Some of the best cookbooks, as you undoubtedly have discovered for yourself, are those that combine good food and history. Now, history can be a subjective topic; it might be American history or world history, or the history of cookbooks (which I have been exploring for a couple decades) or it might be the personal history of a restaurant, such as Theadgill’s.
I have, in my collection of cookbooks, quite a lot that came about due to the success of a restaurant. Few, however, have excited me as much as THREADGILL’S: THE COOKBOOK.
I haven’t been to Threadgill’s Restaurant in Austin Texas, except in my imagination—and through the pages of THREADGILL’S: THE COOKBOOK.
Threadgill’s started out as a Gulf gas station and ‘erstwhile late-night hot spot run by Kenneth Threadgill, who got to be better known for his yodeling prowess than for pumping gas.
In 1933, Threadgill’s Restaurant was established, and, writes Helen Thompson (news media editor of the Texas monthly) “after Janis Joplin became a regular at the Wednesday night hootenannies, Threadgill’s gained a reputation as a musical mecca…”
In 1974, Kenneth Threadgill’s wife Mildred died, and Kenneth closed Threadgill’s. The city of Austin almost had it demolished, as it had become an eyesore. Eddie Wilson, meanwhile, started a hole-in-the-wall restaurant in 1976 but was intrigued with the idea of a southern cooking style restaurant, one that would feature honest-to-goodness southern styled food like his momma used to make (You will have to read the cookbook to learn the rest of the story about Beulah Risher Wilson).
In 1979, Eddie Wilson bought the deserted restaurant from Threadgill. The place had been gutted by a fire, says Eddie, and need a lot of work—but with Kenneth’s encouragement, Eddie dug in and started restoring the place. The newly refurbished Threadgill’s reopened its doors on January 1m 1981. It was an instant success.
In the introduction, Eddie explains that he had been “collecting the stuff for this book for a lotta years” and that “Threadgill’s Restaurant is not only known for my mother’s southern cooking. It’s also a museum of Austin music history and a shrine to its founder, the Grandfather of Austin Country music, Kenneth Threadgill. If it seems like my mother’s southern cooking, frozen spinach casserole, an old Austin gas station with art gallery and the singing career of Janis Joplin, don’t have much to do with each other, please bear with me…”
He continues, “Eventually all these subjects will wind up telling the story of how a humble little American family restaurant grew up to feed millions of happy customers…”
Eddie explains that, as you read his book, you will be treated as an honored guests, and given the grand tour—a tour which includes a visit to the “upstairs store” where there is a collection on display of his old photos, family mementos, collection of old kitchen equipment and cooking devices. The tour will include a visit to his family library, consisting mainly of cookbooks, gardening books and Austin history in many forms…
There is a great deal more to Threadgill’s: the Cookbook, in Eddie’s Introduction, which includes a year-by-year history beginning with Kenneth Threadgill’s opening of his Gulf Gas Station. Eddie provides an interesting chapter called “Notes from a Southern Kitchen” and interspersed everywhere you will find references to his m other, to whom his book is dedicated and who was, quite obviously, quite a lady.
The recipes in Threadgill’s: the COOKBOOK are southern but southern with a difference, Eddie explains. “Things have changed since the days of my mother’s southern cooking,” Eddie says. “some of them for the better. Seasonings are one example. Momma used garlic some, but nowhere near the quantity we use nowadays…”
Eddie also explains some of the other differences—how Threadgill’s serves meatloaf, but to his mother, meatloaf was an expensive way to feed her family and get them full. (Eddie’s mother could have taken a page out of my mother’s book—she put about a loaf of bread into one pound of ground meat to make hamburgers or meatloaf).
I think you will like the recipes in Threadgill’s: the COOKBOOK, (as well as the photographs, charming graphics, cartoons, some food related poetry by famous writers and the folksy writing style of the author/cook/restaurant owner, Eddie Wilson.
Recipes range from making your own seasonings (meat, poultry, vegetable, and seafood) BBQ rub, sauces and dressings (Jalapeno Honey Mustard), soups (check out the Drunken Bean Soup or the Tortilla Soup), Salads (including one of my favorites, Texas Caviar, which I started making about ten years ago)—breads, vegetables, meats and entrees, and desserts, such as salty cracker pie, that you aren’t likely to find in other cookbooks.
The author, Eddie Wilson, is someone we can all identify with; let me quote from his cookbook and see if you don’t.
“Searching for books to read about food can be a grand adventure. I love dusty used bookstores, flea markets, garage sales and libraries…although I’ve spent a good bit of time in used bookstores, it wasn’t until I discovered John Egerton’s wonderful bibliography in SOUTHERN FOOD that I became more disciplined in my pursuit to find more books that were fun about food. In fact, I was so impressed with Egerton’s 32 page list that I reduced it to little bitty on a copy machine and carried it with me so I would have it whenever I stumbled into a used bookstore…”
Since 1996, when Threadgill’s: the COOKBOOK was published, we have lost a lot of our used bookstores. In the San Fernando valley where I lived for most of my adult life, at least four of the bookstores I used to patronize, have gone out of business. And, in 2008 when my Canadian girlfriend, Sharon, and I took a Great California Adventure car trip, I took her to San Luis Obispo where I had raved about Leon’s Bookstore, which always had a huge collection of cookbooks for sale. Leon’s, I discovered with great dismay, was gone. Only an empty store front stood where Bob & I shopped at Leon’s every time we went to Pismo or San Luis Obispo.
Well, I know that almost any book can be found on the Internet. THREADGILL’S THE COOKBOOK was published by Longstreet Press in Atlanta in 1996. It originally sold for $21.95. I found it listed on Amazon.com starting at $1.80 for a pre owned copy and $16.91 new. Just for the heck of it, I check with Alibris.com as well. They have pre owned copies starting at $1.65 and the new and/or collectible as very overpriced so I’m not listing them. When purchasing from a pre-owned book vendor, remember that you will pay $3.99 shipping and handling. Still, I always spent a lot more than $3.99 driving to Leon’s in the central coast. Now to go find Egerton’s book SOUTHERN FOOD so I can copy the bibliography!
Review by Sandra Lee Smith
P.S. I did find my copy of Egerton’s SOUTHERN FOOD and for all the bibliography lovers out there, this one is extensive. If you are searching for community cookbooks of a particular state, bibliographies can be helpful.