Texas Foodies and Chefs Secede from Dixie: The Texas Food Alliance Fundraiser at Armadillo Palace

While the mighty ice sculpture with the Foodways Texas logo slowly melted amid it all, rivers of St. Arnold's and Dripping Springs vodka / Rio Grande Valley ruby red grapefruit juice cocktails flowed. The Catalan corned beef sliders, Goode Company baked oysters, shrimp corny dogs and Bryan Caswell's signature shrimp cocktail shots vanished into many a hungry gullet, while the mildly psychedelic sounds of Austin's country-rockin' Band of Heathens brought the Armadillo Palace's Victorian image of Texas into Texas's post-Willie Nelson age of head-tripping fun, while Keeley Steenson's short film Good, Better, Best took a look back at a seemingly primordial past that is still very much alive.

Such was last night's fundraiser for Foodways Texas, a new grassroots group whose stated mission statement is to "preserve, protect and celebrate the diverse food cultures of Texas."

FTX is modeled on the Southern Food Alliance, within which the foodies of Texas existed uneasily for the past 11 years. It's a cultural thing, both foodie and otherwise. While many Southerners will consider Texans Southern without a second thought - it was, after all, a loud and proud Confederate state, was it not? - it's likely that a majority of Texans do not see it the same way. Yes, there's Southern in Texas, but Texas is much more than that. The Stars and Bars were only one of the six flags, and today, hordes of people from many, many more nations have made their way here to stay.

Chef Bryan Caswell certainly sees it that way. Nipping on a St. Arnold while dispensing his literally goosebump-inducing shrimp shots, Caswell said that Texas is one state that simply can't be put in any one pre-existing regional box. "Ever since I was in culinary school, Texas has always been put in two fields - Southern and Southwest," he says. "It's the only one like that. And I don't think you can draw a line through Texas, 'cause you might get your ass kicked, you know? It needs its own entity, its own organization that's looking after the same things the Southern Foodways Alliance is looking after: to highlight the guys who are doing it right and correct and local."

Dr. Elizabeth Englehardt, the head of the program committee for the February 2011 Foodways Texas Symposium in Galveston, agrees. "I've worked with the Southern Foodways Alliance for years and I've always been struck with how Texas is both within and outside of that group. They are good friends of ours, but the Texas food story is both uniquely complicated and diverse. Everybody has a story about food, and when we get together to talk about it, we can talk about what's the same and what's different and what's changing."

Press Dr. Engelhardt for specifics -- exactly how is Texas Southern and not-Southern -- and she goes firmly coy. "Oh, I think we are gonna debate that issue for years," she says. I kept thinking she would elaborate, but she seems content to allow that debate to continue at its natural leisurely pace.

Keeley Steenson is a recent product of UT's film school who was drafted in to make Good Better Best, the fundraiser's spotlighted short film. The 10-minute movie shows a family of sorghum farmers from out near Sweet Home, in the Czech-Texas heartland near Praha and Yoakum, who still make sorghum syrup the old-fashioned way. After cutting the grassy cane and squeezing out the pea-green juice, they render it into syrup in an open pit over a hot fire. All to make a sweetener whose popularity has been on the decline for well over a century.

Steenson says that the family - several of whom are also master carpenters by trade -- makes no money on the operation. "All of the sorghum syrup they make, all of the other cultural things that they do that are part of their foodways - those are just things that they do because of who they are, not because they are part of some business team."

So it's a labor of love, a tribute to their ancestors and a way to maintain their ties to the land. Sweet Home indeed... And along the way, Steenson features a slice of country Bohemianism, Texas-style, by taking in a festival in a polka-fried Praha church dance.

To those accustomed to the received notion that Texas is composed solely of Scotch-Irish rednecks and cowboys, Mexican-Americans and African Americans, the Slavic Czech/Bohemian/Moravian subculture is little known, and thus exactly the sort of thing the TFA hopes to shine a light on. It definitely is something that distinguishes Texas from the Deep South.

Former Press food critic Robb Walsh, a prime mover behind both Foodways Texas and Good, Better, Best, said that the film was about as well-funded as the sorghum farm it captures. That's why the ticket price for the event at Armadillo Palace ($150 per person) was so steep. "The point of having this fundraiser is to raise enough money for filmmakers like Keeley to go out and make more of these films capturing disappearing Texas foodways."

Foodways Texas could also be a pretty fearsome weapon in Houston's long-hapless campaign to brand itself. This city has always had a problem defining its image. One decade we're the city of Urban Cowboy and Luv Ya Blue, the next we're all about gangsta rap and corporate debacles. Houston is all of those things and so much more. Perhaps a truer depiction can come from our food, and Foodways Texas could be instrumental in spreading the word.

Bryan Caswell hopes so. "Houston is kind of a new Creole city," he says. "It's growing at hyperspeed, there's as many immigrants coming here every year as New York, 50 percent more than Chicago and San Francisco...I think what went down in those cities in 1901 is kinda what we are going through now. We've got all these different pockets of cultural hotspots and food follows it. And that low-end food always ends up being high-end food, just like in France, where the country food got elevated to haute cuisine. I think the same thing will happen here, at least I hope so."

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