Written by Lori Moffatt
It seems like ages ago: In 2008, I had the pleasure of editing Tom and Karen Fortâ€™s story on the golden age of Rio Grande steamboating, which appeared in the July issue that year. Tom contributes another piece to Texas Highways this month (December 2013)â€”a piece on the Rio Grande Valleyâ€™s Civil War sites, and as I was chatting about the story with my colleague Matt Joyce, I remembered what a great resource historian Jerry Thompson was to us. A professor of history at Texas A &M University in Laredo, Thompson writes about the tumultuous pre-and post-Civil War decades along the Rio Grande with humor, compassion, and clarity. Â For anyone wishing to study the period, I highly recommend two of Thompsonâ€™s books, A Wild and Vivid Land: An Illustrated History of the South Texas Border and Civil War and Revolution on the Rio Grande Frontier: A Narrative and Photographic History (co-written with Lawrence T. Jones III).
I know it sounds crazy to drink hot chocolate when the temperature is still regularly above 90 degrees. But on a recent trip to Houston, I couldn't resist the chocolate confection with chocolate made in-house from cocoa beans imported from Oaxaca at Hugo's, which serves its frothy cup with fresh, hot Mexican churros. Look for our story on Hugo's and its terrific hot chocolate in the Drink section of the December issue. Until then, do you know of any other spots in Texas that serve amazing hot chocolate?
Hot Chocolate at Hugo's, with ice cream and churros; Photo by Lori Moffatt
I recently made the short drive from Austin to Elgin, a town about 25 miles east of the city via US 290. Iâ€™d heard about a new wine bar and home dÃ©cor shop on the townâ€™s historic downtown strip, and I realized: While I frequently pass through Elgin on my way to Houston, Iâ€™d never really explored the town except to stop for barbecue at Southside Market or Meyerâ€™s.
As a kid, I briefly wanted to be an entomologist. This career choice never received full support from my parents, who probably realized that the jars of fireflies and boxes of desiccated beetles that brought me such joy one summer would eventually gather dust in the garage beside the rock polisher.
For the August 2013 print issue of Texas Highways, I wrote about a Madeira tasting, held at Austin's Red Room speakeasy, which featured the wines of Haak Vineyards in Galveston County. Haak is the only Texas winery that makes Madeira a richly flavored fortified wine that is usually produced on the Portuguese islands of Madeira.
The nightlife scene continues to heat up on Austin's Rainey Street, a former residential byway in the shadow of downtown. Transformed in recent years with bars, restaurants, and food trucks, Rainey Street draws crowds interested in craft cocktails, local beers, and food ranging from authentic Oaxacan fare (at El Naranjo) to Indian (at Raj Mahal). And now, Rainey Street boasts Austin's first food truck devoted to Southeast Asian Noodles, DFG Noodles.
In Austin, artists and musicians are finalizing prepwork for this weekend's Art City Austin Festival (April 13-14), which transforms the streets surrounding City Hall and the 2nd Street entertainment district into an outdoor art fair. Among the reasons to go: Hundreds of artists will display their works throughout the festival grounds, more than 150 pieces of art enliven the galleries inside City Hall, local food trailers offer sustenance and libations, musicians perform non-stop, and perhaps best of all-the weather promises to be spectacular! Tickets cost $8; free admission for kids age 12 and younger. It's also free if you ride your bike!
Interactive kids' activities at Art City Austin
First produced in 1951 as the Texas Fine Arts Association's Spring Juried Art Fair, the event, renamed "Art City Austin,” moved downtown in 2008. It's organized by Art Alliance Austin, which works to advance the city "by integrating art, culture, and creativity into public life."
Among the many things I learned at the second annual Austin FOOD & WINE Festival, which took place at Austin's Butler Park April 27-28, here are my favorite take-aways:
Itâ€™s day four of the South By Southwest Film festival, and Iâ€™m reflecting on the busy weekend. So far, my experiences as a passholder have been positiveâ€”Iâ€™ll admit I was worried about standing in line only to get bumped by badgeholders, but so far this hasnâ€™t happened. Friday night, the opening night of the festival, I attended a packed showing of one of last yearâ€™s festival favorites, the Australian horror movie The Loved Ones. I knew it would be dark (reviewers billed it as Sixteen Candles meets Carrie), but I was unprepared for the level of gore, and it was only when I began to focus on the makeup skills required for such effects that I could open my eyes fully during certain scenes.
Day two began with dark skies and nearly continuous downpours. My first plan, a midday screening of the documentary about musician Charles Bradley, a James Brown doppelganger whom I had seen perform at this yearâ€™s Austin City Limits festival, didnâ€™t pan out. Screening at one of the 40-person theaters at downtownâ€™s new Violet Crown venue, the film filled up before I got in the queue, so instead I headed to the Paramount, where a long line of people snaked around the building, huddling beneath umbrellas and hoping to gain admission to the World Premiere of the film Trash Dance, a documentary about choreographer Allison Orrâ€™s spellbinding dance project with the City of Austinâ€™s Solid Waste Services.
Orr, whose Forklift Danceworks (www.forkliftdanceworks.org) has created ballets with firefighters, service dogs, and Italian gondolas, orchestrated a dance with garbage trucks, cranes, and other sanitation equipment on the abandoned tarmac of Austinâ€™s old Mueller airport, an event I witnessed live this past summer. Â This, the documentary about the project, illustrated how Orr won the trust of the 24 Solid Waste Services employees who starred in the production, most of whom entered the project with healthy skepticism. With a score by Austin composer Graham Reynolds, the film made me (and many other audience members) laugh and yes, cry. After the show the cast and crew took the stage amid stand-up applause and cheers, I realized that this momentâ€”the marriage of audience and castâ€” is what makes seeing a film in a festival setting unique and worthwhile. It was a theme Iâ€™d witness multiple times over the weekendâ€“the sense that somehow weâ€™re all participating in this creative endeavor together.
Later on Saturday, I stood in line with other passholders at the Alamo Village, chatting with strangers and hoping to gain access to the film The Babymakers, a comedy about a young couple trying to start a family. After failing to conceive, the male protagonist stages a heist of the sperm bank to which he had donated years agoâ€“and hilarity ensues. A Q&A after the film with director Jay Chandrasekhar and fellow star Kevin Heffernan made the experience doubly worthwhile.
The third film I screened on Saturday, the Seattle-made Fat Kid Rules the World, blew me away. It tells the story of an overweight teenager who finds salvation of sorts in the discovery of punk rock, and the characters were so fully drawn that I felt as if I knew them by filmâ€™s end. The cinema was full of cast and crew, so energy was high, and a pre-movie chat with my neighbor, who worked with lighting design, gave me an appreciation for an aspect of filmmaking I hadnâ€™t considered. When the director, Matthew Lillard, told us that he had been an overweight teen himself, I realized why certain scenes seemed so authentic. As with the screening of Trash Dance, the appearance of cast and crew reinforced the sense of a supportive and involved movie community.
The sun emerged on Sunday, and with the sun came the crowds. Plans to see the documentary The Source, about a group of LA followers of controversial restaurateur-turned-spiritual-leader â€œFather Yodâ€ in the 1970s, were thwarted by parking problems. But later in the day, I once again headed north to the Alamo Village to see the Texas-made movie Kid+Thing, a moody drama about a young girl in East Texas who discoversâ€”yet chooses not to rescueâ€”a woman who had fallen down a well. While the scenery was evocative and the young starâ€”12-year-old Sydney Aguirreâ€”excellent, the movie didnâ€™t speak to me personally. But others in the audience disagreed, and that inconsistence reminds me of the subjective nature of moviegoing, and what a wonderful thing it is that we all have different tastes!
Five down, more to come. Stay tuned!
Whatâ€™s the old saying about March roaring in like a lion? In Austin this year, it seems especially appropriate: Blooming mountain laurels perfume the air with their sweet-tart aroma, bluebonnets have started to appear on the roadsides, and if you explore downtown, youâ€™ll sense the electric buzz forming as shopkeepers, bartenders, restaurants, theaters, and hotels prepare for the wildly popular event known as the South by Southwest Music, Film, and Interactive Festival, which runs March 9-18 this year.
Last year, the eventâ€™s 25th anniversary, the festivalâ€™s official registration surged 40 percent over 2010 numbers (with a total fest attendance of 286,000 people!). Here are more impressive numbers: More than 2,000 musical acts performed on 92 stages across the city; the interactive contingent drew almost 20,000 registered attendees (from 53 foreign countries!); and the film contingent attracted more than 66,000 film fans who flocked to see 140 features and 153 shorts. According to organizers, SXSW was directly and indirectly responsible for injecting some $168 million into the Austin economy. (And these figures donâ€™t even begin to consider the impact of the hundreds of unofficial events, concerts, parties, and attractions offered during the festival.)
For the past decade, Iâ€™ve experienced SXSW on the fringes, ducking into free day parties and big concerts at Auditorium Shores, standing in line for movie tickets, and enjoying the crush of visitors from around the world who descend upon Austin each year. But this year, I have a film pass (available in limited numbers for $70 in-store at Waterloo Records), and I plan to see as many films as my schedule allows. With 132 feature films and countless shorts and other events to choose from, these next weeks should be action-packed. (See my colleague Jane Wuâ€™s blog for details on some of the festivalâ€™s films with Lone Star ties.)
I visited recently with SXSW Film Conference and Festival Director Janet Pierson about the eventâ€™s growth, maturation, and significance, and why choosing a film youâ€™ve never heard of may be the most direct route to inspiration.
â€œSince the Film and Interactive Festival started in 1994, the independent film world has changed profoundly,â€ Pierson says. â€œThe digital revolution has made a huge difference. In the mid-1990s, there were hundreds of films made every year; now there are thousands. When people made films in 35 millimeter, making a movie cost hundreds of thousands of dollars and took a long time. But thanks to digital advances,Â cameras became less expensive, and filmmakers could edit well on their laptops. This year, we moved the deadline for submissions up to mid-November, because the number has been steadily increasing year-to-year. This year, we received more than 5,000 submissions, a 7% increase from last year.
â€œAs film festivals go, and Iâ€™m including fests such as Cannes, Toronto, and Sundance, we skew toward American-made films. Weâ€™re neither a regional film festival nor an international film festival. We look for balance, so our films range from comedies to documentaries, dark dramas, and may feature themes as â€˜smallâ€™ as two people walking down the road.â€
While Pierson acknowledges that the Film Festival is primarily a â€œbadge eventâ€ designed for film industry folks (film badges cost $595), she says itâ€™s still possible to see some of the movies with a pass or by purchasing individual tickets ($10)â€”as long as seats are still available. â€œWe want full theaters, and the venues vary tremendously,â€ she says. â€œI mean, if you donâ€™t have a badge, youâ€™re not going to get into the world premiere of The Cabin in the Woods (the directorial debut of Drew Goddard, the writer behind the hit TV show Lost), but you can easily see certain films at the Vimeo or Canon. Or try the Alamo South Lamarâ€”sometimes itâ€™s crowded and sometimes itâ€™s not.
â€œWeâ€™ve vetted everything,â€ she told me, â€œand we think itâ€™s all great. Take a chance on something youâ€™ve never heard of. Success for us is when weâ€™ve inspired people.â€
In line the other day to see Hunky Dory, the coming-of-age film starring Minnie Driver entered in the â€œNarrative Spotlightâ€ category at the SXSW Film Festival, I got to chatting with one of my fellow queue-standers about our experiences as passholders. She told me that had purchased a pass for the past few years and had some tips. The satellite spaces, she saidâ€”this year at the new Alamo Slaughter location and the Alamo Villageâ€”seem especially designed for passholders, and she said that once the music contingent starts, the movie crowds thin out a bit. But sometimes things donâ€™t go as planned.
â€œA few nights ago, I was in the pass line at the Alamo South,â€ she told me, â€œand it was looking pretty good. I was pretty sure Iâ€™d get in.â€ She paused for effect as another passholder leaned over to hear the story. â€œAnd then, a busload of badges pulled up. Dang it! It was all over. So I came up here and got into the documentary about Deepak Chopra. Which was excellent.â€
Such is the nature of readjusting plans during South by Southwest, and maybe life itself, a theme echoed by the film See Girl Run, a movie that delved into the rich dramatic potential of exploring what could have happened if we had made different choices in our lives. What if we had chosen a different path? In one scene, the father of the protagonist, a young woman on the verge of abandoning her marriage to reunite with a lost love from high school, compares maintaining a relationship to a high-tech missile. Unlike old missiles, he explained, which canâ€™t be adjusted once they are launched, newer missiles can readjust course in mid-flight to stay with the target. I liked that analogy, as life has the tendency to throw curveballs just when things seem steady. And even something as simple as a conversation has its inherent readjustments and allowances for give-and-take. In a Q&A after the movie, the director noted that if you go into a conversation knowing exactly what youâ€™re going to say, then youâ€™re not really listening and thus, not really having a conversation.
Many of the films Iâ€™ve seen so far, really, seem to have secondary themes of change and adjustment, acceptance of change, and the perils and rewards of growth and decay. The documentary Welcome to the Machine, for example, examines how technology has change the world we live in, and poses the (unanswered) question: Is humanity better or worse thanks to technology? Â And is there any real way to return to the way things were, now that the Genie is out of the bottle?
Last nightâ€™s documentary, Americaâ€™s Parking Lot, follows two avid Dallas Cowboys tailgaters as their 35-year tradition at the old Texas Stadium comes to and end. We see the stadiumâ€™s implosion and the two fans attempting to piece together a new tradition at Jerry Jonesâ€™ new 1.2 billion Cowboys Stadium in Arlington. Yes, itâ€™s funnyâ€“one protagonist names his daughter Meredith Landry and unabashedly admits he thinks about the Cowboys more than his wife. And yes, itâ€™s a rather scathing study of how pro football has evolved into a rich manâ€™s game. But Cowboys fandom and economic politics aside, itâ€™s a story of change and tradition, and what those two intangible concepts mean.Â Life seen through the lens of football? Now thatâ€™s a Texas tradition. Seek this one out, even if you canâ€™t see it during SXSW.
Itâ€™s the dead of winter, supposedlyâ€”February 2â€”and a quick survey of mid-afternoon temperatures across Texas (70 degrees in Austin, 72 in Houston, 73 in Dallas, a frigid 50 in Amarillo, a balmy 77 in Brownsville) makes me think weâ€™re in for an early spring.
But donâ€™t take my word for it. Instead, listen to Remley the Babirusa at the Houston Zoo, who agreed to stand in for the traditional groundhog this morningâ€”and predicted an early spring. (Groundhogs donâ€™t like the hot and humid weather typically found in Houston, but Babirusas- small hairless pigs native to Indonesiaâ€”find it quite agreeable.)
This morningâ€™s ultra-scientific weather-prognosticating ceremony offered Remley two choices: a two-foot paper â€œsnowmanâ€ filled with watermelon slices and other tasty Babirusa treats, and a pink-and-white picnic scene featuring the same edible enticements. The rest of the ceremony followed tradition: If Remley chose the snowman, weâ€™d have six more weeks of winter; if he chose the picnic scene, spring is on its way. My sources tell me that while Remley flirted with the winter scene, he ultimately dove into the picnic setting and decreed an early spring. So it's official.
Iâ€™m consistently impressed with the creativity and imagination of the folks at the Houston Zoo, an AZA-accredited zoo that dates to 1922.Â I believe that if Remley could talk, heâ€™d say, â€œNow that the weather is warm, come visit me. I am a master of camouflage and move like a deer. And obviously I have great taste and a sense of humor.â€