As a kid, you assume your experiences are the norm, and I associated food with bringing families and communities together. My mother and father were great cooks who spent their early years in rural communities outside of Austin. I have early memories of going out to the family farm and picking fresh peas, melons, greens, tomatoes, as well as watching my father butcher farm raised meats. We grew up eating what is now called farm-to-table.
What specifically attracted you to the mission of Foodways Texas?
Many of Foodways Texas’ founding fifty are or have been members of the Southern Foodways Alliance. I was blown away by SFA’s love, passion, knowledge about the culture and history of the South as seen through the prism of food. It helped me to further appreciate the rich cultural, ethnic, culinary melting pot that is Texas.
Now, as Foodways Texas, we want to celebrate the richness and great fortune of being in that sweet spot of South meeting Southwest – from the cooking traditions of black slaves, Cajuns, Native Americans, Czechs, Germans, and Poles, to cowboys, Mexicans, and relative newcomers like the Vietnamese. There are so many culinary traditions that cross-pollinate with our ranching, farming, and fishing lifestyles, as well as the Texas tradition of smoking foods. As I like to say, “If it fits in a pit we try to smoke it,” in Texas.
You’re a Night Hawk alumnus, and currently working with Foodways Texas on an oral history project about the legendary restaurant chain. Would you tell us more about your experience there?
Night Hawk was my first restaurant job while in college, and served as my training ground for learning the restaurant business from the ground up. I started as a dishwasher and bus boy, then eventually learned to cook, bar-tend, wait tables, and manage. My mother was my first culinary inspiration, but Night Hawk provided my first insight on the operational side of the food business. At Hoover’s Cooking, we aspire to honor both of those influences, and being a native of east Austin, there is a great feeling of coming home, coming full circle, by opening a restaurant only minutes from where I grew up.
Night Hawk and its founder, Harry Akin, have a special place in the history of Austin dining. The first one opened in 1932, and was the first restaurant to stay open through dinner hours; hence the name. Mr. Akin was a one-term mayor who pioneered the [racial] integration of the Austin dining scene – for customers as well as for front-of-house positions, eventually even including managers. You have to credit Night Hawk with being part of the story of segregation and the transition into integration of our city, as well as creating dozens of alumni and legacies who are now restaurateurs.
I have a burning desire to capture and retain this history through the Foodways Texas oral history project for current and future generations. I don’t want those joys and struggles to be forgotten.
Hoover Alexander is the chef and owner of Hoover’s Cooking, a southern style home cooking establishment with two locations in Austin. Together with East 12th Street Partners, Hoover recently launched Soular Food Garden, a project designed to “bridge the gap between home style, home-cooking and healthy, nutritious, from-the-garden food.” To read more about Hoover and his garden-to-table ventures, visit www.hooverscooking.com.