Barbecue, Onions and Red Soda: Dispatches from the 2013 Foodways Texas Symposium

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When I first heard about the theme of the 2013 Foodways Texas symposium, I was wary: two-and-a-half days of barbecue panels, meals and talks. Two-and-a-half days? Not that there isn't fertile ground to plow for topics, but the sheer amount of time devoted to discussions of smoked meat seemed excessive.

I like barbecue a whole lot, but I don't have quite the same passion for it that my predecessor, Robb Walsh -- former Houston Press food critic, current food editor of Houstonia and founding member of Foodways Texas -- does. Walsh has written entire books on the topic of barbecue. I've never even once taken a barbecue road trip. There was an entire panel at the symposium devoted to barbecue road trips. What was I getting myself into by attending?

I quickly found out that the symposium was less about meat-wankery and much more about what Foodways Texas itself is devoted to: preserving and sharing our state's food heritage. I didn't just learn about smoked meat. I learned about the history of Central Texas abattoirs and the reason Juneteenth celebrations always feature red soda. I learned how the 1015 onion was developed by Texas A&M and where the word "barbecue" itself came from.

Other indispensable knowledge I picked up during the journey:

According to pitmaster Aaron Franklin, the best day to go to Franklin Barbecue in Austin if you want to avoid the famous lines that can run 700 people deep is Wednesday. "That's the slow day," Franklin told the crowd inside Saengerrunde Hall in downtown Austin. Along with Brooklyn barbecue guru Daniel Delaney, Franklin spoke on a panel called "The New Business of Barbecue" focused on a younger generation of pitmasters.

When asked what vegetarian items they stocked at their barbecue joints, Delaney answered that all of the sides at BrisketTown in Williamsburg were vegetarian. And gluten-free, because, Delaney joked, "everyone in New York is a celiac, just within the last two weeks."

"We have pie?" answered Franklin with a lilting note and a shrug at the end of his response. But even though the panels were meat-heavy, vegetarians were no doubt satisfied by gardener Renee Studebaker's discussion of 1015 onions -- followed by a raw onion tasting.

Studebaker's stories of eating tomatoes and raw white onions with every meal growing up in Arkansas called to mind comforting memories of those same vegetables enjoyed at my grandparents' dinner table. Those 1015 onions were a favorite, and we have Texas A&M's $1 million research to thank for our sweet, springtime onions. Although $1 million seems like an exorbitant amount to spend on onion R&D, it paid off: The onion is now the best-selling vegetable in the state.

Over lunch, I discussed meals of not just tomatoes and onions with Studebaker, but also of field peas and cantaloupe and snap peas and cornbread -- and we were joined in our produce reverie by Toni Tipton-Martin, one of my favorite food journalists and author of the upcoming cookbook, The Jemima Code.

Martin had been asked by Foodways Texas executive director Marvin Bendele to give a talk on her area of expertise -- the culinary contributions of black women in America -- and admitted at the beginning of the panel that there wasn't too much to say on the topic as it related to barbecue. And yet she wowed the audience with an in-depth look at the food traditions and histories of Juneteenth celebrations, the first of which took place in Galveston in 1865.

Instead of listening to tips and tricks on smoking brisket, I came away from the Foodways Texas symposium richer with knowledge and camaraderie. I enjoyed meals with old and new friends, exposure to all the different forms of barbecue across Texas -- from German-style smoked sausages with sauerkraut to barbecued blue crabs from the Gulf of Mexico -- and the opportunity to listen to some of Texas' smartest and most interesting food personalities.

And I found out that red soda traces its roots to "lassis," molasses-sweetened water which was colored and flavored red with berries and other fruits to represent the sacrifice that both the slaves and Jesus Christ had made. It's something I never thought to question or be curious about before -- but that's the great thing about Foodways Texas. It's busy preserving and sharing Texas food culture for the day when you're ready to open your mind and learn.

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