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 cityâ€™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 Austinâ€™s beautiful, limestone-and-copper City Hall, which was designed by architect Antoine Predock. (The angular, copper â€œarmadillo tail,â€ which juts above 2nd Street, â€œliterally shouts â€˜Here I am!â€™â€ 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 Peopleâ€™s Gallery exhibitâ€”a collection of more than 150 visual artworks by local artists. The program, part of the cityâ€™s Art in Public Places initiative, is designed to encourage public dialogue and the understanding and enjoyment of visual art, and Iâ€™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. (Thereâ€™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 Peopleâ€™s Gallery Exhibition 2011 remains on view through January 12, and you can cast your vote for the Peopleâ€™s Choice Awards through December 30.
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- Blue Scales Yellow Stamp, by Jennifer Chenoweth
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 buyerâ€™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 communityâ€”all intangible concepts worth nurturing, whenever and wherever we find it.
A few years ago, I had the good fortune to participate in one of Houstonâ€™s first â€œWhere the Chefs Eatâ€ Culinary Tours, a collaboration between some of the cityâ€™s most adventuresome chefs and the Houston Convention and Visitors Bureauâ€”both groups who sought to elevate the cityâ€™s reputation as a world-class food town. Instead of visiting some of Houstonâ€™s many well-regarded â€œfine diningâ€ spots, we explored a half-dozen or so casual and/or family-owned joints that the chefs frequent when theyâ€™re not cooking in their own restaurants. We toured the kitchens, met the owners, traded recipes and stories, and generally had a blastâ€”feasting on veritable banquets of barbecue, Thai entrees, Indian dishes, and interior Mexican specialtiesâ€”with professional chefs to guide us in our exploration of new cuisines, ingredients, and preparations.
The only downside to the tours? Theyâ€™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 â€œpreserve, promote, and celebrate the diverse food cultures of Texas.â€
Tickets for the first tourâ€”January 22â€™s â€œChinese New Year with Chefs Chris Shepherd and Justin Yuâ€ â€”go on sale December 1, followed by opportunities to join tours such as â€œLate night Bars and Bites with Chefs Seth Siegel-Gardener, Terrence Gallivan, and Bobby Heugel and Kevin Floyd,â€ â€œOysters with Chefs Mark Holley and Jonathan Jones,â€ 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 â€œrepeatsâ€ include explorations of barbecue, street food, Southern comfort food, and Vietnamese cuisine. See www.houstonculinarytours.com for a full run-down.
Iâ€™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 Robinsonâ€™s book Great Wine Made Simple. As we progressed through the first chaptersâ€”learning to differentiate between light-bodied and full-bodied styles, identifying characteristics of â€œThe Big Six Grapesâ€ (Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Merlot/Cabernet Sauvignon, and Shiraz), and building a vocabulary of â€œflavor wordsâ€ like tannic and oakyâ€”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 Austinâ€™s Barr Mansion and Artisan Ballroom, a beautiful event site in northeast Austin that is the nationâ€™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 Franceâ€™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 Blancâ€”a grape used in Texas wines produced by Fall Creek Vineyards, Spicewood Vineyards, and other Texas producersâ€”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 â€œOld World/New Worldâ€ 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 CrÃº 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 winesâ€”some from vineyards that date back hundreds of yearsâ€”I couldnâ€™t help but wonder how the young Texas wine industry compares. One vendor told me that the difference wasnâ€™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 saidâ€”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 exampleâ€”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 donâ€™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 worldâ€”to compare, contrast, and become more knowledgeable. Itâ€™s a fun endeavor, and one of the few educational paths where repeating a lesson is encouraged. Cheers.
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- Mavis Staples takes us there
- the bike zoo
Stevie Wonder may have stolen the show on the second night of ACL, but the glorious rain that came earlier in the dayâ€”which inspired smiles and celebration even as festival-goers got drenchedâ€”ushered in the most surprise. After all, it hadnâ€™t rained (significantly, anyway) in Austin since May. Temperatures modulated and energized the crowds. Fall is in the air!
Once again, the smooth operations of the festival impressed me. Even as the park teemed with people, the mood was easy and accommodating. Props to fest organizers C3, who continue to make improvements to the festivalâ€™s operations and addressing concerns. This year, we found increased shade structures, additional free water stations (courtesy of CamelBak), and numerous opportunities to assist organizations such as The Nature Conservancy and statewide firefighting squads. Itâ€™s always great to feel philanthropic while youâ€™re having fun.
Aside from the music, thereâ€™s a lot going on at ACL. What other festival, for example, offers such a wide variety of dining options prepared by upscale restaurants? And Iâ€™m not talking about turkey legs and corn dogs. Local flavor rules here. ACLâ€™s food court, â€œcuratedâ€ by Chef Jeff Blank of Hudsonâ€™s on the Bend, offers options such as pork-belly sliders with pickled onion ($6 by Odd Duck Farm to Trailer), oyster tacos with chile-honey aioli ($8 from Garridoâ€™s), crispy artichoke hearts ($6 by Bess Bistro), steak frit sandwiches ($7 by Aquarelle), and truffled macaroni-and-cheese ($7 by Lonesome Dove Western Bistro out of Fort Worth. Iâ€™ll admit I found it amusing to see bikini-and-boots-clad fans sprawled on the grass eating meals they might normally enjoy by candlelight in a restaurant.
When the rain subsided, I spent some time checking out the arts offerings. The variety here reminded me of a marriage of Austinâ€™s Cherrywood Art Fair, Armadillo Christmas Bazaar, and South Congressâ€™ First Friday funkiness. Drive-by-Press offered silkscreened T-shirts, Bolsa Bonita had an assortment of kitschy and ironic bags printed with hirsute Tom Selleck images, Rokokoâ€™s imaginative ceramics, dresses by SOLA, $25 straw cowboy hats by Texas Headgear, leather-and-metal cuffs by LeighElena jewelry, scarves by Pangea, and wood-mounted prints of Austin scenes by Austin Art Garage. Most vendors were local, though a few came from as far as Chicago. The owner of Souldier, who was here from the Windy City for her 5th year at ACL, tells me her recycled-seatbelt headbands, bags, and guitar straps sell well at ACL, and that bands such as My Morning Jacket, Iron and Wine, TV on the Radio, and Fleet Foxes all use her guitar straps on stage.
So the line blurs once again. Art and music. Bring on the fun.
Walking through the festival grounds at Zilker Park, especially after the sun started to dip and the crowds thickened in anticipation of Austin Music Festival headliners Kanye West and Coldplay, it was easy to imagine myself a mere ant in an army of 40,000 other beings. It was an instant reminder of my small place in humanity. For a moment I felt flustered by the crowd. Then bamâ€”more music, a chance encounter with a friend, a sight that made me laughâ€”and the mood turned in an instant. As a friend put it, ACL is not the minors. What it is, at least to my mind, is an instant submersion into what makes Austin such a tight community.
As I gear up for Day Two of the bash, Iâ€™m reflecting on yesterday and how seamless ACL operations seemed to be. Early in the day, we experienced our first indication of the solidarity of Austin --that joyous moment when skies finally opened up and rained (a short burst, yes, but water all the same) while crowds throughout Zilker shouted in glee and surprise.
The burn ban is in effect this year, and several donation stations for statewide volunteer firefighters reminded us of the wildfire risk. Still, some dedicated smokers (of ciggies and wacky tabac alike) were lighting upâ€”but amazingly, I spied not a single discarded cigarette butt. At least theyâ€™re being responsible, which is the whole point of the ban. In a related note, festival organizers have made what I consider a brilliant business to keep the grounds litter-free: at several stations throughout the park, you can pick up a green trash bag, then meander the grounds picking up stray cans and other recyclables; when the bag is full, you can redeem it for an ACL T-shirt. Neat incentive that makes sense all around.
The festivalâ€™s food options (more on that in other post) are well known for their diversity, quality, and local vibeâ€”with renowned restaurants like Olivia and Hudsonâ€™s creating rave-worthy noshes. But Iâ€™m also pleased to find the eclectic array of Austin shops and artisans selling their creationsâ€”again, reinforcing the sense of community. Weâ€™ll explore that aspect in greater depth today and tomorrow.
On-the-fly conversations with festival-goers, performers, and even a police officer working the event further underscored the community theme. Chilean-American singer Francesca Valenzuela (a knockout with tremendous pipes and a solid pop sensibility) told me that one thing thatâ€™s different about US audiences (and Texas crowds in particular) is that weâ€™re open and supportive of new musical experiences. And the cop with whom I chatted told me with a big grin that he loves the people-watching. He confessed that he was on board to escort Kanye West and his entourage to the stage later that nightâ€”but that he wasnâ€™t star-struck. After all, heâ€™d heard Kanye was a prima donna. (Anyone care to dispute that?)
Biking to Zilker Park was a breeze. I hauled my bike on the back of my car to a spot near the Lady Bird Lake hike-and-bike trail, and popped over in a flash. Pedestrians and bikers on the trail were all smiles, hauling camp chairs, soft-sided coolers, umbrellas, and blankets to the site. â€œSee you there!â€ weâ€™d shout as we passed each otherâ€”strangers united by the promise of music, food, art, sweat, and celebration.
Weâ€™re posting photos to our Facebook page and tweeting all day (as long as the WiFi holds out, anyway), so follow TH on FB and on Twitter.
See you there.
No smoking, no kidding: Thanks to the record-breaking drought and heat this summer, there s absolutely no smoking or any kind (for music fans of a certain age, the Bic lighter salute is now on an iPhone app!). Please heed the warning signs throughout the park and in the surrounding areas. Remember the Bastrop County wildfire and similar fires that have flared throughout the state, and give generously to fire-relief efforts youâ€™ll see in and around the park, and the city this weekend.
Eat well (and drink water) early and often: Iâ€™ve noticed that the long dinnertime lines form from 5-ish â€™til just before the 8 p.m. headliners take the stage, so grab a late lunch/early dinner around 3-4 pm and go back for ice cream later. Besides fest favorite Hudsonâ€™s on the Bendâ€™s Mighty Cone, there are plenty of sumptuous options from local fine-dining establishments, like Aquarelle, Bess, Garridoâ€™s, Mandolaâ€™s, and Olivia. Aquarelleâ€™s steak frites sandwich, Wahooâ€™s fish tacos, or Boomerangâ€™s pies (depending on which line is shorter, or what Iâ€™m craving) usually make for a tasty and satisfying meal for me. This year, Iâ€™m also looking forward to sampling Oliviaâ€™s fried chicken and Odd Duck Farm to Trailerâ€™s grilled pork belly sliders.
Chair or no chair (or bag): I donâ€™t bring a chair â€™cause I like to move around, but if you prefer to have a seat, note that some stages have designated chair zones farther from the stage. And thereâ€™s a chair and bag check-in area near the Lady Bird Lake entrance if you donâ€™t want to lug it around when you want to get closer to the music.
Getting there: Once again, due to the extremely dry ground conditions, parking on the grassy areas is strictly prohibited. Donâ€™t do it! The ACL Fest website has a full list of parking/drop-off suggestions, including the free parking shuttle from Republic Square. You can also bike there, or take a bus route that goes to or near the Lamar/Barton Springs Rd. intersection. From there, itâ€™s a 10-15 minute walk to the fest. Please note that Sunday night bus schedules for most routes end around 9 p.m., so youâ€™ll want to plan an alternate departure.
Hope these tips help enchance your ACL Fest experience. And I hope youâ€™ll comment to share some of your own tips, too!
Across the globe, when talk of music festivals come up, two Texas events always make the list - spring's South by Southwest and fall's Austin City Limits Music Festival, both in Austin â€“ the Live Music Capital of the World, as we like to call it. Austin's Fun, Fun, Fun Fest, in November, is also starting to rise to similar ranks.
We shared a sampling of SXSW in case you decide to add it to your list of things to do (registration for 2012 has already begun ... and book those hotels already!). By that same token, Texas Highways senior editor Lori Moffatt and I will hit the ground running tomorrow, Sept. 16, as the three-day ACL festival kicks off. We will try to bring some of the experience to you via updates on Twitter, Facebook and the Texas Highways blog. Feel free to share your thoughts if you're out there with us. Consider going next year if you're not there this year.
You'll also be able to check out some of the live action from Zilker Park on ACL's YouTube page. The line up is pretty phenomenal with Stevie Wonder, Coldplay, Kanye West and Arcade Fire among the headliners. From legendary performers like Mavis Staples to up-and-coming talents like Ruby Jane, the eight stages will be populated by a vast mix of music including rock, indie, country, folk and electronic performances.
Like SXSW, the crowds at ACL prove that the event isn't just good for Austin, it's good for Texas, with many traveling great distances - across the country and world - to be part of the musical madness that is more than 130 acts over 3 days with crowds of about 70,000 per day.
We want people to travel to and within the state. It's good for our economy, so ... bring it on, and rock on!
While in Port Aransas recently, I drove to Aransas Pass looking for the Bakery CafÃ©, which is on the cover of the September issue and in the True, Texas feature, which had gone to press before I left for vacation. To my surprise, the distinctive turquoise faÃ§ade with the name in bright red letters had been painted tan with brown type.
I mentioned this to co-workers when I returned to the office, concerned we may get letters about the color scheme change. We had just received advance copies of the September issue. Lois Rodriguez, who wrote the Bakery Cafe text, e-mailed the cafÃ© owner to let him know they made the cover, and sent the cover image, noting that we thought the blue paint job looked nice. The owner called Lois to thank us for the magazine coverage, and to say that after they painted the exterior brown, one of his employees preferred the old color combo, but no one could remember how it looked. But thanks to our publication of the cafÃ© image, theyâ€™ll be able to use the issue as a guide if they decide to repaint the cafÃ© blue again. We hope so!
With triple-digit heat already here in Austin (and lingering), Iâ€™m semi-obsessed with swimming pools, so I smiled when I spied the Texas-shaped pool at Amarilloâ€™s Big Texan Motel, the lodging companion to the famous Big Texan restaurant, which celebrates its 50th anniversary this year. (If you havenâ€™t heard of the Big Texanâ€™s â€œfree 72-ounce steak dinner, the mother of all big-food challenges, hereâ€™s the skinny: You have to eat the whole thing, plus a slew of sides, in less than an hour.)
I donâ€™t think I could make a dent in that steak, but I sure can see myself doing a few laps from Amarillo to Brownsville.
Know of any other great hotel pools? Letâ€™s come up with a â€œBest-Ofâ€ list!
Next door to the Texas Prison Museum sits a noteworthy historical museum in its own right. The H.E.A.R.T.S. Veterans Museum (the acronym stands for Helping Every American Remember Through Serving) opened in 2009, and contains battle paraphernalia and personal mementos donated by veterans and their families, from the Civil War up to the current conflict in Afghanistan.
In addition to military gear, dress uniforms, flags, patches, and medals, the museum also displays letters written by soldiers to their loved ones, along with journals, and books written by military personnel documenting the horrors of war and bittersweet homecomings. I was impressed by the magnitude of the collection in a relatively small space. Both World War I and II displays seem extensive, even down to an unused schoolbook note pad from World War I. Womenâ€™s contributions in wartime, particularly World War II are represented with various W.A.C. uniforms and grooming accessories, and photos documenting factory work on the home front. Nearly as extensive is the section from the Vietnam War, which as a child I remember from TV news. Seeing the captured flags and other objects, among soldiersâ€™ memoirs as told through letters and books was quite compelling.
Viewing this memorabilia and reading the personal histories of these soldiers gives me pause, as I consider the enormous sacrifices these men and women have made, especially as we observe Memorial Day.