Before our trip to Austin we hit the phones and the Web, calling around, researching, and posting to Chowhound to figure out the places we should cover. One of the most knowledgeable people we had the pleasure to chat with was Virginia B. Wood, food editor of the Austin Chronicle. Here's some of the insight she shared with us on Austin's food scene after living there for 40 years and covering local food for the paper for nearly 20.
What defines the food scene in Austin?
One of the things that makes Austin such a cool place is there's always been a real support for creativity. I think it's one of the reasons our music scene grew the way it did. I joke with people that you can go 50 miles in any direction and get back into the real Texas. It's a much more liberal and much more tolerant and a much more forward-thinking community than I think some other major Texas cities are.
And there is this whole "keep Austin weird" thing. We have really active music, theater, and art scenes, and we also have a really active culinary scene.
I get the impression Austin is really embracing the local-foods thing recently; how has that evolved?
I started working at the paper in 1993, and there was a small group of local farmers that started organic farms in the early ’90s. And it took, I don't know, seven or eight years of slow growth and struggling to educate the market. But I would say that, especially in the last three years, our markets have really exploded, and there's been a lot more of the meat, cheese, and dairy production. Now a lot of the young chefs are shopping at farmers' markets.
How much is sustainable meat production catching on?
Texas is big meat country. It's interesting to me: People come here from California and are like, "Oh my God you eat so much meat!" We are lucky, especially since the farmers' market and locavore movement has blossomed here, there are several Central Texas companies raising pastured meat. There are some really strong lamb purveyors, there's Thunder Heart Bison south of San Antonio, and there are several people doing grass-fed beef. There is a guy named Jim Richardson who is raising beef and pork. And then there is a chef named Sebastian Bonneu who has a farm on the edge of town where he raises ducks and geese and rabbits.
Does the locavore trend translate much between the wine country near Austin and these restaurants?
It's interesting, there is kind of a disconnect. We have real wine country outside of town, but you aren't going to find too many of the young chefs in town featuring Texas wine. There is still a lot of snobbery about Texas wine.
Are the wines not up to snuff?
I think it's mostly lack of experience and a certain amount of snobbery. Initially 30 or so years ago when the new Texas wine industry was getting started, everyone was planting Cabernet, Sauvignon Blanc, those kind of things, and now they've begun to realize this particular climate is more suited to Italian, southern Rhône, and Spanish varietals. So we are seeing a lot more of that going on, and much better wines coming out that way.
Is Tex-Mex still a big thing?
Even that has changed drastically in Austin in the last 25 years; it's hard to find old-style traditional Tex-Mex anymore because we have such a large crop of more recent Mexican immigrants that we have so many different kinds of food from Mexico's interior, so there is a variety of Mexican food now. We are extremely proud of our Mexican food. This is a town where you can eat good Mexican food all day long: breakfast places, hundreds of trucks and trailers.