A Woman’s Place Is In Kitchen History

What kolaches, African-American cooking, and chili queens can teach us about women’s influence on Texas cuisine.

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One of the many meals eaten over the three-day Texas Foodways symposium.

There’s a strange paradox when it comes to women and food. More often than not, in the home women are seen as bread makers rather than breadwinners. Yet in the age of the celebrity chef, the face of the restaurant industry is predominantly male. It’s no different in Texas: the James Beard Awards—the Oscars of the culinary world—have named Texas chefs or restaurant professionals as semifinalists 79 times over the past five years, but only eight of those semifinalist spots have gone to women. Seems that there are still glass ceilings (or stemware, perhaps?) to break.

But as any Texan who’s been to a church potluck knows, women have a remarkable influence on the history of our state’s food. As you thumb through vintage community cookbooks from various regions, you’ll find the epicurean wisdom of Mary Jo, Bobby Sue, and countless other double-named wizards of the kitchen, certainly local legends if not statewide ones. My grandmother boxed hundreds of recipes she had scrawled on notecards, careful to attach the name of the church lady who had given it to her (and no doubt there are a few Charlene Johnston originals still floating around the East Texas Baptist picnic circuit). To put it another way, Texas women have written the collective historical cookbook, even if most of it has been penned anonymously.

This intersection of gender and food was one of the primary topics this past weekend at Foodways Texas, a three-day symposium that gathered scholars, authors, and foodies together to celebrate Texas’s culinary landscape. From Texas-Czech farms to department store restaurants, women have helped shape the way we eat, and thanks to the food historians gathered at the sixth annual symposium in Austin this weekend, we can at least start to understand their impact—even if the women like my grandmother didn’t snag a James Beard award for it.

Here are a few of the things I learned over the weekend:

The Tastemaker

Helen Corbitt was the Julia Child of Texas, though reluctantly. When the upstate New York native was called down to Texas for a job teaching catering and restaurant management at the University of Texas, she recalled saying: “‘Who the hell wants to go to Texas?'” But as she later told the Dallas Times Herald, “Only I didn’t say ‘hell’ in those days. I learned to swear in Texas.”

As writer Prudence Mackintosh detailed in her retrospective at the symposium, despite Corbitt’s initial aversion to the state, she made her mark in the kitchens of Austin’s Driskell Hotel and, more famously, in Neiman Marcus’s Zodiac Room. Her five cookbooks/hosting guides have been celebrated in Texas kitchens, making their way into the classic canon of Texas dishes. Do you remember the poppy seed dressing your mother put on fruit salads? She (and you!) can thank Helen Corbitt for that dish’s elevation.

The Jemima Code

Austin-based journalist and author Toni Tipton-Martin’s new book, The Jemima Code: Two Centuries of African American Cookbooks, seeks to highlight the erased identity of African-American cuisine. Fried chicken, pork ribs, and black-eyed peas are synonymous with Texas food identity, but often with no recognition of their origin.

Many of these beloved dishes were translated to Texas kitchens through the Jemima code, which Tipton-Martin describes in her book as “an arrangement of words and images synchronized to classify the character and life’s work of our nation’s black cooks as insignificant.” With Aunt Jemima plastered on pancake mix and syrups, according to Tipton-Martin, it essentially sent a message that if slaves could do it, so could you, while simultaneously propagating the message that because by virtue of a black person’s race, they should be able to whip up soul food with ease.

Austin stalwart Hoover Alexander, of Hoover’s Cooking, was quick to dismiss the label of soul food for his restaurant. Call it that if you’d like, he explained when he sat down with Tipton-Martin, but he considers his food “Texas home cooking” that he learned from his mother. And indeed, the smothered pork chops, chicken wings, collards, candied yams, and cornbread he served up before his talk did taste like Texas.

By assuming that Alexander is such a great comfort food cook because he is black, Tipton-Martin’s thesis presumes, we are still dealing with the long tail of slave labor in the South. It erases both the identity of the food and the ability of the chef, an ingrained (and false) belief that Tipton-Martin’s book and Alexander’s cooking should help dispel.

San Antonio Chili Queens

San Antonio’s famed chili queens, who for seven decades fed tourists and locals milling in the city’s plazas, are rarely looked upon with anything but pride in tradition. But as University of Houston professor Monica Perales noted, the hard work the women did to feed their families was often masked by outward appearances.

Chili queens, according to Perales, were a kind of glamorous symbol of servitude. As they peddled their wares, smiling through made-up faces for customers, the grunt work that went behind the food they offered was rarely a consideration. Much like the work of African-American women in the kitchen, their contribution was hidden in plain sight.

So, similarly to the Aunt Jemima messaging of black communities, the nostalgia for the image of the chili queens made them synonymous with a particular cuisine. Perales said that this has translated over into advertisements, using the image of Hispanic women to sell tortilla chips, tortillas, and salsas.

Perales is currently researching how the labor of Mexican-American women affected southwestern foodways in the twentieth century. Her findings thus far, which she previewed at the conference, were an eye-opening look at how women’s work can be taken for granted in a larger cultural context.

The Kolache Tradition

The panel on the role of women in Czech-Texan cuisine would surely want to get something out of the way up front: a kolache is not the pitiful wiener wrapped in a tiny bit of dough that most Texans grew up buying en masse at donut shops. That’s a sausage roll, thank you very much.

The prominent Texas-Czech population sprinkled throughout central parts of the state prides itself on teamwork. Both the men and women in these farming communities worked together to keep things running smoothly. Still, in the division of labor, women did the bulk of the cooking and baking, Lydie Faust of Slovacek’s Sausage Company explained. Faust learned to bake kolaches from her mother and grandmother, and at the height of her business could churn out 300 dozen traditional kolaches per day in Snook, Texas.

Now, however, Faust passes the kolache-making tradition through youth classes, which have a fifty-fifty split between male and female students. Her fellow panelist Nicholas Maresh, owner of Old Main Street Bakery in Rosenberg, wasn’t one of Faust’s pupils, but he’s serving up traditional kolaches, using a recipe that he and his grandmother refined. So it seems that even among a culture that prides itself on tradition, gender roles are becoming increasingly flexible.

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