Anyone who loves the indigenous cuisine of Texas — yes, brisket and Tex-Mex, but also biscuits and gravy, fried catfish and Dr. Pepper peanut brittle — needs to bookmark Lisa Fain's blog, The Homesick Texan.
When Fain, a former Houstonian, moved to New York, she dealt with the culinary culture shock by learning to make her favorite dishes on her own — and without the aid of Ro-Tel. Now she's published The Homesick Texan Cookbook, with more than 300 mouth-watering recipes delivered with a heavy helping of Lone Star nostalgia.
After getting a rave from The New York Times (which took pains to describe Frito pie and marveled that it's served at Texas high school football games) Fain talked to CultureMap's Sarah Rufca about making time to cook, what Texas food means to her and which hometown restaurants she craves:
CultureMap: Were you surprised at how popular your blog has become?
Lisa Fain: Absolutely. I started the blog officially in 2005, in '06 is when it really became a recipe food blog. I didn't have a business plan or anything, I was just cooking and taking photos I wanted to share with friends and family, a personal diary kind of thing, and people started finding it and leaving comments.
What really surprised me, in addition to transplanted Texans enjoying it, was that local Texans enjoyed it. I'm like, "You're not homesick!" But they really love the food. And there are [readers] who have never even been to Texas, so for them, they are not familiar with Texas food, but I think they understand the stories about family and connecting with home.
CM: What do you think makes people so excited about Texas food?
LF: Well, it's delicious. The thing about Texas food is it's very diverse, with interesting flavors. With Tex-Mex happening, it's a rare person that doesnt get excited about jalepeños and melted cheese that you can dip chips in. It's warm and comforting, and people like comfort food.
CM: What do you think are the biggest misconceptions about Texas food?
LF: I think it's that the we only eat three things: chicken-fried steak, barbecue and enchiladas. They don't realize how diverse it it — Tex-Mex in El Paso is different from Tex-Mex in Dallas. They don't know how varied and how rich it is.
CM: In the book you mention Goode Company Seafood's campechana and salsa from Taco Cabana. What are your other Houston favorites?
LF: I love, love, love Ninfa's on Navigation — their green sauce, their Tacos a la Ninfa, and the last time I was there I tried their new burger. It's incredible.
CM: What were the easiest recipes to come up with, and what were the most difficult?
LF: I reckon the easiest come from my great-grandmother, just interpreting her handwriting and her lax recipe writing. For example she would write "a handful of this, put it in a warm oven," and I'd have to figure out what that means. The hardest was a lot of the Tex-Mex. You want to get it just right, so it's a lot of testing and tasting.
CM: What was the process of putting the book together like for you? How was it different than the blog?
LF: It was a lot like working on the blog, with each recipe like creating one blog post, but on a grander scale. I had to be a lot more organized, and where I'd have a week for the blog, I was doing 325 recipes in three months, so I was a lot more productive.
CM: I know for most of the time you were blogging you had a full-time job. What's your advice for people who say they don't have time to cook?
LF: If they truly, truly don't, then they don't. You choose to do with your time what you want, and not everyone wants to devote an hour to cook. But I like to make rice and have it ready to toss with a vegetable, and I'll do things on Sundays like make big pots of chili or beans — things I can eat throughout the week.
CM: Some of the recipes are time-consuming, but I like that most of them seem very approachable. Was that something you thought about?
LF: That was not a conscious decision, I think it just worked out that way. Sometimes an ingredient list is daunting, but it's only three steps.
CM: I really love the stories you tell about your family, and combined with some of the photography, it really feels like this cookbook is about more than food. What is it about to you?
LF: For me the thing I discovered since I've been in New York is that I thought I missed chicken enchiladas and chicken fried steak, but I really missed connecting with family and friends. Making the same foods in New York was way to remember and feel close to people back home. I've discovered others also feel the same way.
Fain will be in Houston for a talk and book signing at Blue Willow Bookshop on Oct. 26 at 7 p.m.