Indulging my Inner Texan: Tamales

This has been the Year of Complicated Recipes.

I’ve known people who cook intricate things as a means of precise, mechanical distraction. I get it, but that is not quite my style. Distraction in cooking for me requires a sort of fugue state of whimsical iteration at 350+ degrees. There are two rules: spice liberally & wear a fancy apron.

I’m not sure why I finally decided to make tamales. Something about simulating a sense of home in what has been a half-year of aimless flux. They are tangible and stolid, process-oriented and no-nonsense, but with ample room for inspired wandering. In a pinch – or for the culinary minimalist – they provide a complete set of essential amino acids. They required less solid fat than August’s croissants, and slightly more than March’s Moroccan bastilla. There is a sort of self-sufficiency about the simplicity: should society as we know it collapse and send modern cookware up in flames, they are the one food I am nearly certain I could manage to wring from the earth and shepherd from seed to table.

Anyone who has cooked with me knows and/or has been frustrated by how awful I am at actually following recipes to the letter. With that in mind, what follows is the gist of what I did. Continue reading “Indulging my Inner Texan: Tamales”

Indulging my Inner Texan: Tamales

Pt. 2 And Remembering the Coming Back (Texas)

It goes without saying that there is one and only one state that might make a decent tattoo (hint: not Wyoming) – one that people make waffle irons to honor – and a great ambition of my adult life is to consistently be the most obnoxious person in the room every March 2nd I spend outside these borders. I suspect the reasons why are something I’ll keep chewing on for a lifetime, and that’s just fine: this obsessive braggadocio has evolved dramatically over the past five years, and I am now nothing of the 17 year old wanting to escape to the northeast. But in an effort to atone for past sins, I’ve compiled some materials from my student-taught-course-that-never-was –Texas History through Food and Literature** –for reference and perusal by all those who were either born here or got here as fast as they could.

Continue reading “Pt. 2 And Remembering the Coming Back (Texas)”

Pt. 2 And Remembering the Coming Back (Texas)

Boquillas and Big Bend

Here’s a thing I have feelings about!: the opening of a border crossing in Big Bend National Park.

Last time I was in the area, my boyfriend and I were driven from camping in the highlands by terror (harmless mountain lion encounter – but still! Not 20 feet away!). At some absurd hour of barely-morning, we set up in the nearly abandoned Cottonwood campground – and woke up not an hour later to footsteps outside our tent.

One swinging MagLite later, whoever had been around was running into the brush and we were piled into the car, headlights blazing, back to the mountains to sleep crushed vertically onto car seats. The decision to camp by the Rio Grande may, of course, have been a skosh bit of idiocy (albeit as a side effect of sheer exhaustion) – but I had camped on the border before, and felt a perhaps false sense of reassurance. Truth is, there’s not much to it:

And I’d be a liar if I said my only venture outside of these United States didn’t involve some wading.

In any case, there’s no doubt that the residents of Boquillas – a town just across the border that, from what I could tell, survived on tourism and providing beer to the 18-to-21 crowd – has suffered tremendously since the existing crossing closed after 9/11.  Trinkets appear by landmarks overnight, with requests for compensation.

Some of the comments on the article I linked to (and in other places, though generally not on sites frequented by BBNP visitors) are vicious: allegations that the potential border opening will do nothing but expand drug trade, criticism of the Mexican government for “relying on tourism” and the United States for reviving a scant population, and cries that opening the town to park visitors would destroy the sense of wilderness.

As someone who never ceases singing the praises of Big Bend, who would rather be nowhere but the middle of nowhere  – and as a potential crime victim with an interest in national security – here are my counterarguments:

1) Information is better than no information, and open communication with Boquillas residents helps Border Patrol to do the job effectively. There’s no cell service in that region of the park, and with the border closed residents can’t alert patrol members of strangers, crime, unusual activity – anything they would do and have ordinarily done in order to maintain stable relations and protect their economy.

2) Anyone who thinks the growth of a 19-family town across the river will be enough to tame or temper 800,000 acres of desert is insane.

3) The town isn’t a drain on the region – it enhances it. You can’t spend a day hiking and not want to drive down to the river, enter a makeshift gondola run by Singing Victor, and re-hydrate with cervezas. Impossible.

4) Victor himself: “I don’t think the terrorists want to cross here on a burro.”

Boquillas and Big Bend

Travelogue

I remember, as most people probably do, the instant I realized the world was bigger than my hometown.

That terminology is less than particular; I had been out of San Antonio before, exclusively to the Rio Grande Valley (a biannual trip to visit relatives) and South Padre Island (where – laughably, when viewed through the eyes of a current college student – we took yearly summer trips until I was around 14). I had also taken to making excursions to areas nearby but still in the Hill Country (Austin, or Canyon Lake) on days when I had to “work,” or so I’m sure I would have told my parents if they asked, which of course they never did.

In any case: It’s all Matt McDaniel’s fault. Driving in a ridiculous 9-passenger van rented for a trip to a UIL Science trip – yes, Rice, you read that correctly! – to Midland, I continually re-processed my location as though panning horizontally from an aerial vantage point. This is the furthest West I have ever been – no, this – no, again! – chatting half with the collection of friends along for the ride, half with the type of favorite high school teacher everyone has about college and travel. “I know you want to get out as quickly as you can,” he said, referring to Texas. “But out here is where things get magnificent.” And duly, my eyes did not leave the window as gnarled mesquites grew first into the sides of cliffs and then gave way to rock, as speed limit signs ticked upward from 65 to 80 and as oil pumps bent cyclically towards the earth, positioned against the sunset like black cranes dipping in and out of water.

And I got back home and I missed things like long roads and deserts and accompanying panoramas, achingly. My senior year of high school I had the misfortune of dating someone with equally absent supervision, which led to things like “oh let’s plan a roadtrip to California” or “oh let’s go climb this mountain in Colorado”, with extensive google-mapping and legitimate planning. I was the only one who took those things seriously, as fact would have it. A few months after we broke up, barely-eighteen-year-old Jordan decided, at five o’clock one summer morning, that it would be a good idea – or, at the very least, a good story – to take a day and visit Big Bend. Those not so well acquainted with the geography of Texas may not fully appreciate the absolute absurdity of that timescale, so I will state very embarrassingly for the record that I set out to drive 7 hours both there and back on no sleep, without telling anyone, without ever having driven more than two hours at once, feeling adequately prepared with a few cans of redbull, a backpack, and a breakfast taco. Needless to say, this was not the case.*

This led to several very important discoveries. In chronological order:

  1. Winding down the windows on highway 385, in just the right part of August, is intoxicating. Juniper floods the air. Nothing afterwards will ever smell so good, and you will be tricked into constantly believing you enjoy gin even if you do not.
  2. “Speed limit: 80” is secret code for “Set your cruise control to 95, and don’t look back.”
  3. Robert Earl Keen made his music to be played on IH-10. It’s okay to listen to “Sonora’s Death Row” as you pass through the wrong Sonora.
  4. Mountains! Mountains are ridiculous! They are so tall! Soooo tall, and you have to drive slowly, and they make you dizzy, and I had never spent so much time looking up and had never before had a landscape so abruptly, wonderfully interrupted.
  5. They are sooooooooo tall. Especially if you decide to climb them…in August…alone. Also, they hide behind other mountains, so you think you’re done and then you’re not.
  6. Spending 14 of 23 hours driving is tremendously fun until it is very suddenly not.
  7. Sleeping in your car in Kerrville is also not fun, but it is kind of hilarious.

And since then I’ve been rapidly captivated by countryside, by views from car and plane windows, by the mentally staggering absurdity of being tossed across various points that had existed on nothing other than a globe for the vast majority of my life. It’s fitting, I guess, that I started writing this on my first train – DC to New York. I remember telling Amy (who met up with me in Baltimore) that I was so excited I felt like it was going to Hogwarts. This was probably not an exaggeration. Subsequent adventures, in brief:

  1. New Year’s 2009, Guadalupe Mountains NP: there is not a single better place on earth to wake at dawn than in the middle of the desert.
  2. 05/09: Tall trees exist in real life, and they are all in Seattle. Also, May here = Texas in January, and that is the worst.
  3. 05/10: Venturing north to realize that Dallas and Fort Worth were, in fact, exactly as I expected
  4. 01/11: Attempting to discern the subtle differences between Southern New Mexico and West Texas; succeeding.
  5. 06/11: Bafflement at the dense, marshy forests lining the road on the first bus I took from Baltimore to DC.
  6. 08/11: Flying back to SA from DC at night, alarmingly discovering the feeling of being homesick and immediately recovering , knowing which cities are which by the layout of the freeways.

Here’s the confession: at twenty-one, I still have not been out of the country. I realize this is likely the standard for an average U.S. citizen, but it feels like a handicap at a top-twenty private university where most of my friends, if they don’t travel annually, have lived abroad for an extended period of time. Certainly, it seems almost woefully inept for someone intending to pursue work in international health. But that’s what fellowships are for.

* Although, on my most recent BBNP trip, we left at 3 a.m. from Houston after throwing a party. But that’s another (and much, much better) story. Idiotic spontaneity becomes me?

Travelogue

South by…

This is a bit behind the times, but as of late June Texas was one vote away from approving a Confederate flag license plate. Here’s a bit from Paul Burka at Texas Monthly that I’m going to quote directly simply because I agree with the sentiment wholeheartedly:

Texas is both a southern and a western state, and, of the two, I much prefer the western heritage to the southern. To me, the Confederate flag is inextricably linked with a dark part of our history, namely, segregation. That is my personal reaction; I do not ascribe that view to others. I had a history professor who liked to say, “Every man his own historian,” by which he meant that each must make our individual judgments about history.
The west, on the other hand, is a land of great vistas and rugged landscapes and endless distances that reinforce our state’s great myths of the wide open spaces and the great ranches and oil fields that sat atop land so unforgiving that only the devil could love it.

Celebration of the Confederacy is something I don’t understand in general. I get the bit about heritage, and about preserving family histories in particular; I also understand how that aspect of the trend appeals so strongly to the collection of southern fratboys who have adopted it. What I don’t understand how Texas, of all places, fits in. We are a state as focused on progress and expansion as we are dedicated to pride in the past, but that pride itself is focused and nuanced, and particularly self-centered. I will take annual joy in breaking from Mexico, in forging a new nation and succeeding – and also in the eventual recognition that that nation could become something better and stronger by joining with another. I will never comprehend exit en-masse in support of a bloc we did not rely upon quite so heavily, and can’t begin to suspend recognition of social injustice for the sake of a cultural symbol. Among other things, it also clashes quite violently with my mental categorization of what I consider home. Even Houston, overrun with immigrants of all stripes and suburban sprawl and Czech barbecue – almost especially Houston, entrenched in oil money – is, in my mind, very much a part of the American Southwest. “Rugged” is the overused, romanticized, and appropriate term. In Blood Meridian, Cormac McCarthy begins a sprawling border epic with a crawl out of the gulf and through Nacogdoches. In Padre and Palacios, we ride horses on the banks. Our old money eschews pastels and boat shoes for pressed Levi’s and hand-crafted boots. I like all of these things this way, very much, and association with the south rather than the west in such a deeply embarrassing way seems incongruous. Let Georgia pull shit like this; it doesn’t belong here.

All that being said, I’m desperately hoping it gets approved, if only because it’s the sort of story that would get national recognition: any ammunition allowing Obama to take down Perry more easily is a good thing.

South by…

The best type of food, ever, of all time, of all time…

…is Tex-Mex, and undeniably so. Having grown up in San Antonio, I have been an avid consumer since birth, and as such feel qualified comment upon the various subsets of the genre:

Tex-Mex
This is not that place in downtown Philly that my friend thought was tex-mex when he was growing up because they had menu items with too many l’s in a row and a very thin bowl of ketchup on the table. It is not, for that matter, anywhere north of Dallas or east of Beaumont; there is usually (though not always) a tortilla lady making tortillas thicker than 1 mm, and your chips do not – do not – break under the considerable weight of your spice-laden guac. El Real is the best new example I can think of in Houston. Puffy tacos! Recipes that taste like the Rio Grande Valley, which in my imagination exclusively produces food from the 1970s! Also, an orange building – all the best capital-t-capital-m Tex Mex places are orange, as a rule.

Sketch-Mex
It’s 1 a.m. and you’re really not sure if the room is blurry or is that just how that wall looks or is it you? and the TV is on, maybe, because there are only four other people here and it would be too quiet otherwise, and you’re trying to figure out the plot but all you see are girls and businessmen gesticulating a whole lot in an exclusively Mexican language of hand-motion. You figure out how to read again when handed a menu, and then figure out that the first two pages of the menu are filled with margaritas and obscure tequilas, and then decide to order whatever the fuck a “chimichanga” is. You see cracks in the windows, realize you’re eating on a plastic table, hear the stiff drone of a portable air-conditioning unit, and begin to wonder about how your car is doing in the gravel lot out back. Behind the back entrance. Which was covered with a tarp. And then there’s a flutter, and thirty people storm in! Bars have closed, but this place is still open, and every single person here is drunk and in desperate, desperate need of greasy food from a waiter who may or may not speak a language that they also speak. And then your food arrives! It’s a burrito the size of a baby dipped and oil and fried to hell and back! You tip gallantly, and do not return until very, very early the next Saturday morning.
I will defend Chapultapec’s performance in this category slightly over Ruchi’s until my dying day. Tapatia? Don’t even touch it.

Austin-Mex
Food truck? Maybe. Attempt at Korean fusion? Also that. Crumbled and spiced soy protein as a ground beef substitute? Definitely.

Tex-Mex by Analogy
When eating Ethiopian food, there is a fantastical lack of silverware: you pick up various chucks of meat and vegetables and things using a thin sheet of vaguely sourdough-esque bread. Savory filling wrapped in bread = taco, and this analogy can be extended indefinitely. Does your kolache have egg and sausage inside? It’s a breakfast taco. Russian pirozhki: bread wrapped around stuff? Taaaaacoooo. In this sense, every culture – every single one, except maybe some places in Asia? – is obsessed with tex-mex, and it’s great.

Not Tex-Mex, or Sketch-Mex, or Honestly Anything Worthwhile
Taco Bell.
Also New-Mex, because damned if I’m going to call a taco a burrito.

The best type of food, ever, of all time, of all time…

Of Canyons and Cadillacs

I’ll begin with a story:

I like to drive fast, and for long distances, with purpose – generally to places where there isn’t much to stop for until the very end.  I have a car named Clyde (he is boring and old and white), and together we tackle Texas on a roughly bi-annual basis. The most recent adventure involved dropping a friend off at the Dallas-Fort Worth airport, but was motivated primarily by finally getting a chance sample the margaritas at Blue Mesa Grill (note: worth it). Post-dinner, at roughly 9 pm, I came to two very serious realizations: I will likely not be in Texas after graduation, and I have not yet visited the Panhandle. Solution? Drive seven hours to Palo Duro Canyon, in the dead of night, to satiate my ridiculous drunk personality and complete the map of my home state. Events of note are as follows, times taken from texts:

11:05 pm – I’m outside of Wichita Falls, and owls begin swooping across the road: at least five, massive things, figments of J.K. Rowling’s imagination rather than anything I would ever expect to witness. I swerve madly, thinking that I would be the worst goddamn Rice student in the world if I hit an owl while driving. Best: one was carrying my first in-person view of a wild 3-foot snake.

2:23 am – Rainbow-variety of flashing lights in the distance illuminate what might be cornfields. They go and go and go and stop and suddenly the fields fade away to empty storefronts, lights still blazing in the distance, leaving my headlights for all other purposes useless. I blare the radio and bite my tongue hard, thinking I’m beginning to hallucinate (not out of the question – Critical Mass the night before, anyone?). But no – Quitaque, Texas, is actually where any potential alien invasion will begin. No David Duchovny sightings, to my dismay.

5:45 am – Pull into a Starbucks in Amarillo (This is a real town! Not the ex-cowboy-turned-railway haven of my imagination, though there is a bit of that) and witness FAR too many hipsters. There’s no way, there must have been a convention – the man at the table next to me, all skinny jeans and Pitchfork, is certainly en-route to Austin. But the barista calls his name and chats about his dog. Madness.

7:30 am – This absurdity:

     

I found an abandoned bright-orange can and added something to the ten-car collection, one step closer to completing Texas Monthly’s bucket list.

9 am – Make the short drive back to Palo Duro Canyon, endure the typical Memorial Day Weekend state park entry extravaganza, and set out on the Lighthouse Trail to a brisk 76 degrees. Straightforward, easy trail, but entirely distinct from anything I’ve done before – something that belongs in Arizona or Malawi, rather than a spot of rust on the sea of wheat. I’m in Birkenstocks like an idiot who didn’t plan to be here (surprise), but three miles from the trailhead I come across three figures straight out of a Cormac McCarthy book – old men with boots, horses, sun-worn skin who greet me with “how’d’you do” and a tip of the cowboy hat.

I return to my car to be greeted with a heat index of 116, rest with the AC on for ten minutes, stand up, and promptly pass out. Not a joke. Ridiculous first-time occurrence. Awful. But whatever had been afflicting me (low blood pressure, my best bet) fades quickly and I begin the drive back to Houston.

2 pm – And what a motherfucking drive it is. There is no way, none, that this wind and this landscape are real things, no way I’m still on earth. I’m surrounded by stripes: graying asphalt at the bottom, light yellow, and then sky. The only thing on the horizon? A few windmills, maybe, far in the distance, only if I’m not deluding myself. How can I tell? The sky is purple. I indulge my inner high school physics nerd by toying with my driving, seeing how long it takes me to drift across two lanes, trying to calculate wind speed, but mainly this is just terrifying.

12:23 am – I’ve just finished getting lost in Ft. Worth and my phone is dead, I’m approaching my third day of very little sleep and my 18th hour of driving during that same time period. Fifty miles outside of that city, my least favorite thing happens: the check engine light comes on. Ten minutes later, I’m looking for somewhere decent to pull over when my car starts bucking, physically rattling beyond anything that should happen when you’re not on an angry horse – so I take the next exit and drift into a closed gas station and get out. Bars on the windows, closed liquor store nearby, the sketchiest set of cars I’ve seen in my life, and a skittish Dachshund in the parking lot. Panic panic panic panic panic. Like a freakshow, I circle the building, searching for somewhere to plug in my phone: I eventually pry open a rusted metal cabinet and unplug the “closed” sign.  And then I’m delirious and panicked and alone and terrified and I grab pepper spray from my car and literally cower, tethered to the aluminium wall and trying to stop hyperventilating long enough to place an intelligible call to AAA.  This is less than productive, as there will be a three hour wait. So I sit and panic some more until a homeless guy shows up and starts, pardon the stereotype, crazytalking at me and telling me I’m pretty. CUE: batshit insane bitch. Flee to my car, lock it, start it until he meanders off. Charge my phone for thirty more minutes until I realize the car was normal when I had trapped myself inside; decide to risk at least partially driving back (within the 100-mile tow circle, perhaps?), and crawl at 40 miles per hour back to Houston, radio crooning country music from the 90s all the while.

This is a good example of things that I do. Likely this attempt at blogging will fall by the wayside, but ideally I’ll keep being interesting enough to have things to say.

Of Canyons and Cadillacs