Written by Lori Moffatt
I-35 through Fort Worth has been a construction-congested mess for as long as I can remember. So imagine my delight to discover, on a holiday trip through the city, that much of the construction in finally finished. For travelers using the Interstate to get to points north or south, it's a much more pleasant commute. And for those bound for Cowtown proper, it's also simpler to reach Fort Worth's ever-expanding Cultural District, as well as the Stockyards National Historic District and downtown's Sundance Square.
As part of my birthday celebration this past weekend, some girlfriends and I signed up for chef Chaya Rao's afternoon Chai Tea class at the Whole Foods Culinary Institute. The price tag ($20) and short time investment (1.5 hours) fit beautifully with our pre-holiday budget. Chaya is from Bangalore, India, the country's third most populous city; it's the capital of the Indian state of Karnataka and known as both "the Garden City of India" for its abundance of green spaces and "the Silicon Valley of India" for its abundance of high-tech industries. It's also a heavily vegetarian region.
My husband, Randy, and I spent most of this past Thanksgiving holiday visiting his folks in Plano, a north Dallas suburb that often feels more sterile than interesting, at least on the surface of things—mile after mile of super-sized retail stores and large suburban homes in developments set off by brick gates. However, on this trip I took the time to explore a bit, and I found a surprising and exciting multiculturalism. In recent years, Indian and pan-Asian supermarkets have popped up on major intersections, their patrons perhaps drawn to Plano for such major technology employers as Ericsson, EDS, and Perot Systems. (I could spend hours exploring aisles of garlicky, chile-laden condiments, not to mention the hundreds of different kinds of beans, lentils, and other pretty seeds.)
I make the trek up to the Red River and beyond on I-35 several times a year to visit family in Oklahoma, and now that the holiday season is officially upon us, I'm starting to steel myself for the trip, planning several stops to allay road fatigue and facilitate conversation once we arrive in the Sooner State. "How was the drive?" my grandmother will surely ask. And rather than comment on the traffic (same-old, same-old, ho-hum), I'd like to contribute an interesting experience to the conversation.
In Dallas' trendy Victory Park development, the new American Airlines Center— with its modern architecture and enormous exterior video monitors that might make you think of Times Square or Tokyo— gears up for a full schedule of pro basketball and hockey games through spring 2009. A recent visit to the W Hotel-Victory Park—a high-gloss hotel whose entrance is steps away from the AA Center—made me envision a perfect weekend for a sports-loving couple willing to pull out the stops for a luxurious weekend.
In February 2007, I wrote a story about Central Market's cooking classes, a piece that was a blast to research, as I learned to make several varieties of sushi and the best-ever chocolate cookie. (The secret cookie ingredient is salt, which makes the sweet taste of the chocolate even stronger). What I did not learn, however, was how to properly use a knife.
This past weekend, my husband and I made the trek up I-35 to visit relatives in Oklahoma, and we made several worthwhile stops along the way to break up the drive. I had been curious about the growing "Babe's Chicken Dinner House" Texas franchise, and a billboard enticed us to stop at the Sanger location—in the historic downtown area—for a late lunch. Downtown Sanger, where 1880s buildings speak of the town's glory days as a cattle-shipping hub on the Santa Fe Railroad, is experiencing a construction boom of sorts, but Babe's was closed for a midday siesta. I poked my head into a candle-and-jewelry shop to ask for a dining recommendation, something local, something interesting.
It seems I have a lot to learn when it comes to the fine art of pit-mastering.
Last evening, I attempted to make Dr Pepper Barbecued Chicken, a recipe from John de Mers' forthcoming book Follow the Smoke: 14,783 Miles of Great Texas Barbecue (Bright Sky Press). Dr Pepper enjoys a long tradition in Texas, having been invented around 1885 at Castle's Old Corner Drug Store in Waco. Over the years, the drink has been advertised as an aphrodisiac—It makes old men young, and restores vim, vigor, and vitality—and as a stimulant; "Tonic, Brain Food, and Exhilarant!"
I remember last June—one of the rainiest Junes on record—when my basil plants grew out of control and those crazy orb-weaver spiders were spinning their erratic webs between plants and fence posts with abandon. If last year was The Year of the Spiders, I'm calling 2008 The Year of the Web Worms. Seems as though every pecan tree in my neighborhood is sporting at least a dozen cottony web worm nests; and if you look closely at what's going on inside, it's simultaneously fascinating and disgusting. After all, there's a writhing community inside those sticky, cottony webs'each pale yellow larva waiting to grow into a hungry, hairy caterpillar, and then, finally, a full-grown adult moth (Order Lepidotera—just like a butterfly, it turns out' but from the less-glamorous Family Arctiidae, if you want to get specific.)Those web worms might be gross to me, but they're succulent sausages of larval deliciousness to wasps'something I learned from Howard Garrett and Malcolm Beck's captivating (if you're into this sort of thing) Texas Bug Book: The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly, published by UT Press in 1999. (I consult this book often. What can I say? I collected beetles as a child, and people don't really change.)So you want to get rid of your web worms? Put down the Raid and embrace those wasps building honeycombed homes beneath your eaves. Turns out that if you can somehow manage to rip open one of the webs'with a stick or a rake, for example'the wasps attack the worms. I tried this last weekend, and watched'enthralled and horrified'as the worms met a violent, yet strangely poetic end. Who needs summer action movies? Much drama unfolds on the other side of your screen door.
I've been giving my trusty Weber kettle grill a workout lately, and this past Sunday, I tried my hand at making the perfect sirloin steak, seared and slightly salty on the outside, pink in the middle, and tender and toothsome at the same time. While I prepared the grill, I remembered our June 1997 story on Tom Perini's restaurant in Buffalo Gap, a popular place called the Perini Ranch Steakhouse, which has won kudos for its meat as well as its pecan-studded (and whiskey-laced) bread pudding. I remembered that we had published Tom's recipe for his foolproof steak rub, and I searched for "Perini" on our Website. His steak rub recipe came right up.
Well, it's officially summer in Austin. The calendar begs to differ, I know, but I have my own criteria. One, I've already been attacked by chiggers as I lounged in my front yard, watching a lizard sun himself on the enormous arms of the agave I've dubbed Big Momma. Also, I just enjoyed the season's first michelada, a frosty mix of beer, lime juice, Worcester sauce, and Tabasco, a thirst-quenching libation I discovered several years ago at El Chile on Manor Road, Austin's burgeoning eastside restaurant row. And finally, last night, I took the season's first dip in Austin's Barton Springs pool as the descending sun sent glittery shimmers across the water's surface. In a quintessentially weird and wonderful moment, I witnessed both a group baptism and a topless woman bounding down the hill as people tried not to stare. I adore Barton Springs in winter (when I bring a big robe and a thermos of hot tea), but I especially adore it in summer, when I could spend all day swimming and lolling about on a broad blanket on the hillside, partially shaded by pecan trees, entertained by chattering squirrels, and watching the comings and goings of a broad sample of humanity. There are hand-holding high-schoolers in skimpy bikinis and floppy summer hats; sinewy, gray-haired men with broad shoulders and tiny Speedos; children with doughy knees in ruffled suits and heart-shaped sunglasses; Mystic-tanned college kids dangling from plastic floats on the deep end, squeezing the last bit of sunshine from their days. And on that note, I'm going to the pool.
Sometimes, part of the fun of taking a vacation is the planningâ€”researching itineraries, hotels, restaurants; making plans for special activities; even reconnecting with friends in a different environment. On the flip side, then there are the pleasures associated with last-minute travelâ€”the fun and freedom of spontaneity, the relaxation of expectations, and the refreshing sense that all is right with the world when something serendipitous unfolds.