Wednesday, July 13, 2011

A Peach Of A Day

If spring in the Texas Hill Country is defined by its wildflowers, then summer in the hill country must be defined by its peaches. There are over one million peach trees in Texas, and these trees produce about one million bushels of peaches every year. In fact, one-third of all commercial peach production in the state is located in Gillespie County, right in the heart of the hill country. Much of the production in the county takes place right along U.S. Highway 290, in the 14 mile stretch between Fredericksburg and Stonewall.

When peaches are in season in the hill country, roughly mid-May through the end of July, there is almost nothing with respect to a peach you cannot purchase. In addition to the fresh fruit itself, you can buy canned peaches, dried peaches, peach ice cream, peach pie, peach cobbler, peach jam, peach jelly, peach bread, peach cookies, peach candy, peach muffins, peach salsa, peach syrup, peach butter, peach barbeque sauce, peach wine, and peach scented candles. If you love peaches and peach products, U.S. Highway 290 is a dream come true.

When making my historical treks through the hill country, I most often do it alone. It’s not that I prefer it that way, because I don’t. It’s just that most people don’t look upon spending a day in the sweltering Texas sun trying to locate obscure historical sites and overgrown graveyards to be that much fun. So, in an attempt to lure them into accompanying me, I offer an incentive. The incentive is in the form of something they like, but, which always comes at the very end of the trip, after my historical curiosities have been satisfied. When my boys were very young, I used the incentive of a trip to Florida to justify visiting every Civil War battlefield on the way there. Unfortunately for me, even a couple of young boys could figure out that a straight route from Ohio to Florida shouldn't wind its way through Pea Ridge, Arkansas. They also observed that all the battlefields looked about the same. After that, I was pretty much on my own while making historical trips, and it’s been that way ever since.

My wife loves fresh fruit, so, during peach season, it’s relatively easy to “encourage” her to accompany me out into the hot hill country, as long as we eventually end up in one of the peach orchards near Fredericksburg. But, before we leave, I always get the same “advice.” She normally says something like, “make sure you are prepared and know all the places you want to visit so we don’t ever have to go back.” For some reason, in her mind, a fresh peach is far more important than locating the exact location of a gunfight which took place 136 years ago. Go figure. At any rate, the other day we hopped in the truck and headed out.

My historical jaunt, which took most of the day I might add, was a complete success. After a day of driving on dirt roads, walking through old family cemeteries, and visiting the locations of several scenes of murder and mayhem during the 1870’s, we were finally ready to head to Fredericksburg. I had a great time, as I always do. My wife, while perhaps not having the time of her life, was very patient as she always is on these trips. My normal routine when I visit a point of interest is to get out of the truck with my camera and excitedly walk around the site taking hundreds of photographs from all angles. My wife’s normal routine is to sit in the air-conditioned truck, or under the shade of a big tree, and watch me taking photographs of a lot of very old and inanimate objects, while she thinks about peaches.

Having filled my historical quota for the day, it was now time for me to deliver on the incentive which I had promised -- peaches. Ironically, as we were driving on the road toward Fredericksburg, Billy Currington came on the radio singing, “God is great, beer is good and people are crazy.” Billy was born and raised in Georgia, a state which certainly knows a thing or two about growing peaches.

After arriving in the Fredericksburg area, we quickly located a PYO peach orchard (PYO is a short hand code for pick-your-own). But, picking peaches is a lot more complicated than simply showing up and pulling fruit off the trees. Things these days always seem to be more complicated than they should be.

First, the size of the box must be decided upon. For some reason, some peach filled boxes of a certain size are priced by the pound while other sized boxes are a flat price. Next, you have to decide what kind of peach you actually want to pick. There are many different varieties. On the day we visited, we had a choice of either picking “Red Globe” or “Majestic.” Sitting on a table in front of us was a bowl of both types of peaches, and they both looked and tasted exactly the same. Not being a connoisseur of fine peaches, I naturally asked what the difference was between the two varieties. “Well,” the man said slowly, “they both taste about the same.” Not satisfied with the explanation, I asked him why he grew different varieties if they both looked and tasted the same. “Well,” he drawled, “the trees are supposed to bear fruit at different times but they don’t.”

By now, anxious to get out into the orchard, I started to grab my box and head out, but was quickly halted. What came next was a long lesson on determining “the look” of a peach that was ready for picking. The man then proceed to pick up and show us a dozen peaches explaining subtle color variations in intricate detail and what it meant. “Some people think that a peach should be dark red,” he cautioned, “but that just means the peach has been sunburned.” He lectured on about looking for certain yellow and orange hues, and, if we happened to pick a peach with insect or worm damage, we had to put it in our box. Yeah right, I was thinking, we will certainly take that advice to heart. Apparently, other pickers felt the same way, as the orchard was littered with discarded peaches. But as we walked away with the box, he still had one more comment to make. Our "Professor of Peaches" called out to us as we strolled away, “Y’all don’t eat too many peaches when you’re out in the orchard please.” Another fine piece of advice he was offering up. It was well over a hundred degrees, and we certainly weren’t going to spend hours out in his orchard gorging ourselves on free peaches.

Despite the lengthy preparation necessary to teach us the proper peach picking etiquette, and the oppressive heat, we had a nice time. Walking up and down the many rows of trees in the orchard, it didn’t take us very long to pick a ¼ bushel box of delicious peaches. After a little more chitchat with the "professor," we paid for the peaches and left. My wife fell asleep soon after we got on the road heading home, and as I drove, I had time to reflect that despite our different interests, it had turned out to be one mighty fine day. It was, in fact, a peach of a day.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Just In Time For The Holiday Weekend: Man Bites Dog

No Longer In A Trailer
It’s a couple of days before the 4th of July. Nobody really refers to it as “Independence Day” anymore. Apparently, the day has lost its formal title and is now commonly referred to as “the 4th,” as in, “Hey Bob, what are you going to be doing on the 4th?” Well, one thing I won’t be doing this year is watching fireworks.

The ongoing drought in Texas is severe, and there are burn bans in effect for the vast majority of counties in the state. Many cities and counties have cancelled their traditional fireworks display, and, have also taken the unusual step of banning the sale and use of fireworks by the public. That means no “Buy One Get Eleven Free” banners being hung at the fireworks stands this year. It’s all very necessary of course, because the cedar trees which cover the hill country are very dry, and would act as an extremely dangerous propellant in any fire. Nevertheless, I’ll miss watching the fireworks exploding above the various communities which line the banks of Lake Travis.

If fireworks are out of the picture this year, than I still have hot dogs. I love hot dogs, and I always have. In my mind, there is no better symbol for the 4th of July than the good old American hot dog. And, happily, no one is suggesting banning the hot dog. Fireworks I can easily do without, but not hot dogs.

Jeremiah Allen
Yesterday I decided to get an early start on the holiday weekend, and I headed into Austin for dogs. And, in Austin, there is no one who can build a better hot dog than Jeremiah Allen, owner and operator of Man Bites Dog. Jeremiah grew up in Bowie, Texas but has been an Austin resident for many years. Holding an MBA from Texas State, he is not your average hot dog slinger. His educational background, work ethic, and love of hot dogs have served him very well, and his business is growing.

Like many young food entrepreneurs in Austin, Jeremiah started his business in a trailer. But his goal was always to open an indoor restaurant of his own, and a couple of weeks ago he did just that. And so, Man Bites Dog is now permanently located on Burnet Road. He had originally hoped to keep the trailer on South First Street up and running after the new restaurant opened. However, shortly after opening the new place, it became very clear that it was difficult to operate in both locations without sacrificing quality, so Jeremiah wisely decided to close operations in the trailer and focus on the restaurant. Although I’m really a big fan of trailer food, I must admit that I’m glad he made the decision. I’m well past the point in my life where I enjoy sitting in a hot automobile when it’s 103 degrees outside, wolfing down some take-out food.

After Jeremiah activated the red neon “Open” sign yesterday morning, I was first in line. Because the menu was so extensive, I had a hard time deciding exactly what I wanted, because, truthfully, I wanted everything. The hot dog and sausage selections at Man Bites Dog are unique, and they all looked good, but I finally decided upon the “Danger Dog,” and the “Abe Froman.”

"Abe Froman" and "Danger Dog"
The “Danger Dog” is a bacon wrapped beef frank, deep-fried with queso fresco, jalapenos and danger sauce. The “Abe Froman” is a Chicago-style dog which features a Vienna beef frank with yellow mustard, diced onions, sweet pickle relish, tomatoes, a dill pickle spear, sport peppers, and celery salt.  Given the absence of fireworks this year, I probably should have ordered the “Bottle Rocket,” a smokey Denmark hot link topped with Sriracha mayonnaise and jalapeno relish. That would have taken some fast creative thinking on my part, and unfortunately, I didn't make the connection until after I had ordered.  Perhaps I'll celebrate with one next year.  Additional selections on the menu included, “Hair of the Dog,” “Buffalo Hottie,” “Beer Brat,” “Boss Dog,” “Cuban,” “Chili Cheese Dog,” “Reuben,” and “Old School.” There were also corn dogs, salads, a kids menu, and an ample selection of sides. Drink selections included soft drinks and ice tea, and for those so inclined, beer and wine.

The Perfect Bun
The first thing I realized when Jeremiah brought the food out is that I had probably made a mistake by ordering two hot dogs. These weren’t a couple of puny little hot dogs shoved inside tiny steamed buns like the kind you find at many places. Each of these dogs was a meal in and of itself. The hot dogs were huge, piled high with toppings, and served on toasted oversized buns. Often overlooked, is how important the quality of the bun is to the hot dog. The buns served at Man Bites Dog look to be an inch thick, and are firm enough to hold the hot dog and the toppings intact while it’s being eaten. Few things are more annoying than eating a loaded hot dog on a cheap thin bun and have it all fall apart on the very first bite.

Upon leaving Jeremiah Allen’s place, I felt a lot better about not being able to see any pyrotechnics this year. After all, aside from July 4th being a day of celebration for our country’s independence, hot dogs are truly what the holiday is all about. So, now you know what I did this July 4th weekend. Man Bites Dog.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Of Cartoonists, Alligators, And Ravenous Minnows

Despite yesterday’s much needed rain, the Texas Hill Country continues to be in the clutches of a fairly severe drought. As I observed during our last severe drought in 2009, when the waters of Lake Travis recede, all kinds of strange things come to the surface (Lake Travis Time Machine). This year, however, in addition to the usual collection of old tires, dated beer bottles, and lost anchors, there was something quite unusual which made its appearance -- a dead alligator.

A fisherman made the discovery last Tuesday somewhere around Emerald Point. The Lower Colorado River Authority has apparently confirmed it was, in fact, an alligator. It appears that the unfortunate creature was hit by the propeller of boat engine.

TPWD: American Alligators in Texas
Alligator sightings this far west into Texas are extremely rare, yet, in a report on the “Distribution of American Alligators in Texas,” prepared by the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department (TPWD) in 2002, while Travis Country was portrayed as being outside the “general range” for alligators, it was included in a so-called “pocket habitat” range (Alligators). In this range, the TPWD asserted, small populations of alligators “may represent remnant populations from a former range or from released American alligators.”

The report seems to verify what local officials believe to be the case about the dead alligator found last week in Travis County. That being, that the alligator was probably released into the lake by someone. When this story came to light, a friend of mine reminded me about the last time there was a commotion about alligators in Lake Travis.

Back in the 1970’s, a young University of Texas student wrote an article in a campus magazine which claimed that another student had released hundreds of small alligators into Lake Travis. This caused quite a stir around the lake community, and the young author finally admitted it was a spoof when he was besieged with concerns from anxious property owners and federal agents. That type of creativity eventually brought that young student fame as a cartoonist. He was, in fact, Berkeley Breathed, who went on to create the popular newspaper cartoon, Bloom County.

Whether or not there are additional alligators in Lake Travis is certainly not going to stop me from taking my traditional evening swim in the lake. In my opinion, there are other things in the lake which are far more troublesome, like those pesky little minnows that like to nibble on my arms and back when I’m in the water. I personally think those ravenous little nibbling fish should be the main topic of discussion around the lake instead of all the fretting about a single stray alligator with its big razor-sharp teeth.

Monday, June 20, 2011

“Will Ride Train For Grilled Cheese”

On December 13, 2009, I published a less than flattering article about Austin’s attempt to get its light rail commuter train up and running (MetroRail). Among other things, I pointed out that both the “Austin Rail Project and the Transcontinental Railroad took six years to complete. The Transcontinental Railroad was built from scratch and covered over a thousand miles. The Austin project used an existing rail line and covered a little more than thirty miles. The Transcontinental Railroad spanned the Great Plains and mountain ranges. The Austin Rail Project, well, to be kind, did not.” Finally, after experiencing one delay after another, Capital MetroRail finally began service in March of 2010.

Despite the fact that I really like trains, and was looking forward to riding MetroRail once it started service, for one reason or another it took me over a year to decide to climb aboard, but last week, I did just that. And, I must tell you, I enjoyed the experience.

The rail system essentially runs from Austin’s Convention Center downtown north to Leander, a distance of some 30 miles. There are a total of nine stations along the way at which passengers can purchase tickets and get on or off the train. I decided to head downtown from the Lakeline Station, one stop south of Leander. The Lakeline Station had ample parking in its Park & Ride Lot, and the ticket vending machines were easy to use, even to a first-time rider like me. For $5.50, I purchased a MetroPlus Day Pass, which gave me a day’s access to the rail, as well as the bus rail connectors located at the various stations along the route. That’s not a bad price, considering the cost of a gallon of gas is currently between $3.50 and $4.00. Oddly, there is no gate or turnstile to pass through and nobody checks to see if you’ve purchased a ticket. With such an “honor system” in place, I wonder how many people just hop on board for a free ride. Perhaps they have random checks, but there was no evidence of it on the day I took a ride.

Capital MetroRail passed the most important test in my mind when the train arrived exactly on time. And, once it arrived, it didn’t stay long. Based on my experience, a word to the wise is probably in order. Arrive on time for this train or you’ll find yourself without a ride.

I purposely chose a schedule which avoided the so-called rush hour, so I could have a more relaxing ride. Not that the rush hour experience on this train would be anything like in New York or Tokyo, as this is Austin, and things are more than a little laid back down here. But, everything is relative I suppose, and I wanted to be as relaxed as I could possibly be to fully enjoy the experience.

Inside, the cars are squeaky clean, air-conditioned, and have large roomy cloth seats. There is plenty of overhead storage space, and the over-sized windows afford great views. There is a small section in each car with fold down tables. Apparently, this section was designed for people who, unlike me, actually want to get some work done and weren’t just along for the ride. Free, on-board Wi-Fi is available, and the cars accommodate bicycles.

The train was nearly deserted when I came aboard at the Lakeline Station, but with each subsequent stop, it became increasingly more active with people. As the speaker announced the arrival at each station in both English and Spanish, young professionals with laptops, musicians carrying guitars, young mothers with small children, and seniors all shuffled on and off the train. Initially, the rail line from Lakeline Station is mostly in the country. Every once in a while, the train would pass by some freight cars parked on side tracks. Given the fact that MetroRail shares the same track that the freight trains utilize, I was surprised by how smooth the ride was.

 As the train left Howard Station, the country scenery began to disappear and was replaced by urban views. Once past Kramer Station, it seemed as though we were passing right through the middle of people’s back yards. Upon arriving at MLK Jr. Station I got off and jumped on a connector bus, which was already waiting in the parking lot, and rode it to the Texas State Capitol Building. If you haven’t visited the place, it’s well worth a visit. Unlike most state capitol buildings around the country, this one is actually quite popular as a tourist destination, but then again, this is Texas!

The reason for my visit to the building had nothing to do with me playing tourist or having some important political matters to discuss with state legislators. Rather, the purpose of my visit was strictly about food. Simply stated, the cafeteria in the capitol building serves up the best grilled cheese sandwiches around Austin, and you can wash it down with an ice cold bottle of Dublin Dr. Pepper. It really doesn’t get any better than that. And so, I stood in line, got my sandwich and drink, and had a great lunch at about 10:30 in the morning. Now then, I know what you’re thinking. Did this guy really drive from his home to a train station, get on a train and ride downtown, and then take a bus to the capitol building for a grilled cheese sandwich? Yes, I did just that, and I enjoyed every minute of it.

My “official business” at the capitol building having concluded, it was now time to find my way back home. I walked to the nearest rail connector bus stop, and took the bus to the Convention Center Station, where I boarded the train and headed back to Lakeline Station where I had parked my car. All in all, my little trip was a satisfying experience. And, as you can see, I’m very easily amused.

As for now, Capital MetroRail has only the one line, and does not run on weekends or in the evenings. There are discussions underway about possibly rectifying these drawbacks, but politics and money will ultimately decide whether anything is ever done. In the meantime, those who would like to use the rail at times other than normal weekday business hours are out of luck. Nevertheless, I’m really impressed with the way MetroRail has worked out.

My day on the train would have been perfect had it not been for one out of control grandmother on the ride back. Boarding the train downtown with her two small grandchildren, and, presumably her grown daughter, she literally never stopped talking the entire time. She was loud, obnoxious, and had an opinion on everything. She had three conversations going at once, and, if she didn’t know something, she would call someone on the phone to get the answer. She kept fussing at her grandchildren when, in fact, she just needed to close her mouth and relax. I had to chuckle when she told them, “This is the last time Grandma goes on a train ride.” I’m quite sure that her grandchildren were delighted to hear her say that, and, by the way, so was I.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

A Little Something Extra For The Texas Hill Country

The counties of the Texas Hill Country are about as different from the swamp parishes of Louisiana as anything could possibly be. While the climate of southern Louisiana is hot and rainy, the climate of the hill country of Texas is also hot, but drier. Some swamp parishes of Louisiana are below sea level, while the counties of central Texas are many hundreds of feet above the sea. The parishes of southern Louisiana are historically French in origin. On the other hand, the most recent historical and cultural origins of the hill country of Texas are mostly Spanish, Mexican, and German.

There are other differences as well. The swamps of Louisiana have alligators. The hills of Texas have scorpions. Cordgrass is native to Louisiana, while prickly pear cactus is native to Texas. Traditional music in southern Louisiana consists of jazz, blues, and zydeco. Traditional music in the hill country is a mix of German, Tejano, regional Mexican, country, and, of course, the diverse music found in and around Austin. The traditional foods are different as well. Louisiana food includes boudin, fried oysters, and gumbo while Texas food includes beef brisket, chicken-fried steak, and tacos.

However, Seth Hudson, owner of Parrain’s Louisiana Kitchen in Jonestown, Texas, has it about right. He says it best, when he correctly points out, that despite the differences, the swamps of Louisiana and the hills of Texas do have something in common, and that, he says, is “water.” Hudson says that the hill country lakes remind him of Louisiana. And this explains how a restaurant serving excellent Louisiana cuisine ended up in a very small town in the Texas Hill Country.

Seth Hudson is originally from Louisiana and moved here with his father, but like many people who visit hill country, he “fell in love with Austin,” and ended up staying. But just because he likes his new home in Texas, doesn’t mean he forgot about Louisiana, or, the importance of both his family and the traditional food of his youth.  As a result, Parrain’s Louisiana Kitchen on the north shore of Lake Travis is a product of both.

Seth is a friendly and engaging man, who is proud of the fact that he creates most everything from scratch. Initially, he opened a small deli in Jonestown. But after only 9 months, the positive response he received caused him to look for larger quarters. He liked Jonestown, so he quickly located a place right across the road next to the Lone Star Bar, but it needed work. Seth and his family completely gutted the existing building, and personally rebuilt the space. Concerned about the environment, and the preservation of natural resources, Seth sold an old automobile to raise money for the recycled wood he wanted to use in the construction. The large wood support beams, for example, are over 100 years old.

About 3 months ago, when the building was completed, Seth Hudson and his Parrain’s Louisiana Kitchen welcomed customers to the new location. The construction efforts of Seth and his family were a success. The atmosphere is cozy and laid-back, with ceiling fans swirling gently overhead to tamp down the Texas heat. In short, it is a perfect spot to enjoy some Louisiana cooking.

In Seth Hudson’s mind, building something from scratch neither begins nor ends with a construction site. Like the building in which he serves his food, he creates his menu offerings in much the same way, from the ground up. His crawfish are brought in fresh from Louisiana, and his oysters are from Aransas Bay on the gulf coast of Texas. Many of his menu creations are homemade, including the sausage. And, he uses gluten-free corn meal. While the food offerings are not fancy, the menu at Parrain’s Louisiana Kitchen is both Louisiana focused and very delicious.
Seth Hudson
The menu has all the items you would normally expect from a restaurant serving up fine Louisiana cuisine, including, gumbo, etouffee, boudin, andouille, catfish, shrimp, Po’ Boy sandwiches, and fresh and fried oysters. But, Seth Hudson has a little secret. In the back, between the building and the parking lot, there is a covered barbecue pit, where he smokes turkey breast, pork loin, and sausages over a fire fueled by pecan wood. He also has another little secret; his sister is the head chef.

My problem, when visiting restaurants serving up Louisiana cooking, is always deciding what to order, because, I want it all. I always wish that one of these places would come up with a “sampler,” so I could satisfy all my Cajun and Creole cravings on a single plate. But, in lieu of that dream, I usually go with the Po’ Boy, at least during lunch, and I normally order it with either shrimp or oysters packed inside.

On the day I visited Seth’s place, I went with the shrimp, and I was delighted, because there were a lot of shrimp, and each and every one of them was delicious. The fried shrimp on my sandwich were hot, lightly breaded, and not greasy. Other diners that day, including my wife and son, were enjoying another selection, the “Wild Card Basket,” where you choose your meat, and add a side of fries or slaw. Specials are also available, and, on the day we visited, the special was boiled crawfish, with potato and corn. And, if you so desire, you can enjoy a glass of fine wine or beer with your meal. It was all very good, but, my family, including myself, were too stuffed after our meal to try any of the bread pudding or pecan pie for dessert.

In Louisiana, they have a special word for a small unexpected gift, or a little something extra a merchant might give to a customer, and that word is “lagniappe."  The swamp parishes of Louisiana are a long way away from the hills of Texas, but that doesn’t stop Seth Hudson and his family from giving a lagniappe every single day to the citizens of Jonestown and the surrounding area, and that gift is Parrain’s Louisiana Kitchen.

Monday, February 7, 2011

A Few Things About The Old West You May Not Know

Mention the Old West, and most people have certain images which come to mind. Among the most popular images are those of cowboys, horses, cattle rustlers, lawmen, outlaws, gunfights, deserts, mining camps, gold, prairies, and mountains. And while many of these images are historically accurate, they have also been slightly twisted by Hollywood movies. Some images, however, are more movies than reality. Take, for example, a few other images which conjure up the Old West, those being whiskey, saloons, and poker. These images are accurate too, but probably not in the way most people think. And, there is no doubt that the public perception with regard to these images is far more driven by celluloid than the truth.

In the movies we’re used to seeing a man push open the swinging doors of an ornately decorated and large clean saloon, belly up to the bar, and order a whiskey. As someone plays a piano in the corner, with dancing girls swirling around, the bartender takes out a clean bottle of bourbon, and fills a shot glass which is quickly consumed. The man then throws down a gold coin, and takes his bottle to one of the many gaming tables, and gets involved in a game of poker. The poker game then ends in a shootout, with dead bodies strewn about the floor. We’ve watched this scene a hundred times, if we’ve seen it once. The problem is that it’s not always an accurate or typical portrayal of the way it really was, so let me point out a few things about the Old West you may not know.

Until the Old West got a little more sophisticated in the late 1800’s, due primarily to the great wealth created by railroads, mining camps, and, cattle towns, most saloons were not large, not very ornate, nor were they very tidy. Floors were often covered with sawdust, which absorbed everything from tobacco juice, blood, beer, and liquor, as well as holding down other displeasing odors associated with saloons of the time period. Not the least of these odors was caused by vomit, deposited on the floor after drunken patrons of the saloon “aired their paunches.” Likewise, instead of a jingling piano, it was probably just as common to see a barber chair in the corner of a saloon. The saloon’s management, by providing barber services, encouraged self-professed religious men with a respectable cover story of why they’d been seen entering a saloon. And, after a haircut and shave, if these men just happened to find themselves having a few drinks at the bar, no one would be the wiser.

The saloon district in Austin, Texas was a place called “Guy Town.” And, the saloons in Guy Town were typical of those found in any city of similar size in the West during the mid to late 1800’s. One difference, perhaps, was that the saloons in Austin catered to some very influential clientele, given the fact that the Texas State Capitol was located in the city. State legislators, and other government officials, joined the common folk in enjoying the whiskey, woman, music, and gambling the saloons in Guy Town offered.

Dropping a coin or two on the bar is another lasting image of the Old West, but drinks in the saloons were often purchased with gold dust instead of coins. This allowed the enterprising bartender to steal from the saloon’s owners by using various techniques to keep a little gold dust for himself. One such technique involved using his head, so to speak. Before starting his shift, the unscrupulous bartender would rub grease or liniment in his hair. After taking the gold dust in payment, there would always be a little of it left on his fingers and beneath his finger nails. The bartender would then nonchalantly rub his hand through his sticky hair. Later he would wash the gold from his hair, and by doing so, supplement his income nicely.

The image of men sitting around a table playing poker is nearly synonymous with the Old West. But most saloons of the time period, especially in the early years, were relatively small, and only had room for a couple of gaming tables. Contrary to popular belief, poker, while played, was not the most popular game of the time period, and, in fact, prior to the early 1870’s, was rarely played at all. There was another card game which was far more popular, and because it has vanished from the gambling scene so completely, relatively few people today, including gamblers, have ever heard of it. Faro was the name of the game, and those who played were called “punters.” The game of faro was played on a table, and required special equipment which facilitated the game. As such, faro dealers made their money by traveling around the West with their gambling equipment, and setting up shop wherever they could. These dealers often rented space on a saloon floor, and, in return, gave a percentage of their winnings to the owner of the saloon. Unlike a poker game, in which each person playing banked their own game, and either won or lost according to the extent of their “investment,” in the game of faro, the game needed a financial backer, and the dealer himself staked his personal fortune as the faro bank. Punters playing faro were said to be “bucking the tiger,” and, because the game was easy to play, and, when played fairly, provided nearly the same odds to both the dealers and players, it was extremely popular. Because these even odds meant a lower take for the saloon, many dealers began cheating, and faro soon fell into disrepute.

Many famous names of the Old West were faro dealers at one time or another, including Wyatt Earp, "Doc" Holliday, and Bat Masterson. In the Texas Hill Country, Austin’s own Ben Thompson owned several gaming concessions around the city, including the faro operation directly above the well-known Iron Front Saloon, which was located on the corner of Sixth and Congress. Ben Thompson, in addition to being a gambler and saloon owner, was a prolific killer, gunfighter, and, at one time, held the position of City Marshal of Austin. Thompson had honed his faro skills in various places around the West, including Abilene, Kansas, and he made a lot of money running faro games in his Austin gambling establishments.

Another popular misconception of the Old West involves whiskey. As mentioned earlier, movies have often portrayed bartenders pulling clean bottles filled with bourbon out from behind the bar. While it is true, that good bourbon was available throughout the West at certain times and in certain places, it is truer still that the whiskey often served was some very bad stuff indeed. Called “Tarantula Juice,” “Coffin Varnish,” and “Stagger Soup,” the concoctions sold as whiskey were often made with cheap raw watered-down alcohol, and colored to look like whiskey with whatever was locally available, including, old shoes, tobacco, molasses, or burnt sugar. These whiskies were frequently given an extra “kick” by adding red peppers or, extra “flavor” by adding other things, like snake heads, which tainted the liquid. Now you understand what the cowboys, as portrayed in the movies, meant when they asked the bartender for a bottle of “your best whiskey.” They were asking for a bottle of real whiskey distilled in a place somewhere in the Eastern United States, like Kentucky, or, Pennsylvania.

It is interesting to note that the best whiskey from out East, in a lot of saloons, meant rye whiskey, not bourbon. Rye was just as popular, if not more popular, as bourbon in those days. The popularity of rye whiskey has declined significantly since the days of the Old West, but unlike the game of faro, it never disappeared entirely, except, perhaps, during prohibition. And, unlike faro, there has been a comeback of late in the enjoyment of rye whiskey, with some new brands appearing on the shelves of liquor stores. One brand, however, which was around back in the West, is still being sold today, and that brand is Old Overholt. The rye whiskies produced by the Overholt Family go back to around 1810, and were widely available in the West. In fact, Old Overholt was reputably the favorite whiskey of the famous gambler and gunman, “Doc” Holliday, who was no slouch when it came to appreciating the finer things in life, including a good whiskey.

Hollywood has portrayed violent confrontations with armed cowboys in saloons in hundreds of movies over the years. Usually, following an argument over a card game, the guns come out, and within a few seconds, men lay dead on a saloon floor, or stumble out into the street to die. There were, in fact, many shootings which actually did take place in saloons and which cost the lives of many men, including, some well-known characters from the Old West. “Wild Bill” Hickok, Morgan Earp, and Warren Earp, were just a few of the famous men who died from gunplay in saloons. Several legendary Texans also died by gunfire in saloons. Ben Thompson and John King Fisher were both ambushed and killed in San Antonio’s Vaudeville Theatre and Saloon in March of 1884, and the notorious killer, John Wesley Hardin, was murdered in El Paso’s Acme Saloon in 1895.

Despite the reality that guns were indeed drawn and fired in Old West saloons, there is another reality which is seldom portrayed in the movies. Many towns, while not prohibiting weapons outright, did require guns be checked in with the law, behind the bar in a saloon, or, perhaps at a hotel or rooming house. But the requirement to check weapons did not do away with the gun violence entirely, as some men merely chose to conceal their weapons. For example, the famous outlaw, Sam Bass, was shot up and died in Round Rock, a town on the eastern edge of the Texas Hill Country, after refusing to surrender his concealed pistol in a general store.  The local gun laws throughout the West did, however, help to hold down the number of shootings in saloons, where the whiskey flowed freely, and heated arguments over gambling and women were commonplace.

History, as we perceive it, is an interesting thing, because what we believe to be true about history probably isn’t, since the fact and the fiction have become so intertwined. Nowhere is this more true than when observing the popular public perception of the Old West. In the end, the perception is what it is, and will be what it will be, but, hopefully, you’ve learned a few things you may not have known before about this fascinating period of American history.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Remembering The Texas Hill Country’s Favorite Son

Thirty-eight years ago yesterday, on January 22, 1973, Lyndon Baines Johnson, suffered a heart attack and died at his ranch in the Texas Hill Country. His life is so intertwined with his beloved Hill Country that it is impossible to consider his life, his accomplishments, and his failures, without understanding the impact the hill country had upon him. During his lifetime, Johnson left his historical mark on the United States, and the world, but to a very real extent, he never really left the hill country, nor, did the things he experienced in the hill country, ever leave him. As a result, he enjoyed great political triumphs, but, also, tragedy and failure.

Born along the banks of the Pedernales River, Johnson rose from a poor and humble beginning, to become one of the most powerful men in American politics, first as a United States Senator, then Senate Majority Leader, later Vice-President, and finally, as President of the United States. Growing up in the hill country, he learned to respect both the land, and its people. He once said, that the Texas Hill Country was a place “where they know when you’re sick and they care when you die.” The people Johnson was referring to knew and cared, because the hill country can be a difficult place to live. The weather is temperamental, and vacillates between bringing extreme drought and a widespread flooding. The people who have historically lived in the hill country have been a tough lot, learning how to adapt and prosper in the difficult environment, despite many hardships. They’ve always believed that with the proper focus, hard work, and cooperation with their neighbors, there was no problem which could not be solved. This belief was fundamental to the person Lyndon Johnson became as an adult, and how he viewed the entire world for most of the rest of his life.

As Johnson’s career progressed, he used his increasing political power to solve real problems, and this only reinforced his view, that all problems, given the right attention, could be resolved. Early in his career, Johnson was responsible for bringing both electricity and flood control to the hill country, and in so doing, eliminated a lot of suffering among his constituents. Later, as President, he used his strong personality and political power to get legislation passed which became the foundation of his “Great Society.” Most notably, among the many pieces of legislation, was the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Many of the laws Johnson spearheaded as President are still controversial today among some people, but they remain an important part of who we are. The implementation of the Great Society emanates from what Johnson learned in the hill country. That being that any problem can be solved, despite its complexity, through personal attention, hard work, and cooperation with one’s neighbors, in this case, the U.S. Congress. The Great Society was Johnson’s greatest political success, and has left a lasting positive impression on the United States.

Unfortunately, the benefits of the Great Society are often forgotten, especially among many members of my generation, because of the war in Vietnam. The tragedy of Vietnam was perpetuated, in large part, because Johnson failed to understand that the things he learned in the hill country about problem solving, did not work with respect to Vietnam. Johnson found out, albeit painfully, that giving his personal attention, and micromanagement to domestic legislation, was a far different matter than micromanaging a foreign war. When Johnson personally selected bombing targets in Vietnam, he deprived his commanders on the ground of their natural prerogative to do so. As a result, with the war being managed by Washington, a schism developed between those who were fighting the war in Vietnam, and those who were controlling it. Likewise, the United States had few military allies, and little international support during the war, so, cooperation with any “neighbors” to help Johnson “win” the war was never a real possibility.

As the war dragged on, Johnson only applied more of what he had learned about problem solving during his youth, and, as a result, the dying was prolonged and the United States was torn apart by civil unrest. The Vietnam War became Johnson’s greatest tragedy, and his biggest failure. Thirty-eight years ago, on this very day, January 23, 1973, a peace agreement was announced, but it came one day too late for Johnson, who had died the previous day.

Johnson once said, “I hope it may be said a hundred years from now, that by working together we helped to make our country more just, more just for all its people, as well as to insure and guarantee the blessings of liberty for all of our posterity. That is what I hope. But I believe that at least it will be said that we tried.”

The places where Lyndon Johnson was born, first attended school, learned about life, implemented historic legislation, directed the war, died, and is buried are all within walking distance of one other on a relatively small strip of land along the banks of the hill country’s Pedernales River. Whatever anyone thinks of what he did, or, how he did it, there is no denying that he left his mark on the world, and also, that he is without a doubt, the Texas Hill Country’s favorite son.

Friday, January 7, 2011

With Respect To Mexican Food, I’m Fickle

First of all, I'm in love with Mexican food, but I’m fickle. The problem isn’t that I like it but don’t want to eat it all that often. I’d eat it every day if it was possible and practicable for me to do so. Also, I’m not one of those who like some of it, but not all of it. I like it all. My problem is that I can’t decide which Mexican restaurant in the Texas Hill Country I like best. Well, that’s not true. I can decide, and I do decide, but I change my mind nearly every day. That’s where my fickleness with respect to Mexican food comes into play. It’s not exactly true, but it seems that the “best” Mexican restaurant for me nearly always seems to be the last one I visited.

Given its relatively close proximity to Mexico, and the important influence that Mexican-Americans play in the region, the fact is that there are really no disappointing Mexican restaurants in the hill country. On the contrary, and, in my opinion, they are all very authentic, and all very good. Of course, I’m not Mexican-American, so my credibility to judge what authentic Mexican food is or isn’t may be questioned, but I do the best I can. Given the sheer number of places serving up Mexican food, it would be impossible to for me to actually visit them all, let alone do any kind of subjective or objective rating. So, I won’t try, and neither should you. You’ll just have to take my word for which one is best, and, continue to take my word for which one is best in the future. But, as I’ve already warned you, I change my mind from time to time. We’ll, that is not exactly true either. I change my mind very frequently.

My latest favorite place has been hiding from me in plain sight for years, and is just over in Leander, Texas. As in the past, my wife had to steer me away from my natural inclination to return to the haunts of previous “best” places, and try something new. Quite some time ago, a friend of my wife had told her about this great Mexican restaurant in Leander, but my wife didn’t remember what the name of the place was, or, just where it was located in Leander. That part didn’t bother me too much, because Leander isn’t all that big, and I’m fairly good with finding my way around places. And, like most men, I pride myself in doing it without asking anyone for directions, and I can’t be bothered with GPS devices.

Later, after driving around Leander for a half hour or so, and, after heeding my wife’s advice, I pulled the vehicle over and asked someone for directions to a Mexican restaurant whose name I didn’t know. Apparently, everyone in the hill country knows about this place but me, because even after giving a half-assed and extremely vague description of it, I got clear directions, and we quickly found the place. In my defense, I’m quite sure that within another 45 minutes, I would have located it without needing the assistance of others. We might not have been there in time for lunch, but we surely would have arrived for dinner. And, let me remind you that I’m only writing here about Mexican food, not what meal of the day I’d be eating it.

The restaurant at the end of our search, or as Texans say, at the end of our trail, is a place called Jardin Del Rey. Conveniently located (I can say that now that I found it) on Highway 183 in Leander, right by the Post Office (see, I’ve done all the hard work for you), it sits back off the road a bit, but is clearly marked by a huge multi-colored road sign right on the highway which clearly states, “Jardin Del Rey Mexican Restaurant.” I can’t believe I missed it after driving by it 3 or 4 times. I must have been distracted by my wife telling me to stop somewhere and ask for directions. Yes, I’m quite sure that was the issue now that I’ve had time to reflect upon it all.

Jardin Del Rey, is impressive, and at least for now, is clearly my favorite. Starting with lots of parking in the front , back, and side of the building, there is no doubt that friendly, prompt, and courteous service dictates the whole experience from the time you pull off the highway coming in until the time you pull onto the highway going back out.

The interior of the restaurant was clean, colorful, and festive, with a lot of booths. Booths seem to be an important seating choice in all restaurants these days. It’s a little strange when you think about it. People want to go out and eat among others, in a public place, but would prefer a booth where they are somewhat hidden and separated from the other people eating there, but, I’m getting a little bit off target.

After requesting our booth, we were quickly seated. Immediately thereafter, warm chips and salsa were placed in front of us. The salsa was spicier than at most places, but not overly so, and it was freshened with the taste of fresh chopped cilantro. During the course of our meal, my wife and I went through two servings of chips and salsa, which should tell you that we liked it quite a bit. Normally we hold back on a second serving, so as to have enough room for the meal. But on this occasion, we made an exception to our “hold back” rule and made that second round of chips and salsa disappear in a hurry.

Jardin Del Rey’s menu offers a lot of food choices, and those choices are inexpensive. There are breakfast plates, lunch specials, and a wide selection of appetizers, enchiladas, platters, plates, caldos y ensaladas, and especialidades. As with most Mexican restaurants, many side orders are available at Jardin Del Rey, and include Mexican rice, Chile con queso, frijoles charros, refried beans, as well as other selections.

Passing up on any appetizers, we ordered our lunch while munching on the chips and salsa. My wife ordered the Soft Taco Mexican Plate, and went with the beef tacos instead of the chicken. They were served with pico de gallo, sour cream, and rice and beans. I opted for the Chile Rellano, which is always a gamble depending upon the restaurant where they are served. In a lot of places around the rest of the country, this food order would have resulted in a small, shriveled, and miserly stuffed Chile pepper being served up. Not so at Jardin Del Rey, where I got an unbelievably large Poblano pepper with the stem still attached, generously stuffed with beef and cheese, and served with guacamole, pico de gallo, rice and beans, and an order of soft warm tortillas. I have to tell you, if you like cheese like I do, you really need to visit this place. The cheese was hot and melted, and literally poured out of the pepper along with the beef when I cut into it with my fork. And, to top it all off, the pepper was covered with a liberal amount of cheese, and salsa.

With the great food and outstanding service at Jardin Del Rey’s in Leander, Texas, there is absolutely no doubt in my mind that this is the best Mexican restaurant in the Texas Hill Country. Well, at least it is until the next time I head out in search of Mexican food.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

An Annual Austin Tradition: Splashing In The New Year At Barton Springs

One year ago on this very day, I posted a blog entitled, “Splashing In The New Year.” The posting was met with such a complete silence and incredible resounding indifference, that I decided to press my luck, and once again write about the same topic. Some people never learn (that would be me) I guess, but I figure that 2011 has to be better than 2010? If you don’t agree with that statement, you need to stop reading blogs altogether, including mine, and head down to your local community college to take a course on current events, or, whatever else you want to study.

Every year, on New Year’s Day, the Save Our Springs Alliance, in Austin, Texas, hosts the annual Polar Bear Splash at Barton Springs in Zilker Park. From quite early in the morning until 2 in the afternoon, Alliance members greet the “Polar Bears,” who faithfully migrate to Barton Springs from all over the Texas Hill Country, to splash around in the spring’s ever constant 68 degree temperature. Last year I had the distinct honor and high privilege of just being an observer and photographer, but this year, my sweet, considerate, and loving wife got my lazy butt out of a warm bed and insisted I throw on a pair of “Hawaii” swim trunks and accompany her to Barton Springs at some ungodly hour of the morning.

The Save Our Springs Alliance, the host of the “Splash,” is dedicated to protecting the hill country’s Edward’s Aquifer, as well as related waterways, and the natural and cultural heritage of the hill country, including Barton Springs. It’s a noble and worthwhile goal, which I fully support, and the organization makes the New Year’s Day Polar Bear Splash a lot of fun. People of all ages dress up in all sorts of ridiculous outfits and bathing attire to jump in the springs, including me, who stripped off a silly Hawaiian shirt, to expose an even sillier mismatched Hawaiian bathing suit, before I took the plunge. Others had pirate masks on, wore Hawaiian hula skirts, or tiaras with the words “Happy New Year,” emblazoned on the front. Like every year it seems, the people bundled up in jackets and taking photographs vastly outnumbered the swimmers. One tradition for those who actually venture out into the springs is that you don’t say “Happy New Year” to anyone until you actually dip your head beneath the cold water. To be honest with you, I can’t remember whether I did or didn’t, but my wife was certainly wishing every living thing that she swam by “Happy New Year,” including fish, turtles, and whatever that green stuff is that grows in the springs.

Another element of the annual event is for the visiting swimmers, or should I say, “Polar Bears,” to bring food to share with everyone. Perhaps I’m mistaken, but a lot of people I saw in the chow line never made it down to the springs for a dip. I can understand it I guess, why would anyone forgo another bratwurst covered with mustard for the opportunity to jump into some icy water?

Outside the springs, gawkers looked down at the swimmers, and the S.O.S. Alliance provided free coffee, sold commemorative shirts, and dispensed literature supporting its cause. Of course the event being in Austin, with that “Keep Austin Weird” philosophy, attracted a few others, who it seemed, had a different point of view. But, that did not stop the small children from having fun riding the small gauge “Zilker Zephyr” train around Zilker Park. I love trains, and have ridden this train before. After my swim, I would have liked to ride it again, but I couldn’t bring myself to buy a ticket, and deprive some small innocent child of the opportunity for a ride. But, I must admit, the thought did cross my mind, and not just once, but several times.

Given all the silly costumes I saw today, nothing was sillier than someone who wasn’t trying to be silly at all. A young bearded version of Ringo Starr, wearing those expensive “get darker as the sun gets brighter” sunglasses, walked around the pool for hours cloaked in an expensive white bathrobe, with a white towel slung over his shoulder talking on his cell phone. Perhaps he finally did, but I never saw him get into the water. My recommendation for his New Year resolution is quite simple, try to spend at least one hour a day without your cell phone smashed against your ear.

As in the past, I had a lot of fun today, and I’ll miss the event until it arrives again exactly one year from now. It’s for a good cause, and, hopefully someone from the S.O.S Alliance, or, quite frankly anyone else will actually acknowledge reading the posting about the “Splash” this year. “Green” is the new buzz-word apparently, but in my experience, “Old" and "West,” are tried and true buzz-words, and words which people actually like reading about.