Among Green Pastures Again
The Reissue of One of the Great Texas Cookbooks
When Lyndon B. Johnson moved into the White House in 1964, most Americans' perceptions about the Lone Star state and its inhabitants were defined by the raucous cowboys and oilmen in Edna Ferber's 1950s opus Giant. Texas food was considered to be little more than barbecue and Tex-Mex combination plates. Editors at the publishing house of Little, Brown & Co. thought there might be a market for a book that revealed the depth and breadth of Texas cooking and asked famed Texas folklorist J. Frank Dobie to recommend a possible author. Dobie emphatically told them the woman they needed was native Texan Mary Faulk Koock, the imaginative and vivacious hostess who had turned her ancestral home into Austin's successful Green Pastures restaurant.
Along with her friend Helen Corbitt, Mary Faulk Koock was one of the Lone Star state's premier hostesses of the Forties, Fifties, and Sixties, renowned for the gracious hospitality of her home and the bounty of delicious food at her table. The editors heeded Dobie's advice and sent American culinary icon James Beard to Austin to help Mrs. Koock develop a plan for her cookbook. Mary Koock included her own recipes and those of her talented cooks Amy Nelson and Julian Hernandez, plus hundreds gathered from friends and extended family across the entire state. The Texas Cookbook was published by Little, Brown & Co. in 1965 and made it clear there was a lot more food on Texas tables than brisket and enchiladas.
The book's style was informal and engaging, with each chapter offering anecdotes, menus, and recipes from different areas of Texas. In the sections about Austin, Mrs. Koock wrote of entertaining everyone from then Vice-President Johnson, his wife, and visiting dignitaries at the LBJ Ranch to the members of the Singing and Chowder Society at Green Pastures. Menus from the parties held in two Austin estates, Sweetbrush, owned by the family of actor Zachary Scott, and Woodlawn, home to Gov. Allen Shivers and his family, are shared alongside recipes for the tasty treats served at Czech weddings and St. Ignatius church bazaars. The Dallas chapter vividly recounts the elegant buffets served at the annual opera balls while from Houston the author shares tales of beaten biscuits in the home of arts patron Miss Ima Hogg and fancy soirees staged to honor kings and maharajahs. Each chapter offers a little history of the area with recipes that highlight its ethnic or agricultural influences. There are Cajun recipes from Beaumont, dishes served at a smorgasbord prepared by Swedish women from Elroy, German specialties from the Hill Country, the prize-winning watermelon rind preserves from Luling's 1964 Watermelon Thump, and beef and game from the King Ranch.
The book sold well in its heyday and was a must-have companion to Mrs. Corbitt's cookbooks in the library of any serious Texas hostess. As a young woman just teaching myself to cook in Austin, I found it to be a wonderful source of inspiration and ideas. I especially loved the anecdotes about the people and places in my adopted hometown. My original copy, signed by the author, was for years one of the true treasures in my big cookbook collection and I was heartsick when I realized I'd somehow managed to lose it. When I put The Texas Cookbook and the Helen Corbitt Cookbook in a list of my favorite Texas titles a couple of years ago, readers took me to task for listing so many books that were out of print. I shared their disappointment. Last year, I was pleased when the University of North Texas Press reissued a collection of Helen Corbitt's recipes, The Best From Helen Corbitt's Kitchens ($24.95), edited by Patty MacDonald. This year, UNT Press has created the Great American Cooking Series to "keep in print the eating habits and culinary practices of the American people, past and present." The first book in that series is Mary Faulk Koock's The Texas Cookbook: From Barbecue to Banquet -- an Informal View of Dining and Entertaining the Texas Way ($19.95). The reissue of this delightful piece of anecdotal Texas culinary history is a worthy choice to inaugurate the series and a genuine gift to anyone interested in Texas foodways.
Austin has grown and changed so much in the 35 years since Mary Faulk Koock last entertained at Green Pastures, there are now thousands of people here who have no idea who she was or the contribution she and her family made to the city we all love. If you're of the opinion that Austin's liberal politics and laid-back alternative lifestyles began with the hippie musicians of the early Seventies or the slackers who came later, think again. The large, extended family of Henry and Martha Faulk, Mary's parents, contributed to Austin's liberal atmosphere as early as the Twenties and Thirties, helping to shape the city's highly valued quality of life.
"They were all free thinkers and socialists over there," says Karen Koock Kuykendall, Mary Koock's eldest daughter and "Austin's reigning theatre diva" according to the Chronicle's recent guide to the city's top 40 stage actors. Kuykendall was instrumental in regaining the rights to her mother's book and working with UNT press on the reissue. Her brother Ken Koock tells of how his grandfather introduced Eugene V. Debs, the five-time Socialist candidate for president, to a meeting of Austin Democrats. With a background such as that, the paths of Martha and Henry Faulk's children are not surprising. John Henry Faulk became the beloved Texas humorist and radio/TV performer who challenged Senator Joe McCarthy's House Un-American Activities Committee and was subsequently blacklisted. The Austin public library is named in his honor. Johnny's sister Mary married hometown boy Chester Koock and together with their brood of seven children, the Koocks turned Mary's gift for hospitality and talent for throwing great parties into a family business.
Mary and Chester opened their home as Green Pastures restaurant soon after the end of World War II. While it was a highly regarded destination because of Mary's hospitality and imaginative food, the true hallmark of Green Pastures was that it was open to everyone. "Mother was always very egalitarian, she made everybody feel at home," says Ken Koock, recalling that Jewish citizens who weren't able to join certain country clubs celebrated many a bar mitzvah under the oaks at Green Pastures and African-Americans who couldn't rent hotel ballrooms were welcomed to entertain there. Governors were known to drop by with fresh game and request special dishes to entertain their colleagues. The Faulk children's schoolmates from the nearby St. Ignatius Church school had parties in the yard. After a local performance one Christmas, famed Texas pianist Van Cliburn dined at the round family table in the kitchen, regaling the children and the staff with stories about his tours. Everyone had a place at Mrs. Koock's table. She was equally respected by her restaurant patrons and her devoted staff, maintaining friendships with all of them throughout her life.
The operation of Green Pastures was truly a family affair in those first 20 years. Karen Kuykendall remembers her parents as charming and talented people who loved to entertain. "Daddy had a lovely tenor voice, and they would often sing together," she says, adding that perhaps her mother's theatrical flair played a big part in the success of the restaurant. "There were always fires in the fireplaces and fresh flowers in every room. She made every day feel like a special event." Kuykendall recalls directing wedding parties by the age of 12 and all the siblings relate stories of being pressed into service making finger sandwiches, decorating hors d'oeuvres, or directing cars in the long driveway. "As the youngest, I didn't have to work as much as the older kids," says Martha Koock Ward with a laugh, "but I sometimes showed up in people's wedding photos, two little legs hanging through the banister rails of the front hallway staircase."
The Koocks lived at Green Pastures and operated the restaurant downstairs from the late Forties until 1965 when a fire in the upstairs living area forced them to move. The restaurant continued to operate and the house was restored but within a couple of years, Mary and Chester retired, turning the restaurant over to son Ken Koock and his partners Lee and Bobby Buslett. After retiring from the restaurant, Mrs. Koock published another cookbook, Cuisines of the Americas, a collection of favorite recipes from Latin American embassies, collaborated on a third, The Deaf Smith County Cookbook, and served as food editor of Texas Star, a supplement in several Sunday newspapers. She later served a vice president in charge of public relations at the south branch of the then Bank of Austin and was a much sought-after guest speaker for women's and business groups. She died of a stroke in 1996. Green Pastures continues to be a busy restaurant and very popular wedding location, hosting and catering hundreds of functions a year. A lovely portrait of Mary Faulk Koock graces the main entrance hallway of her family home, where her legacy of hospitality continues.
Karen Kuykendall and her siblings will host a reception celebrating The Texas Cookbook with samples from some of the recipes on Sunday, November 18, from 4-6pm at Green Pastures (811 Live Oak).