Walking into former Texas State Senator Wendy Davis’ kitchen is like walking into light—wide windows, her breathtakingly brilliant smile…it’s a moment to savor. And watching her carefully mince garlic, it’s clear that savoring is something in which she rejoices. Today, she’s making what she calls “Patti Pasta,” a beloved version of penne with vodka cream sauce. It’s accompanied by bruschetta and, lucky for me, effortless, engaging conversation.
Davis’ ease in the kitchen—her quiet chuckles, her soft graceful moves—imparts a modest air that belies the purposeful, crackling current that carries us through the afternoon. From food prep to storytelling, cooking to cleaning up, she isn’t just immersed in any given moment; she comes at it honed and focused from every angle possible—a quality that’s reminiscent of her 2013 marathon 11-hour filibuster to protect women’s reproductive rights that made her a household name in Texas and briefly put neon running shoes, a back brace and a catheter into the political discourse.
“The most important part of the filibuster was the fact that I didn’t conduct it alone,” she says. “Thousands of people decided that women’s reproductive freedoms were important enough to make a pilgrimage to the Texas Capitol and be a part of ‘pushing back’ against the intrusions of that bill. And it was their voices, of course, that successfully pushed that bill past the midnight deadline. And I hope that our success in overturning that law restores our belief in the power of standing up and fighting, even in the face of long odds.”
Davis’ love of, and commitment to, public service is obvious and palpable, and as she readies the pasta for the boiling water, politics continues to pepper a conversation already lively with college days and motherhood, cooking tactics and favorite restaurants. “John Lewis is the greatest human being alive. Don’t you think?” she says with a large grin—referring to the recent Democratic sit-in in the U.S. House of Representatives to address gun control.
And now the pasta has dropped and Davis turns her attention to the food she’s preparing. “Patti Pasta” is a recipe that’s been in her culinary repertoire since her pre-public-service days in law school. “I make it all the time,” she says. “My daughters make it, too.” It’s a recipe Davis learned from her dear friend Patti back when they were law students together. “Patti had an apartment when the rest of us were in dorms,” she explains. Patti loved to cook and would make her famous pasta for friends—teaching them secrets of the kitchen. “She taught me how to feel comfortable in the kitchen. She helped me learn to love cooking.”
After admitting she’s altered the recipe just a little bit (“I add extra garlic”), Davis smiles, lost in memory for just a moment. “I would love for ‘Patti Pasta’ to come full circle one day,” she says with a laugh. “Someone will serve it to [Patti], call it ‘Patti Pasta’ and say, ‘I don’t know where the name comes from, but it sure is good!’” As Davis bemoans her stubborn electric stove, she still manages to sauté the garlic just right. “I like to cook for people,” she says. “To me, that’s what it’s all about.”
Davis drifts to childhood memories of her maternal grandmother, and it’s easy to see that the celebration of food and good company was something she learned at an early age. “When my parents got divorced,” she says, “I was around ten years old. I would spend most of the summer with my grandmother, and just watching her and her comfort and ease in the kitchen was really fun. Most of the things she cooked were classic southern dishes…the best fried chicken you ever tasted! She had fourteen children, and she and my grandfather were tenant farmers most of their lives. She was one of those people who could whip up a meal for a crowd in forty-five minutes.”
Making the effort to preserve this feeling of connectivity around meals was important to Davis as her daughters were growing up. There was no TV at the table then or now. “These moments of being together are rare in the life of a busy family,” she says. “You have to protect them when you can. I don’t like having the television on in the background…I’m probably rare as far as politicians go. I don’t want to keep the news channels on all the time.” A quick glance around the open room—kitchen, dining, living room all in one space—shows that there’s a noticeable absence of electronic media of any kind. The only screens in this room are on the windows overlooking majestic Lady Bird Lake.
Davis pops thick pieces of bread under the broiler for a quick toast and then rubs garlic on the bread—another trick learned from Patti. The vodka is added to the sauce at the last minute, the pasta is drained and sauced and the meal is complete. Beautiful, multicolored bowls from Deruta, Italy, are brought out. These bowls hold special meaning because they, too, have a link to Patti. “These bowls are from Patti’s pottery shop in Boston,” she says. And while she firmly cradles each bowl and begins to serve, one can’t help but see a parallel. Bright and cheery, complex and substantive, the bowls are a bit like Davis herself—encapsulating the perfect way to best hold and savor this exact moment, right now.
By Kari Anne Roy • Photography by Melanie Grizzel