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"Texas food history is really all this fantasy stuff," Walsh says.
Walsh had, in fact, tried to put together some kind of group, specific to Texas, a few years back, but there wasn't much interest at the time, and there wasn't a university that would grant Walsh the vaunted "academic affiliation" needed to jump-start such an organization. Walsh tabled the idea then and watched, almost painfully, as some of Texas's food history was gathered outside the state. One breaking point, though, came when the Southern Foodways Alliance started moving old barbecue equipment out of Elgin, Texas, a famous city in Texas barbecue lore, for a museum in Atlanta.
About the same time, Jim Gossen, the CEO of Houston's Louisiana Foods, joined Southern Foodways and started funding an oral history of Gulf Coast shrimpers and oyster fishermen. Gossen, Walsh says, was disappointed that similar work wasn't being done in Texas, and urged Walsh to try again to start up a group.
Then came Bryan Caswell. Caswell, the Houston chef who owns, among other restaurants, Reef and Little Bigs, joined Southern Foodways not long after the start of 2010, about the same time his celebrity as a chef was about to take off. In just a short time, his restaurants had become a huge hit, and his work at Reef had earned Caswell in 2009 one of the biggest awards in the food industry: Best New Chef from Food & Wine magazine. (Caswell, of course, wasn't "new" at all; before opening Reef, he had worked at some of the most well known restaurants in New York, Hong Kong and the Bahamas.)
Caswell, though, speaks often of his Houston and Texas roots.
"I love to travel, but at the end of the day, I've never seen it better anywhere else," Caswell tells the Press.
Caswell, like Gossen, pushed Walsh to crank up something outside of Southern Foodways and in Texas.
"We really got the bug to do this here," Walsh says.
One weekend in July of last year, Walsh invited 50 people, including Shepherd, Caswell and another Houston superchef, Randy Evans, for a brainstorming session, more or less, at Texas A&M University. (A&M was selected, Walsh says, because the school "owed him a favor" for some of the work he'd done at different events and as a guest lecturer.)
Hanna Raskin, a writer for the Press's sister paper the Dallas Observer, was at the meeting at A&M and wrote: "...since we were in Aggieland, [we took] a crash course in cow anatomy and [drank] flaming Dr Pepper shots with the undergrads at the Dry Bean Saloon."
"By the end of the meeting, we had forged an organization," Walsh says. "But it was really one of those deals where you step off the cliff and learn to fly."
But since its formation, the group has taken off. In just a few months, Foodways Texas produced a couple of documentaries (the sorghum film and one called 50 Years of Pie), created a board of directors, raised a budget for this year "in the six figures," Walsh says, and grew a membership base that now is close to 100 people. Walsh also landed an academic affiliation with the University of Texas's American Studies department, which donated some offices for the group in Austin. A doctorate student at the university, Marvin Bendele, agreed to serve, for free, as the executive director of Foodways Texas.
The group has three main goals in the next year or two, Bendele says. "We want to build up the archives, the oral history and films. The second thing would be to build membership outside the big cities, to have smaller events in other areas around the state." He mentioned El Paso, North Texas and in the Rio Grande Valley. The third thing, he says, is to get more community members involved in the organization's efforts.
"I'm absolutely amazed at how fast it's grown. It's shocked the hell out of me," Walsh says. "But [Texas has] more stories and more eccentric people than any other state, and we're tapping into that."
It probably also helped the group's success that not long after Foodways cranked up, Caswell appeared on the popular Food Network television show Next Iron Chef. He was eventually voted off the show, but it helped expand his celebrity as a chef, getting his name out to a larger audience. And while the show was airing during the fall, Caswell was promoting Foodways Texas.
"I have a sense of duty to make my work where I'm from. It's been important to me my whole life," Caswell says. "I'm in my late 30s, and some of the traditions I know are already starting to disappear. It's important to all of us to spotlight some of these old ways. So I think we're just scratching the surface of our potential."
Foodways Texas already has a few big events scheduled for this year. At the end of February, it's hosting a "Gulf Coast Gathering" in Galveston to highlight some of the forgotten heritage of the area's oysters and fish. There's also a barbecue "summer camp" scheduled for June at Texas A&M.
I'm thrilled for Nameless Sound to be recognized with your Mastermind award. Nameless Sound is an organization truly unique to Houston (and an organization who's development is directly connected to its city's culture). I'm very proud of the efforts/participation/contribution of everyone in our community (students, musicians, audience, staff, board, members, supporters, etc). I never expected this honor. I'm very happy to receive it.
There are a few inaccuracies in the story that I would like to clear up.
Sprawl (the band that I was in from '88 to '94) was not anything close to a "noise" or improvised music band. Houston at that time had a pretty healthy "noise" scene. (I use "noise" for the lack of a better term. Houston's experimental sounds have always resisted easy categorization, reflecting a certain quality about much of our city's culture.) I would say that I was trying for something that was musically a bit different (something that I was only hearing locally from my few collaborators). Our early efforts at improvisation did exist in the context of pretty wide-ranging experimental music activity in Houston that did have a history. (Maybe it was too wide ranging to ever be called a scene.)
These details about sub genres may not mean a whole lot to most of your readers, but the clarity is important to me. I would hope that my friends and colleagues in the "noise" scene don't think that I would purposefully misrepresent that history and context in my interview
A couple of other things to clear up might be less significant. I probably wouldn't bring them up, but since I'm at it......- I don't have a former student in band called Yucatan. Juan Garcia lives in the Mexican state of Yucatan. He plays in the Yucatan Symphony and teaches creative music to impoverished children in small villages. - I'm not originally from San Diego, but Orange County (It had a MUCH more serious punk rock scene!).
Thanks so much for the attention and recognition. Itβs greatly appreciated.David DoveFounding Director - Nameless Sound
Thank you Houston Press!! We're very excited to be a 2011 Mastermind and look forward to putting that grant to good use. I did want to mention our affiliation with the University of Texas. Thanks to the tireless efforts of Toni Tipton Martin and Elizabeth Engelhardt, we are honored to be an affiliated institute of the Division of Diversity and Community Engagement, housed in the Community Engagement Center at the University of Texas, Austin. Please see our website for more details -- www.foodwaystexas.com. Foodways Texas is a statewide organization with over 100 members (and growing) that seek to preserve, promote, and celebrate the diverse food cultures of Texas. Thanks again to the Houston Press for this wonderful honor. I look forward to Artopia this Saturday.
Marvin BendeleExecutive DirectorFoodways Texas
Jeff's photo (Foodways Texas) should reference Chris Shepherd, not Chris Henderson, although I'm sure Henderson is a likable guy as well.