By Robb Walsh (Ten Speed Press, 2012)
Texas food seems to be such a diverse and wide subject. Who would have imagined that so many different ethnic groups have had an influence on the food of one state?
People tend to have a picture of Texas in their heads. Often it has something to do with cowboys and cattle and so forth. For hundreds of years, New Orleans was the most important port in the United States on the Caribbean basin. Now it’s Houston. All of that multicultural blending that yielded the fabulous cuisines of New Orleans has migrated over to this city. Houston, with its enormous Vietnamese, Chinese, Indian, and Pakistani influences, as well as its Hispanic population, is just now beginning to be recognized by the rest of the South as the important Creole city that it is. In Houston, Anglos represent only about 30 percent of the registered voters. Blacks and Hispanics make up about 60 percent combined. This is truly a multicultural city. It isn’t a city where the mainstream deigns to recognize what is going on in the minority community. This is a city where the minority community is the driving force. In Dallas, it’s a completely different situation, and likewise in San Antonio, the birthplace of Tex-Mex. All of these things make up Texas.
Your book definitely helps you get rid of all your preconceptions about what Texas food is. There are so many surprises. I love the way every recipe has a story. Or maybe it’s that every story has a recipe.
I’m not claiming that Texas has the best food in the country. But if you pick up my book and take a look, I think you’ll find it very interesting. I begin with seafood because when Cabeza de Vaca washed up on the shores of Texas in the 1500s, he found Native Americans living on oysters for a great part of the year. The earliest peoples congregated down in the bay systems where the freshwater and the saltwater mixed and where you had all this rich marine life. The first food of Texas was seafood. When you mention Texas, how many people conjure up a picture of seafood?
People who were not born in the South often ask me, “What’s the big deal about Southern food?” And I reply that Southern food is no different from the way everybody ate 200 years ago. We eat what grows where we live.
There’s also a great cultural ingredient. Take okra, for instance. Where did okra come from? It came from Africa. Why do we have okra here? The slave traders realized that by bringing the foods of the African slaves to the slaves, they were healthier. That African-American influence distinguishes Southern food from food in any other part of the country—not to celebrate slavery but to celebrate what the African-American culture has added to the South. Don’t you think that’s true?
Yes. You can’t divorce the food from the people who made it or the people who traditionally ate it. At some point okra, the African food, becomes a Southern food.
And gumbo, which is a word for okra, becomes this great emblem of creolization, of the blending of black and Spanish and French cultures. That creolization is what makes us special. You don’t find that blend of Spanish and French and African influences in Minneapolis. There is something different about Southern food. It’s the overlay of so many different cultures. For example, my favorite breakfast food here in Houston is a boudin kolache. You get them at Shipley’s Do-nuts, which is an average Anglo donut place.
I don’t think Shipley’s Do-nuts here in Birmingham serves those.
There’s only one Shipley’s here in Houston, on North Main Street, that makes them. Kolache is a Czech word. In Czechoslovakia, it was a pastry like a danish. The Texas Czechs put the filling inside and turned kolaches into something different. Someone came up with the idea that if you’re going to put sausage in them, why not put boudin in them, which is Cajun sausage. If you stop to think about it, boudin, which in French means blood sausage, has creolized into an entirely different thing in Cajun country. And kolache, which in Czechoslovakian means pastry, has creolized into a completely different breakfast food here in Texas. And then you put one creolized food inside another creolized food, and you end up with this kind of Czech-French-Cajun-Anglo doughnut shop. [laughing] If I walked up to the average Houstonian and said, “Hey, you want a boudin kolache?” they’d know exactly what I was talking about. In the rest of the country, that blend of cultures hasn’t happened.
Are modern-day Texans more willing to accept this diversity of food?
In the last chapter of the book, “Texas Creole,” I talk about chefs like my partner in El Real Tex-Mex Café, Brian Caswell. He grew up in Houston with Sriracha hot sauce and chutneys and lime pickle and all of these exotic flavorings and condiments. You find them on everybody’s refrigerator door now. That multiculturalism is just part of who we are now. In Houston, people are very accustomed to a multicultural blend of foods. But Houston is not Lubbock.
How much did America Eats, the WPA project of the 1930s, influence you in writing this book?
America Eats was the first acknowledgement of folk foodways as being the central core of the way we eat. Texas shines in folk culture, not in haute culture. We have wonderful chefs; we have wonderful high-end restaurants. But so does any big city. But if I take someone from Paris to a great barbecue joint or to a great Tex-Mex restaurant or to an oyster bar down on Galveston Bay, I will have given him an experience that he can’t find anywhere else in the world. We are the best when it comes to those things. Texas Eats and America Eats are both celebrations of American foodways. That’s the inspiration.
So whom did you write this book for?
First and foremost, it’s a book for Texans and especially expat Texans, who are far away from Texas—people who want to make the food from home and can’t find the recipes anywhere. It’s a regional book that focuses on Texas first. The other group of people who will enjoy the book are the armchair travelers, people who like to cook food from other parts of the country in their own kitchens. I love to whip up a New England chowder or a San Francisco cioppino. I had those dishes when I was there, and I love them. Hopefully there are a great many people who will appreciate the food in the book.
Texas Eats is not a book of recipes. It’s a social history of the peoples of Texas. If you’re interested in the way that creolization is happening in the United States, if you are interested in the different regions of the country, in the different regions of the South, this book will be an important addition to a cooking reference library.