Kitty Crider is walking among friends.
We’re at the Cookbook Cafe, the cookbook-centric restaurant on the first floor of the Central Library downtown, two former food writers browsing half a dozen boxes of books they collected over the years.
Each of the names on the covers means something different to each of us: Grady Spears, Jeff Blank, Rebecca Rather. Robb Walsh, Helen Corbitt, Terry Thompson-Anderson. Crystal Esquivel, Tiffany Harelik, Mando Rayo.
“It’s like visiting old friends,” Crider says.
Kitty Crider herself is a familiar name to many. For more than 28 years, this Mississippi native ran the food section of the American-Statesman, where she covered the city’s rapidly changing food community from 1979 to her retirement in 2008.
That’s when I picked up where she left off as the newspaper’s food writer, upholding many of her traditions and creating my own.
One of Kitty’s enduring lessons: being a newspaper food writer included keeping knowledge for the community. Our stories documented the people, places, events and trends that comprise “the food scene,” and those stories – and people – stayed with us over the years. (Want to hear Kitty tell some of those stories? She gave an oral history interview to the Southern Foodways Alliance in 2018.)
Crider had the foresight early in her career to start collecting cookbooks of note to Austin or to the Lone Star State. Books about Tex-Mex and chili, Southern desserts and German barbecue. Books featuring blasts from Austin’s past: Ellie Rucker’s book of interviews with Carole Keeton Rylander called “The Mayor’s Diet” (1985); a plastic comb-bound collection (2002) of recipes from Old Bakery & Artisan Emporium, the historic building a block south of the Capitol that formerly housed a bakery and café.
With each book that Kitty decided to save, she was helping to preserve a particular time and place in Austin’s history.
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I continued to collect cookbooks during my tenure. They started to include books written by food bloggers, such as Monica Holland’s “Lick the Bowl Good” (2013) and Lisa Fain’s “The Homesick Texan” (2011). We started a cookbook drive, where readers could donate used cookbooks that we would pass along to high school culinary students or nonprofits. Some of those books ended up in this official collection, and a number of them went to the sizable cookbook archive housed at Baylor University’s Texas Collection.
When I left the newspaper last year to try my hand at a few new ventures, I knew those books needed a new home, so I started reaching out to local archives and educational institutions. The Austin Public Library already had a collection of cookbooks from the late Austin Chronicle food writer Virginia B. Wood, and Cookbook Café manager Patrick Johnston was generous enough to offer to make room for our books, too.
So, last month, Kitty and I officially donated all 168 books in the Statesman Cookbook Collection to the Cookbook Cafe, where they will reside permanently, quietly awaiting curious cooks who want to explore the history of food through the lens of these humble books.
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Maybe picking up each book will be like picking up a memory for you, too. Of your first visit to the Salt Lick. Or Hudson’s on the Bend. Or that time you entered the Hatch chile pepper contest at Central Market.
Folks who have been in Austin a long time will find a particularly fruitful trail of breadcrumbs because this collection, over time, became an archive of Austin history and the characters who made it.
Hudson’s on the Bend chefs Jeff Blank and Jay Moore with their chef hats on fire. Ann Clark and Martha Rose Shulman, Austin’s early culinary school teachers. Robb Walsh and Stephen Pyles, names that are now synonymous with Texas cuisine. Mando Rayo and Jarod Neece, authors of those epic taco books.
“You can watch American food culture evolve through these books,” Crider says. “Look at who was writing these books and what they were about. What kind of recipes were included.”
Each book contributes something special to the collection. Jesse Griffiths’ James Beard-nominated “Afield” (2012) harkens back to the early days of the locavore movement. “My Beef with Meat” (2013) by former Austin firefighter Rip Esselstyn marks the first wave of the modern plant-based foods movement.
Diana Kennedy, who recently turned 99 at her home in Michoacan, has several books in the archive, as does the late Mexican chef Patricia Quintana. Dotty Griffith, the late Dallas food writer, has a couple of inclusions: “Celebrating Barbecue” (2002) and “Dallas Cuisine” (1993).
I saved one of three copies we had of Hilda Eicher Higley’s plastic-bound “Rolling in Dough,” which came out in 1984 during an era when hundreds of Austinites took her baking courses through UT’s informal class program.
We both knew to look out for books from Texas tastemaker Helen Corbitt, who created several dishes that became classics during her time at the Driskill Hotel in Austin and, later, Neiman Marcus in Dallas. “She invented Texas caviar because she didn’t like black-eyed peas,” Crider says as we get deeper into the books. “And she’s from New York.”
Café manager Johnston found a sheet of slides that he held up to the light. Kitty recalls when the newspaper shifted to color photography for the food section. “I made them wait until we saw the images before we ate anything,” she says. “Had to learn that lesson the hard way.”
Johnston’s personal interest in cookbooks is reflected in his commitment to housing two cookbook collections in the space that holds the bakery and coffeeshop. “I grew up in a very food-focused home,” he says. “It was the ‘80s, and there was this movement of getting away from the family dinner, and my mom held onto that. She set a dinner time and said, ‘You don’t have to eat it, but you have to sit here.’ What happens when you do that is you get tired of making the same 12 meals over and over. Cookbooks expanded her horizons.”
When Johnston was living in the 21st Street Co-op, part of his monthly rent was paid via labor, including cooking. “At 18 or 19, I was cooking meals once or twice a week for 100 kids,” he says. “I would often call my mom to ask for advice.
“That’s how I learned that food is not just sustenance. Food is love. Food is home. Food is excitement.”
That shared excitement about food is what drives people to write cookbooks in the first place. It’s what inspires them to collect recipes from their community to share with each other. It’s what keeps cookbook clubs – like the one Kitty is part of – together for decades.
I get the most excited flipping through the community cookbooks, many of which came in from Statesman readers. “Austin Entertains” from the Austin Junior League is a book that might already live on your shelves, but there are lesser-known volumes, such as “Sampler,” a community cookbook that the Women’s Art Guild of Laguna Gloria Art Museum published in 1986, or “Heavenly Cuisine from Bluebonnet Country,” a three ring-bound book of recipes collected from friends of the St. John Neumann Catholic Church in West Lake Hills in 2002.
In 1977, members of the Pedernales Electric Cooperative created a cookbook commemorating the co-op’s 25th anniversary and featuring dishes from hundreds of Central Texas cooks whose names (and home addresses) grace each of the recipes. (This includes dozens of Jell-O salads, which soon faded from favor.)
When I was moving these books out of the newsroom for this donation, I was thinking about when Crider first walked me around the building, showing me the various cabinets where these cookbooks lived and the humble test kitchen in the back, located next to the photo studio, where they once coordinated all-day photoshoots.
She was always dropping little tidbits of knowledge, which she continues to do, and as she browsed the books, she’d occasionally find something that triggered another memory. “This looks like my handwriting,” she says, pointing to a sticky note tucked into one of the pages.
It was a copy of Grady Spears’ “A Cowboy in the Kitchen,” one of the biggest Texas cookbooks to come out in the late 1990s. “You know, I have made this cornbread within the past year,” she says.
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Crider saw many changes in the production of the newspaper during her tenure, and even more changes to how we cook. She watched Whole Foods grow into an international corporation. I covered its sale to Amazon.
“As Austin changed, as Italian food came here, I found myself buying Italian cookbooks to familiarize myself with the subject,” Crider says. “And then another trend would come.”
Crider, who has six grandchildren and visited 25 countries after retiring with her husband, Chester, continues to run into people at the grocery store who remember her column. “Just the other day, I gave my name to someone, and a lady said, ‘Are you Kitty Crider?’” she says.
You never know what you’re going to find when you dig around in old books like this. Grocery lists, handwritten adjustments to a recipe, a personal inscription with well wishes for a life of happy cooking.
“These books are our friends, and we wanted them to go to a good home. We think they reflect Austin,” Crider says. “We think they mean a lot to people, even if you aren’t cooking out of them. I hope people can come and go through them and enjoy them as much as we have.”
One last note: I made a Google spreadsheet of both the Statesman and Chronicle cookbook collections that you can find at tinyurl.com/statesmancookbooks. I imagine these books will co-mingle over time as cookbook lovers come to the cafe to browse them while enjoying a pastry and a cup of coffee. If you see me there, please say hello.
By the numbers
Here’s a look at the Statesman Cookbook Collection, now housed at the Cookbook Cafe, by the numbers.
Junior League cookbooks: 8
Barbecue books: 11
Books by Robb Walsh: 5
Year with the most books: 2013 (14 books)
Oldest book: “Balanced Recipes” by Mary Ellis Ames, a metal-covered cookbook, the first book from The Pillsbury Flour Mills Company (1933)
Newest book: “175th anniversary Fredericksburg Heritage Cookbook,” a community cookbook from Families of Fredericksburg (2021)
Mustard-Fried Catfish with Olive and Caper Tartar Sauce
This is an old recipe from Texas fishing camps, which are the true man caves of real Texas fishermen. They’re usually quite rustic, but they always have a rudimentary kitchen, a barbecue grill and a butane fryer. After a day of fishing, the fishermen return to the camp with the day’s catch, which they clean and turn into a supper fit for a king, to be washed down with the requisite washtub of iced longnecks.
6 skinned catfish filets (5 to 6 ounces each)
Canola oil for deep frying
2 cups prepared yellow “ballpark-style” mustard
3 eggs, well beaten
1 tablespoon Tabasco
1 cup corn masa flour (flour used for making tortillas)
1 cup yellow cornmeal
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 cup Italian-seasoned bread crumbs
2 teaspoons kosher salt
1 teaspoon granulated garlic
1 teaspoon sweet Hungarian paprika
Lemon wedges and whole trimmed green onions as garnish
For the olive and caper tartar sauce:
1 and a half cups real mayonnaise, preferably homemade
1/3 cup dill relish
1/4 cup finely chopped pimiento stuffed olives
1 heaping tablespoon chopped capers 1 tablespoon minced flat-leaf parsley
1/2 small yellow onion, chopped fine (about 2 tablespoons)
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice 1 teaspoon dry mustard
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
Begin by making the tartar sauce. Combine all ingredients in a small bowl and whisk to blend well. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate until ready to serve, or up to 3 days.
Use absorbent paper towels to pat the fish filets dry; set aside. Heat the canola oil to 350 degrees, preferably in a deep fryer with a thermostat, or use a candy thermometer to maintain an even temperature while frying the fish.
In a medium-sized bowl, combine the mustard, eggs and Tabasco, whisking to blend well so that no traces of unblended egg remain. Turn the mustard mixture out into a baking dish; set aside. In a separate bowl, combine all remaining ingredients except garnishes and tartar sauce. Toss with a whisk to blend well. Pour into a separate baking dish.
Dredge the fish filets first in the mustard mixture, turning to coat all surfaces. Let excess batter drip off: Next, dip the fish in the cornmeal mixture, turning to coat well and leaving no bare spots of mustard. Shake off excess breading. Gently place the fish in the hot oil, 2 or 3 pieces at a time. Don’t crowd the pan, or the temperature will drop, resulting in a soggy crust.
Fry until golden brown and crispy, about 5 to 6 minutes, turning once. Drain on a paper towel-lined wire rack set over a baking sheet. Keep hot in a warm oven while frying the remaining filets. Serve hot with lemon wedges and trimmed, whole green onions. Pass tartar sauce separately. Serves 4 to 6.
– From “Texas on the Table: People, Places, and Recipes Celebrating the Flavors of the Lone Star State” by Terry Thompson-Anderson (University of Texas Press, 2014)
Mom’s Peach Custard Pie
This is simple to prepare with ingredients on hand throughout the year. It’s good to make for unexpected guests and is a dessert that will not disappoint.
4 large fresh peeled and pitted peach halves or 1 large can peach halves, drained
9-inch single crust, unbaked pie shell
1 cup sugar
2 tablespoons flour
2 large eggs, beaten
2 tablespoons butter, melted
Heat oven to 400 degrees. Place peach halves, which have been patted dry with a paper towel, in a single layer in the unbaked pastry shell with cut sides down. Combine sugar and flour with the beaten eggs. Add melted butter and combine until well blended. Pour mixture over the peaches so they are covered. Bake at 400 degrees for 15 minutes; reduce heat to 325 degrees and bake for an additional 45 minutes or until custard is firm.
– From Nancy Clark, printed in “Heavenly Cuisine from Bluebonnet Country” (2002)
Yaller Bread with Pintos
1 1/2 cups buttermilk
3 eggs, lightly beaten
3 tablespoons sugar
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 cup ranch beans (pinto beans cooked with cilantro and bell pepper)
1/2 cup corn kernels
1 cup flour
1 and a half cups fine yellow cornmeal
1/2 cup melted butter
Heat the oven to 375 degrees. Combine the buttermilk, eggs, sugar, and soda, and mix well. Add the beans and the corn. Sift together the flour and the cornmeal. Slowly add the flour mixture to the liquids, whisking until well incorporated. Whisk in the melted butter.
Pour the batter into a greased 8 by 8-inch pan or cast-iron skillet and bake for 40 minutes, or until a toothpick comes out clean.
– From “A Cowboy in the Kitchen: Recipes from Reata and Texas West of the Pecos” by Grady Spears and Robb Walsh (1998)