I hunt for the same reasons I cook: I love to eat and I’ve realized that no one else was going to give me what I want (or anything at all). Doves are difficult to find at the local supermarket; so I have to go get them myself. While I love biting into doves stuffed with jalapeños, wrapped in bacon, and glazed with honey, it would be a lie to say that I only hunt for food. Waking up before dawn, walking out in a field, and sitting there as the sun silently rises calms me like few other things. It connects me to time spent with my father as a child. Even if I hunt alone, I feel closer to him. This is especially true when I wing a bird and have to finish it off by hand. I wish he were there to do the dirty work.
As far as killing goes, I’m not a big fan but strongly believe that if you eat meat, you should know all that is involved int he process. It’s oddly refreshing to get your meat by cleaning an animal and not by simply ripping cellophane from a cutlet or ground beef formed from hundreds of cows.
It’s been a while since I last hunted but was recently given the opportunity, and I haven’t been this excited in a long time. I get fresh, healthy meat, relaxing time outdoors, a male ego boost, and childhood nostalgia all at once. And I get to shoot a gun. All of these things have reopened something inside of me: another connection to my culture.
My relatives are good country folk from Louisiana who mostly eat simple dishes, many of which are prepared from game they have killed themselves. My best Thanksgiving memory was with family in Mansfield where we ate dishes like duck and andouille gumbo, greens, pound cake, and ambrosia. Most of my daily meals as a child involved rice, beans, and cornbread. When I look back at my most beloved meals it would easily be my grandfather frying up crappie, perch, and catfish along with hushpuppies or hot water cornbread, and French fries. This was all preceded by driving out on my grandfather’s boat on the Sabine River and pulling up trot lines or me standing on the dock calling up to my father every five minutes because I was too timid to take yet another perch off the hook. These memories stir something inside me: It’s telling me that in the end, no matter where I travel or what I do in life, something will be pulling me back to my roots and back to that river.
My mother once told me that I should find a girl with the same background as me because I will be the happiest that way. That sort of predestination goes against every bone in my body. I’ve fought and rebelled from it for years–and in some ways, still am. That stirring in me tells me that I will end up living in a trailer on the banks of the Sabine with a cookhouse (this time it will be James’ instead of Frank’s) and running trot lines and nets (legal and illegal) like my grandfather. Either that, or I will create my own version of that somewhere else, but the themes will be the same.
As I step out onto the field this dove season and listen to the rustling maize and millet, I imagine that the call of my past will strengthen. And for once, I won’t fight it as much because I can’t think of many things better in life than following in my father’s and grandfather’s footsteps.
* Photo by Bob MacInnes
September 16, 2009 1 Comment
What is a food-obsessed man to do these days? Each food-related book, article, and documentary I encounter inspires and enrages me. I want to take up arms and join the cause. But what is the cause, and what are my weapons? The more I learn, the more I question. For a while, I thought eating local was the solution. But that seemed too simplistic. Now I’m about to read James E. McWilliams’ Just Food: Where Locavores Get It Wrong and How We Can Truly Eat Responsibly and once again be confused by expanding horizons and knowledge.
One thing I know is that I want to help people eat better nutritionally, economically, and have tastier food. But how? Do I go the super grass-roots route and live a life of moral integrity in poverty? Do I “sell out” and go for a more moderate “solution” and help someone more accessible like Whole Foods? Do I work within the system and work for the state or such? Do I try to change things for others or just for myself? Do I go off the map and work on farms and live in isolation for a while? All of these questions are bouncing around in my head, and usually the more I think about something, the more I understand it, but this problem–at least at this stage–is only made more complex.
And like all change, there will be some sacrifices that I’m still coming to terms with. Starting a new career will most likely mean a decrease in pay. Mabye no benefits or insurance. But I like suits and eating at restaurants, which, by the way is one of my favorite things in life. (If you somehow know of a way for me to simply eat at restaurants and get paid, that would be my life’s calling.) But a new direction I can feel good about would have value–maybe more than the possible lost wages.
But since I don’t know what I want to do yet, I am reluctant to make the jump. Hopefully, there is a tipping point where I start figuring things out more and being confused less, or at least just act in some way.
Another problem has been that I haven’t been able to find a focus for Jameseats. Rants? Reviews? Industry discussion? Championing healthy and responsible eating? The quest for a singular focus has led me to have no content and posting anxiety. So I’m taking you along with me in all my moods and ideas. It’ll be interesting for me and I can only hope that it will not bore you to death.
September 8, 2009 2 Comments
Last week I finally learned why I get a sour face every time I ask an Indian person what restaurant in town serves good Indian food: There aren’t any, at least not compared to home-cooked food. It seems that there aren’t any places in town that go the extra mile with concern to the integrity of the dishes. That, or they are probably pandering to white people who don’t like “spicy food.” Regardless of the reason, it seems that there aren’t many–if any–good Indian eateries in town. You just have to make it yourself. Since I have had a hard time finding an Indian cookbook that wasn’t watered down, I had to get professional help: I learned how to cook several dishes the correct way from a private cooking class with Chaya Rao at her Austin home recently.
She teaches classes at Whole Foods and Central Market, as well as private cooking lessons. This class was held in her kitchen with ten people seated around her kitchen island as she prepared a cilantro & mint chutney, date and tamarind chutney, batata vada (fried potato balls), a carrot salad, saag paneer, dhal soup, and rabdi (a milk based dessert) served with mangos.
The night started out with the batata vada that were so fluffy and crisp that I don’t know if I can ever eat another samosa because it will just make me crave a batata vada. Then she prepared a delicious cardamom mojito. At this point I knew that I was going to continue begging for seconds and leave miserably full, which was fine by me since everything easily fell into the category of best Indian food I’ve ever had. This trend continued with the dhal soup she prepared. It was comforting and light tasting at the same time. I was lucky that it ran out quickly because it was sticking to my ribs.
She went on to cook the Saag Paneer and carrot salad while answering every question we threw at her. Chaya’s teaching ease comes from years spent training others in the tech industry. These skills carried over into her new occupation of cooking instruction. The fact that she was at ease translated well to the participants and we readily felt at home.
What set her dishes apart from anything else I’ve had in Austin was a sense of freshness in every element. The saag paneer was so green that it glowed and didn’t darken after it had been sitting in the pot for a while. The cilantro served with the dhal soup retained its punch and wasn’t smothered by the soup. The other distinguishing characteristic was the spice level of the food. Nothing is spicy enough for me, but her dishes made my nose run and my water become scarce. It was just what I had been craving, but to say that fresh spinach and serrano peppers made the dishes what they were is too reductive and ignores the skills and care that went into everything. They were just simple, authentic recipes that you would find on the table of any Indian Family in town.
If you’re dissatisfied with Indian food or any other food in town, just learn to make it yourself. If you need a little help with Indian cuisine, look Chaya Rao up at www.vegicurean.com
July 14, 2009 3 Comments
I’ve been in a huge dumpling debate recently concerning chicken and dumplings. I’m accustomed to dumplings that resemble biscuits dropped in soup. They’re delicious. Some people put cornmeal in them, but I’m still figuring out what I think of those. Then there are the flat dumplings that are more like pie crust in soup. For some reason, I treat them like foreign invaders from the north, even though they might be super southern. To me, it’s like eating uncooked dough strips. Give me fluffy and biscuit-like or give me death.
Anyways, I’m curious about each type and where they came from/who likes them. Tell me what you’re used to and where you hail from.
May 28, 2009 4 Comments
My recent absence has been because I’m on holiday in Vail, Colorado doing a whole lot of nothing and enjoying every second of it, especially the eating part.
While on vacation, I believe that food is definitely part of the experience and typically return having visibly gained weight. This also has a tendency to double or triple my bill for the trip so this time, I’m staying in a relative’s condo and have decided to cook most of my meals simply because I’m broke. But that hasn’t quieted my urge to eat out at every moment. There is a constant tug-of-war in my head on wanting to cook simple, good, and frugal food at home, and diving into debt by eating foie gras with everything.
Things have been going well this trip (so far); I’ve made chili, grilled some steaks and hamburgers, and made more hash browns than you can imagine. With Vail prices, that means that I’ve saved somewhere around $200—maybe $400.
The thing that can make me question the value of it all is something like the creamy stew of rabbit confit and dumplings I had today for lunch with a glass of wine. Each element was in prefect balance. It was also as if bread and butter were made to sop up the remains of the dish. That’s what a vacation is about, at least I think it is.
My parents just happen to be vacationing here at the same time, so my girlfriend and I had them over last night for hamburgers, brussel sprouts, and sweet potatoes. We popped open a handful of local Colorado microbrews and cooked together. It was the most relaxing thing I’ve done in a long time. That’s also what vacation is all about.
Not wanting to choose between either of these, I’ll settle for saying that, for me, the tug-of-war between home-cooked meals and dining out is fine by me since I seem to be the winner.
May 27, 2009 2 Comments
Change is afoot in the food world, and Austin is no exception. The deeper I get into the local food scene, the more I realize that something extraordinary is happening. People are waking up to what they put in their mouths and asking questions about how their food is grown and where it is from. Whether the food in question is locally and responsibly produced is on the minds of more and more people every day. This is no doubt a result of grass roots organizations, journalists like Michael Pollan, and simple human curiosity. The answers people are getting directly affect our healthy and community so much that people, like myself, are feeling the need to act. It’s hard to idly stand by when you realize that you are personally affected. For me, each event I attend and every person I meet who has something to say about responsible food and the current food industry, motivates me more and more.
Last Thursday, I attended the ethics of food speaker series at Monkey Wrench Books on North Loop. The talk was on building local food systems and featured Andrew Smiley of the Sustainable Food Center, two representatives from Urban Roots, and Skip Connet of Green Gate Farms, with Marla Camp of Edible Austin moderating.
Andrew Smiley explained what the SFC does and why there is a need. His talk was by far the longest simply because they do so much in Austin: run two farmer’s markets, support community gardens, and teach healthy cooking practices.
The Urban Roots program impressed me. They hire youths between the ages of 14 and 17 to work on an acre and a quarter of farm land. This teaches responsibility, leadership, hard work, and gets them involved in their own food production. They donate 40% of their crop to feed the homeless and then sell the rest at farmers markets and farm stands around town. One of the organizers of the program spoke about what they do and a junior in high school related her experience of going from having never been on a farm and to becoming a second-year team leader and teaching others how to work the farm. At one point she said she “had planned on being a doctor or a nurse but now doesn’t think she can ever work indoors” and will most likely go into Americorps to continue her work.
Skip Connet was the most entertaining with lessons learned from feeding piglets, herding 150 third graders, and why not to raise goats. He spoke of why he started farming and how he did it debt free by leasing his land and providing a community supported agriculture program (CSA) in order to provide financial security. Water issues for the urban farmer were also discussed. Water cost is a constant concern for him since he isn’t able to get agricultural pricing on the city’s water. Even though most of the water he uses goes into the ground, not sewer, he has to pay sewage on each gallon. After his talk, I will soon be visiting his farm and getting involved in the city’s water policy.
Tomorrow, Thursday May 7th, the final installment of the series will be held at the Center for Community Engagement (1009 E. 11th Street) at 7 p.m. The evening’s topic is environment, health, and food safety: exploring the impacts of the conventional food system. Charlotte Herzele of the School of Human Ecology at The University of Texas and Curt Ellis, filmmaker of King Corn will speak. It should be an informative evening. If you have any interest in your food and environment, I encourage you to attend.
May 6, 2009 2 Comments
The invitation started, “Put on your seersuckers, sun dresses and fancy hats for the 135th running of the Kentucky Derby.”
Sold. Any place I can wear my seersucker suit is a place I should be. Having never been to a Kentucky derby party, I was curious. Men looking dapper; women ornamented with ridiculous hats. Little did I know that I would meet a bourbon heiress and get tipsy a little too quickly on rather strong mint juleps.
The party was hosted by Rainlily farm and included the likes of Tom and Dave from Tipsy Texan, Bill Norris of FINO, and Mindy Kucan of the Hilton. Bulleit Bourbon sponsored the event and Hollis Bulleit flew in. Meeting Hollis was one of the highlights of the day. Her name was Hollis, for starters, and she was a sixth-generation distiller. Needless to say, the drinks were lovely (and strong) and the food perfectly complimented the event. Paul Michie of the Alamo Drafthouse and RJ Spade of Blue Star Cafeteria prepared Hot Browns and Benedictines. The hot browns featured fried chicken–at least I think it was chicken instead of turkey-instead of the traditional dish with non-fried turkey. Frying was obviously the right decision.
Besides running into many of may favorite people, walking around the small farm was enjoyable. It’s on Shady Lane in East Austin, is about five acres, and supplies veggies and such to local restaurants. I’m always amazed by how much food people can produce from a small parcel of land.
After recovering from my three and a half mint juleps I drove home and showered immediately. Wearing a suit in humidity carries a price. All in all, it was a lovely way to spend a Saturday afternoon in Austin.
May 3, 2009 4 Comments
“Come on, there will be lots of wine and food. You like that sort of thing,” I said easily persuading a friend to accompany me to the Texas Hill Country Wine and Food Festival. This was my first time to attend. For years, I’d looked at the schedule and thought that I should be there. I mustered up the energy (I had a cold in full effect) this year and attended with wine glass in hand. (It also helped that I received two free passes.) In doing this I broke my rule of not drinking while ill–a rule whose reasoning I was soon reminded of. But it was all worth it: the endless bottles of wine and delicious food all set against the Hill Country foothills of Driftwood, Texas.
It having stormed for the first half of the weekend, you would have expected it to be muddier, but the organizers had laid down an effective layer of hay and woodchips. There went one of my worries. The other was five hours in the sun drinking wine. Giant tents that evoked Cirque Du Soliel’s big top or the Denver airport sheltered most participants from the rays.
Wine is great, but food is where my true interests rest. I walked into the first food tent I saw and started munching away. Mandola’s was dishing out a delicately soft and loving ravioli alongside a hearty Italian sausage sandwich. The Salt Lick offered their trustworthy brisket and sausage, and I couldn’t help going back for seconds and thirds at the Pure Luck’s goat cheese stand.
I had heard that the food usually ran out around 2 p.m., so I continued in on the food, also sampling dishes from Spec’s, Sullivan’s, Café Josie, Maudie’s, and right about there, it all becomes a blur. It may have been due to my realization and that my mouth was dry and my subsequent solution. I was surrounded by wine as far as the eye could see.
There was a good mixture of large and small names in wine, distant and local, with an emphasis on local. I started out taking pitcures of wines that I liked, but soon realized the futility of it all. Not having any expectations, I wandered between tents, making sure to at least inspect each booth. (I passed up the Ste. Genevieve booth.)
I was hoping to see familiar faces but didn’t run into as many people as I thought I would. It’s not surprising because the place was packed. At $45 a head, they must have pulled in a lot of money. Was it worth $45? If it weren’t a fundraiser, I would say no, but the Texas Wine and Food Foundation does good things like give scholarships to young culinary hopefuls. They’re looking out for the future of your taste buds, which are worth more than $45.
At some point I checked out the cooking demonstrations but have never found them that interesting, and I had missed the interview by Pat Sharpe. And they wouldn’t be giving food samples to you unless you had a coveted seat, which I did not. It was time to find something else.
At that point I realized that I had done everything once. It was time for seconds, which might not have been the best decision of the day. (Remembre that I was sick.)
Around 3 p.m. I started to get tired and already had a headache. Unfortunately this wasn’t the result of me stumbling around in a jovial haze. I just drank wine, felt nice, then was hit with a massive headache. Right about then I saw a man passed out near the live music tent. He summed up my state at that moment. It was time to start the two hour sobering up process and drink as much water and coconut water as comfortable. I departed at 4p.m. because the wine had stopped and I wanted to beat the rush.
The drive back was pleasant and somehow took less time than I remembered. I must have been daydreaming about the day that had just happened. I’ll most likely return next year, even if I have to pay. Sampling wine and food in the Texas spring sun isn’t a bad way to spend a day.
April 21, 2009 1 Comment
Each season, I seem to select a food theme. Living in Austin means only two distinct seasons exist and that I have to make the most of each theme. Themes pop up in many area of my life. For instance, I’ve decided to spend the summer drinking pastis and playing pétanque. Whether or not I chose the themes or they chose me is up for debate.
For instance, in my CSA box today, I found a bunch of turnip greens. In my search for a great pairing, I zeroed in on some lima beans: a meal that I used to eat as a child. All that was missing was some cornbread.
My family grew up in Northern Louisiana and we had rice and beans four nights out of seven. Some sort of greens usually accompanied each dish and bacon was usually started the cooking process. The food was simple and hearty. Focusing on my childhood cuisine seems pertinent. I’m trying to eat simpler, healthier foods that don’t break the bank. Rice, beans, and greens fit that description pretty well.
Simpler and healthier has been my focus lately. I don’t know if it’s maturity or the fact that I’m getting older, wiser, and chili dogs with 4 beers hurts like hell these days. Something tells me it’s the latter. I’ve also become aware of my physical state and want to look and feel my best. This has resulted in me eating less processed foods to the point where they are now unpalatable. I look for foods with the least number of ingredients and now go through the trouble to make beef stroganoff from scratch instead of from a packet because it tastes better and I know exactly what goes into it. As revolution happens inside of me, I notice similar changes happening all around me. Natural grocers are becoming more and more prevalent. There are more cyclists on the road each year. I hope this trend continues and reaches beyond cities like Austin into small towns and stores like Safeway and Kroger.
Regardless of what happens in the world, I’m returning to my roots of Louisiana cuisine and am excited. Cornbread, beans, rice, gumbo, étouffée, and more gumbo. I can’t go wrong.
April 18, 2009 2 Comments
Don’t you hate when perfectly good food rots in your fridge? In my kitchen, this happens all of the time. No matter how hard I try to eat everything, veggies get slimy, fruits get fuzzy, and cottage cheese morphs into another type of cheese, which is why I’m elated each time I figure out a way to simultaneously rid myself of more than one item.
Having a CSA box arrive every two weeks creates a lot of these situations. In addition to the foods that satisfy my capricious cravings, there’s always a box of delicate perishables speeding towards death. In order to save my veggies from the compost, I am forced to get creative, and sometimes it takes a lot of creativity to reach the obvious solution: BBQ and greens.
You might be asking yourself if there’s anything with which BBQ doesn’t go. There isn’t. And I proclaim myself a genius every time I add it to a dish, but I’m simply following that natural order of things: BBQ is awesome. Add it to something and you get awesome. I now realize that I’m not a culinary genius, but rather, a simpleton who took too long to reach the obvious conclusion.
April 6, 2009 3 Comments