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At the Family Table With the Homesick Texan

Lisa Fain, who just published her second cookbook, "The Homesick Texan's Family Table: Lone Star Cooking from My Kitchen to Yours," on her deep Texas roots, how easy it is to make delicious beans and homemade flour tortillas, and chile pepper injuries.

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For Lisa Fain, it may have started with a cheese log. She was eight years old when she watched her grandmother make one for a party.

“It was her aunt’s recipe, and I was just blown away,” says Fain. “I never realized you could make a cheese ball. I thought it was something you got from the store. That was a moment when I realized, just about anything can be homemade!”

As “The Homesick Texan,” Fain shares all the recipes and cooking knowledge she’s acquired since then, first on her blog, which started in 2005, and then with The Homesick Texan Cookbook in 2011. Now comes The Homesick Texan’s Family Table: Lone Star Cooking from My Kitchen to Yours (Ten Speed Press), which delves even more deeply into her love of cooking Texas food, and the people who instilled it.

Despite living in New York City (hence the moniker), Fain’s Texas pedigree is strong: seven generations, including a great-grandfather who was once head of the Collin County Cattleman’s Association and a great uncle, former Texas A&M-Kingsville president James C. Jernigan, who was a contemporary of former Governor John Connally—which may or may not be how Nellie Connally’s recipe for Chicken Spaghetti found its way into Fain’s great-grandma’s recipe collection (she updates it in the book by replacing canned soup with a homemade cheese sauce).

As Fain writes in the book’s introduction, “Most Texans will say that their most memorable meal was home-cooked, shared at the family table.”

JASON COHEN: The saying is, you have your whole life to do your first book. Did you spend a lot of time thinking about what you wanted the second one to be?

Lisa Fain: Yes and no. I mean, it was always in the back of my head that I’d like to write more than one book. The first book, I wrote the proposal in a weekend and it sold in a day. I wrote the whole thing, and photographed the whole thing, in under six months. Because I’ve been doing the blog for so long, I had just this wealth of stuff. This one, I don’t want to say it was a struggle, but it was a lot more difficult, yeah.

JC: The “family table” concept is a natural, but did you kick around other ideas?

LF: No. I wanted to do something that involved family recipes, dealing with my grandmother and my great-grandmother. My great-grandmother died when I was seven, and my grandmother, you know, she’s getting up there. She’s going to turn ninety next year, and she still lives on a farm by herself and drives all around North Texas and is very independent, but you never know what could happen, so I wanted to be able to talk to her, and I wanted her to be able to see the book. That was one thing that made me really sad with my first book: a couple years before it came out, my grandfather died and then my other grandmother died. They were a big part of my food journey, and I was really sad that they hadn’t been able to see it.

JC: It’s striking how many memories and recipes go back to your great-grandparents.

LF: I was very fortunate to know three of my great-grandparents and actually have memories of them. They were from such a different world. They were both farmers: they lived on farms, and that’s how they made their living, which is so far removed from my experience, and I’m only two generations away. So it was always interesting, even when I was a kid, to go visit them in the country—which is now not so much the country.

JC: Your grandfather from Sedalia, Jack Jernigan, he kind of straddled the two worlds?

LF: Yeah. He grew up as a farm boy, but he and his brother were in WWII, and they got their PhDs on the GI Bill. He was a psychologist at the veterans hospital in Dallas, but he always kept the land. And then my grandmother did the same thing with her family (in Melissa). When they retired in 1980 they left Oak Cliff and built a house on the land that was in my grandmother’s family, that had been continuously farmed since the 1840s. And that’s where she lives now.

JC: And the other side of your family: Grandma Ashner?

LF: They’re also from Oak Cliff. They were city people. But they still loved food and were all really excellent cooks. My grandmother, for her honeymoon, they ate their way around Mexico City, and this was like in the late forties, so I always thought that was really cool.

JC: You work from family recipes, but you also usually come up with your own spin on the classics, yes?

LF: Absolutely. I have a stack of cards from my great grandmother Blanche—handwritten cards. I always thought I had the worst handwriting, but her handwriting is even worse than mine. On some of these, I have no idea what she’s written, so, it’s kind of like, trying to decipher chicken scratch. And a lot of old recipes, it’s very charming when they say, “hot oven” or “handful,” but you have to make it a little more specific.

And then, I do like to add some twist. Obviously I love chile peppers. I’ll add some jalapeno or cilantro or garlic to the fried chicken brine that my family likes to use, things like that. But some recipes, I didn’t change at all. The lemon pie recipe is exactly as my grandma made it, exactly as her mother made it. The oatmeal bread is the same way. Didn’t change a thing. Some things I just left as they were because they were really perfect.

JC: You and your parents eventually moved to Houston. So who has the better food: Houston or Dallas?

LF: (laughs) You know, I think they both have their strengths, and I enjoy eating in both. For pure diversity, Houston is the way to go, but Dallas is catching up. It gets a lot of bad rap, especially about its Mexican food, but it has a very strong Mexican food scene I think.

JC: How often do you eat the kind of Texas home cooking you write about?

LF: In New York? I actually do eat a lot of tortillas and beans, and salad. It’s kind of like my go-to thing. Every Sunday I usually make a big pot of pinto beans and snack on that all week. I usually make a batch of tortillas and just keep those in my fridge. You can always do something with those.

JC: Tortillas and beans—could there be two foods that are any simpler to make that people somehow think are hard to make?

LF: No. And that’s the funny thing. I mean, I grew up with those homemade tortillas, and I guess my mom did a pot of pinto beans once a week too. Flour tortillas for me were a challenge. It took me a long time to figure out how to do those right. But once I did, there was no looking back, because they’re so far superior to anything you can get in a store, at least in New York. And beans—I think in New York, at least, when you go to a Mexican restaurant, they treat the beans kind of like a throwaway dish. They don’t put any love or care into it and they’re always so flavorless. Because it’s not hard to make beans taste good.

JC: You had recipes for “Houston-style” and “San Antonio-style” flour tortillas in the first book. This time, it’s buttermilk-bacon, and sweet potato chipotle flour tortillas. Fairly recent inventions? 

LF: Within the last couple of years. The sweet potato one I did because I make sweet potato biscuits, and I’ve always thought that the flour tortillas at Chuy’s tasted like they were made out of Bisquick. I don’t know why, but they had this biscuit-like consistency, or not consistency, but a specific flavor. From that, I got the idea to make sweet potato tortillas. And then the buttermilk ones, I saw that there’s some place in Austin making buttermilk tortillas and I was really intrigued by it because I hadn’t tried them. Then someone asked me if I ever used bacon fat for bread in place of lard. So I thought I’d use it. And it worked. 

JC: It sure did. I think the second batch I made was even better than the first, because I had the dough in the fridge for a while. They were easier to roll out.

LF: Yeah, the longer they sit the easier they get to roll out.

JC: Your dad and your brother both live in Oregon. Are they the same as you, needing to constantly make Texas food?

LF: Absolutely. We talk about those sort of things all the time. What’s different for them is, people in the Pacific Northwest do not like spicy food at all. So they’ll put half a jalapeno in a big thing of soup and everyone will be like, oh my god, oh my god, it’s so hot. And of course they have the same challenges, finding the ingredients and stuff like that.

JC: With the foodie culture that we have compared to ten years ago, do you think your journey might be different if you’d moved to New York now, and you could actually find Ro-Tel tomatoes all over Manhattan?

LF: It’s an interesting question. Now, if I want to get on the train, I can get a breakfast taco. There’s barbecue now in New York City. Sometimes I find Topo Chico at Whole Foods. And there’s Shiner everywhere. There are these staples of Texas that were not available when I arrived here, and I totally missed. But there’s still some things you just can’t get here, like queso. Nobody serves queso and when they do it’s just awful. And nobody knows how to make nachos. My big thing is Tex-Mex. That’s like my soul food.

JC: Despite your love of Tex-Mex, in the first book you say chicken-fried-steak is your absolute favorite. Do you think it, rather than chili, (or barbecue), should be the state dish of Texas?

LF: No, I’m pretty cool with chili to be honest. I think chili’s completely bastardized. That’s kind of a problem, with chili, there so many opinons of what it is, and I’m very much the Texas chili purist. But I think that’s a great state dish, because it incorporates beef, it’s a cattle state, and Tex Mex: the two defining early cultures of Texas. And, it tastes good!

JC: Do you have a chile pepper-handling horror story?

LF: I do. I do. Yes. It happened a couple of summers ago, and I now know what hell is like.

I was chopping jalapenos, and it was August, so they were super fresh. We actually have a farmer here in New York at Union Square who grows the hottest chiles. They make my eyes water just to look at them.

I’ve never worn gloves when I chop chiles, or goggles, I’ve always been like, “Ah, I can handle it.” And usually I can! But anyway, I was chopping the jalapenos, and a seed flew up, and it landed in my eye. It felt like a thosuand needles had been dipped into fire, and were poking me at the same time. I finally got it out and, it burned for about an hour. I really thought I was going to die. I could barely see out of it. It was probably the worst experience of my life in food.

But, I still don’t wear goggles.

JC: Can only happen once, right?

LF: I’m more careful.

JC: You were here in March for Foodways Texas, and you’d been hoping to come back to see the bluebonnets. You’ll also be here again for book signings. Woud it kill your brand if you just moved back to Texas?

LF: I sell the most books in Texas and I get the most traffic from Texas, which is funny to me. I think people relate to the “homesick” part, but also just relate to the food in general and celebrating Texas food—no matter where you are. That’s what I try to do and I think that what’s important to people and I think that’s why Texans in Texas enjoy the book and the blog. I do love New York, and I do miss Texas. My ideal scenario would be half my time in Texas and half my time in New York. I just haven’t figured out where I want to to put down stakes in Texas yet.

JC: I think it also speaks to the feeling that “everything’s better in Texas.” That if you weren’t in Texas, you’d spend all your time missing it. You think, “Oh, if we ever left Texas, it would be horrible… there wouldn’t be any food!”

LF: Absolutely. Absolutely. You know, it’s funny, people who haven’t lived in other places, they get shocked… I went out with some people in Texas and I ordered a chicken-fried steak and they’re all getting salads, and they’re like, why are you getting chicken-fried steak, and I’m like, “because I can’t get it in New York.” Their eyes get wide: what! there’s no chicken fried steak in New York? I was like, “no, not really.” What?! That’s crazy. So people don’t even realize that a lot of the things that they take for granted just aren’t availabe. So I think that is definitely an interesting thing for readers. You’ve got it good, because you’re still there.

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