Senior editor Patricia Sharpe, who wrote this month’s feature on home cooking, talks about local opinions and okra.
texasmonthly.com: Texas has so much to offer in terms of Southern-style home-cooked meals. How did you narrow what must have been a wide range of restaurants down to the ones that eventually made it onto the final list?
Patricia Sharpe: You have to be a detective. We had 115 places on our master list, and we asked them to fax us menus. Then we eliminated the restaurants that had too many fancy dishes (even if they did offer a few home-style dishes) and especially the ones I suspected were serving pre-prepared frozen entrées (if a small restaurant has way too much variety, you know the kitchen isn’t cooking it all from scratch).
texasmonthly.com: How early did you begin the research for this project?
PS: We worked on it for around four or five months, but everybody had other assignments going on during that time.
texasmonthly.com: What were your primary and most useful sources for the research?
PS: Well, of course, we asked our twenty or so restaurant reviewers all over the state, and I sent an e-mail to the staff of the magazine (we have offices in Austin, Dallas, and Houston). Got lots of suggestions from them. And Texas Monthly publisher Michael Levy had a great idea: Ask state troopers where they like to eat in the small towns of Texas. A Texas Department of Public Safety spokesperson helped us by e-mailing the troopers.
texasmonthly.com: When choosing the best in certain categories, for example “best fried chicken,” did you consider local opinion? Did local opinion guide which restaurants you visited?
PS: We consulted the people I mentioned above. Then we sent out eight writers—myself, Texas Monthly assistant managing editor and foodie Stacy Hollister, and food writers John Morthland and June Naylor, plus several of our own reviewers—to check the restaurants out. We did a lot of traveling. The restaurants that appear in the final story were all selected on the basis of personal, anonymous visits. The magazine paid for all the food consumed. Nothing was comped.
texasmonthly.com: Did you ever find yourself going against local opinion, or for the most part, were the locals on the right track?
PS: Actually, some of the local favorites, the ones with the big reputations, did not turn out to be the best. So sometimes we bucked local opinion and sometimes we agreed with it.
texasmonthly.com: How long did it take you to sample all that food from Amarillo to San Antonio?
PS: Well, it depended. Our writer John Morthland did Houston in about a week. He’s speedy—I imagine he ate lunch and dinner several times a day. I myself took three trips (of a couple of days each) to do San Antonio. I ran around doing small towns whenever I could get away from the office for a few hours. One day I drove to two different towns for lunch.
texasmonthly.com: As ludicrous as it may sound, did you ever get bored eating the home-cooked type of food?
PS: Well, yes. It all tends to be pretty much alike, and we were doing a set menu of dishes—so every single time we had to order chicken-fried steak, pork chops, meat loaf, and on and on. Your eyes glaze over. But after a few days away from it, I was always ready to go again.
texasmonthly.com: The reviewed products were not always the healthiest, how did you combine the demands of this project with a healthy lifestyle?
PS: This was a high-carb, high-fat story—no way around that. I just tried to eat as little as possible of the bad foods and a lot of the things that are good for you—like greens and okra. I think I gained about three or four pounds doing this. It was inevitable.