Positive Growth: Dallas’ Urban Gardens

“After a good dinner one can forgive anybody, even one's own relations.”  - Oscar Wilde

A quick Google search is all it takes to learn the basic information on a wonderful technique of gardening called Companion Planting. The approach can be simple enough for a beginner or can contain intricacies that only the most learned botanist can pull off. However the basic idea is the same: companion planting allows for plants to work together in a garden space to help each other not only grow, but flourish in the most optimal way possible. Tall plants, for example, provide shade and protection for more fragile varieties. Vining plants will cover the ground or thrive on trellises to allow others to grow upwards towards the sun. This symbiotic technique can even allow certain plants to steer insects and other pests away from others, so that the garden has the best chance for optimal beauty and a long life. It’s a lovely and enriching process that has been a time-honored method for gardeners and nature enthusiasts everywhere. It’s also a perfect metaphor for what Dallas’s wide array of urban gardens are all about.

Community gardens and urban botanical areas have become a natural and ever-growing part of the Dallas landscape, and are now quickly changing the very idea of area food culture as well. The Pyramid Restaurant inside the Fairmont Hotel, for example, dazzles patrons with a 3,000 square foot herb and vegetable garden on the rooftop; the East Dallas Community and Market Garden on Fitzhugh Ave. regularly offer fresh produce to the public (with the proceeds going to fund the garden itself); the Live Oak and Lake Highlands Community Gardens provide similar opportunities for seasonally-fresh ingredients complete with nearly 100 plots, bee-keeping for natural, organic honey and breathtaking butterfly gardens.

Inherently, urban gardens are nothing new. In fact, cities other than Dallas have been utilizing them for rooftop ambience, land conservation and city-wide beautification for ages. But only in the last several years has the idea of community gardening and urban botanical grounds become tied directly with healthy, organic eating and life-changing education for young people as well. Schools are now not only using the gardens for outings, but for vital student-led learning opportunities on eating properly and encouraging families and communities to choose the healthiest and most beneficial ingredients possible on an everyday basis.

Dallas restaurants have also begun to more regularly utilize the organic ingredients found in the gardens for their own businesses. Some of the most famous chefs in the country now turn to their own community gardens for regular restaurant produce, farm raised meats, and some of the newest seasonal items available. Dallas’ own Chef Chad Houser, of Parigi and CafĂ© Momentum fame, first became interested in organic food as a boy when he would accompany his grandparents to local farmer’s markets to help them sell their own small batches of natural produce. “The idea then was just to have enough to go out for hamburgers at the end of the day”, he said. “But all of my memories as a child involved good family and large meals with quality ingredients on the table every Sunday. I had a healthy respect, even then, for what goes into our bodies”. When asked about the impact of what these urban gardens have to offer, Chef Houser isn’t shy about his passion for them. “They impact everyone around them”, he says. “I’m no doctor, but it’s been proven that natural, healthy eating and food choices increase student graduation rates when it becomes part of the school menus. The kids are more engaged and inspired. It nourishes them both in mind and in body”. 

It was would be easy to write the idea of urban gardens off as a nice idea for foodies, or for professionals looking for the best ingredients for their customers. But in speaking with the individuals who have devoted their lives to making the world a better place with the gardens, the benefit of these locations goes much, much further. Elizabeth Dry is a long-tenured educator and founder of arguably Dallas’ most famous community garden, Promise of Peace. This garden and educational facility was established with one goal in mind: to instruct families in Dallas and around the country on the benefits of healthy living and horticultural education. Promise of Peace offers everything from cooking classes and learning programs, to demonstrations and culinary events from the top chefs in Dallas. P.O.P also regularly features live music and seasonal happenings like Saturday Peace Market and BrunchesEco Fest and OkraPalooza.

As enriching as these events are, it’s the young people that come to the gardens that matter most to Ms. Dry. In speaking with her, she enthusiastically recounted a time when a large group of exchange students were visiting the Promise of Peace grounds one afternoon and were multi-tasking with various outdoor projects. Considering the diversity of backgrounds, languages and cultures, not many of the students initially spoke or communicated well with each other. However, the “beauty of what they were doing”, said Dry, “was universal”. They were working with their hands, planting soil, decorating clay pots, seeding the ground, and a variety of other separate tasks. At one point, someone started to sing. Dry remembers vividly that the song was Leaving on a Jet Plane, by Peter, Paul and Mary. As Dr. Seuss would say, the song “started in slow, then it started to grow”, and it wasn’t long before the entire grounds were filled with the sounds of a classic rock ballad, sung by dozens and dozens of strangers who had somehow been unified by the shared experience of what the gardens had to offer. Dry still gets emotional when remembering the incident, and in her own words, believes that the story is “symbolic” for both Promise of Peace’s mission statement and the benefit of the gardens themselves.

Whether the goal is to provide education for young people, or simply the best local ingredients available for restaurants and top culinary game-changers, the bottom line is the same. The urban gardens that continue to blossom and spread in Dallas are changing the way individuals, companies and families think about food and nutrition. Economically depressed areas that would otherwise continue to struggle now have something that they can be proud of, learn from, and send their children to. Restaurants now have aesthetically pleasing areas that also serve a much larger purpose for their customers. Urban gardens have quite literally evolved the food culture in the Big D, and those that would not have given a single thought to the type of meat they purchase or produce they buy are now looking at the labels and adopting a quality over quantity mind-set.

As she was finishing her thoughts on the impact of these urban gardens, Ms. Dry generously offered up one last anecdote. About a year after Promise of Peace opened its doors to the public, Dry was arriving to the grounds one day, preparing to begin the day’s events. She remembers being pleased that in the year that the location had been opened there had been no vandalism or thefts of any kind, which unfortunately was somewhat surprising considering the area of town at the time. As she approached the building, she saw that the electrical box outside the building had been spray painted with graffiti. Frustrated, she went inside to get some cleaning products to remove the paint. When she got closer to the box and was preparing to clean it, she suddenly stopped and couldn’t help but feel a rush of emotion when she saw what had been painted on the unit. In large capital letters with traditional urban scrawl font were the words, “THANK YOU”.

 - Richard Dennis

Originally Published in Where Dallas Guestbook 

Steak and Wine: A Match Made in Heaven

There is one thing Texas is most known for the world over. It’s inarguable … intangible. It isn’t cowboys, Dallas Cowboys, or Stetsons. It isn’t even a luxurious pair of snake-skin boots. All of those staples come second to this iconic bit of state history that stands to be mentioned alongside the greatest of Lone Star hallmarks. What is it? 

It’s the beef.

The Lone Star State has long held a reputation for housing some of the best cuts in the world, but it was only after the Civil War that cattle actually became a growth industry in Texas. Refrigeration and ambitious entrepreneurs helped. But it wasn’t until much later, around World War II, that a prime piece of beef began to emerge as an American symbol of wealth and opulence. While labeling steak purely as a “Texas” food is a bit of an overstatement, what is not is that the state has built on that reputation and parlayed it into some of the best steakhouses and restaurants in the world.

Houston, specifically, has grown in recent years into something of a mecca for legendary beef dishes, prepared by some of the most gifted chefs around the globe. What started out as a hearty meal and means of livelihood for a hungry ranch-hand has emerged into a bonafide art form; an art form that calls to mind subtle tastes, distinctive spices and incomparable combinations. And what pairing will most chefs and connoisseurs agree goes best with steak?

Why, it’s wine, of course.

Of course, the task of choosing a wine with a particular cut of meat can be daunting. Whether it is a light and fruity pinot noir, or a buttery chardonnay; there isn’t a clear answer. When it comes to these basic traditions, sometimes it’s best just to ask the experts. Chef Ken Arnone would know.

As a Certified Master Chef (one of only 61 in the country), Chef Arnone has exceeded at everything from Wall Street to fine cuisine. As a corporate chef and head consultant at Mo’s…A Place for Steaks in Houston, Arnone’s opinions and unique perspective is a valued commodity, but his approach is as refreshing as the dishes he creates. When asked what wine pairs best with what meal, he slyly states, “Your favorite wine is best. You should never get so caught up with rules that you can’t drink what you enjoy.” The response is telling because, despite all of his success, he seems to understand pairing a dish like steak and wine can be as subjective for the customer as it is for the creator. That’s not to say that when pressed Chef Arnone’s expertise doesn’t bubble to the surface. “A good smoky chardonnay with beef tartar is excellent,” he states. When asked what one of his favorite pairings at Mo’s was, he couldn’t help but offer, “…The signature Cowboy Cut ribeye with a respectable Bordeaux-style wine,” was a win/win. He also mentioned an affinity for “a good bleu cheese-topped cut with a hearty merlot.”

Of course, the pairing of steak and wine has many considerations. Price level is important, as well as the occasion of the meal itself. Johnny V, owner of Mo’s, mirrored Chef Arnone’s sentiments by explaining that one must consider whether the “point of the experience is the wine or the food.” He also stressed that, when pairing steak and wine, the “level or body of the wine should generally match the body of the meat itself.” Lighter cuts demand lighter tones in the wine, whereas a heavier cut like a porterhouse or prime rib combine best with a deeper, more complex variety.

Of course body and levels are only part of it. While it might be lost on the everyday patron, even the different “intra-muscular” fats, or IMF, levels of a tenderloin or filet mignon greatly affect the taste and consistency. The fat content also plays a part in the overall quality of some cuts. The more “marbling” the steak has; the greater degree of flavor and saltiness. It is this very saltiness that makes the pairing of a particular wine such a harmonious experience. According to Johnny V, The beef can be “both enhanced and cleansed by the smoky tannins in a good bottle of red.” Tannins are that particular earthy or woodsy taste that imbibers experience in red wine; and, along with the alcohol content, gives the drink that satisfying “finish” that clears the palette after a good bite.

It’s clear that these experts of steakhouse chefs across Houston are as passionate about the experience of a good meal as they are about its science, but in the end, there is no set definition of what makes a particular cut of beef sing alongside a specific wine. It’s the diners themselves, and their shared passion for cuisine that make all the difference. Johnny V sums up the idea that steak is forever a staple of exquisite dining. “It evokes images of Texas cattle and Texas history,” he says. “It’s Americana, pure and simple.”

 - Richard Dennis

As originally published in Where Guestbook Houston
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