By Allison Bredemeyer and Wendy Kilmer
There’s a shifting tide in America among grocery shoppers, home cooks, restaurateurs and, well, eaters. Whether called “farm to table” or “sustainable” or simply “like my great-grandparents did it,” there is a yearning to disconnect from the uber-convenience of processed foods and reconnect with a seasonal, simpler, more natural and healthful way of eating.
For one of the Big Country’s landmark restaurants, Perini Ranch Steakhouse, this return to simplicity and natural, local food sources isn’t a new revolution; it’s a fundamental belief system. It’s been a driving force for Tom and Lisa Perini over the last three decades. Tom says his motto is “food should be simple, taste good and be recognizable.”
Perini Ranch Steakhouse, once a hard-to-find hometown roadhouse, has grown into a countrywide gem garnering a following of not only real cowboys but heads of state, celebrities and the like from all over the globe. An avid historian and self-made expert on authentic cattle drive cuisine from the back of a chuck wagon, Perini’s first priority was to stay true to the simplicity of food preparation with his main focus always on using exceptional ingredients.
“When your recipe only calls for four things, you have to make sure that those four things are of the highest quality you can get,” he said.
To that end, Tom and Lisa rely on a long-standing relationship with an intimate network of food providers and farmers.
“We have a strong relationship with our beef and other food providers and the farmers who grow our produce to make sure that our menu not only reflects the abundance of Texas, but starts with the best food that we can serve our customers,” Tom says.
As a former cattle rancher himself, he also has an acute understanding of the way food is farmed and produced. He worked as a cattle rancher for eighteen years in the 1960s and 70s, and family grown produce was a part of his everyday life. Even today, the Perinis grow what vegetables they can on the ranch and although currently it’s a very limited supply, it provides fresh, seasonal vegetables for their iconic Sunday lunch buffet.
Staying true to the Texas harvest also means a focused menu. Tom and Lisa have a delectable salmon recipe, for example, but given that salmon isn’t a part of the Texas landscape, that recipe has no place on their menu.
Tom’s love of history and desire to preserve his heritage must certainly have contributed to setting Perini Ranch apart. Somewhere between the slam of the old wooden screen door and the sizzle of the hand cut chicken frying, customers take comfort in knowing that this ranch and its land fed generations of families long gone.
Critics and expert restaurateurs seem to agree. Earlier this year the James Beard Foundation honored Perini Ranch Steakhouse with the 2014 America’s Classics Award, an award is given to restaurants “that have timeless appeal and are beloved for quality food that reflects the character of their community.”
Perini Ranch isn’t alone, however. Chefs and home cooks alike are seeing a resurgence in celebrating regional foods with a focus on high quality, fresh products. Luxury retailers like Williams Sonoma now sell chicken coops and butter churns. Farmers’ markets and co-op gardens are growing at exponential rates, making this all relatively available to anyone in any size town, and consumers are flocking to opportunities for simplifying, for seeking a straighter, shorter line between a food’s origin and its final consumption.
Locally, the Abilene Farmer’s Market, open downtown each Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday, offers Abilenians a place to do just that – meet and buy from nearby farmers, growers and nurseries that share their produce and fresh meats directly to consumers.
One of the regular vendors at the market during the last 10 years is Slowpoke Farms, a family farm based in Cisco. Slowpoke’s table at the market offers a selection of grass fed beef, pork products, seasonal fruits and vegetables, free range eggs, and homemade soaps. Owners Joy and Kerry Hedges are passionate about what they do and why – the importance of food sources.
“We believe what you eat, literally what you put in your mouth, is the single most important variable that affects your health and well being,” Joy says. “Processed foods are not good for you; whole, nutrient-dense food is good for you.”
Kerry and Joy met in Houston in the late ‘90s and together developed an interest in healthy, whole foods and nutrition.
“But we learned that it’s nearly impossible to eat really good in a big city, and we talked about moving to the country to raise our own food,” Joy recalls. “Kerry calls us ‘Whole Food Dropouts.’ To eat the best food at Whole Foods is really expensive, and you really don’t know if it’s good. When I saw Pepperidge Farm cookies there, I really began to question things.”
Kerry’s grandparents had been farmers, and he has memories of shadowing his grandfather on the farm every summer. In 2000, they purchased the farm in Cisco and moved to West Texas in 2002, after Joy landed a job with the City of Abilene as a training and employee development manager.
Currently, their primary selling channel is the Abilene Farmers Market, but they also offer eggs and meat at Vitamins Plus, inside Drug Emporium, and at various times they have sold food through Manna Health Market and the Natural Food Center. A growing interest in the farm-to-table concept has led to partnerships with restaurants as well; Slowpoke Farms partnered with Abi Haus in November for a full farm-to-table meal. The entire meal was sourced from Slowpoke (with a few exceptions for spices, olive oil, etc.), and a second similar event is planned for late summer.
Joy says the interest they’ve seen from both restaurateurs and consumers relates primarily to the quality of food that comes directly from farmers.
“People who want quality food understand that they have to source it directly from a farmer,” she said. “Chefs are very interested in finding local food sources, which goes right back to the quality. Then, once people taste the difference, or experience a positive health change, they come back, and tell their friends.”
But beyond the value of high quality and whole foods, the Hedges hope to use Slowpoke Farms to build relationships, to allow consumers to know specifically where their food comes from, who grew it and how. The farm offers Farm Day each spring where customers come to share a meal, tour the farm and get to know the people who grow and produce their food.”
“We feel that we need to be the best stewards with the resources entrusted to us,” Joy said. “We feel very strongly about doing no harm to our land and our animals and using no chemicals. We also take it very seriously that people buy our food and feed their family. There is something special about knowing your farmer. Or, for us, knowing your customer. It’s hard to describe, but it’s an incredible responsibility.”
For great farm-to-table recipes, including Perini Ranch’s strawberry shortcake, turn to page 38 in our digital issue.