Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Crisco, Pickles & Sage - Food & Family - Part I

My paternal grandmother, who we affectionately called "Tutu", the Hawaiian name for grandmother (or "kuku wahine") after a trip to Hawaii, was a collector of cookbooks and recipes torn from the pages of Southern Living that can be found tucked into her many cookbooks. Some of her cookbooks grace our shelves alongside our own growing cookbook collection.  Her cookbooks have been passed down to me along with her favorite recipes for family favorites like Texas Sheet Cake, pecan and pumpkin pies nestled in Crisco-laden pie shells (a common ingredient in many of her baked goods), cornbread made in a cast iron skillet and a recipe for sweet & hot pickles that is now made for friends and family at Christmas. It is the sweet & hot pickle recipe that is asked for time and time again. Her pastry board sits on our kitchen counter and is often used as the backdrop for my photos of the meals we've prepared. 

These reminders of food and family keep me inspired in the kitchen and bring back warm childhood memories. I love to think about laughing with my cousins at the kids' table which happened to be within arms reach of the row of pies that my grandmother prepared at their Hill Country ranch. I can't pick a leaf of sage without thinking of my grandmother's stuffing at Thanksgiving. 

Food has always been a part of our family and you can find most of us in our kitchens a good part of the day. My sister and I have also found a love for gardening which means we might be found in our garden as well. Most of our gatherings growing up centered around what we would eat and how it was prepared. Our family members tend to be the ones hosting the parties and dinners rather than just attending them.

Although my maternal grandmother had stopped cooking very much by the time I was born, my mom told me that she was known for her brandied fruit, boiled beef tongue with cream sauce, green peas and diced carrots and peanut brittle that she would pour and let cool on a buttered white tile kitchen counter and whole wheat bread that my mom loved. I never had a chance to meet my grandfather, but I have heart stories about him making sauerkraut in a large, round ceramic jug in their family home utility room that according to my mom would "stink to high heaven". 

There have been many food traditions over the years, like having chicken spaghetti, a recipe passed down from my maternal grandmother, on Christmas Eve or black eyed peas on New Year's Day. We all loved fried okra sprinkled with salt or a nice cold glass of sweet tea on a hot summer's day. Our Christmas table usually included my grandmother's more traditional Southern recipes alongside a few Tex-Mex favorites like tamales, guacamole and salsa. 

 After my grandparents passed, the holiday meals continued to be the same as my parents and my aunt, siblings and cousins followed the same recipes. Over time, however, our diets have changed, we've made healthier additions or changed recipes a bit to fit our own personal tastes. My sister continued the Tex-Mex tradition and created Mexi-mas, an annual party near Christmas where posole and a lucha libre piƱata have been known make an appearance. 

To preserve some of these family recipes, I made a family cookbook several years ago to preserve our family recipes. After finding the Heritage Cookbook, Lulu Cookbook, Zazzle Cookbook Binders, Cookbook People, Heirloom Cookbook sites, it makes me want to compile a more comprehensive recipe book combining both sides of our family for our son, Clay. What a wonderful piece of history to pass down to your kids! 

When I was looking through the memoirs of my husband's grandfather, I found a little story that reminded me of the importance of recording the oral history of past generations.

"We had to save and live on what we had. There were no jobs for money. So we had to grow a garden, had cows for milk, chickens for eggs, or corn for meals. If we did not have syrup we would have honey. After I got old enough to take care of beehives, I had plenty of honey.
 We carried our lunch every day. Sometimes we did not have too much to build a lunch from. I would carry my lunch in a bucket. Back then we would have a syrup bucket. We had syrup in a one gallon can and after we would empty the can, we would use it to carry our lunch for school. I would put some butter in a small glass and add some syrup and biscuits with bacon and egg inside of the biscuit. That was my lunch."

Texas has a rich and complex food heritage and it is important that we preserve this tradition through oral history, community cookbooks and sharing of family recipes and teaching our children where their food comes from and the history behind it. 

At this year's Foodways Texas Symposium at The Blanton at UT, Texas Preserved was the theme and speakers at the Symposium ranged from farmers, shrimpers, photographers, environmentalists, restaurant and bar owners, history professors and food writers. The amount of food knowledge in the room was astounding and the love for Texas food culture and Southern cooking was shared. All of the speakers shared their version of how we should preserve and support the unique food culture in Texas.

As was pointed out by MM Pack, the local food movement is not new to Texas or to the Austin area. In the early 1910s, housewives formed canning community centers and canning clubs to preserve the harvest in rural and urban areas. Housewives used to ask their local grocer to stock specific butters or jams from local farms. 

The same is true today. We search out our favorite farmers to find the perfect sunny egg yolk or sweet strawberry. This renaissance of sorts in the local food movement is making canning cool again. I thought I might brush up on a few tips on canning and took notes while Stephanie McKlenny, of Confituras, led a canning demonstration at the Symposium and MM Pack led a discussion on native fruits. 

At my parents' house, the twisting vines that will soon be heavy with mustang grapes and then simmered and jarred for mustang grape jelly have inspired me to search out other Texas native fruits to make into jam and marmalade. I hope to search out recipes to preserve the local fruit harvest this spring and summer and will share my adventures along the way. 

At the symposium I also had a chance to chat briefly with Hoover Alexander who feels the same way about helping kids understand where their food comes from and the rich food heritage of Texas. He said it was part of the reason that Soular Food was born. As he explained it, he wanted to create not only a place that celebrates local food, but creates a meeting place for storytelling. A way to bring in the new generations and remind them of the value of knowing where their food comes from, the history of the food and the importance of sharing stories and experiences. He said something that caught my attention. He said is doesn't have to be all or nothing. It can be easy to get caught up in creating a perfect diet, but it really is about coming together over something that will nourish the body and soul. 

We stopped by Hoover's Soular Food trailer and shared the rawBella platter, pork loin 'cue and some amazing sweet potato and pecan vegan ice cream from Thai Fresh for dessert. I loved sitting under the trees and colorful strings of lights just soaking up the sunshine with my family. It was a great way to spend a Saturday. 

In the next few weeks I'll be highlighting some of the information presented at the symposium along with some of the food movements and events that are happening around Central Austin right now as well as some personal stories about food and family. I hope you'll share some of your family food traditions as well. 

Please share your own family memories or Texas food history tidbits in the comments section below. 

Karen Morgan, of Blackbird Bakery in Austin, is producing a community cookbook to recreate gluten-free family favorites. If you are interested in submitting a family recipe that would be converted to a gluten-free one, contact Blackbird Bakery

1 comment:

  1. Excellent article, Sommer. I was so fortunate to attend the Symposium, too, and am so excited to be a part of a community that values food traditions, including our own Austin Food Bloggers Association's community cookbook in the making. It was a pleasure to meet you in person yesterday, and I look forward to your future posts along this same vein.
    I am not from Texas (but yes, got here as fast as I could) but I have been in the Central Texas are for 15 years, now, and living in Beaumont for a few years as a child. I have a vivid memory of eating chili over rice at Amelia Elementary in Beaumont, and was curious if this is a regional specialty, or perhaps just a clever way to stretch the chili at Amelia?
    ps.....that. boy. is. adorable.