The Pappas brothers have operated restaurants in Texas since the seventies, following in the footsteps of their grandfather, a Greek immigrant who was a successful restaurateur in his own right. Now with more than eighty locations, the company is still family-owned and staffed by generations of Pappases. Befitting such an esteemed history, there’s not an expense spared in the lush appointments of the steakhouses (one in Dallas and another in Houston), and the bar is no exception.
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“Brenham is an orderly place,” my friend Molly told me. She had moved there from Houston a few years ago and was settling into life in what is arguably Texas’s best-loved small town. She gave me the grand tour on a perfect late spring day when the sky was a cloudless blue and the April air was cool, crisp, and pristine.
It is a town built by thrifty, modest German immigrants. The Victorian and Craftsman cottages had been restored with restraint. Flower gardens thrived without the benefit of professional landscapers, and the rainy winter had left the lawns and wild grasses in the fields beyond an almost otherworldly green. Children roamed the oak-shaded parks, joyously free of adult supervision. The clean, broad streets were devoid of big-city blights like hungry strays, impassable traffic, and people yelling into their cellphones.
In fact, Brenham, with a population of around 16,000, peddles nostalgia better than just about any other small town I know. Molly and I wandered around the “Historic Downtown”—caps theirs—poking through Texas ephemera in the antiques stores and visiting the farmers’ market housed in a restored old warehouse; the locally grown produce and homemade jams were set off nicely by dark-wood floorboards and sunlight filtered through old glass panes. We stopped for salads at the Funky Art Cafe, which was suitably so, and peeked in on the homemade pies at Must Be Heaven, which describes itself as a place where “everything from the hand-painted decor to the old-time atmosphere makes everyone slow down and enjoy the day.” Then we headed out to the airport to check out the Southern Flyer Diner, which boasts Brenham’s best burgers and waitresses who dress in fifties ensembles, including but not limited to poodle skirts. Everyone we met seemed really glad to see us—maybe a little more so than usual, even for a small town.
The reason for that eagerness became all too apparent when we pulled into the hulking complex better known as “The Little Creamery in Brenham,” the home of Blue Bell, indisputably the makers of the best-known ice cream in the state. The town and the company have a symbiotic relationship, both capitalizing on the safe, sweet, old-timey identity of the other. You can, for instance, take Blue Bell Road around town, and you can swim at the Blue Bell Aquatic Center. Locals have benefited enormously and routinely from the company’s largesse in scholarships, charitable donations, and the like. But the day we drove up, the visitors parking lot, normally jammed, was empty, a paper notice taped on the door delivering the sad news that all tours had been canceled indefinitely.
For the first time in its 108-year history, Blue Bell—and, in turn, Brenham—is in crisis. A super-nasty bacteria known as Listeria monocytogenes was found in a few Blue Bell products. Five hospital patients in Kansas had been infected with the listeria bacteria, three of whom died. The outbreak now consists of ten confirmed cases in Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, and Arizona. A partial recall led to a full-on recall, and now there are no more half gallons of Homemade Vanilla, Rocky Road, Blueberry Cheesecake, Homemade in the Shade, Southern Peach Cobbler, or Tin Roof to be had in the near future. While locals and desperate fans in Texas and beyond worry over the future of the Little Creamery—the third-largest ice cream maker in the country, one that employs almost four thousand people and brings in around $900 million in sales—plaintiff’s lawyers have already begun to circle. Residents of Brenham have responded by dotting their yards with “God Bless Blue Bell” signs and attending prayer vigils (“It has grieved our hearts that our beloved product … could ever become a source of harm to anyone”). The freezer compartments at local convenience stores remain empty and forlorn, because no Brenham retailer would dream of substituting any other ice cream for Blue Bell.
The entrance to the creamery was open and so was the store, so we pushed on past the lobby photographs of Texas’s most famous baseball coaches. (“Families and sports—that’s what matters in Brenham,” Molly pointed out.) We climbed up the wide staircase and stepped into an empty version of an old-fashioned ice cream parlor, decorated with marble-topped tables, wrought-iron chairs, stained-glass hanging lamps, and large guest sinks for proper hand washing. Our footsteps echoed on the tile floor. No one was scooping ice cream for the multitudes, and the pyramids of display containers in the familiar rainbow—lavender, mint-green, vermilion, caramel—stood at attention, like soldiers on a futile training exercise. A solitary employee bustled past us but seemed eager to talk when we stopped her. Yes, she said, things were looking up. Yes, she expected the products to be back on line within a month. “June,” she said hopefully and then pushed on, disappearing down the steps, a Blue Bell version of Lewis Carroll’s White Rabbit.
The store, in contrast, showed definite signs of life. It was full of merchandise, a cross between an airport souvenir shop and a down-home boutique, with gentle lighting and displays inside homey wooden crates. From one saleswoman’s account, the store was doing a good business, particularly among avid Blue Bell supporters. One Houston company had purchased 130 T-shirts to help out. There were nightgowns decorated with dairy cows and the phrase “I’m Moooody in the morning.” T-shirts adorned with an ice cream crank and “I get cranky without my Blue Bell.” There were old-fashioned ice cream sundae glasses and cookbooks with treasured Washington County recipes. There were scoops, mugs, lacy hoodies, bumper stickers, coasters, wallets, gimme caps, and just about anything else you could stamp with the company logo, that charming silhouette of the little girl in a sun hat leading a milk cow somewhere, well, nice. “They’ve thought of everything,” I heard a customer say in awe.
Everything, I thought, except what can happen when the reality of the business world busts in on a deeply held dream of the past.
Southeast Texas has been blessed with adequate—even plentiful—rain for a few years running, and now the berry patches are erupting along railway lines, ditches, sun-dappled roadsides, and woodland verges. This means that for the next couple of weeks, the dewberries and blackberries are ripe for the picking all over East and Central Texas.
You don’t have to live in the country to get in on this bounty. I live inside the loop in Houston, and there are several patches within a fifteen-minute walk. This weekend my ten-year-old daughter Harriet and I hit a nearby forest preserve in Houston (when you trek out for wild-berry picking, always be sure you’re not treading on private property or trespassing in any way).
The 2011 drought was not kind to Houston’s many tall pines. A tragic number of the city’s trees perished in that parched year, and you can still see many sun-bleached, barkless, limbless remnants of the remaining forestry, trunks riddled with beetles and their predators: woodpeckers.
Republican agriculture commissioner Sid Miller, the Texas cupcake king, has made the next move in his campaign to bring freedom of choice back to the school lunch room. After several hushed mentions of his strategy to undo the ban on deep fryers and soda machines on campus, the Department of Agriculture could be ready to make a decision on the ten-year-old policy in the next few months.
This past weekend, a lineup locally and nationally known chefs, restaurateurs, sommeliers, mixologists, cookbook authors and television personalities descended upon the Austin Food & Wine Festival, so we took the opportunity to speak with a handful of chefs participating in the festival.
Below, Hugo Ortega of Hugo’s, Backstreet Café, and Caracol, in Houston discusses his love for traveling, his James Beard Foundation Award nomination, and his favorite Austin restaurants.
When the Taco Cannon made its debut appearance at Austin’s Fun Fun Fun Fest in 2012, the idea was so beautiful in its simplicity that it quickly became a sensation. The novelty cannon launched tacos into a crowd, much like the novelty cannons at sporting events and concerts launch T-shirts out to fans. Need we say more? If you’re at a three-day music festival, the chance of a delicious taco landing in your hands is heaven.
This weekend, a lineup locally and nationally known chefs, restaurateurs, sommeliers, mixologists, cookbook authors and television personalities will descend upon the Austin Food & Wine Festival, so we spoke with a handful of chefs participating in the festival.
Below, Justin Yu of Oxheart in Houston discusses his recent James Beard Foundation Award nomination, his favorite Austin restaurants, the progression of Oxheart and a dreamy Taylor Swift-themed restaurant.
Just like the housing market, the restaurant industry is all about location, location, location.