Preserving the Heart of Texas
Stirling Kelso / June 2012
It’s big, it’s a republic, and now it’s got its own guardian of its unique and varied culinary traditions. Stirling Kelso looks in as Foodways Texas plants its flag.
If you were born a triggerfish in the waters off the Texas Gulf Coast, you might wonder what you had done in a previous life to deserve such an ill fate. Not only are you swimming around in waters of poor repute—your home, it seems, only gets national attention after a hurricane or oil spill—but even when you’re snared by a fisherman, you’re labeled as bycatch or trash fish. Not for you the lofty praise reserved for snappers and redfish. Ignored by the boat captain, you’re thrown back into the gulf’s supposedly murky waters, left to duke it out with your ever-growing population.
You might take comfort in the fact that even the top crops—plump shrimp or briny oysters—also seem to suffer from the Gulf of Mexico’s historically hapless reputation. Dockside shrimp prices can’t compete with foreign imports—70 to 90 percent of shrimp eaten in the United States comes from abroad—as domestic shrimpers struggle against the headwinds of rising fuel prices and increased regulations.
Take heart, triggerfish. Thanks to Foodways Texas, a nonprofit dedicated to celebrating and preserving Texas food culture through events and oral, video, and written food histories, even you are starting to get plate time. During the organization’s annual symposium, held in Austin over a late March weekend packed with events ranging from urban garden-grown meals to panel discussions on heritage pig breeds, triggerfish was served at an all-bycatch lunch prepared by Justin Yu, chef/owner of Houston’s new Oxheart Restaurant. Among other intriguing dishes—fried fins of black drum dusted in smoked paprika; Southern hake cooked in brown butter—guests tasted the silky, delicious, and once sidelined swimmer, artfully paired with caramelized sauerkraut, dried sunchokes, dried kale, and pickled carrots. More important, though, triggerfish is now sold at Texas Gulf Coast ports. According to Jim Gossen, president and CEO of Houston-based Louisiana Foods, his company sold out its last 500 pound haul in days. This attention to the gulf’s aquatic diversity not only makes eating better and more interesting, it also promotes a more judicious approach to using the gulf’s aquatic resources.
Foodways Texas was created in 2010 by a group of chefs, restaurant industry professionals, food historians and writers, and food enthusiasts. Texas used to fall under the umbrella of the Southern Foodways Alliance. Based in Oxford, Mississippi, the SFA is a food preservation organization that has attracted a large following thanks to its popular panels, awards, and food-driven field trips and even food and film festivals held throughout the South.
Texas, the second largest state in the United States, presented SFA a problem of sorts. “Texas is this weird borderland of several different regions,” says Foodways Texas executive director Marvin Bendele. Its landscape is about as diverse as its population, and while its eastern border might feel like an extension of the Deep South at times, its western border is a good 790 miles away in a whole different kind of south altogether. So the Lone Star State seceded once again, although it still has ties to the SFA. Now in its second year, Foodways Texas has already put together 13 events and has over 300 members—including influential chefs such as Tim Byres of Smoke in Dallas and Chris Shepherd of Underbelly in Houston, as well as corporate sponsors such as Central Market, based in Dallas, and the Salt Lick outside of Austin.
By documenting food histories, Foodways Texas is not only looking to the past but is also forcing food industry professionals to hold a mirror up to its present, which is why there’s so much talk about the Lone Star State’s 367 mile gulf coast. “The region has had a damaged reputation for a long time,” says architect Eric Leshinsky, who, with his business partner Zach Moser, bought a shrimp boat and launched Shrimp Boat Projects, an artistic investigation that studies the relationship between the physical Galveston Bay and the area’s cultural identity. “Why is the gulf thought of as an ugly place? Why is it so often only seen through the lens of disaster? These are the kinds of questions we are trying to answer, in part because regional reputation so often influences the food economy.”
This is definitely true within the Texas shrimp industry, where problems like plummeting shrimp prices, limited licenses, and media binges about hurricanes and oil spills have stripped the working waterfront of most of its intrigue and beauty.
Foodways Texas also has examined how Gulf Coast oysters have long suffered from the region’s negative standing in the public eye. East and West Coast oysters carry appellations from their locale, but Gulf Coast oysters are a bulk commodity, which lowers market value and general popularity. And unlike those on the East and West Coasts, the oysters are more likely to be disguised inside a fried batter than served as an aphrodisiac on ice. After finding reef and bay descriptions in a 1902 Galveston Daily News article, Foodways Texas organized a tasting of 12 different oysters identified by appellation. As a result, companies such as Jeri’s Seafood, based in Smith Point, Texas, started selling select oysters from various reefs, including Ladies Pass, Pepper Grove, and Aransas Bay, raising their price and prestige. This is a small but hopefully lasting achievement for an industry that lost 8,000 acres of prime beds to Hurricane Ike in 2008.
Back on land, Foodways Texas hopes that breeding heritage animals with Texas roots will have a similar effect on industries that have long been ravaged by commodity farming. During its March symposium, the organization spotlighted Morgan Weber, who launched Revival Meats, a farm outside of Yoakum, Texas, and co-owns Revival Market in Houston with chef Ryan Pera, formerly of The Grove. Dressed in dark glasses and a smart button-down collared shirt, Weber looks like he could be a Los Angeles–based talent exec; appropriately, his heritage pigs are celebrities of sorts in Texas food circles. Among other breeds, Weber raises purebred Red Wattles—what he calls “fast-growing, large, great-tasting pigs”—natives of Texas that were thought to be extinct until the 1970s when an East Texas farmer caught and identified three wild Red Wattles (how the 800 pound animals went undetected for so long remains a mystery) and revived the breed. There are now approximately 450 in the country, according to the Red Wattle Hog Association.
After raising Red Wattles, Berkshires, and Mangalitsas on barley and wheat (he recently weaned them off of alfalfa after the FDA approved the move toward a genetically engineered version), Morgan now processes about five pigs a week. “I almost have to blindfold them before going to the slaughterhouse,” he says of the establishment where commodity pigs are also processed. “They’ve been so pampered, they’d probably have a heart attack just from seeing the oversized herds.” He then sells the cuts of meat at his Revival Market in Houston, as well as to restaurants such as Haven in Houston, Uchi in Austin, and John Besh’s La Provence outside New Orleans, among others. “There’s certainly a historical intrigue on my part regarding heirloom breeds of livestock—the notion that we’re eating something that tastes virtually the same way now as it did 150-plus years ago,” Weber says.
Like Weber, Foodways Texas board member Hoover Alexander—a fifth generation Texan and the chef/owner of Hoover’s Cooking in Austin—is enthusiastic about educating people on the state’s culinary past with the end goal of positively shaping Texans’ next meal. Though made-from-scratch cooking has always been Alexander’s beat at his 13 year old restaurant, he’s also no stranger to comfort food–style dishes such as chicken fried steak and charbroiled catfish with buttered carrots and okra and tomatoes. In an effort to promote healthier eating, Alexander opened Hoover’s Soular Food Trailer, a local foods–focused eatery on Austin’s East Side, a racially and socio-economically diverse area where many families are only exposed to fast-food markets. His truck serves nourishing plates such as collard greens and black-eyed-pea wraps, often supplemented by vegetables grown in a garden surrounding the eatery. He also tends a fruit and vegetable garden behind an after-school facility with students from low-income backgrounds. “Today, there’s a complete disconnect in children’s minds between what we eat and where it comes from,” Alexander says. “So many children don’t even realize that vegetables grow in the dirt.” For Foodways Texas members, this is the bigger challenge: How do you introduce future generations of Texans to these foods? So far, the message, not to mention the price point, has been reserved for well-off and food-savvy circles. But this wasn’t always the case. “My parents ate farm-fresh and local before there were labels for it,” said Alexander, sitting on one Foodways Texas panel. “We need to relearn these rural lessons. By exploring our past, we have the opportunity to improve our future.” This is what Foodways Texas has the power to do—one purebred Red Wattle, one Ladies Pass oyster, and one triggerfish at a time.