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Looking to the past to see our culinary future

Addie Broyles, Relish Austin

Staff Writer
Austin 360
At Boggy Creek Farm, attendees at the Foodways Texas Symposium were served a menu that included roasted red waddle pig with mayhaw jelly.

We might not use the words "culinary tradition" or "foodways" when we make grandma's pecan pie, debate the best way to smoke a brisket or help our kids make a lemonade stand, but we are surrounded by cultural markers tied to food that help define who we are.

"Food culture and culture at large are closely connected," University of Texas professor Elizabeth Engelhardt said in the introduction Friday of the second annual Foodways Texas Symposium, which was held in Austin for the first time. Exploring our foodways is not about living in the past or trying to recapture a moment that was frozen in time, Engelhardt said. "We're trying to capture a moment of the present for the future, while learning how the past shaped" the present.

About 200 people attended the three-day event to explore various aspects of Texas' food culture, from sugar and shrimp to cocktails and canning. Speakers from across the state, including food photographer Penny De Los Santos, Saint Arnold Brewery founder Brock Wagner and author and Texas Christian University professor Rebecca Sharpless, explored these topics with presentations at the Blanton Museum of Art auditorium, while chefs such as Tom Perini of Perini Ranch Steakhouse in Buffalo Gap and Matt McCallister of Campo Modern Country Bistro in Dallas created meals based around the concept of preserving food traditions.

Austin chef Sonya Coté of Hillside Farmacy and East Side Show Room prepared the menu for the most anticipated event of the weekend, a 1840s theme dinner at Boggy Creek Farm, whose farmhouse, which co-owners Carol Ann Sayle and Larry Butler call home, is one of the oldest properties still standing in Austin. Coté said she spent a year preparing for the meal by researching food from the time and the history of the property, and she said she tried to imitate what Sam Houston might have eaten when he visited the property during the 1840s.

Her menu — a salad of escarole, dandelion and baby lettuce; three kinds of sweet peas; roasted red waddle pig with mayhaw jelly; corn grits and oyster cornbread topped with smoked dried tomato jam; and strawberries smothered in strawberry jam — was served family style along the three tables between the farm house and the fields, where much of the produce was grown.

The presentations during each day of the symposium revolved around the idea of preservation, either literally in the form of canning demonstrations, or figuratively, like the panel on Saturday morning about how the drought, which caused almost $8 billion in agricultural losses last year, is impacting the long-standing traditions of farming, ranching and fishing.

It's hard to imagine how the lack of rain would affect coastal fishing, but Galveston Bay relies entirely on the Trinity River basin, said Jim Gossen of Louisiana Foods in Houston. When those waterways dry up, the tide — and sometimes red tide, if the algae are in bloom — comes in to the mouths of the rivers. Last year, the water in the bay was almost as salty as in the gulf, Gossen said.

"Eighty percent of the water in the Trinity river is being used for municipalities. People need water, I understand that, but if we kill Galveston Bay, it will have a rippling effect on everything."

"Oysters will come back in time," Gossen said, "but I see a bigger effect on the fishermen. ... Instead of the few people left in the industry getting stronger because there is less competition, they are getting weaker because of all these challenges. If a guy can't make a living fishing, he goes to work in another industry."

Gossen said that people who get into fishing do so because it was in their families. "I don't see any people walking in off the streets saying, ‘Hey, I want to be an oyster man.' "

Neal Newsom, one of the state's best-known grape growers, talked about his fear of the drought pushing out the last struggling farmers in the High Plains, where he grows grapes on 130 acres. He long ago switched to growing grapes because they require less water than cotton and corn. "Farmers up there are becoming very interested in growing grapes," he said. In the past few decades, Texas has become the fifth-largest wine-producing state, and the industry is valued at $1.3 billion.

Unlike much of the rest of the state, spring rains haven't come to the Lubbock area. "We still have a dust storm every few days. It's still as brown as winter," Newsom said.

But Texas' agricultural bread and butter always has been the cattle industry, whose collective stock is at the lowest levels since the 1950s. During the worst of the drought last summer, some ranchers were sending their cattle to slaughterhouses or to greener pastures a few states away while others were buying hay from those same far-off greener pastures at higher prices than they thought possible.

"The cattle that have moved may never come back," said Jeff Savell, a professor at Texas A&M University. "My fear is that we are going to have challenges rebuilding the herds. It's more lucrative in places like the Hill Country to use your land for high-end hunting."

The average age of farmers keeps going up, and the high cost of keeping the cattle alive might drive them to quit before they would have otherwise.

Raymond Slade, a hydrologist in Austin, pointed out that the public perception of drought has one of the most damaging effects. The lack of rain causes more awareness, which turns to concern and then panic. But as soon as the rains come, apathy sets in and then the cycle starts all over again. He didn't say so specifically, but the wet spring we've had in Central Texas has caused many people to forget that we are still in a drought and that farmers, especially those in the High Plains, which hasn't had any rain, are still struggling.

"Nobody wants to say it, but it's the tension between cities and country," Newsom said. "Next time you see that development going in, ask yourself, ‘How much water is that going to take, how many farmers is that going to take out?'"

The symposium wasn't all doom and gloom, though. Houston bar owner Bobby Heugel talked about the long, but largely buried history of cocktails in the South on Friday afternoon. "Most of the time when we think of cocktails, we think of a Northern perspective on cocktails because it was OK to write about cocktails from the North. It wasn't OK to write about cocktails from the South," Heugel said. "It was something that was hidden. It wasn't always socially acceptable."

Although drinking in the South was an everyday activity before the Civil War, during reconstruction the practice became largely associated with minorities and violence, making it unseemly for white people to consume hard alcohol, and providing yet another reason for black people to be further ostracized from white society.

Also, with the impending temperance movement, the backlash from religious groups turned what was once an everyday activity into a sin. People could still drink for medicinal purposes, but cocktail consumption, if it did take place, remained a practice that was swept under the rug instead of outwardly celebrated.

Earlier, food writer Mary Margaret Pack explored the history of sugar in Texas, which, as the title reflected, wasn't always so sweet.

Slaves and then convicts were the primary workforce for the state's sugar boom in the mid-to-late 1800s, which was centered on the Brazos River Valley where workers at more than 40 plantations turned the sugar cane that grew nearby into refined sugar using a hazardous process that involved pouring gallons of boiling syrup from one pot to another.

After the Civil War ended slavery, the state of Texas leased out convicts to work for private sugar companies, but eventually, the state took them back and created working prison farms to grow crops, including sugar, to feed the inmates and generate revenue. Pack pointed out that until the 1980s, all of the state's prison system properties were on former farm plantations.

In the early 1900s, Imperial Sugar created a company town called Sugar Land, which was home almost exclusively to workers and their families until 1959. "Former cane fields are now upscale suburbs," Pack said of the now almost infamously affluent town outside Houston.

Texas is now the country's third-largest sugar producer, falling behind Louisiana and Florida. (Both Imperial, which is still based in Sugar Land, and Domino, in Louisiana, claim to be the largest sugar refiners in the U.S.) A number of sugar cane growers in South Texas have created the Rio Grande Valley Sugar Growers co-op, and they are working with Texas A&M to develop sugar cane that is resistant to drought and cold.

Additional information from Austin American-Statesman staffers Emma Janzen and Ari Auber.

Stay up-to-date with the latest food news by following food writer Addie Broyles on Twitter (@broylesa) or on her Relish Austin blog, Contact Addie at 912-2504.