I like food and I like to read about food. Why we eat what we do, how it connects us to each other on a social level and the whole history of it.
Which is why one of my favorite books is America Eats! On The Road with the WPA, The Fish Fries, Box Supper Socials, and Chitlin Feasts That Define Real American Food.
Yep, that’s the title. That whole thing.
But let’s just call it America Eats! for short.
The book, by Pat Willard, is about an unfinished book titled America Eats (presumably with out the exclamation point) that was a Depression-era project by the Works Progress Administration to put out-of-work writers to work compiling stories and recipes. Willard follows the trail of regional food culture across the country and includes the original writings from the project. The original book was never published.
“New Mexico likes to think they created the stacked enchilada,” Walsh says. “But it’s really a Texas dish.”
The project was abandoned when the Depression ended and the papers and photos were mostly forgotten, languishing in state archives (each state had its own writing team) and the Library of Congress.
The first I ever heard about it was from an NPR report by The Kitchen Sisters in 2004. Willard’s book came out in 2008 and I snapped it up.
Why do I love it? First, it’s about food. Second, it’s about the back story. And I love a good back story.
Which is why I now have a copy of local author Robb Walsh’s Texas Eats, which was inspired by the Texas entries for the WPA project. Walsh, the former restaurant critic for the Houston Press and author of several cookbooks, is pretty much the last word on food in the Lone Star State. And a fine writer.
In Texas Eats he explores the history of the state’s ethnic foods from the Gulf Coast’s seafood to Vietnamese cuisine and, of course, our beloved Tex-Mex.
Walsh is also co-owner of El Real Tex-Mex, which features vintage dishes liked the stacked enchiladas from West Texas.
“New Mexico likes to think they created the stacked enchilada,” Walsh says. “But it’s really a Texas dish. And then I remind them that New Mexico was originally part of Texas and we sold them when we needed money.”
We got $10 million for it in 1850.
These are some of the cool things you can learn from a book like this.
And there’s the history of Felix Tijerina. Born in Mexico he started work in Houston kitchens at 14 and eventually opened Felix Mexican Restaurant. At one time he had six locations that were the place for Tex-Mex. Generations of Houstonians grew up eating Felix’s cheese enchiladas and chili con queso. When the last restaurant closed in 2008 it sat idle until Austin’s Tyson Cole turned it into Uchi.
The Felix sign is a piece of our city’s food history. I don’t want it to end up like Bubba, the giant roach sign for Holder’s Pest Control.
But not before Walsh and company snapped up vintage Felix memorabilia, everything from menus to the colorful cane-back chairs.
But there’s one thing El Real really, really wanted and so far hasn’t gotten.
And that’s the famous Felix sign that graced the corner of Westheimer Road and Montrose Boulevard for decades.
You know the one I mean.
The big neon sign with a sombrero-clad Mexican slumbering against a cactus. If you can’t remember what it looked like click here for a photo by Seth Gaines of Larry’s Original Mexican Restaurant in Richmond, Texas. Apparently it was a popular design. The man sleeping on a cactus motif also turns up on the handle of margarita glasses.
“When we took that sign down,” Uchi’s chef de cuisine Kaz Edwards says, “we had people driving by stop and offer to buy it.”
The Felix sign is a piece of our city’s food history. I don’t want it to end up like Bubba, the giant roach sign for Holder’s Pest Control, which, as Swamplot reported earlier this month, languished in a warehouse for eight years before being cut into scrap metal.
Walsh told me that they really thought they would get the sign but because it was grandfathered into the city’s sign code it had to stay where it was until Uchi could replace it with a new sign. (Because of the ordinance El Real would have had to place the sign indoors.)
Then Uchi moved it.
Then I started hearing the rumors: Someone was holding it hostage, Uchi didn’t have it, that the construction crew they hired to take it down kept it, that it was just gone.
So I called Uchi’s PR peeps in Austin.
Samantha Davidson told me that the Uchi team “has been very respectful of the building’s origins and history.” And that’s true, they did maintain the structure of Felix and the famous arched windows. Kudos for that guys, but where’s the damn sign?
“I know there was a lot of talk about the sign,” Davidson says. “But I don’t know where it is. I’ll have to get back to you.”
If she does, I’ll let you know the real back story.
In the meantime, does anybody know where the sign is?