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A Food Lover’s Guide to Food Lover’s Guides

While we were working on the Food Lover’s Guide to Houston at Houstonia Magazine, I fondly recalled my first purchases of Patricia Wells’ Food Lover’s Guide to Paris (1984), and Food Lover’s Guide to France (1987). Those two wildly successful guidebooks created a genre that inspired dozens of “Food Lover’s Guides” to various places in books and magazines.


I was a newbie food writer in 1993 when I called up Patricia Wells at her apartment in Paris and asked her to autograph my copy of the Food Lover’s Guide to France. She was very gracious, in fact, she invited me to come upstairs and have a glass of champagne and some olives she had cured herself at her summer home in Provence. I remember that it was February and her dining room was bedecked with forced tulips.

I got the book down off the shelf the other day, the binding is falling apart now, and I don’t think I will take it with me while traveling in France anymore. But I was somewhat astonished to see the inscriptions inside. I have never been much of an autograph seeker. For some reason, while I was traveling in France, I got the impulse to ask chefs to sign their names in the book.



It was a shock to see the autograph of Bernard Loiseau, the chef at Cote d’Or Restaurant in Burgundy who inspired the movie Ratatouille and tragically took his life when he lost one of his Michelin stars. One of the best chefs in the world, Loiseau was the mentor of Houston chef Olivier Ciesielski of L’Olivier restaurant on Westheimer.


A book review of La Mere Brazier in the Daily Beast got me thinking about a “type of kitchen peculiar to Lyon—that of the Grandes Mères and their cousins, Les Tantes.” In the late 1980s,  I had a chance to eat dinner at Chez Tante Paulette, and persuaded Paulette Authely, to sign my book. I still follow her recipe for Chicken with 40 Cloves of Garlic that appears in the book on the page opposite her photo.  “Places such as Chez Tante Paulette — where Paulette Authely reigned supreme with her chicken and garlic until five years ago — are no more,” wrote Patricia Wells of  Tante Paulette in 1994.

IMG_5432Maurice Bernachon took over the small chocolate shop he renamed Bernachon on Rue Franklin Roosevelt in Lyon in 1953. He reigned as France’s King of Chocolate until his death in 1999. Bernachon allowed me to hang around while he roasted a bag of cacao beans and ground them to silky smoothness. He signed his name with brown ink. The shop is still in business, its run by his children and grandchildren–the two most famous names in the gastronomy of Lyons, the Bernachon and Bocuse families, are intermarried and running a culinary dynasty.

There are many other autographs in the book. Chef Georges Blanc drew a little chicken beside his name after his speciality, poulet de Bresse; Robert Husser at Hostellerie du Cerf in Marlenheim wrote a long note after serving me the greatest platter of choucrote I have ever eaten; and Marc Haeberlin wished me “Best Regards” in the 28th of June 1996 after whipping up a wild game dinner at Auberge de L’ill in Alsace. There are also receipts for cave tours in Reims, currency exchange chits, and other memorabilia folded into the pages of this old tome.

Twenty or thirty years ago, these autographs were a silly tourist impulse, a lame attempt by my younger self to prove that I had really been to those places. That the chefs might pass away or the restaurants disappear never occurred to me.

Today, as a sentimental alter kocker, I touch the pages and treasure the memories.

FTX Symposium

FTX Symposium

Teasip Chronicles: George Orwell


Given the amount of iced tea Texans drink, I suspect our per capita consumption is up there with residents of the British Isles. Students and alumni of the University of Texas are known as “teasips” by our rivals at Texas A&M, but the truth is most Aggies are tea guzzlers too. People can get weird about tea. Over the years, I have collected some stories about obsessive tea behavior–here’s one of them.

During World War II, tea was rationed in Britain. There was something of a national debate about how to stretch a few ounces of loose leaves. In “A Nice Cup of Tea” British author George Orwell laid down the law about making tea. The article, which appeared in a book of Orwell’s essays, was reprinted in the Evening Standard on January 12, 1946.

A Nice Cup of Tea

If you look up ‘tea’ in the first cookery book that comes to hand you will probably find that it is unmentioned; or at most you will find a few lines of sketchy instructions which give no ruling on several of the most important points.

This is curious, not only because tea is one of the main stays of civilization in this country, as well as in Eire, Australia and New Zealand, but because the best manner of making it is the subject of violent disputes.

When I look through my own recipe for the perfect cup of tea, I find no fewer than eleven outstanding points. On perhaps two of them there would be pretty general agreement, but at least four others are acutely controversial. Here are my own eleven rules, every one of which I regard as golden:


  • First of all, one should use Indian or Ceylonese tea. China tea has virtues which are not to be despised nowadays — it is economical, and one can drink it without milk — but there is not much stimulation in it. One does not feel wiser, braver or more optimistic after drinking it. Anyone who has used that comforting phrase ‘a nice cup of tea’ invariably means Indian tea.
  • Secondly, tea should be made in small quantities — that is, in a teapot. Tea out of an urn is always tasteless, while army tea, made in a cauldron, tastes of grease and whitewash. The teapot should be made of china or earthenware. Silver or Britanniaware teapots produce inferior tea and enamel pots are worse; though curiously enough a pewter teapot (a rarity nowadays) is not so bad.
  • Thirdly, the pot should be warmed beforehand. This is better done by placing it on the hob than by the usual method of swilling it out with hot water.
  • Fourthly, the tea should be strong. For a pot holding a quart, if you are going to fill it nearly to the brim, six heaped teaspoons would be about right. In a time of rationing, this is not an idea that can be realized on every day of the week, but I maintain that one strong cup of tea is better than twenty weak ones. All true tea lovers not only like their tea strong, but like it a little stronger with each year that passes — a fact which is recognized in the extra ration issued to old-age pensioners.
  • Fifthly, the tea should be put straight into the pot. No strainers, muslin bags or other devices to imprison the tea. In some countries teapots are fitted with little dangling baskets under the spout to catch the stray leaves, which are supposed to be harmful. Actually one can swallow tea-leaves in considerable quantities without ill effect, and if the tea is not loose in the pot it never infuses properly.
  • Sixthly, one should take the teapot to the kettle and not the other way about. The water should be actually boiling at the moment of impact, which means that one should keep it on the flame while one pours. Some people add that one should only use water that has been freshly brought to the boil, but I have never noticed that it makes any difference.
  • Seventhly, after making the tea, one should stir it, or better, give the pot a good shake, afterwards allowing the leaves to settle.
  • Eighthly, one should drink out of a good breakfast cup — that is, the cylindrical type of cup, not the flat, shallow type. The breakfast cup holds more, and with the other kind one’s tea is always half cold before one has well started on it.
  • Ninthly, one should pour the cream off the milk before using it for tea. Milk that is too creamy always gives tea a sickly taste.
  • Tenthly, one should pour tea into the cup first. This is one of the most controversial points of all; indeed in every family in Britain there are probably two schools of thought on the subject. The milk-first school can bring forward some fairly strong arguments, but I maintain that my own argument is unanswerable. This is that, by putting the tea in first and stirring as one pours, one can exactly regulate the amount of milk whereas one is liable to put in too much milk if one does it the other way round.
  • Lastly, tea — unless one is drinking it in the Russian style — should be drunk without sugar. I know very well that I am in a minority here. But still, how can you call yourself a true tealover if you destroy the flavour of your tea by putting sugar in it? It would be equally reasonable to put in pepper or salt. Tea is meant to be bitter, just as beer is meant to be bitter. If you sweeten it, you are no longer tasting the tea, you are merely tasting the sugar; you could make a very similar drink by dissolving sugar in plain hot water.Some people would answer that they don’t like tea in itself, that they only drink it in order to be warmed and stimulated, and they need sugar to take the taste away. To those misguided people I would say: Try drinking tea without sugar for, say, a fortnight and it is very unlikely that you will ever want to ruin your tea by sweetening it again.

These are not the only controversial points to arise in connexion with tea drinking, but they are sufficient to show how subtilized the whole business has become. There is also the mysterious social etiquette surrounding the teapot (why is it considered vulgar to drink out of your saucer, for instance?) and much might be written about the subsidiary uses of tealeaves, such as telling fortunes, predicting the arrival of visitors, feeding rabbits, healing burns and sweeping the carpet. It is worth paying attention to such details as warming the pot and using water that is really boiling, so as to make quite sure of wringing out of one’s ration the twenty good, strong cups of that two ounces, properly handled, ought to represent.

(taken from The Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters of George Orwell, Volume 3, 1943-45, Penguin ISBN, 0-14-00-3153-7)

El Real Wins “Best Tex-Mex”

IMG_2174I am pleased to announce that in the annual Houston Press “Best of Houston” awards, El Real Tex-Mex Cafe won “Best Tex-Mex” and “Best Enchiladas.”

Funny, I used to give those awards out–how nice to be on the receiving end.

All Puffed Up at El Real Tex Mex

Photo by Laurie Smith

Photo by Laurie Smith

Daily Meal’s 35 Best Tacos in America feature came out Monday and it listed El Real’s Chicken Puffy Taco as #7 in the nation. It’s a little embarrassing to be rated higher than Henry’s Puffy Tacos in San Antonio, the taco that we modeled ours on, but we aren’t complaining.
Here’s what they had to say:

7) El Real Tex-Mex Café, Houston: Chicken Puffy Taco
Located inside a restored theater in Houston’s Montrose neighborhood, El Real serves Tex-Mex classics like chile con carne, nachos, and Frito pie, but we recommend you head directly for the San Antonio Puffy Taco Plate, with smoked chicken. The deep-fried shell gets a smear of refried beans, then the smoked chicken (which is smoked whole before being shredded) is liberally applied. Lettuce and tomato come on top, and it’s a taco you’re not likely to forget any time soon.

Hot Sauce Cookbook Signing


This Just In:


From Juneteenth at Mama Sugar’sGastronaut blog at

The food is one reason why the Juneteenth BBQ at Mama Sugar’s little horse ranch just south of Pearland on Trammel-Fresno Road is one my favorite parties of the year. This is where I first met photographer O Rufus Lovett while we were both working on an article for Gourmet magazine in 2006. The article with Lovett’s haunting photos appeared in Gourmet in the June 2007 issue.


The state holiday known as Juneteenth (short for June 19th) commemorates the anniversary of June 19, 1865, when Union general Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston, Texas and read a proclamation announced the freeing of the slaves. The slaves had actually been free for over a year, but nobody told them until Granger showed up with troops to enforce the law.

For over a century the date was celebrated among African-Texans with Juneteenth parades, pageants, and barbecues. Because blacks were barred from congregating in public parks, Juneteenth celebrations were often held out in the country on private ranches. Horseback riding and cowboy riding gear became a part of the Juneteenth tradition.

The black holiday had largely died out by the early 1960s. But Juneteenth was revived on June 19, 1968, the final day of the Poor Peoples’ March on Washington, when Reverend Ralph Abernathy called for people of all races to show solidarity. Since then, Juneteenth celebrations have spread across the country. The holiday is big in Milwaukee and Minneapolis, among other places. In 1980, it became an official state holiday in Texas.

The spirit of Juneteenth is sort of a cross between Martin Luther King Day, Passover, and the 4th of July—a celebration of African-American heritage and freedom from slavery. At Mama Sugar’s, that means barbecue, music, and dancing.

Shipley’s Boudin Kolaches

Homespun Houston: Robb Walsh from Contemporary Arts Museum Houston on Vimeo.