Give me Janis Joplin between the sheets

Birds have always “anchored” me. From the time I was three or four, birds have not only reminded me where I am when I wake up and hear them, but also their descendants remind me where I’ve been. Their morning song pin-pricks me and lets me know I’m indeed awake. They are objective and unsubtle; they wake me when they want to. They anchor me in the present and let me know my past is real.

Karen turned our patio behind our 349 West 84th Street apartment in Manhattan into a little “café,” as she liked to call it. Appropriately so. At one of two metal tables covered by canvas umbrella, I’d drink coffee and listen to myriad birds in the morning. Robins, sparrows, cardinals, jays, even red-tailed hawks and crows or ravens — I’d like to think they were ravens, since the two-block stretch of 84th Street that included our building was called “Edgar Allan Poe Street;” he was rumored to have written the poem on Broadway and 84th — sounded like a symphony orchestra warming up. Toward the end of our time there, the people two buildings down started to keep chickens out back. I found their sound dissonant and, therefore, unwanted. Theirs were the sounds of a banjo and fiddle, not an oboe and first violin.

But it was at the café that I’d hear the song of the towhee, which Mom helped me remember as “DRINK-your-TEA!” I can’t hear their call without thinking of Mom. In that respect, the bird anchors me to her as much as to my place.

The towhee was the bird that let me know I had woken up in Point O’ Woods on Fire Island. Mom and I stood on the small concrete front porch of what I later learned was the smallest house in the community and probably the only one my parents could afford to rent. We looked south, over a thin stand of trees and past the “truck road” — with very few exceptions, only utility and emergency vehicles are allowed to drive on Fire Island, and they use one-lane sand roads — past the tennis courts, which usually start hopping at 7:00 AM during summer hours, and ultimately toward the beach and ocean, from which the sun rose.

We’d face that direction and Mom, with Virginia Slim cigarette and teacup in the same hand, would look down and smile at me and use that phrase — “DRINK your TEA!” — to help me remember I was awake. She’d smile with purple smoke curling around her twinkling eyes and then turn back to take a drag. A noisy sip. And more quiet there between us. Listening. Sun rising. Tennis balls hitting rackets. Feet shuffling on clay. Laughter.

Our 84th Street café reminded me between 2007 and 2017 that I had awakened years before when I was four. That the past was not a debatable premise, as YouTube and Spotify podcast philosophers like to muse indulgently to hundreds of thousands of viewers and listeners who are online and hoping to get as rich as those philosophers by monetizing their own accounts. Because if you can’t make a killing from your streaming video gameplay on Twitch or lingerie activity on OnlyFans, perhaps you can spout outrageous ideas like that hearing towhees is actually an illusion, a sound file that’s activated in real-time to keep me unaware of the Matrix-like “simulation” they believe I’m living in. These opportunists who think they’re so smart are blind to the irony that Descartes would tersely remind them of with his five famous words. Spouting these things in Descartes’s era might even have got you tarred and feathered with the same coating worn by those beautiful beasts you said weren’t real.

In Texas, the bird that most reminds me I’ve awakened here is the turkey vulture. Overhead, it looks like a hawk or even majestic eagle. On the ground, its ugly red head — “ugly” to me; I’m not being judge-y here, but I think most people would agree with me if they’re really honest with themselves; I mean, seriously, would you actually put a couple of them in a cage in your sunroom and call them “Skittles” and “Coco”? No, you would not — and its hopping around roadkill remind me not only that I live here but also that I drive everywhere. (Does that mean that I don’t really wake up until I turn onto Bandera Highway? Scary thought. But then again, I live in a simulation, so fuck it.) The circling overhead of multiple vultures is somehow beautiful to me, like a dance, and to see them on the roadside comforts me to know that a needless killing at night is converted to deer tartar.

Yet, vultures don’t have a song. And that bothers me, because it’s sight rather than sound that tries to keep me anchored, yet it is sound that has gone largely unchanged because the source has been largely unchanged. It is sound that is imposed on me rather than me on it. But with sight, I am the source. And I have changed quite a bit over the years, or so I’ve heard, and cannot by nature anchor myself. That’d be like a ship telling itself to stay close to shore “or else it’s gonna get an ass-whoopin’.”

The other bird I associate with my place now is the purple martin, whose swallow tail is more distinctive to me than any song which, if it has one, I’m unaware of it. The Guadalupe has herons, elegant birds whose front and back yards I am privileged to paddleboard through. They, too, sing only now and then when I get too close.

But we live on a golf course, where song birds are not so numerous as elsewhere. Golf courses don’t honor nature so much as manicure it to the point of looking like a Desperate Housewife instead of the Janis Joplin that nature really is.

And frankly, I’d rather wake up next to Janis.

Ducks on lily pads

Paddleboarding on the Guadalupe is my replacement for surfing on the East Coast. I’ll confess/complain: it’s a poor replacement. Yes, it has the satisfying feel of being on water, being in the sun, working the muscles, being completely analog without an iPhone within a half mile or more of my hand.

But it lacks the noticeable movement of water around me. Surfing is an invitation or even a dare to come and dance with it. To a large extent, so is canoeing a river that has rapids. Surfing, with its occasional waves that form “tubes” that one can get covered up under and inside, is a return to the salt-water womb — a metaphor that’s not much exaggerated.

Now, the advantage of paddleboarding on a lake-like river as the Guadalupe has formed in Kerrville, however, is that conditions are fairly uniform throughout the year. The variables of course are water and air temperature, which can largely be neutralized with my wetsuit. The variable I can’t avoid is when the river rages significantly above its normal level, which has happened a couple times since I moved here three and a half years ago. Otherwise, it’s placid and navigable. Always.

Yesterday afternoon, I put in at the southern end of Flat Rock Park, just prior to the one-lane bridge that leads to the large open field serving as a dog run. There’s a scored ramp for wheels or river shoes to get traction over the algae clinging to each inch. The rainbow oil slicks circle randomly and then form jewelry around my calves as I slowly shuffle deeper into the water.

Not long ago I showed up and two men were fishing. One was in a kayak about 20 feet off the shore. The other man was standing on the ramp, which was almost completely occupied by his black truck — this is a ramp for putting in and then driving back around the side of the big tree to park, not for using as a parking spot, I might add — holding his rod in his right hand and untangling his line in his left.

Without my glasses, it looked more like he had hauled in a fish, which seemed a happy moment for him and one that required only a slight shift to the right side of the eight-foot wide ramp, so I could make my way down the left.

I said, “Excuse me?” preparing to clarify that I wanted access on the left.

Apparently, the man affected by a tangled line and dying liver believed he had riparian rights, when he had not even littoral rights. (I thought I should flex my NY State real estate salesman license just this once, since it never got flexed before I moved.)

To express myself to you instead with the brevity that Twain or Hemingway encourage but with emotion more suited to Tarantino, the guy wouldn’t move out of the fucking way.

He didn’t acknowledge me, so I repeated my question, which to be fair I should have announced in the indicative case of the verb or even the imperative, since neither of us had rights to the shore or waterway of the Majestic Guadalupe. Admittedly, he could equally have responded using the imperative, “Fuck off.” That rejoinder of course would be the correct verb case for that purpose but would be factually incorrect, because it would assume said rights.

Upon the second question, he looked sideways at me and said, “Really, dude?” I hate it when people I don’t know call me “dude,” especially when they’re angry.

“I just need only about a foot here on the left to slide by.” He had seven feet. To his right was the cooler containing further Liver Death.

“Really, dude?! Can’t you see I’m untangling my line?”

“Oh, sorry; I don’t have my glasses on.” Why I was so accommodating, I had no idea. I had a paddle with a “blade” and metal shaft, like a medieval hatchet, and he had only a skinny bendy stick thing. Of course, he did have a hook. But his line was indeed tangled and the hook had a plastic worm on it, so I figured it would be a fair fight.

(You see how quickly men can devolve to fighting? One has a dying liver and tangled fishing line, and the other has an impatient desire to get on the river at 7:15am when there’s only sun and no wind and the surface is like glass. Selfishness creates a tarbaby.)

He turned back to his line and said, “There’s another ramp right over there.” He tilted his head left toward a break in the reeds and a concrete step leading to another broken step, submerged about 15 inches and surrounded by other rocks obscured by murky water. Not much of a put-in.

I grumbled, did as suggested and had a fantastic session on a beautiful morning.

And then there was coming back in.

He was still there, this time fishing (from the ramp). About thirty feet out, I asked where his line was because I was a stand-up guy and all and didn’t want to paddle over it. He burped its location.

When I started to guide myself toward the ramp, he said, “Just use that other one there.” The ankle-twister.

“I can’t get up that way. I need the ramp.”

“You got in that way. Why can’t you get back up that way?” Made me wonder whether as a kid he had ever lied down on his back in gym class and then tried to do a sit-up. Gravity, asshole.

Now I was pissed. “This is a public ramp.”

“Yeah, but I’m here and you can use that one there.”

I wasn’t going to press it. Tarbaby.

I worked my way up the broken steps and then mouthed off: “You know, this is a public ramp, and you’re taking up all of it.”

He had some last word or another, and I walked back to my truck. It was still a great session. Nothing was going to diminish it.


The above was all a bad memory with a tarbaby at its center. Yesterday, which I digressed from, was delightful. I put in at the same ramp, nodding to a couple other fisherman who also nodded back, and after getting myself wet in the middle of the river I paddled downstream toward the dam. The sun and clear skies made for a mid-90s afternoon. There was a moderate wind against me, not as stiff as some days, but significant enough that it was a good workout. I hopped back and forth between right foot forward and left one, working each quadricep. I developed a blister along the base of my right thumb, which indicated that I hadn’t been on the river enough days and also that I was having a good workout. (It could also mean that I wasn’t holding the paddle correctly. But, no.)

I hugged the right (west) bank, where trees formed a pocket of calm from the wind. A great blue heron lifted off from my right and first flew south and then wheeled around to my left, disappearing behind me.

I reached the dam, touched my paddle to the edge just to say I had, and then turned around to head back upstream, with the wind. At first, there was a breeze against me, and I thought of the “walked five miles to school in the snow, uphill both ways” fib. Soon enough, I had a barely perceptible breeze at my back. The sun fell onto my chest and shoulders. I could watch my triceps flexing as I stroked and realized that in surfing one can’t stop to appreciate the way the body gets toned and challenged during exercise.

These malleable machines God allows us to travel in are certainly marvelous things.

Finally reaching the ramp, I figured I’d paddled about 8,000 feet, according to Google maps. One and a half miles.

I had passed a duck couple on the way back. They were standing on lily pads as far as I could tell.


PHOTO CREDIT: Surfer Magazine

Shells the size of pennies

There was one there already — a Great Egret. As I looked south, down the Guadalupe, I saw three more of the elegant white birds. Their necks started to form question marks as they relaxed and settled in. And then the egret closer to me flew to its siblings. It was replaced by its cousin the Great Blue Heron, which landed on the light-colored rock you see in the center-left of the photo. The tranquility of this place is better told in gray-scale tones than in loud color.

I had heard about this river access from Karen, who heard about it from a neighbor where we live. Apparently, not many people from our housing development know about it. Residents can enter through a gate with a combination lock that gets hot quickly in this sun we all know well. I must confess, while I’d feel somewhat unneighborly if we lived in a gated community, for some inconsistent reason I have no problem having resident-only access to this part of our amazing river. I can list multiple reasons that would sound justified to me (e.g. not wanting to be around loud music), but truth be told I’m getting older — something I’m told happens quite often — and there’s no getting around my being kind of snobby and elitist about this aspect of Hill Country life. I’m going to lean into it.

The photo here was taken shortly after I entered the area, having been the only car there, and walked down onto the treacherous and unstable bleached limestone rock to take a closer look. I’d forgotten the water shoes that Karen had reminded me to take, and since I didn’t want to swim in my sandals, I ventured out in bare feet.

The water closest to the shoreline and maybe an inch deep, was probably close to the air temperature of 93 degrees and uncomfortably warm. I told myself it would be easier once I went a little deeper. Soon enough I found myself walking on hundreds of small shells, each the size of a penny, and I remembered it was one of these shells that my son Teak had landed on when jumping into a different and deeper area of the river. The shell ripped his heel open and ended his summertime swimming weeks ahead of the school year. Cuts take longer to heal for a 58-year-old, and I didn’t want to be dry-docked until I started taking out IRA contributions to pay for getting the stitches removed.

I told myself the river bottom would get better soon.

It didn’t.

Small shells gave way to sharp rock and then more sharp rock of a different kind before the water depth even hit six inches. Not only did I wish at this point to have my water shoes, but even my sandals would have sufficed, since the closer I got to the middle of the river, the more it appeared that the darker areas were not indicative of depth but rather of greater concentrations of river moss. [Note to readers, especially those who are from Kerrville: I Googled in vain a more exact or even correct description of what I call “moss.” If I am wrong and you blow up the Comments section below, I must warn you I will be tempted to cook up some egret tenders, and then we will be even-steven.] Therefore, I wouldn’t be able to swim and take the weight off my feet, the heels of which became more and more like cannon fodder to the penny-sized shells waiting for their victim. The underwater terrain was to my soles like free-solo climbing the limestone bluffs would be to my palms.

When I reached the point of turning back, I made a decision to go home and get my river shoes. I had been toying with the idea at almost each step.

In my mind were two paths: “This is so beautiful. I want to get the river shoes and come back.” Or, “This is so beautiful, but (I’m lazy) and I don’t want to make the effort to go get the shoes and come back.” I chose to get the shoes.

This was an uncharacteristic decision, since typically I would have called it a day — a short one — and told myself, “Note to self: next time bring river shoes.”

But yesterday was a “today” that flies as effortlessly as a heron, and one doesn’t know when one will next see a heron like yesterday.

Be an “Urban Ninja”

Walking out of Herring Printing yesterday at about 8:40AM, I briefly glanced down the sidewalk to my left, where my car was parked, then looked to my right, toward Sidney Baker, and afterwards proceeded to walk left. You may not know, but this rapid head movement is the building exit strategy of a trained Urban Ninja. And, if you do know this, please pretend you don’t for the purposes of this post.

To the naked eye, this swiveling action looks like a life-sized Yankee bobble-head man wearing nice slacks.

I can assure you, it is not.

Here’s what’s going on: when one exits a building, one doesn’t know what’s happening on the sidewalk in front or to either side of him. There could be a number of things.

There could be a mugger waiting to jump you or a gang waiting to run toward, and outrun, you, because you are 58, have a slight belly, and are carrying printed material. You would rather get mugged and have your cash stolen — who carries cash anyway? (I actually was yesterday.) — than jettison the printed material to add another 2MPH of juice on your stride. These gang members have been vaping in front of the Valero up the street and are quick and dangerous. Until their cotton candy-smelling lungs implode. And then they are actually quite slow. And this is why it is good I didn’t jettison my printed material. Because I’m counting on their having vaped, and vaped A LOT, just before attacking me. THIS is the counter-intelligence that an Urban Ninja alone can access.

Pay attention.

Second, someone who has no malicious intent could be walking from one direction or the other and would bump into you. Or, more accurately, you would bump into them. As unlikely as it is that there would be another pedestrian on Kerrville’s sidewalks before 9AM, or even less likely between 9AM and 5PM, you want to take every precaution that you not exit the structure and bump into the other pedestrian. Because, let’s face it, even though you are 58, have a slight belly — which is slowly firming up I might add, despite the smashburgers last night; look, we’re all trying hard here and gimme a fucking break — and carrying printed material that you actually don’t want to jettison under any circumstance whatever; despite all those things requiring commas and a few other punctuation marks and not least of all your patience, Dear Reader, you’re actually a pretty decent guy who doesn’t want to hurt someone else unduly, and you’re also a skilled Sidewalk Navigator who knows how to avoid accidents that others can’t or won’t. For that reason also, you look right.

Finally, you look right because you just never know.

It’s one of those things you just do when exiting a building.

It’s curiosity borne of habit.

The sidewalk is where life happens. Sure, life still happens inside buildings that you are exiting with strategies. But on the sidewalk, between those predictable and circumscribed spaces we call “offices,” “homes” and “coffeeshops with awesome drinks and nibbles” — I’m talking PAX here — are sidewalks where any kind of thing can and does happen. Herring Printing, PAX and the Kerr Arts & Cultural Center are like the brains, heart and lungs of a place. Earl Garrett and Water Streets are its arteries.

Have you talked to the lady who sometimes sits inside PAX with her own travel mug of coffee and has deep creases in her sun-browned face like etches in the limestone that the Guadalupe makes? Most of the time she’s walking along Earl Garrett looking for a shady spot, often on that iron bench next to the ATM at the Texas Hill Country Bank. Some of you have spoken with her. Some of you have seen her from your car. Some of you have seen the red light turning green in front of Francisco’s.

You might also have met David, whose bike carrying everything he owns on a trailer tipped over under the bridge in Louise Hays Park. Or you might have met John, a vet as is David, who painted the corner of Monroe’s with a scene of a train crossing a bridge. It’s hard to tell if the painting is unfinished or just really small, but he was painting it in November 2019 when the air was starting to make his 80-year-old hands a bit stiff with nothing to warm them except the aluminum foil covering a breakfast taco from Mary’s. I’d wager the painting wasn’t finished. Or you might have met Joseph, the young black man who skateboards along Main Street in the rain, heading home in the vicinity of Revival Fire Church. I can say in all truth that I have been to that neighborhood exactly once. I have seen a number of residents from that neighborhood shopping in H-E-B, but I didn’t notice any of them.

At the risk of sounding, well, however this sounds, I’ll summarize it to say that typically I meet people different from me outside of a building and people the same as me inside. Neither one is better than the other. But not using my building exit strategy prevents me from being made the richer by David, John, Joseph and the lady with limestone creases. And you whom I haven’t yet met.

My inside people are my foundation. My outside people are my growth edge.

At top is John in front of Monroe’s. I had his permission to take and use a photo.

“White trash”

Yesterday as I was driving to go paddleboarding, I passed a house on Riverside to reach my “secret spot” in Flat Rock Park on the Guadalupe. The spot was so secret that two guys in a pick-up showed up moments later to fish, while I was unstrapping the bungee cords holding the board to my truck bed. They were cool, and I’m confident they’ll keep my secret spot a secret.

So I was passing this house, and in the front yard were a colorful plastic children’s slide about 3-feet high, some machine parts, maybe a car bumper, a lawnmower waiting to be used on the few blades of grass still hanging on among the trodden earth, and the garbage and recyclable bins both: about two feet apart and facing each other, like they were fixing to chat about all the wonderful items strewn about them.

At the sight, my brain offered me the words, “white trash.”

And it was then I realized that this was no different, maybe even worse, than calling a black person the “n–” word. I can’t even use that word in an instructive context, because the blogging platform I use, WordPress, might “cancel” me.

This article will be the last time you’ll see me write or hear me say, “White trash.” Unless we’re talking about my or your or a neighbor’s trash that consists of unused diapers from the 1950s — which would be better labeled as “garbage” — computer paper that your ink cartridges messed up on (true “trash”), or old white picket fencing which, again, our local town considers “bulk waste” rather than trash.

“White trash” claims that white people who live the way I saw above (an admittedly subjective description that nonetheless many reading this can immediately call to mind) — regardless of whether they are heroin addicts or decorated war veterans or decorated war veterans who are heroin addicts — are somehow not only less than me or a sub-species. They are no species at all. They are “trash.”

Let’s be fair: white people who “live like this” have been known to call others who live like this “white trash.” It’s little different than a black person calling another black person a n—. Once again, avoiding cancellation, even though everyone knows what word that is. Next we will cancel the characters “n” followed by “- – -.”

The river was sunny, but a stiff south-southwest wind made the downstream leg a brutal workout. This was what I wanted. Something to get my heart rate up and sustained for twenty minutes or more as I paddled deep and long and fast. It did the trick. There were two boaters who were fishing between the island and the west bank, so I decided to leave them undisturbed and skirt the island to the east. A snowy egret kept an eye on me and flew off when I was about 20 yards away. A white duck (goose? I didn’t have my glasses on and am blaming my fauna ignorance on blurred vision) and its mate swam to my right among the lilipads, not deterred.

On the downwind and upstream leg, I paddled closer to the east shore, not only because it was prettier than being in the middle of the river, but also because I wanted the owners in the dog run to look over and see this middle-aged man going after it hard on a paddleboard first thing in the morning. I think what they probably saw was a middle-aged man with a slight belly looking out of breath and lacking the hot coffee they were then enjoying.

After loading up the paddleboard and saying goodbye to the very nice men who were fishing — they were indeed really cool; that’s one of the things I love about this small town of Kerrville: kind neighbors — I drove back down the length of Flat Rock Park and then along Riverside, and I saw that my gas gauge was low. Since this 34-year-old truck has a gauge that is more of a “gas estimator” that can be +/- a quarter-tank, I decided to go to Stripes on Memorial and Loop 534.

Stripes itself is staffed mostly by people whom other white people and black people might call “white trash.” They are often missing teeth, sporting tattoos (I better tread lightly there), smokers, putting bumpers in their front yards, cussing thoughtlessly and, let’s face it, probably couldn’t get or maybe wouldn’t want a job other than one in a convenience store or fast food restaurant. The world, and even I at times, sees them as “unlovely.” Deplorables.

I passed the house again and took a couple photos of the front that I was going to use here. I had planned to get out and take the photos in an artistic way, then manipulate them carefully in the Camera+ iPhone app, making them into beautiful BxW photos. I thought: no, that would be rude to stand in front of their house to do that. So I snapped the photos through the dirty window of the truck and thought, “Well, I can still manipulate the photos in Camera+ and use the smudges on the rear window artistically.”

And then I realized I hadn’t stopping thinking about the residents as “white trash.” I was going to take a photo of a place lived in by “white trash” to tell you about here. I thought of them like museum pieces: how was I to describe “white trash” to you if I didn’t have a photo of white trash living? I mean, the outward appearance shows the inner reality, right?

You might think I’m overreacting and using bromides.

But would you agree that during this past election cycle, we’ve had Biden supporters call Trump supporters “Nazis” and Trump supporters call Biden-supporting mask advocates “sheep” and Trump supporters call those on the left “LibTards” and Biden supporters call Trump supporters “insurrectionists”? Granted, those aren’t non-human names, but they are most certainly dehuman-izing. And most thinking people will admit that it’s not Trump who truly brought out these polarizing statements, it’s people whose broken inner nature felt justified to erect a national scaffold on which we could tighten verbal nooses around each other’s necks.

To refresh my politically-correct thought palette, I searched for this scene from the 1968 musical “Hair,” where singers extol the virtues of “black boys” and “white boys.” Whites extolling blacks. Blacks extolling whites. All with very charged words and suggestive images.

What I love about this scene and, in fact, the whole show, is that race and war and gender and sexual orientation (and even sexual acts whose names I’ve forgotten: when was the last time you heard the word “cunnilingus” set to music?) are so casually but sincerely confronted. It’s like eating dinner with hands that are still dirty from the gardening you just finished. Soil on the fingertips that are holding a buttered ear of corn. Earthy. Unafraid. Dare I say, almost morally neutral. If there is such a thing.

Social commentary that is, in some innocent way, unaware of itself.

Today this show would be offensive in so many ways.

Delightfully offensive to my way of thinking. And therefore not in the least “truly offensive.”

But this white person will no longer call other white people “white trash.”

I challenge my black readers, especially famous rappers like Lil Wayne, Young Thug, A$AP Rocky and others — all of those men don’t really read Biscuit Aisle as far as I know — never again to refer to a black person as a “n—.”

Instead, let’s call each other — as this scene in the musical does — “delicious.”

This might just be NOT “not your grandmother’s peach pie”

Because there’s in fact nothing wrong with grandmother’s peach pie. Nothing at all. That’s why they call it “grandmother’s peach pie” — it’s a bit of a cliché, and this cliché has survived two generations of pie-makers in your family. That’s why your mother bakes it the way her mother did. And let’s face it, your father, if he was born before 1955, probably didn’t bake anything, so I assume it’s your mother’s mother and not even your aunt’s mother, because then it wouldn’t be your grandmother’s peach pie but rather your great-aunt’s peach pie, and it’s your cousins who cook their grandmother’s peach pie and not your grandmother’s peach pie. And that’s fine. This is the way we avoid fights at Thanksgiving.

But this peach pie has the crust and filling of a very simple pie, like that of grandmother, and the ingredients and a couple key techniques seem to make this special.

The ingredients

Good ingredients give you a head start with any dish, and just like your grandmother used ingredients that were more farm-based and less grocery store-based, so you would do well to adopt this practice. This goes without saying.

Peaches, I’ve learned from being married to a Texan, are better in Texas than from, say, Georgia, even if that’s not verifiable because taste — like anything related to the five senses — is subjective. Texas claims the best peaches, and therefore it is true. Even if I was married to a woman from Georgia, her imaginary sister, who moved to Texas in 1988 to be with her imaginary outlaw country music boyfriend would try to convince you that Texas peaches are best, especially if it’s in the Hill Country at Fredericksburg’s Jenschke Orchards.

Jenschke has been family owned and operated since 1961. There was a store by that name in Kerrville owned by a family cousin as I understand it, but that location was shut down as H-E-B expanded. I’ve heard they still make deliveries to local outlets.

Karen and I went to Fredericksburg a couple weekends ago, because I had a hankering to bake a peach pie that every same day, and it was this that ended up as good as “grandmother’s peach pie.”

I should be quick to add a couple caveats:

  • Neither of my grandmothers cooked peach pie.
    • One of those grandmothers, a well-to-do New England lady, had a housekeeper who also cooked, and to my recollection she made only a cherry pie, which would pass muster with my grandfather, whose opinion carried the weight of a Supreme Court Chief Justice on all matters culinary (and hunting, and hunting dogs, and basically anything related to being alive).
  • I had made only two pies previously, an apple with fruit picked from Cider Hill Farm when we were living in Massachusetts, and a strawberry-rhubarb pie with rhubarb given to me by a colleague who got it from her family’s farm in Vermont.
    • I should note that both of these pies, especially the latter, kicked major ass.
    • But both of these pies were made prior to 2007, and I was a bit intimidated to bake another now, 14 years later, having been focused lately on the improvisational art of cooking and not baking, which truly is a science. (Yes, baking certainly has its artistic side.)
    • Which reminds me, as a college senior majoring in English with two housemates who were civil engineering majors, I’d be up late writing a term paper, in which all I needed to do was outline my perspective and then justify it with selective texts from the source material — this is the “cooking” form of study — while my housemates were cussing their way through thermodynamics — the “baking” form of study which, if not followed to the decimal point, will cause the bridge to fall like a failed merengue. I think you get the point: I could fake my way through an essay, frankly. You can’t fake baking.

You can see from the photos that to eat a ripe Texas peach, I needed to bend over to keep the juices from running down my chin.

I purchased discounted “seconds,” ripe and ready to eat or bake with that same day. Otherwise, you can get peaches that will ripen in two or three days’ time. Being ripe as they are, whatever peaches I didn’t bake, we made sure to eat relatively soon.

The process

Here I’ll share a couple things that helped me turn what would have been a mess into a crowd-pleaser. It comes down to (1) a good crust which, I think I can make even better next time, and (2) a key spice in the filling.

THE CRUST

In some ways it’s the crust that makes all the difference.

Being the pie’s public face, so to speak, either it attracts you or you start eating with a grumpy attitude. Only then, once you commit to it with a fork, does its flakiness count.

I used the pie crust recipe HERE from Cookies and Cups. Again, ingredients are important just as is one key technique that I learned from a colleague who had cooked many a pie.

One of the ingredients called for is, of course, butter. First, as the recipe says, make sure your butter is cold. While an experienced baker can give a more detailed explanation why it should be cold, common sense says it would be more likely to produce the “coarse sand” texture called for, rather than a mush that would surely result from using warm butter. I used Plugra butter, which is now the go-to butter for my serious cooking and baking.

The technique I first learned, also from a colleague in Massachusetts — apparently many of us talked about baking when we should have been working — and that I applied to the apple and strawberry-rhubarb pies, was that one should NEVER OVERWORK THE DOUGH. Most of you reading this probably know that, but it was news to me back in 2005. This means, in practice, to not over-knead it or roll it too much, and if it tears or comes apart, simply use your fingers to gently press back the torn piece onto the larger piece. I.e. don’t use the rolling pin to roll it out again.

What I didn’t do which I will next time was to wrap the dough (I did that part) and chill it longer than I did.

THE FILLING

The nutmeg was in my opinion that item that made for a successful filling, for which I used a recipe HERE from Taste Of Home.

Everyone expects the standard things: sugar, corn starch, salt, lemon juice, butter…even the cinnamon and brown sugar aren’t eye opening. But for me it was the nutmeg, even though it was only 1/4 teaspoon’s worth — in combination with the other ingredients like the brown sugar and cinnamon — that gave it that catalytic “oopmh.” And perhaps it was also that you’re cooking the reserved juice from the peaches, because this means that you’re using the juice from the aforementioned Jenschke peaches, which I’ve already pointed out are the bomb.

And, to be honest, having these peach “seconds” meant that they were ripe THAT DAY, and to wait even a day longer would have produced a different taste. As it was, the juiciness and sweetness of the fruit were optimal.

In sum

If I had to point to four things that made this peach pie a success, and even though I can improve for the next one, I’d say it was the (1) quality peaches, which also positively impacted the reserve juice, (2) dough technique, (3) quality butter, and (4) the nutmeg.

I might be wrong on the nutmeg, since it was such a small amount, but it seemed to jump out at me. And it still jumps around in my memory.

This was indeed somebody’s grandmother’s peach pie.

First time smoking a brisket

This past Saturday evening into Sunday midday was my first time smoking a brisket. As I mention in the standard introduction to my podcast, also called “Biscuit Aisle” on Spotify, I come from the land of pizza and bagels. The main thing that’s smoked there is salmon from Zabar’s and now weed in Times Square. (Apparently, it’s a bit like Woodstock but with fake Spidermen shysters and without Jimi Hendrix.)

Smoking a brisket

Smoking a brisket falls into a cooking category referred to as “low and slow”–low temperature over a long time. Like sous vide but in a smoker rather than a pot of water. Incidentally, in an upcoming podcast episode, I speak to a Danish man who longs for a smoker to make dishes such brisket and pulled pork but, because his neighbors would throw a fit about the smoke, must satisfy himself with sous vide cooking. (Not a bad second at all.)

That’s one of the natural and, I should add, delightful aspects of smoking a brisket: to stand near the smoker and feel and smell all the smoke of the meat becoming more tender and flavorful.

There are of course different kinds of grills, and I have owned three: (1) charcoal: everything from a $25 cheapie you throw out at summer’s end to a quite decent $200 grill we had on our porch in NYC; (2) gas, which I had in Massachusetts and grilled all kinds of meat and fish and veggies, year-round and which I thought I missed; and now, replacing my former love, (3) a Traeger.

Traeger as a brand is near synonymous with the type of grill it is: wood pellet. And it has a following with a hashtag that always says everything about the brand itself: #traegernation. (The only thing that has a fan base as devoted but no similar hashtag is Texas, which is already a nation.)

How I got mine

Family and people I had met through Instagram had talked about Traeger, but somehow the mechanics of it eluded me, and I also didn’t know what the big deal was. Deciding to get a Traeger was more of a discipleship process than actually buying and setting it up. Which, since it came assembled, wasn’t an issue. (More of an issue was getting in it the back of our Hyundai Santa Fe, which we did gingerly.)

I first heard about Traeger from an Instagram foodie friend named Angela Schweikert, who was a pescatarian until she met a pitmaster boyfriend who converted her not only to eating meat again but also to cooking everything on a grill from meat to seafood to something she calls “Bambi Bites” (you can guess) and even pies. You can make in a Traeger anything you can make in an oven. She told me about the grill–as had my brother-in-law Brian some time back, but it didn’t stick–and she referred me to another devotee, an authority named Pat (@Traeger.rage.BBQ) on Instagram. (He plays a role later in the narrative.)

I continued to research Traeger and finally got a Pro Series 34 at Home Depot here in Kerrville, Texas.

I have to say, it is impressive, and my first meal was chicken kabobs, which cooked in about 8 minutes. I like the idea, also, of burning wood and not charcoal or gas. It of course gives it a more pure flavor, and while the fumes are not as clean as real wood, it’s better than standing over a charcoal grill.

First time smoking a brisket

As I mentioned, I first made kebabs on my Traeger, which turned out not only respectable but rather quite good. I then tried smashburgers, which were just ok. I cooked something else which I now can’t remember. But it was time for me to try what a grill/smoker is known for, at least in the nation of Texas, which is brisket.

I must say, I was quite intimidated at first.

Brisket seemed the meat dish that required the most patience, finessing, time and know-how, not to mention a Texas passport. I had only the patience, which came in handy.

I was going to go to a butcher called Bernhard’s Meat Processing up Junction Highway between Kerrville and Ingram, Texas. It’s known for high quality, but I ended up getting mine from H-E-B, which has a 25-yard long waist-high refrigerator with nothing but brisket. I chose a 9.5lb job, and there were choices at least in the 16+lb range. As it was, we still had enough left over after two ravenous sons dove in to give a chunk to my mother- and sister-in-law and also make ourselves chopped brisket sandwiches for two meals. Homemade macaroni and cheese (cheddar and gruyere) accompanied the meat.

I can see how brisket would be the perfect choice for a large group of people.

There are a lot of nuances about brisket that I didn’t know and won’t go into here, such as differentiating between the fat cap and thin end, and other essentials as what kind of rub, and a myriad of variations in how to cook it.

Jedi Masters are real and they sometimes suck as friends

One of the people I had met on Instagram was a well-known devotee within the Traeger fan base, and I sought his counsel on a number of fronts early in my use. I knew I’d need to ask his counsel during this maiden brisket voyage.

He was super helpful until… I was following a recipe on the Traeger iPhone app and also using this man’s basic framework. That was a mistake. There is the Jedi way — which must be the Jedi Master’s way — and there is everything else: the dark side. For example: those who use foil or butcher paper to wrap the meat toward the end, admittedly resulting in different outcomes, each defend their way to the hilt. Especially butcher paper, which is the Jedi way. My sense was that foil users feel less strongly about their way and could be coaxed to the butcher paper Way, but once you are in that camp, to go back is true apostasy.

When I chose to use foil toward the end, because the app said I should and because I didn’t have butcher paper to follow Master’s way, I asked a question related to the app instructions, and his text back to me was curt:

Sounds Like A Good Enough Process.

I don’t do that.

Ciao Brother.

– my “Jedi Master”

Some might write that off. “Guy’s an asshole” and all that. But this was my first brisket and when you get right down to it, I trusted him more than the 27,813 reviewers (really; there were that many) who gave the recipe a 4.8-star rating. Because it’s all too possible for 27, 813 people to follow a recipe and be merely satisfied, giving it a high rating, rather than follow a Jedi Master and get proven Jedi results.

I wanted to learn the Jedi mind tricks necessary to please my eaters. And I did. They were overcome with the result and apparently forgot I was a Yankee making the national meal of Texas.

18 hours and 4-5 N/A beers

Traeger instructions are quirky. In a good way. As you read through the set-up and initial firing up steps, each step is accompanied by the icon of a six-pack of beer, with individual bottles disappearing along the way, showing you how long each step and the entire process should take. Likewise, recipes often have that same time-to-beer pacing icon.

Since I drink only non-alcoholic beer, the metrics would no doubt be different.

Or so I thought.

I found myself, at around 3AM, pacing through my six pack of non-alcoholic Bitburgers. I had probably drunk 4 or 5 since 6PM the previous day. I had never, and I mean never, had more than two at any one sitting. (Which is telling for a guy who calls himself a recovered alcoholic.)

And though I nearly finished off “a six” while cooking, there was no hangover the next day.

Only the smell of smoke permeating the living room (next to the patio and the grill), which I didn’t notice since I’d been breathing it in for more than 18 hours.

“Name this burger”

Some readers might know that Biscuit Aisle is creating a new cuisine called “Spaghetti-Western Food.” People fuse all kinds of cuisines for diners who will pay top dollar for tiny dollops. Like the photo to the right, it’s “Big Plate, Small Bite, Big Bill.” Wolfgang Puck pioneered this format of paying a lot for a little, and outcomes have been heresies like “pad thai taco,” “kimchi quesadilla” or “sushi pizza.” (These are real examples.)

But, as has been said by orthodox Christians about “Christian Science,” it’s neither Christian nor Science.

I love all those dishes separately, but together…? Not so much. In fact, it’s adjacent to scandalous.

Fortunately for Biscuit Aisle, “spaghetti-western food” is not an invented fusion but rather is a mealtime companion to the eponymous film genre whose most famous director is Sergio Leone and whose most famous examples are movies like Leone’s “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly” or his “Dollars” trilogy (e.g. “Fistful of Dollars.” And notice that it’s a fistful, not a pinky’s worth, of dollars).


Lee Van Cleef was the “Bad” in “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.” He now has a burger named after him. (Though I mixed him up with the “Ugly” character, played by Eli Wallach.) Nevertheless, my hunt for the ultimate ugly burger continues. And the journey must end, of course, with the ultimate spaghetti-western burger, which would be one named after either Clint Eastwood, the star of many movies in that genre–though, notably, not in the most famous “Once Upon A Time In The West”–or director Sergio Leone.

On the occasion of my 100th Instagram post (at bottom), I decided to crowdsource the name, knowing that someone would come up with the favored moniker for the simple but still ugly burger. (I don’t recommend this process for newborn humans, and you will shortly see why.)

Here are the entries, and after that I’m going to ask a favor of you that will come with a reward:

  • Black Forest Bacon Double Trouble Burger
  • Cheesecon Burger
  • Tuscan Baconator
  • Upchuck Corral
  • The Good, the Ham and the Patties
  • Under the Tuscan Bun
  • Grand Canyon Massacre
  • Patty Capone
  • Sundance Burger
  • The Killer B Burger
  • Double Hop-Along Howdy, with bacon
  • El Corozanary
  • Il (capital “I” lower case “l”) Cuoronary
  • Burger You Can’t Refuse
  • The Eastwood
  • The Widowmaker
  • Congo
  • T-shirt Burger

In the COMMENTS section below, please list your TOP 3 FAVORITE NAMES. The person who first suggested the winning name will win a FREE t-shirt–sent to them anywhere in the U.S. at my expense–and I will also send a t-shirt to one of those who pick the winning name.

Honor system: don’t read through the comments to see how the voting is going. :))

So vote today and win a chance at a free t-shirt for yourself or for a foodie friend!

Creation in a new light

Since February 1 of this year, I’ve been taking photos from our backyard looking northwest. More precisely, it’s probably west-northwest.

I take each photo ten minutes after sunrise. Sunrise on February 1 was 7:35am Central Standard Time, and sunrise today was 6:52am Central Daylight Time.

I’ve titled this series — which by no means includes each day but rather does include multiple days from each week since the start — #10MinutesAfterSunriseInTexas. If you go to Instagram and do a search for similar posts, you might find a series called “10 minutes after sunrise,” but there are only four such photos, and they don’t announce mornings in the great state of Texas but rather in places like Maine, where the sun actually rises only about seven days a year, in late June.


So I became interested in what I could learn about the sunrise here.

Previously, only a spectacular sunrise or sunset would earn my attention. It dawned on me that because I pick and choose what I want to see, I might be missing something even more spectacular.

See these two galleries below, followed by an observation I had. I’ll save others for later.

  • Gallery 1 is four photos from the first half of February. (Earliest is upper left and moves clockwise to later dates.)
  • Gallery 2 is two photos from the first half of February contrasted against two from the first half of May. (Earliest is upper left and again moves clockwise.)

To the naked eye, we can see differences, especially when sunrises are separated by a few months.

The camera — machine #1 — picks up differences further still. One day, I was sure it was an overcast-gray only. But the camera picked up more blue than I had noticed. The camera didn’t operate on preconceived notions about what it wanted to see.

It just reported.

Then, I added a second machine to see what I might be missing and to “say” what the camera didn’t have the tools to.

Adobe Capture is an app that allows you to create various patterns from photos. It also can compile a “swatch” of five colors that it deems dominant in that photo.

The series on the left is from early February — February 1 at top, February 14 at bottom. The series on the right, like the gallery, shows the first two February photos at top and the last two May photos at bottom. Move the vertical slider back and forth by clicking and holding the “< >” to compare and contrast.

On left is a machine impression of the February photographs. On the right is a machine impression of the first two February photographs (on top) and two photographs from this month (on bottom).

There are six conclusions I’ve made so far from looking at the photos over time, not through my eyes but through the eyes of two unbiased machines, that of my camera and Adobe Capture. I’ll share just one for now:

The sun doesn’t make the difference; the clouds do.

This was my problem at the start. My idea of a “great” sunrise or sunset not only was that it was sunny, creating a “golden hour,” but also that it was brilliantly so. Nothing wrong with that, granted.

But it is the clouds, playing off the sun, that create various shadows and shades of blues, browns and greens that I had missed until I filtered them through these two machines.

#10MinutesAfterSunriseInTexas is my way of seeing creation in a new light.

More to come.

“We are happy to serve you,” said the coffee cup to the world.

When designing what is now not only an iconic coffee cup but perhaps the iconic one, Leslie Buck introduced a simple concept to start New Yorkers’ caffeinated daily grind: “We are happy to serve you.”

Buck, born Laszlo Büch in 1922 in Czechoslovakia, survived the Auschwitz and Buchenwald concentration camps in WWII, though the Nazis killed his parents.1 He moved to America and ultimately sold cups for Sherri Company, breaking into the large NYC market of Greek-owned diners by designing a cup that appealed to them. In fact, the coffee cup that Leslie Buck designed in the early 1960s was so iconic that now, even after the cup is no longer being mass produced, the company still prints them on demand.

“Service” is not exactly a New York thing, or is it?

My first job out of college was with John Wiley & Sons, Publishers. In the mid-1980s, the global company had its headquarters in two buildings facing each other off 40th Street: 600 and 605 Third Avenue. I worked in 600 Third, the building on the west side of the avenue.

In the lobby of my building there was a coffee shop. Most of us would stop there on our way in and get a coffee and either a muffin or bagel with something on it. The cashier was an older lady, probably around 60 at the time and now probably turning a ripe 130 years (that’s not true).

Truth is, she was ripe then, maybe a bit past ripe, for her remarks were acerbic and you didn’t want to be on the butt end of them.

One morning as I was waiting to pay for my coffee and toasted corn muffin with butter, a delivery boy came back to the cashier and said that Mr. Jones on the 9th floor complained his toast was too dark.

While counting change for the customer in front of her, she said, “Go tell the kitchen to make another order, and tell Mr. Jones that next time, send a swatch.”

“We are happy to serve you” only sounds different in NYC

This might give you the impression that New Yorkers are gruff, mean-spirited people. On the contrary, they are deeply intimate, in-your-face people. They have to be. They ride nose to nose on the subway; they walk shoulder to shoulder on the sidewalk; they have jousting grocery store carts in the narrow aisles. (Hence the name for this blog when I first encountered H-E-B.)

For example, many corner delis in New York City are run by Korean immigrants and are highly efficient purveyors of morning meals-to-go, in particular, to the New York white collar customer. One such place was famous for having a cashier, a Korean lady of about 40 or so, expedite the long line of customers getting their breakfast orders, with a clipped and accented, “Step DOWN! Step DOWN!”

Her service sounded quite different from that of a southern diner, for example — “What’ll you have, hon’?” — and was all about getting people into the deli and back out to their workplace which, for a New Yorker, is where they want to be. Her “service” was a function of the location.

Therefore, while it’s unlikely you’ll hear many in the food industry there say out loud, “We are happy to serve you,” they really are.


1 The New York Times

2 PHOTO CREDIT: “Peddler