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Foodways Texas begins an oral history of Lone Star restaurants

01/28/2013 11:27 AM

01/29/2013 8:25 AM

AUSTIN -- Matt's El Rancho looks great at 60.

Co-founder Matt Martinez died in 2003, but the restaurant that bears his name is still a thriving business more than 60 years after he and wife Janie opened the first location in downtown Austin.

Few restaurants make it to 10 years, much less 30, 40 and beyond, so what's the secret to making it to 60?

Foodways Texas wanted to know.

Last year, the statewide nonprofit, which was established in 2010 to preserve the state's many unique food cultures and relies on membership dues and events for funding, teamed with the Texas Restaurant Association and the University of Texas' American Studies Department to preserve the stories behind some of the state's most iconic restaurants through oral histories, long-form interviews that record history from the perspective of those closest to the business.

The iconic restaurant project is part of Foodways Texas' larger mission to document the many components of Texas' food culture through both oral histories and documentaries, says Marvin Bendele, the organization's Austin-based executive director.

"We're trying to preserve those stories that might not be around much longer," he says, no matter if it's from a sorghum farmer in South Texas, the head baker at Earl Abel's in San Antonio or the family that runs Kim Son, one of Houston's best-known Vietnamese restaurants.

The idea to focus on restaurants has roots in an oral-history project about barbecue coordinated about six years ago by University of Texas professor and Foodways Texas founding board member Elizabeth Engelhardt. Eleven graduate students, including Bendele, who was a student at the time, interviewed everyone from pitmasters to ranchers to find out the stories behind that stack of fatty brisket you'll find served on butcher paper across Central Texas.

"As a historian, when you try to write about foodways, you can find newspaper stories about when they started or maybe if the restaurant had a fire," Bendele says, but you don't learn about the daily lives of the people who run it or the customers who come every day. "We try to get them to talk as much about their history as possible -- how they got into it, their life before restaurants, the stories of how the restaurants changed over time."

As the Texas Restaurant Association celebrated its 75th birthday last year, the organization wanted to find a way to recognize the members and other restaurants that have been around almost as long, says Wendy Saari, TRA's vice president of marketing.

With the help of a handful of American Studies students at the University of Texas, Foodways Texas and the TRA came up with a list of the state's longest-lived (and best-loved) restaurants and sent out the students, some of whom had completed additional training with Southern Foodways Alliance's oral history program, to record interviews with the proprietors.

Last fall, Foodways Texas posted the first of the interviews on its website (foodwaystexas.com), featuring Joe T. Garcia's in Fort Worth, Zentner's Daughter in San Angelo, Blue Bonnet Cafe in Marble Falls and Matt's El Rancho.

The next round of restaurants, which include the Blanco Bowling Club Cafe, Big Texan in Amarillo, Mi Tierra in San Antonio and Kim Son, will be posted in coming weeks ahead of Foodways Texas' annual symposium, which will take place in Austin in early April.

Dispelling stereotypes

Sherri Sheu, a Georgia native and one of the graduate students in Engelhardt's class who conducted interviews last year, says the project has helped her better understand what makes Texans tick. In Amarillo, she saw all the stereotypes about Texas on proud display at the Big Texan Steak House, but at Kim Son, she found out that Texas isn't all longhorns and cowboy hats.

Tao La learned how to adapt his family's traditional Vietnamese dishes so that they would be appealing to non-Vietnamese Texans, but also to "keep the cultural heart of the food alive," Sheu says.

"What was most illuminating with these oral histories is that as a historian, the people I usually work with are already dead, and we have to access their information through documents and letters," she says. "But in this setting, you can ask them questions and they get to tell their story in their own words. You don't have to go around to fill in the blanks."

Foodways Texas director Bendele says that the restaurants they plan to highlight in the ongoing series won't necessarily be nationally known, but that doesn't make their stories less important.

"We want to get as many of these as we can," he says, gently acknowledging that the longevity of both the owners who carry the stories and the restaurants themselves is never guaranteed.

In the Matt's El Rancho oral history interview, co-founder Janie Martinez, who turned 90 last year, told one of her favorite stories about one of the restaurant's most famous fans:

"Lyndon Johnson used to come through the back door, because we let him come in through the little kitchen. There was a back door down the hallway where we had our drinks and sodas and so on, and he would come through there. And he would go through the kitchen first and say, 'How are you, Mrs. Martinez? How are you?' and shake my hand.

"Big old boy -- he was tall and big [she laughs].... The Secret Service would be in different areas of the house, but he'd come in first and go through the kitchen and shake my hand, and then come on in. He was the sweetest man. And a lot of customers follow him. After a while many other people would come through the back. It was OK. We didn't mind -- everything was fine. We had nothing to hide."

A business can't rely on repeat customers alone, and one of the keys to Matt's El Rancho success is walking that fine line between chasing dining trends to stay relevant and maintaining a comforting sense of sameness.

Fifteen years ago, not a single customer was asking about gluten-free options, but now, servers have to be able to explain which dishes can be made without gluten. The kitchen now uses Niman Ranch beef for the steaks and fajitas and has added vegetarian options over the years, as well as dishes such as fish tacos, made with redfish from the Gulf of Mexico.

Barbecue symposium

Foodways Texas is hosting its third annual symposium April 4-6 in Austin. As in past years, the conference will feature speakers, including authors, historians and academics, as well as events and dinners that are open to the public. The theme this year is "Our Barbecue, Ourselves" and "will explore the past, present and potential of smoked meat in Texas and its intimate connections to Texas cultural history and identity."

Bendele says that some of the schedule is still being worked out, but confirmed speakers include Robb Walsh, who will talk about community barbecues from East Texas to North Carolina; John T. Edge, who will explain some of the misconceptions and history behind the word "pitmasters"; and Joe Nick Patoski, who will give insight into the politics of barbecue and barbecue in politics.

One of the evening meals will feature several of the state's best pitmasters, including Justin Fourton from Pecan Lodge in Dallas, Austin's Aaron Franklin and Greg Gatlin from Gatlin's BBQ in Houston.

Tickets and details on the symposium, as well as information about becoming a member of Foodways Texas, are available at foodwaystexas.com.

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