THE NEWS THAT IMPERIAL SUGAR closed its Texas refinery in December would have turned my sweetheart of a grandmother into a real sourpuss. When I was growing up, Mimi gave me many bits of useful advice: “Bait your own hook,” for example, and “Never roast marshmallows on oleander sticks—they’re poisonous.” But no nugget of her wisdom have I heeded more faithfully than her admonition to always use Imperial Pure Cane Sugar. “It’s Texas sugar,” she would say, “Texas sugar from Texas cane, made right over there in Sugar Land.” Near Bay City, the small coastal town where she and my grandfather lived, there were hundreds of acres of sugarcane fields that helped supply Imperial’s raw material. In the late fifties and throughout the sixties, when my sisters and brother and I visited during the summer, a country drive might take us past workers cutting and stacking cane. Occasionally, my grandfather would stop to talk (prices too low, sun too hot), and one of the men would chop each of us kids a short section of the thick, purplish cane. Because sugarcane is dense and solid, we had to bite down hard to release the sweet, coconutty juice from the pulp, developing a most satisfactory crunch-slurp-crunch-slurp rhythm. (The experience, like all childhood fun, was heightened by an element of danger: The woody fibers could easily slice your tongue.)
My Mimi was a renowned cook and a tireless supporter of South Texas sugarcane growers. She used Imperial sugar in her dewberry cobbler, refrigerator lemon pie, and other dessert specialties. We children cut out the red “Pure Cane” squares from the bags and sent them off to get a copy of “My First Cookbook,” which included basic recipes (such as peanut-butter-and-brown-sugar sandwiches) using Imperial’s products. The cookbook cover showed a pretty young girl with stars in her eyes—Lone Stars: Imperial always emphasized its ties to the state. In my collection of Texas ephemera, I have an old Imperial ink blotter that declares, “Texas Industries Build Texas. Buy Texas Made Products.”
No one will miss Imperial Sugar more than the residents of Sugar Land, which was named for the industry that spawned it. The town was long dominated by Imperial’s ten-story building of rose brick, built in 1925 and dubbed the Pink Lady by employees who went about the business of producing up to three million pounds of sugar a day (granulated, powdered, light brown, dark brown, cubed). But by the late fifties, housing projects had begun to supplant cane farms. More-recent problems have included cheap imported sugar and bumper crops of sugar beets, which Texas farmers have been slow to embrace (“Imperial Pure Beet Sugar” just doesn’t have the same ring). Thus Imperial decided to focus on its Louisiana and Georgia facilities and keep only its headquarters in Sugar Land.
Although Imperial and I go back a long way, I am equally loyal to other Texas brands. I don’t mean just huge national names—the likes of Lone Star beer, Blue Bell ice cream, or Dr Pepper (and by the way, the famous original-formula Dr Pepper from Dublin is made with Imperial sugar). I’m talking about lower-profile companies that have quietly gone about their business for half a century or more. One, for example, is Talk o’ Texas, which may not live up to its name but deserves to. The San Angelo firm has been selling pickled okra for some sixty years, in two varieties: mild (good) and hot (great). Shudder not, okraphobes: The pickling process magically banishes the sliminess that so often plagues cooked okra. Best of all, it’s a vegetable—you can eat half a jar with impunity. Another product I’ve stuck with for thirty years—I’ve surely bought a gallon or two—is Adams Best vanilla extract. The flavoring company has flourished in Texas since 1905, when its founder, John A. Adams, built a facility to transmute vanilla beans into the first double-strength extract. Adams, based in Austin, now offers twenty-odd other extracts and deals in scores of spices, from essentials like oregano to upstarts like chicken-fajita seasoning. When I was a kid, we used its food colorings to dye Easter eggs. And, like Imperial Sugar, Adams always played up its Texas connections; an advertising booklet from the thirties asserts, “What Texas makes makes Texas.”
Adams also sells chile powder, but I confess I am torn between two other labels. One is Gebhardt: Who would expect a company with such a Teutonic name to produce such a Hispanic product? Texans, that’s who; German immigrants were some of the state’s earliest settlers, and William Gebhardt, who lived in New Braunfels, patented his Eagle Brand Chili Powder in 1896. The ambitious entrepreneur soon moved his booming business to San Antonio, where, in 1911, his company issued “the first Mexican cook book ever printed,” a slender little paperback of recipes for dishes boasting “that real Mexican tang.” Alas, Gebhardt now calls California home, but out of nostalgia I pick up a bottle now and then. As for Mexene, my other favorite chili mix—well, the name sounds indisputably authentic. It was coined in 1906 by a now-defunct Austin firm, Walker’s Austex Chili Company, which also printed cookbooklets instructing Anglo cooks on how to capture “the famous ‘from Mexico’ flavor.” The Mexene brand now belongs to Bruce Foods, of Louisiana, purveyors of Cajun spices and other lively seasonings, but the powder has long been processed and packaged in chile-savvy El Paso.
A couple of less hot (but still cool) Texas products that I always buy hail from 152-year-old Pioneer Mills, of San Antonio. Pioneer brand cornmeal features the charmingly solemn visage of the mills’ founder, C. H. Guenther (another German, ja), which lends an old-fashioned touch to my pantry. And I love Pioneer’s White Wings La Paloma flour, not only because it’s good but also because it has a pretty picture of a dove on the sack. Never underestimate the power of label appeal. If I would admit to buying canned chili, which I won’t, I would mention Wolf Brand, a Corsicana invention,