Wednesday, October 15, 2008

AFJ in Houston Day One Session One

Hello all and sundry. I'm Claudia Perry, a new member of AFJ and I have volunteered to post daily from our convention in Houston. I mostly write about wine. If you're curious, you can check out my blog.

Anyway, there are only 40 of us registered this year,which probably says a lot about the fate of print media and the economy of late. A few attendees mentioned section-front ads and consolidation with the daily features sections as unnerving but increasingly common practices.

Since everyone suffers from eye fatigue from reading on a screen, I'll summarize the three sessions that were held today in separate entries. All were held in Salon B here at the Omni Hotel, and, as is typical in Texas, it was as cold as a meat locker. Wraps and hot beverages may be essential in the coming days.

Session 1 "Texas Food Past and Present" featured Dai Huynh from the Houston Chronicle as moderator, with "Dishes of the Wild Horse Desert" author Melissa Guerra, Chronicle restaurant critic Allison Cook, Houston Press restaurant author and cookbook writer Robb Walsh (coming soon "Sex, Death and Oysters") and cook book historian Elizabeth White from the Texas Medical Center library.

Main talking points: Guerra, an eighth-generation Texan , says state's food history started in 1845 and was shaped by things that were free, flourishing and favored. The South Texas natives were identified by how they looked and what they ate. There were 107 indigenous groups along the Rio Grande. There are at least seven ecosystems in Texas and multiple microclimates. Key to the food is mesquite wood and chile pequine, a small native pepper that was distributed by bird migration and the seeds dropping where they fell from the birds.
The Border cuisine was meaty and cheesy since water and refrigeration were scarce. Interestingly, McAllen and Brownsville are now mad for sushi. One indigenous group, the Mariami, followed the pecan harvest north and brought the nuts back for trade from Fredericksburg. Guerra expects a rise in Texas cooking similar to the Cajun boom in the 80s.

Cook, who in the interests of full disclosure is a Facebook friend, recalled an early Houston restaurant called Sonny Look's Sir-Loin Inn, which featured a knight on a live horse at the door and the owner wearing a coat covered with sequined crustacaeans. Culinary highlight was butter compounded with strawberries, a nod to Helen Corbin of "Texas Caviar" fame. Two major forces in restaurant development in Houston, lifting of immigration quotas in 1965 and liquor by the drink becoming legal in 1972. Houstonians like exuberant flavors, big portions and nothing too subtle about their cooking. In the 80s the arrival of the "New" Southwestern cuisine was somewhat precious and rigid but the cultural culinary mix is now more relaxed and natural. Houstonians look at Tex-Mex cooking as nursery food eaten for comfort and usually on Friday nights, which may be due to the TGIF need for a margarita, but could also be related to the high school football (that last observation is mine not Cook's).

You're seeing a sensory overload such as shrimp stuffed in a jalapeno wrapped in bacon, which Cook says put flavors in conflict but is pretty tasty. She also noted that Texas craft cheese is where California was a few years ago.

White has collected Texas cookbooks pre-sesquecentennial (1986 if you're not from here). The first Texas cookbook was published in 1883 and included a recipe for yacht pie, as if to demonstrate the Houston level of sophistication. Gale Horton put together the first recipe collection in Galveston in 1855. White identifies seven regions of Texas cooking.
The Coastal Prairie influenced by rice, sugar soy beans and cotton. Cottonseed oil was the second largest crop in Texas at the beginning of the 20th century. Rice production improved with the arrival of Japanese growers in 1904 with tolerant varieties and expertise. The Lower Rio Grande Valley produced its first grapefruit crop in 1904. There was also a nonkosher Jewish cookbook published in Houston in 1920s with ads for butchers selling pork and bacon. White thinks this was the community's way of proving they weren't imsular.
The Piney Woods of East Texas were abundant in game, cropland, wood for smoking and
were also influenced by Southern cuisine and Louisiana cuisine.

The Panhandle was hot, dry, sunny and had little water so wheat, cattle and cotton drove the economy. There is very little population and farming didn't really take off until widespread irrigation in the 20s.
The Prairie Lakes (think Dallas-Fort Worth) produced Thomas Munson, who originally hailed from Denison. He was one of three Americans who sent root stock to France during the phylloxera epidemic of the 1860s.

The Hill Country was thickly settled with Germans with three German language cookbooks from 1915 coming from New Braunfels. White has not found any Spanish-language cookbooks, which may be due to cultural factors such as literacy and access to printing (last observation also the blogger's, not White's) Corbin introduced Texas Caviar in Austin in 1931. San Antonio, home of Fritos, also gave us Frito pie and the first Bermuda onions in the state.

The Upper Rio Grande Valley is pretty much the cultural mezcla (mix if you're Spanglish challenged) of Mexico and Texas as found in El Paso and influenced by Juarez.

Robb Walsh sees Texas food as the division between haute and folk culture. He noted that oyster culture in Texas is very blue collar whereas places like New York and San Francisco, that effectively murdered their native crop, it's become a hoity toity experience. Two-thirds of the oysters in the United States come from the Gulf Coast. He thinks Texas does folk cuisine best.

For the various BBQ traditions of Texas (Walsh is leading the travel writers around next week), the best examples in Houston are Thelma's on Live Oak downtown near the convention center (African American style), El Hidalgese on Long Point (Mexican barbacoa), Pizzatola's on Shepherd, Goode Company BBQ on Kirby(German links) and Que Huong in the wilds of Southwest Houston on Bissonnet for Vietnamese style.

More later. I've got to go eat.

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