Texas food writer Robb Walsh and family make island their home
It was a Monday in June when I met Robb Walsh at his newly purchased Galveston homestead: a rambling two-story Craftsman built in the 1920s on Avenue O.
Walsh, a prolific food writer and the author of more than a dozen books, including six on Texas cooking, is now Galveston’s resident culinary celebrity, and truly the food guru of Texas.
His newest offering, “The Chili Cookbook,” debuts in September.
I wander inside through arched doorways and airy rooms. Walsh and his wife, artist and art critic Kelly Klaasmeyer, guide me to a glassed-in dining area flanking the butler’s pantry at the back of the house.
The food he writes about — Hill Country goulash; poppy seed kolaches; vintage enchiladas; shrimp and grits; peach preserves; green chile posole; barbecue, of course, and the small town artistry of a true cut-it-with-a-fork chicken-fried steak — all celebrate a rich food culture arising from our state’s immigrant roots and cowboy mythology.
Walsh rescues with relish the stories of these regional specialties, often snubbed by other food writers for being too common or passe.
He never wanted to write about what was trendy, he said. He’s more interested in what ingredients compose the tangy tartar sauce in demand for decades at King’s Inn on Loyola Beach, and why once upon a time, barbecue was served on picnic tables at gasoline stations. To read his prose is to yearn for the smoky flavors of old-style pit barbecue with white bread and pickles.
On this day, Walsh has decided to cook, even though his new kitchen isn’t quite together. The menu is fresh Gulf red snapper with a peppery rub served with homemade tartar sauce. On the side is a zesty cucumber salad, and to drink, good old-fashioned thirst-quenching iced tea.
We sit at a round, wooden table overlooking the rear garden where tabsaco, habanero, cayenne, jalapeño and Serrano peppers already are ripening in the summer sun.
Someday soon, these peppers will flavor the hot sauce made by Walsh, with attention and affection. His taste in hot sauce is eclectic but he does have favorites.
Walsh is co-owner of El Real Tex-Mex Cafe on Westheimer in Houston, and it’s there they serve his favorite: roasted carrot-chile de arbol salsa.
We start our luncheon with homemade hot sauce brought to the table with a flourish of saltines and chips. But hold on; wait a minute.
“Let’s eat dessert first,” Walsh said, motioning toward a cake plate piled with pecan sandies. The tower of cookies is the culinary gift of his daughter, 9-year-old Ava, who has made the buttery treats for this occasion.
Soon she joins us along with a big-eyed beagle named Frances. Now Joe, his 7-year-old son, appears and deftly snags a sandie.
Walsh has a big friendly face, a salt and pepper beard and an easy smile. He has so much to say on so many topics, he’s capable of spinning one story into another, hardly taking a breath.
His children make faces when he talks about trying 40 different chili recipes while working on his newest book. But it’s all in good humor. They’re not just his family, they are his test subjects and collaborators. An older daughter, Katie, provided the vegetarian chili recipes for the new book.
Walsh was born in North Carolina in 1952, the oldest of six brothers. His father, a restaurant purveyor with General Foods, got a lot of promotions that moved the family around, so he grew up all over the country.
His love affair with food began when he was small and in the kitchen with his maternal grandmother, Catherine Timura, nee Bender. Before World War I, she journeyed from her home in the Carpathian Mountains to settle in the coal mining area of Western Pennsylvania. Speaking limited English, she expressed her affection through homemade sauerkraut, polachinki, a thin pancake, and holupki, a stuffed cabbage.
“She cooked with love and that’s what made it wonderful,” Walsh said.
Ever after, food and deep affection were linked.
Walsh came to Texas when he was 18 to study Radio, Television, Film at the University of Texas at Austin. It was early in the 1970s and the college town hadn’t yet earned its handle as the state’s booming Live Music Capital. Liquor by the drink hadn’t been adopted and restaurants were sparse. He sampled what was available: Nighthawk, Virginia’s on South First, The Stallion on Lamar, Hank’s on The Drag and Matt’s El Rancho.
Walsh left school to go to Denmark, where he worked for the LEGO toy company, becoming a master builder in just two years. Master builders design the LEGO sets sold around the world, and build the spectacular LEGO models on display. When he returned to the University of Texas, he finished his degree in Scandinavian studies.
Walsh worked in advertising for five years in Connecticut, and in San Francisco for five years in commercial films. When he moved back to Austin in 1988, he had an opportunity to write for the Austin Chronicle about something he cared about: food.
After that, his career was food-driven. In the 1990s, he moved to Fort Worth to be editor of Chile Pepper Magazine, and then to Houston to be the restaurant critic for the Houston Press. It was at the Houston Press, much later, when he met Kelly, who wrote about art for the publication.
Once, when the couple was in Paris, Walsh managed to get a hotel on Rue Daguerre near a famous fish market. He got up early on the first day seeking Belon oysters, while Kelly stayed in bed with morning sickness.
“I turned up with a dozen oysters, ate them all, and headed to another fishmarket,” Walsh said. He left the shells in the wastebasket.
By the time he returned, the smell had created a paralyzing nausea for his sweetheart. In the days that followed, when Walsh brought oysters to the room, he ate them in the bathroom, door closed, chucking the shucks out the open window.
“I didn’t mind,” he said. “The oysters were amazing.”
Walsh knows more about Galveston Bay oysters than anyone I have ever met. He’s written an entire book about oysters, “Sex, Death and Oysters: A Half-Shell Lover’s World Tour.”
The Texas Gulf Coast has more kinds of wild oysters than any place else in the world, Walsh said. Different beds actually produce different kinds of oysters — some sweeter, some plumper, some small, some large. These appellations, like varieties of wine, have flavors influenced by the environment from which they come. It makes a difference if they’re in the ocean or the bay, or different parts of the bay. Oysters are part of the reason for the move to Galveston, but there are plenty of others, Walsh said.
Walsh refers to island angler Capt. Joe Kent, who also is author of The Galveston County Daily News’ popular Fishing Report.
“Capt. Joe Kent says 10 percent of the fishermen catch 90 percent of the fish,” Walsh said. “My goal is to break into the 10 percent. And if that’s not going to happen, I’ll settle for a few big trout and a fat flounder every now and then.”
Back at the table, Walsh returns with our main course of steaming snapper and the room grows eerily still. Except for the occasional oohs and aahs, everyone is quiet. There’s only the sound of the forks to tell the tale.
Black drum fillets are excellent for broiling. Swordfish, shark, tuna, and other big Gulf fish are good for broiling too, either as fillets or as bone-in steaks.
Recipe from “Texas Eats: The New Lone Star Heritage Cookbook” by Robb Walsh
Juice of 2 limes
1 clove garlic, minced
½ cup seafood seasoning
¼ cup vegetable oil
2 pounds fish fillets or steaks
Pope’s Tartar Sauce for serving.
In a good-size shallow bowl, stir together the lime juice, garlic, seasoning mix and oil. Add the fish and turn to coat evenly on both sides. Let marinate for 15 minutes.
Position an oven rack in the center of the oven and preheat the broiler.
Transfer the fish to a broiler pan, place under the broiler, and broil, turning once. Plan on 5 minutes per side for a 1-inch-thick fillet or steak and 2.5 minutes for a ½-inch-thick fillet or steak.
Serve at once with tartar sauce.
Makes about ½ cup
2 tablespoons salt
1 teaspoon dry mustard
2 teaspoons paprika
½ teaspoon cayenne pepper
½ teaspoon black pepper
½ teaspoon red pepper flakes
½ teaspoon dried thyme
½ teaspoon ground bay leaves
In a bowl, stir together all of the ingredients. The seasoning can be transferred to a small bottle or container and stored in a cupboard for up to one month.
Recipe from “Texas Eats” by Robb Walsh. The recipe comes from professional cake baker Jody Stevens, who borrowed it from her mom.
Makes about 24 cookies
1 cup unsalted butter
1/4 cup granulated sugar
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 cup chopped pecans
1/4 cup confectioners sugar
Preheat the oven to 325 F. Have ready an ungreased baking sheet. In a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, or in a bowl with a handheld mixer, cream the butter on medium high speed. Add the granulated sugar and continue to beat for about 1 minute, until light and fluffy. Scrape down the sides of the bowl and then beat in the vanilla. Using a wooden spoon, stir in the flour and pecans just until combined.
To shape each cookie, scoop up a spoonful of the dough and roll between your palms into a one-inch ball. Arrange the balls on the baking sheeting, spacing 1 inch apart.
Bake the cookies rotating the pan back to front midway through the baking time to ensure even baking, for about 20 minutes until golden brown. Transfer the cookies to wire racks and let cool.
While the cookies are still a little warm, put the confectioners sugar in a bag, add a few cookies and shake the bag to coat them. Repeat until all the cookies are coated.