Cover Story: The First Families of Houston Food

Back in late January, I compiled a blog post about the histories of some of Houston's most important restaurant families. I happen to love history, but I assumed most readers would be more interested in reading about the latest restaurant openings or cheap food in the Heights or which chef moved where. I knew I worked hard on the story, but I didn't really think many people would care.

Imagine my surprise when emails and comments poured in. Some of them were correcting minor inaccuracies (yes, I realize there are more than 25 McDonald's franchises in Houston) and some of them were complaining that I left out certain families (much of that has been rectified), but most were exclaiming how fascinating our past is.

So much of the dining scene in Houston has been determined by a dozen or so families who've been opening grocery stores, then restaurants, then corporations since as early as the mid-1800s. There are Italians--lots of them--Louisianans, Mexicans, Greeks, Nicaraguans, seventh-generation Texans and people who just call themselves Houstonians.

There are a lot of restaurant families in the Bayou City. And I set out to speak with as many of them as I could.

One of the most difficult parts of working on the story was not, in fact, contacting and interviewing the families. Most of them were more than willing to chat with me about their great-grandfather's grocery or their grandmother who spoke no English but could make a mean tamale. No, that hardest thing was figuring out how many of these families are related to one another.

Through my research (and it's not a secret), I discovered that the D'Amicos, the Petronellas, the Carrabbas, the Patrenellas, the Mandolas and the Laurenzos are all related by blood or marriage. I culled from interviews with individuals, some of whom have remarkable memories, and spent hours on Ancestry.com developing a family tree, partially to aid me in my writing, and partially because many of the people I spoke to echoed the same refrain: Yeah, we're related, I'm just not sure how.

The only branch I couldn't figure out are the Patrenellas, an issue I touched upon in yesterday's preview post featuring Sammy Patrenella, Sr.

I finally was able to construct a family tree, though, and by tracing its branches you can see, as I did, how stories and recipes and a need to be connected to food in some way are carried down from generation to generation. Even the families who aren't connected--the Molinas, the Pappases, the Cordúas, the Vallones and the Goodes--have their own unique links, both within the family and without. People who are, today, major restaurateurs started out in the kitchens of their peers' ancestors or owe a debt of gratitude to those who paved the way for Houston to be the culinary wonder that it has become.

Various studies (none of which I found particularly reliable) have named Houston the United States city with the most local restaurants per capita or the number one city for dining out in the country.

I don't know if any of that is accurate, but I can tell you one thing: Thanks in large part to these families, it's definitely one of the best food cities in America.

Read all about them in this week's cover story.

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