From the Ground Up! Elgin_Sue Beckwith Transcript

INTERVIEW: SUE BECKWITH

[Note: Q indicates interviewer(s)]

Interview date: February 19, 2016

Interview location: City Hall Annex, Elgin, Texas


Q:   Get started with the biographical questions, so.

SUE BECKWITH: OK.

Q:   What is your name?

SUE BECKWITH: My name is Susan Beckwith.

Q:   What is your gender?

SUE BECKWITH: My gender is — my gender identity is female.

Q:   Yes.  Yes.  Where were you born?

SUE BECKWITH: Plainfield, New Jersey.

Q:  Where do you live now, and how long have you lived there?

SUE BECKWITH: I live in Elgin, Texas.  And I’ve lived here three years.

Q:   Wow.  So, tell us about your experiences with food growing up.

SUE BECKWITH: When I was very young, like five, six, seven years old, we lived at my father’s mother.  My parents separated when I was really young.  So we lived with my father and his mother.  And she was a great cook.  And she enjoyed cooking, and I enjoyed eating.  She used to cook — I don’t know if she actually cooked for me, but it felt like she cooked for me, you know, she made little pancakes in the shape of little gingerbread guys with little things for buttons.  And she made pork chops that I loved.  She was always very formal about the dinner table.  And years later when I began to learn and understand a little bit more about class, some of the — my more radical friends or acquaintances who were, you know, what class are you?  You know, like if you’re upper class you can’t be in our club kind of bullshit.  So I didn’t know.  I didn’t know what class I was, you know, I was, I don’t know, you know, 20, 21, and I didn’t know.  So, but I thought back to the dinner table, and it was always very formal, everything matched, we had to be done playing, and maybe already bathed and changed, I don’t remember about that, but we had to be at the table, whatever the time, allotted time was.  And so I thought well, maybe we were upper middle class, we had a big house, and, you know, a pretty nice house.  And then I found out later that my grandmother, my father’s mother, had — her husband had split.  And that was a time when that just really didn’t happen.

Q:   Yeah.

SUE BECKWITH: And left her in Jersey City, New Jersey, with two young boys.  So she was an au pair, so she went and lived in rich people’s houses and took care of their kids, and cooked, and then she had a place to live, and have her boys there.  And so, that’s a part of, I think, why she was so formal.  She wanted — the way she said it is, she wanted us to be sure that if we were ever in that situation, we knew what fork was what, and how to set the table.  I always had to set the table, and I had to fold the napkins a certain way, and everything was really particular.  So, that was an interesting juxtaposition of, I was struggling to identify my class based on how the meals were set up.

Q:   Yeah.  That’s really interesting.

SUE BECKWITH: I don’t know where I learned that, TV or movies or something.

Q:   Something.

SUE BECKWITH: Right.

Q:   What about around the holidays?  Were there special foods that you ate growing up?

SUE BECKWITH: You know, I don’t really remember any particular special foods.  My family was pretty broken up, my — we lived with my father and his mom from the time I was about four, until the time I was eight.  And I don’t really remember holidays in particular at all.  And then we moved with my mom, and you know, the usual, I mean turkey at Thanksgiving, and maybe a ham at Christmas.  And dressing, and I don’t remember, no cornbread, I didn’t get that until I came to Texas, because I grew up in Florida.

Q:   OK.

SUE BECKWITH: So, I don’t remember cornbread until I got here to Texas.  And then that became a part of the holiday eating when I would go to friends’ houses and stuff.

Q:   So, when you were living with your father’s mother, that was in New Jersey?

SUE BECKWITH: Mm-hmm.  And New Hampshire.

Q:   And then — and New Hampshire.  And then, you moved to Florida.

SUE BECKWITH: Right.  And in the same city where we lived in Florida with my mother, her mother lived, and her mother was Ukrainian.  From the old country, broken English, so we had to go to her house every Sunday and eat, and I really didn’t want to go.  [05:00]

Q:   Why?

SUE BECKWITH: You know, I was getting to be a teenager, 10, 11, 12 years old, we had to stay for hours.  You know, and I had all these other things I wanted to do.  Once I got there, I was usually fine, she lived near the beach, she a tiny little house, and she rented the apartment out in the back.  And, you know, I mean she didn’t have plastic on the couch, but she might as well have had.  You had to eat over here, and little tiny house.  Tiny kitchen, half the size of my office.  With a table, that was the only table, so there was no dining room or anything like that.  Just a little kitchen.  And my mom used a wheelchair, so you couldn’t really move around in the kitchen.  You had to get in your place and stay there.

Q:   Yeah.

SUE BECKWITH: And then you hardly had to get up to reach the sink, or the stove.  So she cooked a lot of Ukrainian food, so this food called [pyrohy?] that looks like an empanada, except it’s not baked, it’s a different kind of dough, it’s more like a pasta dough that you boil.  And you can bake it.  It’s like a pierogi.  But it’s — in Ukrainian it’s called pyrohy.

Q:   Yeah.

SUE BECKWITH: But it’s got potatoes and onion and cheese, and maybe a little bit of meat in it, and a lot of sauerkraut.

Q:   OK.

SUE BECKWITH: We ate a lot of sauerkraut.  Sauerkraut, boiled pork ribs, chicken, I love to eat.  I love to — I’ve never really been into food like for the taste and the presentation, I just want to eat.  I always want to eat a lot of food.  So, I would eat — my grandmother, Ukrainian grandmother, loved me in part because I would eat.  I could eat half a chicken.

Q:   Oh wow.

SUE BECKWITH: I would just eat, and eat, and eat.  You know, if I didn’t eat enough, in her Ukrainian accent, you know, “Eat Susan, eat, eat, you know, you’re too small, eat.”  You know, and she was sort of this Slavic, large breast, wide hips, you know, grandmotherly looking woman.  Yeah.

Q:   That’s amazing.  What about now?  What is your preferred place to get food?

SUE BECKWITH: At home.

Q:   At home?

SUE BECKWITH: You mean to get it to eat, or to —

Q:   Mm-hmm.

SUE BECKWITH: Yeah, at home.  I mean we eat at home, three meals a day.  Yeah.  My partner is a schoolteacher, and so we make her lunch.  And then she takes her lunch to school.  She has a pretty special diet, she has celiac, and —

Q:   Oh.  That’s —

SUE BECKWITH: But even without having celiac, we would be eating food that we cook more often than not.  There’s just not that many out to eat options that are anywhere near within our budget.  So yeah, we eat at home.  We buy all our meats, with the exception of lunchmeat, which is sort of natural, hormone-free packaged lunchmeat; it’s all from farms around here.  We buy our beef from Granger and McDade, from a couple of rancher.  Our chicken comes from Lexington Texas, and now I have a new supplier way over by Prairie View, he’s raising the kind of chickens that we like to eat.  Rarely do we buy store meat, and when we do, we buy it at Wheatsville, so it’s at least organic.  It may or may not be pasture-raised, you know, it may be factory birds.  And then our vegetables, we buy here in town, over at the farmer’s markets.  Or at Wheatsville.  Yeah.  Or direct from the farmers, because I work with farmers in my job, so like last year I didn’t get paid very much because we didn’t have funding to pay me, and so the farmers would send me home with whatever they had, kale, broccoli.  Stuff like that.

Q:   Oh nice.

SUE BECKWITH: Big armfuls of it.

Q:   Wow.

SUE BECKWITH: And our eggs, we get the Jeremiah Cunningham’s World’s Best Eggs out here.  You know, and — so.

Q:   And what about your own personal experiences with gardening and farming?

SUE BECKWITH: Well we used to be farmers.  We used to be poultry farmers.  We had a small herd, a very small herd of cattle, we had six head of cattle at one point.  And then we raised meat birds, broilers, and then we had 500 laying hens.  So a pretty small farm out in Paige.

Q:   OK.

SUE BECKWITH: And that was really, I think, what brought us to much more awareness of the food that we eat.  You know, once I got out on my own, when I was 17, you know, I ate at McDonald’s, I ate at Burger King, I ate at wherever.  You know, I was going to school, working a couple of jobs, so I was eating on the run and just ate fast food all the time.  And then in college, kind of the same thing.  I mean, it’s a little bit expensive, and so in college we would make, you know, big pots of beans, chili, you know, whatever you could make in quantity for cheap, [10:00] and eat that.  Yeah.  And we used to go down to the town lake and catch fish, and eat that while I was in college.

Q:   Really?

SUE BECKWITH: Yeah.

Q:   That is so cool.

SUE BECKWITH: There’s fish in the lake, you just have to catch them.  Catch it, clean it, eat it.

Q:   (laughter) Wow.

SUE BECKWITH: Yeah.

Q:   And so, now that you’re — so you’re no longer farming anymore.

SUE BECKWITH: Right, we’re not farming anymore, we stopped in 2013.

Q:   OK.  But you’re still very connected with like, the local growers and farmers through your job, and —

SUE BECKWITH: Yeah.

Q:   — just everything.

SUE BECKWITH: Yeah.  I mean my job is to help farmers develop new markets for their products, and that includes processing and maybe canning, drying, freezing their products.  So that they can have a more stable income throughout the year during drought, during, you know, during the offseason, they have something to sell.  And people also have something they can buy.

Q:   Nice.  And so, do the local growers and farmers here in town sell to HEB?  Just out of curiosity.

SUE BECKWITH: Only one does, and she sells soap.  Goat milk soap.

Q:   Really?

SUE BECKWITH: So you can buy Elgin — you can buy soap at the HEB in Elgin from goats milked in Elgin.

Q:   That is so interesting.

SUE BECKWITH: Yeah.

Q:   That makes (inaudible).

SUE BECKWITH: And that’s a part of what I want to do is help publicize, it is very good soap, and it’s very gentle soap.

Q:   I bet.

SUE BECKWITH: And she’s got a lot of different varieties of it.  And I want to find a way, through my work, to let more people know about that.  Because I, you know, yes it’s a premium but I mean, you know, some things I think are easier for people to spend more money on if they stop and think about it for a minute.  If I spend $8 on a bar of soap, and I don’t know how much her soap costs, I don’t remember, because I don’t pay attention.  Granted, I’m working now, but I don’t buy soap but twice a year.  I buy a bar of soap.

Q:   Yeah.

SUE BECKWITH: Right?  So, if it costs $10, it really doesn’t bother me that much.

Q:   Good deal.

SUE BECKWITH: It’s not something that I’m buying —

Q:   All the time.

SUE BECKWITH: — every week.  Yeah.

Q:   Yeah.

SUE BECKWITH: Yeah.

Q:   That makes a lot of sense.  So, in the time that you’ve lived here, how has Elgin changed?  And like, the surrounding areas as well.

SUE BECKWITH: Well you know, it’s growing so fast, there’s so many people moving in, that one of the things I’ve seen is a kind of a segregation between the people who live out in the suburbs and the people who live in the town.  So, a part of that is just geography, 72% of people who live here commute to Austin for work every day.

Q:   OK.

SUE BECKWITH: So the people — but the suburbs are all west of here.  West of town.  So people go to Austin and come back to their houses.  They would have to come further east to come into town.  So, they don’t.  They probably go to HEB or to Walmart, but — and more and more people are coming into town, I think since Eva Mae’s opened, I’m so excited, because, you know, people who aren’t white are coming into downtown and walking around, and spending a little bit more time, and I — part of the reason we chose to live in Elgin is because it’s a multi-culture, multi-class community.  We looked, you know, when we were going to have to sell our farm, we didn’t have a lot of money, so we didn’t have a whole lot of options.  But still, we were going to move somewhere where we’re going to die.  You know, we’re old enough, and so, I mean that might not be the case, but that was our frame of mind.

Q:   Of course.

SUE BECKWITH: And so, where’s that going to be?

Q:   Yeah.

SUE BECKWITH: You know, where are we going to get to live out our days and be happy and fulfilled and not feel like a bunch of pressures are pushing on us over which we have no control?  And so, we looked at a couple of places, and we chose Elgin because we had a relationship already with Elgin.  Because I worked here starting in 2007.  Because I had an off-farm job out here, I was the project manager to start Coyote Creek Organic Feed Mill.  And Jeremiah Cunningham’s World’s Best Eggs.  So I was the startup manager for that.  And I had been the president of the Texas Organic Farmers and Gardeners, and I moved the office to Elgin while I was president, and it’s still here.  A little tiny, tiny office.  Like a desk in the back of someone’s office.  I lost my train of thought.

Q:   Oh, just about the change, yeah.

SUE BECKWITH: The change.  Since I’ve been here working on farm and local food issues, I’ve seen an increasing attention to locally grown — to agriculture products, agricultural products.  [15:00] It’s been a focus for the city since maybe 2007, 2008 to maintain — to find a way to preserve our agricultural heritage here in Elgin.  And over the past few years, since I’ve been here, I’ve had the opportunity to help develop that mission and come up with some specific strategies to actually help realize that.  And it’s a hard — it’s a high wall to scale.  We’ve got fast development coming out from Austin, it’s coming fast, it’s all along the highway.  And land prices are skyrocketing.  Yes, we have some of the best agricultural land in the country, you know, we talk about the breadbasket of the US, so the center of the US, but that land, that same soil type actually comes all the way down and ends, pretty much, in Elgin.  So it’s really this black land soil is very much like the soil up in the Midwest.  The climate’s, of course, different.  But it’s ability to hold water, the nutrients and everything, is kind of the same.  It can grow things.  So, we have to create markets.  And I’ve seen more attention, and I’ve found the city council on economic development — the community leaders more receptive to talking about ways that we can enhance — that we can include local food and local agriculture as a part of our economic development strategy, as a town.  And maybe that’s how we can maintain the character of Elgin, in my mind, if we can keep multi-culture, multi-class, and include agriculture and some other aspects, then we can keep our identity.  Otherwise, in 10 years, Elgin is just going to be a rubber stamp suburb like you see all over the country.  You could be anywhere.  You know, there’s the Lowe’s, the Home Depot, the Applebee’s, you know, the same old things.  And yes, we’re going to have all that along the highway, but what else are we?  And why would someone want to live here?  You know, other than a cheap house, and an easy way to get to Austin.  Why would someone want to be here?  So.

Q:   Yeah.  And you think that infusing agriculture into the economic growth is going to be a reason why people want to be here?

SUE BECKWITH: I think it’ll be a piece of it.  Because people will have an ability to know the farmers around them, and know the food that they eat.  They’ll have easy access to local food here.

Q:   Yeah.  It’s a wonderful idea.

SUE BECKWITH: Well, that’s the idea.  You know, there’s a lot of, you know, the internet and a lot of the technology that’s available gives us all a lot of mobility.  And so, there’s starting to be articles in the economic development press that talk about, that people move to the place they want to live.  Live.  And the jobs come to them.  And that’s very different from how economic development has happened, ever since the days of the plantations and the company town that followed that and the, you know, Dearborn Michigans that followed that.  And so on, and so on.  People now have an ability to choose where they want to live, they want to live in a walkable community, they want to live in a multicultural community, they want to live, you know, my goodness, around people different from themselves.  And not in a homogeneous, boring community.  And a community that’s got healthy food available.

Q:   Yeah.

SUE BECKWITH: So I think if we make that, then the people will move here, they’ll commute to Austin for a time, but at some point, those employers are going to say, well we want to be there too.

Q:   It makes a lot of sense.

SUE BECKWITH: So, that’s —

Q:   When you say like healthy food, you mean like the locally grown —

SUE BECKWITH: Yes, and I should be more clear about that.

Q:   Oh no, I just — yeah.

SUE BECKWITH: Because it’s two different things.  You know, there’s a lot of people who want to eat locally grown food.  I mean locally grown food contributes to the economy in at least a 2.3 multiplier, at least.  You know, that’s kind of conservative.  And a lot of people, regardless of whether they choose to eat a healthy diet or they don’t, want their dollars to stay local.  And so, by having a local food economy, including processors and distributors and all of it, we can achieve that here.  We’ve got the agricultural land to do it, and the political will, at this point it seems the leadership for this came from the mayor and city council many years back, 2008.  And it could have languished, but it didn’t.  Because, you know, comprehensive plans all say all kinds of great things.  So you know Austin’s comprehensive plan from the ’80s talks about [20:00] we’re not going to build west, we’re going to build along the transportation corridor, to be ready in the future for high speed rail.  Well, so — and many plans said that.  Down, down, down the road, 700 community meetings.  And that was the conclusion, and it didn’t happen.  So, it’s not just the political will, it’s also the economic will.  And that’s, I think, what’s important to actually put it into practice.  And that’s a tough one, I’m not going to tell somebody who’s got 200 acres on the highway between here and Manor, you know, keep your farm going, don’t sell your land for $10 million.  No, I’m not going to tell them that, but a couple miles out from the highway, maybe.  Maybe is there something that we could do to get it using conservation easements and creative kinds of financing to get more agricultural land.  But, money is the gateway drug for a lot of people.  So, if we can show a market, and we can show the value, then people will — you know, not only will we keep existing farmers farming, but new people will come into the arena.  And we need more people to move to Elgin who have that kind of mindset.  Because that’s what’s going to change it, it’s the people who live here that are going to change.  Are going to decide the course of the future of Elgin.  It’s small enough that it’s possible to have an impact, for one person, two people, three people.  So, everyone listening to this, move here.

Q:   (laughter) Well thank you very much.  Is there anything else you want to share about your food experiences?

SUE BECKWITH: No, I mean I think the only thing is that, when we were farming, I really learned so much.  And I want to try and find a way to share that information with other people.  This concept of nutrient density, I used to eat three eggs every morning, for my whole life, I ate three eggs.  And they would never seem to be enough, and I always had trouble digesting them.  And when I started eating pasture-raised organic eggs, I was full.  And so then I started eating two eggs, and I didn’t even really notice that I’d switched to two eggs.  And then I started eating only one egg.  And so, and I’m perfectly full, and I get plenty of protein and other nutrients.  So, this notion of nutrient density was really new to me, and I think it’s an important concept for people to begin to understand, because when we talk about value, so that dozen eggs now costs me $7, that’s a lot of money for a lot of people to buy eggs.  And it took a while for me to stop eating three.  So for a while it was really not cost-effective at all.  I mean thank goodness I was managing an egg farm, and had an egg farm of my own.  But, now that I only eat one, the value of that $7 is really different than it was when I was eating three eggs a day.  I’m not making much sense I don’t think with it, but I’m trying to —

Q:   No, I definitely understand.

SUE BECKWITH: Yeah.  Similarly with grass fed beef that we buy from the ranch, it’s almost $8 a pound.  Again, a pile of money compared to 2 or $3 at the grocery store.  I know it’s really healthy, it’s been given no hormones of any kind, the meat has not been radiated or treated, or had water added to it.  It’s also naturally very lean.  And when I cook down that pound, I get almost a whole pound of edible meat.  There’s hardly any grease in the pan, in fact, sometimes I have to take some out of the freezer and kind of add it so I can make some gravy.  But when I buy, or when I see someone who buys a $3 a pound conventional beef, that — it’s floating in grease by the time you’re done cooking it, so how much does that weigh?  You’re buying a pound, it’s only $3, but are you really getting just a little over half a pound of edible food?  So, those are a couple of the lessons I’ve learned that have been kind of, you know — right, right.

Q:   Yeah.  Well thank you for sharing your story.

SUE BECKWITH: You’re welcome.  Thank you.

[END OF INTERVIEW]