Our first day of the 2014 Foodways Texas Symposium ended at The Farm at Ronin Cooking. It was a beautiful night. But we had more eating and story telling and listening to do, which cannot be done on an empty stomach. So we had to eventually go to bed so that we could wake up and be fed again.
Breakfast on Saturday was lovely. Sometimes simplicity is called for. Following our meal at the farm, the brilliant choice was made to present a simple toast and preserves breakfast. I said simple, not light. It was so incredibly decadent. Here is how it went. Stephanie McClenny is Confituras Jams. She is remarkable. She makes a wonderful product, and she is a very nice person, to boot. Her preserves are simple but nuanced. They are sweet, but celebrate the fruit. Wonderful. She teamed up with my pal Meaders Ozarow at Empire Baking in Dallas. Meaders was asked to do a version of Texas Toast. This, my friends, was Texas Toast made with challah dough, fluffy and thick, buttered and griddle-cooked on big baking sheets over hot coals. Then, as though that weren’t sufficient, Stephanie brought fresh chevre from Blue Heron Farm which was sublime. It was so fresh and quite spreadable. It was so fresh and light tasting that I found myself having to reach to even identify it as a goat cheese. I can’t say enough about it. I piled the goat cheese on top of my toast and then topped it with a giant hat of Stephanie’s orange chile de arbol marmalade. Dear God. Sausage was provided by Salt & Time of Austin and I heard several people wandering by commenting that it was the best sausage they had ever eaten.
I was very thankful for the coffee provided by 1541 Coffee. I never would have perked up enough to be ready for the serious discussions on rice without them. They are a shop in College Station and brought not only good coffee, but on Friday also also the most wonderful little crescent shaped, powdered sugar dusted cookies. I’m glad they were a hit because I would have eaten the whole tray by myself. A friend showed me a photo of one of Anel’s (owner of 1541 with husband, Sam) other creations. She is clearly a skilled pastry chef as the “camera” I was staring at…a full blown replica of a digital SLR camera…was really one of those incredible life-like 3D fondant covered cakes. So if you live near College Station and need something special, you might look at 1541 first.
Rice in Texas, Way Back When
Many know that Texas has a long standing rice growing tradition, but few know the story of Sieto Saibara, a Japanese American farmer. Professor Todd Romero of the University of Houston told us Saibara’s story as a prologue to a later talk we were due to hear on the rice industry in Texas. Saibara was a lawyer and politician who emigrated from Japan to pursue a religious education in Connecticut after a conversion to Christianity. During the very early 1900’s America was still actively seeking immigrants and entrepreneurs to move to America, and Louisiana and Texas, in particular, were actively marketing their land. Saibara moved to Texas and farmed rice for many years. While the market forces were difficult enough, Professor Todd Romero explained to us that it was really immigration policy that killed the dreams of the Japanese rice farmers. In 1902 Japan and America agreed to limit immigration and in 1921 Alien Land Laws were imposed to keep immigrants from buying land. Finally, following 1924, immigration was closed to the Japanese altogether. Saibara ended up moving to Brazil and was never given citizenship. Romero opined that the legacy of Japanese internment into concentration camps during WWII, as well as rampant regulation, made it unfathomable for many families to continue in the industry even after immigration laws eased.
Texas has so many varied, tragic, celebrated, and forgotten stories that touch on race, agriculture, and immigration, forced and otherwise. It is easy to have a mental image of the early Texans as the stalwart, brave, rugged (and white) pioneers chronicled in our history and legends. But there are so many other stories to be told about how people of all manner of races and ethnicities came to be in Texas. I’m glad Foodways Texas is creating space for these stories to be told. They enrich me.
Rice in Texas is currently a very, very complex topic. As stated, rice has been grown in Texas for at least 150 years. But as we all have witnessed, Texas has had an historic drought during the last few years. Because rice is a water flooded crop, I learned, rice growers depend on water being sent downstream from Texas lakes and rivers in order to irrigate. Likewise, oysters and shrimp depend on fresh water coming downstream for that matter. If fresh water doesn’t come downstream, these crops and catches and hauls do not make it. But, there are levels at which the river authorities (Brazos and Lower Colorado) do not have to send water downstream, as the water in these reservoirs is also used for residential and urban purposes. And, we are there.
Essentially, these river authorities get to determine during times of drought whether we will have a rice crop at all, but the decision is based on pre-existing planning agreements and pricing structures. I admit that there is a part of me that wonders whether rice is the most water efficient crop we could be growing in Texas. But, then I wonder if super green golf courses in the middle of Dallas, or lush residential landscapes that somehow manage to thrive in the August heat are the most efficient use of precious water. But the other elephants in the room are the amount of water consumed yearly for electricity and other energy production, and especially chemical manufacturing. Weighing interests of this nature is not a pretty thing at all. I think reasonable minds can differ on the best use of a scarce resource. Truly, I do. But there are a lot of inconsistencies in our water use policies that I find completely perplexing. I need to read more on all of this. And, pray for rain…and apparently we need to pray for rain in very specific areas for the run-off to do any good for the rice farmers. Rain in Dallas, while nice, just won’t cut it.
The speakers for this panel were Jay Davis, a rice broker, Neena Satija of the Texas Tribune, and Ted Wilson of the AgriLife Research Center in Beaumont. They managed to provoke me to thought, confuse me a bit, and generally upset my apple cart, because we as a country like to think in terms of plenty. But by this stage of the symposium, I had learned that both rice and grapefruit could potentially be wiped out completely as agricultural sectors in our state. Yet our state continues to grow by leaps and bounds. We will continue to use more and more water and grow less and less food, potentially. Not good. Neena is a journalist and she was there to provide some unbiased context to the negotiations over water usage. It became clear that a pitched political battle is taking place of which many of us are unaware. To paraphrase Jacko Garrett, the recipient of the lifetime achievement award this year, things are getting worse and nothing is going to change until people can’t get something to eat. I was eavesdropping when I heard that, by the way. My apologies. But it was a statement that stuck with me.
Here’s the good news about rice, though. Wilson explained to us that while the acreage planted this year will be at its lowest level since the beginnings of rice cultivation in Texas, because of research and employed efficiencies, the United States, while planting only ⅔ of 1% of the world’s acreage of rice, produces 6.17% of the world’s rice. That means we are good at it, that we are making advances, and that we can be leaders. Also, as the rice experts explained, progress is being made to maximize water use efficiency of an admittedly water intensive crop. But we all need to maximize our water (and electricity) use efficiency. Now if we can just figure out the answer to water usage rights hierarchy in the state, we’ll be all set. But that’s not so easy, is it?
John “Jacko” Garrett
Jacko Garrett was honored as the Foodways Texas Lifetime Achievement Award Recipient for 2014 He is a rice farmer in Texas. Only, he’s not growing any rice this year. See the above. This will be the first year that rice was not grown on this farm since 1936. The reason he was chosen as the honoree this year, best as I can see, is because he lives his faith. In an unguarded and touching tribute to Mr. Garrett, Laura Davenport explained how Garrett had been a profound influence in her life since she was young. But we went on to learn that he has quite literally and humbly fed thousands. He and other rice growers started an organization called Share the Harvest because as he put it, “The Houston Food Bank had no secure way to get rice every year.” He personally set aside 100 to 200 acres of production every single year since 1999 to give to the Houston Food Bank. “It wasn’t any big deal for us,” he humbly added. There have been several articles in the news lately, notably in Houstonia Magazine, about Mr. Garrett and they are utterly worth your time.
He talked about the well-worn but rarely lived statement that to those whom much is given much is expected. But he put it all in such a doable and empowering light. He said that each of us has a gift, and there is some way each of us can work to use that gift to help other people. He didn’t touch on the politics of the rice situation too much except to say that we’d sure all be a lot better off if we took the politics out of the matter and just all cooperated to conserve and be conscious of the water situation. He added that by using precision grading and other efficiencies, he had managed to reduce the water he used for rice by 30 to 40%. But he did add that he fears the Houston Food Bank will be getting 8 million fewer servings of rice from Share the Harvest this year, which is a shortfall that those of us with green lawns and cool homes are probably honor bound to cover financially. And if you are a golfer, well, you need to kick in a little more still.
There are always more sides to a story. We barely touched this issue. However, one of the things I most appreciate about these symposia are that they put, not just the “issue” but the PEOPLE in front of us. Rice farmers and oystermen and BBQ pitmasters join us…real people…who tell us about their lives. I needed to put a face on rice farming. Then, it is not about a sterile “industry,” it is about my neighbor, my fellow Texan. It is also important that we are reminded about the ripples in the pond, so to speak. If Jacko Garret goes down, so does the Houston Food Bank, so do the millers, the tractor repair shops, the seed sellers, and the trucking company that hauls his rice. None of these things happen in a vacuum. And I imagine the upstream water users could make a similarly compelling case. But I also know that Texas will not be Texas without agriculture and farms and ranches, without rice and beef and dairy. Food for thought, yes. I’m thinking.
Naya Jones, a Ph.D. candidate at UT, was clearly born to engage audiences and make them think. Her talk on Black Growers in the City was a glimpse into the research she is doing on black urban gardeners and on the transmission of this culture and knowledge to younger and future generations. She played audio snippets of the voices of some of the black urban gardeners that she had interviewed. Capturing someone’s voice is a powerful thing. An 80 year old voice can tell her own story in a way that a 30 year old cannot merely recite. There is impact in the timbre of a voice. Jones is collecting these stories to delve into the ways in which food is experienced, from cultivation to the table, in the black community. This story touches on issues such as nutrition, poverty, and population immigration trends, historically and currently. A question arose about how informal economies for food develop in communities and it struck me how well-meaning (I hope well-meaning) regulations and fees in the name of safety and public health can curb and eliminate small scale entrepreneurship related to food. We had certainly touched on this in the issue of costly organic certification earlier in the talks, as well as the multiple fees charged to a single farmer for appearing at numerous farmers markets. But while not a specific theme of this talk I found myself thinking a lot about how government trickles into our neighborhoods, for good and ill, and how by making it too costly to comply with regulations, we simultaneously deny people access to markets and/or we create people who are operating outside the law. That is a whole different talk though.
Jones asked three very powerful questions at the end of her talk that left me a bit speechless. She asked us to ponder: 1) Are we approaching black communities as knowledgeable? 2) Are we seeking out history and resources about black food cooking? And, 3) Are we promoting inter-generational sharing and listening to support resilience? The first question literally took my breath away. Smiling, we had all listened to an audio of a woman sharing her family’s history and traditions about gardening, down to how she was taught to rotate a garden trowel to check and harvest potatoes without damaging any…a tip that every gardener in the room was seen jotting down…and it pained me to think of our seeing her as a “cute little old lady” as opposed to what she is which is an authority on gardening. Merely shifting perspectives and choosing to approach people as potential founts of knowledge, or identifying their gifts (revisiting Jacko Garrett’s terminology) has the potential for a powerful cultural awakening. And, even within families, these questions stand. I’m so happy that Naya Jones is working on these topics and documenting this knowledge for the day that we catch up with her.
On a related note, Foodways Texas is embarking on a project with the Southern Foodways Alliance called the Shankleville Oral History Project. In brief, the Shankleville Community was on of the first freedmen communities in Texas. It was started by Jim and Winnie Shankle, a couple born into slavery who went on to become local leaders and prominent land owners. This concerted effort will delve into their story and those of their descendants, who still live in this East Texas area. Notably, it will look into subsistence farming. The emphasis will be on families, and specifically the lives of the African-American Texans who played such a vital role in Texas history.
You know the goals of this particular symposium are being met when you lose track of the dizzying array or food talk and actual food and forget when and how someone managed to fit in another meal…but somewhere in here I walked out onto the lawn of the AgriLife building (Have I mentioned how remarkable this building is? Remarkable.) and Jesse Perez of Arcade Midtown Kitchen in San Antonio was busily piling platters with beautiful food. He and his team served us huge plates of salad, and platters filled with roasted chicken and sweet potatoes and lamb with grits. There were also mounds of mushroom tucked in amongst these. It was a feast! I should mention here that we were all very grateful for the tireless help of the A&M student volunteers and culinary students who helped the prep and service go off without a hitch all weekend. It goes without saying that a tremendous amount of work went into this weekend…from Marvin Bendele and Elizabeth Englehardt and the Foodways Texas volunteers, to the Lights, the students, the chefs, the speakers, A&M and the sponsors who kept on donating and donating mountains of food and wine and time…this was an event of great magnitude and shared gifts.
So, this is fun. Full stop. Let’s talk about Texas music. We did this last year when we discussed BBQ themes in Texas music. This year, we discussed the Light Crust Dough Boys and Western Swing. What a cool story. It is, of course, the story of Bob Wills’ start in western swing, but it is also a really funny story about W. Lee O’Daniel who though disliking musicians and radio deeply, employed these musicians to promote the Burruss Mill and their Light Crust Flour. This story was engagingly told to us by Jason Mellard, the Assistant Director of The Center for Texas Music History at Texas State University in San Marcos. As I listened to the story of this man who went from flour to public office in the era of early-LBJ, and all of the shenanigans along the way, I kept wondering when the Coen Brothers were going to make a movie about it. Just about then Mellard explained that the Governor of Mississippi character in Oh Brother, Where art Thou is loosely based on former Texas governor W. Lee O’Daniel, also known as “Pappy” O’Daniel. Mellard has a book out now called Progressive Country: How the 1970’s Transformed the Texan in Popular Culture. I scored a copy at the symposium and I can’t wait to dive in because that is the music I grew up on.
Innovative Urban Farming
Our last panel was one of the most inspiring. Kristi Willis, writer of the blog Kristi’s Farm to Table, led a panel discussion by three individuals who are using urban farming in “mission based farms.” As Kristi explained to us, they were serving a particular population, helping a particular group, through the use of gardening and urban agriculture. Max Elliott is a co-founder of, and executive director of, Urban Roots. Urban Roots engages the youth of Austin and teaches them about sustainable agriculture, giving them knowledge and promoting access to healthy food. What started as an after school gardening project has transformed into a farm that has a goal of growing 35,000 pounds of food per year, 40% of which is donated to those in need. And the kids not only grow the food, but prepare and serve the donated food. “It is a meal that they started when they planted the seed,” Elliott explained.
I was extremely excited to learn about the work of James Jeffers and Stephen Smith. Their business Eat the Yard was started in an effort to create a good life after returning from tours of duty in the Middle East. Please visit their website to learn more about them. They were both drawn to the health benefits of growing clean food and working to improve the environment. They specialize in edible landscaping and composting, and have other big projects in the works. But they are growing this idea in an effort to provide some “dirt therapy” to an at-risk population about which they care deeply: veterans trying to acclimate after returning from war zones. Jeffers and Smith made clear during the talk and in conversations afterward just how devastating (and under-reported) the numbers are of veterans committing suicide after returning home. The numbers are grim, and frankly appalling. Twenty-two per day. I looked it up. Twenty-two (yes…22) veterans per day are killing themselves due to the pressures of returning to civilian life after returning from these wars as well as the incredible physical and mental injuries sustained in war. Jeffers and Smith found that getting their hands dirty helped them. Jeffers noted, “It’s been very helpful to us and we just want to pass that along.” I look forward to hearing about their next steps to implement their plans because I really want my community to get behind this effort. But on par with that, what they are doing with dirt is really quite exciting. What they are doing stands on its own as a great (and totally cool) business. The fact that they are using it to help their fellow service men and women is inspiring.
Colleen O’Donnell works with Plant it Forward in Houston. Seeing a need to help a particularly vulnerable population in Houston, refugees, Plant it Forward operates as a non-profit “business incubator.” These refugees, often Congolese, and often farmers in their homeland, are trained to make a living off the land here in the U.S. “You can make a living off of ½ acre done organically,” she noted. Plant it Forward provides the infrastructure and networks to bring the produce to market and works with the farmers to overcome social and educational barriers to success here. They have 14 refugees in training currently with 6 acres in cultivation. Inspiring stories, all three. All three make me, in fact, feel lazy and a bit self-centered. But that is another post altogether.
With the last panel concluded, we all got ready for our farewell dinner back at The Veranda. Frankly, I was sad. It went a bit too fast this year. These people, not the speakers as speakers, but the people speaking and attending as fellow travelers on this road, have become very dear to me. Scurrying around taking photos has a tendency to keep one a little bit removed and running at a pace that is not conducive to meaningful conversation (which is part of the appeal of a camera for a somewhat introverted person actually). But walking into The Veranda on Saturday evening I found myself saying, “wait, that wasn’t enough time.” At that moment, Jessica Timmons informed me that I would be sitting next to Laura Davenport at dinner. Laura and I kept passing each other in a hurry all weekend and she was, thankfully, aware enough to make sure that we had a moment to re-connect on this last night.
When I went over to look at the food preparation I was confused to see most everything already prepared, and covered. When we sat down you could almost hear the relief of the room as four types of salads were passed around each table. We had been eating richly over the past 2 days and this profusion of greens and things were a gift from Dallas chef Sharon Hage. Frankly I thought that was it. And I thought it was brilliant. But then came the entrée which consisted of the most perfectly cooked peas I’ve ever had in which goat shoulder and greens were braised. Robb Walsh passed around a bottle of Hoover Alexander’s pepper sauce…nice call Robb…and the feast continued, capped off by a giant bowl of “cajeta and honey pecan mess” that was the loveliest mess you have ever seen.
At the rowdiest table in the room, and I wouldn’t have it any other way, Laura and I leaned in and spilled the contents of our complex lives over the last two years in a conversation that included life, love, loss, faith, strength, and metamorphoses of lives and souls. It was a good one. It was one of those conversations that you are fortunate to have once every couple of years, where you’re really in tune with a friend and talk about the raw and beautiful act of living. With laughter pealing all around us, celebrations and toasts and remarkable food and wine, we connected again.
And that is really what the Foodways Texas Symposium boils down to. They do purposeful and serious work documenting the food cultures in Texas. And in support of that mission we come once a year to be together and open our minds to the things our fellow Texans are doing and did, pertaining to food. We come together to connect with each other and with ideas. You could come for the food alone. You could come for the party alone. Or, you could come for the shared knowledge alone. Any of these three would be worth the price of admission. But it is the friendships and that connection that I have found at these symposia that defy valuation and are the reason that I will keep coming back.
I’ll see you all in San Antonio in 2014.
Attendees, does your week’s to-do list look like mine:
**Read my new copy of Progressive Country by Jason Mellard **Order olive oil from Sandy Oaks **call James and Stephen of Eat the Yard about a compost situation in the yard **subscribe to Sugar & Rice Magazine **order a copy of Lisa Fain’s new book **schedule a trip to Seattle to eat at Jack Timmons’ soon to open Hill Country BBQ joint ** find out more about the Purple Hull Pea Festival June 20-21, 2014 at the A.T. and Addie Odom Homestead **call Jessica Timmons at The Redneck Country Club to personally request having my birthday party there, with special guest Willie Nelson**
(That last one might be a little aggressive, actually…but my mom often repeated to me the Robert Browning quote, “Ah, but your reach should exceed your grasp, or what’s a Heaven for?”)
Also: If I mis-linked, misspelled, or misquoted you…please let me know ( firstname.lastname@example.org )