A Little Hospitality
Rebecca Wallace Ford opens her home, and kitchen, for Sunday brunch
by Nicole Beckley
Photographs by Alysha Rainwaters
It’s a bright summer Sunday morning and Rebecca Wallace Ford is manning a large silver waffle iron. While guests bustle through her house and patio, drinking lemonade and watermelon mimosas, she instructs them to help themselves to waffles. She stirs a huge blue-and-white-patterned ceramic bowl of batter, and more guests arrive in light-weight summer clothes in breezy tans, creams, and greens. The atmosphere is comfortable even if the house is busy, which is exactly Ford’s goal.
“I like it if they rave about the food,” Ford says, “but I hate it when people go home early. I like to see them hang around. A lot of times we’ll have something and people will still be here at dinnertime.”
After some 30 years in the catering business — she started Word of Mouth catering in 1983, sold it in 2001, and currently caters for the speaker of the Texas House of Representatives — Ford has an unflappable essence. With close-cropped gray hair, sparkling eyes, and a dry wit, her presence is caring and inviting, embodying the essential ethos of hospitality. “I always loved catering because of being part of people’s lives,” Ford says. “I just like feeding people; I don’t know what it is, but it satisfies something in me to feed people.”
For this particular brunch Ford is feeding some longtime friends. Her weekly Monday morning coffee group has a tradition of throwing showers for one another’s children, and this event is celebrating the wedding of Roberto Ainslie, general manager at Olamaie, and Alice McGinty, general manager of June’s All Day. The couple met while working at McGuire Moorman, and since their wedding is being held in upstate New York, the coffee group decided a local celebration was in order.
Growing up in Mart, Texas, Ford always liked to entertain. “I’d be the one to say, ‘Yeah, come to my house,’ and I would cook something or make something — it might just be brownies.” In high school Ford learned the basics in home ec classes and Future Homemakers of America and took inspiration from her grandmothers — one who sold Parker House rolls in Denton and the other who ran a hamburger stand. “People would come in, farmers, sit on the stools and eat their hamburger and talk to her. There was that human interaction where you’re serving someone lovingly with something and you have a conversation with them,” Ford says.
Those early experiences shaped Ford’s approach to food. “I love old-fashioned food, I’m not fancy, I don’t stack things up. Everything I do is very simple and uncomplicated.” And her family gave her free rein to try new recipes. “My mother was a horrible cook,” Ford says. “You know, a lot of people don’t get encouraged in the kitchen, but I think my mother was like, if you want to cook, go ahead. I’ll clean up.”
By the time Ford started her own family she was ready to take her food interests in a new direction. “I never had any professional training or anything. I just decided one day that if Martha Stewart could have a catering business so could I,” Ford says. “I didn’t realize her resources were a little greater than mine,” she laughs. Ford started Word of Mouth catering, handling a wide range of events, including many at the Governor’s Mansion. “I was completely self-taught, just eating and going, ‘How did they do that?’ and trying to figure it out.”
For recipe inspiration she drew on her experiences traveling and living other places. After earning a BA in Liberal Arts from the University of Texas at Austin and a Master’s in Library Science from Florida State University, she married a man whose Navy job took them to Florida, Italy, and Mississippi. “Living all these different places really encouraged me to cook more, to try different things.” It’s also how she learned to eat seasonally, serving up strawberries and peas and asparagus in the spring and corn and tomatoes in the summer.
After a successful run with Word of Mouth, the business was sold in 2001 (Ford’s business partner Leslie Moore bought it back in 2008), but Ford was approached with a new offer in 2009, first cooking personally for the speaker of the Texas House’s policy director and then getting a position cooking for the speaker himself, Joe Straus. As the Special Services Director, Ford and her staff prepare meals for special events while the speaker is in town and during session serve members in the members’ lounge. “It’s like home cooking, ’cause you have to be able to do things on the fly,” Ford says. Ultimately what Ford most enjoys is providing hospitality. “People come in, maybe they’re a little stressed or upset, you can feed them something and they don’t have to go back to their office or go out to eat, they can get something they enjoy. It’s hospitality, but also just sort of the milk of human kindness that you’re sharing along with the food.”
Back at the party, Ford’s three-year-old granddaughter, Ruby, runs around the house, and as guests with children arrive, they head to the backyard pool. When it comes to tips for being a good host, Ford recommends standing away from the front door to encourage people to come in and to make sure you’ve got enough ice (about two pounds per person). Is there an optimal number of guests? “Once you’ve been in the catering business, 50 is about the same as eight to me,” Ford says. “You have to do all the same things. You’ve got to menu plan. You’ve got to go to the store, get the booze, the wine, the flowers; it doesn’t matter.”
Sausage comes out of the oven and the kitchen island becomes a prep station, packed with silverware, syrup, and fresh fruit. The waffles find their way to plates, smeared with butter, surrounded by strawberries, blueberries, and a cloud of whipped cream. Ford says she’s “sort of famous for these waffles,” explaining that she rewrote the original recipe, from the 1950s, to remove the “lumpiness.” The yeast-raised batter produces a waffle that’s surprisingly light and crispy.
Occasionally she’ll make the waffles during session to raise people’s spirits when they have to work on the weekend, but mostly she makes them for friends and family. “I thought, if I had the energy I should have a restaurant that just served waffles, ’cause these are really good waffles.”
REBECCA WALLACE FORD’S YEAST-RAISED WAFFLES
•1/2 cup warm water
•1 package dry yeast
•2 cups milk, warm
•1/2 cup melted butter
•1 teaspoon salt
•1 teaspoon sugar
•2 cups all-purpose flour
•2 eggs, beaten
•1/4 teaspoon baking soda
Put the water in a large mixing bowl (due to the yeast, the batter will “grow”) and sprinkle it with yeast. Let it stand to dissolve for about 5 minutes. Add the warm milk and melted butter to the yeast mixture; beat until it’s well-blended and smooth. Place the salt, sugar, and flour in a very large bowl. Beat the wet ingredients into the dry, mixing quickly to avoid lumps but being careful not to overmix. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and let it stand an hour or so, at room temperature. Just before cooking the waffles, beat in the eggs, add the baking soda, and stir until well-mixed (the batter will be thin). Pour the batter into sections of a very hot waffle iron*, being careful to not overfill (what a mess). Cook the waffles until they are golden brown.
Serves about 4. *I usually double the recipe even if I’m just cooking for myself and my husband. We like to freeze the leftovers and pop them in the toaster to enjoy them another day. **I have always made these in an All-Clad Belgian Waffle Maker.