History

Food Evolution

“The only time to eat diet food is while you’re waiting for the steak to cook.”
— Julia Childs

I am a longtime subscriber and occasional contributor to The Stockman Grass Farmer, a publication centered on the grazier’s life and more particularly the restoration and the proper use of our soils and grasslands. SGF’s editor, Allan Nation, writes a monthly column and has focused in recent months on the food culture of the various regions in the U.S. The many variations in how we cook and eat have been influenced by 3 basic facts: climate, geography, and ethnicity. However, ethnicity was in many ways tied to only one ethnic group in the South/Southwest, the native American “Indian”, from whom we inherited our knowledge of corn and its many by-products: cornbread, grits, hominy, roasted corn on the cob and, later, tortillas. Cornbread was a staple in the South because its climate was too warm and moist to grow wheat for flour. To the extent that Southerners knew bread, its wheat was an import from the North. Thomas Jefferson was a robust miller of wheat but didn’t grow it, though trying many times.

Now you know why catfish is always fried in cornmeal, not flour

Memories

This story from my younger days is so popular that I replay it annually.

When talking about the value of the family table, I am reminded of a day long ago, A Saturday morning in my father’s downtown café, a place where I proudly drew my first real paycheck, small though it was. America was in the middle of the Viet Nam war, and soldiers were being taken in and brought back out of the war through a nearby hotel. Dad offered them all half-price dining regardless of the direction they were going.

A soldier entered in uniform, headed home to his family. I took his order.

“Twelve eggs, over easy, and a large milk.”
Did you say two eggs over easy?
“No. Twelve eggs, over easy, please.”
Twelve eggs?
“Yes, please.”
And a large milk?
“Yes, please.”
Toast?
“No thank you. Just eggs and milk.”

A waitress stopped me on my way to the kitchen. “Did he say twelve eggs?” That’s what he said. And milk, no toast. A quiet titter had started among the tables nearby. “Twelve eggs? I think he ordered twelve eggs.”

I brought the soldier his first ½ dozen on a warm plate, telling him his next six would come as he finished those. And a large milk. He thanked me.

I expected him to dig in immediately. A man who wanted twelve eggs had to be hungry.  Instead he admired the eggs for a moment, added salt and pepper, then began eating. Slowly. Reverently. Deliciously.

By then, everyone in the café was watching the soldier who ordered twelve eggs. I brought his second platter and he ate them in the same deliberate, admiring way.

When he had cleaned his plate and taken his last drink of milk, Dad delivered his check - Welcome home, no charge. When he stood up to say thanks, the entire café, customer and staff alike, rose to a standing ovation. “Welcome home.” “Thank you for your service.” “Speech.”

So absorbed in his celebration of eggs and milk, he was surprised to learn that he had been the center of the cafe’s attention. He began slowly:

“I was proud to serve my country in Viet Nam. I am not critical of the war or the way I was treated. But I am a farm boy and fresh eggs and milk were a daily routine where I grew up. I didn’t realize how much I loved them until my year overseas. We had only powdered eggs and milk for breakfast. Toward the end of my tour, I found myself thinking only of fresh eggs and milk. Today was that day. It was good. Thank you for your kindnesses. I am going home now.”

I don’t think there was a dry eye in the house as he disappeared into the waiting Greyhound bus. Good food. It makes misty-eyed memories.

It’s good for us all.

Growing Up In Food

I was born in Lake Charles, took first grade in Lafayette and second grade in Houston where I have lived ever since. Both parents were born and raised in south Louisiana and each were from families of 5 children. Lots of cousins from those aunts and uncles and I was one of ten myself. My branch of the Boudreaux/Frank and Carver/Fournet families was the only one that migrated to Texas. Everybody else stayed put and that is where they and their descendants remain, except they now spread from Lake Charles to New Orleans and all spots in between.

South Louisiana is a food culture like I have not known anywhere in the United States.  There are many reasons for that.

Louisiana was settled by poor immigrants who were accustomed to hunger and plain, repetitive and not-enough food who found themselves plopped down in the rich farmland of the Mississippi Delta and the Gulf Coast. They could and did grow everything. In the middle of the delta farms sat the Atchafalaya Basin, the largest and most productive marine estuary in the United States.  Along the southern edge sat the Gulf of Mexico and all of its bays and briny lakes. Because of its verdant waters and soil, anything that walked on 4 legs, flew in the sky or swam in the water were found in Louisiana. The wildlife knew, as the immigrants learned, that Louisiana was where the food was.

Then you added the jambalaya of nationalities. Louisiana folk are commonly referred to as Cajuns by outsiders, but I learned at an early age that a Cajun was a descendant of French Acadiens that migrated from Nova Scotia. Creoles were a mix of nations, and that was us. To the extent we were French, we were “King Louis French”, and we were never to forget it!

What was the result of all of these factors coming together in one small area? A bunch of hungry people suddenly found themselves in the middle of a food paradise. They raised it but more often caught it or hunted it and ate it. They couldn’t believe their good fortune, and every meal became a celebration of their new-found good life. The astounding joy that good food brought to families and friends never left them - it is alive and flourishing today.

So now you know what inspired Honi and I to put good food from rich living soil at your front door once a month. It’s a celebration of life and all that it can be.

The Irish Angus

Clay and I returned to Jolie Vue’s beef roots recently, the Woodstone Ranch, looking for a replacement bull. The owner, Bill Woods is a retired orthopedic surgeon and founder of the Texas Orthopedic Hospital but was raised on his Dad’s ranch — ranching is in his blood as they say. Bill is the Texas visionary who brought original Angus genetics back to Texas, to his Woodstone Ranch, New Ulm, Texas.

Why are these original genetics Angus cattle referred to as Irish Angus when the Angus heard came out of Scotland? It’s an interesting story.

Bill is a bit older than me, so old enough to remember when the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo began in the Sam Houston Coliseum in downtown Houston. I had the same memory, and we both recalled the short stocky Angus steers, so husky that their bellies almost drug the ground, who seemed to win the blue ribbon each year that original stock Herefords didn’t. Since then, the misplaced hysteria over fat (which by the way was all wrong from a health and nutrition standpoint, but don’t get me started on that tirade) caused the Angus to be bred to a longer, taller, leaner breed, now known more properly as American Angus. Bill, like me, wanted to bring original Angus genetics back into the U.S. So he and his wife, Yvonne, flew to Aberdeen, Scotland and showed up at the Angus registry office where the breed was first declared a separate breed, assuming he would find his desired genetics there. Instead, he was told that the Scots, as well as all Europeans, had followed the American model and bred the short, stocky Angus out of their herds.

What am I to do? he asked. He was told to go to Ireland for original Angus genetics. Ireland? The Irish are farmers, not ranchers! True enough, but as a result, the Irish never followed the U.S. or European lead, keeping their small, stocky, and well-mannered Angus cattle, a few head at most per farm, for milk and their annual beef calf for the family kitchen. So Bill and Yvonne hopped over to Ireland, rented a convertible, and spent the next 6 weeks driving all over Ireland, watching for short, stocky, black cattle. When they spotted same, they pulled in and asked the Irish farmer if he would sell any or all of his small herd. If yes, they then checked out the cow’s history and when they verified that it was original stock Angus, they paid whatever price the farmer asked (Yvonne says she never saw so many happy Irishmen, accepting their British Pound at well above beef market rates.) In six weeks time, the Woods had purchased some 30 mother cows and three bulls. All of their cattle’s genetic history was traceable back to 2 pair of dams and sires on the first page of the Aberdeen Angus registry — the real thing.

And that’s the story behind the story of the Irish Angus residents of Jolie Vue Farms.