There’s no place like home, the adage goes, and for a number of Waco chefs, cooks and eaters, home — meaning McLennan County and Central Texas — is where they look first for their food.
Interest in locally sourced food — meat, vegetables, dairy and fruit grown or raised within a short distance of where a person will eat it — is rising as consumers are more concerned with the antibiotics or pesticides used to raise their food, the energy expended to get food to market or, simply, a belief that it tastes better and different than that provided in mass-market grocery stores.
There’s even a name given to a person who eats foods grown locally whenever possible: locavore.
Such interest has supported the multiyear growth of the Downtown Waco Farmers Market, put customers at Waco restaurant tables and food trucks where chefs sing the praises of local sourcing and encouraged small shops and stores that offer food grown or produced near Waco.
The owners of Waco Custom Meats & Seafood, which pulls many of its offerings from around the state, plan to expand into locally sourced beef and produce with a country store and meat market opening in mid-September.
“We’re seeing a die-off of interest in organic, but I think people are keen on where things come from . . . Everyone wants to know where what they eat is produced or grown,” observed vice president of operations Brian Bauer.
For Elizabeth Pannabecker, chef at Barnett’s Public House in downtown Waco, local usually means fresh and that tastes better. “We have an abundance of local items . . . If I can, I’m making everything from scratch and I use what I find fresh and in-season,” she said.
Pannabecker’s Friday night Specialty Dinners at Barnett’s and often a weekend brunch special reflects what’s in season and available. Blueberries, for instance, are coming in from a grower near Mexia. Homestead Heritage’s Artisan Ovens, which bakes with grains grown at Homestead Heritage, provides the breads and flatbreads she uses as well as flours with which she bakes. Cheeses come from another Homestead operation, Brazos Valley Cheeses, while sausages and bratwursts are made locally at Waco Beef and Pork Processors.
“I go to the Farmers Market like anybody else and H-E-B is great for Texas products,” she said, adding that just because something is grown locally doesn’t guarantee quality and the higher prices often charged sometimes make an item too expensive. “If it’s not good, I’m not going to buy it.”
“Local, local, local,” also is a mantra for chef Corey McEntyre, founder of Milo Biscuit Company. Wine is not the only food product shaped by environment. Vegetables, fruit and even free-range chickens and grass-fed livestock pick up distinctive flavors and qualities from the soil, water and climate in which they’re raised, he said.
“I think it tastes better,” he said.
Locally sourced food raised on smaller farms often means agriculture on a personal scale.
“I can talk to this farmer who grew it and have respect for the craft and the person who’s producing my food,” McEntyre said. “Farmers are the backbone of America. Our economy became great because we were largely sustainable when it came to food.”
That face-to-face connection also is a plus at the Downtown Waco Farmers Market, observed Kristi Pereira, in her second year as market manager. The market requires its vendors come from no more 150 miles, although most are closer than a two-hour drive. Each Saturday, some 35 to 40 vendors line up in the parking lot across from the McLennan County Courthouse to sell their produce, meat, dairy and other products in person to their customers.
A smaller farmers market operates at the Extraco Events Center on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday mornings.
McEntyre finds other advantages to locally sourced foods. Personal attention to land and livestock, plus the shorter distance between food and consumer means a smaller environmental footprint and a more sustainable operation, he added.
Depending on locally sourced food, though, means higher prices and a menu that swings with growing seasons. That’s a challenge he enjoys, said McEntyre, who is known among many in downtown Waco for the farm-to-table meals he organizes and prepares.
“A lot of times you can tell where I’ve been or what I was thinking about by what was on the menu,” he said with a laugh. “I’ve written menus before and sold tickets and then had people come up afterward and say, ‘That’s not what it was supposed to be.’ Well, that’s the fun of it.”
Offerings at the Downtown Waco Farmers Market also change with the seasons and the market tries to keep customers informed by listing what’s in season on its website. Spring and summer are the market’s best seasons, but even with August’s heat, summer squash, tomatoes, melons, corn, okra and peppers are available, Pereira noted.
Like Pannabecker, Reid Guess of Guess Family Barbecue and other Waco chefs, McEntyre uses Texas commercial food suppliers Hardie’s Fresh Foods and Austin-based Farm To Table. Both services inform their restaurant clients of what’s in season and available, how it’s grown or prepared and then delivers orders on a weekly or twice-weekly basis to customers in Dallas-Fort Worth, Houston, Austin and San Antonio.
McEntyre pulls his raw materials from suppliers in McLennan County as well as Wichita Falls, Fredericksburg, Wharton, Freedonia, Houston and more. However, he often gets his pork from Berkwood Farms in Iowa and his bacon from Benton’s in Tennessee because of their high quality.
The World Hunger Relief farm near Northcrest raises its own produce and livestock, which it then sells at the Downtown Waco Farmers Market as well as a small store on the farm’s premises. Depending on the season, the farm offers carrots, squash, tomatoes, greens, okra, peppers, melons and watermelons, said education director Kelly Ezell.
Farm interns, who train to lead agricultural and hunger relief projects around the world, also raise pasture-raised or pasture-finished beef cattle, pigs, goats, sheep, chickens and rabbits, using minimal antibiotics and general organic practices. Meat from those animals, as well as eggs and honey, are sold.
Pereira, the Downtown Waco Farmers Market manager, says vendors such as these help the farmers market thrive and ease consumers’ minds.
“It’s really beneficial when you can have a conversation with the person who grows your food. You can ask about what pesticides are used, what fertilizers or how animals are raised,” Pereira said. “It just has a personal touch you don’t get anywhere else.”
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