Famous authors and avid readers will take the place of liberals and conservatives this weekend at the Capitol during the Texas Book Festival. And for all you cookbook hoarders out there, you better start compressing the spines of the books on your cluttered shelves and make some room. A number of Texas cookbook authors including Tyson Cole, Lou Lambert, Lisa Fain, and the Casserole Queens Sandy Pollock and Crystal Cook will be joining the likes of Paula Deen and Alton Brown, turning the festival into a virtual Comic Con for foodies.
Casserole Queens Pollock and Cook are first-time authors, and it was only a few years ago the two almost closed their Austin casserole delivery business. But then, the Food Network discovered the duo and featured them on its famous show Throwdown with Bobby Flay. Bad news? They lost to Bobby in the chicken pot pie challenge. Good news? Their business took off and The Casserole Queens Cookbook has landed on The New York Times best seller list. I caught up with the Queens about life after the throwdown, their new cookbook, and what the future has in store for them. (Catch Cook and Pollock at the Texas Book Festival this Sunday in the Cooking Tent from 3:30 to 4:30 p.m.)
Of all types of cuisine, why casseroles?
Sandy: In our cookbook, every one of the recipes starts with a family story. We could have done other foods, but casseroles really seem to embody that family sensibility we wanted to convey.
Crystal: The beautiful thing about a casserole is that it’s a meal in one dish. Everything you need is one pot right in front of you.
You built your image on the 1950’s housewife. Why is that?
Sandy: Our whole idea stemmed from casseroles, so the 1950’s housewife image was a natural progression from that thought process. Before we started the business I had visited my family over the holidays, and my mom made a bunch of casseroles. I enjoyed it and noticed how everybody, from my dad down to my youngest niece, enjoyed it.
When I got back to Austin, I told Crystal over cocktails about how I had forgotten how awesome casseroles are and that we should start a company around them. Crystal and I are always looking for any way to be different, and Austin always has embraced a kitschy vibe. Both of our parents come from that era. It’s a nod to the and that time and what gets people around the table. It all tied together into our mission, which is to get people cooking again.
Crystal: The 1950s were a simpler time when families had time to eat dinner around the table, something that has become a lost art as families have gotten busier. We wanted to be able to build that relationship back around the table. We built off that concept, but updated it with a modern twist.
You deliver every casserole wearing 1950’s attire and personally deliver every order. Do you ever regret making that extreme, personable commitment, especially since you guys have grown in popularity?
Sandy: Regret it? No. I think that’s what has made us become so popular. People identify with the fact that we do that and that we take that personal interest in it, but we are going to have to expand, and people are going to have to get more and more used to other people doing the deliveries. I don’t have any personal regrets about it because it’s fun and has become another part of our personalities.
Crystal: Meeting our customers and chatting with them is probably one of our favorite things about our job. They have really become more of our friends, rather than our customers. They feel like they can be more honest and tell us their thoughts and make suggestions. In other business situations, you might not get that.
In the past you’ve mentioned looking at a Betty Crocker cookbook and seeing pieces of advice like ‘If you feel tired, lie on the kitchen floor’ and ‘When your husband comes home from work, don’t burden him with conversation.’ What advice you would give cooks in 2011?
Sandy: I still think you should rock a nap on the floor. As far as cooks today, I would say do what feels right. People are doing everything they can to sort of be everything these days. We’re trying to give people an out and a tool to use. We just want them to start spending time with the family and get back around the table. We encourage people to start cooking again and to not be so hard on themselves.
Before the Food Network found you, you all were considering closing the business. How has that experience changed things for you?
Sandy: Oh gosh. I mean, we’re still in business because of the Food Network. We were in the process of closing down. I was moving to D.C., and Crystal was doing other things. When they called, we had to re-examine everything. They convinced us to stay in business. I’m glad we did. We’ve had so many other riches come from that experience.
Crystal: It gave us opportunities to explore other things and also to write this cookbook. For two people who were thinking about closing and moving on, its given us a lot of insight into things we would have never considered before. What the biggest challenge now is figuring out what direction to go in. We’re still struggling with that, but it’s a great problem to have.
The chicken pot pie has become your signature dish. Bobby Flay liked it so much he put it in his own cookbook Bobby Flay’s Throwdown!. Why do you think that dish has been your most popular? Is there an ingredient that made it work so well?
Sandy: We made a few changes that elevated the flavors for a more modern palate. A lot of chicken pot pie recipes are a little dated, but a bad chicken pot pie is still a good chicken pot pie, just like a bad pizza is still a good pizza. We added tarragon which gives it a hint of anise flavor and changes the whole flavor profile. We also use a puff pastry on the top instead of a pie crust or a biscuit topping. Our puff pastry topping is elegant, buttery, crispy, and really compliments the gooey inside. The white wine really brightens all of the flavors also.
What made you feel you were ready for the cookbook experience?
Crystal: The opportunity to write one came after [Bobby Flay’s] throwdown. The publishing company saw the show and contacted us and said that people are looking for economical ways to feed their families during this recession and asked if we’d consider writing a book.
What surprised you the most about writing a cookbook?
Sandy: Just how much work it entailed. You really never think it’s going to take that much work. At the end of it, I said “Oh my God! I can’t believe I did it, and I can’t believe its printed.” I don’t know if I could live through a second cookbook.
Crystal: I was surprised how much growing up around food really molded and shaped who I am as a person. Even if it was a recipe I may not have loved growing up, there was something that triggered a memory, and I was able to put my own spin on it and it makes you think about how your palate has evolved. You start changing these family recipes into something that is completely your own, but you still have this connection to your history and your family. You might say, “I’ll never eat that again because that’s what I ate growing up,” but when you revisit it, all of these comforting memories and all of the delicious recipes come back that you threw out to the wayside because you were trying too much to be your own individual. It’s interesting to see how much of my family and Sandy’s family have molded who we are as chefs today.
Is there something you felt was important to include in the book?
Crystal: Our personality. We fought really hard to have that in there. I think people relate to us because of our personalities and the fact that they are real. We wanted our goofiness to come across and also the way we ran our business.
Did you guys reference any cookbooks you have used through the years to make your own? Where did you draw inspirations from for your cookbook?
Sandy: Oh Lord. I mean we looked through a million cookbooks. I am a cookbook fiend. I don’t buy shoes; I buy cookbooks. I would say one of my biggest influences was Screen Doors and Sweet Tea by Martha Foose. I love her, and her book was inspirational because it has a lot of personal stories in it, but it’s really elegantly done.
A lot of Texas-specific cookbooks are finally starting to come out like Uchi, The Homesick Texan Cookbook, Big Ranch, Big City Cookbook, and you guys are now a part of that crowd. Is that Texas attention overdue?
Sandy: I think it is. People from Texas love Texas food, but people never give it the due that it deserves. A lot of people never considered Texas to be a foodie place, but over the last five or ten years, that is absolutely not the case. We built a healthy food culture not just in Austin, but over the whole state, and it’s about time Texas authors get their due because we have some amazing chefs here.