THE NEWS THAT IMPERIAL SUGAR closed its Texas refinery in December would have turned my sweetheart of a grandmother into a real sourpuss. When I was growing up, Mimi gave me many bits of useful advice: “Bait your own hook,” for example, and “Never roast marshmallows on oleander sticks—they’re poisonous.” But no nugget of her wisdom have I heeded more faithfully than her admonition to always use Imperial Pure Cane Sugar. “It’s Texas sugar,” she would say, “Texas sugar from Texas cane, made right over there in Sugar Land.” Near Bay City, the small coastal town where she and my grandfather lived, there were hundreds of acres of sugarcane fields that helped supply Imperial’s raw material. In the late fifties and throughout the sixties, when my sisters and brother and I visited during the summer, a country drive might take us past workers cutting and stacking cane. Occasionally, my grandfather would stop to talk (prices too low, sun too hot), and one of the men would chop each of us kids a short section of the thick, purplish cane. Because sugarcane is dense and solid, we had to bite down hard to release the sweet, coconutty juice from the pulp, developing a most satisfactory crunch-slurp-crunch-slurp rhythm. (The experience, like all childhood fun, was heightened by an element of danger: The woody fibers could easily slice your tongue.)
My Mimi was a renowned cook and a tireless supporter of South Texas sugarcane growers. She used Imperial sugar in her dewberry cobbler, refrigerator lemon pie, and other dessert specialties. We children cut out the red “Pure Cane” squares from the bags and sent them off to get a copy of “My First Cookbook,” which included basic recipes (such as peanut-butter-and-brown-sugar sandwiches) using Imperial’s products. The cookbook cover showed a pretty young girl with stars in her eyes—Lone Stars: Imperial always emphasized its ties to the state. In my collection of Texas ephemera, I have an old Imperial ink blotter that declares, “Texas Industries Build Texas. Buy Texas Made Products.”
No one will miss Imperial Sugar more than the residents of Sugar Land, which was named for the industry that spawned it. The town was long dominated by Imperial’s ten-story building of rose brick, built in 1925 and dubbed the Pink Lady by employees who went about the business of producing up to three million pounds of sugar a day (granulated, powdered, light brown, dark brown, cubed). But by the late fifties, housing projects had begun to supplant cane farms. More-recent problems have included cheap imported sugar and bumper crops of sugar beets, which Texas farmers have been slow to embrace (“Imperial Pure Beet Sugar” just doesn’t have the same ring). Thus Imperial decided to focus on its Louisiana and Georgia facilities and keep only its headquarters in Sugar Land.
Although Imperial and I go back a long way, I am equally loyal to other Texas brands. I don’t mean just huge national names—the likes of Lone Star beer, Blue Bell ice cream, or Dr Pepper (and by the way, the famous original-formula Dr Pepper from Dublin is made with Imperial sugar). I’m talking about lower-profile companies that have quietly gone about their business for half a century or more. One, for example, is Talk o’ Texas, which may not live up to its name but deserves to. The San Angelo firm has been selling pickled okra for some sixty years, in two varieties: mild (good) and hot (great). Shudder not, okraphobes: The pickling process magically banishes the sliminess that so often plagues cooked okra. Best of all, it’s a vegetable—you can eat half a jar with impunity. Another product I’ve stuck with for thirty years—I’ve surely bought a gallon or two—is Adams Best vanilla extract. The flavoring company has flourished in Texas since 1905, when its founder, John A. Adams, built a facility to transmute vanilla beans into the first double-strength extract. Adams, based in Austin, now offers twenty-odd other extracts and deals in scores of spices, from essentials like oregano to upstarts like chicken-fajita seasoning. When I was a kid, we used its food colorings to dye Easter eggs. And, like Imperial Sugar, Adams always played up its Texas connections; an advertising booklet from the thirties asserts, “What Texas makes makes Texas.”
Adams also sells chile powder, but I confess I am torn between two other labels. One is Gebhardt: Who would expect a company with such a Teutonic name to produce such a Hispanic product? Texans, that’s who; German immigrants were some of the state’s earliest settlers, and William Gebhardt, who lived in New Braunfels, patented his Eagle Brand Chili Powder in 1896. The ambitious entrepreneur soon moved his booming business to San Antonio, where, in 1911, his company issued “the first Mexican cook book ever printed,” a slender little paperback of recipes for dishes boasting “that real Mexican tang.” Alas, Gebhardt now calls California home, but out of nostalgia I pick up a bottle now and then. As for Mexene, my other favorite chili mix—well, the name sounds indisputably authentic. It was coined in 1906 by a now-defunct Austin firm, Walker’s Austex Chili Company, which also printed cookbooklets instructing Anglo cooks on how to capture “the famous ‘from Mexico’ flavor.” The Mexene brand now belongs to Bruce Foods, of Louisiana, purveyors of Cajun spices and other lively seasonings, but the powder has long been processed and packaged in chile-savvy El Paso.
A couple of less hot (but still cool) Texas products that I always buy hail from 152-year-old Pioneer Mills, of San Antonio. Pioneer brand cornmeal features the charmingly solemn visage of the mills’ founder, C. H. Guenther (another German, ja), which lends an old-fashioned touch to my pantry. And I love Pioneer’s White Wings La Paloma flour, not only because it’s good but also because it has a pretty picture of a dove on the sack. Never underestimate the power of label appeal. If I would admit to buying canned chili, which I won’t, I would mention Wolf Brand, a Corsicana invention, because it’s got that cute little painting of a wolf on the label.
With some foods, however, I’m brand-fickle. For instance, I’ve never been true to any particular sausage-maker. Standing by the meat case in the supermarket, planning Sunday’s pork-rich brunch, I vacillate between Meyer’s Elgin sausage and the jalapeño-flavored delight from Pederson’s Natural Farms, in Hamilton. Sometimes I pick up good ol’ Owens, a hardy perennial based in Richardson (where the company maintains a sausage museum—honest). When I need chorizo, it’s got to be H&H, made in Mercedes. And of course I’ve sampled celebrity sausage: Heisman trophy winner Earl Campbell makes his version in Austin, former Oilers coach Bum Phillips lends his name to Houston’s Blue Ribbon brand, and onetime country singer Jimmy Dean started his venture as a cottage industry in his hometown of Plainview.
Jimmy Dean’s company, however, is no longer based in Texas: Sara Lee bought it in 1984. Many other venerable Texas brands have also become part of behemoth national corporations. Mrs. Baird’s now belongs to Mexico’s delightfully named Grupo Bimbo. ConAgra, a $27 billion Fortune 500 company, is the parent company of Wolf Brand and Gebhardt. It also owns the Ro-Tel brand of canned tomatoes with chiles, an essential ingredient of quickie Texas queso. The original company was established in the early forties in the Valley hamlet of Elsa, where founder Carl Roettele used a simplification of his surname to make a brand name that was easy to remember. Ro-Tel’s tomatoes and chiles now come from California. I especially mourned the 1999 takeover of Pangburn’s by choco-giant Russell Stover. The Fort Worth confectionery, launched by pharmacist H. T. Pangburn in 1914, always managed a delicate balance of refinement and regionalism. I still have an empty box that portrays a curvy cowgirl and her handsome cow-beau (painted by the pinup artist Elvgren); it once held Pangburn’s Westerner assortment, and my Aunt Merle stored buttons and other sewing notions in it for decades.
The most notorious sale of a staunchly Texan company was that of Pace Picante Sauce, another San Antonio great, in 1995. The granddaddy of mass-marketed hot sauce, Pace first appeared on grocery shelves in 1947 (founder David Pace survived some memorable early incidents involving exploding bottles). My father used to spoon it on his scrambled eggs in the morning, an act that I, at age ten or so, found disgusting. Pace’s hold on Texas was so solid that the company didn’t advertise until 1981, when salsa began its decade-long rise to the position of favorite American condiment. Every Texan knew Pace’s TV commercial that showed cowboys around a campfire haranguing the cook for using hot sauce made in “New York City!” Ironically, the company was bought by the Campbell Soup Company, of—dadgum it—New Jersey.
Pace has long been the nation’s leading hot sauce, and I still buy it—when I don’t succumb to the allure of one of the many other Texas-made salsas. But Texas salsa it must be, just like my rice must be Texmati and my butter Falfurrias. I stock the office candy jar with peanut-butter bars from Atkinson’s, in Lufkin, and for picnics I tote along spicy Picosos peanuts, which are made in Helotes, or good old Fritos, a Dallas brand that turns seventy this year. I stick—sometimes literally—to Burleson’s honey (Waxahachie) and Mrs. Renfro’s Country Syrup, made with sorghum (Fort Worth). And, if no one I know is looking, I might even buy one of the unnaturally pink concoctions from Goodart’s, a little Lubbock company that makes nothing but peanut patties.
Now I’m getting hungry. Excuse me—I’m off to H-E-B.