June Naylor on “Cook Like a Texan,” Foodways Texas
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A sixth-generation Texan and 30-year food writer, June Naylor’s passionate about food, about Texas, and about the intersection of the two: While she was working on this month’s “How to Cook Like a Texan” cover story, she was also busy promoting the 9-month-old Foodways Texas, an organization dedicated to preserving and celebrating all forms of Texas cooking. But even though that project deals with the diversity of Texas cuisine, Naylor didn’t have a hard time narrowing the field down to 10 classic dishes—“there are far more cultures in Texas than we could reflect in the story, but the dishes that we chose are a good, honest reflection of our heritage,” she says. Keep reading for Naylor’s thoughts on what sets Texas food apart, and why she leaves her fried chicken to the pros. You wrote specifically about the ribeye, fried chicken, migas, and chicken-fried steak. Are those the Texas classics that are closest to your heart? Yes. I don’t want to say one more than the other, but steak has always been a part of my upbringing, and fried chicken is really an indulgence for me. When I was growing up we had it at my grandmother’s and now it’s a part of my family heritage, but it’s hard to find the kind that’s really, really good. Why? Well, because so much of it is mass produced. To me, the really good fried chicken is the stuff that’s prepared by hand. That’s really carefully made. Restaurants don’t have the luxury of taking that kind of time a lot of the time, so when you find a place like Perini’s that does it once a week for Sunday dinner, that’s what makes it special. To me, the kind of cooking that we were talking about in the story is the kind of cooking you were either raised on in your own home or that your family indulged in together maybe out at a favorite restaurant. Of the four dishes that you wrote about, which do you cook yourself? Ribeye steak and migas I will cook, but I don’t do chicken-fried steak or fried chicken because I don’t think I could do them as well as the pros. I know how, I could tell people how to do it, but I still think that those are such specialties that I leave them to the experts. Did you have to cut any personal favorites? That wasn’t an issue for me. The only thing I rallied for was green tomato relish with catfish, because part of my family comes from East Texas, and the catfish culture there involves that. But even though it’s something I’m passionate about, in other parts of the state that’s more unusual. There are a lot of idiosyncrasies that are just particular to certain areas, so I’m sure some people read the story and thought, where’s such and such, because they come from a particular corner that might do something a certain way. It’s just indicative of what a big state we have, and how food can vary so much from one area to the next. Mexican food in San Angelo is really different from Mexican food in Fort Worth. You’ve traveled widely, tasting and writing about food from all over the world. How does that experience affect your relationship with traditional Texas food? I’ve taken cooking classes in Bangkok and in France and in Mexico and in Hawaii and I think that to really learn a culture—whether the myriad cultures here in Texas or cultures abroad—you have to study its food. To understand where we’ve come from, where our state has come from, is to look at all of its cultures, and those cultures have combined to create these dishes that we think of as quintessential now. Highlighting Texas’s culinary classics is also very much what Foodways Texas aims to do. How did working on this piece complement the work that you do there? That connection and timing was really interesting, and certainly the story figures into what we’re doing at Foodways. One of our purposes is to collect oral histories, and this story had a lot of seeds of oral histories in it. I’m hoping that as we start collecting more, we’ll be able to come back to the people in this story and get more details from them. Since Foodways was founded nine months ago, what has the response been? It’s been really good; the attendance at our events has been huge. And not only people who are in the industry—people who are just food enthusiasts, too, and care about Texas food. There are so many people who want to make sure that our children and grandchildren know what came before, and how things have been done, and how they’ve been passed down through generations. I think that’s going to be important. – Olivia LaVecchia (Photo by David Manning)