By ANDREA HIGBIE
When I moved to Texas five years ago, I was pleasantly surprised by the food. It wasn't just bigger, as I expected, given the Everything's Bigger in Texas line, but it was better than I expected as well.
Especially after my introduction to Texas cuisine, by way of my con artist father Harold's moll, who'd conjured up a deceptive picture of the big ol' happy family life we'd all be living together here in Yee-Ha Country, just them and the boys and me. Oh, and by the way, we've emptied your bank account. What a wonderful father! How lucky can a girl be?
On the drive from New Jersey, the moll, Ola, looking not unlike a mole and masquerading as an "Anathea," no doubt thinking it sounded fancy, though compared with "Ola" just about any name would, if fancy's what you want, stopped off at as many Cracker Barrels as she could find once we hit the highways south of Pennsylvania.
Ola even had her own Cracker Barrel map, preferring its ersatz country fixin's to any number of reasonable food stops along the way.
Real Texas food, she called this, good honest food. Not that Ola would know honest from her elbow, even if she could find it in all that jiggly, dimply, cellulite-riddled fat.
Ola (fan of lard, and not canola) had devised a life story featuring a wealthy British family, complete with rolling r's, castles and governesses, when all along she was just a big ol' Texas trailer trash dumpling gal, glad to trade herself for green stamps.
As I'd never been to Texas, I was unfamiliar with some of its dialects, which hit me like a pot of hot grits when I heard her peculiar pronounciations come out of the mouths of a certain type of yokel, the type Ola would be mortified -- in front of me, certainly, and all the others she had been duping -- to share a breathing space with, much less a background. She wasn't only one of them; she was also the worst of them.
Ola loved herself lots of those big gloppy white-gravy chicken dumplings, ordering double servings she gorged herself on between chugging down cans of what she called "ersters" in hopes of sounding classy as she squeezed her way southwest behind the wheel.
White gravy and dumplings is not on most Texas tables.
The restaurants here in Texas, especially around Dallas, where I live, are sophisticated, despite the mass influx of chains. I could happily live without another Chipotle or Texas Roadhouse in my future, and to Taco Bueno, I say Taco No Bueno No Mas.
I grew up in New York around good food, and then living in Upper Montclair, N.J., just 12 miles west of the best food in the world. Happily, I didn't have to gear down my expectations once I began eating around Texas.
I was excited to see "Top Chef" open its ninth season on Bravo last night with "Top Chef: Texas," and though watching dozens of ways to prepare rabbit and pig for an hour is not my favorite form of entertainment, I was soon folded up into the action.
Poor 22-year-old Tyler Stone, bless his heart, a personal chef to unnamed "celebrities and politicians" in Sacramento, Calif., was the first to go, a living example of what befalls hubris.
"A lot of people mistake my confidence for arrogance," says Tyler, whose casting tape shows him doing a lame James Bond, with "Stone, Tyler Stone, personal chef." But, hey, the kid's 22.
While Tyler was hacking up a pig carcass, one of the judges, Tom Colicchio, looking as if nothing would make him happier than to take a cleaver and chop this boy to bits, decided the meal was over for Tyler, that he was to pack up his knives, and go.
Maybe I'm too kind, or not, but throwing Tyler out just because he was a bad butcher seemed unfair. Tyler was sure to let us all know that in real life he (is so successful that, or is so rich that) can afford to hire his own butcher. Perhaps that annoyed the judges. But what would have been the harm in letting him cook that pig, and judge him then? The pig was dead anyway.
But Tom and his fellow judges, Emeril Lagasse (the vegan chef contestant greeted him with that awful Howie Mandel prayer hands thing -- for which I'd be tempted to drive five hours to bury him with his root vegetables while waving my jazz hands, but he was eliminated soon enough) and Padma Lakshmi, the host, have to be tough. Or they'd be stuck in San Antonio the rest of their lives.
In the opening scene, as the 29 "cheftestants" came striding past the Alamo (can't forget that), Chris Crary, 29, from Los Angeles, called the Spice Girl Padma hot, in the nonspicy, nontemperature way, saying, "I have to stay in the competition just to look at her," and he did, lust beating the odds.
Watching cooks slice and dice may not be what I'd normally choose to do, but that reality TV phenomenon kicked in, teasing me with each contestant's life, prompting me to pick favorites, daring me to try to look away as they revealed their hopes, dreams and best braising method.
I'm looking forward to next Wednesday's show (10 pm ET/9 CT), when a cheftestant (and that's the last time we'll be saying cheftestant around here) stands stirring his pot with one hand as someone tends to his other hand, dripping blood on the studio's great, big (Everything's Bigger in...) floor.
If you think it's not worth bleeding to death in San Antonio on "Top Chef," you might reconsider when you think about the win: a feature article all about you, you, you in Food and Wine magazine; a showcase at the annual Food and Wine Classic in Aspen; $125,000 from Healthy Choice; and the title Top Chef.
And if you think that title isn't worth it, just look at Hugh Acheson, a former "Top Chef" winner who went on to vast wealth and fame as a "Top Chef" judge. Kidding about the vast wealth and fame, unless you're going by "Real Housewives of New Jersey" standards. Which I hope you are not.
My favorite contestant is Chef, Isaac Hayes from "South Park." That would be Keith Rhodes, a 39-year-old big boy who owns a Southern seafood restaurant, Catch, in Wilmington, N.C. He already made it past the first round last night, with his chicken-fried rabbit.
Keith, who is among the older contestants, has a hard-luck turned golden story sure to win the heart of even the crustiest food connoisseur, or judge.
"I made a lot of poor decisions," Keith said, telling how he ended up in prison for selling drugs. Where -- we can gasp in awe and delight now! -- he turned his life around by learning to cook.
High on gruel!
Dollars to chili-dipped doughnuts, Keith is going to be the season's winner, the very brightest lone star of all. And perhaps he'll even come up with a sauce reduction for all that dripping blood.