To Have and to Eat
A Chronicle food writer says goodbye to Austin
By Anna Toon,
12:00AM, Thu. Dec. 31, 2015
I suppose I was expecting to feast on wild game or steak tartare. I’d pierce the egg yolk with my tongue and rip up the rye. Maybe we’d hunt down wild rodents and tear rabbits limb from limb, feasting on their flesh and lapping up their blood. We don’t need utensils! Look at these chompers!
Needless to say it was a surprise when I learned my partner’s culinary tastes rivaled those of a toddler. “You mean, you only look like a werewolf?” I asked.
“Well, how about some birria?” I pressed, gingerly. “My friend slaughtered this goat, and I toasted the guajillo. I made a purée of tomatillos, garlic, onion, and serranos, and it’s been cooking for hours. Look here,” I said, pushing the bowl of shimmery broth forward. “I pulled the meat off the bone for you.”
“No, thank you,” he said. “I’ll just have nuggets if you don’t mind.”
“But I do mind,” I said. “How about curry? I bought this chicken from Whole Foods and the lemongrass came from the garden. If I can just borrow your coffee grinder for one moment, I can grind up these seeds for a paste.”
"No,” he said, “I’m not completely fond of the smell,” turning up what I now knew was most surely not a snout. I resisted the urge to roll up a newspaper and swat him and instead opened the freezer door. Defeated.
It was his brow, thick and slightly protrusive, that gave him the wolfy sensibility. I liked to make up conversations with him in my head. “My, my, what a large brow you have,” I would say, squinting into the sun. “All the better to shield your eyes with, my dear,” he’d reply in his thick East Tennessee drawl. Three years prior, we’d met at a wedding in Austin but were both attached. A couple of breakups, and one divorce later, we reconnected. While I was in Nashville for work this spring, he drove the 2.5 hours from Knoxville to meet me. It was only after I’d made a lengthy list of restaurants to try that I realized he didn’t share my hedonistic devotion to gastronomy. In fact, it’s entirely true that my ears will fall off before I hear the end of the $130 he spent at Husk. Suffice it to say, he was not impressed with the artful plating or the price tag of his bottle of Blackberry Farm Saison.
But, he did something else. He took me to Knoxville’s International Biscuit Festival, and I squeezed him in an alleyway. He brought me to the Stock & Barrel where we made eyes over our respective Green Man brews and our burgers, McLovin’ for him and a Farmhouse for me. We went to Bearden Beer Market, and then picked up pizzas from Hard Knox to-go - a Bone Crusher well-done and a La Motta well-done with pepperoni. I may never understand his undying love for Gavino’s, but I listened to him praise their manicotti and met his favorite bartender, Kyle (now of Northshore Brasserie). We brunched at Gourmet’s Market and OliBea (psst … where are the mimosas?) and walked through the Market Square Farmers' Market. Several visits later I visited the soup district and Crafty Bastard and Trailhead and played the Knoxville version of Ginny’s chicken-shit bingo at a backyard shindig we’ll call Krousetoberfest. Excellent spaetzle, my friends.
You see, I am a food writer, and more than that, an eater. Not of any special order, but a well-marbled eater nonetheless. I spend approximately 99% of my day thinking about my next meal. Indulgent, yes, but it’s how I was made. I want my coffee aged in a rum barrel with a dot of heavy cream and a sprinkle of cinnamon. I will eat duck rillette at noon (ok, a sandwich) whilst thinking about a charred octopus (ok, a taco) for dinner. I am mercilessly broke, but I will scrape together enough dimes for a warm brioche doughnut with lemon curd and finish that off with a glass of brandy. I dip fries in Béarnaise, and goddamnit, I brunch until midnight. (No easy feat.)
I can’t recall a time when I wasn’t a rabid eater. Growing up in Midland, Texas, my favorite person at day care was a woman named Mary. She was the only person who could stop my crying, and she was the cook. I tried to cook, too. As a 4-year-old I’d drag the kitchen stool to the stove to heat up soup or create a flight of potions. I destroyed our old, carpeted kitchen with splatters of red, blue, and yellow food coloring and used box mixes to create new concoctions. Wild blueberry muffins, you say? I present green and purple blueberry cake with frosting I stole from the can of refrigerated cinnamon rolls! Ta-da! Now who wants a raw cinnamon roll?! I once made my sister a milkshake with no less than 52 ingredients. She slurped it down, and then I told her it was made with a mixture that included milk and ice cream, cookies, mystery berries from the tree outside (not poisonous after all!), Instant Breakfast, malt, raw eggs, Ensure, and Dr. Pepper. “Not bad,” she said.
Then, there are the sounds. I used to love hearing my mom and dad’s morning chatter over the sliding of a spoon against the sides of a coffee cup. I would lay in bed and listen. If I woke up early enough, I would pour their coffee for them. Hers, ample cream and sugar. His, black with a teaspoon of sugar. He would often read to her from the paper, sometimes Dave Barry, sometimes obituaries, but always sitting on the floor with the newspaper laid out before him and a cigarette in hand. His baritone voice gliding smoothly, giving life to words. After he died I would miss the clinking sounds punctuating their early morning conversations. I would miss the conversations, too.
My epicurean sensibilities have since matured and refined. In part, because I was lucky enough to find a gig food writing for The Austin Chronicle. For three years, I have attended events I could never afford and feasted on 5-, 6-, 7-course meals prepared by Austin darlings and renowned chefs from around the country. I developed a friendship with my editor (Virginia B. Wood) that allowed me to be her plus-one to dinners that made my modest roots blush and my taste buds politely applaud. More truffles, please.
And, I learned. I learned that reading “Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack” as a women’s studies minor in Lubbock didn’t prepare me for writing about gentrification and urban farms. I learned that avoiding the subject of privilege and gentrification altogether contributes to the issue. I’m still working to balance what I witness and report while recognizing my privilege in the situation. I do know that I could have done a better job.
Now, leaving Austin for Knoxville, at least one certainty is that my culinary adventures continue. The pure breadth of places I’ve yet to try excites me, and there’s also the joy of experiencing new things with someone else. Of course, there will be the occasional pang for Austin. There’s been no better place to cut my teeth, and I’m intensely grateful for that. Yet, I suppose it’s increasingly difficult to ignore the creeping loss of eccentricity and boldness that first drew me to the city eight years ago, replaced instead by a skyline of cranes and frivolity. I suppose what I’m longing for is the unmistakable sentimentality rooted in food - the element that makes my mother’s chicken and dumplings the stuff of dreams. I want a meal that tells a story and says something about the person who made it. And most of all, I want to always feel the sense of anticipation and giddiness a glutton such as myself gets before a good meal or maybe in the midst of a real good love story.