Shanah tovah (שנה טובה). May your new year be filled with sweetness…

Shanah tovah u’metuka. May you have a good and sweet year ahead.

On Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish new year, we eat apples and honey as we hope for a sweet new year.

From Chabad.org:

Let us turn our heads heavenward and, while thanking Him for sparing so much human life, beseech G-d to restore health and well-being to those who are suffering!

Let us ask G-d for a Happy, Healthy and Sweet New Year for the entire universe! Our High Holiday prayers, we are taught, have an extraordinary effect on the year ahead – let’s seize the opportunity!

Let us make firm, tangible resolutions to better ourselves and increase our mitzvot, in both our interpersonal and our G-d-and-us relationships.

And let us all simply shower one another with blessings!

Happy new year, everyone.

Hurricane Ida relief resources.

Relief Gang is at the top of everyone’s list of locally based Hurricane Ida relief resources (image via the Houston Chronicle).

“Hurricane Ida, one of the strongest storms ever recorded in the U.S.,” wrote the editors of the Houston Chronicle yesterday,

    barreled through Louisiana on Sunday, sixteen years to the day that Katrina hit in 2005. Ida brought 150 mph winds — even stronger than Katrina’s — and storm surges as high as 16 feet. More than 1 million homes and businesses lost power. Two people had been confirmed dead Monday evening, though authorities expect that number to grow.
    Louisiana was already reeling from Hurricane Laura last year, a reminder that, in addition to our shared culture, food, music and affinity for football, Texas and Louisiana are united by cursed geography. We are bonded by the deep anxiety that comes with living in this Gulf Coast cauldron where Mother Nature ladles out hurricanes like boiling bowls of gumbo.

Click here for the Chronicle list of locally based Hurricane Ida relief resources. When you give to one of these organizations, your donation is converted swiftly into items that people need right away — water, food, bedding, hygiene products, etc.

Houston Chronicle features my new wine director gig at Roma.

Above: I was teaching at the Slow Food University of Gastronomic Sciences in Pollenzo, Italy last month when Houston Chronicle wine writer Dale Robertson called me up and said, “hey, I’m going to drive over from France and take you out to dinner… I want to write a story about your new gig at Roma” (photo by Marcello Marengo for the Università di Scienze Gastronomiche).

Tracie and I couldn’t have been more thrilled to see Houston Chronicle wine columnist Dale Roberton’s article about my new wine director gig in the paper (“Meet Jeremy Parzen, the new wine director at Roma in Rice Village,” August 10).

Our heartfelt thanks goes out to Dale and his editor: beyond the story of how I became the wine director at Roma restaurant, it also traces the arc of our romance, engagement, and family life here in Houston, a city that I’ve loved since I first moved to Texas to be with Tracie in 2008.

Even though I’ve run a wine program or two in the past (including Sotto in Los Angeles, where I served as wine director for nearly eight years), Roma owner Shanon had never considered having me help out with the list until I began hosting virtual wine dinners for the restaurant during the lockdowns (I’ve also been Roma’s media manager for more than three years).

It was in May of this year that we decided it was time for me to step up, roll up my sleeves, and do inventory — that odious chore of any wine director.

And from there, things just blossomed. Not only do I manage the list. But I also host wine tastings, in-person wine dinners, and virtual wine dinners where guests pick up the food and wine and then head home where we all connect on Zoom.

Honestly, we never imagined that the virtual events would continue after the lockdowns ended. But people really seem to enjoy them. And while we don’t have the 80-90 people that we used to host back in late 2020 and early 2021, we still get up to 40 guests on the calls. It’s been an immensely rewarding experience, both professionally and personally thanks to the many lasting friendships Tracie and I have forged through the Zoom meetings.

I was teaching at the Slow Food University of Gastronomic Sciences in Pollenzo, Italy last month when Dale called me up and said, “hey, I’m going to drive over from France and take you out to dinner… I want to write a story about your new gig at Roma.” He treated me to a fantastic dinner at La Piola in the town of Alba — the heart of Piedmont wine country, our shared “spiritual homeland,” as I like to call it. And it was there that he interviewed me for the piece.

The rest is history, as they say. Or should I say, our story.

Again, our heartfelt thanks goes out to Dale and his editor; to the amazing and wonderful Marcello Marengo who did the photography; to the director of the grad program where I teach, Michele Fino, who offered me the teaching gig more than six years ago and who orchestrated the photo shoot on the spur of the moment; to Shanon who has always believed in me and who lovingly gave me a shot “up at bat”; and to all our friends and family who have shared our myriad blessings during our seven years in Houston.

And dulcis in fundo, I want to thank Tracie for believing in all my crazy ideas and always being by my side… in thick and thin, for better and worse. I love you, piccina. We’ve come a long way, haven’t we? I wouldn’t have made it without you. I love you.

Feels like the first time: heading back to Italy after more than a year and a half.

Breakfast with the family this morning brought on an emotion not felt in more than 30 years: this erstwhile Medieval poetry and now wine scribbler is heading back to their spiritual homeland since being away for more than 18 months.

And it feels like the first time.

As the girls were getting ready for summer camp, an old and addled box of photographs found its way to my desk.

That’s a photo of me, above, in Ostia (the Roman coastal city) in 1987 during my first academic year in Italy on the University of California Education Abroad Program, the only curriculum at the time that allowed students to study side-by-side with Italians — with instruction in Italian.

That experience forever shaped my professional and personal life.

By year’s end, my first piano bar gig came along.

That’s me, above, playing my very first show at the Bar Margherita on Piazza della Frutta in Padua.

The person in the lower right-hand corner is Ruggero Robin, one of Italy’s top jazz guitarists. He would become my first friend in Italy and we would play countless gigs together when music was the income that kept me afloat during my studies.

This guitar player was way out of their league when they they played with Ruggero but the money was always decent and we would always have a blast together. (If you’ve ever been to VinNatur, you might have heard Ruggero play. He’s super tight with the Maule family.)

In normal years, this Italy-bound traveler would go to their spiritual homeland six times a year, between teaching, researching and tasting, trade fairs, and client visits. There was one year when I made nine (!!!) trips to Italy in less than 12 months.

But after being separated so long from my signora, this one feels different. It feels big like that first time, that first contact, that first kiss with the country that would become my lifeblood in so many ways. It even made for the connection between me and my life partner, Tracie, mother to our children.

On Sunday, I leave for three weeks of teaching at the Slow Food University of Gastronomic Sciences in Piedmont. There will be some good eating and drinking, too. And maybe even some music.

Sister Italy, my alma mater, where would I be today without you???!!!

I can’t wait to leap into your arms and feel your embrace!

Wish me luck and wish me speed. See you on the other side…

Falling In Love Again, a new song for Tracie P by Parzen Family Singers

It’s been a great summer for our family so far and it’s been a magical time in our lives as we can get out again and our work is thriving.

And… I’m falling in love again.

“I’m Falling In Love Again”
written, performed, recorded, and produced
by Parzen Family Singers
Baby P Studios
Houston

Do you ever wonder
How the stars aligned
Strangers passing in the night
Honky tonks and wine

What was it that caught your eye
When I happened to pass by
Was it just that note I wrote
In a long ago July

Every little bit of sunshine
Every little bit of rain
Every little bit of joy and laughter
Every little bit of tears and pain

Every little bit of sunshine
Every little bit of rain
I’m falling in love again
I’m falling in love again

When I was a little kid
They told us a fairytale
All you had to do in life was to
Set your ship to sail

Find the perfect lover
Then it may come true
What makes the world go round & round
When I first looked at you

Every little bit of sunshine
Every little bit of rain
Every little bit of joy and laughter
Every little bit of tears and pain

Every little bit of sunshine
Every single day
I’m falling in love again
I’m falling in love again

Who could ever know
How much our love would grow
Who could ever see
What our love could be

And as you look at me
It’s no mystery
I’m falling in love again
I’m falling in love again
I’m falling in love again
I’m falling in love

Happy Juneteenth! A holiday long observed in Houston and now federally recognized.

Image via congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee’s Twitter.

Happy Juneteenth!

It’s a wonderful feeling to know that our nation has made a long-overdue step in the right direction. Yesterday, President Biden signed S. 475 into law, “the ‘Juneteenth National Independence Day Act,’ which designates Juneteenth National Independence Day as a legal public holiday.”

While many of our fellow Americans are just becoming aware of Juneteenth for the first time, the holiday has been celebrated here in Houston for generations. It was in nearby Galveston that Juneteenth had its origins. Before the end of the 19th century, it was already being observed each year in Houston proper.

In her recently published collection of essays about Texas, On Juneteenth (Liveright, May 2021), Harvard Law School professor Annette Gordon-Reed recounts her memories of celebrating the holiday when she was growing up in segregated Conroe, a city about an hour north of where we live today.

Houston congresswomen Lizzie Fletcher (who represents the district where we live), left, and Sheila Jackson Lee, center, announced the Juneteenth National Independence Act on Juneteenth 2020 in Houston (image via Fletcher’s Facebook).

The bill was first introduced by Houston congresswoman and legacy civil rights activist Sheila Jackson Lee in February of this year. It was co-sponsored by Houston congresswoman Lizzie Fletcher, who represents the district where we live.

Fletcher was first elected to congress in 2018 in the blue wave that delivered the House to the Democrats. She was the first progressive to be elected in our district in a generation. Her seat was once held by George H.W. Bush back when Houston was still one of the most deeply segregated cities in the country.

Tracie and I will be celebrating by going out to dinner with good friends and taking the girls to some of the gatherings planned for tomorrow at the historic Emancipation Park (which also played a role in the early Juneteenth celebrations).

There couldn’t be a better day to be in Houston! Happy Juneteenth!

Pete Wells gets the Tex but not the Mex. What the American intelligentsia gets wrong about Texans, our culture, and how and what we eat.

Even some of the most informed food writers don’t realize that what they call “fajitas,” the cornerstone of Tex-Mex cuisine, has its origins in Mexico’s discada cooking culture. That’s the carne asada plate, yesterday, at my favorite Tex-Mex restaurant in Houston, Taqueria El Sole de Mexico #2.

“Tex-Mex is probably the least respected of America’s regional cuisines,” wrote venerated Times food and restaurant critic Pete Wells in the paper this week. “In part this is because, like some Texas politicians, it doesn’t always stand up to scrutiny once it leaves the state.”

His uninformed, puerile mockery reminded me of something one of my close California family members said to me contemptuously after I had moved to Texas to be with Tracie.

“How can you live there,” they asked, “with all those awful people?”

I wonder how many Texan politicians Mr. Wells or my relative can name beyond Ted C. Maybe Ken P.? Beto, of course. But without resorting to a Google search, can they name one Black politician from Texas? Beyond Ted C. and maybe Julian C., do they know the name of any other Brown Texas politician?

And that’s what Wells and my relative all get wrong about Texans and our culture.

(In all fairness to Mr. Wells, he has famously, although perhaps disingenuously, written that he “likes” Texans.)

No English is spoke at my favorite Tex-Mex place, where “fajitas” are the number-one menu entry. You can also order a burrito smothered in queso. It’s as Tex-Mex as you can get.

I would have never said this to my relative (and luckily neither they nor their spouse read my blog!) but I would have liked to ask them: beyond all the “awful” White people you think you know from Texas, what about the Brown and Black people? Are they awful, too?

And that’s where the American intelligentsia gets it dead wrong.

Yes, there are a lot of “awful” White people in Texas who have disenfranchised Black and Brown people for generations. And those same awful White people continue to suppress the voice of Black and Brown people at the voting box and they continue — less successfully in recent years — to segregate Texans. But that’s because those awful White people are still in power, as anyone who reads the Times surely knows.

And here’s where the Tex-Mex analogy comes into play. The only Tex-Mex that Wells knows is the “White Tex-Mex” of big box players like Chuy’s and Pappasitos and the faux Tex-Mex that New Yorkers eat. He gets the Tex but he doesn’t get the Mex.

Tex-Mex didn’t originate in European cookery. It’s actually Brown-people cuisine that has been contaminated by White gastronomic traditions.

Case in point: fajitas.

Even Wells will agree that the griddle-fired, intensely seasoned meats are the cornerstone of Tex-Mex cuisine. And he shouldn’t be surprised to learn that their origin lies in the discada cooking of the Mexican — not Texan — countryside.

Earlier this month, I interviewed Chef Luis Jiménez de S. whose cloud kitchen brand Bell Pepper Fajitas is debuting in Houston in a few weeks (I was writing a press release for his PR firm). His group is based in Del Rio on the Tex-Mex border. But Chef Luis had joined our call from Mexico where he lives and cooks — you guessed it — Tex-Mex!

We spoke at length about the origins of Tex-Mex and how it is a reflection of classic Mexican cuisine. He was keen to talk about its farming-community and family-friendly character, two elements that inform his menus for Bell Pepper Fajitas and his other immensely popular concept, Amacate.

I remembered our conversation as I dug into my carne asada yesterday at Taqueria El Sol de Mexico #2, which is located in a Tex-Mex row in a Spanish-speaking Houston neighborhood not far from our house. There are roughly 20 similar restaurants along a mile-long stretch of road. I haven’t visited them all but based on my past experiences, fajitas and queso — another pillar of the Tex-Mex canon — are on the menu at most of them.

I took a look around. There were no Texas politicians there (I know where Ted C. eats in Houston btw but that’s another story for another time). There were no awful White people there either. There were no White people there at all.

Just a bunch of Texans enjoying lunch on a beautiful spring day in Houston, the ranchera music blasting away.

Let’s be honest: Texas restaurants haven’t really been enforcing the mask mandate. Abbott’s decision to lift the requirement, while reckless, won’t make a difference.

Image via Adobe Stock.

Let’s be clear: when Texas governor Abbott issued a mask order last summer, it didn’t require all Texans to wear masks in public; it required Texas businesses to require that their customers wore masks while frequenting their places of business.

And let’s be honest: Texas restaurants, which have been allowed to offer some capacity of dine-in service for the better part of the last 12 months, have done little to enforce the mask mandate. And most restaurateurs have only cursorily observed the capacity limitations.

But then again, what could have restaurateurs actually done to enforce the mandate? While most are not reckless, people who have frequented restaurants over the last 12 months generally didn’t recognize the importance and urgency of wearing a mask. If they were hanging out in restaurants, they clearly didn’t put much stock in donning a mask for the safety of others. And after all, even with the mask mandate in place, you still needed to take the mask off to eat and drink.

Beyond the Quixotic challenges of enforcing mask mandates and dining capacity restrictions, the restaurants still open are mostly just trying to survive. When you’ve poured your life’s savings and work into a restaurant and you’re barely getting by, what are you supposed to do when someone enters your business without a mask and proceeds to order a $200 bottle of wine?

Our family decided early on not to frequent restaurants (although we support restaurants by doing take-out orders at least a couple of times a week). But I have spent time in dining rooms on more than one occasion over the last year. No one at our house is going hungry and we have little to complain about, all things considered. But the scarcity of work has forced me to take every copywriting job I can get. And sometimes, those gigs require my physical presence, whether to sample the food or take a photo of a chef or restaurant interior.

The bottomline is that restaurants in Texas have done little to enforce or even observe the business mask mandate. Even those restaurateurs who recognize the wisdom of mask wearing and social distancing have had little choice but to accept the fact that guests often refuse to wear masks. Nearly every occasion that I have spent time in a restaurant, masks were overwhelmingly “optional.” And I’m only relating my experience in Houston, a major metropolitan area. When we’ve traveled outside of Houston to visit family, we’ve seen restaurants packed with maskless guests as if there were no pandemic at all.

I believe that Abbott’s decision to lift the mask requirement is as reckless as it is myopic. But that’s not going to change what’s been happening in Texas restaurants over the last 12 months.

Houston wine community mourns the loss of one of its own. Remembering Thomas Moësse.

The Houston wine community mourns the loss of one of its most beloved members this week, sommelier Thomas Moësse. He passed away earlier this month in New York City where he had been living for the last few years.

Thomas was a world traveler, polyglot, and a top wine wine professional, equally admired by his peers and his guests alike.

Born in the United Kingdom, Thomas moved to Houston as a teenager but spent his summers in the Loire Valley where his family had roots and where he first learned to love wine. After attending college in New York, he returned to Texas and began working in Houston restaurants. His wine appreciation ultimately led to multiple certifications as a professional sommelier and wine educator.

In 2018 he returned to New York and the following year he became the wine director at one of America’s most celebrated Italian restaurants, Felidia in Manhattan, where he oversaw one of the city’s best wine lists and led seminars and tastings for its who’s-who list of guests.

Before moving to the east coast, he was the wine director and one of the founders of Vinology, the popular wine bar and wine shop in city’s West University district. He was also the wine director at one of city’s temples of Italian gastronomy, Divino, a long-time favorite destination for food and wine lovers.

I knew Thomas well and had the wonderful opportunity to taste with him in Houston and in Italy on many occasions. He was one of the best tasters I’ve ever shared a bottle with. And his passion, devotion to his craft, and knowledge of wine were were world class — an inspiration for all around him, including me.

He was also a man full of joy for life, for great food and wine, for great music, and — most importantly — for his friends. He was always ready to lend a hand at tastings and events, always ready to speak on a panel or offer advice and share his insights and dining recommendations.

Sit tibi terra levis Thoma. You will be sorely missed by your friends and community here in Texas. Our small world of wine won’t be the same without you.

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