Feast of Memories, this summer’s community potluck inspired by Austin Museum of Art’s conceptual exhibition The Art of Memory, was both a heartwarming coming together of strangers sharing food and food memories and a poignant expression of the deep yearning we have for finding commonalities. More enjoyable than the haute of the cuisine, though, were the stories we told.
David Ansel told the tale about the dish he didn't bring. Jesse Griffiths recounted catching and cooking his very first fish (he brought its namesake). I talked about my mother. Mothers probably inspired most of the dishes reflecting food memories that night.
Basking in the afterglow of the event—still in effect—I dragged out my old wooden recipe boxes filled with handwritten index cards copied from my mother's handwritten index cards that I took away to college with me some 30-odd years ago. With names like Chicken Fancy, Devilish Manicotti and Chili-Cheese Fun-do, these dishes nourished me with the familiar and snagged more than a few boyfriends along the way. The actual number (hundreds of cards) is stunning. My mother rarely cooked anything twice, even when begged. Repeat dishes, like her Mocha Torte made every year for my father’s birthday and our traditional Christmas dinner of Chicken Curry (with all the condiments) were—and still are—anticipated with a heady combination of reverence and glee.
Michael Pollan recalls his mother in his recent New York Times Magazine piece lamenting that we don’t collectively cook (like Julia Child) anymore. He loved the simple act of watching her cook—the magical act of transforming raw ingredients into dinner. There’s a divining message here about the importance of relationships—relationships we have to each other and of our food supply to our dinners, health and general well-being. My good friend Paula Angerstein recently sent me a copy of Wendell Berry’s essay from the 1971 Whole Earth Catalog called “Think Little.” It could well be the genesis and inspiration of this perspective for Pollan’s and others’ contemporary writings. Consider this passage:
“Odd as I am sure it will appear to some, I can think of no better form of personal involvement in the cure of the environment than that of gardening. A person who is growing a garden, if he is growing it organically, is improving a piece of the world. He is producing something to eat, which makes him somewhat independent of the grocery business, but he is also enlarging, for himself, the meaning of food and the pleasure of eating. The food he grows will be fresher, more nutritious, less contaminated by poisons and preservatives and dyes than what he can buy at a store. He is reducing the trash problem; a garden is not a disposable container, and it will digest and re-use its own wastes. If he enjoys working in his garden, then he is less dependent on an automobile or a merchant for his pleasure. He is involving himself directly in the work of feeding people.”
So I hope you will enjoy some perspectives on "thinking little" we have in this issue of Edible Austin. David Ansel writes about the downsizing of restaurants in our booming food cart culture. Jeremy Walther demystifies the microbiology of nurturing our soil to grow more productive and healthful gardens. Robin Chotzinoff introduces us to Broken Arrow Ranch’s back-to-basics field-harvested wild game. Marshall Wright opens his lens for us for a new feature called Back of the House featuring James Holmes’s elemental cooking behind the line at Olivia. Lucinda Hutson illuminates our journey paying homage to our loved ones in her Dia de los Muertos column. Soll Sussman catches Diana Kennedy at the farmers market lamenting that we’re still using plastic bags even though we should know better by now. And new columnist Lisa Fain takes us on a guided tour of making bratwurst from scratch. Her column Handiwork will be a seasonal DIY of cooking adventures.
Also, look for the many opportunities to get involved in our community you can find within these pages. Explore our commonalities and honor our collective mothers.
Below is a selection of favorite recipes from my old recipe boxes including my mother’s famous Pork in Peanut Butter Sauce:
Perfect Pie Crust
Barbecued Meat Loaf
Stewed Pork in Peanut Butter Sauce