Foodways Texas cooks up history of Texas foods

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Whether you were born in Texas or just got here as fast as you could, you're sure to have tasted the many different cultural influences in Texas cooking. From Alsace-Lorraine, Poland, Mexico, Vietnam, and a host of other countries, immigrants have come to Texas with their ethnic foods and put a Texas spin on them. In 2010, a nonprofit aptly named Foodways Texas was established by a network of scholars, chefs, journalists, restaurateurs, farmers, ranchers and other food aficionados dedicated to preserving, promoting and celebrating the diverse food cultures in Texas.

The Foodways group used Southern Foodways Alliance at the Center for the Study of Southern Culture at the University of Mississippi as a model. By affiliating Foodways Texas with the University of Texas’ Division of Diversity and Community Engagement in Austin, they became an incubator program involved in the cultural and historical documentation of food culture and heritage in the Lone Star State. Wow! That was a mouthful. So, what do these foodie historians have in mind for their organization? Marvin Bendele, the only paid employee of Foodways, told me, "We hope to create oral histories and more film documentaries like 50 Years of Pie and Good, Better, Best--about cooking sorghum molasses.  Some of the upcoming projects will include a history of Texas breweries, a look at the state's cheese industry, and perhaps a documentary of food co-ops across the state, including crop sharing." They'll also hold an annual symposium, educational food-based seminars, promote local food networks, and partner with universities and other nonprofits to educate future generations about healthy and sustainable food practices. And, if you love barbecue, think about attending Foodways' wildly popular BBQ Summer Camp. Held annually at College Station, the camp utilizes resources from the Texas A&M meat science department and regional barbecue authorities to help make you the penultimate BBQ cook. Isn't that the same as being king in Texas? What is it that intrigues these folks about Texas food? Bendele described his motivation. "When I look at a plate of food, I don't just think about its taste, although that's part of it. When I consider the history of a specific dish or recipe, I like to know from what immigrant group it originates. I may investigate the ingredients and how they might have changed over the years from the original as the cooks relied on local crops." Bendele added, "I'm also interested in the lives of the families who cook this food. I wonder what stories are told around the dinner table."

Foodways Texas is supported by membership fees, a handful of sponsors and hopefully in the future, a few grants. The above picture of Chef Andrew Weissman of Il Sogno and Sandbar, and Marvin Bendele was taken during preparation for a fundraising gala held a few weeks ago hosted by the Pearl Brewery and Culinary Institute of America (CIA). Weissman was cooking up beef ravioli, which he said could be traced back to the Italian immigrant community of the San Antonio region. Other chefs who contributed dishes influenced by local immigrant communities are Tan Nguyen of Central Market, Jason Dady of The Lodge, Rebecca Rather of Rather Sweet Bakery, Elizabeth Johnson of CIA San Antonio and Jesse Perez of Alamo Cafe. Mmmmm food, I say in my best Homer Simpson voice.

The conversation with Bendele conjured up visions of my grandmother's bourbon balls, cornbread stuffing and pecan pie. I think of how my mother made the best fried chicken I have ever tasted. I'm sure there's an interesting story in there somewhere. If you like the subject of food, check out the SA Current blog Food Fighter. For more from Laura Carter, follow @LauraCarter or check out A Small Blog  

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