We all have to eat. My mother in law used to say this when I was working at a law office and was too busy to meet her for lunch, which we did weekly for many years. I think of that often when I consider the varied ways we all go about executing that simple directive. What we eat, how we eat, with whom we eat, who cooks what we eat, who raises it and grows it, who labors over the fruits of those endeavors, who transports that creation from the kitchen to the table or from one state to another are all topics of interest in this subject we call “foodways.”
This weekend I met my friends, new and old, in Austin for the 6th Annual Foodways Texas Symposium dubbed “At Home on the Range” where we discussed varied topics under the umbrella topic of gender in food. I have gone from being a stranger walking into a crowd in Galveston six years ago to a woman who so looks forward to seeing my chosen family of people who believe that having these types of conversations yearly tells us more about history, culture and place than any mere book or academic paper, or singular dish could ever do.
Foodways Texas is a part of the American Studies Department at the University of Texas now. Begun by scholars, journalists, chefs and other people who see the value of learning through the lens of food, Foodways Texas now has a permanent academic home at UT, but we are really a group of now an unbelievable 700 people who want to make sure that the stories of Texas and its diverse food cultures are studied and discussed and celebrated. I hope you will join us.
When we arrive on the Thursday of a Symposium, it is a happy scene. We are seeing each other, often for the first time in a year. As I always say, it is like getting out of the car at a family reunion. We gathered at the Last Stand Brewing Company in Dripping Springs and ate an incredible meal prepared by John Russ of Lüke in San Antonio. Revolution Spirits Distilling Company provided samples for the milling and happy crowd. I can’t say enough about the meal John Russ and company prepared. We had beet salad and a bean salad and duck cassoulet and jambalaya and gumbo. And, the bread pudding with candied pecans was amongst the best I’ve ever eaten. And, I’m a bit of a pill when it comes to bread pudding.
This was followed by just a small dose of sleep before we convened again and ate more delicious foods. My friend Meaders Ozarow of Empire Baking in Dallas teamed up with Stephanie McClenny of Confituras in Austin to create some fairly outstanding Danish pastries which were paired with sausages from Salt and Time, and the always appreciated coffee. Casa Brasil Coffees supplied the wakefulness as we began our panel discussions. Stephanie pulled a big jar of pecan milk out of her bag for a lucky few to sample. Remember those two bits: Stephanie McClenny and pecan milk. It was wonderful.
Much to my honor, I was invited to speak with two women that I admire on the first panel discussion of the weekend on the business of cookbooks. My peers, Lisa Fain and Kate Payne have both published highly successful books on food and home, and I, well I’m just a cookbook lover. Addie Broyles of the Austin American-Statesman and the Austin Food Bloggers Alliance moderated our conversation. Our talk ranged from the art of storytelling and sharing knowledge to my beloved subject of community cookbooks, and Junior League cookbooks in particular. We talked about how regional Junior League cookbooks have become an unexpected snapshot of regional foodways and the status of women like little else. In an era when women were not expected to capitalize on their talents and creativity outside of the context of the home, these tomes represent a marshalling of entrepreneurial skills and not a little bit of competitive drive, poured into documents that sometimes might contain the only printed credit a woman received for doing anything outside the home. And they were so often created as a tool to solve a problem, to educate or to raise funds to put right back into the community for philanthropic purposes, be it to provide services for injured soldiers as was The Poetical Cookbook of Maria J. Moss in 1864 or one of my favorites, Seasoned with Sun by the Junior League of El Paso. We also touched on how and where these recipes were developed and the people, be they cooks or housekeepers, who may have contributed to many of these books without being given proper credit and how some of these snapshots give rise to more questions than answers about race, class, and home. Both Lisa and Kate discussed how the nature of their own books, as story-telling and advice-giving devices, are valued in a market of celebrity driven cookbooks. There is just something friendly and interesting about Lisa and Kate’s books that are lacking in many books, in my opinion. And, that is why the books work.
Two of my favorite Foodways friends, Greg Morago of the Houston Chronicle and Patricia Sharpe, the editor of Texas Monthly, spoke during the next panel about food writing, its challenges and its changing nature. Writer Jessica Dupuy moderated the discussion. Both Sharpe and Morago spoke of their adherence and belief in the fundamentals of good reporting. “Yelp is driving a lot of the way that restaurant criticism is going,” said Pat. She said this has played a large part in restaurant reviewing, like so many other parts of reporting, being on a 24 hour news cycle at this point. Greg concurred, “Restaurants and eating out is such a big deal in Houston. We are expected to break these stories.” But both agreed that in the rush of many outlets to be first, the fundamentals of writing go by the wayside. Pat said, the goal should be to “write in such a way that the reader can vicariously be there.” In a world of “takedown” stories about the perceived failings of a place on one given day with one given server or of personalities, Greg said that instead of coaching journalists to engage and entertain, “now the thing I tell them is to be fair.” He said he is always very cognizant of the fact that restaurants employ people, that livelihoods are at stake in addition to “reputations that were years in the making.” In one of my favorite lines of the talk while discussing the primacy of online content and technology in media, Pat, while acknowledging that it was a transformative period, stated “I’m still a dinosaur, a very happy dinosaur.” I like dinosaurs. They both bemoaned online reviews which can be at times “mean spirited, narcissistic and tended to beat up on restaurants that are ‘easy targets.’” Greg confirmed that his writers go to a restaurant many times before writing about it, and Pat noted that a good journalist can be “critical in such a way as it doesn’t destroy.”
Next, Dr. Steven Hoelscher, the head of the American Studies department announced the winners of the Les Dames D’Escoffier Dallas Presidential Fellowships. The Dames made a significant gift last year in order that students could research topics touching on diversity and culture, and women in food. Congratulations to Elyssa Underwood and Kerry Knerr, and huge thanks to Les Dames.
Lunch was a bit of time traveling. A full lunch of dishes taken exactly from the recipes of Helen Corbitt, as prepared by Bespoke Catering in Austin, was served in the courtyard outside of the Harry Ransom Center. It was really a lovely moment of timewarp. We dined on peas in aspic and gazpacho, as well as tried and true favorites such as Texas caviar and chicken salad on artichoke hearts.
This was followed by a retrospective talk on the fascinating career of Helen Corbitt by Prudence Mackintosh. She referenced the chronological marker which rings true in hospitality and cooking circles of “B.C.” or “before Corbitt.” Mackintosh told us of Corbitt’s ascension from consulting with doctors for improved food for patients, to the Houston Country Club, to Joske’s, to the Driskill, and all the way through her storied tenure overseeing Neiman Marcus’ food service, making the Zodiac Room “the place to be” and an “oasis of sophistication and glamour.” Corbitt’s drive for perfection had a cost, however, Mackintosh noted. “It never showed a profit, not once,” she said. Apparently Corbitt said to Stanley Marcus, “You did not mention money when you employed me. You simply said you wanted the best food in the country and I have given you that.”
Our fellowship winners Kerry Knerr and Elissa Underwood took the stage in turn to explain the topics of research they are undertaking thanks to the Les Dames D’Escoffier Dallas Presidential Fellowship. Kerry is studying in the world of cocktails. It seems so innocuous. But Kerry is looking into the history of alcohol in America and the ways in which it is highly gendered. Think about the notion of distilling as being regarded as a science, and beer and wine making to be artisanal and a kind of cooking. Think about the messages of prohibition and the changes in distillation technology and even the base ingredients. Kerry explained that it is impossible to even recreate the very drinks she is studying. That’s too bad. But I have confidence that she will give it her best. She started the project wondering if there was enough material there to justify the line of inquiry, but quipped, “As it turns out, I can think a lot about cocktails.”
Kerry is also one of the Foodways Texas graduate research assistants who was invaluable in pulling off the symposium. She and Josephine Hill, Latisha Brown, Josh Kopin and Nick Bloom hauled tables and chairs, checked people in, dealt with buses, found things, carried things, made things, directed things and generally kept us all moving in the right directions. We couldn’t have done this without them.
Elissa Underwood is undertaking some utterly fascinating research on foodways in carceral spaces, or as non-academics would say, prisons. She is a former attorney who returned to graduate school (rock on) and is looking at the exploitability of imprisoned persons. Our talk covered private contracting in prison food and the extremely creative ways in which the incarcerated use commissary foods and what other things they can collect to create new meals and snacks to break the monotony of what is often a steady diet of soy patties. She has done this research before concentrating on male populations and is expanding it to women. I have not done justice to her presentation. But, I look forward to seeing the results of her work. Thank you again to Les Dames D’Escoffier for making this possible.
Betty Zentner of Zentner’s Daughter restaurant in San Angelo is our Annual Lifetime Achievement Award. A film about her was screened for the first time at the symposium and it would be hard to not love her.
Our dinner was at the lovely Tecolote Farm in Manor, Texas. Our farm dinners are always a highlight of the symposium. We toured the farm and Jim Gossen, our beloved Foodways Texas board member, founding member, and one of our greatest supporters, put on a crawfish boil that was nothing short of greatness. I’ve never seen that much crawfish cooked. I’ve never eaten that much crawfish. I’ve never had better, and may never have better. It was a gorgeous evening. Salt and Time of Austin served a great meal alongside the crawfish, and Saint Arnold Brewing and Perdenales Cellars of Stonewall kept everyone quenched.
It turned out that Jim, while never mentioning it, was spending his birthday in service to Foodways Texas. As is his manner, he didn’t say a word about the fact that he was spending the day and night helping us instead of being celebrated by his friends and family in Houston. But that is just the kind of guy he is. Thankfully, a little bird told us and we managed a bang up rendition of Happy Birthday and procured a fairly massive birthday cake just in time. Thank you, Jim, for always…always doing great things for Foodways Texas.
The next morning, we convened at The Marchesa Hall and Theater for a biscuits and gravy breakfast created by Adrian Lipscombe of the Knotty Nice Bakery. Enough said. Fantastic. Thank goodness for the Casa Brasil coffee that kept us caffeinated after that start.
We then had a lovely panel on Gender Roles in Czech Home Kitchens. It was lovely, because we got to meet and listen to Lydie Faust, of the Slovacek’s Sausage Company in Snook, Texas who told us all about her life making kolaches, and her upbringing. Our moderator Sarah Junek (who deserves an entire post about the work she is doing in Archer City at The Royal Theater) reunited with Ms. Faust while attending a family reunion and got her to tell us stories about her transition from working in a chair company in 1968 to, at the prompting of the postmaster in Snook, heading up a bakery and making the kolaches that she was taught to make by both her mother and her grandmother. She ended up buying the business and carries on her kolache heritage by teaching her grandchildren and judging at festivals. Imagine making 300 dozen kolaches in a weekend. Ms. Faust was charming, but it is clear she has worked hard doing hard work from her childhood on her family’s farm all the way through the present day.
Dawn Orsak gave us a primer on the way Czech heritage has been preserved and carried on in Texas. She spoke of home kitchens but also of the “kitchen of the community” such as Knights of Columbus halls and Czech community halls where the community comes together to cook culturally significant foods and celebrate or raise funds. She stated that these ”home kitchens of the community” are one of the reasons that the Czech community has stayed so connected.
We also heard from Clint Machann of Texas A&M University on Czech traditions and from Nicholas Maresh who has, with his grandmother’s help, revived old family kolache recipes and is serving them in the Old Main Street Bakery in Rosenberg.
This was fun. I have heard about the Landmark Inn before, but I didn’t know that it was a State Historical Site or that it was being renovated, or that the old kitchen had been restored and that they are using the space to educate on historical cooking, as well as so many other things. Apparently it is the only State Historical Site that you at which you can stay. Brandon Aniol, who works for the Castroville project spoke to us of about Interpreting Kitchen Gender Roles in Taverns and Public Houses in Antebellum Texas. But the most fascinating points were made as he recounted the story of how the Inn came to be and the people who owned it and worked there, most notably Harriet Arnold. She was born of a free black father and a slave mother owned by her father. Her father deemed her to live as an indentured slave and her path took her from San Antonio, New Orleans, and to Castroville where she cooked at the Landmark Inn. The story can’t be told in full here, but Ms. Arnold went on to be the subject of a Texas Supreme Court case where she fought for her freedom, and won it. It boggles the mind to imagine having to fight that fight.
Monica Perales of the University of Houston spoke to us about Mexican Women and Food Work in Texas and the long shadows cast by the Chili Queens of San Antonio. She discussed, and showed us examples of advertising and tourism related photography that illustrated the rather large difference between the “nostalgic and sexualized vision of cultural heritage” imprinted on ads for food products and adorning fair skinned women chosen to be the face of products and sales versus the women doing work, day in and out, behind the scenes. In a touching tribute to her own grandmother she recounted the joy of watching her make perfect tortillas as a child, a dozen a day. She rolled them out with a wooden rolling pin on a wooden cutting board, day after day. “Nostalgia and sentimentality mix,” Perales said. “Tortillas are a happy memory for me but they probably means something very different to her.” She continued to say that her grandmother had to make them, it was her work and her labor. They fed her family and she occasionally sold them to neighbors and that maybe, “on some levels, retiring the rolling pins was a happy thing.”
Smothered pork chops, candied yams, greens, and peach cobbler were awaiting us for lunch in the foyer of the Marchesa. It was a sampling of the cooking of Hoover Alexander and his team from Hoover’s Cooking in Austin.
I think many would agree that one of our most touching talks, and most awaited too, was given by Hoover Alexander and Toni Tipton-Martin. Hoover is a force in Austin. His restaurants and catering have been embedded in Austin’s landscape for decades. He is a 5th generation Texan who cooks a kind of cuisine that people can’t help but try to label, but he just identifies broadly with references to his influences and how he grew up. He simply refers to it as “Texas Home Cooking.” He spoke of his father’s black cowboy heritage and his mother’s strong influence. It is farm to table, he explained. It is smoked, or it is grown fresh, or it is baked fresh. It is all of these things. “That’s what they did, it had no name attached.” Hoover spoke of his time at the Nighthawk Cafe and the strong influences of the black chefs of that era as well as the very strong familial expectations that he carried, which were expressed in his mother’s desire for him not to go into food service. He says that she came to see the value in his work. But, he always strives to “Carry the torch, carry their dreams, and try to do it right.” And, he does, every day. His food is wonderful. His approach is wonderful. He is always giving, and always lending a hand.
Toni Tipton-Martin published a book called The Jemima Code and she is a strong voice in conversation of race, gender, race and gender, and food. Her book is, in her words, “a love letter” and a way to “finally give voices to African American cooks in their own words.” It is a loving cataloguing of some of the oldest and most influential cookbooks by black authors. Toni started us off by asking us all to think for a few moments about how we thought of “black food” and what that meant in each of our minds. I struggled to find a way to express my thoughts on a notecard. I struggled to figure out a word or a few words that could possibly encompass my thoughts. As a woman, a white woman, a mother, a fortunate soul, and a lover of all things related to home cooking, it is a challenge to figure out how my black influences, my home cooking proclivities, my southern and Texan influences, and any number of other ethnic and cultural influences weave in and out and together and apart to become how I cook daily. I am nothing as a cook if not a ball of yarn whose tiny individual threads are all of a different color and texture. And they are all twisted up together and then wound up in a thing I call my cooking. I struggle to unravel that. And, it is so easy in our fast lives to fail to give proper credit to the giants upon whose shoulders we all stand. I am grateful to scholars like Toni who make me consider these things.
And Hoover’s experiences and life are a fairly vivid example of that. Call it soul food or southern food, it doesn’t matter to him, he says. But, mints are made these days by nailing a “concept” and bringing it to life in a “hot restaurant market.” The newest and best always make a headline and the internet lights up to pay homage to the “new,” the “hot” and the “edgy” when, in fact, the Hoovers of the world have been making and loving and celebrating that cuisine day in and day out in a life of service. Ours is a time of much culinary entertainment where food is a show with stagecraft and lighting. And, that’s all good and well for me. I get it. But I definitely resonate more with the model of food as a prism, such as Hoover called it. He speaks of bringing people together and sharing his happy memories of good, fresh, lovingly prepared foods.
And, here are my thoughts on this, by the way…if we don’t value the traditional and support the restaurants that have well earned reputations in our communities and have for decades, it is going to be all on us when all we are left with is stagecraft with little substance, that tastes good in the moment but tends to leave a bad taste in the mouth when one considers the people of all colors and ethnicities who prepare the foods of their lives and their histories with little fanfare or notice, and don’t make it in markets with ever rising rents and ever rising costs. And that is to say nothing of the mere decency of making attempts to honor those who have been of influence, or indeed quietly pioneered cuisines. Enough. They said it better and I was too engrossed to take effective notes. It was a panel I will not soon forget.
And our final panel was not less interesting to me. I watched two women who are close friends and whom I consider mentors speak of leadership and management as women at the helm of big operations. Jessica Timmons is President of the Redneck Country Club in Pearland and Meaders Ozarow and her husband Robert own Empire Baking Company in Dallas. They were joined by Kristi Willis and Adrian Lipscombe. The four of them had a fascinating talk which, while billed as a gender conversation, quickly transcended talk of gender as the women spoke frankly about their best practices for running their businesses and dispensed nuggets of wisdom about planning and hiring and the virtues of hard work, liking what you do, and working with the best people one can possibly attract.They didn’t really talk about being a woman at the top, or how it was hard as a woman to ascend to that level. But their leadership reflected an ethos of treating people like family, trusting good people, and giving people opportunities. It was simply a great management and leadership primer.
The Last Meal of the symposium is always a little bit sad. On the one hand your brain is crammed full with thought provoking words. On the other hand, you have to say goodbye. If you have noted that I speak in terms of “we” when I talk about Foodways Texas it is not only because I feel like this is my extended family in many ways but also because I have joined the Foodways Texas Advisory Board. So, fortunately this year, I will not say goodbye. I will head home and start thinking of ways to help and promote and raise funds to take oral histories and to plan our next events. But, I will not see many of these folks for another year and that is sad. The symposia are fun, mind expanding, and filling, both mentally and physically.
Oh, the food? Yes. We ended with a Texas Czech dinner prepared by Monica Pope of Sparrow Wine and Cookshop in Houston. More Saint Arnold beer. Lovely wine from the Duchman Family Winery in Driftwood. I sat with Lisa Fain and talked about next steps. I had a fleeting chat with my friend Jessica, and hugged, well, everyone.
But, I wasn’t finished. On Sunday morning, I made a point to have breakfast at Hoover’s. And the funny thing is that I ran into about five other Foodways Texas friends there. It was bustling with a Sunday crowd and the smell of coffee. I smiled as I walked out the door afterwards because in the end, I thought to myself, preserving the good things is about the choices we make and the people we support and the stories we tell. That is why I joined Foodways Texas. And that is why I went to breakfast at Hoover’s. And that is why I’m telling you this story.
I hope you made it to the end. Please consider joining Foodways Texas and following us on Facebook and Twitter. The funds we raise go towards creating an oral history and film archive of notable food and food people in Texas. As, I said, formally, we are part of the American Studies Department at the University of Texas. But we are really a very mixed bag in age, ethnicity, gender, geography, and professions. We have one big thing in common, though. We love celebrating and preserving the dynamic and diverse food cultures of Texas.
Thank you, Marvin Bendele, for pulling all of us together again.