For author Lisa Fain, distance from her home state has added a fresh perspective on her favorite flavors.
It wasn’t an epiphany. It was more of a gradual realization for Lisa Fain, a Texas native who moved to New York City in 1995 to pursue a career in publishing. If she craved the familiar, spirited flavors of the Lone Star State, others probably did, too. So after a decade of trying to make do with limited local options, Fain established the Homesick Texan food blog in 2005 to catalog her search for and adaptation of Texas dishes.
She touched a nerve. Turns out there were pining expatriates everywhere. Her blog traffic skyrocketed, and in 2011 she released The Homesick Texan Cookbook. Her follow-up, The Homesick Texan’s Family Table: Lone Star Cooking From My Kitchen to Yours (Ten Speed Press), hit bookstore shelves this April. And in May, she received the highest honor of all, a James Beard Foundation Award for best Individual Food Blog.
“Ever since I moved to New York I was obsessed with trying to re-create Texas foods because they just weren’t here,” Fain says. “I would hear about a Mexican restaurant in New Jersey that was great and I’d hop on the fast train, walk a mile to this place, and it would be terrible.”
She decided to take matters into her own hands. “I started cooking more and having people over, and we agreed it was so much more relaxing to just sit in my apartment and eat these things instead of schlepping all the way out into the Bronx to have a subpar meal.”
When Fain got her first digital camera in 2006 and realized she could photograph what she was cooking, she began posting regularly on her blog. “Food blogs were just starting to take off at the time,” Fain says. “I didn’t start it as a business or anything — I just thought it would be fun to share the stories, photos, and recipes with my friends and family back home.”
Home is where it all started for Fain, and it’s where she returns in The Homesick Texan’s Family Table. She serves up memories and comforting dishes intended to keep the family gathered at the dinner table long after the bowls of peach ice cream have been licked clean.
“I know when I was growing up, my family forced us to have dinner together every night and tell one amusing anecdote,” Fain says. “When you’re 16, you think it’s the stupidest thing ever. But when you go out in the world, you realize we’re so busy these days. You work through dinner and you sit at your desk for lunch. I think there’s a time and place for gathering with family and friends at the table. And I think as a society and as people, we’d be a lot happier if we made the time to do that more often.”
Inspired by faded recipe cards and family gatherings, the stories and dishes in The Homesick Texan’s Family Table provide a nod to nostalgia while offering contemporary updates. Fain tells tales of growing up in Dallas as a regular of the Tex-Mex institution Herrera’s Café and of her mother’s love of the restaurant’s signature Crazy Nachos, and then shares her own riff on the iconic dish (it’s also the book’s cover shot). She introduces readers to old favorites like chicken spaghetti casserole, a traditional recipe involving cream of chicken soup and Ro-Tel that she imagines her great-grandmother might have received from the wife of then-Texas Gov. John Connally during an event at Texas A&M University-Kingsville, and then offers an update featuring a homemade roux, shredded chicken, grape tomatoes, fresh garlic, and jalapeños for an added kick.
In addition to shining a caring light on a revitalized Tex-Mex, Fain also lays out a dynamic, evolving interpretation of modern Lone Star cuisine, which is as diverse and all-encompassing as Texas hash. Cochinita pibil — a traditionally pit-cooked pork dish from Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula, slapped with achiote and sour oranges and prepared by wrapping the meat in banana leaves — shares space with singular spins on such standards as enchiladas and pecan pie.
Fain has come a long way from days spent on commuter rail lines destined for disappointment. But one thing hasn’t changed for the seventh-generation Texan. As her latest cookbook shows, family and traditions endure and grow stronger daily when they are nourished by a culture centered at the table and anchored by beloved foods.
Cowboys & Indians: So what keeps you coming back to Texas?
Lisa Fain: The allure of Texas cuisine is that there are big, bold flavors, which is exciting. There’s lots of heat and there’s lots of spice. I think it’s also pretty comforting. You know, there’s lots of cheese and lots of sauces, and then it’s also fresh-tasting, too — like in salsas, pico de gallo, and even salads. That’s kind of the thing that always cracks me up — people who aren’t from Texas think that we don’t eat any vegetables at all. They think all we eat are cheese and meat. Usually, if you look at a table or at a plate in Texas, there are mainly vegetables with a little bit of protein. I mean, at a barbecue joint people may be getting meat by the pound, but for the most part Texas is a great place to grow things. Many people have a garden, and there are a lot of farms. Pretty much throughout the year you can get really good farm-fresh produce. So we do eat a lot of vegetables and side dishes and things like that, too. So I feel like there’s something for everyone in Texas.
C&I: In your new cookbook, The Homesick Texan’s Family Table, you include a recipe for cochinita pibil, which is not Texan at all. Rather, it’s classic Mexican. Why did you decide to include it?
Fain: Because people are eating it in Texas. Even though it’s not traditionally Tex-Mex, Tex-Mex — like any cuisine — is evolving. I think there are more Mexican immigrants in Texas who are bringing their direct culinary influences from Mexico. So now when you go to a Tex-Mex restaurant, you might see cochinita pibil on the menu even though it’s not traditionally Tex-Mex. I know it’s not native to Texas, but it’s representative of how Texans today are eating. Plus, it’s just really good.
C&I: What other changes do you think are in store for Texas food?
Fain: We’re going to see more influences from the people that are moving there. Interior Mexican and regional Mexican dishes will appear more commonly on menus. You’re already seeing that in the big cities like Houston, but I think it’s going to continue to evolve and become more mainstream throughout the state. I also think we’re going to see more Indian food. As more diverse populations move to the state and open restaurants, their cuisines are being incorporated into “normal” Texas life. I think, likewise, you will also probably see hybrids develop. There already are some out there — like Indian Tex-Mex tacos.
C&I: In your cookbook, you take the approach that food is important, but that its real function is to serve as a vehicle for bonding. The table is more than an eating place. What do you think draws people to the family table?
Fain: Well, I think we all have to eat, so there’s a reason to be there, but once you get beyond enjoying the good food, you realize that you’re spending time with each other. And I know in my family, at least at Thanksgiving for instance, once we sit down we’ll sit at the table for six or seven hours just laughing and talking and sharing stories. It’s a comfortable place to gather, and it’s just a great way to spend time with each other and catch up.
For me, the big standout moments in my life are like the potluck we had for my grandparents’ 50th wedding anniversary. After dinners and occasions like that, I couldn’t even tell you exactly what was on the menu — but it was the company I kept that made the meal so memorable.
C&I: As an ambassador for Texas cuisine, what do you want non-Texans to take away from your latest book?
Fain: Well, I want them to take away that Texas cuisine is varied, delicious, comforting, and can even be healthy. It’s not all bad for you and can be made with fresh ingredients. But I also want people to just remember how important it is to sit at the table, enjoy a meal with your family and friends, and cherish that time.
Keep up with Lisa Fain online at www.homesicktexan.com. The Homesick Texan’s Family Table: Lone Star Cooking From My Kitchen to Yours (Ten Speed Press, 2014) and The Homesick Texan Cookbook (Hyperion, 2011) are available at Amazon.com.
From the August/September 2014 issue.