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Written by Lois Rodriguez

comfort-food1Aah, tamales. Those spicy, corn-husk-hugged morsels transport me to a happy place somewhere deep in the holiday traditions of my South Texas childhood. And, based on the Facebook response to our inclusion of the Texas Tamale Company in the November issue, hundreds of our readers feel the same way about the steamy treats: “Delia’s Tamales in the Rio Grande Valley!” “Alamo Tamales in Houston!” and “Pedro’s in Lubbock!” were among your exuberant recommendations.

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Everybody has a favorite comfort food, and we want to know yours.

shinyKevin Russell has covered a lot of Texas ground in his nearly 30 years as a touring musician. As a founding member of the now-disbanded Austin group the Gourds, and now with the band Shinyribs, Russell has played hundreds of shows in all sorts of settings across the state. We asked him about some of his favorite places to play—and eat—across the Lone Star State.

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National Park Ranger Marten Schmitz retrieves a palm-sized chunk of Alibates flint rock from the dried short-grass prairie. “Here’s a good example of a trade blank,” he says, noting that pieces like this colorful red-and-white stone were prized as currency for people who lived in this region as far back as 13,000 years ago.

 MG 3576For a music fan like me, one particularly good reason to visit Port Arthur is the blues-rock singer Janis Joplin. Though she died in 1970 at age 27, the powerful and flamboyant vocalist remains this city’s most famous native and, thanks to a fantastic exhibit at its Museum of the Gulf Coast, the focal point of a significant tourist attraction.

People tasting fresh-squeezed orange and grapefruit juices from the Rio Grande Valley often use adjectives such as “luscious” and “ambrosial.” With its heavenly taste, aroma, and color, Texas citrus reaches tree-ripened perfection.

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Gathered with a dozen or so fellow diners around a wood-fired pizza oven beneath a grove of oak trees in the rolling hills near Palestine, I take a bite of perfect Neapolitan pizza and am transported to Southern Italy. Thanks to the high heat of the oven, the crust is crisp yet airy, the fresh mozzarella bubbly, and the tomato sauce rich and practically caramelized.

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A weekday lunch crowd fills the room with lively conversation. Behind a dining counter, hamburger patties sizzle on the grill and two gleaming machines spin wine-based frozen margaritas. An artfully iced chocolate cake sits atop a glass pedestal on the counter, like a trophy awaiting its winner.

highRes valhalla140316 001I’ve always considered myself a pretty brave guy. I’ve gone hang gliding, swum with stingrays, and even eaten face-melting ghost chiles. However, standing in the damp coolness of an underground nuclear missile silo, contemplating scuba diving into the black waters below me, I was overcome by an unexpected feeling: gut-wrenching fear.

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Curved tusks jut out of red sandy soil. Massive bones scatter around them in the prehistoric burial ground. These are the remains of Columbian mammoths, a rare “nursery herd” of mother mammoths and their offspring that lived about 65,000 years ago near what is now Waco.

Hilltop-Gardens-Aloe MG 4883Luxuriating in the tropically landscaped oasis of Hilltop Gardens, I feel sheltered from the world by palms, hibiscus, and birds of paradise. The Inn at Hilltop, a Mexican Colonial/Mediterranean-style B&B, perches on a rise at the Rio Grande Valley site west of Lyford, surrounded by fields of aloe vera, vegetables, and sugarcane. It’s a magnet for those seeking a warm and tranquil winter haven.

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Clearly I am not the only one who yearns to bring a bit of Spain back to Texas. For the first half of my 30s, I lived in Madrid less than 600 meters from the Museo Prado, the holy ground of Spanish art that holds within its hallowed walls the masterpieces of Velázquez, Goya, and El Greco. These treasures of light, shadow, allegory, and humor became a regular part of my Madrid life.

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