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The Beginning of Southwest Cuisine and the Farm to Table Movement

By Shereena Mathew

Before the 80’s, Southwestern cuisine didn’t really have a name or a presence even in the cooking field. It was through the hard work of the Gang of Five alongside the TDA that Southwest cuisine became known nationwide. The Gang of Five, consisting of cookbook writer Anne Lindsay Greer, and chefs Stephan Pyles, Dean Fearing, Avner Samuel, and Robert Del Grande worked together in the 80s to develop and promote Southwestern cuisine, going to events (like the one in San Francisco with an armadillo race) and festivals such as the Hill Country Food and Wine Festival to let the nation know that there was a new cuisine in town.

“We naturally thought, Texas is a big place, we should have our own piece here,” said chef Robert Del Grande.  French nouvelle cuisine used to be the go-to in those days, which got chefs in the Texas region thinking, “what can we be good at and say that we own,” eventually forming the idea of mixing Texas cuisine with those along its borders to form what is known today as Southwest cuisine. The chefs didn’t start off working together however.

“I think it was Anne Lindsay Greer. She said something to the fact that, you’re all better off going at this together than separately,” said Del Grande.

Greer invited the chefs to Dallas to discuss the future direction of Southwest cuisine, after which they each went their separate ways. Although there were many chefs and others in the cooking field that gathered in Dallas then, towards the end they were left with the Gang of Five, and it was Fearing, Pyles, Samuel, Del Grande, and Greer that carried on to create a foundation for Southwest cuisine. The Texas Department of Agriculture and Jim Hightower joined in once they started promoting the cuisine.

“No one had more energy than he had, and certainly could see the vision for it,” said Del Grande about Hightower.

Hightower provided the momentum behind the promotion of Southwest cuisine, arranging events across the nation at which the chefs would come and cook, one of them being the infamous armadillo race one in San Francisco. The Hill Country Food and Wine Festival, led mainly by Susan Auler, also began during that time, and the TDA and chefs utilized that platform to promote Southwest cuisine and Texas flavors as well. Although it started off as a small gathering for chefs and producers, each year it got bigger, the chefs working together to create a memorable event.

“It became sort of the yearly sojourn where everyone came together to check on the status of things. If you wanted to see what was going on in Texas and you weren’t from here, you’d go to the Hill Country Festival,” said Del Grande.

Pictured above, the armadillo race that took place at the event held in San Francisco. (Picture Courtesy of the Dolph Briscoe Center for American History; Karen Dickey Photographic Archive)

However, Southwest Cuisine did not only mean the foods were becoming more well known. As it became more popular, so did the need for ingredients, and so naturally the farm-to-table movement grew as well.

The Farm-to-Table movement, refers to the supporting of local farms and producers, or as Rutger’s puts it, “a food system in which food production, processing, distribution, and consumption are integrated to enhance the environmental, economic, social and nutritional health of a particular place.” Basically, it’s the using of local sources for ingredients, ensuring fresh ingredients while supporting the local economy.

French nouvelle cuisine, which was all the rage in those days, wasn’t strict to ingredients, but instead supported using what was available locally to cook. As Southwest cuisine took off, chefs implemented those same ideas when creating a name for Texas and all its unique cooking influences, using local farms and producers to supply ingredients in their cooking.

One of the first local farmers that Chef Del Grande remembers using was one during one Hill Country festival when he did the salad course. Del Grande knew him as he grew lettuce for their restaurant outside of Houston, and when the festival came around, Del Grande asked if he would be able to grow lettuce for about 350 people. Although it seemed impossible, he grew all of it, bringing it to the Hill Country Festival for the salad.

“That was my little speech before the course, that I know you’re all having dinner tonight, but about 12 weeks ago, these lettuces were planted outside of Houston,” said Del Grande.

Chefs took what chances they got to promote Texas agriculture alongside cuisine, bringing Texas to a new level. Del Grande mentioned that it wasn’t about going against the industrial process of producing food and vegetables, but about providing an alternative, finding the better one so to speak.

There were even some producers, such as Mike Hughes of the Broken Arrow Ranch, that invited chefs to their ranches so chefs to get a first-hand look behind the scenes of the production. These so-called chef’s hunts allowed chef’s to be on the site and get the fresh ingredients to cook right then and there, emphasizing the sense of locality and home that couldn’t be achieved anywhere else besides Texas.

“You should know where you are and what you’re eating,” said Del Grande, in the words of food writer Stanley Dry.

One of the chef’s hunts that Mike Hughes invited chefs to his ranch for.

Of course, it wasn’t all cooking and creating history. Working together on Southwest cuisine naturally led to other creations, one of which being the band, The Barbwires. Consisting of Robert Del Grande and Dean Fearing, it all began when Fearing found out that Del Grande knew how to play the guitar, both of them having a Martin guitar. From then on, they would bring their guitars to events, getting together afterwards to play in their hotel rooms. Del Grande knew to play “Why Does Love Got to Be So Sad?” by Derek and the Dominos, from years of playing it in graduate school with his college band. By chance, it happened that Fearing knew the same song, and so when they first got together, they played the song over and over again, correcting each other’s chord structures and having a good time.

“The question was, would we have a band or not? There was only two of us, technically not really a band at two,” said Del Grande.

Being from Texas, they thought it should be a country western band, and so the original name was Dean Fearing and the Bob Wires, styled after bands like Buddy Holly and The Crickets. It only became The Barbwires after an editor called Del Grande up to ask, “Do you spell it b-a-r-b-w-i-r-e-s?” to which he responded yes, not knowing what else to say. From there, the word spread that they would play at small events, and everyone began wanting to join the band, from harmonica players to singers to guitar.

“I would call it; can you have Woodstock in a hotel room? Sure you can!” said Del Grande.

Dean Fearing and Robert Del Grande having a jam session.

The creation of Southwest cuisine was filled with memories like these. Although they began separately, the Gang of Five and the Texas Department of Agriculture worked side by side to create a name for Southwest cuisine and Texas producers. Though the story up till now focuses mostly on Chef Robert Del Grande and his participation in the creation of history, but the People’s History in Texas is working hard to bring more to light regarding Southwest cuisine and the farm-to-table movement, so stay tuned for more!

Watch the documentary on Southwest Cuisine by Shereena Mathew

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gTpYCJl6Ulg&feature=youtu.be