We walked through the door of our home late last evening, bedgraggled from a day of traveling and bedazzled from the five days behind us. It took me all day to look at photographs and try to digest even a tenth of what happened to us this past week. Here I am, at the end of this night, still mostly wordless.
I’ll try to write a bit here. The photographs will probably have to stand mostly on their own. But I’ll write.
Austin, Texas. We love you.
I adore Mexican food. Not only because it’s mostly naturally gluten-free, but also because it’s so damned good. Hot chiles, soothing cheese, pulled pork, corn tortillas, black beans. These all appeal to my senses. Deeply.
In Austin, we ate Mexican food that blew open my senses. We ate lunch at La Condesa the first full day we were in Austin, with a table full of women whose work I adore. (Danny was often, and happily, the only guy at these feasts.) The seville-orange pork tacos made me want to hand out bites to everyone there. The Mexican street corn, with cojita cheese, reminded me it really will be summer soon.
(It was more than summer in Austin. More than 100 degrees most of the days. 92 at 11 pm. We dripped with sweat and covered Lu with sunscreen every hour. We survived it. But wow.)
That lunch was so good that we went back for more the next day, with a new group of people. We laughed and talked and learned of unexpected connections. This time, I had acelga tacos: fat white beans with smoky chard and a cilantro sauce. Don’t be surprised if you see them on this site soon. I’m sort of obsessed with them.
Austin is stuffed with great restaurants, and I had a list of recommendations in my pocket. However, this place was so great we went twice in two days.
And then there is barbecue. Austin is barbecue heaven.
The first night we ended up at Lamberts, an upscale barbecue place with refined tastes and pork chops as big as my head. Everyone at the table shared deviled eggs with smoked paprika and caviar (you might see those here soon too, minus the caviar. yowza.) and talked as the heat started to fade from the sky. This group of women moved me deeply, as we talked about our love of food, the sense of community we felt, and the need for graciousness in this culture.
All this with hot sauce, smoky beans, collard greens with brisket tips, and cucumber gimlets (without the gin for me).
After eating, Lu ran around the patio, underneath the white light strung above us, dancing to the music she hummed under her breath. We all leaned back in our seats, feeling the breeze on our faces, and sighed into the evening.
As the light faded in the sky, Lu danced on her daddy’s feet. They shuffled around, a slow sweet two-step together.
Austin felt like magic that night.
We were in Austin to do more than eat. (However, it was clear that most of the people who come to Austin come to eat. Damn, what a food town!) We were there for the annual conference of the IACP. I wrote last week about the honor I felt at being asked to speak this year. That anticipated honor didn’t come close to what I actually felt.
I’ve been thinking all day about how much I want to say about those astounding few days. I could tell you stories about the astonishment I felt when people whose work I have adored for years stopped me in the hallway to say, “Shauna, I’ve been wanting to meet you!” I could give you a long list of the people I met or the people at our tables and link to them all. But in my mind, that feels like bragging, some weird way of saying “Hey, look at me!” That’s not the point.
(However, I do have to say that Dorie Greenspan was there, and I had several chances to talk with her about baking. I kind of wanted to faint. She is the soul of graciousness. And she is genuinely interested in gluten-free flours.)
Instead, I will say how grateful I felt that people did not treat me a woman who writes about gluten-free food as a second-class citizen. I felt embraced, fully. The folks who were attended my session on gluten-free living (in my mind, I called it Why Gluten-Free Matters Even to Those Who Can Eat It) were warm and open, full of questions and applause. This was a conference full of people who love and live in food. They get it.
At one gathering, the deputy editor of a major magazine came up to say hello, wanting to meet me. And she said something that has made me feel happy ever since. “I’ve been thinking about it lately. It’s clear that gluten-free is no longer a niche. This is here to stay.”
People who love food and care about how it’s made? They understand.
Danny and I had one of our best at-the-table experiences of our lives in Austin. Franklin Barbecue.
People, this place alone is worth a plane trip to Austin.
The first day of the conference, I turned to my friend Penny de los Santos, who lives in Austin. “Where do we go for barbecue?” I asked her.
“Do you want to go to a place for the atmosphere or food?”
I’m surprised she even asked. Food, of course.
“Franklin,” she told me. “You have to line up at 10:30 in the morning to get in, and they only stay open until they run out of meat, so go early. Go.”
Go we did. We lined up in the 100-degree heat with friends who were as excited as we were. Lu didn’t mind the wait as soon as she found a little friend her age. By the time the doors opened at 11, we were ready to faint from the smell of wood smoke and meat. By the time we had reached the top of the stairs, I stared at the porch, willing us there with food in front of us. Inside, as we stood in the line that snaked along the walls and windows, I watched a family prepare to eat together.
I couldn’t wait.
I love this place. Screw the atmosphere. The menus here were written on brown butcher paper and stuck on the wall with black electrical tape. See the menu on the right? Those are you choices. A pound of brisket? Sausages. Sides. A pulled pork sandwich. They had turkey that day. You can tell from the sign taped up on the menu.
My 8 tablemates and I ordered a huge platter of 1 of everything, except the sandwiches. And they were kind enough to order the whole platter gluten-free. You know what that entailed?
I asked the owner if he could pull off his gloves before cutting our brisket. He had been touching buns all morning. He called out another employee his black gloves would have taken 20 minutes to strip from his hands, he said kindly who put on a new pair of gloves and started fresh. That was a gluten-free meal.
This is some of what we ate. Tender, fatty brisket. Homemade sausages with the smoke still clinging to them. Pulled pork hiding underneath the paper. Ribs that truly did fall off the gone. And turkey that surprised us all with its juiciness.
After some of us stood on our chairs to take photographs of the table scene, we dove in. After all that waiting, there was something urgent about eating, something deeply pleasing about reaching in for more with greasy fingers and touching the hands of friends around the table who wanted to fight you for another piece of brisket. (good god, that brisket.) We were bonded together, like family, over that brisket.
It was magnificent food. We ate it on brown paper with plastic forks while drinking candy-red sodas. There was nothing fancy, no formality.
Great food certainly doesn’t have to be expensive.
The last night we were in Austin, we had the joy of sauntering into a dinner held at Boggy Creek Farm. Some of the best restaurants in Austin were there with food: feral pig roasted slowly, lamb barbacoa, more ribs. We sat on benches on green grass and looked out at the fields full of growing tomatoes, while we balanced paper plates full of food on our knees. We talked with friends around us and listened to the rustle and hum of the chickens in their cages. I looked up at one point to realize that warm sun was shining through a fig tree, an oak tree, and a pecan tree around me.
There were a few moments in there where I thought my heart would explode with happiness.
Lu met a new friend, a darling girl named Delfina who befriended her and took her by the hand to see the chickens. A fabulous band played on the porch, with much of the singing coming from a cowboy-booted woman playing the accordion. We spent time with new friends, fabulous photographer Marshall and his radiant wife Katey. Within a few moments of talking with them both, we realized that if they lived close to us we’d be in each other’s houses, bringing over casseroles and laughing at brunch. Instead, we just basked in that early evening light on our faces and laughed with them in the moment.
Look at that last photograph of Lu. She understood. That’s what the evening felt like: triumphant and running toward it.
This time in Austin? It was a gift.
You see, Danny and I? We feel blessed. Five years ago, when I first attended the IACP conference, I only dreamed of writing about food for a living. In a lot of ways, I had a more secure job back then: teaching high school with insurance and benefits. However, I wasn’t that happy. I plodded along and waited for my chance to go home and write. That’s when I felt truly alive.
Now? We may not always make much of a living. (Come on, we’re a chef and a writer.) We went back and forth about spending the money to bring Danny and Lu along on this trip. But we did. We know to throw our arms wide open and embrace it, then hope for the best. We may not always make much of a living, but we have such a life.
Great food. Better friends. Gatherings. Connection. Understanding. New friends. Urgency. Laughter. Early evening light. Being in the moment. Music on the porch. Embracing.
Most of the best moments of my life have been at the table. This week brought even more.
Austin, Texas. We love you.
p.s. It’s late as I write this. Silly late. Tomorrow I’ll come back and add suggestions of places we ate safely and experiences you might like as well.