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Stoking the creative fires

When cancer took away musician Joe Gracey's voice, cooking became another method of expression

Kitty Crider AMERICAN-STATESMAN

Publication Date: May 3, 2006

Joe Gracey teaches culinary classes at Central Market with his wife, Kimmie Rhodes, writes occasional food articles for Saveur magazine, cooks privately for Austinites and plays bass in Rhodes' band, eating his way around Europe as they tour. But don't look for him at the three-star Michelin restaurants. He follows his own path.

"The guy's a complete lunatic, and I mean that in the nicest possible sense," Colman Andrews, editor in chief of Saveur, says of Gracey: "He's the kind of wacko who drags his lovely wife on a boudin-eating tour of Western Louisiana (not that she was heard protesting), collects pig's foot recipes when he travels the way some people collect T-shirts, and once cooked a rooster stuffed with bread and blood sausage for Bertold Brecht's granddaughter (among others) in a cottage he and Kimmie had rented in Sligo, Ireland."

That Gracey, 55, is a man without a voice who communicates via e-mail and his ever-present Magic Slate makes him more remarkable. Wearing out one Magic Slate — that childhood stencil and lift-erase tablet — a month, he writes that he has a stockpile of 1,000. It's not a perfect system but one that seems to work well for him, one he has practiced more than 25 years.

"The frustrating thing about the Magic Slate is its limit on space and time, so everything I say has to be done in eight words or less if possible," he writes in an e-mail. "The good thing about that is it has trained me to edit everything I say, but the bad part is that much of what I am thinking goes unsaid."

That's a tough position for anyone, but especially for a former Top 40 radio DJ at KOKE-FM, a revered alternative-country Austin station in the 1970s. Diagnosed with laryngeal cancer in 1978, he underwent surgery that left him without a larynx and the ability to speak.

"I did love to talk, although I wasn't a blatherer, more of an ironic observer. I had a resonant baritone/bass voice. I was in the UT Chorale and UT Opera Company . . . I was about to make a record with a big Nashville producer when I found out I was sick. So, the loss of my voice was devastating to me, but it would be to anybody just as much . . ." he says in an e-mail, a technology that, in the past six years, has essentially given him back a "phone."

With the surgery, he beat cancer. In 1979, he met and later married Rhodes. He spent a lot of time raising their daughter, Jole, now a student at St. Edward's University. And he got into food in big way when she was young.

"I used to take Jole to Whole Foods every day," says the guy who loves to cook and who takes charge of the kitchen most nights when he and his wife, whose country/roots band is popular in Europe, are in town.

Gracey began cooking for several reasons: One, after nearly dying from cancer, he was so grateful for life that he "never wanted to waste another day, another deal."

Second, food also became his new creative outlet, one he could handle while managing Rhodes' tours, CD sales, Web site and other demands of their music cottage industry. Serious about the culinary arts, this Fort Worth native with a degree in American studies from the University of Texas, once compared the cooking of coq au vin in three different containers — copper, Le Creuset and earthenware. He says he couldn't tell much taste difference. But Le Creuset's dish had the best color, while the chicken in the copper pan turned purple.

At the Gracey-Rhodes abode in Briarcliff west of Austin, he has a vast cookbook collection. He reaches first, always, for the 1974 edition of Richard Olney's "Simple French Food." But he also favors "Paul Bocuse In Your Kitchen" and "Paul Bocuse's French Cooking," as well as Giuliano Bugialli's "Fine Art of Italian Cooking."

His 22-year-old, six-burner, professional Wolf stove is worn from heavy use. A darkened bread-baking stone sits in the bottom of the large oven; bright red and yellow Dansk pots are atop the back burners. Copper cookware and Le Creuset pots, as well as his grandmother's black cast-iron skillet — he uses it to cook sausage links or steak — hang from a pot rack overhead.

On the tile-topped white cabinets sit bottles of wine, baskets of potatoes and onions, a huge jar of dried porcini mushrooms, and a gourmet cook's array of appliances — Kitchen Aid mixer/sausage-stuffer, an ice cream maker, a coffeemaker, a food processor, a grinder and a blender. In the adjoining living room, a fireplace is outfitted with cooking racks and hangers, the same kind that Alice Waters imports, he says.

Gracey advocates clay cookware called cazuelas. These brown, round baking dishes are ideal for long, slow roasting or baking.

In Europe, cooks roast lamb in these dishes in wood ovens, he adds. "The flavor is" — he holds his hand to his heart, as if swooning.

Yes, he says, he can still experience flavor, although he lost some of his tastebuds to cancer. "But what I found after my surgery was that I still had enough to taste everything except sweet."

He also learned that 85 percent to 90 percent of what people call taste is actually aromas. "I taste basically as well now as I ever did, which was a huge relief and surprise to me, and when that happened it sent me off into this quest to learn all I can about food and wine and cooking because I realized how precious it was to me."

However, because his radiation treatments years ago seem to have given him a permanent hypersensitivity to spicy foods, he tends to make more European dishes than Tex-Mex.

On this visit to his kitchen, he is cooking cassoulet, a slow-baked French dish of beans and pork, in a cazuela. He drizzles duck fat over the breadcrumbs on top of the dish. He checks on a classic French-style roasted chicken in the oven. He stuffs and cooks links of nutmeg-scented pork sausage.

He wishes for a walk-in fireplace, like in France. But that is yet to come. So is a much-needed second refrigerator. His current fridge is filled: natural sausage casings, homemade applesauce, homemade pesto, a half-gallon of rendered lard, a kefir-cultured smoothie. In the small chest freezer on the carport, beside his white Miata convertible, are fatback and pigs' feet.

Behind the house, a hillside wine/storm/root cellar holds homemade pickles, marinara sauce, bottles au vin. There is an abandoned chicken coop, a peach tree with early fruit, herbs and a fenced garden that will go fallow this year because of a full tour schedule from the Netherlands to Germany, Spain to Ireland.

Near the cellar is the recording studio, where Rhodes and Joe Sears, the "Tuna" co-star, are writing the musical "Small Town Girl." It will open in Conroe in September as part of the city's downtown revitalization project.

"Part of the fun of working around here is getting to eat those lunches" prepared by Gracey, says Sears with an appreciative smile.

"The problem with Joe being such an excellent cook," says Rhodes, "is his star shines so brightly in the kitchen that mine pales in his light. I always tell him I've been cooking since before he was born even though he is four years older than I am. Everyone is so enthralled by having their meal cooked by him that I can cook right alongside of him all day or even an entire meal by myself and be exhausted and everyone at the table will always tell HIM what an excellent job HE did!

"It's happened so often it's become an inside joke. He always says thank you and takes credit whether or not he even stepped foot in the kitchen and we just look at each other and smile. This has been going on for so many years now I have given up and am resigned to suffer in silence."

It's Rhodes who cooks the fried chicken. Bakes the buttermilk pie. And fills a cazuela with marinated tomatoes and mozzarella, a recipe from their travels in Florence, Italy. About four years ago, she even wrote "The Amazing Afterlife of Zimmerman Fees," a 140-page metaphysical story and cookbook with recipes from the Gracey-Rhodes family and friends.

She and Gracey confess that they grocery shop for fun, instead of going to a movie. One day last month they shopped for 10 hours at Central Market, Whole Foods Market and Mandola's Italian Market. They also teach cooking classes together — she doing the commentary, he most of the cooking, with occasional pantomiming or signing, which Rhodes translates.

They believe food is a great way to bring people together, and they say they always sat down to dinner with their kids. (Rhodes also has two sons, one of whom, Gabe, plays lead guitar in their band.)

Long, slow meals are delicious activities for them. "We had meals in French homes that lasted five hours," Gracey says. "It was a huge revelation to us that a meal could be the focus of an entire evening. So we have tried to incorporate that attitude into our lives."

Just as they have incorporated the recipes from touring into their lives and teaching. One class was about dishes from Lyon, France; another, tapas from Spain.

The 2006 tour — the most travel yet— promises more platefuls of good food.

"We'll be back with a whole new set of food," Rhodes says.

One can only imagine what they will be cooking.

kcrider@statesman.com; 445-3656

RECIPES

Here are some recipes from Central Market cooking classes Joe Gracey and Kimmie Rhodes taught. (Their next one is scheduled for August.)

Banderillas — little tidbits skewered on long toothpicks — make a colorful and interesting appetizer. Ingredients that show up on a banderillas in Spain include olives, stuffed and unstuffed, pickled herring, canned white tuna, cornichons, marinated pearl onions, anchovies, roasted marinated red peppers, artichoke hearts, mushroom caps, tiny cooked potatoes, ham, cheese, etc. Items can be fresh, preserved or leftovers. The idea is to put the whole group of things into your mouth at once, so the mixture of flavors and textures needs to work harmoniously together. Long toothpicks with a decorative tip work well for this festive little tapa idea. Here are a couple we especially like:

Banderillas

Banderilla 1:

1 peeled cooked shrimp

1 cooked asparagus tip

Dab of mayonnaise or aïoli (use

homemade if you can)

1/2 small hard boiled egg, cut

crosswise, so as to sit flat.

Banderilla 2:

1 pimento-stuffed olive (good Spanish ones, not canned

American varieties)

1 tiny boiled potato

1 cube of serrano ham

1 cube of Manchego cheese

Gambas al Ajillo (Shrimp in Spicy Garlic Sauce)

1/2 to 3/4 lb. very small shrimp, peeled

Coarse salt

8 Tbsp. olive oil

3 large cloves garlic, peeled and

coarsely chopped

1 dried red chile pepper, stems and

seeds removed, in 2 pieces

1/2 tsp. Spanish paprika

1 Tbsp. minced parsley

Wash and dry the shrimp well and sprinkle with salt on both sides. Let them sit at room temperature for 10 minutes. Heat the oil in an earthenware casserole, or a cazuela. Add the garlic and chile and just when the garlic begins to turn golden, add the shrimp. Cook over medium-high heat for 2 minutes or until the shrimp are just done.

Sprinkle with salt, paprika and parsley and serve in the cooking dish. Serves 4.