Wednesday, April 21, 2010

How did I get here (professionally)?

For the last 15 years, it seems I've thought about food on a daily basis (besides eating it), but not like most food bloggers do. I did have a period in my life (first marriage, 20s, stint as a vegetarian) when finding the next delicious recipe was what it was all about... a new flavor combination to explore, new technique to master, friends to impress, family to convince that being a vegetarian wouldn't kill me.

But in 1994, an opportunity redirected my focus, or rather broadened my idea of what was relevant about food's place in my life. Those previous reasons were still important, but overlayed upon them were family, history, ethnicity, culture, geography. In '94, I was working for a nonprofit arts organization called Texas Folklife Resources (TFR) in Austin as their Administrative Assistant. I had, 2 years earlier, gotten a BFA in Painting, but that was, of course, useless. Our director at TFR was approached by the Smithsonian Institution, looking for Texas Czechs that still cooked traditional Czech foods. They were gearing up for the 1995 Smithsonian Folklife Festival, which was going to feature the Czech Republic. Besides bringing traditional cooks from the CR, they wanted to feature descendants of Czech immigrants to America to show how recipes and traditions changed (or didn't) after being transplanted to America.

My director knew I have a Czech background. Though I'm not a folklorist and had no training, she sent me out into the "field" with a tape recorder and notebook to Floresville, Texas to interview first cousins of my mothers who still made lots of Czech dishes (strudel, kolaches, sausage, egg noodles, soups.) The Smithsonian thought the two women would be great demonstrators at the Festival and my director convinced the powers that be to let me accompany my cousins as their presenter onstage in the demo kitchen (another position usually occupied by a trained folklorist.)

That's me on the far right, standing in the demo kitchen of the Czech Republic section of the 1995 Festival of American Folklife. I'm with cooks from Texas and the Czech Republic, plus Festival staff and volunteers.

To say the opportunity was life changing would not be overstating the effect the experience had on me. It really did cement the direction my life would take, albeit slowly. On a professional level, 13 years later in 2008, I would be curating the food and wine section of the Smithsonian Folklife Festival, which that year featured the whole state of Texas. In the years in between I produced foodways programs for Texas Folklife, was on the steering committee of the Central Texas Barbecue Association, made a failed effort to start a Texas barbecue museum, co-produced Czech Links, talked about food and identity to a UT class, was the Director of the Texas Hill Country Wine and Food Festival, spoke to Czech groups about traditional food, and thought up a hundred unexplored projects that could feature Texas traditional food, from culinary tours to surveys about kolaches.

Now, because of the economy and having a baby and needing to go back to work and my background in nonprofit administration and the lack of ready made jobs for people working in the esoteric field of public programs about traditional Texas food… I work for an environmental organization as Administrator. It's work that I can feel good about when I go to sleep at night. But this blog and the work to make it happen will be my way of staying connected with the things that truly fascinate me… food, family, culture and the way they’re connected.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Ta dah!!!

After 3 failed attempts at teaching a class called Recipes for Family History through UT Informal Classes (hardly anyone signed up) and one of those conversations where the universe works through someone unexpected to kick your butt out of feeling-sorry-for-yourself lethargy, I’m going to put my class syllabus to the test with my own family background and blog about it. (Thanks Addie! See Addie's post about our discussion.)

With laptop, camera, notepad, years of stuff collected about my family and Czech food in Texas, and probably an active toddler with a strangle hold on my pants leg and a super-smart tween keeping me straight, I’m going to basically do what I’ve told myself for years I want to do. And that's to interview relatives and other Texas-Czech community members about food memories, test recipes in Texas-Czech cookbooks, “apprentice” with my parents to learn how to do everything from can beets to barbecue a brisket, attend kolache festivals, and record anything and everything I can find about Czech-influenced food in Texas.

I have multiple (multifold) reasons for wanting to do this…

  • Food is one of the easiest and most natural (though loaded) ways to connect with your family, your background, who you ARE. Everyone could use more grounding, in my opinion.

  • Maybe I can inspire other people to start their own journey. Embrace your own family's food traditions and get closer to the people you love at the same time!

  • It's a way to honor my parents and grandparents and every kind, gray-haired lady at a family reunion who ever shared a recipe with me. Everyone should do more "honoring" of their elders, also in my opinion.

  • Decent information available about Czech food in Texas is almost nonexistent with the exception of the odd traditional recipe slipped into community cookbooks amongst the jello and marshmallows.

  • Once Virginia Wood called me "Texas Czech foodways expert" in the Austin Chronicle - I want to live up to that.

  • Whatever I dig up is a legacy for my two sons (age 11 and 1.)

  • I love to eat.

  • Most food blogs bore me.

So let the interviewing, recipe-testing, cookbook reading, and self-exploration begin!