By Sandra Davidson
In the 1940s, young Irma González Galvan moved with her family from Brownsville, Texas to Houston’s Second Ward. As children, Irma’s brothers shined shoes, while Irma and her sister worked at their school cafeteria and neighboring bakeries in order to help their mother. These early experiences, combined with later work in retail, and the desire to overcome personal tragedy, culminated in Galvan’s 1989 opening of her own Mexican restaurant, Irma’s.
The success of Irma’s, particularly being named an America’s Classic by the James Beard Foundation in 2008, has brought Galvan much attention in the form of articles and interviews. Megan Schneider interviewed Irma in 2008 for the Houston Oral History Project; two years later, I interviewed her for the Center for Public History’s Project at the University of Houston, Gulf Coast Foodways: History, Culture, and Economy.
The very first time I met Irma, she asked me if the interview was going to take place right then. She was ready, I was not! When I returned at a later date, Galvan looked much as she had before—a petite lady, hair pulled neatly back, and eyes sparkling behind dark-rimmed glasses. Her physical appearance, combined with the long, white apron she wore, made Galvan look every bit the mother or friend figure amid this comfy home away from home where photographs, articles, and knickknacks cover the walls. Because most items came from family, friends, and customers, they reflect what Irma’s means to the community, what the community means to Irma, and the link between food and family.
Sandra Davidson [SD]: What are some of your earliest memories of cooking?
Irma Galvan [IG]: I was like a mother to my two brothers and my sister. I cooked for them. And I remember the first time that I learned how to make Mexican rice. … It didn’t turn out very well at first but I think when you try and try again you kind of get the niche to do it better. So we had rice for breakfast, rice for lunch, and rice for dinner, and that was the first thing that I remember. And another thing too is the picadillo, you know, the ground beef, and refried beans. I was the chef in the family. … But it was good because I learned how to be responsible and how to cook.