By Roberto Ontiveros
Photography by Marc Brown
Third-generation Texan and executive chef of the University of Texas’s Jester Hall, Robert Mayberry loves the grounds of his beloved South Austin Community Garden (SACG). “We have eight acres of grass and trees in the middle of South Austin . . . hard to beat!” he says. “It's nice to know that everyone is there for the same reason: to connect with the earth and grow some food. We try to keep the politics to a minimum.”
Mayberry has been a volunteer gardener at SACG, on and off, since the late ’90s and always looks forward to the monthly potluck meetings and yearly garden birthday parties—celebrations of food, seasonal bounty and fellow gardeners. “Since we have several chefs and a lot of good cooks in the group, those meals are always great,” he says. Mayberry is especially happy when he has the opportunity to contribute to a communal meal with something made over an open fire. “I really love the feeling of connecting to our basic human nature and the earth around us that cooking on the ground with fire brings.”
Cooking, especially cooking outdoors, has been a fascination for Mayberry since early childhood. “My mom would get us kids—there were six of us—to help with shucking corn, plucking chickens, stringing beans—that kind of thing,” he says. “And she’d let us cook pancakes on an electric griddle. That was big fun for us. We used to spend a month every summer camping out. I remember my dad cooking cowboy coffee in the pot over the fire and my mom frying bacon, onions and potatoes for our breakfast beside the Guadalupe River. We would find morels and wild onions, and the flavor of those things fried up over a campfire . . . unbeatable! Then there was the hiking trip over the continental divide in Colorado . . . wild strawberries over campfire biscuits with milk, after we ate the fresh trout my brother-in-law caught . . .” he says, wistfully.
Cooked indoors or out, food’s power to bring people together is what enchants Mayberry the most. Aside from his obligations as a chef and time spent at SACG, he’s also cooked for a Methodist men’s group for the past 15 years. Each year he looks forward to the group’s trip to Big Bend for a three-day weekend and communal feasting. “I love to feed people and see them smile,” he says. “I grew up Methodist and seem to fit in pretty well, even though I’m not a churchgoer. We all feel like we’re in church when we get out there in the Big Bend country.”
Robert Mayberry's Communal Pecan Pear Clafouti
4 firm-ripe Texas pears, peeled, cored and sliced
2 T. fresh lemon juice
1 t. grated fresh ginger
½ c. all-purpose flour
¾ c. ground Texas pecans, divided
½ c. plus 2 T. sugar, divided
¼ t. baking soda
Pinch of salt
4 large eggs, beaten lightly
¾ c. milk
½ t. vanilla extract
¼ t. almond extract
8 T. unsalted butter, melted and divided
½ t. cinnamon
Place the pears in a bowl, coat with the lemon juice and add the ginger. In a large bowl, combine the flour, ½ cup of the pecans and ½ cup of the sugar with the baking soda and salt. In a separate bowl, combine the eggs, milk, vanilla extract, almond extract and four tablespoons of the butter. Mix until smooth.
Preheat the oven to 425°, and place a rack in the center of the oven. In a large, lidded, ovenproof pot or Dutch oven, sauté the marinated pear pieces in two tablespoons of the butter on the stove top over medium-high heat, stirring occasionally, until they are hot throughout and sizzling. Stir the milk mixture into the flour mixture and blend until the batter is just combined—don’t overmix. Pour the batter over the pears in the Dutch oven, making sure to cover all of the pear pieces, but DO NOT STIR. Drizzle the remaining butter over the clafouti. Combine the remaining sugar and pecans with the cinnamon, and sprinkle the mixture over the top. Place the lid on the pot and put into the oven. Bake for about 30 minutes, until the clafouti is puffed and bubbly and the top is golden brown.
Outdoor Cooking Method
In an inground fire pit, light about 30 charcoal briquettes, and place a well seasoned Dutch oven over the coals to heat. Once the Dutch oven is heated, sauté the marinated pear pieces in two tablespoons of the butter, stirring occasionally, until they are hot throughout and sizzling. Stir the milk mixture into the flour mixture (see above recipe) and blend until the batter is just combined—don’t overmix. Pour the batter over the pears in the Dutch oven, making sure to cover all of the pear pieces, but DO NOT STIR. Drizzle of the remaining butter over the clafouti. Combine the remaining sugar and pecans with the cinnamon, and sprinkle the mixture over the top. Place the lid on the pot. Set up your baking station on a flat piece of ground by placing 12 to 14 of the hot charcoal briquettes, evenly spaced, in a circle the size of the Dutch oven. Place the Dutch oven on the coals and place 12 of the hot briquettes on top. Bake for about 30 minutes, until the clafouti is puffed and bubbly and the top is golden brown.