Iâ€™m not really a football fan. Those are fighting words, I realize, in some parts of Texas, where pigskin rivalries divide families, coworkers, and even strangers in line at the grocery store. I do look forward to the Super Bowl every year (so Iâ€™ve marked my calendar for this yearâ€™s 45th anniversary game up in Arlington on February 6), but thatâ€™s mostly because itâ€™s my annual excuse to eat lots of Velveeta-and-Rotel queso.
So for those who know me well, itâ€™s always a surprise that I adore the television show Friday Night Lights, that sleeper quasi-hit show that won raves from the critics but never really took off with television audiences. My non-expert opinion is that it suffers an identity crisis: Most people think of it as a sports drama, whereas truly itâ€™s a story about relationships, and itâ€™s perhaps one of the of the most authentic depictions of small-town Texas since Larry McMurtryâ€™s The Last Picture Show.
It doesnâ€™t hurt that the show is set in Austin and surrounding areas. Thereâ€™s the Continental Club! Franâ€™s Hamburgers! The Landing Strip of all places! That megalachurch near my house! Itâ€™s fun to try to figure out where each shot was filmed.
Location-spotting: This, along with the curious charms of actor Bradley Whitford (you know, the guy who played Josh Lyman on The West Wing, and Danny Tripp on the rollicking Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip) is what drew me to the new Fox buddy-police-comedy The Good Guys, which is set in Dallas and filmed in Dallas. The plots are gossamer-thin, but Whitford plays a pratfalling rogue Texas cop with gum-smacking panache (with Tom Hanksâ€™ son Colin as the straight-guy sidekick). Never mind; the true star of the show is Dallasâ€”sleek office buildings and tony downtown restaurants, Fair Park in all its Art-Deco glory, rough-around-the-edges barbecue joints along Riverside (formerly Industrial)â€¦. I wonder if Dallasites have the same fun trying to identify filming locations for The Good Guys as I do for Friday Night Lights.
A few years ago, as I swam laps at the YMCA in Austin, I came up for air to find a sickly beagle circling the pool, watching me. Somehow he had wriggled between a break in the fence andâ€”I like to thinkâ€”decided Iâ€™d make a fine new owner. First, though, I had to nurse him back to health, and for that, I have Animal Trustees of Austin (ATA) to thank.
Along with other symptoms of neglect, my rescued beagleâ€”whom my husband and I named Oscarâ€”had an advanced case of heartworm disease, a dangerous disease that left untreated, leads to death. Treatment is expensive and grueling, but since I eventually adopted Oscar through a rescue organization called Austin Hound Rescue, I was able to take advantage of the mightily reduced treatment cost offered by ATA.
So Iâ€™m pleased to hear that â€œCelebrating Paws,â€ a new program offered by Lake Austin Spa Resort, not only benefits spa visitors who bring their canine friends but also donates 100% of pet guest fees collected throughout 2011 to ATA.
As part of the program, animal behaviorist Dr. Patricia McConnell will speak about the documented health benefits of pet ownershipâ€”including lower blood pressure and reduced stress levelsâ€”during spa stays February 2-6 and November 2-11, 2011.
McConnellâ€™s topics will include â€œThe Power of Pets: What Science Has to Tell Us about Our Love for Animals,â€ â€œAre You Thinking What Iâ€™m Thinking? Whatâ€™s Really Going on in a Dogâ€™s Brain,â€ and â€œThe Other End of the Leash: Understanding How to Communicate with Your Best Friend.â€
Other pet experts participating in the program include dog trainer Cara Shannon, who will lead classes in manners training and etiquette and author Susannah Charleson and her dog Puzzle (both members of the Metro Area K9 Rescue in Dallas), as well as canine photographers, massage therapists, and professional dog-walkers.
Iâ€™ll be honest: Oscar wouldnâ€™t stand for one moment for a pedicure, but a massage is another matter.
For details about canine programs at Lake Austin Spa Resort, call 800/847-5637; www.lakeaustin.com.
And now Iâ€™m curious: whatâ€™s the most indulgent thing youâ€™ve ever done for your dog?
With the Thanksgiving holiday approaching, Iâ€™m wrapping up loose ends at the office while occasionally daydreaming about tomorrowâ€™s feast. Iâ€™m particularly excited about Brussels sprouts, of all thingsâ€”I bought one of those gorgeous branches of sprouts, still attached to the stalk like something out of a Dr. Seuss storyâ€“and Iâ€™m planning to roast them until they are sweet and delicious. Not a traditional Pilgrim dish, Iâ€™m sureâ€”nor did Brussels sprouts appear at the feast we Texans dub the â€œrealâ€ First Thanksgivingâ€”a meal celebrated near present-day El Paso in 1598, when Spanish explorer Juan de Onate and his expedition gave thanks for surviving their journey across the Chihuahuan desert.
But as much as tomorrowâ€™s meal is linked to traditional foodsâ€”turkey, cranberries in some guise, stuffing, pecan & pumpkin piesâ€”I always enjoy learning which dishes Americans with foreign backgrounds bring to the table. A friend with Cuban relatives, for example, will have a Cuban turkey (pavo) at their tableâ€”seasoned, she says, with garlic, cumin, oregano, and lime juice. Iâ€™d love to learn which variations youâ€™ll bring to your celebration of thanks.
As most of you know, when it comes to food, Iâ€™ll try most things at least once. Fried grasshoppers? Bring them. Tongue tacos? Yes, please, with extra cilantro. The promise of culinary exploration is one reason I like to visit Houston, especially when I have the opportunity to explore cuisines I know little about. I recently had the good fortune of exploring the menu at one of Houstonâ€™s most authentic Korean restaurantsâ€”Nam Gang Korean (at 1411 Gessner at Long Point; 713/467-8801)â€”with Houston friends, one of whom spent considerable time working (and eating) in Seoul a few years ago.
It was a Tuesday night, and we heard there was a tech convention in town nearby. That might explain the crowd: The place was packed with Korean businessmen, whoâ€”almost without exceptionâ€”were drinking copious amounts of the alcoholic sweet-potato beverage called â€œSoju.â€ We ordered some ourselves, along with a stunning array of raw meats and vegetables, which we cooked ourselves, to our liking, over a charcoal fire in the center of our table. Korean meals last for hours, and ours did, too. Great fun, and a novel approach to dinner that I hope to repeat soon.
And so this morning, as I think about this particular meal, and othersâ€”and the friends and loved ones with whom I share lifeâ€™s vicissitudesâ€”Iâ€™m feeling thankful. Have a lovely holiday tomorrow.
Hiding in Plain Sight, the Menil Collection feature in the December issue reveals one of my favorite â€œhideawaysâ€ from the holiday frenzy when I visit family in Houston. Luckily, my brother Louis lives within a short driving distance, making the Menil a frequent museum haunt, plus admission is free.
I look forward to strolling through the Surrealist and Modern Art sections, and also visiting some of my favorites in the collection, such as Jasper Johnsâ€™ Gray Alphabet (if youâ€™re not familiar with this work, the title says it all) and the Sumerian statue of Eannatum, Prince of Lagash in the Antiquities room, the piece I affectionately call â€œChauncey Gardnerâ€ as it bears a resemblance to the Peter Sellers character in the film Being There.
However, Iâ€™m a bit embarrassed to admit that there are areas of the Menil which Iâ€™ve never explored, such as the Cy Twombly or Dan Flavin galleries, vibrantly depicted in Decemberâ€™s feature. On my next visit, Iâ€™ll make time to experience it. And Iâ€™ll be sure to ride the red swing on the museum grounds, another â€œinstallationâ€ Iâ€™ve never noticed.
I want your opinions, but first ...
In the December issue of Texas Highways, I explored a few places that serve some sweet pies - the kind that warms your heart in a way few foods can.
Clearly unable to eat my way across Texas one slice at a time, there are some places that deserve mention that were not.
For example, I received a few nice letters from readers willing to share. Rhonda Cagle of Glen Rose shared that she and her friend Jean Ford run the Pie Peddlers there. She says her pies are 100 percent homemade and absolutely delicious. I can't wait to try it, myself.
I also received a letter from Ann Arbor, Mich. from a doctor who recalled stopping at Frank's in Schulenberg, year after year, for their pies. His favorite, he says, was the coconut cream pie with "meringue at least six inches high that took me back 50 years." (Frank's: 11 North Kessler Ave. (979) 743-3555.)
Where do YOU go for your favorite slice of pie? Please share so that we can explore these places, too.
I had dinner last week with Dallas friends who had read about Austinâ€™s ever-burgeoning trailer-food trend. â€œWas this going on elsewhere?â€™ they wondered. And had I explored many of the trailersâ€™ offerings? From what I understand, I told them, itâ€™s primarily an Austin thingâ€“at least in the sense that no where else has such numbers or diversity. Take your pick around townâ€”we have everything from chocolate-covered bananas and cherry-stuffed donuts to Cuban sandwiches and vegan chili.
And while Iâ€™ve enjoyed samplings from a handful of Austinâ€™s trailers, Iâ€™ve barely made a dent. Just this past week, though, I met friends on the outside patio of Shangri-La, an unassuming cocktail bar on East Sixth Street, a few blocks east of I-35. After a drink, our group cruised across the street for takeout dinner from a group of trailer-restaurants that have joined together as â€œThe East Side Drive-In.â€ (We could have dined on picnic tables scattered across the property, but instead we brought our dinner back to Shangri-La.) A few of us savored burgers and cheesesteaks; my husband had a BLT dressed up with basil from a trailer called â€œPig Vicious,â€ and I made a culinary score with a walnut-and-cranberry-studded tuna melt, made all the more unusual with a fried egg. Delicious all around.
Coming up on November 6 from 11 to 8, many of Austinâ€™s trailers (and there are at least 50 around town these days) will participate in the first annual Gypsy Picnic Trailer Food Festival, held on Auditorium Shores. Admission is free. Live music by Junior Brown, Guy Clark, Jr., and others will set the mood, and you can sample portions of various trailer treats for $3 or less. Check out the Web site at www.gypsypicnic.com, and if you go, tell us which tasty bits you like best.
With the impending launch of Space Shuttle Discoveryâ€™s last voyage (and end of the Shuttle program in early 2011), it was about time that I finally explored Space Center Houston, if only for a couple of hours during a short visit to Bay Area Houston last week.
While I didnâ€™t have time for the in-depth NASA Tram Tour or Level 9 Tour, I was able to focus my attention on several areas of the complex: Starship Gallery, which follows the progression of the Space Race from the 1960s through Skylab, complete with some of the actual capsules and equipment; the Astronaut Gallery, a dazzling collection of spacesuits worn by men and women in space; the massive-beyond-words Saturn V spacecraft housed at Rocket Park, and even took in a â€œMeet the Astronautâ€ talk given by Michael J. Bloomfield of Shuttle Atlantis and Endeavor missions.
The vivid timelines that accompany the Starship Gallery and the Saturn V rocket brought back memories of seeing Apollo launches on (mostly black & white) televisions in elementary school. Peering into the Mercury capsule in the space-simulated display and imagining myself in that tiny crawl space gave me a claustrophobic chill. I also touched a moon rock and saw how moon artifacts were processed and analyzed. In the Astronaut Gallery, I marveled at the contrast between the enormous â€œMichelin Manâ€ bubble suit worn during the early days of the Gemini program, and the sleek blue jumpsuit worn on the Shuttle mission by Sally Ride.
Next time you find yourself in the Bay area, donâ€™t discount a trip to NASA for lack of time. Youâ€™ll be amazed at how much "space" can be compacted into two hours.
As if the gorgeous autumn weather isnâ€™t excuse enough to cruise the Hill Country ... the 20th annual Fredericksburg Food & Wine Festival takes place this Saturday on the townâ€™s Marktplatz (on the 100 block of West Main St.). Some 50 food and arts vendors and more than 20 Texas wineriesâ€”including Val Verde Winery, Fall Creek Vineyard, and Messina Hofâ€”will be on hand, along with the sweet sounds of Texas musicians like Jeff Lofton. So listen, sip, and sample to your heartâ€™s content!
Texas Highways staffers will be there, too, sharing copies of the magazine and selling some of our favorite TH products. And our own Lois Rodriguez will present her delectable Tres Leches Cake in a Grape Expectations Cooking School session at 1:15. Warning: Side effects of the spongy-creamy concoction may include prolonged euphoria. Delicioso!
Find ticket information and more fest details at www.fbgfoodandwinefest.com.
Every year around mid-October, when I receive that much-anticipated invitation to my friendsâ€™ annual Halloween costume party, I scramble around to various Austin thrift stores (and then dig through my costume bin) to see what sort of ridiculous outfit I can come up with. The stars must be in alignment this year, because I just got word that Cirque du Soleilâ€”that Canadian-based, all-human theatrical circus that highlights grace and strength, with elaborate costumes, music, and setsâ€“is bringing its new insect-themed touring show, Ovo, to Frisco and Houston in 2011. (â€œOvoâ€ means egg in Portuguese.) I canâ€™t wait! Not only do I have inspiration for an over-the-top costume (though Iâ€™ll admit execution may be tricky), but Iâ€™m firming up plans to be amazed in 2011. Iâ€™m envisioning acrobats on giant spiderwebs, suspended over the stage. I canâ€™t help it, Iâ€™m a Cirque nerd.
And speaking of Halloween, El Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead), the traditional celebration of life & death embraced by many Latin American cultures, follows a few days later, on November 2. Youâ€™ll find celebrations in San Antonio and other Texas cities with prominent Hispanic populations, so seek them out if youâ€™re of the mind to embrace the cycle of life and remember loved ones who have left this mortal coil.
In Houston, Lawndale Art Center (www.lawndaleartenter.org) celebrates El Dia de los Muertos beginning this Friday, October 22, with its 23rd annual Dia de los Muertos Gala and Retablo Silent Auction. One of Lawndaleâ€™s biggest fundraisers, the gala ($45) offers attendees the opportunity to bid on small artworks (retablos) created by well-known Houston and internationally known artists. The worksâ€”both reverent and irreverentâ€” will be on display through November 6 in the Lawndale galleries. Other Lawndale events in conjunction with El Dia de los Muertos include a community ofrenda (offering), during which guests are encouraged to bring a personal item to the community altar to honor departed loved ones (October 18 through November 6); a papel picado workshop on October 28, during which guests can learn the traditional art of Mexican paper-cutting; and a Family Day Fiesta on November 6, featuring performances by Mixteco Ballet Folklorico and the Houston Grand Opera.
How will you celebrate the season?
A few years ago, after writing a story on the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center in Austin, I got the gardening bug, big-time. And since the only lawnmower I owned (and still own) was a rusty push-mower, I decided to till up my water-greedy Saint Augustine grass and turn my lawn into a giant native-plant garden. And now that the plants have matured, itâ€™s a jungle of Lindheimer senna, agaves, Texas sage, butterfly bush, and dozens of other plants whose names I promised Iâ€™d never forgetâ€¦ but did. Iâ€™m not the most organized landscaper, itâ€™s true.
But in honor of the second annual Texas Native Plant Week (October 18-24), a commemoration sponsored by the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, the National Wildlife Federation, and the City of Austin, Iâ€™m going to spend some time in the garden this weekend, trying to re-identify the plants that make me smile so often. They require very little care, and their blooms and foliage bring interest year-round. But what I most love about my little jungle is that it provides homes for all manner of bees, butterflies, praying mantises, toads, birds, anoles, and other interesting creatures. Never a dull moment out there.
Poke around the dedicated Web site, www.txnativeplantweek.org, to learn more about which plants and trees will do well in your part of Texas. Youâ€™ll find lists of native plant & seed providers, as well as recommended plants for any of the six regions of Texas, along with loads of other information.
In our November issue, we delve into the joys of traditional (and not-so-traditional) hot dogs, with a sidebar on New Braunfels' upcoming sausage celebrationâ€“Wurstfest-which celebrates its 50th anniversary this year.The fest, which takes place October 29 through November 7, features live music and dancing fueled by lots of German sausage and beer.
And I just got word that the Wurstfest Association, the dedicated team of enthusiasts who have organized this popular event for the past half-century, will debut a 17 X 75-foot Wurstfest-themed mural on Monday, October 18, at noon. The mural, painted by local artist Brent McCarthy, is at 124 Elizabeth Street in New Braunfels, next door to the Circle Arts Theater. The unveiling party will offer a preview of the big Wurstfest bash, with live music and refreshments.
Hey, those Wurstfest folks know how to throw a party! (Practice your chicken dance now.) See www.wurstfest.com.