Tuesday, May 20, 2014

More May Migas

I had what I can only describe as a stupid revelation the other day when I realized that the main reason I was eating as well as I am is not because of the quality of the ingredients I was buying (when it comes to fruit and vegetables, after all, France led in that area most of the time) but the fact that 99% of the cookbooks and recipes I use were written for Americans using American ingredients. After all, I struggled for years to make cornbread in Europe, trying this version of cornmeal and that version and failing over and over, and eventually smuggling back bags of cornmeal from Texas or whatever US destination I'd been in and parcelling it out like a precious substance -- which it was! -- and never, for instance, using it as the sliding medium on the pizza peel, in favor of semolina.

But now I can get it whenever I want, and my preferred kind (Lamb's) is available in the supermarket down the street for two bucks a bag. (I have no idea why this kind is so much better than everything else I've tried, but all I know is that I asked a friend to mule me some cornmeal when he visited from Texas one time and the results were stupendous).

Diligent research had settled me on the Northern Cornbread recipe from The New Best Recipe, but I was mooching around the Internet one day after I moved back to Texas and found one that looked pretty good. Hey! I told myself. That sounds good -- and I can easily make it. So I did.

Last Sunday's sunrise
The picture here fails to get the intense yellow of the cornbread and cheese, but it looks even better if you click the picture and make it bigger. The recipe is here (scroll down some), and if you play around with it a bit (ie, I omit the garlic, which made no difference whatever in the taste last time, I remembered not to stick the cheese in the batter, which made the cornbread almost indigestible, and I trusted my eyes and nose to warn me when it was done, because I think he has you bake it too long) you, too, may make perfect Texas cornbread. It also freezes perfectly, and if you wrap a defrosted hunk in foil and bake it at 350º for around 15 minutes, you'd almost never guess it was leftovers.

I guess as far as revelations go, that one's sort of a "Duh" moment. Still, at my age you take the revelations you get and are happy you're still getting them.

* * *

I forget who's directly responsible for this, but at long last I have a concise explanation for what it was about living in France that bothered me and why I finally had to move. I do know that it came about because I had read and enjoyed a book called Provence, 1970: M.F.K. Fisher, Julia Child, James Beard, and the Reinvention of American Taste, by Luke Barr, who's Fisher's great-nephew. The book's kind of inside baseball for anyone not fascinated by the subject, but it did remind me that Fisher is a fascinating character. At any rate, someone recommended Two Towns in Provence by her, commenting that I might get more out of it than the average person. 

The book is actually two books, the first, Map of Another Town, about her time(s) in Aix-en-Provence and the second, A Considerable Town, about Marseille. Both are fairly close to where I lived, in Montpellier, although I never visited either during my 20 years in Europe. So I went down to Book People and picked up a copy (which I had to special order, but hey, the  price was the same as Amazon and they're an indie bookstore). One evening I started reading it, and immediately fell under the spell of her prose. All I'd read by her up until then was her food writing, collected in the classic The Art of Eating, and the prose there was also magnificent. But this, this was a different matter. 

The basic story is that as a young woman, Fisher had lived in (and, I think, studied in) Dijon, and had discovered France and its ways there. The man she was married to at that time died young, and she had two daughters to look after. But when they were old enough, the three of them went to France and stayed for a while in Aix, where the girls went to school and Mary Frances Katherine...observed stuff. She talks of this as a map, an ordering of her surroundings that permeates her consciousness, just as Dijon, which still showed up in her dreams, did. Living in a boarding house, she isn't exactly a resident of Aix, and in a chapter called "The Foreigner," she nailed something I'd certainly experienced, but never managed to solidify into words. Here's the passage. The second paragraph, in particular, made me sit up straight and re-read it several times before I could go on. 

In Aix, I came in for a certain amount of the old patronizing surprise that I did not have an "American accent," which I do; that I did not talk through my nose, which I don't; that I knew how to bone a trout on my plate and drink a good wine (or even how to drink at all), which I do. I accepted all this without a quiver: it was based on both curiosity and envy. 

What was harder to take calmly, especially on the days when my spiritual skin was abnormally thin, was the hopeless admission that the people I really liked would never accept me as a person of perception and sensitivity perhaps equal to their own. I was forever in their eyes the product of a naïve, undeveloped, and indeed infantile civilization, and therefore I was incapable of appreciating all the things that had shaped them into the complicated and deeply aware supermen of European culture that they firmly felt themselves to be. 

It did not matter if I went four times to hear The Marriage of Figaro during the [Aix] Festival: I was an American culture-seeker, doing the stylish thing, and I could not possibly hear in it what a Frenchman would hear. This is of course probable; but what occasionally depressed me was that I was assumed to have a deaf ear because I was a racially untutored American instead of simply another human being.

This wall never falls, yet she persists. To do so, she has to create a shell which practically nobody but her girls gets through. She's forced into a selfishness in her relations with others, while accepting that this diminishes her in some ways. But it also allows her to deal with France on her own terms, to do the things she wants to do, and, in its egotism, perhaps makes her the amazing writer she was. France's loss, by all means.

There's still the second half of the volume to go, and I'll jump into it soon. But it's a relief to be reminded that it's not just the draconian demands Americans have to satisfy to get a visa, not just the absurd banking regulations (on both sides) that prevents them, effectively, from having a bank account, not just the absurd bureaucracy that stymied me. No, there was, as they say, something in the water.

I fully intend to go back to France as many times as I can in the future, but I know I can never live there. It was there, after all, that I learned an important lesson: that beauty is as important a factor in making me happy as accomplishment and love and good health, and that, furthermore, it's far easier to make happen. I suspect I'll find that principle espoused in pages of Mrs. Fisher's that I still haven't read because a lot of the time, I think we're on the same road.

* * *

Incidentally, one of the really rewarding things I've done since I've been back has been teaching a history of Austin music course at the University of Texas' "Continuing and Innovative Education" program. I learned a bunch of stuff myself, and not just about how to teach it far better the next time around. I'm teaching it again in August, and I guess enrollment is open, because two people have already signed up for it. I know: Texas in August. But the room's air-conditioned, and there'll be neat photos you've never seen, cool music you've never heard, and UT's air-conditioning, which they're paying for. If you've got to be in Austin during August, it's a great way to spend Wednesday evenings.  Sign up! See you there!

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Tanz(hallen) Im Mai

Yesterday I had the opportunity to do something I'd been wanting to do for a long time, although I hadn't really been aware how much I'd wanted to do it. I've known Steve Dean for a long time, ever since he and his mother were running the Aus-Tex Lounge, one of innumerable clubs that I used to stop into on my rounds as the music guy for the Austin American-Statesman 35 years ago. Thanks to Facebook, I've discovered his fascination with old Texas dancehalls and their preservation, and when I was teaching my history of Austin music course through UT (and I'll be doing it again in August), I had him and a friend of his come in to talk about the 1950s country dance hall scene (and the formidable Harold McMillan to discuss Austin's East Side blues scene, but that's another blog-post).  I was astounded by how much he'd learned, and discovered that he had a book coming out, the first of several volumes that'll cover the entire state.

So when he announced he was doing a tour of central Texas dancehalls on May 10, I got on board. Originally there were going to be something like 15 people, but the larger block of participants had to change to another date, so I was told to be at the Midway Food Park at 9:30 am.  And I would have been, if Google Maps hadn't decided it was just over a cliff about six miles from where it actually is. I burned up a lot of gas finding it,  but just as I gave up and was on my way back home, I realized I'd driven past it almost an hour ago, and found my way in. Fortunately, problems at the vehicle rental company delayed things, and I drove up to find Steve and his friend Sherry (who was going to drive) helping a pair of documentary filmmakers pack their gear into a Ford Explorer. At about 10:15, we hit the road.

First stop was Hye, population maybe 105, owned by two entrepreneurial brothers who have decided to turn what there is of it into a roadside attraction. It's mostly a footnote of American postal history, in that Lyndon Johnson, who grew up nearby, is said to have mailed a letter there when he was four years old, no doubt asking someone to vote for him for something. There was a chili cookoff setting up when we got there and the air smelled great.

Steve hustles to get into the Hye Market. Must've been the bacon bread
Inside the market was a cornicopia of food and drink all laid out for tasting -- and sale, of course. I took a pass on the craft beers, locally-distilled whiskey, wine, and vodka, but checked out the salsa, spaghetti sauce, and barbeque sauce, all sopped up with the excellent breads (overpriced at $6.75 a loaf) on sale there.

What we were there for, though, was this:

Hye Dancehall, fallen on hard times
As there would be at most of the halls we subsequently visited, there was someone to let us in and reminisce about childhood nights spent falling asleep to the music from the stage. There are plans to rescue this hall and turn it back into a venue for music in about two years. Hye's on a well-travelled patch of highway, so unlike so many of the stories Steve tells, this one has a shot of success.

Our next hall was in beautiful downtown Albert, where a renovated hall awaited us next door to a tiny beer-joint.

Albert Hall. There will be no Beatles jokes, please

Albert Hall, interior
The whole town was sold to an Austin businessman ten years ago, and he put it up for sale on eBay, only to get a winning bid from an Italian who never paid up. Like most halls, this one has live music on a regular basis, usually once a month. The Albert Ice House next door is a popular hangout for locals and passers-by, but I remain suspicious of the food trailer parked next to it, which offers french fries with goat cheese. Although, come to think of it, goats do feature on some of the farms we passed.

Next up was a place I'd as soon have missed, but the film crew obviously needed it. Luckenbach, Texas, really does exist, and Waylon Jennings' hit song put it on the map shortly after I visited it in September, 1976 and interviewed Hondo Crouch, its alleged only inhabitant and front-man for its legend. I don't remember where we sat and had our chat, but he did his charming thing, there was nobody else around except for a friend of mine who'd driven down to Texas from Alaska when she'd heard I was doing a story on Texas and would be seeing Willie Nelson in the process, and who burst into tears the next morning at the La Reyna Bakery on S. 1st in Austin as I was reading the paper: apparently not long after we'd left Hondo had succumbed to a massive heart attack and died, and his obituary was on the page facing her.

Today, it's the Central Texas tourist trap to end all tourist traps (if only!),  although for some reason there were only a couple of hundred people there yesterday.

Luckenbach Hall from a distance. To the right, parked motorcycles, tourists, food trailer not featuring goat cheese. 

Interior. Rosie Flores had played the night before
Somehow we temporarily lost our documentarians there, so it took us nearly forever to get out of Luckenbach. If you're planning on visiting the Hill Country, I hope you can take some hints from this post to find other places to visit.

Steve was a little concerned at this point because we'd told the folks in Grapetown that we were going to be there at 3, and it was that time when we pulled out of Luckenbach. Despite there only being 76 people in Grapetown these days, the reason for the dancehall is still active:

Shootin' at stuff since 1887
This whole part of Texas is rich in Texas-German history, since a bunch of settlers started arriving from Germany in the 1840s and only increased with the failure of the 1848 revolution, when many families wanted to escape mandatory conversion to the Evangelical (Lutheran) Church, the Prussian state religion, and the military conscription that went with it. All manner of religious nonconformists flocked to Texas and, being Germans, immediately started building breweries, making sausage, and forming singing and gymnastic and shooting Vereins, or non-profit organizations. Each year, the Grapetown Eintracht Schuetzen Verein (United Shooting Club) held a massive fund-raiser/dance/shooting championship/barbeque that lasted an entire weekend, and built a dancehall to go with it, which was used for weddings and other celebrations during the summer. It's still in pretty good shape, but so is the Verein.

Steve gets the story from a Verein vet

Grapetown School

Grapetown's other building
Bikers love the Hill Country, so just down the road from Grapetown a guy from Austin who had the brilliant idea of opening a Hooters clone called Bikinis decided to build a Bikinis in a town which he bought and renamed Bikinis, building a dancehall there. To the credit of the motorcycle enthusiasts of the world, they rarely seem inclined to stop for a beverage there, and the locals don't seem to be in mourning over this. Recently, his Bikinis location in San Antonio burned to the ground. If, for some reason, you want to experience Bikinis, Texas, I suggest you do so very soon.

Steve's been booking shows in Twin Sisters Dance Hall. so that was our next stop after a very late lunch or early dinner at a place called Hillbillyz, which featured wooden doors leading to the kitchen and prep area made out of a 1941 or 1948 Oldsmobile woody, some rather provocative taxidermy involving two coyotes, some relaxed bikers, and some okay barbeque. Twin Sisters is named after a pair of extinct volcanoes visible from the highway as you approach, and its dance hall is amazing.

Twin Sisters Hall
The inside is capacious, and Steve managed to talk a couple of the guys standing around to get out a couple of ladders and put down the curtain in front of the stage for the first time in ages.

Wanna buy a Hudson? A Kaiser? Go to your eternal rest in a Packard hearse?
This is the first curtain like this I've seen outside of a museum in decades. Each of those boxes or circles advertises a local business, who helped pay for the painting and manufacture of the curtain (made out of duck cloth in Mexia, Texas in this case). From the phone numbers and goods listed for sale, this would appear to date back...well, several years. Early '50s, to judge from the automobiles listed. The board above the stage lists some somewhat newer merchants, but it, too, has some age on it. The place needs some work, but it's getting it, and the folks who run it are as nice as can be.

Steve had deccided on a magnificent finale, so we drove to Anhalt Hall, which is officially in Spring Branch, and is a mammoth facility overseen by the Germania Farmers Verein. Apparently there was once an actual Anhalt, Texas, and this building, on the edge of the Verein's property, may be what's left of it:

The building is huge, and has been added onto many times since the first structure was built (for a whopping $344) in 1879. Steve had a key, but most of the lights weren't accessible, so we poked around in the dark. The main hall is, as you'd expect, cavernous.

The bar area was also huge (as is to be expected: the Farmers Verein lobbied heavily against Prohibition, as did much of German-Czech central Texas)

I'll have a Grand Prize, please

and the kitchen was finally outgrown a decade ago and housed in another building entirely. The stage (on which Asleep at the Wheel performs at a yearly benefit for Texas Dancehall Preservation) has a fence in front of it, and the fact that old-timers continue to dance there (also obvious from the performers for the Maifest currently up on the hall's website) is seen on this sign.

But if you look above that sign (there's another banning t-shirts and bluejeans, among other clothing), you'll see a truly remarkable sight: curved beams made from timber left to soak in the river and gently coaxed into the arches that still support the roof today.

The sun was setting as we began the journey home, but my head was buzzing with Texas history and amazing scenery (which I didn't photograph because we were in the car when it was surrounding us). It was, as Steve noted earlier in the day, a perfect time to be in the Hill Country, with relatively low temperatures, moderate breezes ventilating dance halls, beer joints, and biker barbeques alike, and the last cycle of the wildflower season, with firewheels (a daisy-strawflower-like plant), poppies, thistles, and especially prickly pear cacti in riotous bloom. It was just icing on the cake that, as I left Midway, I discovered a way to get home in about ten minutes. To hell with Google Maps.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Maytime Migas

Creturs: I've always loved the way Davy Crockett spelled this word, which gives a clue as to how he pronounced it, most likely. (It's also a reminder that, as a semi-literate backwoodsman serving in the Tennessee Legislature, he was most likely more intelligent than most of the creturs currently serving there).

But I've always been aware that with living in Texas comes creturs. Some are vertebrates, some aren't, some are pests, some aren't. All of 'em have to be dealt with. The largest one I was ever near was one I didn't see. My old house here had a porch screened-in on two sides, a sleeping room that I used for its intended purpose. One morning about 6 my dog leapt up off the floor and started growling oddly. Then he puffed out his fur and started walking on tiptoe, still growling and hyperventilating. I heard something crashing around outside and figured it was another dog, although this was peculiar behavior. No problem. It went away and I went back to sleep. Later, I was walking the dog on some land at the end of my street and there were two men on horseback with rifles. A couple of little Hispanic kids were hanging around near them, and one of them, a girl, came running up to me. "Did you see it, mister?" she asked. What? I asked. "La pantera!" And sure enough, a circus train on the nearby railroad tracks had had a breakout. No, I told her, I hadn't seen it, but I'd heard it a few hours ago. The men confirmed that they thought it was long gone, but it had left a trail over here and their dogs were investigating.

And although the next-biggest would have been the armadillo the lady next door swore was digging up her garden, the actual next-biggest mammal would have been squirrels. I have them here, too, brown ones that I don't encourage, since with luck there will be a modest garden happening here before long. More on that in a minute.

Further down the scale of vertebrates are amphibians and reptiles, and with the proliferation of neighbors' cats, these are rarer and rarer. Which, since it's currently rattlesnake mating season, doesn't mean you shouldn't exercise caution outdoors. In my old neighborhood, that patch of land at the end of the street was part woods and part UT student housing, brick cubes baking in the heat and parking lots. These were beloved of a cretur I had heard called the Texas Racing Lizard, dark green with lighter green stripes on its side, and the ability to really haul ass when it was time to leave where it was. It would start to run and then, to run faster, raise up on its hind legs when shelter was in sight. Honestly, it was as close to seeing a dinosaur as I've ever come. But most of the lizards have been anoles, probably America's most common lizard.

Photo: Wikipedia
The pink sac means it's looking for a mate, and its other mating behavior is doing pushups with its front legs. I once sat on my porch and watched a female watching a male. He was on a tree limb some ten feet above her and he'd do his pushups and then blow out his sac, then walk a little further out, do it again, and...finally, one set of pushups caused the tree to flip him into the air. The female watched the arc as the male soared up, then down. Time to look for another boyfriend. From that same couch on the porch during a cleansing summer rainstorm, I heard a creaking sound very near me, becoming more and more urgent. I looked around and it was coming from a crack in the concrete. Something brown was stuck there and, as I watched, a large toad pushed itself out of the crack, stood there for a moment, and then ambled off. I later learned he could have been down there for 50 years or more.

I've seen a couple of tiny anoles around here -- it's kind of early for them -- but the star reptile so far has been a complete surprise. I walked into the bathroom with the bathtub (yes, I have two bathrooms) and a motion in the corner of my eye made me look into the bathtub where a very odd being was wriggling. It was about two inches long, had no legs, and had a body made up of alternating rings of black and gold. At the end was a black bead. Had to be a worm, I thought, and turned on the shower just long enough to get it down the drain. Then, the other night, it was back -- or one of its cousins. At that point it occurred to me that its motion, making S's, was that of a snake, not of a worm, which undulates its belly and moves in a straight line. This time the cretur was wriggling towards the hall closet, and I picked up a piece of paper, caught it, and flipped it out the front door. Casting around on the web made me realize it was a Texas Blindsnake, identical except for markings with the one in this account. They're also known as Flower Pot Snakes, because they're frequently dormant in commercially-sold plants. And they eat ants, which is fine by me, as well as by my flipped visitor, who should have landed near a couple of anthills. Every specimen ever examined has been female, incidentally, which means they reproduce by parthogenesis.

Birds, of course, are vertebrates, and here's where I'd like pictures, because one very noisy daily visitor is a woodpecker. He's pecked a hole in one of the backyard trees that looks like it's been there forever. He stops by to peck it out a bit, so that the moisture from the tree trunk attracts insects, but he's also canny about visiting at times when the light is bad, so I haven't taken a picture. I *think* it's a Ladderback Woopecker:

Wikipedia again: obviously I don't have cacti in the back yard.
Austin is on two major migratory flight-paths, and yet the birds I've seen have all been locals: cardinals, jays, mockingbirds, grackles, grey doves, and the odd cowbird. Beats the city pigeons I had to stare at in France.

It's the invertebrates you have to worry about, though. Until the last year I lived there, my last place had an awful lot of cockroaches. Then a couple of those transparent geckos moved in and ate themselves silly. I didn't even see another cockroach that whole year. And (knock on wood) I haven't seen many here, and the ones I have seen have been either logy with the cold or dead. Mostly, though, I've had pill bugs (which turn out to be wood lice), who all seem to have an appointment with one of two spiders who hang out in dark places with a litter of pill bug corpses around them. Oh, and just recently, as the sun goes down, waves of fireflies in the back yard. I hadn't seen fireflies in decades: I don't think they even exist in Europe. I have a ceiling fan with lights under it in my office, and that seems to be flickering at a frequency they like, since they keep flying past the window and lighting up. And yet, in all the years I've been seeing fireflies, I've never yet seen the earthbound female glow-worms they're signalling to. Weird.

* * *

And yes, I'm going to try gardening, at least on a small scale. I have a huge deck out back which a friend calls the "mosquito feeding station," which explains why, even if another friend gives me his dad's old grill, I'll be eating indoors. I have some jalapeno and New Mexico Sandia chile seeds planted, and although it's been weeks, it's only today that I spotted a touch of green in the planters. I was pretty impatient with them, but then I realized that in New Mexico, where these seeds came from (thanks, Carol!), the Hatch Chile Festival is held on Labor Day weekend and that's only the start of the harvest. Plenty of time, which is good since I don't have planters and enough soil yet. 

A friend who drives to Dallas a lot stopped in at a nursery and got four tomatillo plants which I'm going to have to re-pot, along with some cilantro, which has bolted, meaning it's time for me to dig it up and harvest what leaves are there plus the all-important roots, which figure in some Thai recipes I've got here. Funny: the whole time I lived in Germany, cilantro plants came with roots, which I threw out. Now that I live in a place with a huge East Asian supermarket and have at long last bought what I'm told is the definitive Thai cookbook, all the cilantro is rootless. Nor have I seen the roots being sold separately. But the bolting indicates that it's already getting hot, that it may be too late to plant or repot basil, and that I'd better rely on the farmer's market (if I can afford it: these people are very weak on the concept, I think) or the supermarket for tomatoes. Anyone with big pots they're not using, get in touch. 

* * *

Same for shelving: I need to get these books out of their boxes and organize my CD library. Yes, some of the crisis is over, and I'll be here a while. Not too long: I won't want to live in Austin more than a couple of years, the way things look now. Where next? Who knows? One fun at a time, please. 
Site Meter