Joan Gundermann wants you to eat your vegetables. So does Monica Pope, and if ever there were people you should listen to when it comes to peas and carrots, it’s these two. Gundermann is a farmer; Pope is a chef. And both of them are eloquent proselytizers about the benefits of fresh, locally raised produce and meats. Their connection is not just philosophical, however; it’s also personal. Gundermann sells produce at the weekly farmers’ market outside Pope’s Houston restaurant, T’afia. And Pope always has something from Gundermann Farms, near Wharton, on her menu. Which is why, when we decided it was high time to publish a story celebrating the bounty of a Texas summer harvest, it seemed only natural to ask the two to collaborate.
With her rosy cheeks and well-scrubbed face, Gundermann is the perfect advocate for sustainable and organic farming. She grew up in the sixties in the Houston suburb of Spring Branch, but even though she was a city girl, the country was her destiny. “My grandparents were farmers,” she says, “and my father always had a garden. He could grow anything.” She inherited his green thumb and also discovered early on that she was a natural entrepreneur. “If we had anything left over after my mother finished canning—strawberries, peaches, whatever—I would set up a little stand in the yard and sell it to the neighbors,” she says.
Gundermann and her husband, Walt, have been farming for 24 years at their spread, which is about an hour southwest of Houston. Over a twelve-month period their ninety acres—including twenty that are certified organic—produce everything from squash and peaches in the spring to carrots and tomatoes in the winter, more than a hundred different crops in all. But while the farm is successful now, Joan and Walt’s journey has often been a day-to-day struggle. “The hardest thing is the Texas climate,” she says. “It can be fifty degrees one day and a hundred the next. And just when a crop is ready to harvest, a hail- or windstorm or a bad freeze will come along and destroy everything.” But there are rewards. “When families come out here and find out firsthand how fresh produce is supposed to taste,” she says, “it makes it all worthwhile.”
Pope’s system of inventing new dishes for T’afia, her adventurous restaurant in Midtown, is like being on Iron Chef every week, except that instead of “exotic” and “global,” her mantra is “local, local, local.” Her on-the-spot creativity emphasizes Texas growers in general, those from around Houston in particular, and the stalwart group that sells at the weekly market outside T’afia most particularly. Every Saturday morning from eight to noon, the restaurant’s parking lot becomes a sea of tents and tables where some fifteen local growers, ranchers, and craftspeople set up shop and sell their wares. “We have fruits and vegetables, of course, also eggs and cheese, jams and honey, pecans, and meat from grass-fed beef and pasture-raised chickens,” Pope says. Every week, between two hundred and four hundred people show up. It’s a totally retro experience, like wandering into an episode of The Twilight Zone where you look around and suddenly it’s 1940.
Now three years old, T’afia (pronounced “Tah- fee -ah”) is a joint project of Pope and her partner Andrea Lazar. Pope cooks; Lazar runs things behind the scenes. But the chef started honing her notion of “what grows together goes together” some fifteen years ago at earlier ventures, including the Quilted Toque and Boulevard Bistrot. Today she has a cadre of loyal customers who are addicted to her provocative combinations of flavors and textures. And, like Gundermann, she gets a kick out of introducing her clientele to tastes they don’t even know they miss. “Whenever I put fresh pinto beans on the menu,” she says, “customers tell me, ‘These are amazing. We’ve never had anything but canned or dried ones.’ I want people to remember that beans come from gardens.”
For this Texas farmstead feast, we asked Gundermann what would be fresh and delicious at the height of summer. Then we asked Pope what to do with it. To supplement the basic produce, Pope also suggested Texas meat and cheese, which are available at selected farmers’ markets and also online. She and Gundermann urge people to get out and visit their local farmers’ markets and to buy foods raised sustainably, that is, without being sprayed to death with artificial fertilizers and pesticides. Sounds like a good idea to us.
Recipes from Peas Be With You
Young Pea Salad in Sherry Vinaigrette
Goat’s Milk Cheese
Grilled Cinnamon-Pepper Pork Chops
Minty Pickled Butternut Squash
Summer Okra Sautéed With Ginger and Turmeric
Farmstead Cake With Spiced Figs and Texas Pecans