Saturday, December 31, 2011

Adios 2011, Bienvenido 2012

This will, of necessity, be brief:

Tomorrow will mark my daughter's $%st birthday and the first time in years that we've been together in a place where I could cook her favorite foods. So as soon as I send this off into the ether I'll resume chopping onions, celery, bell pepper, garlic and fresh okra. Then I'll heat two cups of oil, add two cups of flour and then stand and stir and stand and stir and stand and stir until the mixture -- en route to becoming a mahogany roux -- reaches the desired stage of brownness.

In will go the onions, peppers, celery, garlic, bay leaves, thyme, a touch of basil and a smidge of oregano. When all are wilted and heated through I'll add the seafood stock made from shrimp shells and heads, let them simmer. On to the pot of vegetarian black-eyed peas, which will have its own blend of onions, red bell peppers, celery, and garlic. I still have two pounds of fresh blackeyes purchased on my last visit to New Orleans. With the addition of  more thyme, more basil, Crystal hot sauce, vegetable stock, another pound of peas bought locally, and a dollop of liquid smoke -- a nod to the vegetarians who will join us --  pot number two will be in full simmer.

I'll add the Worcestershire sauce, Tabasco, shrimp, oysters and crabmeat when I heat the gumbo tomorrow.

As guests arrive somewhere around 7 o'clock, I'll heat the andouille through in the oven, slice it and put it in a separate bowl -- a nod to our Jewish friends who don't eat pork. As the hors d'oeuvres supply dwindles down to a few almonds, olives and cheese chunks, the cornbread will go in -- two pans with bacon, two pans without. Within 30 minutes the room will go quiet and those who have found a space to sit and eat will chow down as everyone else finds a spot standing at the kitchen counter or adjourns to my office or, if it's still warm enough, to the patio table I would have cleaned if I'd thought people might end up eating outside.

I have no idea how many people will turn up. Some will be my daughter's friends; some will be mine. We planned a guest list, but then started inviting people we thought would either be alone on New Year's Day or who would add life to the gathering. Their ages will range from early 20s to early 70s. Mixing and mingling with friends across a generation will be a wonderful way to start the new year, made perfect if I wake up and find the dishes washed, the food put away, and no one asleep in the bathtubs.

Happy New Year, and may 2012 find you stirring it up at every opportunity.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Justice for Danny Chen

In the interest of preserving what little remains of my mental health, I steer clear of horrible news as the holidays close in. I do this with full knowledge that this is a luxury not shared by those who are party to such news. But since there is no remediation on my end, I avoid.

Except a day or two ago, when Danny Chen's name came up.

Chen, a 19-year-old soldier deployed to Afghanistan, was allegedly dragged out of bed, forced to do push ups while holding a mouthful of water, and pelted with rocks and racial slurs. He reportedly subsequently went into a watch tower and blew his brains out -- all this because he  forgot to turn off a water heater used for showers. NPR addict that I am, I was about to turn away from this "Talk of the Nation" discussion, when a man called in from Dallas. Always curious about what my fellow Texans have to say about anything, I listened in horror as the caller described how he too had been hazed thought it was pretty funny.

Seems this particular hazee was forced to run a gauntlet where he too was pelted -- I am not making this up  -- with "those spongy female body parts, you know the kind that look real."  See, the guys were just having fun, "making us do stuff with them." Mercifully the host didn't seek details. I had to pull onto a service station lot because I thought my head would explode. Well, the caller continued, yes, it was embarrassing, but he didn't really see anything wrong with it.

Well the usually slow-to-react military did see a lot wrong with what happened to Private Chen. Eight members of his battalion have been charged in addition to a lieutenant and a sergeant. Chen was the second Asian-American this year known to have committed suicide as a result of hazing. (The first was Marine Corporal Harry Lew).

 There I sat, looking at the car radio,  wondering why this caller couldn't have been from Oklahoma or Idaho or one of those Dakotas we rarely think about. Why do Texans keep coming off as disproportionally endowed with a doofus factor? Maybe some sort of IQ test should be required of people who want to subscribe to phone service and call talk radio.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Hey, You're Blocking the View!

So there I was, doing my last-minute holiday card shopping when I ran into a person I like a lot but see too seldom. We fell into playing catch-up, standing at the corner of a display stand filled with books. Suddenly I noticed we were blocking the view of a prominently displayed memoir penned by yours truly.

My friend, endowed with a wonderfully wicked sense of humor, stood up one of the books, the better to be seen -- and lo and behold, a young lady approached, did a little look-see, picked it up and  began to thumb through it. Genevieve, my friend, promptly announced, "Hey, if you want to buy that book now, the author is right here and she'll sign it for you." Sure enough the prospective buyer did indeed buy it and had me sign it to her mother.

Delighted with her newly found marketing skill, Genevieve stood up another book.  Within minutes a second woman walked by and picked that one up.  Meanwhile, along came mutual friend Carlton, who jocularly chided us for "hanging out in a bookstore corner drumming up business," pretty much making it sound as though we'd been conscripted into the world oldest profession. We had a good laugh and prepared to disperse when the woman decided to buy not one but two books. Before she left, Genevieve again volunteered that "the author would be happy to sign your books for you."

Whereupon a store employee, having verified my identity, asked me to sign 20 more.

What a nice way to spend an hour on a dreary Wednesday afternoon. Of course buying books is always a great reason to just plain spend.

Tomorrow is the day I return all those CDs in their appropriate cases.


What Happened To Tuesday?

As I write this it is eight minutes to Wednesday and I have no idea where Tuesday went. It was so nicely planned: get up and out early, pick up the turducken, order oysters for dressing, come home and put away the three dozen CDs that haven't seen the inside of a case since Memorial Day. But as someone said, life is what happens when you're making other plans: One of my daughter's friends, with whom she works as a server at a truly cool restaurant here in Austin, overcelebrated the end of the previous evening's shift and stayed over at our place. She also overslept. Since I was already up, I was commandeered to drive the five miles that would deliver her to her bus back to San Marcos -- about 30 miles away.

Only slightly annoyed, I opted to wait with her for the bus. While we waited we talked. Turns out she was born in Kenya to activist parents who were academics. Long story short, their activism cost them their lives.  Opposition party paramilitary bullies broke into their home four years ago and murdered her father. The family emotionally regrouped only to have their mother murdered (initially only injured, the gendarmes finished the job as she lay in the hospital awaiting treatment). I went about the rest of my chores in a kind of emotional fog, finding myself once again amazed at man's capacity for visiting cruelty on his fellow man. I needed to lie down.

I almost napped through the first night of Hanukah. Arriving after the candle had been lit,  I visited with folks I see only once a year despite the fact that we annually vow to stay in touch. I thought about my friend Molly Ivins and how she would have loved this young woman from Kenya. She's incredibly bright, clearly resilient, and now an orphan.

I have been asked how Molly influenced my life over our two-decade-long friendship. I now realize there were little ways.  For instance: Molly had real blood nieces and nephews but numerous adopted ones. She had no children of her own. I now have a half-dozen "daughters" in addition to my own. I thought about Molly's "Orphans and Strays" Christmas dinners, where people who otherwise had no Christmas invitations had an assured place at her table. My new Kenyan-born "daughter" will be one of two young women whose parents died too soon. They will be among several of her friends who otherwise have no place to go. They are my gifts this year.

Am I doing it in Molly's memory? Maybe.

Meanwhile I need to keep track of  Wednesday.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Only 30 hours and 30 Minutes More...

...and the official seasonal food frenzy continues; you know, the one that began November 24.

In that glorious periodic occurrence when Hanukah eases up on Christmas via some convoluted formula that I don't ever need to understand -- as long as it periodically eases up-- latkes, lots and lots of latkes will once again be my BFFs. My non-grated-potato friend who usually hosts this wonderful greasy fest, is going a step beyond her usual repast and including her incredible garlic-laden brisket; herb-grilled salmon; and something else vegetable-y and salad-y. Who cares. Bring on the greasy stuff.

By the time that's digested, it will be time for a North Austin couple's annual Christmas Eve secret Santa gift exchange, which is always a quarter past too much fun.  Gifts range from tasteful to "are you kidding me?" Just as there is too much fun there is almost too much food. That revelry is followed by The Day, which this year will be a Cajun Christmas (since I committed the real thing in New Orleans this past Turkey Day).  We then have six days to persuade ourselves we will never eat and/or drink that much again, a resolve that dissolves on New Year's Eve.

 Rather than indulge in guilt as well, I'm dragging out the debit card for the Capital Area Food Bank (; Mobile Loaves and Fishes ( --I'm partial to Genesis Gardens, which encourages the homesless to grow, cook and share meals made with their produce; and Heifer International ( Many of us will eat well this holiday season, too many otherwise might not.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Ring Around A Perry

This for the guys.

Fellas, if you are over 35, look at the ring finger on your left hand.

No ring? that's cool.

Wedding band? That's cool too.

But are you by any chance wearing your college class ring on top of your wedding ring? No? Why not? Our governor does, and if it's good enough for Rick Perry to look lost in a time warp that harkens back to his college cheerleading days (where he was an almost mediocre student), well then there now -- so can the rest of us.

Think I'll root through my junk jewelry and see if I can find my Soldan High School megaphone commemorating MY cheerleading days. He can wear his class ring and run for president and I'll wear my megaphone and run for governor.

Whew: Home!

The  200-mile drive home was uneventful, mainly because I steer clear of dimwits weaving in and out of lanes because even dimmer dimwits refuse to relinquish the passing lane. I'm increasingly convinced that the first rule of survival in driving Texas highways and byways is to just stay to the right -- a difficult rule to obey, given my leftist inclinations to just about everything.

Speaking of which, I am as happy as any mother, father, son, daughter, sister, brother, aunt and uncle who has someone home from the God-forsaken debacle in Iraq.  Here's hoping that when the weeping and hugging and welcoming die down someone will return to reviewing the stupid reason we went there. And maybe someone will keep tabs on the civilian leftovers ostensibly there to (one hopes) rebuild roads, schools, bridges, water systems and other necessary infrastructure -- you know, all the stuff that was intact before we blew it all to hell for no good reason.

Oh yeah: Saddam Hussein, the megalomaniac we supported until we decided not to support him anymore.  Maybe the some of the dunderheads in Congress will remember what happened when the late U.S. Representative Charlie Wilson (D-Texas) tried to get Congress to approve funds for Afghanistan after we helped them expunge the Russians. The Afghans proved to be formidable warriors. So then ole Charlie goes back and says "Hey guys, we blew their country all to hell in helping them, how's about we go back in a show of good faith and build some schools and hospitals and stuff like that?" and Congress said, "Nope; we've spent enough." And Charlie said," Yeah, well if we don't, we run the risk of letting somebody else do it." And Congress said, "OK; not our problem anymore."

And the power-hungry among our formerly friendly Taliban said "OK" too.

Goodbye U.S. troops.

Hello Taliban.

At least some of our troops are home.


Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Leaving St. Louis

It is still grey and chilly, but last night's reading at Left Bank Books was a blast. Saw friends and former colleagues I haven't seen in years.  But the biggest treat/surprise, was looking out the window and seeing my brother Fred -- who had only days before arrived from vacationing in Australia, looking through the window.  Stinker that he still is, he had called me earlier to wish me good luck and to apologize for not being able to get to our old hometown.  So I scared the living daylights out of the entire bookstore when i shrieked out really loud when i saw him.

Back to Dallas for lunch with friend Liz, then Austin, then who knows?

Stay tuned.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Finding Fine Dining

I'm still in my hometown, the Gateway to the West, gearing up for my book reading tomorrow at Left Bank Books.

It's easy enough to find fine dining in St. Louis , but I have fallen in love with a new place (well, not exactly new, but new to me) called Billie's Fine Dining, That "Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives" guy needs to know about this place.

Now if you think you're gonna waltz into Billie's and find white linen, snazzily uniformed servers and Mozart playing softly in the background, think again. Billie's is a wonderful throwback to old-school, home-cooked food still found in small town Texas (where I now live) before food fascists made us scared to eat anything that smacked of fat, cholesterol and, uh, what was that third thing?  Oh yeah, flavor.

Now I love foie gras, sweetbreads, oysters on the half shell as much as the next food freak, but lemme tell you, Billie's is the real deal if you need/want a departure from the grandiose.  Here the weekend specials include Billie's Breakfast Bowl, a vessel usually reserved for entree-portion salads, loaded with O'Brien potatoes, your choice of crumbled bacon or sausage topped with cheese or gravy which can be served with or without two eggs on top.  Not quite what you're looking for? Then go for the Heart Stopper, country-fried steak (we call it "chicken-fried" in Texas), 2 slices of bacon, grilled green pepper onions, cheese, an egg, lettuce, tomato and mayo on Texas toast with a side of home-style potatoes.

But wait. If I can get there before I leave here on the 14th, I must partake of the meat loaf omelet, which, as it suggests, contains a generous slice of home-made meat loaf; potatoes and cheese smothered with country gravy. And just to show Billie's keeping up with the times, if you choose to lighten up a bit she offers a croissant sandwich. So there. Well, in the interest of full disclosure, it containes bacon -- or sausage -- two slices of cheese, two eggs and a side of home-style potatoes. Ham added will set you back $1. And I've seen a grown man unable to eat all of the original stuffed pancake, a $5.25 steal. Bacon and eggs are also involved.

Should you break down and want to see for yourself, Billie's is at 1802 S. Broadway, one block east of Soulard Market. The most expensive item on the menu is an Angus steak  and eggs offering served with your choice of toast or biscuit. As befits its presence in the market area, it's open Monday through Friday from 5 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.; Friday, midnight to 1:30 p.m. Saturday; from Saturday midnight to Sunday 1:30 p.m.  If you want to double check the hours, call 314-621-0848.

I don't know if Billie has anything locally sourced, organically grown or naturally fed, and I don't care. I already know where to find all that. I'm just happy to know there is someplace left in this galaxy of eateries where hard-working hungry people can afford to bring the family to chow down on generous portions on good -- nothing gourmet here -- food. It's cooked when it's ordered, so don't go rushing things. And the next time you and your posse want a funky place downtown to chow down on a late-night meal in St. Louis, here ya go.

On to Sweetie Pie's and Pappy's Barbecue.

See? You can go home again.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Next Stop: St. Louis

Although this is my third or fourth, or maybe fifth stop on this journey called a book tour, it is more exciting and frightening than even the National Press Club's Author's Night in the nation's capital.  I've come home to where this whole writing thing began. The mother who taught me most of what I know about where apostrophes belong and why participles shouldn't dangle, died almost five years ago. My father, who founded the newspaper for which I wrote my first article, died almost wo decades before she did. Now I face my second toughest audience after my mother: friends. Stay tuned.