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