I spent the last several days at the Foodways Texas Symposium which was held this year in College Station. Driving back to Dallas by way of Mexia on Sunday morning, I had an opportunity to think about my time at the symposium this year. This is my fourth symposium and each one has been important to me. On the backroads which are just beginning to blanket with wildflowers, I finally slowed my mind enough to begin the challenging task of documenting what I had learned and experienced in the preceding days. It is always fun. But every year I am surprised by just how many great things happen, how many great people I meet and reconnect with, and how many stupendous meals I am served. It is a bit dizzying. And though I needed a nap more than a drive, I was grateful for the generous landscape of Texas through which to ponder this uniquely Texan weekend.
We meet yearly in support of a greater academic archiving project run through the University of Texas to document the diverse cultures of Texas. In fact, Foodways Texas just became a permanent part of UT’s American Studies Department. The panels, talks, and discussions this year were centered on the topic of agriculture at the aptly titled Farm to Market 2014: 4th Annual Foodways Texas Symposium. This alone would have been enough to hold my attention for two days. And, the meals at the symposium would have been enough to justify the cost of admission had there been no discussions at all.
But the enduring draw of this event is the fascinating group of people that it brings together. We are scholars, writers, farmers, ranchers, chefs, food lovers, entrepreneurs, photographers, scientists, and all manner of other professionals and people who simply love Texas, Texas food and foodways, and Texas history and cultures. This is not to say by any means that we all share the same point of view on some of these thorny agricultural topics. In fact, with a group this diverse it is virtually guaranteed that our interests, backgrounds, and opinions will diverge. But the very convivial nature of the gathering ensures that we all seek each other out and use it as an opportunity to think, more so than to merely form opinions. The time limitations and the number of topics covered mean that we barely scratch the surface of the topics we approach; however, for many of us it is the first time we have ever considered the lives and businesses of some of our peers. To see the full plate we enjoyed, you can view the entire schedule of talks.
Molly McCook of Ellerbe Fine Foods in Fort Worth presented our welcome dinner at The Veranda in Bryan, Texas. Given the venues involved this weekend much of the cooking was done outdoors and I was delighted to walk up to find the noted Fort Worth chef in the back preparing platters of marinated and flour dusted quail which she was about to fry. She served the fried quail with a spoonful of sweet pepper jelly on top and as a person who has eaten much quail in her lifetime, I can attest that this was some of the best quail I have ever eaten. Piles of cornbread were at the ready to accompany the delicious side dish of purple hull peas.
I was told that the planning meeting that gave birth to Foodways Texas was held at The Veranda several years ago. It was a fitting place to start our weekend and I was greeted at the door by Dr. Jeff Savell and Dr. Davey Griffin of Texas A&M University Meat Sciences Department. These gentlemen are instrumental in hosting the Camp Brisket and Barbecue Summer Camps put on by Foodways Texas. But more than that, they are two of the nicest gentlemen that you would ever care to meet. Faces and smiles that I had looked forward to seeing all year started appearing in front of me. In four short years these people have become great friends. My friend Lori Whitlow of Dallas joined me at Foodways Texas this year. Lori commented several times that she had never encountered a group that was so welcoming and open and easy-going before. I agree. We sat at dinner with Chef Randy Evans of Haven Restaurant in Houston, Chef Jean Phillipe Gaston of Cove Cold Bar in Houston, as well as Jessica Timmons and Edgar Gomez of the Redneck Country Club in Houston, and Laura Davenport, a Houston consultant and author of the White Fluffy Icing blog. I have spent the last year living vicariously through Jessica and her successes, in particular. In my next life I want to be as well respected as she is as a leader and manager. That she is also one of the funniest and kindest people in the state is a bonus, too. Laura is one of my first connections with Foodways Texas, too. I’ll get to her later. This was a great start to a great weekend.
We were rewarded on Friday morning after catching an early ride to the Texas A&M AgriLife center. Chef Brian Light of Ronin Cooking in Bryan had arrived early and prepared Longhorn empanadas for all of us. They were served with an incredible green sauce and a mound of fresh Texas strawberries. What more could you want other than a nap?
Because we seemingly needed to talk about important things to justify all of the meals we were eating, we headed into the AgriLife Center for a discussion on defining local foods. This is, of course, something that seems simple from the outset yet rarely is. The speakers included Benjy Mason of Treadsack and CHOAM in Houston, Leslie McKinnon of Organic Certification Consulting, Brad Stufflebeam of Home Sweet Farm in Brenham and Susie Marshall of GROW North Texas. They navigated the often conflicted territory over what it means to farm in an organic manner and what it means to be certified organic. They also discussed some of the challenges with sourcing local foods and what that term even means. For instance, in a state as large as Texas, grapefruit around seven hours away is as local as it can possibly be, yet a farmer in Austin might be irritated with a restaurant using the moniker “local” for food acquired from the Houston area. This is in contrast with areas in California where one can get local fruits, produce, seafood, beef, and poultry all sourced within a 50 mile radius. Local can be quite relative, especially in a state as big as Texas.
But, as Mason rightly put it, “While you are arguing, the big farms are moving right along selling produce.” His company, CHOAM, distributes local produce and seafood to restaurants in Houston. Coming from the culinary perspective, he finds that he and his purchasers are more interested in “really good” than certification. He finds it to be his duty to be the direct line of information between the farm and the customer, which obviates the need for an organic certification in his business.
Leslie pointed out that the certification is still quite valuable for those who do not have that kind of relationship with the farmer or when the produce is being used in a secondary product. She also explained how frustrating it can be for certified organic farmers when non-certified farms utilize the organic terminology, in effect drafting off of those who have spent significant resources and effort to acquire the certification, a complaint she often hears from farms at farmers markets.
Brad Stufflebeam, a farmer who also runs a successful CSA program tries to “eliminate the O word” from his marketing. His emphasis is on “integrity, transparency, and his relationship with the customers.” Seemingly at odds in perspective at times, I found the message from all of these speakers to be consistent. The bottom line is that if we were all a little more observant of where our food comes from, these marketing conventions would become less and less important. But, in the meantime, organic certification is a good shorthand for those of us who cannot necessarily get to know our local produce-growers or rancher to that degree. They were all full of great ideas such as the notions of “food hubs” and steps and services that could be developed to help all local, organic, and local/organic producers more readily bring their goods to market to expand the Texas customer base that is hungry for these high quality foods.
We shifted abruptly from talking about small-scale food systems to discussing the enormity of the American food supply chain. Robyn Metcalfe, a food historian, writer and film producer, who is currently the Director of The Food Lab at the University of Texas, demonstrated that our food supply chain is a “relative miracle” that is far more complex than people ever consider. Using Houston as an exemplar, she described how relationships, adaptability and infrastructure are the keys to the functioning of the food supply chain. She briefly touched on the impact of uniform shipping containers and how our ability to control temperatures and humidity and shipping have impacted the chain. Imagine if you will a microchip placed in the belly of a fish a half a world away that could tell you upon its arrival on our shores that the little fellow never exceeded safe temperatures.
I found her talk to be completely fascinating as well as a little frightening. It is very sobering to consider the complexity of bringing food to market on a large scale, and what disruptions, even minor ones, in the supply chain can do to communities and businesses. The Food Lab Project will tell the story about how cities get fed, starting with London, Istanbul, Tokyo and Buenos Aires. Metcalfe has a fascinating TED talk, too.
Dr. Justin Sheiner, an A&M viticulture specialist and professor, kept us moving along with a discussion of Texas Terroir. It’s always fun to listen to people talk about Texas wine, which seem to be either beloved or completely discounted. But, Dr. Sheiner is quite the Texas wine scientist (a job title 99% of Americans would love to have on their business card, much like “BBQ editor”) and explained the kinds of grapes that are successfully grown in Texas soils and he also educated us about the wine growing regions of Texas.
Have you ever heard of Pierce’s Disease? I hadn’t. It is a bacteria endemic to the Gulf Coast of the United States that makes certain varieties of grapes impossible to grow in the region. I thought he made an excellent point when he explained that many Texas wines are never judged favorably nationally because they are not judged at all. Wine writers, he explained, like to talk about wines which their readers will be able to get their hands on easily. Some of the more interesting Texas wine producers are making wine in such small quantities that they remain fairly regional. His advice? Get out and explore. He recommends checking the Texas Wine and Grape Growers Association website for lists and ideas for starting your journey.
Having had the opportunity to sit with Randy Evans and Jean Phillipe Gaston at dinner the previous night I was very much looking forward to experiencing the Gulf Coast lunch that they had prepared for us. They did not disappoint. We enjoyed oysters on the half shell with a mignonette, wonderful gumbo with shrimp and rice, and barbecued crabs. There was also an heirloom tomato sundae that was fairly stunning. Atop a heap of the prettiest tomatoes you’ve ever seen, Evans placed scoops of sweet olive oil ice cream. It was a beautiful dish. Lori and I had the distinct pleasure of dining with Lisa Fain whom you might know as the Homesick Texan. She’s my friend and simpático, but it is still an honor. Lisa was just named a finalist for the James Beard Foundation food awards for her blog and she has a brand-new book coming out this week. Plus she’s just fun and I like her. Robb Walsh, likewise, was also at our table and it’s always fun to learn about his new projects. This man is taking up a disproportionate amount of room on my cookbook shelf. Dr. Metcalfe and her colleague, Lucinda Wallbank, were at our table so we got to pepper her with follow-up questions about her great talk on logistics.
Thank God the lineup of speakers after lunch was compelling. I think we all really would have liked to have spread out on the lawn outside the AgriLife center and taken a two hour nap.
Saundra Winokur was kind enough to answer questions for us about olive growing in Texas and her Sandy Oaks Olive Orchard Elmendorf, Texas. Having grown up in Texas, but explored Italy while studying art in Tuscany, she eventually chose to marry these two themes together by growing olives in Texas. And, olives are an area of huge agricultural expansion in Texas, where the Arbequina olive of Spanish origin grows happily and abundantly. She grows 10,000 trees in fields formerly planted with peanuts.
Winokur discussed some of the challenges for smaller or newer producers such as the costs of equipment. She, for example, had to pay $90,000 just for the olive oil press she owns. It is an area of agriculture relatively new to Texas whereas competing growers in Europe and elsewhere have been producing for generations. By that I only mean to suggest that Texas growers are just now shouldering the costs of these expensive infrastructures, and it is a budding Texan industry worthy of our support. Winokur buys olives from other producers around her to help support their growth.
She also touched on the challenges of learning how to grow these non-native trees and learn the best methods for irrigation. Switching from drip irrigation in the sandy soil to a light spray irrigation cut her water usage by half. Efforts to reduce water usage were a big undercurrent in the talks this weekend. Winokur was ably interviewed by Paula Disbrowe, editor of Austin’s Tribeza magazine.
The grapefruit talk was by all measures fascinating and rather depressing, simultaneously. But agriculture is a hard business and the tough issues are the important ones for all of us to learn about.
Our organic grapefruit grower, Dennis Holbrook of South Texas Organics, talked about his journey away from using chemical pesticides and how he was able to parley his conventional growing operation into an organic one by replanting organic trees after a catastrophic series of freezes in the 1980’s. He then used his conventional marketing methods to get his fruit picked up by organic distributor in California.
He and Dr. John da Graça, a Texas A&M citrus specialist, also spoke about the transformation of the pummelo and orange into what we now know as the grapefruit and all of the genetic stops along the way. It was a short course on plant breeding. Fascinating. But we also heard all about the horrible citrus greening disease that is destroying whole populations of grapefruit trees, having already devastated the industry in Florida. It is a frightening, insect-borne disease and there are people working non-stop developing tests and measures from disease sniffing dogs to DNA testing in order to somehow get ahead of it. It will be a huge challenge for Texas growers for years to come.
Let’s eat again, shall we?
The Farm at Ronin Cooking is a lovely spot in Bryan, Texas, just a few minutes outside of College Station. Owned by the tireless duo of Brian and Amanda Light, it is simply gorgeous. Brian and Amanda were ever-present at the meals all weekend, lending a hand and cooking at every meal on campus and it was a treat to see them in their own element. We toured the farm and looked at the chickens and the heritage breed pigs. We saw ducklings, a proud rooster, and their garden. The commercial kitchen on-site is clad in rusted corrugated tin and the brick walkways led us into the open air dining area where long wooden tables were adorned with candles and simple flowers in mason jars. Chimineas burned all around the tables giving off a warm glow.
The meal was prepared by Todd Duplechan of Lenoir in Austin. I was confident that things were going to proceed well when the waiters began to pass around individual little chicken fried steak and gravy appetizers on toast. And, it only got better. We all loved the grilled broccoli and beet salad. There were roasted vegetables and a giant platter of Epazote Orange Smoked Pork and Polenta. Big hunks of Empire Baking’s Sesame Bread loaf was all the dessert I could have dreamed of but we also got pound cake with grapefruit and candied grapefruit on top.
We all meandered back to the hotel after this full day, to try to grab some sleep and much needed digestion before the next round. But, somehow the chance to sit in the hotel bar and continue the conversations usually wins.
I will post Part II in a few days and start again right where I ended here. Friday was my big picture day, so to speak. But the talks on Saturday were important, so I hope you will come back and learn more about Texas agriculture and Foodways Texas.
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