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Texas Book Festival Recap

Texas, books, festivals: Three things Austin foodies have down pat

By Virginia B. Wood, 2:45PM, Wed. Oct. 26, 2011

Wow, there’s nothing like staying out of the public eye for several months and losing a substantial amount of weight to make a gal feel like a celebutante when she re-emerges! After months of battling a variety of illnesses, I spent my first day out at the Texas Book Festival cooking tent last Saturday.

I ran into lots of old friends, saw some very impressive cooking demos, and came home more determined than ever to get my own stalled book projects off the back burner. Enough about me – performances during the cooking demos confirmed our positive editorial responses to this year’s festival cookbook lineup (see "Chews Wisely," Oct. 21), and they were loads of fun in the bargain.

First up were Hugh Acheson and Martha Hall Foose. Canadian-born chef Acheson has restaurants in both Athens and Atlanta, Ga., and prides himself on refreshing new takes on Southern food that aren’t informed or bound by a grandmother’s collard greens and cornbread preparation. I didn’t have a chance to review Acheson’s book, A New Turn in the South – Southern Flavors Reinvented for Your Kitchen, in time for our pre-fest coverage, but now that I’ve read it and seen him in action, I’m a big fan. The way the book is produced, using notes and diagrams in the chef’s handwriting, serves to reinforce the impression that you’re really privy to the inside scoop on an accomplished chef’s personal musings. Though Acheson is contractually obligated not to discuss his stint as a judge on Bravo’s upcoming Top Chef: Texas, the chef did say he really enjoyed his summer visit to Austin during the taping. He said judges sampled food all over town, including Barley Swine, Uchiko, Foreign & Domestic, the Salt Lick, and multiple food trailers. I admire both the recipes and the storytelling ability of Mississippi cookbook author Martha Hall Foose and was pleased to see her in the cooking tent with her newest work, A Southerly Course - Recipes and Stories from Close to Home. Her wicked sense of humor revealed itself while she was piping funnel cake batter into a pot of hot oil. “If I was a different Martha, I might pipe the kid’s initials or a family crest with this batter,” she drawled with a sly wink, “but I’m not that Martha!” We in the audience wondered how this Martha would fare in the Literary Smackdown later that day, considering that she claimed to be taking a box of fudge she prepared during her demo to bribe the judges.

Although I’ve been friends with chef Lou Lambert for years, I’d never seen him present a cooking demo until his appearance in the cooking tent. Lambert was introduced by local barbecue blogger Drew Thornley (www.manuptexasbbq.com) and wowed the crowd with his take on braised beef ribs with green chile cheese grits. I can assure you that Lambert’s down-to-earth charm is every bit as authentic as his Texas cuisine, and if you doubt my objectivity, I encourage you to take Mick Vann’s word for it – Big Ranch Big City is definitely a cookbook keeper!

When Gesine Bullock-Prado was in Austin in the spring, we did an interview about her second book, Sugar Baby: Confections, Candies, Cakes & Other Delicious Recipes for Cooking with Sugar, and I was impressed with her complete (self-taught) mastery of her subject matter and her passion for baking and working with sugar. During her festival appearance, Gesine revealed some other character traits. She showed the audacity to demonstrate two finicky sugar recipes in a makeshift outdoor kitchen on a day with some ambient humidity, the bravery to invite scene-stealing kids from the audience to assist her by pulling taffy and spinning sugar into cotton candy, and her hilarious, informative performance proved beyond the shadow of a doubt that deft comedy timing runs in her family.

Anyone who has spent time working behind the camera for such culinary heavy-hitters as Nathalie Dupree, Martha Stewart, Anne Willan, and Bobby Flay would naturally have a treasure-trove of good stories to tell. However, Atlanta TV producer Virginia Willis seasoned her cooking demo with stories about what it’s like on the other side of the camera now that she’s promoting her second book, Basic to Brilliant, Y’all – 150 Refined Southern Recipes and Ways To Dress Them Up for Company. While she was whipping up sweet potato grits and a marinated skirt steak with onion marmalade, Willis regaled the audience with tales of her recent TV appearances. She recounted a stint on the Martha Stewart show where she reminded Stewart about assigning her the task of peeling 10 pounds of grapes for a holiday haunted house one year. “You completely cured me of the need to ever do that again,” she recalled telling Stewart. Willis also told us about a recent on-camera appearance with a famous Southern TV chef – as they were preparing a savory monkey bread recipe from Willis’ book, after licking her fingers several times, the hostess turned to Virginia and offered to feed her a finger-full on melted butter and cheese. Willis demonstrated how she had backed away in horror, saying “The list of people who can feed me food off their fingers is pretty short, and one of them is my mama! Luckily, they edited that out before the show aired,” she drawled in amazement.

Look for reviews of most of these books in the Food section and don’t forget them when doing your holiday shopping.

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