Each year I find myself writing some version of the same email with regard to New Year's Eve. It's probably not that great of a sales pitch. It begins with some general thoughts regarding the nature of the season and the holiday. I note that the days surrounding the winter solstice are short, and a sacred time for taking stock, finding meaning, and setting one's intentions for the year ahead.
I recall that spiritually, the season is a time of symbolic hibernation and physical regeneration. Our bodies seek rest. They need to recharge as we await the return of the sun, and along with it, the renewal and vitality of gorgeous spring days to come. Rarely has this felt truer than this year, with these gloomy skies and temperatures hovering near freezing in recent days. The cold and dim light leave me wanting a bowl of hearty soup, some crusty bread, a good book, and maybe a hot toddy followed by an early bedtime.
Then I confess that even in my youth, our popular New Year's motifs didn't quite work for me (think of tall flutes overflowing with Veuve...more
The frenetic holiday baking is finally winding down over here at TFB. About this time each year, I'm reminded that things are about to clear out on Christmas Eve. Traffic will die down and folks will settle in with their family and friends.
I suppose I always feel a little melancholy as the high season comes to a close. I love having all of you in the shop, picking up holiday swag. The connections established in the small conversations over the counter feel a little brighter and more intimate. And as much as I enjoy the ensuing quiet, it's still hard to let go of that addictive energy that has built in the bakery in recent weeks.
Back in the old days at TFB, this slowdown in bakery madness was also the lead up to one last big event - a thing I looked forward to each year: Maline's Christmas party.
Maline and my mom were sorority sisters at UT in the late 1950s, and I think it's fair to say that she has always been a wee bit eccentric. That is, if keeping a parrot in the foyer, a pet monkey named Clarence out on the upstairs patio, a host of...more
My earliest memory of working on our holiday cookie tins was probably from around 1996. I was three years out of law school and ecstatic to be working on anything that didn't involve sitting at a desk in a closed office for 12 or 14 hours straight.
After three years and two different jobs at high-end, high-stress law firms (first in New York and then later Palo Alto), I had begun to think that something about the equation of me + law practice wasn't making me particularly happy. That year I returned to Austin to take a break, regroup, and think about my next move.
In those days, our production bakery was still at the Red River and 32nd Street location, sandwiched between our retail shop and Wells Fargo in that strip center just north of St. David's. I remember pushing speed racks heavily laden with tray upon tray of freshly baked Christmas cookies up the steep concrete ramp from the bakery into the adjoining retail space.
There, we would reallocate 6 or 8 dining tables in one corner of the shop for the purpose of lining up the...more
I was sitting at the bar table in the dining room a couple of mornings ago when Hall brushed by me looking mildly annoyed. "Your girlfriend hired Will," he grumbled. The ribbing was good-natured, but I could tell there was real feeling behind it.
I've known William Maxwell, aka "Billy Dank" for four years now. He is a simply extraordinary human being who has brought more joy, love and light into TFB over the past few years than I had imagined was possible. And while he's not quite out the door - he plans to continue to work a few days a week with us - he is taking steps that will ultimately result in him forging a new career path. His freshly minted degree in environmental studies from UT makes him uniquely suitable for a position at the environmental data company Carissa runs.
I can't quite remember the first day I met Will. I probably said something like "William Maxwell? You mean like the writer?" But it didn't take long before Will, through the indefatigable force of his personality and unique charm, made himself a fixture in our daily...more
About a year ago, on a tip from a friend, I took the borzoi and Carissa's two little dogs over to a large tract of open land not far from my central Austin home that for many years has served as an annex for Tex-DoT (Department of Transportation). It didn't take much, and soon I was hooked, returning repeatedly to drink in the magic offered by this largely hidden space.
Sadly, it seems the dictates of commerce and capitalism will soon see the tract leveled to make way for a large, mixed-use development to be called "The Grove." For the moment, though, it remains rough and wild - shielded from frenetic nearby traffic despite its proximity to major thoroughfares. The eastern side slopes down through groves of majestic, mature live oaks to a stretch of Shoal Creek that is largely inaccessible. Wide-open meadows sport patches of wildflowers in distinct colors depending on the season. At present, there is an extended swath of tall grass on the backside with tops in a furious bloom of gorgeous lavender - salvias maybe? And there are extensive areas of dense,...more
Carissa and I traveled to Montreal a couple of weeks ago. We were totally blown away by what a wonderful city it is, so gorgeous and French. Like Paris, except with really friendly people (JUST KIDDING PARIS - jeez, you can be so touchy).
We found an amazing bistro called L'Express (ok, we didn't "find" it exactly - our friend Carenn Jackson, chenin blanc queen, told us to go there). L'Express serves stunningly good and exactingly traditional French fare and has the wine list of my dreams. The city was flooded with people wearing their light summer clothing that spends most of the year stored in a trunk, awaiting the end of a long, frigid winter. Surrounded by the joyful energy of those who couldn't wait to leave the house every day, it was easy to forget that the weather isn't 70 degrees all summer everywhere you go.
That fantasy world evaporated more or less immediately when we stepped off the plane at Bergstrom. Dang. Central Texas summer has arrived, y'all. It is fried-egg-on-the-sidewalk hot out there.
But even though the sun is...more
A couple of Thursdays ago, I awoke early to a thudding sound just outside my window - which was odd, because I generally sleep on the second floor. I cracked one eye enough to see dim grey light - the kind that comes just before sunrise. Some part of me remembered it was my 56th birthday, but for a moment, further details were foggy.
Then I remembered. I was in Santa Fe - attending a writers' workshop led by my longtime writing mentor Natalie Goldberg and my dear friend, recent James Beard award winner for food writing, Bill Addison. That thudding sound? Well - that was snow sliding wet and heavy off the roof onto the veranda where it plopped in a pile and slowly melted in the 35 degree morning air. No wonder I couldn't quite place my surroundings.
The theme for the workshop was food writing. It was conducted in the manner of all of Natalie's workshops, which are grounded in her long practice of Zen Buddhism, and utilize meditation as a way to quiet the mind, allowing space for a deepened experience of writing practice.
Our group of...more
Some summers, in the dead heat of July, my dad and I would load up the station wagon and drive seven long hours to East Texas. As the trip would drag on, I'd pull the fold-out map from its place behind the visor and check off towns as they went by - Huntsville, Jasper - markers to measure our progress. Despite the 70mph speed limit, the ride seemed endless. Bored, I would clamor over the seat and into the back to forage the styrofoam ice chest for snacks, before climbing back over to sit (unbelted) in the passenger seat, where I'd try not to fidget.
Late in the day we would arrive on the shores of Toledo Bend, the enormous reservoir that delineates the southern half of the Texas/Louisiana border. We would pitch our canvas army surplus tent, fold out cots, and unroll cotton sleeping bags. Dad would sit out under the towering pines with my godfather (better known to me as "Uncle Juggy") who had driven up from Beaumont. On folding lawn chairs, with their legs stretched out in front of them, they would drink cans of Schlitz or Falstaff and reminisce...more
Wednesday mornings, you can usually find me huddled with Whitney at Table 20 (the 2-top closest to the parking lot door) going over our promotional efforts, including what I might write for the week's email. This week, Whitney had a pretty good suggestion - chronicling the journey of a single croissant all the way through the production process. In truth, I have been pleased with their quality lately, so the idea stuck.
This set me thinking about the old days, when I first learned to make croissants from scratch back in late 1981 or early 1982. I have vague memories of sidling up to the butcher block counter and slicing up whole sticks of butter; of mom showing me how to lay the sliced butter flat on a piece of hand mixed dough, then how to fold it in on top of itself, roll it back out and repeat the motion three to four times.
We used these very small French rolling pins (solid pieces of wood that tapered a bit at the ends) and worked with very small batches of dough that only made about a dozen croissants each. Once the dough was...more
Like I mentioned in my last email, our restaurant usually has a relatively quiet SXSW experience as we're situated away from the festival's primary tourist corridors. The bakery, on the other hand, catches a full-on dose of SXSW insanity, sending out pastries, breads, muffins, buns, you name it, not only to our regular wholesale accounts, but to caterers and out of town operations to feed the industry and convention hoards that flood downtown this time each year.
As such, it seems like an ideal moment to pull back the curtain and introduce one of the folks who is largely unseen at TFB but whose critical work keeps our wheels on, so to speak: Dennis Day, referred to around the shop as Fleet Commander of Texas French Bread.
Dennis has been known to wear driving gloves, crocodile leather boots, and vintage Star Wars tees. His superhero-like stealth allows him to dart around the bakery between the hours of midnight and nine am, organizing and packing bread products. In the very early hours of the morning, with recognizable style and sharp wits...more