Texans, even those who pay some attention to what they put in their mouths, tend to take our iconic foods for granted. The tamales, the barbacoa, the pan dulce, the sausage, the locally harvested honey
we assume it will all be there when we want it. Yet indifference inevitably takes its toll, as do both zealous health regulations and the ease and convenience of packaged foods. The fabled Chili Queens, whose last outpost was Alamo Plaza, fell prey to the fly police; only a generation ago, chicharron vendors roamed the West Side hawking their porky product.
This is not a doomsday scenario; there are signs of increasing food awareness in the rise of farmers markets, the appearance of artisan brewers, the expanding availability of specialty products in even our baseline grocery stores. The Texan palate has been challenged to move beyond mass-market beer and slabs o’ beef to an occasional glass of Texas cabernet and a plate of Korean barbecue or Thai yellow curry. Yes, we said occasional.
But there are still traditions in danger of disappearance. Enter Foodways Texas. Inspired by the Southern Foodways Alliance, an organization headquartered at the University of Mississippi and dedicated to preserving and promoting the unique culinary culture of the south, the nascent Texas organization is being spearheaded by folks such food writer Robb Walsh from Houston and our own Melissa Guerra, author of Dishes from the Wildhorse Desert and owner of the eponymous Tienda de Cocina at the Pearl. Its mission is largely the same as the Alliance: “to preserve, promote and celebrate the diverse food cultures of Texas.”
At early organizational gatherings, films produced by the SFA have been shown, including an utterly engaging one telling the story of a buttermilk maker who considered his product a kind of fountain of youth. (He was his own best advertisement.) From pitmasters to peanut farmers is a kind of mantra of the SFA; our own might be from pie makers to sorghum cookers if the first, Texas-produced films are an indication. At a membership drive event at Pearl on a recent Saturday morning, both were screened. And both were at once nostalgic and hopeful.
Pies from Earl Abel’s were equally enticement and an integral part of the gathering — fittingly, for the first film told the story of Tony Sanchez, the restaurant’s pie baker of 50 years. His is a busboy to iconic professional tale, and it’s inspiring in its modesty. It’s also cautionary. “That’s too hard,” he says, recounting the reaction of many would-be apprentices to his unswerving, everything by-hand and from-scratch methods. But they have paid off in sales — 10 percent of the restaurant’s total, according to owner Roger Arias. Enjoy your Black Bottom or Coconut Meringue while you can, however; Sanchez was scheduled to be at the event but had gallbladder problems.
Film number two told the equally engaging story of a family of sorghum syrup makers from Mt. Olive east of Victoria. From hand harvest to laborious (and primitive) crushing, boiling and bottling, it’s a labor-intensive process and the results are shared largely with friends and family. Mt. Olive has essentially disappeared as a community; it’s altogether likely this tradition will do so as well, leaving behind at least documentation and a personal record. From the films screened so far, the focus is equally on people and product.
Recipe collections, oral history projects, even scholarly research will be additional goals of Foodways Texas, headquartered at the University of Texas (with ties as well to Texas A& M, for those with affiliation issues) and helmed by director Marvin Bendele, whose credentials already include a comprehensive book on Texas barbecue traditions. A quarterly newsletter is in the works. (Check out “Gravy,” the SFA’s quarterly, online at www.southernfoodways.com.) An annual symposium (the first, with a focus on Gulf seafood, will be held in the spring of 2011), plus other meetings and events, is planned—and you can join in. Basic membership ranges from $50 for students and $75 for individuals to $500 for corporations. A membership form can be found at www.foodwaystexas.com. Get in on the pie and the preservation.