the BBQ trade work. The hours are punishing, the smoke is intense, the inputs are costly, and people want your very best day in and day out. Hence, when one gets the opportunity to have BBQ that is so stellar that it merits a line, one should spend a bit of that wait cultivating gratitude for the pit-masters and their families.
Aaron Franklin, incidentally, is as nice as you have heard. And, the food is also as good as you have heard. And his people are friendly. And he, a self proclaimed BBQ nerd, shares his knowledge freely. He served the, and I mean THE best pinto beans I’ve ever eaten. And he personally talked to Jack Timmons and me for 10 minutes about how to modify our backyard smokers to achieve optimal airflow. And then he talked to everyone else about their BBQ issues, questions, and adorations, too. Watch Aaron’s KLRU videos to experience this yourself.
Joe Nick Patoski talked to us about the politics of barbecue, and among other things, the utterly apparent fact, which I had never before actually considered, that BBQ is the official food of the political season. You can’t go to an outdoor fundraiser or political event without there being BBQ present.
Robb Walsh introduced us to Mama Sugar and her beautiful family. She was receiving a lifetime achievement award for her years of work leading up the cooking team for the Sugar Shack Trailblazers Riding Rodeo Club, equestrian club that rides at the Houston Livestock Show and Trail Ride. In his new book, Barbecue Crossroads, Walsh describes her as “the head cook and spiritual leader of the Sugar Shack Trailblazers.” She also apparently throws a wing-ding of a Juneteenth BBQ Celebration and we were all left wondering just how many of us she would put up with if we happened to wander onto her ranch this summer. But her guiding principal of cooking appears to be using love as the heaviest of ingredients, so I suspect she’d just wave us all in and feed us like family.
[Top left: Addie Broyles, Aaron Franklin and Daniel Delaney; Top Right: Elizabeth Engelhardt and John T. Edge; Lower Left: The Timmons Twins; Lower Center: Jesse Griffiths and Marvin Bendele; Lower right: Marvin Bendele, Rien Fertel, Daniel Vaughn, Jordan Breal and Tim Byres]
We started day 2 at the Saengerrunde Halle in Austin. It is a German singing club with a completely charming old German-style building complete with a bowling alley in the back and a patio that overlooks Scholz Beer Garten. It was a perfect venue for our troop and we started the day with a white paper bag full of riches. Morgan Weber and Ryan Pera of Revival Market in Houston gave each of us a bag filled with three kolaches, one of which was a warm boudin kolache. I almost died of happy. Envision me, trying to be somewhat composed going back and forth between a spicy boudin kolache and a lemon kolache…spicy, sweet, spicy, sweet, spicy, sweet…and then a strawberry kolache for dessert.
Marvin Bendele, our fearless leader at Foodways Texas unpacked the word “barbecue” for us, explaining that it was a noun and a verb, a place and a thing and a method…oh, and a bed. Here was his descriptive sentence or something close enough: “I BBQ’d BBQ on the BBQ while we BBQ’d in the sun,” or something to that effect. Then, one can apparently take a nap on his or her BBQ, but I’d advise letting it cool down first.
Robb Walsh gave a talk on Community BBQs, a phenomenon which has dwindled down to a mere few that are held on a regular basis, which is sad. It makes me want to start one or go to one. But it definitely makes me want to make sure that if you are lucky enough to have one in your area, you go…and pick up a shovel or haul wood or make potato salad, or something. His talk reminded me of the Mavericks in Wichita Falls, a group of great men who get together and don red aprons and star badges to cook for fundraisers and civic events in our town. They are like a mobile community BBQ. And it made me proud that my granddad, my dad, and my stepdad are all part of such a great tradition. Robb documents and lists community BBQs on his site ZenBBQ.
Robb gave us food for thought on a lot of BBQ traditions, however. The conflict between ketchup and vinegar based BBQ sauce has its genesis in the conflicts between eastern Carolina plantation culture and the German populated Piedmont region. In conflicts that spanned decades and touched on such weighty issues as taxation and representation, and slave-holding, the two distinct sauces became emblematic of the regional disputes. The great sauce vs. no sauce debate is not free from controversy either. This is not just about preferences. It has to do with history and attitudes and prejudices. History is so much more interesting to me through the lens of food, I say.
Toni Tipton Martin talked to us about The Jemima Code, her work on Important African American Cooks and their Cookbooks. One of her more fascinating statements was about how these cooks were often cooking for large groups and utterly from memory, something she called a “mental mise en place” which I thought was a very powerful image. If you were ever curious about the roots of Big Red becoming a must at a BBQ, ask Toni and she will tell you about “lasses,” a drink made from diluted molasses and berries.
Aaron Franklin and Daniel Delaney discussed the “New” Business of BBQ in a panel moderated by the always interesting Austin food writer, Addie Broyles. These guys are the new breed of BBQ business. Think food trailers and a guy who has taken the cult of the brisket to New York City. The very best moment of this panel was when Aaron was asked how he deals with vegetarians and he said he gives them pie, or something to that effect. I approve. But apparently his BBQ is the scene of an awful lot of vegetarian “falling off the wagon” moments. And the general consensus was that perhaps vegetarians should not seek meals at restaurants whose very reason for existence is the celebration of meat. But, I’m not sure that anyone has so capitalized on a $300 Craig’s List trailer find like Aaron and Stacy Franklin. And Daniel’s “Brisket Lab” in Manhattan may just be the thing to teach New Yorkers about our obsession with smoked brisket. When he stated that, “BBQ is not a culture in New York; It is just another place to get a meal in New York,” I think we all wept a little on the inside. But he’s working on them. We all wish him the best with that.
[Jesse Griffiths preparing lunch.]
This was about the point when smoke started wafting up from the back alley. I pretended I was an important cog in the Foodways Texas wheel so I could go take a few pictures of Jesse Griffiths making our lunch. More on that in a moment. But, what a sincerely amiable fellow. Everyone needs to know someone who smiles like that, in my opinion.
When I returned to the hall, we had a charming talk on onions. Renee Studebaker gave us a lot of great information about that under-appreciated and ever present side dish in BBQ. We never give the humble onion credit for the history and character that it has. And I learned that the mighty Vidalia onion was actually bred from a Texas onion, the Grano 250, which I had never heard of before. In fact the Grano is apparently the mother of all sweet onions including the Maui, the Noonday, the Vidalia, and the Texas 1015.
By this time we were all miraculously ready to eat again. Jesse Griffiths of Dai Due in Austin, and whole host of Foodways Texas volunteers served us family style at two community tables. The platters of food were an embarrassment of riches. First we were given plates of wonderful pickled beets and cold sausage and fresh bread and giant pretzels from Easy Tiger in Austin. I’m not sure you can overstate the importance of Easy Tiger and David Norman as they shared their ovens for several of the baking endeavors as well as supplying fresh bread at practically every meal. Jesse followed up the starter plates with giant platters overflowing with various sausages and feral hog, and wonderful potato salad. It was the perfect meal to be served in this old German hall. Jesse is so well regarded in Austin and those spoiled people get to visit him and his creations at Dai Due and the local farmers market. You can get a taste of his work by tracking down a copy of his remarkable cookbook Afield, which has been nominated for a James Beard award, and was photographed by Jody Horton. But, more on that later.
We all secretly wondered if we would be able to stay awake for the second half of the day. But the topics were fascinating and it turned out to not be an issue in the least, as Kara Wentworth took the podium to talk about the history of butchering and BBQ.
Kara is an engaging scholar who has spent several years visiting slaughterhouses and researching the advances such as railroads, refrigeration, and the telegraph changed the way we acquire meat today.
Bryan Bracewell is the third generation pit-man at the storied Southside Market and Barbecue in Elgin. He was joined on the dais by Virginia Wood, the food editor of the Austin Chronicle. He talked about what it was like to carry on a family business and the line between growing a business and maintaining a tradition that has been ongoing for 125 years. His stories about how most of the kids in his high school worked in the Market at one time or another brought home just how much this business is woven into the fabric of the community. BBQ and Elgin “hot guts” sausage is without a doubt a major driver of commerce for the region still today. In a moment of levity he discussed how there was a time when they considered whether the term “hot guts” was the best modern name for their family’s famed sausages. It is, after all, hot meat served in a bit of gut. But he remarked that the family consensus was, “We’re 125 years old; we can call it whatever we want.” Hot guts are what they have always been and hopefully will be for another 125 years. He also, as was apparent throughout the weekend, remarked on the importance of Dr. Jeff Savell of Texas A&M in his life’s work and the way he was trained at A&M to carry his family’s iconic Texas business into the future.
I was excited to see that the Dallas contingency was up for some chat after Bracewell. Daniel Vaughn of the critically important (to all who hit the BBQ trail in search of the best BBQ in the state) Full Custom Gospel BBQ was just named the BBQ editor for Texas Monthly. I’ll be honest…often friends will ask me where they should go for BBQ in this or that town…and I just go onto Daniel’s website and parrot his information like I know what I’m talking about. Now you know. I give him credit at some point in the conversation, I promise. I swear. Anyway, for a guy who can make or break a joint’s TX BBQ reputation at this point, he is a really a wonderfully nice guy. And, he calls attention to un-sung and underappreciated pit-masters throughout the state. When they do it right, his attention can cause pilgrimages to happen. The panel, in fact, was on BBQ pilgrimages.
Daniel was joined by Tim Byres who is a local food giant. I mean that in both senses. He is a proponent of using local fresh foods and he is a chef of great renown who is from Dallas. He is one of the least showy of Dallas’ elite chefs and he is also one of the most genuine and nice of the lot. He described his formative BBQ road-trip as an effort that “stripped things back” and connected him not only with his sons as they traveled to Big Bend in a ’69 Volkswagen camper, but to hunt for the “spirit of hospitality” clearly shown to him and his boys as they made stops along the way. “The journey became the destination,” he said of this trip and others that became brick and mortar in his Dallas restaurant SMOKE. On the dais, Daniel and Tim were joined by Jordan Breal, who must be the best undercover BBQ tester in her work for Texas Monthly. I loved how she noted that she sometimes roped in her little brothers for her road-trips to make it a family affair. But she and Daniel and Joe Nick Patoski and all the others who have taken the BBQ trail to a professional level illustrated how eating at 6 BBQ joints in one day is no laughing matter and that back seats filled with styrofoam boxes is a commonality that they share. But as the cook of the bunch, Tim struck a chord with me about his journeys and how he once was seeking “answers” and “now I’m looking for the love in the pot” referring to a statement made earlier by Mama Sugar about how she seeks to put so much of her self and her spirit into each meal she serves. And Daniel cemented my admiration for him when talking about how these road trips have, as much as anything, brought him a deeper love for his adoptive home-state, and the charms of each little town he drives through. As Jordan succinctly put it, “I don’t think I’ll ever get tired of driving around Texas.” Amen, sister.
Both Daniel and Tim have books coming out this month and next which will add lovely depth to the Library of Smoke. Daniel’s, called The Prophets of Smoked Meats reaches out and talks about the great spots throughout Texas. Tim’s, the only advance copy of which I was honored to see for the first time this weekend, will pull you back to what you can accomplish on your own in this genre. Smoke: New Firewood Cooking was photographed by the incomparable Jody Horton, and shows also in illustrations, how to create cookers and smokers and other low-tech apparatus to make your own meals. It is so very refreshing and reductionist in its approach to what you can do for yourself. For instance, I honestly did not know that one could make hominy in the home. I assumed the process of nixtamalization was left only to the mills and experts, but apparently it can be done using Indian corn and ash in a process that has been done in communities for all the ages. I knew that on some level. But Tim’s book will show me how. Tim remarked how sometimes his food and restaurant defies easy categorization, what with the emphasis on BBQ these days. His style is so much more than just BBQ. It is about the homemade, the comprehensive skills to home cook, can, and create. It is about the self sufficiency that has been lost somewhere along the road, without the preachy politics that often invade talk about how food is best done. Tim is all about garden-fresh fare, good meats, coals, fire and smoke. And pies and churros pop up along the way. I am very excited about both of these books. Did you notice how Jody’s name appears in connection with both Tim’s and Jesse’s books. He is really great. It is nice to spend time with all of these people who are not only remarkable at their craft, be it cooking or photography or research, but also love what they do.
[Friends on the rooftop.]
We had a little break to walk off lunch (or drink beer at Scholz) before our dinner celebration. And dinner was preceded by a book signing by the authors in attendance. I am a sucker for signed cookbooks so I went home with a leaden bag. Addie Broyles gave us a peek of the upcoming Austin Food Blogger’s Alliance Cookbook and it is a keeper. Robb Walsh and O. Rufus Lovett were signing their new Barbecue Crossroads. In Robb’s expected fashion, it is full of great stories that you will not find elsewhere and that you will never forget…plus ample, do-able recipes from along the way. Rufus (or can I really just call you O.?) is a great photographer and teacher. The photographs in the book are compelling and he has a gift for photographing people in their elements of which I am envious. Tim’s new book was there for a quick pre-see. And Jody was signing Afield. I was honored to meet Chef Hugo Ortega and I picked up a copy of his Street Food of Mexico. The photography was done by Penny de los Santos which combined with the recipes and writing quadruples the value in my estimation. Wyatt McSpadden brought his remarkable photo book Texas BBQ. Who am I forgetting? Lisa Fain wasn’t signing, just having fun with us, but I would be remiss if I didn’t mention her wonderful cookbook The Homesick Texan. And Georgia Pelligrini was in attendance signing her chef’s journey and travelogue Girl Hunter. I know I’m forgetting someone. Help me out. Elizabeth Engelhardt has Republic of Barbecue which is a must read for anyone interested in the culture of BBQ. And, of course, Robb’s other BBQ Book, Legends of Texas Barbecue Cookbook is amazing, too. Really, am I forgetting anyone?
Suffice to say, that if you only looked to Texas right now for your cookbook addiction, you would have an incredibly well stocked library. It is just Texas time in the book world. And this stuff is good.
Dinner…yes we ate more food. Jim Gossen of Louisiana Foods ensured that we ate like kings. On the deck of the Saengerrunde Halle we witnessed Levi Goode of Goode Company as well as Adam Saxenian and a contingency from Reef BBQ shrimp, crabs and some of the best cooked oysters I have ever eaten. The feast was adorned with sides of slaw with red onions and radishes as well as a vinaigrette potato salad that was wonderful. I left smokey, filthy, full and happy.
Many went out to play Friday night. But I had to go back to the hotel to study a little and get a good night sleep before joining Jesse Griffiths and Georgia Pelligrini on a panel about hunting coming up the next morning. But, I didn’t retire before joining the Gossens and the Savells for some of Bud Royer’s chocolate pecan pie in the lobby. Pie in the lobby is becoming a Foodways Texas tradition.
To be continued…
I’m at more than 3000 words and I need to wash my smoky laundry from the weekend. So I’m breaking this re-cap into two parts. Please visit again in a few days for a wrap-up post about Saturday and our wonderful meals at the French Legation. Yes, more food. Yes, more great times. Don’t you want to join the family already? Visit Foodways Texas online.
Find Part 2 here: 2013 Foodways Texas Symposium: Part 2