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Saturday Afternoon in Smithville

Written by | Published January 25, 2012

My sister Joan was in Austin last weekend visiting from Dallas, and we decided to forgo the usual big-city haunts and spend an afternoon in Smithville. I had written about Smithville's movie-town status in November TH, and Joan wanted to explore downtown Smithville.

Comfort Cafe's Chicken-Curry Salad

We began with lunch at Comfort Café, just off Main St., where I dined on one of my research trips but regrettably didn't have room to include in my story. (I was pleased to see in the January issue, Bob McClure had written a Reader Recommendation on the chicken salad at the café.) I have had the chicken-curry salad and it was sweetly refreshing. Since I hadn't eaten breakfast yet, I chose the Sammy Bennie, one of three Eggs Benedict dishes on the extensive breakfast/lunch menu. Generously topped with hollandaise sauce over two fluffy poached eggs, salmon and English muffins, the dish was satisfying yet didn't make me feel overstuffed. Joan opted for a freshly-made Potato Florentine Soup with a side of field greens. Open for breakfast and lunch, Comfort Café will also begin serving on Friday nights, 6-9 p.m. starting Feb. 3.

We strolled down Main St. and stopped at Tom-Kat Paper Dolls, as Joan has fond memories of playing with and collecting paper dolls growing up in Hong Kong. As I mentioned in the November story, I continue to be amazed at the range and scope of sartorial themes played out in illustrator/shop owner Tom Tierney's paper-doll books. Some of the newest ones depict the royal newlyweds William and Kate and the late fashion designer Alexander McQueen. Joan bought a book of designer fashions from the 1950s-90s, and we marveled at and recalled some of the trends of those times.

SACS on Main

As with many small-town downtowns, Smithville's Main Street has antiques stores galore. But we discovered a new and somewhat different type of shop, Sacs on Main Resale Boutique, which opened two weeks ago and swarming with customers. Sacs is much like Buffalo Exchange's trendy and youthful resale womens apparel but without the cramped racks. There are also new, handcrafted accessories in the mix, such as headbands topped with fabric flowers and jewelry from next door neighbor Scattered Light. Be sure to check out the back room of the store, everything is $1, and I saw some great buys, like a tailored vintage black brocade cape, and a slim brown floral 60s-inspired sheath dress.

It was a relaxing yet not unfamiliar change of pace from our usual Austin jaunts.

Culinary Adventure in Killeen

Written by | Published January 20, 2012

Like a lot of women in Central Texas, I imagine, I once dated a soldier stationed at Fort Hood, the lifeblood of the military city of Killeen. On most weekends during our short courtship, he'd visit me in Austin, where we'd frequent the live-music venues on Sixth Street and along Guadalupe, the road that parallels the UT campus. On a few occasions, though, I made the one-hour trip to the base. This was a few years before Operation Desert Storm and many years before 9-11, and security concerns weren't the same as they are now. So on one night when he had guard duty at one of the post's motor pools, I accompanied him. I assume this was allowed but can't be certain. Regardless, no one stopped us. And so I have a rather surreal and oddly romantic memory of a warm night curled up on an armored tank, watching the stars.

Happy Christmas to Y'all!

Written by | Published December 22, 2011

Though I am no poet laureate, I couldn’t resist throwing my Texas spin on ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas.” I know it’s been done before, but I'll share my version, nonetheless … with a few links to help you see what a great state we live in.

Happy Christmas to Y'all!

‘Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the state,

every Texan was stirring, they could hardly wait!

In the desert, coyotes howled a wintry song.

In the Valley, a chorus of birds sang along.

~*~

Sunbathers on the coast sported their holiday glow,

while Panhandle children danced in the snow.

The Monahans revelers surfed the sands of Christmas time,

and caroling passengers rode the Polar Express from Palestine.

~*~

The big cities were a beacon of bright lights ­– reds and greens,

and Hill Country Main streets aglow with festively-lit scenes.

Across the Lone Star state, it was very easy to see

that hearts were filled with love, and there was much felicity.

~*~

Restless, they were, in their holiday cheer,

filled with the knowledge that Christmas is near.

When what should they spy across the Comanche Moon

But a silhouette of Santa. He’d be here soon!

~*~

They raced to their beds as Santa approached,

And tried to find sleep, as they had been coached.

With much state for St. Nick to cover, led by Rudolph’s bright red nose,

The excited Texans feigned sleep until they did doze.

~*~

In the still of the silent night, Santa made his way

to every home under the Texas sky, from desert and to bay.

From canyons and subtropical climes, he didn't skip a beat,

making every stop, like clockwork, savoring each gifted treat.

~*~

Then off in the big sky he rose out of sight,

And with a cheerful belly-chuckle he shouted:

"Happy Texas Christmas, y’all, and to y’all a good-night!"

christmas-holly2ya

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A Texas connection with Marty Scorsese's Hugo

Written by | Published December 14, 2011

I recently went to see the new Martin Scorsese film Hugo, the director’s first film intended for family viewing—and a 3D picture to boot. Based on American writer Brian Selznick’s Caldecott Award-winning book The Invention of Hugo Cabret, about an orphan living in a busy, 1930s train station in Paris, the film captivated me with its characters, inventive plot, and gorgeous use of 3D-technology. The movie (and book) draws heavily on the mythology and history of real-life French filmmaker Georges Mèliés, a magician by training who directed more than 500 innovative films before declaring bankruptcy in 1913.

Interestingly, the Mèliés story has a Texas connection. One of the reasons Georges Mèliés suffered financially toward the end of his film career was that American film companies were screening pirated versions of his films, so in 1902 he sent his brother Gaston Mèliés to the United States to guard his copyrights.

Gaston, also a filmmaker, spent a few years in New York, but he eventually settled in San Antonio, possibly to treat himself to the healing sulphur waters near the ruins of the San Jose Mission. In San Antonio, Gaston Mèliés established a studio called the Star Film Ranch, and devoted his talents to turning out some 70 one-reel films, mostly westerns. The San Jose ruins served as the set for at least three Star Film productions, all made in 1910. Like his brother Georges, Gaston was fond of special effects and outlandish action sequences: A May 1976 story in the San Antonio Light notes that Mèliés’ film An Unwilling Cowboy featured a full-blown square dance on horseback.

In 1911, Gaston and his Star Film Ranch maximized the appeal of the Alamo with a film called The Immortal Alamo, in which Mèliés cast himself as William Travis (and director John Ford’s older brother Francis played Davy Crockett). Students from the Peacock Academy, a San Antonio military institute, played both Texian and Mexican soldiers.

It’s a big state, but a small world.

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The whoopers are here!

Written by | Published November 22, 2011

In January issue of Texas Highways, which we’re putting to bed before the Thanksgiving holiday, my colleague Nola McKey suggests an action-packed 2012 itinerary for those of you who adore a good festival.

I’m particularly interested in the upcoming Whooping Crane Festival in Port Aransas (February 23-26)—not only because I love Port A, but also because I admire the birds’ tenaciousness and survival skills. After all, while whooping cranes are still on the state and federal Endangered Species List, their flock size should reach record levels this year. Once numbering only 21 birds in the entire planet, whoopers in 2012 are expected to number somewhere around 290, according to U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Biologist Tom Stehn.

Texas’ winter flock of whooping cranes spend the summer in northwestern Canada, at Wood Buffalo National Park, and usually travel to Texas through a migration corridor that crosses over the Texas Panhandle and the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex. Then the birds head south, where their flight path takes them over Waco, Austin, and Victoria before arriving at Aransas National Wildlife Refuge in November.

A quick phone call to the refuge just now confirmed their arrival, and the numbers are looking good, folks. The park official with whom I spoke said they hadn’t conducted a formal survey yet, but they’re estimating that 75% of the population has already arrived, with more trickling in every day. They’ll stay in Texas through March or April, depending on weather conditions.

I’m fascinated by the fact that it’s possible (not likely, but possible nonetheless) to spy these birds during migration—perhaps even in the skies above Austin. They tend to migrate in small groups of four or five birds, and they often stop at wetlands environments or agricultural fields en route to the coast. While they resemble sandhill cranes, whooping cranes are larger—more than four feet tall (the tallest birds in North America!)— and are solid white, except for black wing tips that are visible only when they’re flying.

I hope to get to the Port A region sometime this winter to see them. See arannwr_0081www.fws.gov/southwest/refuges/texas/aransas/

East Austin Studio Touring!

Written by | Published November 18, 2011

Last weekend (November 12-13) was the first weekend of the newly expanded, bigger-and-better East Austin Studio Tour, which invites the public to tour more than 145 artists’ studios throughout East Austin over two weekends. It’s the Tour’s 10th anniversary, and it’s amazing to me to think about how it’s grown from a grassroots effort with 28 studios on tour to this year’s veritable art party.

City Park (Dallas, TX), 2008, by David LeonardI made it to a few stops last Saturday, including the home painting studio of my friend David Leonard, who paints cityscapes, landscapes, and industrial settings. See his painting at left, titled City Park (Dallas,TX), which he completed in 2008. I admire his work because he somehow marries a photorealist’s attention to detail with the warmth and vibrancy of an Impressionist. His work is frequently featured at Austin’s Davis Gallery, but it’s fun to see his works in a home setting, and to study where and how he works.

That’s part of the appeal of the tour for me—to witness the art-making process and setting of each artist. So I’ll hit the streets again this Sunday, spend a little money to support artists whose works grab me, and no doubt find inspiration in details both large and small. See www.eastaustinstudiotour.com.

Embracing Dia de los Muertos

Written by | Published November 2, 2011

Altar set up by the family of Silvestra "Sally" Ferguson at the Mexican American Culture Center in Austin. Altar set up by the family of Silvestra "Sally" Ferguson at the Mexican American Culture Center in Austin.

Dia de los Muertos is nothing new. The ritual celebrated in Mexico and parts of the United States gets its roots from the Aztecs, and many – possibly yourself, included – have long had this as part of their own life experience. But even as a Rodriguez, it wasn’t something that my family participated in. I only recently started paying closer attention to the celebration, thanks in part to a friend who passionately shared the history of it with me and to the museums who seem to embrace it more and more by opening up space for traditional ofrendas (altar offerings). My recent visit to the Rio Grande Valley and many of its museums, featuring Dia de los Muertos exhibits, magnified that interest in me even more.

The Day of the Dead is based on the belief that the dead come to visit their loved ones from Oct. 31-Nov. 2. In recognition of this homecoming, families and friends set out altars of offerings –– at their gravesite or in homes ––that include a photo(s) of loved ones who have passed, along with items that represented that person and their hobbies, as well as their favorite foods, drinks and more. Toys and candy are typically placed for the children.

Along with the personal items, the altars include many universal Dia de los Muertos symbols including crosses/religious symbols, fruit, pan de muerto (breads often shaped like the skull and crossbones), marigolds (or Cempazúchitl), sugar skulls and candles to light the way for the dead.

Calacas, or skeleton figurines, are all over these Dia de los Muertos displays. They are often seen doing joyful things, as in life. The calacas represents death as an extension of life and not something to be feared.

Various Dia de los Muertos images created by children at the Children's Museum of Brownsville. Dia de los Muertos images created by children are currently on display at the Children's Museum of Brownsville.

Most notable among the calacas is La Catrina, the well-dressed skull figure, usually in her finest gown, hat and gloves. It was explained to me recently that La Catrina mocks a wealthy woman who did nothing to help the poor. The point is being made that no matter how wealthy or privileged we may be in life, at the core … and in death, we are all bones … all the same.

Calaveras are the skulls represented in the altars - most especially, the sugar skulls. The abundance of sugar made it the perfect medium for creating the folk art that represented the departed in colorful and positive ways.

I learned a lot about some of the meanings from my dear friend Cole Ynda who, in memory of her late brother David, wrote a beautiful poem incorporating the elements of Dia de los Muertos. She explained the symbolism in her poem, Querido.

My first - and only - sugar skull creation.My first - and only - sugar skull creation.

I didn’t know, before that, that there was a reason the marigolds were always the flower of choice. Aside from it being noted as sacred to Mictlantecuhtli, the Aztec god of the dead, Cole put it in words that brought it more to life for me, so to speak. She said the marigolds serve as a guide, much like the candles do, because “the dead can see the color and vibration of the flower.” In her poem she calls them “los colores de la tierra, de la vida” –– colors of the earth and of life. That just sounds so lovely to me.

A few years ago, I visited the Mexican American Culture Center in Austin during their Dia de los Muertos festivities. I joined a craft table with a bunch of children, but embraced the kid inside me and was determined to make my own sugar skull. The first sugar skull I ever decorated, I dedicated it to two “D”s – my dad, Benito Cruz Rodriguez and to David, Cole’s brother. I think I did an okay job. Well, the 5-year-old next to me started copying mine and you know what they say about imitation. :)

Maria Hurtado shows one of the many altars she designed for the Mission Historical Museum's Dia de los Muertos showcase currently on exhibit.Maria Hurtado shows one of the many altars she designed for Mission Historical Museum's Dia de los Muertos showcase this year.

The Spanish tried to squash the ritual, calling it sacrilege, but I’m beginning to see it for the beautiful, poetic gesture that it is. It’s not a mockery of death. It’s more about coming to terms with it and its marriage to the thing we call life. It’s about remembering and continuing to embrace our loved ones, even in death.

PAN DE MUERTO

  • 5 cups of flour
  • 1/2 cup of sugar
  • 1 teaspoon of salt
  • 1 tablespoon of anise seed
  • 2 packets of dry yeast
  • 1/2 cup of milk
  • 1/2 cup of water
  • 1/2 cup of butter
  • 4 eggs

Mix together the sugar, salt, anise, dry yeast and only 1½ cups of the flour.

In a small saucepan, heat the milk, water butter.

Add the liquid mixture to the dry mixture and beat well.

Blend in the eggs and another 1 ½ cups of flour and, once again, beat well.

Gradually mix in the remainder of the flour until you get a firm, non-sticky dough, and knead for about 10 minutes.

Let the dough rise to double it’s size (about an hour) in a greased bowl.

Reshape the dough, incorporating some bone shapes on top, then let it rise for another hour. You may also make smaller individual breads and/or try different shapes with the dough.

Bake at 350 degrees for about 40 minutes.

After baking, you may sprinkle it with confectioner's sugar and colored sugar.

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Public Art in Austin

Written by | Published October 26, 2011

I took a vacation day recently to celebrate a milestone with my husband, and we decided to play tourist in Austin. First, we took the dogs to the new hike-and-bike trail that wends through the city’s growing Mueller neighborhood, where local artwork embellishes the trails, and where botanists with the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center have helped restore a swath of native prairie grassland. Then, intrigued by the promise of more public art, we ventured downtown to the swinging 2nd Street District, where we browsed the shops, checked out the new Violet Crown Cinema (finally! an art cinema downtown!), and spent a rewarding few hours exploring the artwork found throughout Austin’s beautiful, limestone-and-copper City Hall, which was designed by architect Antoine Predock. (The angular, copper “armadillo tail,” which juts above 2nd Street, “literally shouts ‘Here I am!’” according to architect Phil Reed of the local firm Cotera +Reed.)

Modern architecture aside, what a surprising treat this art collection is. This is the 7th year that City Hall has hosted its year-long People’s Gallery exhibit—a collection of more than 150 visual artworks by local artists. The program, part of the city’s Art in Public Places initiative, is designed to encourage public dialogue and the understanding and enjoyment of visual art, and I’d say it accomplishes that goal. Edgy sculptures, contemporary paintings, intriguing photographs, and mixed-media pieces galore are displayed in the hallways, foyers, lobbies, and meeting rooms throughout City Hall, and we enjoyed admiring them as we moseyed through the warmly lit building. (There’s free parking in the City Hall Parking Garage, too; validate your ticket at City Hall or at most 2nd Street District shops and restaurants.)

The People’s Gallery Exhibition 2011 remains on view through January 12, and you can cast your vote for the People’s Choice Awards through December 30.

Marian Haigh's sculpture "jackrabbit," wood-fired stonewareMarian Haigh's sculpture "jackrabbit," wood-fired stoneware

See www.ci.austin.tx.us/cityhall/gallery.htm.

Art, Community, and Being Generous

Written by | Published September 30, 2011

[caption align="alignright" width="263" caption="Pyracantha #132 by Stella Alesi"]

Pyracantha #132 by Stella Alesi[/caption]

Blue Scales Yellow Stamp, by Jennifer Chenoweth

Blue Scales Yellow Stamp, by Jennifer Chenoweth
As fall’s first cool front pushed dramatic clouds into the skies above downtown Austin on Thursday night, I made my way through a well-behaved crowd viewing paintings, collages, and sculptures at the new W Hotel offices of Gensler, the global architecture firm that has designed hundreds of sleek structures in places as far away as Shanghai and Istanbul.

Since art, architecture, and community often meld together, it makes sense that Gensler chose to host the official launch party of a new endeavor called Generous Art, an online art gallery that envisions art purchases as community-oriented transactions. Conceived and brought to fruition by visual artist and entrepreneur Jennifer Chenoweth, Generous Art works like this: When a site visitor purchases art, the retail price is divided among the artist (40%), a nonprofit organization of the buyer’s choosing (40%), and the gallery itself.

More than 20 Austin-area artists are currently on board, including Virginia Fleck, who creates colorful and intricate collages from plastic bags and other recycled materials; Stella Alesi, a realist painter focused on the life cycle of birds, lizards, plants, and other life forms; Wells Mason, a craftsman currently fascinated with blurring the line between sculpture and furniture; and Emily Moores, whose stark yet evocative charcoal-on-paper works resemble Japanese woodcuts. Beautiful stuff.

This thought has stayed with me all day: Art, beauty, and community—all intangible concepts worth nurturing, whenever and wherever we find it.

Where the Chefs Eat

Written by | Published September 26, 2011

Chef Monica Pope at Revival Market, a grocery, butcher, and charcuterie in the Heights. Photo by Julie Soefer.Chef Monica Pope at Revival Market, a grocery, butcher, and charcuterie in the Heights. Photo by Julie Soefer.

A few years ago, I had the good fortune to participate in one of Houston’s first “Where the Chefs Eat” Culinary Tours, a collaboration between some of the city’s most adventuresome chefs and the Houston Convention and Visitors Bureau—both groups who sought to elevate the city’s reputation as a world-class food town. Instead of visiting some of Houston’s many well-regarded “fine dining” spots, we explored a half-dozen or so casual and/or family-owned joints that the chefs frequent when they’re not cooking in their own restaurants. We toured the kitchens, met the owners, traded recipes and stories, and generally had a blast—feasting on veritable banquets of barbecue, Thai entrees, Indian dishes, and interior Mexican specialties—with professional chefs to guide us in our exploration of new cuisines, ingredients, and preparations.

The only downside to the tours? They’re so popular that they sell out quickly. So I was excited to receive the 2012 tour schedule and to learn that the three-year-old program has grown to encompass more tours, more chefs, and more restaurants. Another interesting element: Proceeds from the 2012 tours will benefit the new Foodways Texas organization (www.foodwaystexas.com ), which opens to public membership in 2012 and whose mission is to “preserve, promote, and celebrate the diverse food cultures of Texas.”

Tickets for the first tour—January 22’s “Chinese New Year with Chefs Chris Shepherd and Justin Yu” —go on sale December 1, followed by opportunities to join tours such as “Late night Bars and Bites with Chefs Seth Siegel-Gardener, Terrence Gallivan, and Bobby Heugel and Kevin Floyd,” “Oysters with Chefs Mark Holley and Jonathan Jones,” and many others. New additions for 2012 include farm tours, explorations of coffee and dessert, and a look-see at citywide Day of the Dead celebrations; popular “repeats” include explorations of barbecue, street food, Southern comfort food, and Vietnamese cuisine. See www.houstonculinarytours.com for a full run-down.

Wine Tasting at Barr Mansion

Written by | Published September 20, 2011

pinot-gris-544I’m learning to love wine. A few years ago, a friend organized a series of wine-tasting parties based on recommendations from Master Sommelier (and SMU graduate) Andrea Immer Robinson’s book Great Wine Made Simple. As we progressed through the first chapters—learning to differentiate between light-bodied and full-bodied styles, identifying characteristics of “The Big Six Grapes” (Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Merlot/Cabernet Sauvignon, and Shiraz), and building a vocabulary of “flavor words” like tannic and oaky—I began to think about how the pleasures of drinking wine encompasses not only taste, but also tradition, history, agriculture, geography, chemistry, geology, and travel. Robinson, now one of fewer than 20 women in the world who have been made Master Sommeliers by the Court of Master Sommeliers, makes the wine world approachable and fun. After all, her own education began while she was a college student in Dallas, when she took a wine-tasting class at The Grape, a popular restaurant on Greenville Avenue.

Last night, I had the opportunity to attend a wine-tasting event at Austin’s Barr Mansion and Artisan Ballroom, a beautiful event site in northeast Austin that is the nation’s only certified organic event facility. A two-story clapboard Victorian home anchors the site of a former farmstead, and past a series of native-plant gardens and sprawling oak trees (a Certified Wildlife Habitat), a modern, glass-and-cedar ballroom (recently rebuilt after being destroyed by fire last year) hosts events for up to 600 people.

This particular tasting, hosted by the Loire Valley Wine Bureau, offered opportunities to sample an array of delicious varietals from France’s Loire Valley, which benefits from the temperature-moderating influence of the Atlantic Ocean. There are some 65 appellations (wine-growing regions) in the Loire Valley, and the primary grapes used include Chenin Blanc, Cabernet Franc, Sauvignon Blanc, and a grape called Melon de Bourgogne, which lends itself to crisp, dry whites.

Since one of my favorite varietals is Sauvignon Blanc—a grape used in Texas wines produced by Fall Creek Vineyards, Spicewood Vineyards, and other Texas producers—I was particularly interested in exploring the differences in style between French versions (often made in the Sancerre appellations) compare. This, I learned, is a classic “Old World/New World” comparison.

Seems to me that Texas Sauvignon Blancs, like their New World siblings from Australia and New Zealand, seem slightly effervescent and bright, while the French Sancerres seemed creamier, with an expressive floral nose and a still-spritely mouthfeel.

I enjoyed chatting with an aspiring sommelier named Justine Langston, who currently buys wine for the small wine-bar chain Crú and will be sitting for her Sommelier Certification exam in October. Langston told me that in Europe, wine-drinking is rarely intimidating, and is in fact transcends all classes of society. The days of snooty sommeliers in America is over, she assured me.

In a room filled with so many outstanding French wines—some from vineyards that date back hundreds of years—I couldn’t help but wonder how the young Texas wine industry compares. One vendor told me that the difference wasn’t necessarily a difference in quality, even as he acknowledged the challenges of growing certain varietals in Texas simply because it gets so dang hot here. So we grow the ones that DO perform well here, he said—much as vineyards do the world over. The difference, this fellow told me, is more a result of scale. Texan growers simply cannot produce as much wine as large vineyards in France, Italy, Chile, and Spain, for example—and so in general, a high-quality Texan wine costs more than a comparable bottle from more-established wine-producing regions. Any thoughts on this, wine folks out there?

I don’t mind paying a few extra dollars to support a local industry. But I still like to experience how a style is made in other parts of the world—to compare, contrast, and become more knowledgeable. It’s a fun endeavor, and one of the few educational paths where repeating a lesson is encouraged. Cheers.

Pix from the Festival

Written by | Published September 19, 2011

[caption align="alignleft" width="300" caption="Dramatic clouds"]

Dramatic clouds[/caption]

Mavis Staples takes us there

Mavis Staples takes us there
the bike zoo

the bike zoo
A great weekend all around! Were you there? What was the moment that stood out for you? On the third day, I finally figured out how to maneuver through the streams of people, which reminded me of water rivulets making their way down a windshield on a rainy day. At some point, you just have to jump in and go with the flow.

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