Food writer Robb Walsh has given new meaning to the phrase, “You are what you eat.” Through his numerous articles and cookbooks, he has shown how cuisine is a direct reflection of the culture in which it was created. Here, he talks about his career, his newest book, and the history of Texas barbecue.
texasmonthly.com: How did you get involved in food writing?
Robb Walsh: I started reviewing restaurants for the Austin Chronicle in 1990.
texasmonthly.com: Your new cookbook, Legends of Texas Barbecue, is a mix of recipes and cultural history. What kind of research and preparations went into the creation of this book?
RW: I spent a couple of years visiting museums and archives around the state, looking for early texts and photos that explained the origins of Texas barbecue. Meanwhile, I drove around eating barbecue and talking to pit bosses. Finally I spent a year testing recipes.
texasmonthly.com: How did this type of cuisine develop?
RW: Slave narratives indicate that barbecue was brought to Texas from other parts of the South. Barbecue was a part of African American celebrations when emancipation was declared in Texas on June 19, 1865. German and Czech meat markets commercialized barbecue during the era of the cotton pickers.
texasmonthly.com: What is the difference between Texas barbecue and other types?
RW: Pig farming was the major livestock industry of the old South and as a result, Southern barbecue has always revolved around pork. Texas had more sheep and goat than pigs before the Civil War, so in the early days, goat, mutton, and venison were commonly barbecued. After the Civil War, the rise of the cattle industry made beef widely available and extremely cheap. Beef has been closely identified with Texas barbecue ever since.
texasmonthly.com: What is your favorite barbecue recipe?
RW: Too many to pick one.
texasmonthly.com: You wrote a book about Jamaican cookery. Are there any other cultural foods you are interested in exploring?
RW: I am always interested in exploring the ways in which food functions as an expression of culture.
texasmonthly.com: How does food reflect on the culture in which it was created?
RW: The word culture comes from the Latin “cultura,” which means “to cultivate.” When anthropologists analyze civilizations, they start by identifying their primary crop. The patterns of life that formed around wheat cultivation define the forms of Western civilization. Although we often think of culture as something best expressed by music, art, and theater, in its most basic sense, a culture is defined by its food.
texasmonthly.com: I read on your Web site that you wrote a piece dealing with Southern prison food. What was this all about?
RW: In 1991 I went to Darrington penitentiary to sample the cooking of a famous self-taught Southern cook named Benny Wade Clewis. The resulting essay, Dinner at Darrington, was published in the Austin Chronicle and has been recently selected by the Southern Foodways Alliance for their new compilation, Cornbread Nation: Best Southern Food Writing, 2002.
texasmonthly.com: What projects are you currently working on?
RW: I am currently putting together a collection of essays to be published by Counterpoint Press in 2003. The tentative title is Mouthsurfing: Adventures of a Culinary Thrill Seeker.