INTERVIEW: BYRON MITCHELL
[Note: Q indicates interviewer.]
Interview date: February 19, 2016
Interview location: City Hall Annex, Elgin, Texas
Q: So I’m just going to check it. So, what did you have for breakfast this morning?
BYRON MITCHELL: I had migas and pancakes for breakfast this morning, because I went out to eat. So yeah, it’s a good breakfast.
Q: So, we can get started.
BYRON MITCHELL: All right.
Q: So the first question is, what is your name?
BYRON MITCHELL: Byron Mitchell.
Q: Can you spell that for me?
BYRON MITCHELL: B-Y-R-O-N M-I-T-C-H-E-L-L.
Q: What’s your gender that you identify with?
BYRON MITCHELL: Male.
Q: OK. Where were you born?
BYRON MITCHELL: In Elgin, Texas.
Q: What is your birthday?
BYRON MITCHELL: August 5th, 1962.
Q: Where do you live now?
BYRON MITCHELL: In Elgin.
Q: So you’ve been living here all your life —
BYRON MITCHELL: Well, not all my life. I left for a few years but came back —
Q: OK, but you’re here. You’re back.
BYRON MITCHELL: — Yeah, but I’m here now. Absolutely.
Q: So to start off, can you tell us about your food experience growing up here?
BYRON MITCHELL: My food experiences. Well, first of all, I’m a connoisseur of food. I love all foods, and there’s hardly anything I don’t like. But growing up, raised by grandmother — and she was a woman that loved to cook — which worked out very well for me because she just had a joy for cooking. And so if there was anything that I thought I wanted, all I had to do was say it and she would make it happen. Because she didn’t believe in going out to eat; she always preferred a home-cooked meal. And so yeah, some of my best times were spent at the kitchen table.
Q: Did you have any favorites that she created?
BYRON MITCHELL: Anything that she cooked. I had a lot of favorites from her, because she was an excellent cook. But probably, her Thanksgiving meals was probably one of my favorites, because she had the best chicken and dressing on the planet. And sweet potato pies was to die for. But anything she cooked… One of the things that I know that she always did — with us going to school, we always had — for some reason, it seemed like she could just make the best oatmeal. Like, “Oh, my God!” Just so nerve-shaking and warm. And I guess, probably what made it so appetizing, because she loved to do it. You know, it’s one thing when somebody’s cooking, they’re just like, “Yeah, OK, I’m cooking because you have to eat.” But she had a joy for cooking, and she just enjoyed seeing people eat her food. So those were some good experiences for me.
Q: So what do you remember about the food your family cooked and ate during the holidays?
BYRON MITCHELL: It was always lots of it. (laughter) It was lots of it. I mean, there were lots of varieties. But we always ate whatever the traditional meals were for the holidays; and Thanksgiving, Christmas, it was always chicken and dressing, and sweet potato pie, and greens, cabbage. Just a whole ambiance of what those holidays meant.
Q: Did it change with the different holidays? Christmas, Thanksgiving [selective?], then Easter would be different?
BYRON MITCHELL: Sometimes. The Thanksgiving and Christmas meals were pretty much the same thing. New Year’s is changed up a little bit, because it was always the thing that you had to have — chitlins. You ever had chitlins?
Q: No. My grandma has made them. (laughter)
BYRON MITCHELL: (laughter) We had to have chitlins, and we had to have black eyed peas —
Q: Yes, we had…
BYRON MITCHELL: — that was, my God! If you didn’t have peas, it was like —
Q: Your luck has gone. (laughter)
BYRON MITCHELL: — yeah, yeah! It was like, “You are dumb!” Yeah, you are dumb. And so that was probably the only time that it changed up somewhat. But the other ones was always usually the same: [turkey?] and chicken dressing, ham was always a part of it…
Q: What are your preferred places to go get food now?
BYRON MITCHELL: My preferred places. I usually try to mix it up a little bit. But you mean here, primarily in Elgin?
Q: Yeah, primarily in Elgin.
BYRON MITCHELL: OK. There’s one particular Mexican restaurant that I like, Morelia’s. But you know, we have an overabundance of Mexican restaurants. We laugh about that, it was like, “If you bring one more Mexican restaurant [05:00] here…” Enough!
BYRON MITCHELL: But I like that, and I’m just getting into the soul food place here, right across the street — Eva Mae’s — because we’ve been waiting a long time to have that type of variety. There’s another little place called Lucy’s that’s sort of a homestyle, cooked-meal type of place. It reminds us of the City Café that was a mainstay when we were younger; that you could get those types of meals. In fact, the lady that cooks at Lucy’s now was the cook at the City Café. So that kind of gives us that same sort of ambiance and feeling of the City Café, of a home-cooked meal. So those are my main ones. Every now and then, of course, I’ll hit the little fast foods: Superior Burger, Sonic, Taco Bell, sometimes. But I try not to eat too much of those.
Q: OK. Where do you purchase your food from when you’re cooking at home?
BYRON MITCHELL: Usually from the grocery store H-E-B. It’s primarily H-E-B or Wal-Mart, but we have certain things that we prefer from H-E-B versus Wal-Mart —
Q: Yes. (laughter)
BYRON MITCHELL: — because I don’t, for some reason, I don’t like a lot of Wal-Mart’s meats. So I’ll do that at the H-E-B —
Q: At H-E-B! (laughter)
BYRON MITCHELL: — but those are primarily the two sources that we use.
Q: OK. So can you give me your thoughts on gardening or farming, from your personal experience?
BYRON MITCHELL: When I was younger, it was a part of our everyday life. Because like I said, I was raised with my grandmother and my great-grandfather. And so he was a gardener, and he believed in that wholeheartedly. And so he was like, “Oh, y’all gonna get out here an’ help me. If you gonna eat, then you gonna help me take care” —
BYRON MITCHELL: (laughter) — so that was a part of our…He wasn’t a big, big farmer. But he would have a garden every year for certain vegetables and things. And I enjoyed it. I didn’t necessarily help (inaudible), but I enjoyed it somewhat. Sometimes it was a bit of work, but sometimes it was fun; and just the idea of seeing what you put into the ground come to fruition. And so, it was really good. I remember one year, I was in 4-H and we had a competition, so everybody had to prepare a garden. I got first place on my garden, so I was proud of my garden. It was fun. But as we got older, we kind of moved away from that. I wish we had stayed with it, I still think that’s a good idea; to have those types of fresh vegetables and herbs and things. But not so much, now that I’m older. (laughter)
Q: What ways do you think [you’d need?] to grow your own food and connect with local growers, if you were to go back and start a farm, a garden or something right now?
BYRON MITCHELL: What ways could I connect with them? I guess I would have to try to reach out to them. We have the local farmers’ market that comes every weekend and sets up in the park, but I don’t know if I’ve ever bought anything. I guess because, when you get in a mindset of doing the same thing all the time, you don’t think about, “Well, there’s an alternative.” But I know that there’s a really big push here locally to get people to invest more into that. There’s a Local Goods food store now, and they actually serve dinner throughout the week. In particular, I know the superintendent of schools has been pushing that. I mean, I need to go there. I need to try it out, and they’re trying to get some collaboration with the schools. So I’m thinking, that as you become more involved on that end, that would make you more enticed to do something at home.
BYRON MITCHELL: I think now we use a lot of excuses to feel like we don’t have the space to do it at home, and something like, “Oh, I don’t have enough (inaudible)!” When really you do, you just have to learn how to do that. But it’s just trying to change a culture and a mindset; because if you’re not accustomed to doing that, then that can take a minute to get folks to move to that. Because we have a society now where everything has to be fast. People are used to throwing it in the microwave, “I’m in a hurry, I’ve got to go to work. I’ve got to do this,” and so we tend to cheat ourselves out sometimes when it comes to food. And I do think it’s somewhat [10:00] detrimental to us now that we are moving away that, because I think some of this stuff is overprocessed. Or, adding all this stuff to make it grow bigger and faster — can’t be good.
BYRON MITCHELL: Cannot be good. They’ll never say that, but…
Q: Have you seen Austin and surrounding areas change in the duration of time that you’ve been living in or around Austin?
BYRON MITCHELL: Have I seen them change?
Q: Yeah, by comparison to Elgin and whatnot. The effects of it, has it changed?
BYRON MITCHELL: I am sure that it’s changed. But, changed in what way? You mean, as far as —
Q: In hurting how farming takes place…?
BYRON MITCHELL: OK. Yeah, I do see that. As a matter of fact, that’s probably one of the greatest downsides when you talk about a community such as Elgin starting to grow; because you start to lose some of that farmland that families have had for years, and raised crops, and done all that. And I think we tend to take it for granted, because we don’t necessarily see them actually doing the work, but we see the products of it. And so a lot of times, we don’t worry about where it comes from, but I just want to make sure it’s there when I go to get it. “I’m going to go to the store and I want it — it’s there.” But we didn’t see the work that was involved in preparing it, to get it there. I think that’s a lost art, and so that’s probably one of the greatest downfalls that I see — that we’re losing a lot of that farmland. Because, I guess, a lot of the young people are not interested in that lifestyle any more. Because you know, as you progress and they become more educated, they don’t necessarily have to depend on those types of jobs anymore. Or if they did (inaudible), first thing they want to do, “Ah! I did that (inaudible), I don’t want to have to do that anymore.” And so they tend to move away, and I think that’s kind of a downside. We’re losing those areas where we could be able to produce and grow foods.
Q: And have you seen that impact this community in a lot of ways?
BYRON MITCHELL: Yeah, I think so. And I think that’s why it’s so hard for people to wrap around the idea of the local foods market and the local foods goods store, because we’re not accustomed to actually going and then seeing the vegetables come from the farmers’ land to the table; versus going through the grocery store process first and getting it. In that respect, it’s again changing the mindset. It’s almost, we need to go back to when we first started, began to be more self-sufficient. And not always depending on somebody else to provide it.
Q: When you think of soul food, what does that mean to you?
BYRON MITCHELL: I’m not going to say the (inaudible) answer today (inaudible) —
BYRON MITCHELL: Ah! I am not going to (laughter)…When I think of soul food, what do I think of? I think of greens, cornbread, oxtails, chitlins; of course, chicken — we always put chicken in it. You know, just those things. And for me, I guess, those things that we typically grew up in our households seeing, that that was a part of our everyday existence. And so other people, “Oh, that doesn’t look like…OK, well, we grew up on that. What’s the big deal?” It’s funny now, because those things that were deemed back then “throwable away” items are now some of the most expensive meats and things that you could buy.
Q: Yeah, chitlins are expensive —
BYRON MITCHELL: We grew up on it because it was cheap and you could get a lot of it. But chitlins and oxtails, they used to throw that stuff away! Go try to buy some oxtail now.
Q: Fourteen dollars a pop.
BYRON MITCHELL: Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah! Proud of it, you know. So those types of food: neckbones, and all that kind of stuff. I consider that soul food.
Q: What does healthy mean to you?
BYRON MITCHELL: Healthy, what does healthy mean to me? Healthy means to me, it is moving away from some of these fried foods that we’ve always had. [15:00] For me, just trying to eat those foods and get the greatest nutritional value that you can out of those foods, without doing so much damage to your body. Because sometimes those things that tasted very best to us are the very worst things for us. So all of those things that I just mentioned — all that pork, all that stuff, fried chicken and the pork chitlins — that was good, but it’s detrimental to us in the long-run. But for me, I think variations of things happened with that. I’ll also say that…I think back when we were younger, and my parents and grandparents, they were much more active. And so I think that countered the effect of those foods, because they were always busy, they were always working and moving. And so I think that helped them. Now, as we become a society that is less mobile, and we go to these jobs and we sit behind a desk, and you’re not moving; and so then, we eat these unhealthy foods, and then it’s just… So I think we have to be more aware of what we’re eating now, because of our sedentary lifestyle. We need to be more aware of trying to get the best nutrition for the best money.
Q: That’s true. And now I’m going to combine those two questions for you. Do you think there can be healthy soul food?
BYRON MITCHELL: I would sure hope so. I would sure hope so, because I sure hate to give it up. And I think with that, I think you can pretty much eat anything you want, it’s just in moderation. But I think there can be healthy soul foods. I think that sometimes we’re just afraid to even…It seems that if you say “healthy,” it seems like it’s a bad word, or that it’s not going to be as tasteful if you say “healthy.” But I think that as people open their minds up and are presented some options that are considered soul food but in somewhat a more healthy way; I think people are open to it, but their taste buds have to agree. (laughter)
Q: (laughter) That’s very true. So looking back over this, I’ve asked most of all the questions. Do you have any other comments on how food and health, Elgin, has affected you as a person?
BYRON MITCHELL: How is that? Well, for the black community, I think it’s always been a struggle for us because food has always been the center of our interaction. We invite people over: “Hey, let me get you something to eat,” because many times that was the only thing we had to share, was food. You didn’t have any gifts, you didn’t have any money, so that was the way that you showed your love for somebody. “Hey, let’s sit down and have a meal.” Somebody come up and you’re just like, “Have this.” Somebody dies, what do you do? You take food over —
Q: To the house.
BYRON MITCHELL: — and so that was just a part of our existence. And I am thankful that it will always be, but I think it’s just that we have to be willing — in the midst of that — try other options, try some healthier foods. And sometimes, we are our own greatest enemy. And so for me, I think it’s catching up with me now because I ate whatever I wanted to. When I was younger, it wasn’t so bad because I was always active, that’s what I’m saying to you; burning it off and all of that, because I was in high school and did all the sports and all that. Then you get older, and if you don’t continue to be active, then those types of things start to catch up with you. So now I’m a diabetic, so I have to watch what I eat; and that’s a struggle! I see how people get addicted to crack. “You’re telling me you can’t give that up?” I mean, it’s the same thing! If you’ve been eating all of those foods all of your life, and then they say, “You can’t have that,” it’s like your mind goes, “Yeah, I will have that.” You know, giving up that sugar (inaudible)… But I’m working towards it, but that food will always…I used to enjoy it. I just enjoy food. Hey, it is what it is. But I really do try to make healthier choices. I met a few weeks ago with a nutritionalist, and she said something to me. She said, “Listen, I’m not asking you to give up everything that you have eaten, but you just [20:00] have to watch your portions. Everything in moderation. But in the midst of that, here are some other alternatives that would keep you sustained, keep you feeling full so you don’t overeat and do all of that kind of stuff.”
Q: Thank you so much.
BYRON MITCHELL: That was pretty painless.
[END OF INTERVIEW]