by Nicole Lessin
Photography by Nuri Vallbona
In June 2008, Jacque Gates and her husband Jim McCracken opened the six-days-a-week Bastrop Producers Market with the goal of making it “easier to be a locavore in Bastrop.” Their business model was unique because they sold local foods for area farmers and ranchers while providing access to it for their customers. “We consider both our producers and our customers to be our customers,” says Gates.
The buzz about the importance of buying and eating local wasn’t yet fully established in the area, but the duo remained passionate about pursuing their dream. Then, on a Monday night in April of 2011, about twenty-five area farmers, ranchers and restaurateurs gathered with other community members at the restaurant Baxter’s on Main, located in a historic, late-19th-century building in downtown Bastrop. With a respectful nod to the Bastrop Producers Market, the group sought to make additional connections and to begin an even more realized and committed conversation about local food.
The evening’s meal featured an array of locally sourced produce and meats prepared by Barley Swine’s sous-chef, Sam Hellman-Mass. Also on hand was Valerie Broussard, food and beverage buyer and forager for W Austin Hotel, who discussed her work sourcing the highest-quality local ingredients for the hotel’s culinary team at its restaurant Trace. “It was a great evening,” recalls Bastrop resident Libby Pulley, a passionate advocate for area farmers, who helped organize the event. “Lots of talk, lots of buzz, everybody inspired. Then everybody went home…and there was nothing.”
Six months later, the most catastrophic wildfire in Texas history tore through Bastrop County, destroying more than 1,600 homes and decimating the land and the community. Understandably, the local-food conversation moved further and further down the ladder of priorities while the area tried to heal and rebuild.
Yet, while hugely devastating, the fire miraculously spared the historic business district and mobilized an outpouring of support from the community. “Since the fire, people are interested in shopping local, buying local,” explains Nancy Wood, the director of Bastrop Main Street Program, a city-run effort to revitalize the downtown area through economic development and the preservation of its heritage buildings. In fact, many believe the attention to local foods and products has not only re-emerged in Bastrop, but now has a stronger, more intense focus. Wood, herself a fire survivor, replaced nearly everything she owned by shopping in the county.
Currently, Wood—along with Pulley and a team of volunteers—is working with elected officials to create a culinary district in downtown Bastrop to spotlight and strengthen its 20-plus restaurants and food-related businesses, in part by connecting them with area growers and ranchers and then marketing any subsequent farm-to-table efforts.
In addition, on the one-year anniversary of the fire, Bastrop Brewhouse opened its doors and began offering a menu emphasizing seasonal ingredients and craft beers. Housed in The Crossing, a once mostly empty property overlooking the Colorado River, the Brewhouse is part of a now-thriving multi-business development with everything from kayak rentals to handcrafted jewelry. The property’s owner, Michael Candelario, says the Brewhouse offers live music as well as food made with a range of locally produced ingredients, like burgers featuring Bastrop County-raised beef and bangers processed by Smithville Food Lockers. “We’ve got pub food with a Texas twist,” Candelario says. “People give us a lot of credit for being a catalyst for locally sourced food in Bastrop.” In addition, the venue offers a great lineup of craft beers, many of which are brewed on-site, such as their year-round St. Camilla’s Honey Brown, an English-style brown ale brewed with local honey from Spotted Goat Farm in Red Rock.
Head Brewer Edward Peters, one of the founders and original board members of the Texas Craft Brewers Guild, says he learned early on that the people of Bastrop were eager for craft beer and open to uncommon flavors. For example, when he tried offering two beers out of Austin that were brewed with smoked grains, he was surprised by the community’s response. “People loved it,” he recalls. “That’s one of the more challenging beers you can give to people in a small town, and to have them respond like that, I was like, OK, I can do whatever I want.” In fact, to keep pace with demand, Peters says he has had to increase the size of the brewing tanks.
Another business that has been working to source ingredients locally is Tough Cookie Bakery, which specializes in handmade German-style pretzels, pretzel breads, sourdoughs and other artisanal baked goods. On a recent day at Bastrop 1832 Farmers Market, across from City Hall, owners Chris and Jennie McEwan were offering a pay-what-you-can day for their fare, which included homemade pizza topped with Texas goat cheese and herbs as well as tromboncino squash from Pelham Lane Farm. “We want to keep it local and keep it from Texas,” Chris says. “We need to work with the local businesses, and pull everyone up and make this a culinary destination.”
The McEwans, who lost most of their business equipment in the fire, currently operate out of a food trailer at the twice-a-week market, but they’re planning to open a new brick-and-mortar retail store at The Crossing, thanks in large part to the enthusiastic response from the people of Bastrop. “People in the community are ready for good food made with local ingredients,” Jennie says. “They’re excited and can’t wait, and they’re going to back us no matter what.”
Meanwhile, Pulley has organized a 34-member Locavore Supper Club to celebrate farms and seasonal foods, and she and Wood are also helping to plan another meal for this fall, likely to be held at Bastrop Brewhouse, to reconnect the area’s food producers with restaurant owners. This time around, though, Wood says the local food conversation is sure to continue. “The difference between 2011 and today is like night and day,” she says. “Two years ago, it was new [or] it was status quo. But now, we’ve been through the fire. Community has supported community.”