Longtime Austin food columnist Virginia B. Wood dies at age 67

One of Austin’s most fervent food supporters and influential food writers, Virginia Wood, has died.

Wood, who was 67, covered Texas cuisine as a syndicated columnist in the early 1990s, and from 1997 to 2014, she was the full-time food editor for the Austin Chronicle, where she reported on everything from the early days of the local food movement to Austin’s transition into a noted dining destination.

She died on Friday at a care facility in San Antonio after a long battle with various health issues.

Virginia B. Wood was inducted into the Austin chapter of Les Dames d’Escoffier after retiring from the Austin Chronicle. Contributed by Carla Williams

Pamela Nevarez-Fisher, a longtime friend who first met Wood at a cooking class with Martha Rose Shulman in the 1970s, said Wood was a mentor and friend to countless people in the industry.

“She really helped start up food businesses here. A mention in her column could put someone on the map,” Nevarez-Fisher said on Friday. “She was the Austin food scene, but she was very, very generous to people,” even as her health declined. After a bake sale last year to help raise money for her healthcare costs, “she was beyond blown away by the Facebook posts. She couldn’t express her gratitude enough.”

Brandon Watson, who succeeded Wood as food editor for the Chronicle and now holds that title with Culture Map, says he’ll miss their long phone calls the most. “Sometimes, they were to help with a computer problem, sometimes they were just to gossip, but they were always the highlight of my week,” he says. “I can’t thank her enough for always sharing the context and history of Austin food. She was the true encyclopedia — not just of every aspect of the industry, but of the people who form its heart. She mentored a whole generation and inspired the one after that. She was fiercely intelligent, wildly funny and sometimes a little bawdy. And she had absolutely the best laugh.”

As told in a 2014 column about her departure from the Chronicle, Wood explained that she didn’t grow up cooking but learned early on from stories about her grandmothers that a person could achieve a certain status by knowing how to prepare food.

Wood wrote the 2005 Fonda San Miguel cookbook with her former boss, Tom Gilliland, and chef Miguel Ravago.

“As a fat little kid, I was always being told, ‘You go outside and play,’ or ‘You shouldn’t be in the kitchen,’” she said then. “But I grew up with this idea that there were things that you had to be able to cook in order to be considered to be a good cook. They were things like cornbread, fried chicken, cobbler. The more food experiences I had, the more that list expanded.”

She and her family used to visit Austin for her dad’s position on the State Board of Pharmacy, and as she grew older, it became an even more appealing place to escape. “There was standing water, trees and grass and hippies and Democrats, and I thought: I’m never going back.”

Woods studied Spanish and early childhood education at the University of Texas, where she often had to cook for her co-op. “It was my first foray at all into vegetarian cooking, which was horrifying to me at the time,” she said. “I had 30 hungry hippies who would show up to the dinner table every night, ready to eat whatever we put on that table. That was a learning experience.”

After a short stint teaching in Florence, she returned to Austin, where her fluency in Spanish helped her land a job at Fonda San Miguel. She worked nights and weekend on the line, making tortillas. On the weekends, she’d make dessert.

That led to yet another career: Professional baker. Wood spent the early 1980s selling baked goods, including quiches, muffins, brownies and other desserts, to restaurants including Ricco’s, Mike & Charlie’s Emporium, Katz’s Deli, Magnolia Cafes, Kerbey Lane Cafe and Basil’s.

She eventually took journalism courses at Austin Community College and started her syndicated column of 500-word stories that published in newspapers around the state. In 1995, however, she started a restaurant column at the Chronicle that would come to help shape the city’s food scene. She chronicled Austin’s growth from a barbecue-and-Texas music town to a city with small plates, charcuterie and James Beard-winning chefs.

In 2005, she co-wrote “Fonda San Miguel: Thirty Years Of Food And Art” and continued her weekly column, while also overseeing a team of writers, until 2014.

She is survived by her sister, Ann Wade, and will be buried in Midland, according to Nevarez-Fisher. Local memorial services are pending.

Upscale kitchen, home store near downtown closing March 5

Kettle & Brine, the kitchen and housewares store that opened a few years ago in a small strip center on North Lamar Boulevard and 12th, announced this week that it would be closing soon.

Kettle & Brine is located at 904 W. 12th St. It will close on March 5, but the owner said in a newsletter that there are plans in the work for another location. Addie Broyles / American-Statesman

Since fall of 2015, owner Tarica Navarro stocked beautifully designed home goods that brought as much form as function into a home. In a newsletter a few days ago, she said that it was time to close the current location to focus on a sister brand called Kinn and possibly move into another location.

From the email:

Alas, it’s time to move on. You might have heard, big things are brewing for us this year. Growing pains are hard, and a part of that is closing down our beloved shop at 12th and Lamar. But fret not, you’ll still be able to buy your favorite things online. Stay tuned for our next location which will also house our up and coming new sister brand Kinn. Sign up for updates and write us your thoughts on where you would like to see us next!

The store won’t officially close until March 5, and you will still be able to shop for some of the products online at kettleandbrine.com.

Veteran-friendly farm in Georgetown wins top Austin Food & Wine Alliance grant

The Austin Food & Wine Alliance gave away $50,000 to local food businesses and non-profits at its annual awards ceremony at Mercury Hall on Thursday night, the largest total yet in the organization’s six-year history.

Snodgrass Farms in Georgetown won the Austin Food & Wine Alliance’s top grant at an awards ceremony on Thursday night. The Snodgrass family says they plan to finish a meat processing facility and expand their veterans program with the $12,500 grant. Contributed by Hunter Townsend

In all, the beneficiary of the Austin Food & Wine Festival and host of several well-loved annual events has given out $192,500 to Austin culinary innovators in support of initiatives that give back to the community. AFWA also hosts an annual culinary arts career conference for local high school students.

The eight grant recipients this year were chosen by AFWA’s grant selection committee, which elected to also give an honorable mention.

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Winning the top prize of $12,500 was Snodgrass Farms in Georgetown, a farm that will use the money to finish an on-site meat processing facility and support its ongoing veterans program. Farm manager Tessa Snodgrass, who served in the military for 20 years, built an outreach program to help fellow vets with stress management.

Fond Bone Broth, a food company from Alysa and Isaac Seeland of San Antonio, won the $10,000 grant to expand its refrigerated shipping and e-commerce capabilities. The company aims to form a Foodmakers Freedom Alliance, a nonprofit allowing small-scale startups to access food processing experts and equipment without having to individually purchase equipment on their own.

Alysa and Isaac Seeland won a $10,000 grant from the Austin Food & Wine Alliance at Thursday’s awards ceremony at Mercury Hall. Contributed by Hunter Townsend

Dripping Springs’ Hills of Milk and Honey Farm, which won a $7,500 grant, hosts camps, classes and tours for everyone from teens to adults. The grant will be used to expand the teaching garden and rain water harvesting system and to support a summer camp.

Skull & Cakebones Bakery, which won the H-E-B Quest for Texas Best competition in August, won a $5,000 grant sponsored by Whole Foods Market. The company plans to use the money to extend its line of breads using locally milled flour.

Longtime Austin caterer Gina Burchenal and her husband, Ken, donated $5,000 for a grant to be awarded to a female-owned business, and the winner was Joi Chevalier’s The Cook’s Nook, a culinary incubator and shared commercial kitchen in East Austin. In addition to a 2,000-square foot commercial kitchen, the facility features a coworking and event space, which will host community programs that can be funded by the grant.

LeRoy & Lewis BBQ Truck and Catering won a $5,000 grant for buying cold storage space and equipment to grow its whole-animal butchery program.

With 10 acres in eastern Travis County, Farmshare Austin is educating new farmers through its 18-week training program, and with a $2,500 Premiere Event Community Grant, the non-profit plans to build a comprehensive Central Texas farmer training curriculum.

Also winning $2,500 was Yard to Market Cooperative, an organization that helps more than 50 local backyard gardeners and “micro­scale” farmers sell their produce. The grant will fund cold storag, provide grower and community education on innovative practices such as mushroom cultivation, aquaponics and beekeeping.

Mark Rashap’s KOOP radio show, “Another Bottle Down,” won AFWA’s honorable mention. The show airs at 1 p.m. on Tuesdays on 91.7FM.

Is romaine lettuce is causing the E. coli outbreak? Not so fast, says CDC

You’ve probably heard by now that 41 people in Canada have contracted E. coli from what possibly could have been contaminated romaine lettuce.

Consumer Reports warned last week that we should be avoiding romaine lettuce, but the Centers for Disease Control says it doesn’t have enough data to support focusing only on romaine. The outbreak in late 2017 sickened nearly 20 people in the U.S. and 40 in Canada. Contributed by Dreamstime/TNS

Fewer than 20 Americans have officially been diagnosed with the same strain, and they are spread across 13 states. (Not Texas.)

But today, the Centers for Disease Control says that a Consumer Reports story last week advising people to avoid romaine lettuce was too quick to pinpoint that particular ingredient as the culprit.

In an interview with NBC News, a CDC official said that even though Canadian authorities have linked the outbreak to romaine, U.S. food safety workers haven’t been able to identify a single food consumed by everyone affected. Many of them were sickened weeks ago, and it can be difficult to recall every food you consumed after so much time has passed, said Ian Williams, chief of the CDC’s Outbreak Response and Prevention Branch.

Romaine lettuce might be the culprit of a recent E. coli outbreak, but the CDC says it can’t issue the same kind of advisory unofficially sent out by Consumer Reports. Renee Studebaker / American-Statesman

MORE FOOD NEWS: You’ll have to wait a little longer for crawfish season this year

No new cases have been diagnosed in the past month, but that doesn’t mean it’s over, he added.

Williams said Consumer Reports acted on its own to tell readers not to eat romaine after an interview with Connecticut Rep. Rosaw DeLauro, a Democrat who serves on a food safety subcommittee in the House and is concerned about the lack of response at the CDC.

A new year, a new need for donations to help pay off school lunch debt

Remember when paying off school lunches became something of a viral form of activism last year?
Austin ISD serves about 80,000 meals a day, including about 700 to students who are far enough behind in paying for their lunches that they receive a “courtesy” meal that the district absorbs into its operating costs. Ralph Barrera/AMERICAN-STATESMAN
Students who can’t pay for their lunch has always been an issue, but it’s on Americans’ minds as school funding and other assistance programs are cut. In the Austin school district alone, the nutrition and food services department serves 80,000 meals per day, including about 700 meals that the students receiving them can’t pay for.
hose courtesy meals, as they are known, cost the school $350,000 each year. In late 2016, AISD opened a crowdfunding campaign that went viral and eventually raised more than $20,000 to help with students’ lunch.
Austin Independent School District provides healthy, nutritious lunches to thousands of students, even if they can’t afford to pay for it, but the courtesy meal ends up coming out of the nutrition and food services budget. Addie Broyles / American-Statesman
Anticipating a similar need this year, AISD launched another crowdfunding campaign with a goal of $10,000 to help students during this school year.
Right now, 24 backers have donated $1,735.
If you’re feeling generous with that post-holiday glow, you can donate here to help alleviate even more student lunch debt in Austin.
Here’s how you can help other Austin-area schools with lunch debt.

Does HEB’s $5 curbside service mean you never walk into an HEB again?

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You might never have to set foot in an H-E-B again.

The H-E-B at Oltorf and Congress in South Austin is one of about 17 H-E-B locations in Central Texas where you can pay for someone else to shop for your groceries. Addie Broyles / American-Statesman

For many Texans, not shopping at H-E-B is like not watching the Longhorns or not eating breakfast tacos, but as the grocery delivery industry ramps us, the grocers themselves are coming up with ways to save customers time and money on delivery fees. That means trying to compete with them.

RELATED: Testing Amazon Prime’s new one-hour delivery for grocery goods

Texans always love H-E-B, but especially after Hurricane Harvey

With its H-E-B Curbside service, rather than deliver the groceries all the way to your house, H-E-B is betting that you’re OK with spending a flat $4.95 fee to swing by the store on the way home and pick up your food. You can’t use coupons or in-store discounts, but the prices are otherwise the same as in the store. UDPATE: From an H-E-B rep: “On some items H-E-B Curbside adds a nominal price increase to an item to underwrite this service, but not more than 3% on average.”

There are about 17 H-E-B stores in the Austin area that offer curbside grocery pickup.

H-E-B now offers curbside grocery pick-up at 17 of more than 40 stores in the Austin area, and to encourage new users this fall, the company is offering four free curbside pick-ups, no matter how large the order.

RELATED: How the influx of food delivery options could change the Austin landscape

I tried the service for the first time on Sunday, and it was seamless. It was nice to see familiar prices and packages online, and the set fee makes it easy to understand what I’m paying for. Any extra prices I paid weren’t high enough for me to notice. I picked out the groceries online at lunchtime on Friday, but all the pickup times for that afternoon were taken, so I picked one on Sunday. It took longer than I thought to click my way to a decent grocery cart, but I was relying on my memory of the store and my fridge back home. I know this step will be faster once my order history is set and many of the items I buy week after week will be easy to reorder.

When I went to pick up the groceries at the Oltorf and Congress H-E-B, I parked in one of the spots outside the mural-covered trailer they’ve converted into a curbside building. A sign instructs you to text a code to a number, and then you get a message saying someone will be out to load the groceries into your car. A few minutes later, a store employee came to my window, where I signed for the groceries and then he loaded them in the trunk. I didn’t even get out of the car.

He wouldn’t take a tip. The store’s service saved me about half an hour. That’s worth $5, especially when I’m swamped, but there’s no way I’d give up the pleasure of pushing a cart through a store, looking at the groceries and thinking about what I’m going to be eating the week ahead. I can do that at a computer using my imagination to walk through the store’s colorful, tactile inventory, but where’s the fun in that?

The company has been working on this convenience feature at stores throughout Texas, and by the end of the year, 100 stores will offer it. As they expand and invest into each curbside pickup locations, there’s no doubt that many customers will find it helpful now and then and some who will find it indispensable for everyday shopping.


Got food? Need food? This website connects Hurricane Harvey victims, volunteer cooks

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It’s been more than a week since Hurricane Harvey plummeted the coast and floods swept through Houston and other parts of East Texas, and the relief efforts are only getting started.

Volunteers and H-E-B employees deliver donated food and water to the Smithville Recreation Center last week. FRAN HUNTER FOR/ BASTROP ADVERTISER and SMITHVILLE TIMES

Over the weekend, I spotted a website that connects people in the food community who want to donate hot/prepared food or unprepared food to people who are in need, no matter if they are evacuees in a shelter or volunteers trying to clean up Rockport.

The website is simple: ihavefoodineedfood.com. There, you can fill out a form to donate food or receive it.

I’m not sure who is connecting the donors with the recipients, but it’s a good tool to know about if you’re considering making a donation of your own.

Note that the site requests food prepared in commercial kitchens or from licensed caterers, which is an effort to reduce food safety risks from distributing food prepared in unregulated kitchens.

RELATED: Some good Harvey news: Houston ISD students can get 3 free meals per day this school year

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Some good Harvey news: Houston ISD students can get 3 free meals per day this school year

The only good thing about a once-in-a-lifetime tragedy is the once-in-a-lifetime goodness of people pours out.

Students in Houston can apply to receive three free meals a day this school year. This is one of the lunches served in the Austin district. Addie Broyles / American-Statesman

Here’s some once-in-a-lifetime goodness that popped up today: In a state that is reluctant to support students who rely on free and reduced lunch, Houston ISD is now set to offer every student three free meals a day this school year. That’s millions of dollars of support for public schools that, in previous years, have been asking for more federal support for students in need in the form of free breakfast in the classroom, expanded reduced lunch and improved quality of ingredients.

RELATED: After $10,000 in donations, all of Austin ISD’s school lunch debt is paid off (for now)

Should public schools outsource lunches to private companies?

Each morning, AISD serves a free breakfast to thousands of students throughout the city. In Houston, every student will be eligible for three free meals a day for the coming school year after Hurricane Harvey. Addie Broyles / American-Statesman

According to the Houston Chronicle, the Houston school district, which has more than 210,000 students, received approval on Wednesday from the Texas Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Department of Agriculture to let students apply for a waiver that could cover the cost of all three meals that a school serves each day. (Many schools offer a third meal for after-school programs, including tutoring and athletics.)

Austin ISD serves about 80,000 meals a day, but Houston’s largest school district has more than 210,000 students, all of whom can receive additional free meals this year as the city recovers from Hurricane Harvey. Ralph Barrera/AMERICAN-STATESMAN

Families still have to apply for this waiver (click here for an application), but this news means that tens of thousands of parents can focus on putting their homes and lives back together with one less thing to worry about.

The politics of school lunch have subsided in the face of disaster, but Houston is about to become the largest free school breakfast and lunch test case in the country. We’ll get to see what happens when students get fed during the day, no matter how much money their parents make.



Texans always love H-E-B, but especially after Hurricane Harvey

(Photo by Jay Janner/American-Statesman)

During this whirlwind of a storm that just won’t seem to stop, H-E-B has emerged at the forefront of the relief efforts, delivering literal tons of supplies to the battered cities along the coast and feeding thousands of evacuees at shelters around the state.

The social media love for this San Antonio-based grocer has been strong, with hundreds of people tweeting and sharing memes on Facebook about H-E-B coming to Texans’ rescue when they need them most.

Even CEO Charles Butt — the subject of this Dallas Morning News piece, “Why can’t we have more billionaires like Texas grocery magnate Charles Butt?” in July, just weeks before Harvey — has even been sitting in on the emergency preparedness meetings.

So far, they’ve donated more than $1 million in disaster relief in the forms of free meals, food bank donations and financial commitments.

Here’s a breakdown, by the numbers, of some of that assistance:

  • 72,240: Cases of water distributed so far (43 truckloads)
  • 56,000: Bags of ice distributed so far (15 truck loads)
  • 2: Helicopters used to fly in logistics experts to stranded warehouse facilities to help them reopen
  • 15: Shelters in Central Texas alone are receiving supplies from H-E-B
  • 2,500: Meals per hour that H-E-B can serve from its 45-foot-long mobile kitchens
  • 4,500: Meals Central Market served this week to shelters in Dallas
  • 100: H-E-B partners who volunteered at the San Antonio food bank last weekend

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If you want to find out the latest on H-E-B’s disaster efforts, as well as store closures and where to find assistance if you need it, follow @HEBprepared on Twitter or follow their Facebook page.

Here are some of our favorite H-E-B love tweets from the past few days:






Why Bastrop County farmers started a relief program to lend tools, labor after disasters like Hurricane Harvey

Amid all the bad news this week, I was relieved to hear that local farmers aren’t doing as badly as you might expect after such a major storm.

For one, they didn’t have most of their fall crops in the ground yet, so this storm will delay their season but not wipe it out completely. Second, the rain and winds weren’t as damaging as some other storms we’ve had in recent years, including one that caused $130,000 in destruction at Tecolote Farm or the one that nearly wiped out Dewberry Hills Farm.

Farm-1-1 is a nonprofit organization based in Cedar Creek that connects farmers throughout Central Texas who need a hand or equipment to fix something on their property. Founders Vivian and JoAnn Smotherman have been farming for a decade and know that it’s too much work for one person or even a couple to handle on their own. Contributed by Farm-1-1.

Farm-1-1 is a farmer assistance program based near Cedar Creek in Bastrop County that started two years ago after flooding left many area farmers with downed fences and wind-torn buildings. Directors (and farmers) Vivian and JoAnn Smotherman have since organized a network of farmers to help one another when emergencies like this strike.

Although they haven’t had any major calls in the past few days, they expect to hear from farmers later this week, after they’ve had a chance to survey the damage and make a priority list. “Farms suffer greatly during these kinds of tragedies,” Vivian Smotherman says. “When you’re talking about a herd of cattle or goats and losing your fencing or your entire crops got flooded, this can be just as devastating.”

RELATED: Farmers report soggy fields, loose pigs after Hurricane Harvey storms

Royal Fig, GelPro, Springdale Farm rally donation efforts for Hurricane Harvey victims

When Farm-1-1 gets a call from a rural landowner who could use a hand, they activate their network to find farmers with equipment and labor to lend. “New farmers sink way too much money into equipment,” she says. “We try to catch people before they get so far into debt. You don’t have to go buy a tiller or a brushhog or a post-hole digger that you’ll use once. Call us up and we’ll get one over to you. Pooling equipment reduces costs throughout the community.”

On Tuesday morning, Farm-1-1 put out a call on Facebook for farmers who might need a hand after the recent Hurricane Harvey storms.

The Smothermans have been farming for about 10 years, and the only evidence of the weekend’s storms are a bunch of muddy pigs that are happy for the wet earth. In the two years since they started Farm-1-1, they’ve helped 40 to 50 farms in some way or another, and they are always accepting donations to help run and grow the program. They even run a farmer thrift store to help people sell and buy equipment.

If you want to learn more about Farm-1-1 or to inquire about getting assistance or how you can help lend a hand, go to farm-1-1.org.

Other local farmer assistance programs include Texas Farmers Market’s emergency relief fund, and the Texas Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association has a comprehensive list of other disaster funds for farmers and ranchers.

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