RIP Joe Gracey, Texas Music Legend and Passionate Cook and Eater

This self-styled "borderless bon vivant" lived for food and wrote about it from the heart

Joe Gracey was quite possibly the most passionate and original food writer you've never heard of. That's fair enough, because he wasn't really a food writer at all — he was a musician and music producer by trade. But he was also a guy who thought nothing of driving two hours for his favorite barbecue, made his own sausage, and once spent three days with his wife sampling boudin all over Cajun country — an adventure he chronicled on Letter from Graceyland, a blog he started in mid-2007, which he described as "Musings on food, cooking, travel, music, and life its own self from Joe Gracey, Jr., music producer, food and travel writer, cancer survivor, frequent contributor to Saveur magazine, musician, gourmand, and borderless bon vivant."

Born in Fort Worth, Texas, in 1950, Gracey (left, in Day of the Dead garb for a play) grew up to be a major figure in the lively and diverse Texas music scene. He played in a garage band as a kid and kept performing musically, off and on, for the rest of his life (bass was his main instrument). But his impact came in other areas: As a popular, deep-voiced DJ on Austin's KOKE-FM (all too appropriately named for that era) and the rock music columnist for the Austin American-Statesman, he was an early champion of "outlaw country" music and helped blur the line between country and rock (he is said to have been the first DJ to play his friend Willie Nelson on rock radio). As talent coordinator for the first season of Austin City Limits in 1976, he reunited Bob Wills' Texas Playboys, brought Ry Cooder and the great Tejano accordianist Flaco Jimenez together, and booked the TV debuts of performers like Clifton Chenier, Townes Van Zandt, and Asleep at the Wheel. (The American-Statesmen would later describe Gracey as "a seminal figure in the development of Austin's eclectic music scene.") (Photo courtesy of Bob Sherman)

Gracey, whose radio sign-off was, "Drink lots of water, stay off your feet, and come when you can," much later wrote in his blog that in those years, "Austin was basking in its new air of hipness — we elected a hippie mayor, we skinny-dipped at Barton Springs and Lake Travis, good Mexican weed was cheap, and the Pearl and Shiner and Lone Star beer was cold. Sir Doug Sahm called Austin 'Groover’s Paradise', and it was. It was a heady time to live here and I was riding the groove as hard as I could."

The ride took a dramatic detour for Gracey in 1978, when he learned that a bump he'd noticed on his tongue, and neglected, was malignant. He underwent a series of operations and radiation treatments and came out cured — but without a tongue or a larynx. He reminisced in his blog that on one occasion, he was walking around with big red squares on his jaws to guide the positioning of the radiation machines, and "when Stevie Ray Vaughn and Bobby Earl Smith [another Texas musician] saw me, they went upstairs at the Rome Inn and got red markers and drew big red boxes on their faces in solidarity with me after some asshole at the bar made fun of me."

His career as a disc jockey obviously over, Gracey started producing and engineering recordings for Vaughn and other Austin musicians. He called his studio Electric Graceyland (a pun on Jimi Hendrix's legendary Electric Ladyland studio in New York City) and set up a record label called Jackalope/Rude. In was in that context that he met and fell in love with a young, angel-voiced West Texas singer-songwriter named Kimmie Rhodes. They got married, had a daughter (Kimmie also has two sons from an earlier marriage), and settled into a life of performing, touring, and recording.

I met Gracey (everybody, his wife included, called him by his last name) a dozen or so years ago because I'd come across a CD of Kimmie’s called "West Texas Heaven" — which included duets with Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, and Townes Van Zandt — and happened to mention to a mutual friend of mine and Gracey's that I really liked the music. Gracey emailed me to say that he and Kimmie, in turn, were big fans of Saveur, the magazine I was then editing, and they invited me to dinner the next time I was in Austin. I went, of course. I think they served me their famous Texas-style cheese enchiladas; on my next trip, I returned the favor and cooked at their house, fixing decidedly non-Texas-style wild mushroom enchiladas for them. We probably had another couple of dozen meals together in the years that followed, in Austin, New York, Belfast, London.

Gracey liked to make things — his own sausages, his own confit — and he and Kimmie loved to construct big, time- and labor-intensive dinners for friends, and even taught cooking classes at several branches of the famous Texas store called Central Market. When the two toured, especially in Europe, their food-related stops were almost as important as the clubs they played. Here's part of an email Gracey sent me in 2005 from Ireland: "Ah, I should have mentioned the black pudding [blood sausage]. I filled up on it daily, especially that one brand that was clearly the best, was that the Clonakilty? I even stuffed a roaster hen with black and white pudding and bread for a clutch of ex-pats we met in Sligo, one of them Bertolt Brecht's granddaughter, a painter…." I hired Gracey to write some pieces for Saveur, one of them an account of one of their food-themed musical itineraries through Ireland, France, Switzerland, and Spain — a trip that included a pilgrimage to a town in France's Franche-Comté region famous for a variety of plump smoked pork sausage called Jésus de Morteau (sausage figured prominently in Gracey's culinary pantheon).

Gracey had an expressive face — I always thought he would have made a great (silent) comedian, and in fact one of his idols was W.C. Fields — and when he wasn't communicating by signing (which I don't understand) or with abbreviated notes on one of his apparently inexhaustible supply of Magic Slates, he could carry on whole conversations just with looks and gestures. (Sometimes, after spending an evening with Gracey, I'd replay our conversations in my head and honestly not remember that they hadn't been audible on his side.) Even more remarkably, though he had no tongue and thus no taste buds, he could somehow taste food and wine, whether through a few errant taste buds scattered around his mouth (as he liked to claim) or simply through aromas — though he also claimed that he could detect salt and sweetness, which the nose can't do. (One of his doctors thought that he might just be vividly remembering what things tasted like and think he was tasting them anew.) 

Early in 2009, Gracey's eating career pretty much came to an end. “I figure it’s time to talk to my friends and readers who may be interested in what I’ve been up to lately,” he wrote in his blog. “The quick answer is I learned that I have cancer. Again. After 30 joyous years of being a proud ‘survivor’…." At first, this seemed to be a blessing in disguise. Treatment options were far more advanced than they had been when he had cancer the first time and Gracey loved his doctors at MD Anderson, the legendary cancer hospital in Houston. They thought that they could not only obliterate the new cancer, but also repair some of the damage that had been done the first time around. There was even a chance that they could implant a valve in his throat that would let him speak again. The experience inspired one of his more memorable blog posts, entitled "Food is Life."

By late 2010, the cancer was gone and Gracey — who hadn't been able to eat solid food since his ordeal began — began looking forward to his next meal. The problem was that the latest round of surgery had left his jaw clenched, and he had to wear a device to stretch it open so that he could actually get something into his mouth. In the midst of it all, Gracey and Kimmie had bought a little house in Aigne, in the Languedoc, and they spent some time there, fixing up the place, walking in the neighboring vineyards, and eating — which in Gracey's case meant mostly soup and occasionally some foie gras, another of his favorite foods, which was smooth enough to ease in and go down.

Then, in January of this year, a routine medical follow-up discovered a spot in Gracey's esophagus. This turned out to be a whole new cancer, unrelated to the last one, and it had already spread. For the next 10 months, Gracey lived at MD Anderson or at the nearby ZaZa Hotel, undergoing unceasing rounds of aggressive chemotherapy. Around this time, it occurred to me to ask him to write something for The Daily Meal about how a food-loving chemotherapy patient nourishes himself. "At the moment I am not eating…," he replied. "However, there is the matter of the blender and liquid foods. I would need to get motivated enough to try to think up things both useful and enticing for a person needing nutrition who is tired of the Ensure route, as I am most surely."

But motivating was impossible; his treatment left him feeling hollowed out. Gracey once described himself as a whiner, but I have never known another person who had so much to whine about legitimately and yet did so little of it, at least in his emails to me. Early in September, he wrote, "Started radiation, it's coupled with a new fancy chemo drug that actually caused the test group to live twice as long, and the damned tumour is shrinking by the day. I can swallow just fine now, all I need to do is pry my jaws open enough to eat… I am greatly encouraged about my health and my direction of treatment. I have two weeks left here then we board Air France for Paris…before we head south on the TGV." 

From another email a few days later: "I hope they got it all, but this chemo thing seems not to promise cures so much as delays in return, so I may be going back repeatedly for further chemo as it pops up in new places, but that beats dying. At one point I was convinced I had until around Christmas, which was concentrating of the mind indeed, but I think now I am looking at a few years and hopefully five or more, and maybe they will even pronounce me cured one day. It is rare, but it has happened. I just have to have very regular checkups... I ain't afraid of dying, but I will miss the oysters." A few days after that, dreaming of Aigne, he was musing about the possibilities of writing a coffee table book called A Vineyard Year in the Languedoc. "Man, what a ride," he wrote when he was finally ready to leave the hospital and the ZaZa. "I still have to come back here for tests and keep a sharp eye out for any new areas that are bound to pop up, but for now I am in remission and set free. Leaving for Paris Saturday and not looking back. Captain is already set to upgrade us to first if there is an empty seat up front!"

Gracey made it to Aigne with Kimmie. He did well for a few weeks, buying a grill and making fajitas for some friends who'd driven up from Spain and walking in the vineyards near the house (maybe thinking about that book?). On October 20th, he wrote, "France is great. Daughter is here but I feel very funky due to tailing off of radiation and chemo. I hope to recover fully before we have to leave! The little house is working perfectly with almost nothing left to buy or install or finish up. I still can't damn eat but I cook some anyway." The last email I got from him, four days later, was brief: "Never recover from morphine withdrawal. My drinking is about to commence…"

What was bothering him wasn't morphine withdrawal, as it turned out. Seemingly out of nowhere, he had a horrible relapse, and had to be medevac’d back to Houston. There, doctors discovered that his body was riddled with cancer; they'd never seen it spread so fast, they said. There was no question of further treatment.

By the time I talked to Kimmie last week, Gracey was in palliative care at the hospital, conscious but unable to sit up or move much. "Do you want me to tell him anything?" she asked. I couldn’t think of anything intelligent, so I just said, "Tell him I'll see him on the other side." I could almost hear her smiling sadly on the other end of the phone. "Foie gras in heaven," she said, in a wistful voice. "Foie gras in heaven," I replied, though I'm thinking maybe I should bring along some Jesús de Morteau.

Gracey died on November 17, three days after his 61st birthday.

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