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.