My cookbook date with Kitty
The beloved Statesman food writer and I met up this week for a special donation and a walk down memory lane.
I got to see the one and only Kitty Crider earlier this week.
We were at the Cookbook Cafe at the Austin Public Library downtown to make a very special cookbook donation, which I’ll tell you more about in a minute.
But first, a little about Kitty. This is a woman who needs no introduction to many of you. She’s the longtime food writer who ran the food section at the Austin American-Statesman for more than 28 years.
When she retired in 2008, I was a 25-year-old new mom who’d been tasked to fill her shoes.
I quickly realized that the best way to do that was to wear my own.
For the next 13 years, I carried on some of Kitty’s traditions and ways of doing things and started many of my own. She ran the Christmas Cooking Contest for 20 years as a way to engage readers; I did a holiday cookie recipe swap. She was active in the Association of Food Journalists; my fellow food bloggers and I started the Austin Food Blogger Alliance. She answered readers’ questions via snail mail. I answered them via Twitter. (And snail mail.)
She insisted on recipe testing; I rarely had the time while producing both print and digital content, which felt like two full-time jobs.
Kitty showed such patience and grace to me over those years, when I was trying new ideas and trying not to &*#% anything up.
Kitty and I stayed in touch over the years, however lightly. She was traveling often with her husband – they’ve been to something like 25 countries since she retired – and I was busy with the kids at home.
I loved writing stories about What Came Before, and she is a keeper of so much of that wisdom, so if I had an excuse to email her, I would do it.
Kitty set a precedent that I only grew to appreciate as the years went on. Her Southern charm, her endless Rolodex of contacts, and her archive of memories. It lingered in every room I walked into. She knew a ton of people and had a special way of caring about each of them, without overpromising what she could offer. It takes a special type of person to walk into someone’s home and sit at their breakfast table and hear about their grandmother over a piece of apple cake
I can’t tell you how nice it was to see her and give her a big ol’ hug when we both showed up at the library to officially donate the Statesman Cookbook Collection to the Cookbook Cafe.
This is a collection of cookbooks 40 years in the making. Kitty always kept books about Austin or Texas cuisine, and I kept up the tradition, tucking books of note into a special area in the newsroom.
Last summer, when I was packing up my cubicle, I made sure to take these books so they wouldn’t get lost in the shuffle. (The newsroom was slowly emptying out for a big move last fall to an office complex near the airport. The building at 305 S. Congress is slated for demolition at some point in the coming years.)
I always get emotional at reunions like this. While we were standing for the photo in front of the shelves that are already holding the books of our late fellow food writer Virginia B. Wood, I felt a little tingle of grief in my throat and ancestral joy up my spine.
These women intimidated the hell out of me, but they showed me such kindness. I don’t know what food writer I would have become without their influence.
What an honor to participate in something that feels bigger than the three of us.
When it was all said and done, Kitty and I contributed a total of 163 books — a fraction of Virginia’s collection — to the Cookbook Cafe. The oldest dates back to 1957, and the most recent from 2021, the year the newspaper stopped having a full-time food writer.
While I had the books at home, I cataloged them, so you can see which books are there and search by title, author, or year. I have a very basic catalog started for Virginia’s books that I hope to polish later this year. (VBW had closer to 300 cookbooks in her collection when she died, and although there are plenty of Texas books in there, it’s more of a general cookbook collection. I also removed any duplicates from our collection before making the donation.)
It was such a beautiful way to close out that chapter of my career with her. To move those dusty boxes of books out of my garage. To thank the woman who led the way so that I could have the freedom to make this path my own.
To one more step in my grief of leaving behind that special title of “newspaper food columnist.”
That’s one thing that Kitty and I always talk about: We absolutely loved that job.
The “recipe lady” at the local daily newspaper holds a special place in the community, and having held that title for more than twice as long as I did, she understands and all it means — including walking away from it — at a deeper level.
What a gift to get to spend some time with this woman. And what a wonderful excuse to do it.
You’ll be hearing more about this cookbook donation and details of what’s in the collection in a freelance story I’m writing for the Statesman. Consider this an inside scoop.
Hi, friends! I wanted to make sure to send this newsletter to everyone on the mailing list so you can look out for that cookbook donation story in the Statesman in the coming weeks.
It’s also an excuse to invite you to sign up for the paid version of The Feminist Kitchen, which has recently included stories about my first batch of fire cider, a recent trip out to the ever-dynamic Lake Buchanan, a cake I made for one of my wildest ancestors, and the heartstrings that pulled on the day they discovered the Endurance.
Thanks to all the new paid subscribers who have joined this year! Your support of independent journalism is what keeps it alive and thriving.
Two quick things from me to wrap up the week: If you want to hear more from Kitty, check out this oral history she recorded with the Southern Foodways Alliance in 2018. She is a witty storyteller, and this interview is an instant classic for anyone who loves Austin food history.
Second, I wanted to mention the passing of Jeff Townsend, whom I wrote about in 2019 as part of a story about his family’s epic chile relleno fry.
I found out about this annual fête through his wife, Shawneen, who was working at Central Market when I called one day calling about Hatch chiles. She casually mentioned how many pounds of chiles they used at their family gathering every year, and I immediately asked for an invite.
When I showed up at their house in Hays County, Jeff greeted me with open arms, and I spent the afternoon feeling like I was part of the family. He had just been diagnosed with cancer, but his attitude and his outlook were bright.
From the story:
While the kitchen is bustling, Shawneen's husband, Jeff, holds down the fort in the dining room, where he's sitting with his sisters and their husbands and kids.
"I'm the trash guy," Jeff says, but his black Slipknot shirt and calm demeanor amid the chaos suggest another role in this sprawling family.
Jeff used to be a general manager in the grocery industry, where he worked 80 hours a week and traveled often, but he’s now working at H-E-B as a baker, his first trade. Shawneen works an early shift at Central Market on South Lamar, where she’s a quality assurance and food safety specialist. They came from different worlds in El Paso, found each other at a young age, and have kept the family together through many ups and downs over the years.
“We met back in the tumultuous '80s,” he says. “I was a jock with a hot rod. She was a little more civilized.”
The black-haired football player’s nitrous-fueled Chevelle ‘68 might have been what caught her eye, but by the time they went out on their first date, both Shawneen and Jeff knew there was something more. She was 15 at the time. He was 19. “We got married six months later,” she says. “Everybody said we were crazy, and we were, but 35 years later, here we are.”
After getting married, they continued to listen to heavy metal and new-wave punk bands, but they got haircuts and grown-up jobs and started a family, traveling around the country for work. “We never conformed, and we still don’t,” he says. “I canceled my subscription to the norm a long time ago.”
After two decades of marriage, they settled in Central Texas, where their youngest finished high school. Now they have seven grandchildren, with an eighth who was born just last week.
“He’s so good to me. I’ve put gas in my car five times in my life,” she says. “I wake up to coffee and my car warmed up and backed up. I get up at 4:30 a.m. He doesn’t have to wake up with me, but he does.”
Jeff doesn't gloss over family troubles, but he's proud of their determination to work through them.
“We’ve gone through everything. You name it and we’ve dealt with it,” he says. “I tell my kids, 'We’ve fought about everything already, so there’s nothing left to fight about.'"
Earlier this year, Jeff was diagnosed with prostate cancer and has been undergoing treatment. “There are so many different components to a life, and the majority of it is out of your control. Life is 20% problem and 80% how you handle it. If you live based on all fears, you won’t get out of bed," Jeff says.
This month, he'll have more visits with doctors to find out more about his cancer prognosis. It's a time of uncertainty, but his focus is clear: “I tell my friends, ‘I’m living the dream, man.’ It might not be their dream, but it’s our dream."
Shawneen posted about her husband’s death this week on Facebook.
Rest in peace, Jeff. It was an honor to capture this moment in your life and share it with our community.
Thanks to you, readers, for letting me share this memory, and for your support so I can continue writing newsletters, columns, and stories like this. Hug your loved ones tonight. Say thanks to your mentors. We only have one wild and precious life to live.
I well remember meeting you and your darling boys at The Cookbook Cafe when I was on book-tour for Home Cooking. It remains one of my favorite interviews of all time.
I’m so happy you’re still connecting with Kitty. And so sorry to hear about Jeff. You continue to keep things real and I’m so proud of you!