There’s this recurring dream that I have. I’m in a field—my great-grandma’s Texas cornfield to be exact. A long table loaded with dishes, bowls, and platters full of good food stretches through the green stalks, and surrounding the table is most everyone I’ve ever known, both family and friends. My great-grandmother is there, and she waves me over. “Mighty fine food and mighty fine people to eat it!” she says as I take a seat. I then begin to eat a most memorable meal.
It’s been said that if you ask a Texan about their most memorable meal, they won’t tell you about a coveted reservation at a five-star temple of dining, or an exotic feast served after an airplane flight halfway across the world. Nope, most Texans will say that their most memorable meal was home-cooked, shared at the family table.
At least it’s that way for me.
But to be honest—despite my recurring dream—I hadn’t really pondered the question until some New York friends and I were having dinner at my apartment. Now, before I continue, let me say I’m a seventh-generation Texan who happens to live in New York, and one of my favorite pastimes is to share the joys of my home state with my non-Texan friends.
That particular evening was Tex-Mex night. As we sat around dipping tortilla chips into salsas and quesos, my friends talked about elaborate meals from fine establishments located in places such as Napa Valley or Spain. But when it was my turn to answer the question, even though I’ve enjoyed eating in a fair share of fancy restaurants, I realized my most memorable meal was the potluck we had for my grandparents’ fiftieth anniversary.
“A potluck?” said my friends.
“Yes, a family potluck,” I said. Then I told them about the meal.
It was early July, and while Texas is notorious for being hotter than heck during the summer, that day was blessed with a gentle breeze. The party was held at my grandparents’ North Texas farm—a beautiful spread of green pastures, rolling hills, and a pond—which has been continuously owned by my family since the 1840s.
Through the course of the party, more than one hundred people came by to pay their respects—a lively gathering of folks young and old. I had recently moved to New York, so for me, a visit to the peaceful farm was a much-needed tonic from the craziness of city life. But beyond seeing the beautiful land, it was a treat to visit with dear family and friends, many of whom I hadn’t seen in years.
The food at the anniversary party was typical mid-summer Texan fare—cold salads, hot rolls, chicken, cake, and pies. The food was good, as it was all made with love. But what made the meal truly special were the connections made with family and friends, old and new.
Whether it was getting to hug cousins I hadn’t seen since we were kids, hearing stories about my grandparents’ wedding from guests who had been there that day, or eating homemade pies rolled out with a pin that had been a hand-carved wedding gift fifty years earlier—the meal made me smile. It was a most memorable meal.
And that’s what The Homesick Texan’s Family Table
is all about—making memories at the table with those whom we love. No matter if they are memories of sitting together for a simple weeknight dinner or jostling for space during a large holiday gathering, some of my fondest moments have occurred at the family table. Perhaps you feel the same way.
Sure, Texans spend time at the table for the major milestones such as births, weddings, anniversaries, and deaths. But we’re also inclined to break bread together just because it’s a clear evening, and our friend’s back porch has a spectacular view of the sunset, or it’s a Sunday afternoon in spring, and we want to toast the arrival of our state flower, the bluebonnet. No special occasion is ever really needed: Texans gather at the table simply to reconnect with our family and friends.
This is not to say that food isn’t also important. On the contrary, we love to eat and we love to eat well. And what we eat plays such an important role in our lives, if you’re a homesick Texan such as myself, you’ll find that cooking and eating certain dishes will instantly take you back home.
For instance, on cold winter nights I’ll brighten people’s spirits with ranch-style beans and jalapeño cheese enchiladas. Or to commemorate Texas Independence Day, I might offer bowls of chili and slices of pecan pie. Fiery wings, peppery ribs, and choriqueso are always welcome before the big game. And when the world begins to awaken in spring, thick slices of balsamic-tarragon glazed ham along with strawberry shortcakes are a fine way to celebrate the world in bloom.
The recipes I’m sharing with you are inspired by old favorites that I culled from recipe cards, dinners, and conversations with family and friends across the state, dishes that are as wide and varied as Texas itself. Whether it’s seafood from the Coastal Bend, beef dishes from the arid west, Mexican-influenced dishes from the Rio Grande Valley, or traditionally Southern dishes from the east—Texas’s food reflects the diversity of its regions and people.
If you’re familiar with my first book and my blog, you might be aware that I have been known to take certain liberties with Texas cuisine. For instance, I tend to eschew processed and packaged ingredients in favor of their fresh equivalents. I also try to cook with fruits and vegetables that are in season as much as possible.
Simply put, my approach to cooking is to make each dish as flavorful as possible. This can be achieved, for example, by using fresh ingredients, by adding an extra squeeze of lime juice, or by throwing in a jalapeño slice or two. But while I may tweak the classics and create new dishes from old standards, their spirit and soul is always Texan.
But enough about the book—let’s get cooking. Please pull up a chair and join me at the table, where’s there’s plenty of mighty fine food, and mighty fine people to eat it.
Excerpted from The Homesick Texan's Family Table by Lisa Fain. Copyright © 2014 by Lisa Fain. Excerpted by permission of Ten Speed Press, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.