What's the first food item that jumps into your head when you think of Texas? BBQ? Queso? Breakfast tacos?
All reasonable choices. But you'd be missing the obvious, a food item that bears the name of the state: Texas toast.
This simple-to-make giant slab of bread is on menus across the state and around the country. It accompanies breakfast, lunch and dinner. But how did it come to be? That's the question Calvin Watson asked KUT’s ATXplained series.
He says the genesis for it came when his daughter told him that one night when she was craving fast-food chicken, she drove halfway across Austin to get to a Raising Cane's Chicken Fingers restaurant – passing several Chick-fil-A's along the way.
"Well, how are they better than Chick-fil-A?" Watson asked his daughter. "And she said, ‘Well it comes with Texas toast.' She said that's why she goes to Cane's."
So Watson asked KUT: How did Texas become the only state with its own toast?
History Made, On A Grill
The story begins simply enough, with a restaurant and a thick slice of bread.
The Pig Stand was a small chain of restaurants in Texas that served pig, of course, pork sandwiches, along with burgers and chicken fried steak.
In 1941, a manager at the Pig Stand in Beaumont asked a local bakery for bread with a thicker slice. The bread arrived, but it would no longer fit in the restaurant's toasters. Just before it was tossed out, a line cook suggested it be buttered on both sides and thrown on the fry grill. The result was historic: Texas toast was invented.
Unfortunately, the Pig Stand chain later filed for bankruptcy protection and closed its restaurants. The one in Beaumont was demolished in 2016.
True Comfort Food
But there is one final Pig Stand left in the world – in San Antonio. I took Austin chef Brian Baldonado down there to check it out.
Baldonado has worked at top-of-the-line places, so I wanted to get his expert take on the toast and help answer Watson's question.
"It fits right in with this idea that we're better. We have our own toast. It's named after us," Baldonado says. "And it's bigger than your toast and it's got butter on both sides and it's grilled. And it's white bread and it's not good for you. So, you know, all you gluten-free vegan hippies can just stick it."
(Apologies to the gluten-free vegans hippies reading this story.)
Baldonado says the toast is significant for more than just its name. There's the preparation: The bread is buttered on both sides and grilled, not toasted. The grilling gives it a more uniform cook and, with the butter, you get a crispier crunch that feels better when you eat it.
And yes, there's the size.
"Because it's this huge honking big piece of toast, you know, if you're eating something that has gravy in it – which most often if you're getting something with Texas toast there's a sauce component – it's like this huge mop later on to mop up your plate," Baldonado says.
He says his own kitchen serves Texas toast, especially if he's making something with a gravy or sauce that begs to be sopped up. But, there's another reason he likes to serve it.
"We want something that is recognizable and creates a feeling – a strong memory association and comfort," Baldonado says. "Texas toast is so tied into Texas comfort food, that for our clients, serving something with Texas toast on it – especially if they grew up in or around Austin or in or around Texas – we're ideally tapping into something that is a positive memory for them."
The toast provides comfort.
Food Made Fresh
The people Baldonado cooks for are not Austin's elites; they aren't millennials searching for that next hot restaurant. Baldonado is the head chef at the Austin Resource Center for the Homeless. He feeds Austin's homeless.
"It's a nice heady narcissistic trip to work at a high-end restaurant and, you know, have clients pay exorbitant prices and get to say who you did or didn't serve that day," Baldonado says. "But it's ... not fulfilling for me."
Baldonado left the world of high-end restaurants and landed at the ARCH in 2014. The move doesn't mean he's not still cooking at a high level, though. He doesn't run a soup kitchen; the people who come don't get cold sandwiches.
"We have Texas toast with fresh cracked pepper truffle mayo on it," he tells me on a visit to his kitchen last fall. "We're going to put an over-easy egg with Monterey jack on this, with two pieces of bacon that we slow cooked in maple syrup, brown sugar and mustard. Then on the other slab of Texas toast, there's going to be slices of avocado. So it's basically just going to be a fancy-pants breakfast sandwich."
How does a kitchen feeding the homeless afford this meal? Here's the thing: It doesn't cost more. Every meal in the kitchen is made from scratch, because it's cheaper than serving something pre-made and frozen.
That savings lets Baldonado have some fun. He'll pinch pennies for a few meals in a row and then do something more exotic, like making fresh noodles for pad Thai or preparing tikka masala or even seared duck breast – meals he says push his clients' food palates a little and maybe even expand their horizons.
"You know, we have an opportunity to very gently expose them to new things in, ideally, a safe environment and create new experiences," Baldonado says.
Always Something More
Volunteer Kelvin Campbell, who is helping slice avocados, quickly jumps into the conversation about pushing people's palates at the ARCH.
"For some people, it just reminds them that there is more than what they're experiencing. They chose not to forget that there's something better. Hell, it does that for me," says Campbell, who was a client at the time. "Keeps me striving to do better. I even ask him for his recipes cause I say when I go home I'm going to cook some of this stuff."
Baldonado wants as many meals as possible to provide that comfort and a glimpse into a better life.
"I make it sound so spiritual ... it's not that. We want our guys to enjoy it. And we want to take pride in what we're doing, and we have the skillset to do it," he says. "It's not the paycheck you're chasing, it's the, ‘When I get in my car at the end of the day, have I left the world a better place or have I left it a little bit worse?'"
Baldonado hopes the meals he serves the men at the ARCH are making their lives just a little bit better.
This piece was originally published on https://www.kut.org/.