This past weekend was the 7th Annual Foodways Texas Symposium. This is an event that I look forward to every year, as it fills my mind and it fills my belly. And, it fills my heart as I get to gather with true blue friends who I often haven’t seen in the flesh since the symposium the year before. This is my food family. And new family members show up every year. And, then there are the faces that I’ve come to expect year after year. And they always bring a smile to my face.
But, now that I’m on the Advisory Board, it is also an important weekend for me because I feel so invested in it being a joyful and mentally engaging and delicious time. That is a tall order. Plus, being on the board makes me the keg picker upper, the photographer, and the t-shirt salesperson, too. Vital functions, all. Our topic this year was “Food Routes” and we explored topics that stemmed from the concept of mobility. This went from cattle trails to interstates to high order modern logistics. A lot of ideas can fit under the tent of mobility.
Thanks goes to Frank Mancuso of Saint Arnold who supplied us with a keg for our Thursday night kick-off gathering. I haven’t had a keg rolling around in the back of my truck since law school and it made me feel young.
On Thursday evening, we gathered for our opening dinner. We met at the Heart of the Ranch at Clearfork in Fort Worth which is a wonderful little spot in an opening of trees that seems for a moment to be out in the middle of the wild. But, Fort Worth has grown just as every major city in Texas and the city has come to the ranch. This idyllic spot with strung lights and wooden tables is flanked by a hike and bike trail, a fantastic bistro and bike shop complex. And not a few hundred yards away, a major development of shops and such is underway. But the Heart of The Ranch stays as just a little bit of wild, a hint of what the land once was. I wouldn’t have been surprised if a few cows had wandered up at our site. But, I can also imagine a rather grand outdoor wedding (boots under dress and fresh flowers in your hair…Texas tuxedos) taking place there, too.
We went in the decidedly cow direction. Some of my favorite people (whom I would not know but for Foodways), Homer Robertson and J. Arthur Garcia, brought their authentic chuckwagon to the site, unloaded some of the prettiest cast iron dutch oven pots and enamel ware bowls and long wooden spoons and got to work burning down coals and creating a chuckwagon meal that I will not soon forget. Joe Riscky of Fort Worth’s Riscky’s BBQ and Mike Micallef of Reata joined in for the final push and grilled steaks and helped bring it all together. Cooking an entire meal like this from a chuckwagon is not a small undertaking and this group of men pulled it off and made it look simple. But I know better. We feasted on hominy and green chile casserole, Homer’s cowboy beans, Joe Riscky’s crazy-good lima beans (wait, I don’t eat lima beans), rib-eye, biscuits, salad, jalapeno poppers, and Homer’s cobbler.
There are not many things in life that are as lovely as watching Homer assemble one of his cobblers. He rolls out his pastry right there in the all out doors, blind bakes the bottom crust in a cast iron dutch oven, adds his choice of fruit and creates a lattice crust. Then it is back to the coals. He made an apricot cobbler for us which he created by reconstituting dried apricots in water. This is a nod to the historical use of dried ingredients that would have been used on a chuckwagon. Fresh fruit would not have made it to the end of the trail. It was one of the most delightful cobblers I’ve ever had, warm and served in a metal cup. Seconds happened.
Acre Distilling Co. provided cocktails. I think I’ve found another local vodka to use for a new batch of vanilla extract. Halo del Santo brought us lollipops. That sounds kind of precious, but these lollipos contain things like salt and chile peppers and lime juice powder and the recognizable flavors like pineapple, watermelon, mango and tamarind slowly unfold into salty and spicy and then go back to sweet. I’ve never seen so many alleged grown-ups walking around with lollipop sticks protruding from their mouths.
We gathered, we reconnected, we watched the chuckwagon dinner unfold. It is kind of a window back into the past with tour guides who are more than willing to let you poke around and ask questions and gawk. But the food is the real deal and we were a lucky bunch.
This year we tried having one day of programmed talks instead of our typical two. It was a packed agenda, featuring some very interesting minds and no small number of things that had never before crossed my mind. That’s what I love about the symposium. I find out about all manner of things that it never occurred to me to think about and now I’ll be thinking about them all year long.
We met at an event space atop the Blue Mesa Restaurant in Fort Worth, where we were treated to a breakfast that included breakfast tacos, but featured little fried sugar- and cinnamon-covered churro-meets-doughnut poofs that sort of made my morning.
As I mentioned, Mobility was a key theme for our “Food Routes” gathering. Marvin Bendele, the executive director of Foodways Texas, started off the discussions by talking about just how broad the concept of mobility can be. There is the movement of humans from place to place, the portability of items, and the potential to move from one level of society to another. And as he put it, “Those with means have the power to move, and those with the ability to move have more power.” Whether we are discussing the chili stands that popped up in the plaza in San Antonio to greet the hungry riders of the railroad or the Chinese immigrants who came to the country for work on the railroad and ended up becoming restaurant proprietors in communities along the way, we are talking about the intersection of mobility and foodways.
Our first speaker was Professor Michael Wise of the University of North Texas. He has been studying the exploration of the Red River Valley and talked about the evidence and writings regarding the food that was packed, found, eaten, discarded and kept along the trip. It is easy to think about the great explorers like Lewis & Clark, or Pike without really considering how primary food was to the success (or failure) of the trips. But, as Wise commented, Lewis and Clark were eating dogs along the way and Pike had a humorous but completely sad saga involving two brown bear cubs that were collected as curiosities and sent to Thomas Jefferson as a gift. Jefferson offloaded them to a friend who included them in his menagerie until they ate his pet monkey and ended up shot, skinned and smoked. A bear ham was sent back to Jefferson.
We discussed explorers Freeman, Custis and Dunbar and how Dunbar’s proclivity for traveling with an over-supply of whiskey bogged down his boats. As you would expect, they all noted their interactions with the tribes living along the route and, in fact, Wise noted the delight of the explorers at the peaches and persimmons served by the Alabama-Coushatta tribe and of how it was served to them on china dishes. There were many interesting stories packed into this talk. I look forward to reading the complete research in the Southwestern Historical Quarterly, but suffice to say, food was a lens through which I had not previously viewed the European explorations of the Red River (which were not overall terribly successful) and now I see what an obvious oversight that is for all of us as students of history, because the biological fact of needing to eat certainly affected every decision along the way, including routes and logistics. As Wise noted, “food is one of their foremost concerns.” Seems rather obvious, but I never gave it a moment’s thought before Friday.
Audrey Russek is a cultural historian from Sacramento, California. She joined us to talk about The Chuckwagon Restaurant. Think and you will conjure up in your mind wooden paneled restaurants with tables adorned with chuckwagon canopies and western themed menus and bar stools fashioned from saddles. The chuckwagon had truly become a symbol of the west and the expansion. Notions of the “wild west” held the imagination of the nation, though most didn’t have the stomach for the real thing. Themed restaurants tried to bridge that gap and offer family style entertainment, or a taste of the “Fun-tier” as one restaurant coined it. This encouraged play for adults and kids alike. The ability to pick up a branding iron and brand your own steak was mentioned. The very funny part was that there was an emphasis by proprietors and the restaurant associations on the “modernity” and “safety” of the food preparation, while giving a taste of the Old West. I mentioned the saddle bar seats at the Whataburger in Sikes Center Mall in Wichita Falls in the ‘80s. I know my childhood friends will remember racing for those seats. That is but a small remnant of the trends in the mid-century for dude ranches and a taste of the life…a bit of escapism versus reality.
Rebecca Sharpless is a professor at Texas Christian University and she joined us to talk about the history of wheat and flour in North Texas. Wheat production came to North Texas and the Red River counties through settlers that arrived from the upper South, states such as Kentucky. They encountered mixed grass prairies and saw the potential to grow wheat. And the European-Americans wanted wheat bread, not corn bread. Corn was certainly something that early settlers and families relied on heavily for survival. But the desire for wheat, the advent of modern milling, and stories of just how far people would travel to mill flour to be able to prepare precious biscuits were fascinating and enlightening. We discussed the geography, history and importance of this grain to North Texas in the past and how the operations mainly “got big and got out” as West Texas opened for agriculture. My friends, Meaders Ozarow and Tami Hoffman of Empire Baking Company in Dallas, brought samples of their natural hand made breads for all of us to nibble on with salted butter while we considered these things. Meaders mentioned that new tastes for higher quality and less industrial foods has brought attention to the regional differences and potential diversifications of available genetic strains of wheat. But overall, Sharpless noted that as far as the historical “story” of wheat in North Texas is concerned, people tend to enjoy stories of cowboys and wagons as opposed to stories of “following a flatulent mule up and down rows.” Thus, its historical footprint has to be sussed out in little remnants, like the frescoes at Fair Park or the cultural contributions that stemmed from the dominance of wheat in the area. Think Light Crust Dough Boys, Bob Wills, Earnest Tubb, the Kimbell Family, the Gladney Family. Up here these names still resonate deeply.
Jeanette Vaught is a Lecturer at the University of Texas and is thankfully becoming more and more involved with Foodways Texas, including voicing and preparing our new podcast, The Range, which I will get to in about 10 linear feet of notes. But she also gave a fascinating talk about the history of beef logistics in Texas including how our historical cattle drives north to the cattle markets in Missouri and Kansas led to what we now consider to be the interstate arteries of our transportation system. And, sometimes, one might as well be riding a horse and following a bunch of cows for how long it takes to get up I-35 in an automobile these days. But, our modern road systems in Texas are inextricably tied to the history of beef and how we moved it back and forth and sideways in earlier centuries. We discussed the interplay between the cotton industry and the railroads and the cattle industry and the petroleum industry. Again, most of these were thoughts that it hadn’t occurred to me to entertain before. So, consider me enriched.
Let’s talk about lunch, shall we? After all, Foodways Texas symposia are not complete and successful unless you are well fed. We needed sustenance to enjoy our afternoon talks and we turned to Keith Hicks of Buttons Restaurant in Fort Worth to sustain us. And he did this with great success. We left the hall to be greeted by a glorious buffet of fried chicken (excellent), greens (awesome), macaroni and cheese (yes), waffles (step back) and personal pecan pies with fresh raspberries on top. After we dined, chef Hicks told us his story, which had many mentions of family traditions and family recipes and these are the stories that I like the best. It was a wonderful meal, and fried chicken is truly one of the greatest portable foods. Fortunes have been built on the portable nature of fried chicken and centuries of picnics can attest to its proper inclusion in a symposium entitled “Food Routes.”
Todd Romero, a professor at the University of Houston, and Alison Cook, the Restaurant Critic of the Houston Chronicle started the afternoon with a discussion of research they have been doing on the Immigrants who are so vital to Houston food history and its current operation. Initially, they had sought to bring attention to the work of people with back of house jobs which are truly so important. After all, where would a restaurant be without the people who wash the dishes, really? Since the people who wash the dishes are often a co-equal value to me (as a constantly cooking mother) as the work of the cooks, I was very happy to hear about this work on the “invisible labor” in restaurants. But the current atmosphere of talk in our country has made immigrant communities, both documented and undocumented, less likely to talk openly about their work, or their very existence in the country for that matter. As you can imagine, if the people you want to talk to feel like they cannot talk openly, your research becomes a little tricky. But that is a story, in and of itself. Texas is the 3rd largest employer of foreign born workers in the U.S., according to Romero and Cook. No matter where you fall on the political spectrum, the effect of immigrant labor, again both documented and undocumented, is critical to the restaurant and other industries in Texas. This was a fascinating introduction to work that I look forward to following. But it is also very interesting from a mere gustatory perspective (you cannot really separate these, I know). But to consider the current Houston food scene is to consider immigration, as the cuisines which used to be separate or at a minimum very chef-driven are now very ground up as opposed to top down, according to Romero and Cook. “Fusion,” yes fusion, is happening very organically and the traditional styles involving Mexican, Southern and smoked are swirling about with the inevitable influence of a Gulf city, a port city, a city with a huge Vietnamese and Southeast Asian community. All I hear, even up here in Dallas, is that Houston has got a food alchemy happening and that is a conversation that doesn’t happen without the consideration of immigration, current and past. And immigration, from wherever one emigrates, is all about Food Routes.
I’d be lying if I said that I don’t find large scale logistics to be completely fascinating. It is very fashionable to hate large scale logistics as it relates to food or anything else right now. But large, and by that I mean truly massive, logistics is how our country of 321 million people and 3.8 MILLION SQUARE MILES gets fed. Robyn Metcalfe is a visiting scholar in the School of Human Ecology at the University of Texas and the director of Food+City, a center that explores the global food supply chain (which tries to feed 7.347 BILLION people). She was joined by Brian Weale of Sysco and Jim Gossen of Louisiana Foods to talk about how food gets to our table. Jim noted that most protein producers are mom and pops, really, and he has spent a career getting their food to market. Seafood is a particularly precarious product to handle because it has such a short shelf life and quality suffers dramatically if it isn’t handled properly. This requires a great deal of coordination and speed. Weale discussed the notion of the “cold chain” and the advancements of quality control and the ability of the industry to document practically to the moment, whether a product has been kept cold from the time it leaves the farm to the minute it hits a grocery store shelf.
I listened more than I typed for this one. I listened. I can get pretty cute and wax poetic about “local” in my writing. I just like everything it conjures up in my mind. But the fact is that local and proper safety and big logistics are not necessarily in conflict, though we often put them in conflict to serve marketing functions (I said that. They didn’t). And even in my own experience looking at farmers markets, which I love as you know, farmers and producers eventually start carrying each other’s things to market just to cover all the various opportunities. Logistics happens. Organization occurs. When is the little guy a big guy? BUT, all that mental wandering aside, you must be impressed by what large food distributors manage to do. As Brian noted, even in the worst of disasters or storms or what have you, hospitals and nursing homes do not close. People have to be fed. The trucks have to roll. Food Routes.
Our final moments before retiring to prepare for dinner were spent watching our new film for the Foodways Texas Documentary Project. Our film on the Blessing of the Fleet is wonderful. It is the doorway to a large oral history program on which we are embarking involving the Gulf Coast shrimping industry. Congratulations to Keeley Steenson on a wonderful film.
More food? Yes, more food. We gathered at Rahr & Sons Brewing Company and feasted on breads and cheeses from Empire Baking and The Mozzarella Company, bacon burnt ends and mac from Heim Barbecue, dewberry hand pies from Sweet Lucy’s Pies, tacos and elotes from Taco Heads and giant fried chicken biscuits and fried potatoes from Bite my Biscuit. Holy heartburn. I was so happy.
But, I was sad, too. I am always a little sad on the last night of the symposium. I don’t want to say goodbye. We all hugged and waved, or got back on the bus for a few more moments of food and drink fellowship at the hotel. And we all said, “See you soon.” And we meant it. So, see you all soon. I’ll see you at Summer Barbecue Camp. I’ll see you at Camp Brisket. I’ll see you at next year’s symposium, which we think will be in Houston. It was a blast. It always is.
- Look out for The Range Podcast. The first episode on “Beans” should be out on iTunes soon.
- At the symposium, I took a moment to describe to my friends what Foodways Texas means to me. I tried to condense something that I could go on about for hours (see all the words above) and crammed it into 10 minutes. I somehow talked about the beginning for me with a traveling apple pie that I accompanied to Galveston 7 years ago all the way to imagining my children as future scholars studying the very things we discuss every year and the oral histories we compile. In short, I discussed the notion of permanence and an endowment for Foodways Texas, a group of people I have come to love and a mission that I respect. To wit, we are going to shoot for establishing an endowment at the University of Texas that we will be able to build upon forever…that will give back forever. If you are interested in contributing to Foodways Texas for the express purpose of establishing this endowment, please let us know. Marvin Bendele is more than happy to answer any questions you may have. We will be sending out formal information on this of course, but I wanted to put it out there for you to consider. It is my distinct honor and privilege to say that I am Endowment Donor 001. You can’t get rid of me. The word endowment usually conjures up ideas of vast sums of money and elite donors. I very much like the notion of all of us, friends and scholars and eaters and the curious, coming together as a group and doing that for ourselves and for those who come to study after us. (Individual: $1000; Family: $1,250)