Restoration

With torrential rain last night and early this morning — “torrential,” that is, contrasted against our standard “none” — you know I’m going to talk a little about the sky. Or skies, as I pointed out recently. Carol Arnold yesterday on Facebook posted a painting of hers inspired by a rainstorm in Junction, Texas. She had been driving home from Marathon.

Marathon is the town you drive through to get to Big Bend’s main visitor center. Yes, you could go through Terlingua but from Alpine, where you’re staying, if not Marathon itself, it makes more sense to go through the latter. You have to go through a border patrol checkpoint, because in Big Bend you can cross into Mexico, most notably by wading into the Rio Grande at the Santa Elena Pass. In fact, you can get to Mexico there without getting your shirt wet.

The drive back from Marathon along I-10 East affords many big-sky panoramas. There are only a few places in the U.S., and even the world, where you can still enjoy a natural panorama. Human settlement, even one with low-rise dwellings, can’t be considered a “panorama.” It would take Nature to restore it.

Click-hold and move the bar above to reveal all of Carol’s painting, and look to the lower right. That swath of dark means someone’s getting dumped on. In Junction, that’s probably the people coming out of McDonald’s just off the highway on their way to or from Mason.

My photo is aimed southwest from Comanche Trace. Planes are probably grounded at the Kerrville-Kerr County Airport. Or if the dump is far south enough, people at Toucan Jim’s restaurant are scampering inside from the backyard dining area, running and giggling as they grasp onto the stems of margarita glasses and the edges of plates with jalapeño poppers. Feeling the sizable raindrops start to cool their skin under their light-colored shirts, now polka-dotted with gray, and knowing it’s only a sudden and short-lived luxury. Table neighbors, strangers just moments ago, glance at each other and smile. They begin friendly negotiations to determine who gets to sit at the bar to finish their meals and who looks for a spot elsewhere inside. Men stand sideways between bar stools and occasionally apologize to the person behind them.

Marvelous. Wonderful.

One of the noticeable differences between living in Texas, at least this part of Texas, and New York City, at least the Manhattan part — not that there’s really any other part that can reasonably be called “New York City” — is the sky.

Quality and quantity.

Above is a photo I took this morning exactly ten minutes after sunrise. I’ve taken more than a hundred of these from the same angle and same time (10 minutes after sunrise) since early February of this year, and at some point I’ll be putting these into coffee table book format.

Studying the same scene over and over, I feel a bit like Monet with a camera instead of a brush and with anonymity without the inevitable real estate on the walls of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Also, Monet repeatedly studied lillipads, which I can’t do unless I get a GoPro for my camera and paddleboard out into the Guadalupe. Believe me, I’ve considered it.

There are a lot of reasons to appreciate the Texas sky. The two most obvious ones are its quantity — it’s Big-Ass — and quality.

Texas skies are big.

I took this photo on September 4, 2018.

I still remember how I pulled onto Comanche Trace Drive leading into the golf course community where we live and seeing this through the passenger side window.

Comanche Trace Drive is straight once you enter and perhaps a hundred yards long. Through the live oak trees you can clearly see the sunset sky in all its unadulterated beauty.

This was one of those “God-light” varieties of skies — I say “skies,” plural, because no sky here is ever the same; Manhattan skies are pretty uniform — and on that straight stretch of Comanche Trace Drive, I would have been negligent had I not pulled over to the right to take a photo. Hazard lights on, not caring whether someone thought something was wrong with my car, a Hyundai to any other resident’s Mercedes or Corvette.

This photo, the crispness reduced by my iPhone camera and also by uploading it here, is one of my favorites of the Texas, and Kerrville, sky.

While the Comanche Trace Drive photo show the quantity of Texas skies — they seem to go on forever — this one, taken over the Guadalupe River just down Bandera Highway — shows the quality.

And it’s not so much the quality of the sky itself, it’s the quality that the river acknowledges and shows the riverbank admirer.

May 27 of this year demonsrated just how threatening a sky can be.

In and of itself, that’s like “what’s the big deal?”

But that flippant question is second nature to a city kid. Especially a New York City kid who can simply step away from a storm into a pre-war apartment building that can withstand a small nuclear blast, let alone a bad thunderstorm.

Here in Kerrville, skies like this one mean potential hail. Which means a claim with Texas Farm Bureau because the bank still owns part of the car. The part that’s not damaged and would be sold alongside its dimpled neighbors were we to trade up. Which means a $500 deductible and a rental car while ours is in the shop.

See? All sorts of logistical crap goes along with even the clouds here.

A sky like this in New York City, were you even to notice it, means eating our sushi inside the restaurant instead of in the sidewalk cafe.


What I said in my previous posts HERE and even HERE is that with the eyes of a 58-year-old man, I fail to see what younger or more capable eyes see.

So I set out to “see” what I might miss but what neutral, unbiased “eyes” might capture.

I used two tools within an app called Adobe Capture. Aside from being downright fun, it also has commercial potential and is instructive to boot.

The first tool I use to “see” in a sky what my eyes might miss is the app’s feature called “Colors” (on the left below), and the second is called “Looks” (on the right).

The first mechanism that “sees” the sky, of course, is my camera, which never picks up the fullness of what my eyes do, failing as they might be.

I found that Colors gave me only the basic palette. Then I used Looks to further refine what Adobe saw and what my camera saw. Still, it was limited: the peach color you see — once again, bastardized by uploading the photo here — was actually more yellow-orange in the photo and still more vibrant when I saw it with my own two aging eyes.

Which brought me to a conclusion: we humans can see and appreciate more clearly what God has wrought than can technology. Technology is designed by humans to identify, track and archive data.

We, on the other hand, are designed by God to marvel at beauty.

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.

Best Small Texas Towns | Some To Visit Once, Some More

Best small towns in texas
Iraan, Texas

best small towns texas

Iraan, Texas is pronounced “EYE-ruh-ann.” Living in a state with places named Paris, Rhome (pronounced Rome), and London, I figured this was pronounced like the country with a similar name. I was wrong. But in my quest to find the best small Texas towns to visit and live in, I just had to try it out.

First, Iraan, is pronounced in this unusual way because it’s named after the couple who founded the oil-rich area: Ira and Ann Yates.

“Ira + Ann” = Ira-Ann, Texas.

The oil field was owned by a succession of companies, including the penultimate owner, Marathon Oil. It’s now owned by Houston-based and 13-billion-dollars-a-year-earning Kinder Morgan Inc.

Iraan was one of several small Texas towns I wanted to visit during our trip to Ruidoso and back.

map of our trip
To Ruidoso and back

To Ruidoso (the quick way)…

Because we were moving our oldest son there, we took the quickest route, according to Google, which fortunately skirted most large highways.

london texas - best small texas towns
London, Texas, shares a flag with Paris and Rhome. Texas is so big that even the entirety of Iraan fits within the Lone Star State’s borders. PHOTO: Texas Escapes.

Perhaps my favorite small town was London. It is unincorporated and has a population of 180. While I wasn’t able to stop and get photos — we were very mission-oriented on the way out — the good news is that it’s only a little over an hour from home, so I can go another day. The majority of the way to London is on Ranch Road 385; taking the Interstate to Junction leaves you only 18 minutes on a more scenic road.

garden of eden, Eden Texas
“Garden of Eden” in Eden, Texas // PHOTO: Kelsey Yoder Ostroski

After London, we hit US-83, which points us toward our middle son’s college (Texas Tech in Lubbock). After Menard comes Eden. And, yes, there is a “Garden of Eden.” Even traveling between London and Eden — barely enough time to finish a fried bean burrito from Stripes — I am reminded of William Least Heat Moon’s book Blue Highways, which documents his travels around the country trying to avoid interstate highways and trying to encounter residents of the small towns he passes through.

Roswell, New Mexico — and I’m skipping over somewhat noteworthy small towns like Sterling City, Big Spring, Lamesa (one word), Brownfield and Plains — is not much to write about in my opinion.

The UFO Museum was closed except for the gift shop (any surprise?). Masks were required, my temperature was taken upon entering and I was asked what state I was coming from. My New Yorker-ness made way for my Texas driver’s license.

…and back (not so much)

I’ll touch on a few Ruidoso-related things in a minute.

Because I’d skipped a lot of cool places on the way to Ruidoso, and also because it was Father’s Day on the way home, I had a bit of leeway in the return trip.

I chose the “long way,” which again according to Google Maps appeared only 45 minutes longer but became the really long way, which became the “Honey-I’m-so-sorry-I-should-have-read-the-map-better” way.Vintage Trailer Supply

Being intrigued by Iraan, and also Eldorado (which Heat Moon discussed in his book) as well as Pecos and Rocksprings, I planned a trip that included all these pindrops. The stops along the way would be a wash with what my wife had offered earlier (“Let’s go the quick way out and you can stop along the way home”).

Halfway home going the southern route, I realize I had grievously miscalculated. My segments added up to a lot longer trip, and I also didn’t account for losing an hour when crossing from Mountain Time to Central Time. (The same way I didn’t realize we gained an hour going there.)

Yet, still some cool small Texas towns

My first taste of West Texas in all its glory was Artesia. Artesia is actually in New Mexico, but it blends in with West Texas and forms a vast oil-focused land.

gas flare
A “gas flare” at an oil or gas extraction point. Used to burn off harmful fumes.

Desolate.

Gas flares at extraction sites.

Long bunker-like housing for oil field workers, rented out by the week.

Even spotted my first coyote: dashing across US-285 just feet ahead of our Hyundai Santa Fe Sport.

ARTESIA

This town boasts the Navajo Oil Refinery. I asked the cashier at the gas station we stopped at and she seemed amused that they didn’t get their gas from Navajo. (It was a Phillips 66 station, so I didn’t expect they’d get their product from across the street.)

Navajo, like other refineries, gets its crude from the Permian Basin, which straddles southeastern New Mexico and West Texas. If that geological detail sounds familiar, it might be because you saw either the movie or series “Friday Night Lights,” based on the Permian Panthers in Odessa, Texas.

Oaks Hotels and Resorts

CARLSBAD, LOVING, MALAGA

I grouped these together because although Carlsbad offers the caverns, the towns came in relative succession toward our speeding re-entry to Texas.

I was told when I first moved here that if asked where I’d moved from, to say, “New York. But I got here as fast as I could.” I would practice this now as a resident.

ORLA, TEXAS

Orla, Texas
Orla, Texas. A (quite nice) Pilot Gas Station sits across the highway from this shack. To get the photo, I tiptoed through the bramble with a stick, batting at logs and expecting to hear a rattle.

Shortly after passing a body of water I called “Lizard Lake” — because Google maps made Red Bluff Reservoir look like that…I actually thought it looked more like a salamander, but Karen liked my initial name of “Lizard Lake” more — we reached Orla.

Fascinating.

All that was there, to my eye, was this shack. Everything else — the Pilot Gas and Travel Center across the road and the oil-related industry around us — was uninteresting to me. But this shack was. I subsequently looked up its address online — it actually still has one — and the apparent owner seems to be the same who owns the well-appointed Pilot Travel Center.

Next on the “too-long-honey” return route was Pecos.

PRONOUNCED “PAY-cuss”

There are numerous Texas towns and places I’ve mispronounced, the same way I did when moving to Atlanta — “duh-CAB,” not “duh-KALB” (DeKalb), or “may-RETT-uh” (Marietta, said by Georgians) — or to Massachusetts — “WOOS-ter” and the very England-influenced “NEED-um” (Needham) and “DEAD-um” (Dedham).

I had to get used to Boerne (“BERN-ee,” German influence), and Llano (it’s not pronounced like the Spanish word you’d think it would be), and I will never have the authority to call our nearby city “San Antone.”

Pecos was on my list to visit for other reasons, with the boys: namely that less than an hour south of there is the state’s largest spring-fed pool, Balmorhea State Park.

Pecos, Texas
Fonville Jewelry and Gifts, now closed. It is one of those buildings in the region that many people post photos of as an example of what the nearby Walmart has done. Little do they admit that many stores near Walmart continue to thrive.

And while the violent crime rate of Pecos is cause for concern, the city has a plan to move forward, and development was booming.

ALMOST MARFA

Increasingly people associate “West Texas” with Marfa, an oasis for artists and those who want to be like artists. But unlike an oasis, this one is sought rather than stumbled upon. And it is surely in the list of “Best Small Texas Towns.”

I’ll confess that I want to see Marfa not just to say I’ve been there but because it is so out of place in some ways, and simply by its location it almost certainly will not become over-commercialized.

Of course, I reserve the right to be proven tragically wrong, though I hope not.

Marfa and the Mystique of Far West Texas 2nd Edition, by John Slaughter

Karen and I drove past many fields whose gold colors were quite stunning, like those on the cover of this book I found about West Texas. We talked about what it would take for her as a painter to conjure up those colors onto her canvasses. I became more aware of and humbled by the original Creator’s work.

Marfa is still on the local bucket list.

RUIDOSO (AMONG THE BEST SMALL TEXAS TOWNS NOT IN TEXAS)

I promised you a bit of Ruidoso.

I can’t do it justice since I liked it so much. So I’ll mention just a couple details and write more after the next visit.

Aside from a breakfast that was absolutely stupendous, I was able to settle a theory I had.

My theory was that totem poles were invented by a creative Indigenous Woman or Man as a way to solve the problem of an ugly and intractable tree trunk. (Yes, it turned into something spiritual, but first — so went my theory — it was a creative solution to a landscaping problem.) Maybe a tree was diseased or got struck by lightning, but for whatever reason, it was considered unsightly, and someone came up with a low-cost solution.

slow play rv park
Totem from stubborn tree trunk?

On the grounds of the Slow Play RV Park there are three tree trunks that have not been removed. On the contrary, they’ve been turned into fun brown bear statues/totems.

As a white man, I reserve the right to be corrected by an expert, but I will add that if my theory is right about the genesis of totems — I purposefully did not Google it yet — I will consider it all the more impressive.

The ultimate men’s snap shirt / Finding it in a retail store or online

ultimate men's snap shirt
I will probably go with Coevals Club, even though the brand is not my #1 choice, because this pattern is.

I’m kind of big on snap shirts. A.k.a. “pearl snap shirts,” or “western shirts.” I even heard a saleswoman yesterday call them “button-up” shirts, though I think she was referring to shirts that weren’t t-shirts or polo style. But finding the ultimate snap shirt is an ordeal.

It’s this category of men’s apparel, specifically casual shirts, that I’m enraptured with, and I want to help you find one as much as I want to help myself.

Readers will  know from what I’ve written elsewhere how much I like snap shirts and how I’ve bought them over the years, even though I was born and raised in New York City and my family has California roots. There’s nothing to suggest cowboy-ness. In fact, my (Texan) wife said, “Only cowboys and dorks wear pearl snap shirts, and you’re not a cowboy.

No matter.

I still love ’em and I buy ’em and I wear ’em.

But I can’t find this one particular shirt, so as I write I’m going to go on a journey, and perhaps you’ll come with me if you, too are looking for a snap shirt.

new yorkers and black clothing
New Yorkers for a century have worn black.

Why snap shirts?

As I mentioned above, I grew up in NYC, where now everyone wears black clothing — (true) — and it’s usually tight fitting because everyone has six-pack abs, even the dogs out for walks. Everyone is beautiful there. (Not like LA, but in an inimitable New York way.)

Snap shirts are a combination of throwback to simpler times and ultra-urban-hipster modern. More hip and cool than the black clothes wearing Manhattanites I grew up with and spent most of my adulthood with. They are colorful, cheery, simple, and give me a sense of peace and relaxation. Like I can be myself wearing them.

So there’s the fashion side and there’s the practical side.

The practical side is that:

  • They’re easier to put on and easier to take off.
  • They can get wrinkled and still look good. (Unless you’re wearing a really nice solid color Wrangler long-sleeved snap shirt and taking your belle to the rodeo. In that case, you want it starched and pressed.
  • You can sweat in them and they don’t stank too bad, because they’re loose fitting.
  • You can wear them tucked in (more formal), or loose. The cowboys wore them tucked in, and the tails of these shirts were made longer for that purpose — so that they wouldn’t come untucked so easily while working on the ranch or riding a horse. (True.)
  • Unlike other buttoning shirts with plastic buttons, the buttons on snap shirts never come off or get broken. Or, at least, rarely do. So the shirt lasts longer and requires less maintenance. Cheaper to own in the long run.

You get the picture.

< ==  CLICK HERE for an overview of snap shirts; you might find one! == >

My inventory and what I lack

My first snap shirt was a Wrangler long sleeve that was mainly white and had a blue pattern as I recall.

This was in 1996, and when my wife, Karen, made that crack about cowboys and dorks, so it’s quite possible my memory of details has been damaged because of the trauma I experienced.

Over the years, I’ve bought long- and short-sleeved shirts, buying the latter only recently. In fact, I bought my first short-sleeved snap shirt in February 2018, after moving to Texas (Kerrville, in the Hill Country north of San Antonio). I did so, because I knew this was now home, and the warmer months were soon arriving, and a long-sleeved shirt wouldn’t cut it. My other shirts were fine for New York City but now I needed to augment my wardrobe.

ultimate men's snap shirt
When still living in New York, a coworker and I arrived at the office wearing the same outfit: jeans and a brown long-sleeved snap shirt.

I’d occasionally get to wear my snap shirt to one of the jobs I had in New York, because it was a relaxed church atmosphere. One time, a coworker and I showed up with almost identical clothes: jeans and a brown snap shirt. Needless to say, it was good we worked on different floors and had no group meetings together that day!

Also, fabric is very important, especially in a hot place like Texas.

When I lived in New York, I owned and still do a long-sleeved black snap shirt with brown stitching. Really beautiful shirt. Cost me close to $100. But it’s made of silk. Now, silk is pretty good in warm weather, but it can get sweat stains and also — more importantly — would never appear on any man in Kerrville, Texas. Just wouldn’t.

So, that will stay closeted until I travel to NYC next in a cooler month.

Most recent experience

Yesterday I went to Billy’s Western Wear looking for a specific short-sleeved snap shirt. I didn’t find it. Which placed me in the dilemma that prompted this article.

The shirt I was looking for was a red and blue plaid with fairly broad stripes. Not a lot of white.

Didn’t find it.

This isn’t totally unusual. I have had less success at Billy’s than elsewhere, but with the Internet, for better or worse and as we all know, our decision-making process early on incorporates the statement, “Well, if I can’t find it ___ [fill in name of favorite local retailer where your neighbors work], I can always get it on Amazon.” Which is true. One of my friends ordered a front driver-side panel for his Mercedes off Amazon and had a friend who worked at a local body shop put in on.

A car side panel! On Amazon!

nick dewolfe melrose MA 1957
Main Street, Melrose, MA 1957 // photo: Nick Dewolfe

Increasingly, the older I get, the more I want to shop local. I see that the places I go to get things in a pinch or as part of my daily routine actually do employ my neighbors. I want to keep this small town strong. There’s a woman who’s a receptionist at a doctor’s office who also works at a restaurant we go to. These are our neighbors in Kerrville, also trying to make a living — though there are a lot of wealthy retirees here from Houston — and I want to support them.

So long as they have quality goods and provide quality service. If I can’t find something, and I know it’s not nearby, Amazon is getting the click.

My — and your — options for snap shirts

Which brings me to the Amazon “option.” I’ve bought two snap shirts off of Amazon, and neither has been great.

But they both have been “good enough.” Yet, if they were in stores here, I can’t say that I would have got them.

On one of them, long-sleeved solid blue, there’s a button up tag that will hold up the sleeve if you roll it up. It’s practical for those who work with their hands, but for me it takes away from being formal, which is what I wanted it for. During the height of COVID, I needed a shirt that I could wear on video calls but I could also re-use and it not wrinkle or look sweaty. This served the purpose.

ultimate men's snap shirt
This is the shirt I bought from Coevals Club on Amazon. It was just…ok.

The other shirt I bought was short-sleeved and white with blue and grey. It was ok, but was a bit too roomy. The online sizing was hard to decipher, and this is the key problem with buying shirts online. If you know the maker and the size match shirts you’ve bought in person, or match others you’ve bought online, no problem. Otherwise, buyer beware.

So, it’s:

  • Amazon
  • Other online retailer
  • Store in mall
  • Free-standing store
  • Yard sale (true)
  • eBay (I saw one recently that looked awesome, but it got sold before I could even bid)

The ultimate men’s snap shirt: where to look

To expand a bit on the above options:

My recommendation: If you’ve not ordered a snap shirt before, go with Wrangler your first time.

Because, after all this, that’s probably where I’ll end up.

 

Bernards Gourmet Foods | The Best Texas Salsa?

 

I’m a New Yorker, and we tend to think we know all about food, even salsas, Texas-made salsas. But we quickly learn, especially if we have spouses from Texas, that New Yorkers — in fact, everyone who’s not from Texas — don’t know about salsa, or Tex-Mex food, or chili. With $1.6 billion made in 2018 from sales of “Mexican sauces,” one needs to be discriminating about choice.

Having been married to a Texan now for almost a quarter century, longer than Gen Z Texans have been alive, I’d say I’ve earned some ranch creds to identify some of the best salsa around, even in Texas.

And my choice is Bernards Gourmet Foods.

Chips and salsa, a universal goodness

Isn’t it true that when you go to a Tex-Mex place, you expect to eat chips and salsa? And not just chips and salsa, but FREE chips and salsa, right? Along with a free plate, free utensils, and a free napkin. In New York City, this is often not the case, because you get charged for everything there. But everywhere else, Tex-Mex restaurants serve chips and salsa, and the expectation is that the salsa, perhaps more so than the chips — the delivery system — is good.

When you have a party, isn’t one of the easiest “hors d’oeuvres” chips and salsa? Easy, yes, but we want our salsa to be good.

Homemade vs. restaurant vs. store-bought

No two salsas are alike, though popular store-bought salsas are often made with the same ingredients and consist of a lot of water. In this section, I’ll walk through some of the distinctives of the different categories of salsas and my personal favorites in each.

> = = I’ll save you time and encourage you to CLICK HERE to order some Bernards right now! = = <

HOMEMADE

Some of the best salsas anywhere, of course are homemade.

This can be labor intensive, even if worthwhile. Personally, I have made better salsa verdes (green) than I have salsas rojas (red). But green salsa, if done right, definitely can take some time. And finding a good tomatillo outside Texas is another challenge.

So let’s start with what we might call “fresh tomato salsa.” (Salsa roja.)

Among the 317 million results you’ll get if you Google “salsa recipes,” my favorite is Stacey Homemaker’s “{Secret Ingredient} Cilantro Lime Salsa.” If someone tells me a salsa has cilantro in it, I’ll choose it every time over a salsa without. Why? Because cilantro makes the salsa taste so fresh! Like you’re sitting on a bar stool looking out over the Gulf of Mexico.

Other aspects of Stacey’s salsa that I like are the garlic — (just do it!) — and the cumin. Cumin, too, gives this recipe a distinct flavor that makes it irresistible.

The Best Texas Salsa
Roasting the tomatillos and garlic takes time, but it’s so worth it.

When it comes to salsa verde (a.k.a. green salsa; tomatillo salsa), there are two major sub-categories: Mamacita’s “green sauce” and all other green salsas. You might be wondering why I included a restaurant-made salsa here, but you can make Mamacita’s salsa yourself, and I made too much, and I was eating it for days, and it’s super fattening in addition to being super good. So unless you want the equivalent of sitting at Mamacita’s and eating their green sauce for like 72 hours straight, steer clear of making it at home. I was surprised at how much garlic it contains (1 tbsp of garlic powder for a 12-person serving), and that it’s made with cream cheese and sour cream. Cream, cream, cream. Talk about inflammation. Stick with Stacey’s vegan recipe.

The salsa verde recipe I like takes time, and you’ll want to be careful handling the jalapeños (or serranos, which I used) and cooked tomatillos, but the result is a crowd-pleaser.

The ‘little tomato,’ literally speaking, has lots of health benefits, including low sodium and high potassium to keep blood pressure down. The tomatillo has Vitamins A and C acting as anti-oxidants.

My sister-in-law also has one of the best salsa roja recipes, but I can’t share it here or I might not get invited back to Thanksgiving. I will add, though, that it has cilantro. (See above)

RESTAURANT

There’s actually little to add here, because frankly I never know whether a restaurant makes it own or buys it, and if they buy it, is it locally sourced or bought from some factory manufacturer? Unless I ask and trust the respsonse, I don’t know.

So I revert to simply expecting it as a freebie of my meal, as I mentioned at the top of this post, and judge it on that basis. But of the three categories, I know the least about what ingredients go in it.

STORE-BOUGHT

If you Google “best store-bought salsa,” you’ll get as many opinions as there are shoppers. So my choice below is just one more opinion. That said, there are some good and some poor choices; Delish has a whole run-down. But, curiously, it rates high those that lack the best or most flavorful ingredients:

  • Tostitos brand. Typically watery. It’s #1 ingredient is “tomato puree” (water and tomato paste)
  • Green Mountain Gringo. I used to like it until I learned its top ingredients are “Water, tomato, sugar…” Nope.
  • Pace. Made with “crushed tomatoes (water and crushed tomato concentrate), water, jalapeño peppers…” Again, lots of water.

This leads me to Bernards.

> = = CLICK HERE to order Bernards now or keep reading…hopefully you’ll be sold! :)) = = <

Why I chose Bernards

The Best Texas Salsa
David Bernard

I came across Bernards at H-E-B. (This Texas-based grocery store chain has the best selection of foods almost anywhere, not just salsas, but chips, breads, tortillas, sausages and bacons, produce, yogurts, etc. The store was the inspiration behind my previous blog.)

Bernards Gourmet Foods is a McKinney, Texas-based small-batch gourmet salsa maker. Bernard has Lone Star and Bayou cooking roots.

To give you a sense of what sets this salsa apart from the ones I mentioned above, here’s a complete list of ingredients going into their “Tomato y Chipotle” roasted salsa:

  • roma tomatoes
  • roasted onion
  • apple cider vinegar
  • roasted garlic
  • dried chipotle pepper
  • kosher salt
  • cilantro
  • black pepper

What?! No water?

That’s right. No water. And yes: cilantro. Praise the LORD.

0g Fat, 2g Carbs, 0g protein.

Is it cheap? Well, compared to popular salsas, no. But if you want inexpensive, make your own. Barring that, if you’re going to eat salsa for salsa’s sake — as opposed to putting it in something else — then you might as well get the best. And I believe Bernards is not only the best tasting, but also its Texas soul makes it a pleasure to eat.

They offer five styles, and my favorite is the “Tomatillo y Poblano.” As I mentioned, salsa verde is my favorite to make at home, so I appreciate a good green sauce.

Where to get yours

In McKinney, you can buy it at these vendors:

You can order online: bernardsgourmetfoods.com

Or, as I mentioned, you can go to H-E-B — at least here in Kerrville you can — to purchase.

I can understand that for most of you outside Texas, the notion of paying to have salsa shipped might be cost-prohibitive, but you owe it to yourself to try it at least once. It’s really outrageously good. (Especially the salsa verde!)

As a final thought, and to encourage you to order online, here’s my experience with an “unboxing”:

Unbox your own!

The 3 Coolest Places To Stay In Kerrville, Texas

Lots of people visit Kerrville, Texas during hunting season or the summer, when they drop their kids at one of the nearby camps, or simply because it’s a beautiful area. Out of appreciation for how Kerrville has grown qualitatively and also where it’s going as a small town, I wanted to review what I think are the three coolest places to stay.

Sure, you could stay at one of the numerous larger hotels, which are typically part of chains, and you could get your hotel or frequent flyer points that way, or you could stay at a place that is uniquely “Kerrville.”

As a local business owner likes to say, “Kerrville is the new Kerrville.” (There’s the old Kerrville, which never changed. Now there’s a new Kerrville happening in place of that old one.)

LR at Quiet Retreat
Avery House in Kerrville, Texas

#1 place to stay in Kerrville | “Avery House”

If ever there was a place that both typified the “new Kerrville” but, more importantly, gave you a place to experience Texas’s beautiful Hill Country while also being close to town, it is this small-from-the-outside but oh-so-roomy-yet-cozy-from-the-inside house just off I-10 and under 4 miles from the heart of downtown.

I was fortunate enough to use this place as a work retreat. A place to focus and get perspective on life during the COVID crisis. I can tell you first that it is just like what you see in the photos. Exactly like it, and better.

Owners Jonathan and Heidi have hit a grand slam with this one.

There are two bedrooms: one off the open-plan LR and kitchen, and one upstairs in the loft, which has a desk in front of a picture window for those of us who like to pretend to work while staring through glass at awesome nature.

EVEN COMES WITH OUTSIDE SPACE

Outside you’ll find the front porch with comfortable chairs and a dining table so you and/or your family can dine in the dry, fragrant Hill Country air. And there’s a fire pit and more chairs around the side of the building.

Another quasi-drawback is that there is another house up the hill from you, so it’s not totally secluded, but it’s as close as you can get in a beautiful place and still be close to town. There are more excluded cabins, but they lack the aesthetic of the Quiet Retreat, if you’re visually motivated as many of us are.

The bathroom is off the bedroom, which also has a large picture window that looks out on secluded woods, so y

You have total privacy. One change I’d make, which there obviously was no room for, is to have a bathtub and not only a standing shower. But hey, that’s a minor amenity to miss out on when you get everything else.

The kitchen comes fully equipped with utensils and cooking apparatus and has a full-size refrigerator.

WHERE TO FIND | VRBO

PRICE | $114/night (Wow!)

FEATURES | 2 BRs including loft with desk, 1 Bath, LR, Kitchen fully-equipped, front porch, fire pit; wifi

GOOD FOR | Individuals and couples, business or leisure

KID-FRIENDLY? | No

SCORE | 9/10 (taking off one point for lacking total seclusion)

Why we use and recommend VRBO: VRBO was started by a family in Oklahoma that now does lots of charitable work. We like that. VRBO is also where you can be in touch personally with the property manager, if not the owner, about your personal needs. We like that, too.

VRBO


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38-foot yacht
Customized 38-foot yacht sleeping 5, Old Ingram Loop, Ingram/Kerrville, Texas

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#2 place to stay in Kerrville | Custom 38 ft. Yacht (on land, that is)

Yup.

If you’ve ever seen “Gilligan’s Island” and wished you could spend more time on a boat — whether a 3-hour cruise or otherwise — without the sea-sickness, this place is for you.

The man who refurbished this also runs two other properties on the same footprint, located on the Old Ingram Loop, which itself is a pretty cool place to see while visiting Kerrville.

what is the best bbq in texas
While you’re in the area, don’t miss Blackboard Bar B Q, in Sisterdale

The qualifier is that in addition to being quirky, it’s not exactly the white glove of places to stay. The fixtures and interior/exterior are lovingly worn, but for unique and fun places to stay, this is hard to beat.

It’s also close to the river — this is one of the top reasons people come to Kerrville and surrounding areas — and minutes away from restaurants and stores in Ingram and downtown Kerrville.

WHERE TO FIND | VRBO & Expedia

PRICE | $99 and up

FEATURES | 1 Queen BR, 1 Twin bed (sleeps 3 adults, 2 kids); kitchen; wifi; access to river; within walking distance to antique shops and restaurants

GOOD FOR | Adults and families, business or leisure

KID-FRIENDLY? | Yes

SCORE | 7/10

River Trail
River Trail Cottages

#3 place to stay in Kerrville | River Trail Cottages

The main draw of River Trail Cottages is its near-central location without being a chain and its access to the river. Access to the river almost trumps everything else, because when you’re in Kerrville in the summer, you want to be able to easily get to the river for a quick swim or soak, or to go kayaking or paddleboarding.

We found the interior, however, to be uninspired and needing a bit of pizzazz. That said, it’s across the street from East End Market (very cool antiques/collectibles store), Monroe’s (cafe and bistro), and Wilson’s Ice House (bar). It’s a 2-minute walk from Mary’s Tacos, across Broadway — watch for pick-up trucks in the morning filled with hungry construction workers — and the same length walk from Kerrville Canoe and Kayak. It’s a brisk 15-minute walk from downtown. That’s a huge plus.

River Trails also has other units. For this reason, it serves a larger group. You and relatives would find a great place to stay and enjoy the local amenities.

WHERE TO FIND | VRBO & Expedia

PRICE | $139 and up

FEATURES | 1 BR, 1 bath (sleeps 4); kitchen; wifi; access to river; within walking distance to antique shops and restaurants

GOOD FOR | Adults and families, business or leisure

KID-FRIENDLY? | Yes

SCORE | 7/10

Sure, up on Sidney Baker, there is everything from the famous YO Hotel to chains like Hampton Inn, La Quinta, and even Motel 6. (And others.)

But, why?

Why not pay a little more, and it really is a little, when you can have in 2 out of 3 cases above, access to the river and walking distance from stores and restaurants. There’s no need to spend your money at the big chains. Give up a few frequent flyer/loyalty points and treat yourself.

You deserve it!

What To Do In Comfort, Texas | #1 Best Pizza In The Hill Country

NYC, 96th and Madison
The pre-war building I grew up in. Frank’s Pizza was behind that bus on the lower right corner of the photo.

I grew up in New York City literally over a pizza parlor. So I was pleasantly surprised to learn about Comfort Pizza in Comfort, Texas (Facebook page here), which is in my humble opinion the best pizza in the Hill Country and, so far, the only edible pizza other than Home Slice in Austin.

Our building was on 96th and Madison, and Frank’s Pizza was not only the place my younger brother went every weekend morning — get a couple slices and a coke and go back upstairs to watch Godzilla movies — but most kids in the neighborhood went there. Another pizza place was on 97th and Madison, but no one went there. A block away, but no one went.

Danny was my childhood best friend and his mother told me not long ago that during the 70s, which is when we grew up and when the city was in such a mess that President Ford told us, in effect, to go fly a kite, that Frank was once robbed, and when the robber started to leave, Frank pulled out a pistol and ran down Madison Avenue after the guy. I don’t think anyone got shot, but you didn’t mess around with Frank.

So you can probably guess that I have become somewhat of a pizza snob, as I am also a bagel snob. (I think both snobberies come from knowing that NYC water is the best, though apparently that’s a myth, but a myth I choose to believe.)

The other thing to know about pizza is that it’s not only great “finger food,” as it were, but you can carry it easily and eat it for a block or two. You fold it lengthwise and, without letting the grease drip onto your shirt — hold it level or tilt your head — eat it from the point backwards. Spoiler: for all its virtues, Comfort Pizza sells only whole pies, not slices. Home Slice sells both. To be 100% authentic, you gotta sell it by the slice. And pair it with a soda, for a deal price.

Best pizza in Texas
Comfort Pizza pizza, this was a CPT Pizza style.

2000 feet and 1/4 inch

Comfort Pizza is about 2000 feet east of the Kerr County line, in western — I mean western — Kendall County. Which kind of burns me up, because I would like to claim that Kerr County has the best pizza in Texas, maybe the best pizza outside New York. Home Slice is good, but Comfort Pizza is both really good and different.

Different because it’s thin crust, about 1/4 inch it seems, but that’s not what makes it really different.

How often do you get pizza made with “angry Samoan oil”? Or “extra angry with jalapenos & chile-infused olive oil”? Do you like sausage from Opa’s of Fredericksburg? You can have that on your pizza. The only thing better might be a pill that helps your brain.

What?! There’s really one of those?

Yeah, there’s a “brain pill” out there.

Fountain drinks under umbrella

What to do in Comfort Texas

The two or three times I’ve been there have had blue skies, warm air, two large fans like they have in the NFL, and whimsically colorful metal lawn chairs under red umbrellas. As if angry Samoan oil isn’t enough, you get all that plus killer pink lemonade if you want it.

This is a great place to bring kids, since they can be noisy if they need to be and can be active. There’s good music piped in.

No inside seating, so be prepared.

And one more preparation tip, very important: call ahead to order your pizza. Not only are they in high demand, but they prepare the dough a certain way and in a certain amount, and you might miss out if they don’t have enough.

The man who started this joint was 18 when he did so.

Yea, America.

Yea, Comfort Pizza.


Our review on Yelp.com:

best pizza in the hill country