Educating the world about Texas one Yankee at at time.

Educating the world about Texas one Yankee at a time.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Chili: the official dish of Texas

As the weather turns cooler, Texas thoughts turn to chili.

Actually, chili is always on the minds of Texans regardless of the temperature. It is, after all, the official dish of the state of Texas.

Surprised? What? Did you think it was barbecue? Tex-Mex? No way. It’s chili, hands down.

Will Rogers called chili a “bowl of blessedness” which gets him forgiven for being born in Oklahoma. True Texans know that chili is NOT made with beans. Beans, my friend, are for Yankees. That little nugget of truth was even sung about by Ken Finlay in his song If You Know Beans About Chili, You Know That Chili Has No Beans.

“You burn some mesquite and when the coals get hot, you bunk up some meat and you throw it on a pot.

“While some chile pods and garlic and comino and stuff, then you add a little salt till there’s just enough.

“You can throw in some onions to make it smell good.

“You can even add tomatoes, if you feel like you should.

“But if you know beans about chili, you know that chili has no beans.

“If you know beans about chili, you know it didn’t come from Mexico.

“Chili was God’s gift to Texas, or maybe it came from down below.

“And chili doesn’t go with macaroni, and (darned) Yankees don’t go with chili queens; and if you know beans about chili, you know that chili has no beans.”

Chili and Texas are one. They are inseparable. But not all chili is from Texas.

Ohio, it seems, is also home to a kind of chili.

Years ago, I was in Cincinnati shooting with the fire department for a training video company for which I worked at the time. The firefighters knew I was not just from Texas; I was a 6th generation Texan. So they wanted to take me out for true chili. We went to Skyline Chili, and I made the mistake of complimenting them on their fine spaghetti sauce. Then I asked when I got to sample the chili.

Oops.

I was roundly and soundly educated on the difference between Texas chili and Cincinnati chili.

In my recent chili research, I learned from whatscookingamerica.net that Cincinnati chili was created by a Macedonian immigrant, Tom Kiradjieff. He started a Greek restaurant there in 1922, but no one knew anything about Greek food back then. So he created a kind of “chili” made with Greek spices. His creation included spaghetti, chopped onion, red kidney beans and shredded yellow cheese. He served it with oyster crackers and a side of hot dogs served with more shredded cheese.

It’s fine stuff, but I doubt it’s ever had a song written about it. If you know differently, please let me know.

Let’s get back to Texas chili.

The red stuff is so revered by Texans that there are a multitude of chili cook-offs year-round in Texas. I’ve even been a part of a chili cook-off team. We made what we called Cow Chip Chili. I can’t repeat our slogan. It’s disgusting. But the chili was five-star excellent. To this day, I only know part of the recipe. We all only had parts. Only our team captain knew all the ingredients. And, no, I won’t reveal even my miniscule part. That would violate the Texas Chili Code of Ethics.

Chili cook-off teams are part culinary genius and rabid silliness. Teams are judged on the quality of the product and the craziness of costumes, presentation and on theatrical sketches that border on bad Vaudeville routines. The Cow Chip Chili team was made up of otherwise “normal” people who dressed up as cowboys (and one cowgirl, thank you very much) and engaged in gunfights about six times a day throughout the event.

I knew of one team out of Houston that had a contact at NASA. Their chili cooker was sided with tiles from the Space Shuttle for insulation. Yes. Really.

That just goes to show that in Texas, chili is serious business.

The granddaddy of all chili cook-offs is the Terlingua International Chili Championship sponsored by the Chili Appreciation Society International, Inc. If you don’t believe me, visit chili.org/terlingua.html and see for yourself.

Each year on the first Saturday of November CASI holds the ultimate celebration of chili at Rancho CASI de los Chisos in Terlingua. Rancho CASI is located on the north side of Highway 170, eleven miles west of Study Butte and 7 miles east of Lajitas.

The four-day celebration begins each year on Wednesday before the big weekend, and culminates on Saturday with the Terlingua International Chili Championship. It's a Texas tradition of epic proportion - complete with an annual proclamation from the Governor declaring “Chili Appreciation Society International Day” in Texas.

So while Tex-Mex cooking and barbecue certainly are staples of the Texas diet, no other dish holds the same almost religion-status as does Texas chili. I once asked my father what sealed the deal for him proposing to my mother. After reciting the long list of reasons he loved her, he paused reverently and whispered, “Her chili was better than my mother’s.”

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Mockingbirds are Texas symbols, musical composers, fighter pilots

The mockingbird (the northern mockingbird, that is) is the state bird of Texas.

They’re also the fiercest fighter pilots I know.

Walking into III Corps Headquarters at Fort Hood one morning back when I worked for the U.S. Army, I witnessed one going after a young captain with a vengeance. Apparently, the bird had a nest nearby and that captain got a little close for the mama bird’s comfort. She wasted no time letting him know.

With apologies to the officer, I have to say…y’all…it was funny.

Mockingbirds are fearless. They don’t care who you are or where you came from, if you get on their turf, they’re gonna defend it and try to take you out in the process.

Every spring, I perform at a renaissance festival at which there’s a bird of prey show. Every spring, I watch the Harris hawk get pestered by one very brazen little mockingbird. She won’t go after the falcons; she’s no dummy. But she’ll take on the hawks. That’s courage.

I’ve got a mockingbird in my yard who strafes my cat every time there’s a new brood. Salome’ likes to roll over on her back and play dead, just waiting for one to get close enough for her to grab. She’s gotten her furry belly pecked a time or two for her trouble. If you’ve not witnessed a cat and a mockingbird go toe to toe, grab a class of iced tea and pull up a chair on your porch; you’re in for a real show. The bird-to-cat/cat-to-bird chittering and cussing alone is high entertainment.

My father, ever the conservationist, often found baby mockingbirds that had fallen out of their nests. He’d get a ladder, climb up and put the baby back, usually with the mama bird trying to take out his hairline.

Mockingbirds are songbirds and they warble a lovely tune, albeit not entirely of their own composition; hence the epithet “mocking.” The birds mimic the songs of other songbirds and fashion them into a medley. Each imitation is repeated about three times before the next tune starts. Quite a few birds have a repertoire of up to 30 songs. Not even most Nashville country and western artists can boast that record.

It also has been known to mimic insects, frogs and the occasional mechanical noise.

Creativity knows no boundaries.

The mockingbird isn’t terribly flashy in its appearance, though it is rather pretty. Ol’ mimus polyglottos, as the avian is known to bird biologists, is about ten inches long, has light gray-brown plumage and a pale underbelly. The wings and long tail are darker. And there is a look in the bird’s eyes that says, “bring it on.”

The speculation about the bird being adopted as a state symbol in 1927 is that its song is the most beautiful of all songbird tunes. I think it’s the bird’s courage. As I said earlier, this is a bird willing to take on other creatures more than twice its size. And it’s a bird well known to our fellow Southerners; it’s the state bird for Florida, Mississippi, Tennessee and Arkansas. Southern writer, Harper Lee, wrote one of the most important literary works of the 20th Century dealing with racism, To Kill a Mockingbird, which eventually became a film. In the movie, Atticus Finch explains to his children the responsibility of owning a gun:

“I remember when my daddy gave me that gun. He told me that I should never point it at anything in the house; and that he'd rather I'd shoot at tin cans in the backyard,” Finch said. “But he said that sooner or later he supposed the temptation to go after birds would be too much, and that I could shoot all the blue jays I wanted - if I could hit 'em; but to remember it was a sin to kill a mockingbird.”

“Why?” Jem, his son, asked.

“Well, I reckon because mockingbirds don't do anything but make music for us to enjoy,” Finch replied. “They don't eat people's gardens, don't nest in the corncrib, they don't do one thing but just sing their hearts out for us.”

Students of the book have said the mockingbird represents all that is beautiful, since it’s a songbird, but I think that’s selling the critter a little short.

I think the bird also represents what it means to stand up against the impossible. Like the mockingbird, Finch, defense attorney for a man accused of a crime he did not commit, stands up to a threat much larger than himself: an angry mob outside the jail in which Finch’s client, Tom Robinson, is held. In the courtroom and the street, he stands up against intolerance and stupidity, in spite of the massive loss that follows. He’s outweighed and outnumbered…and yet, he fights for Tom Robinson because it’s the right thing to do.

Lee never tried to explain or interpret her story. She once said of the book, “Surely it is plain to the simplest intelligence that To Kill a Mockingbird spells out in words of seldom more than two syllables a code of honor and conduct…that is the heritage of all Southerners.”

And all Americans.

Not a bad reputation—or heritage--for one feisty little bird to have.

Friday, August 22, 2014

BBQ is not only a Texas tradition, it’s a family tradition

Texas and barbecue are considered synonymous by many. Barbecue is, however, only one of the dishes considered traditionally Texan and it lags behind the king: chili.

That being said, I am going to address barbecue because I am constantly asked, “Hey Janna. You’re a Texan. Where do I go for great barbecue?”

My response almost always is, “Memphis.”

I hate barbecue.

There. I said it. I can’t stand the stuff. I think it tastes like shoe leather slathered in rancid ketchup. When it comes to barbecue, I become a high-maintenance princess and I whine. When asked where I want to go for lunch or dinner, I answer, “Anything BUT barbecue.”

I should turn in my Texas passport.

Truthfully, my taste buds prefer haute cuisine. I’m all about home cooking, but if you chuck words and phrases at me like “demi glace” and “reduction sauce,” you will have my full attention. But barbecue? Just the mention of it makes me throw up in my mouth a little.

My hatred of barbecue stems from the fact that there is so much bad barbecue out there, so I should probably say that I hate BAD barbecue. I have had great barbecue too and I did enjoy it.

Texas Monthly, that yankee-run rag in Austin that touts itself as the National Magazine of Texas, runs a list of top-rated barbecue joints every year. And almost every year, one joint appears in the list: Casstevens Cash & Carry in Lillian.

I am writing about Casstevens Cash & Carry because my cousin, Harold Dan, once owned and ran it. Casstevens is my maiden name. If you meet a Casstevens in Texas, yes, we are related and proudly so. Doesn’t matter how; just know that we are and that’s all you need to know.

I have been blessed to eat Harold Dan’s BBQ and it is everything that New York-inspired publication says it is. Thanks to Harold Dan, I can still call myself a Texan.

Now I must tell you this before we go any further: if you see a barbecue joint with “barbecue” in the name, the food is terrible. The fewer the letters in the name, the better the ‘cue. So it is with Casstevens Cash & Carry. The sign announcing the fare served reads “BBQ” as it should.

I am not endorsing Casstevens Cash & Carry. I am simply stating my experience with the place and bragging about my family. This is Texas; it’s what we do. And you are reading this column for my slanted, biased, Lone Star-centric musings. You have been warned.

I had the pleasure of CC&C’s ‘cue 13 years ago at a family reunion. Harold Dan catered. I gagged silently at the thought of eating barbecue, but because Harold Dan is family, I ate the stuff. After all, blood is thicker than barbecue sauce. I was converted. I became a fan of barbecue. Well, sort of. I only eat GOOD barbecue or “BBQ,” if you will, and CC&C’s more than qualifies.

I spoke on the phone with Angela Ashley, an employee of CC&C. She told me that the family no longer owns the business, but that we’re still involved. Harold Dan is at the store every day and still dispensing ‘cue advice. He is, in uppity business terms, a “‘cue consultant” now, as he should be.

If you don’t mind making the drive, CC&C is located at 11025 E. FM 917, Lillian, TX 76061. Call 817-790-2545 if you get lost and to make sure they are open when you go to visit.

To be fair, I must mention other BBQ enterprises around the state. I am told by my Texas compatriots and friends that Cooper’s Old Time Pit Bar-B-Que in Llano is excellent, though the name makes it suspect. So is Snow’s BBQ in Lexington and Wild Blue BBQ in Los Fresnos. I mention those two because, BBQ is in the name and we all know what that means.

The so-called National Magazine of Texas also promotes some who have all the variations of the spelling: barbecue, bar-b-q, bar-b-que and barbeque.

All that being said, you be the judge and remember what I’ve told you about what’s in a name. As for me, I plan a drive to North Texas in the near future, home of my Texan forefathers, to tread the boards of a sacred place and once again experience the BBQ that has helped me keep my Texas citizenship.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Traveling Texas highways means miles of driving, memories

Texas is a big state. Before Alaska became a state in 1959, Texas was the largest of the then-48 states. I’ve heard Texas is so big and is shaped the way that it is because we were once a sovereign nation and got to choose our own boundary lines, but I haven’t yet verified that information. It sounds plausible to me, though.

The wide open spaces of Texas become apparent as you drive through it. Bob Wills penned the tune, “Miles and Miles of Texas” for a reason. It’s about a six-hour drive to Texarkana from here. It’s nearly seven hours to Brownsville. It’s only three hours to Houston or Dallas and an hour to Austin from here. But as many of you Fort Bliss alumni are well aware, it’s almost nine hours to El Paso.

If you average 65 miles per hour on the road to El Paso, then that averages out to about 585 miles of road.

I knew some people from back East who were invited to a wedding in Waxahachie. They thought they’d just fly into Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport on the day of the wedding, get a hotel in Dallas and just drive about five minutes to get to the wedding.

Waxahachie is forty miles south of Dallas. On Interstate 35 with traffic, the drive averages out to about an hour of travel time. You can’t just “pop down to Waxahachie” from Dallas. You have to plan for it. It’s one of those things you learn when you live here.

Those East Coast folks learned the hard way, bless their hearts.

By the way, for a Texan to cross state lines is something of an out-of-body experience for us. It’s like the force-field that holds us here is shattered and we’re lost in space. I’ve driven from Tyler to New Orleans, La. and I can tell you that a Texan out of state is like the proverbial fish out of water. We’re used to driving for hours and hours across Texas and when the state line rises up to greet us, it’s like having the rug jerked out from under us. I know it’s crossed my mind as to whether I need a special plug adaptor for my hair dryer in Louisiana, because in my Lone Star State mind, I know I’m in a “whole ‘nuther country.” I remember crossing the Red River on a road trip to Eureka Springs, Ark. with my grandmother. We crossed the state line in Texarkana and I said, “Gammy, we’re in Arkansas!” to which my grandmother replied, “Honey, we’re in Hell.”

That was in 1980 and Gammy is long gone, y’all, so--with apologies to my Arkansan friends and relatives (I have a cousin up there)--please don’t take umbrage at that. Arkansas is a lovely state and people really should go see Eureka Springs.

Several years ago, my daughters and I went up to Greenville to a wedding shower for my cousin, Rachel. Lisa and Katie chirped, “Are we there yet? Are we there yet?” the entire way. As is stated in the song, they saw miles and miles of Texas. Honestly, they love a road trip and will jump at the chance to go anywhere. So we went 210 miles north and 210 miles south in 24 hours. Along the way, I pointed out the many landmarks of my childhood memories from the times my father and I rode up and down Interstates 35 and 30. I marveled at the sign indicating that Texarkana was another 140 miles from Greenville. Even to this Texan, Texas is big. “Mama,” Katie asked. “Why does it take so long to get where we’re going?”

“Well, honey, Texas is a big state,” I said, my heart swelling up a little and a lump forming in my throat. I remember asking my father that question on more than one occasion, and here I was repeating a little bit of personal history with my own daughters. “You can’t really appreciate the size of our state until you’ve driven just about every mile of it,” I added.

As we traveled through Dallas the night before the wedding shower, I pointed out the giant, red neon “Pegasus” on top of the Magnolia Building.

“Girls, look at Pegasus,” I said. “When we moved home from Wisconsin when I was just a little older than you are now, I asked my mother how I would know I was home and she said, ‘Look for Pegasus.’ And he has been there welcoming Texans home since 1934.” I confess I got a little weepy seeing the big red flying horse again. Dallas was my home for seven years. Before that, it was something I always saw on shopping trips to Dallas with my parents when I was a girl growing up in Tyler. To see Pegasus again meant that I was home…except that this time, I was just passing through.

Driving back to Central Texas the next day, I realized that the stretch of Interstates 30 and 35 and all the towns and cities in between are home for me. I drive them often just to visit friends and family. So are the winding trails of Highways 31 and 69, the roads I take to go to Tyler from here. I know where to stop for gas and a whole lot of places that are just best left alone. I know how close I am to my destination just by looking at roadside landmarks. And just like in Hal Ketchum’s song, “Mama Knows the Highway,” I can “gauge a café by its sign.”

Speaking of cafes, that road trip gave me the chance to share a family tradition with my daughters. While in Greenville, we visited C.B.’s Sandwich Shop on Wesley Street. That was where my father’s family loved to go to get hamburgers. It’s where my father took my mother for lunch when he brought her home from college for the first time more than 50 years ago. Five generations of my family have enjoyed those burgers now and all because we took a road trip.

So while some non-Texans might not enjoy the driving, I’m hoping that you’re a little closer to understanding why we Texans do it without complaining, because along with the miles are the memories, and that alone is worth the drive.

Friday, July 11, 2014

Texas, Texas ueber alles: Germans form part of the Lone Star State’s ethnic diversity

The official language of Texas almost wasn’t English. It wasn’t Spanish or even French, either.

It almost was German.

Ja, you read that right. German.

The largest group of Europeans to immigrate to Texas was the Germans.

Back in 1831, Friedrich Diercks—or Johann Friedrich Ernst, as he was known in Texas—wrote a bunch of letters back to folks in Germany about how fabulous Texas was and the opportunities for settlers in this great land. He described Texas as having a winterless climate, lots of game and plenty of fertile land for farming. Texas, Ernst said, was an earthy paradise.

He was right, of course.

Ernst acquired more than 4,000 acres in an area that is now Austin County, and this is where “Manifest Deutschland” began in Texas.

The Germans arrived in the middle of the 19th century from Oldenburg, Westphalia, Holstein, Nassau, Hanover, Brunswick, Hesse, Thuringia and the Alsace. They settled in Houston, Galveston and San Antonio, as well as establishing towns such as Fredericksburg, New Braunfels, Gruene, Boerne and little ol’ Walburg just the other side of I-35 from us. Many Germans came of their own volition; others were organized by the Adelsverein, a group of German nobles looking for greater wealth. Of them were Baron Otfried Hans Freiherr von Meusebach (John O. Meusebach), founder of Fredericksburg and peacemaker with the Comanche Indians, and Prince Karl of Solms-Braunfels, for whom New Braunfels is named.

Prince Karl eventually returned to Europe; Meusebach changed his name, renounced his titles and became a Texan. Back in the mid-1800s, people just didn’t let go of their places in royal line ups for thrones and crowns.

Then again, Meusebach immigrated to Texas. What else needs to be said?

By the 1890s, the Lone Star State was as much Teutonic as it was Texan. And the Germans really liked our Texas Hill Country. Lots of their settlements ended up there.

Two world wars and a lot of anti-German sentiment ended the German influence in Texas. Ethnic Germans rapidly embraced the Anglo-Texan culture, stopped speaking the language and quit many of their cultural practices. Many of the German language newspapers stopped printing by the early 1950s.

But there’s been a revival of sorts. Fredericksburg and New Braunfels use their “Germanity” to draw tourists. New Braunfels hosts Wurstfest: A Salute to Sausage every year for more than 50 years. It runs from the end of October to about the first week of November. If you want to make your travel plans now, visit www.wurstfest.com. Fredericksburg is a curious combination of laid-back Texan attitude and industrious German work ethic, with lots of wineries, dude ranches and gardening supply stores.

San Antonio still has a large German population. The King William Street historic district once was home to the most affluent German-Texans. San Antonio residents knew it best as Sauerkraut Bend. The main entry street into the area was given the name King Wilhelm in honor of King Wilhelm I, King of Prussia in the 1870s, and gradually Anglicized to “William.”

A couple of famous Texans were of German descent and had distinguished military careers. One was Gen. Dwight Eisenhower, born in Denison. The other was Admiral Chester Nimitz who was from Fredericksburg.

Years ago, I was in New Braunfels, visiting friends. I stopped at a gas station to fuel up on my trip home. It was New Year’s Day and everybody was wishing each other a “schoene neu jahr.” It was then that I realized my year in Germany spent learning the language was not wasted. I had a conversation in German with a fellow Texan at the gas pump and nobody thought it was strange.

The German flag was never among the original six to fly over Texas, but Germans have had an impact on the state. In the last census, about 18 percent of Texans claimed German ancestry, ranking them right behind Hispanics as one of the largest ethnic groups in the state. Even I have a German, my great-great grandmother, amongst the five generations of Texans before me that went into my genetic composition. Martha Meisenheimer’s people came from Waldalgesheim, Rhineland, Germany.

The Texas frontier of the 1850s is the last place you’d think to find communities with a passion for literature, philosophy, music and conversations in Latin. But the communities of Castell, Schoenburg, Bettina and Leiningen were hotbeds for intellectual conversations and revolutionary social experimentation. All sorts of Utopian communes were organized in the Texas Hill Country at this time. Kinda gives you pause to think about the subsequent hippie and artist population in the area now. Maybe it’s the geography that attracts ‘em. Of course, Texas has always held an attraction for free-thinkers. It’s just that the Germans were the first to take advantage of it.

Then again, the move to Texas might have been fueled by something more basic than a need to exercise a liberal arts education. Most Germans I know are tired of the semi-Arctic climate of das Vaterland and they’re born with the traveling bug anyway. I mean, if you go anywhere in the world, you’ll meet about a dozen tourists from Germany every time. When ol’ Ernst wrote about Texas having a climate much like that of Sicily, I imagine there just weren’t enough boats to hold all the Germans ready to escape eternal winter and go on the road trip of a lifetime.

Summertime in Texas means sharks, jellyfish, sunburns

If you’re planning a trip to the Texas Gulf Coast this summer, be aware that we do have sharks in the Gulf of Mexico. Counting shark attacks in 2014 has just gotten started. Mikaela Amezaga, was in waist high water in Galveston when she felt something bump into her back. She didn’t feel any pain or see the shark, but judging from the half-moon, mirror skin breaks on her back, it resembled a shark bite. She was swimming on the West End of Galveston Island near Isla Del Sol Community around 6:30 p.m. when the shark attack happened.

In June 2014, Katherine the Great White Shark was headed our way. Katherine, a 14-foot shark weighing in at 2,300 pounds, was one of a dozen great white sharks tagged last year off the shore of Cape Cod and researchers have been tracking her movements ever since to learn about the breeding practices of the mysterious animals. I don't know that Katherine got up to Texas. I'm told we're too hot for her so she probably didn't come up this way. I'm still researching that one.

Texas college student Kori Robertson was bitten on her thigh by what was believed to be a 5-foot-long bull shark near Surfside over the Memorial Day weekend of 2011. I watched the news story on the KHOU (that’s Houston, y’all) website and just about freaked out.

I don’t swim in the ocean and now you know why.

I don’t swim in lakes, creeks or rivers for similar reasons. Heck, I don’t even jump in mud puddles anymore. If I can’t see what’s swimming around me, I’m not swimming around either.

Robertson’s just fine, save for a nasty scar that looks like she tangled with a giant zipper. I, however, am mortified.

The sharks are swimming in the Gulf of Mexico as they do every year. It just seems they’re a bit more active near the beaches of the Lone Star State this year.

In March 2011, Jason Kresse of Freeport wasn’t even fishing for shark when a 375-pound, 8-foot mako shark jumped onto his boat. He and his crew tried to get to the shark to roll it back in the water since they didn’t have fishing permits for sharks, but it was thrashing around too much and died on the deck. Kresse got to keep the shark since its death was an accident.

I don’t mean to scare you. In fact, in the last hundred years, there have been less than 40 shark attacks off the Texas coast, and of that number, only two were fatal, according to the International Shark Attack File. That’s pretty good if you think about it. Still, the Gulf is home to sharks. It’s THEIR home. And if you go traipsing into shark territory, you are setting yourself up for a meeting and probably not a nice one.

Robertson said she was “in waist-deep water” when the bull shark got her. That’s probably about 3-4 feet of water, depending on her height. Sharks can get you in less than that. So if you’re wading around in the ocean, keep an eye out for what’s around you. Don’t get in the water with an open wound. Sharks are drawn by the smell of blood in the water and it doesn’t take very much. When the mako jumped in Kresse’s boat, he and his crew had been chumming, which means they were tossing fish blood and entrails into the water, trying to lure red snapper.

I didn’t know you had to chum for red snapper. Kind of makes me view the fish in a whole new light and gives me yet another reason to spend my leisure time on land.

The sharks that swim just off the coast of Texas include: Atlantic angel, Atlantic sharpnose, Basking, Bigeye sand tiger, Bigeye sixgill, Bigeye thresher, Bignose, Blacktip, Bonnethead (that’s a type of hammerhead shark), Caribbean reef, Caribbean sharpnose, Dusky, Galapagos, Longfin mako, Narrowtooth, Night, Sandbar, Sand tiger, Sevengill, Silky, Sixgill, Smalltail, Whale, and White. That’s a lot of sharks.

Truthfully, sharks get more bad press than they deserve. They really aren’t prone to bothering people unless the people get in their way. Off the Texas coast, the real worry is the Portuguese man-of-war, a jellyfish that isn’t actually a jellyfish. Brace yourselves, folks. I’m about to get all natural-science-nerdy on you.

The Portuguese man-of-war, also known as the Portuguese Man o' War, man-of-war, or bluebottle, is an obscene-looking, jelly-like marine invertebrate of the family Physaliidae (Physalia physalis). The name “man-of-war” is taken from the man-of-war, a 16th century English armed sailing ship. The man-of-war is a “colonial organism” meaning that it’s made up of a bunch of different critters called zooids that are connected through common tissue. These animals are highly-specialized and, although structurally similar to other single animals, are attached to each other and so dependent on each other for life that they are incapable of independent survival.

Think of this pseudo-jellyfish as a floating family of hungry pirates.

The man-of-war stings to capture its prey, and when I say “sting,” I’m talking about bright, red welts on your skin that last 2-3 days and hurt like Hades for at least an hour after initial contact. Some folks are allergic to its venom, so much so that they die, though this seldom happens. It’s more common to merely want to die after having been stung. And the venom is so potent that even though the man-of-war might be dead, its venom continues to be dangerous. Be warned: if you see a blue balloon floating toward you in the ocean, head for shore as fast as you can.

I hope I haven’t turned you off from a visit to our Texas beaches; you really should go and I think you’ll enjoy the trip. Frankly, the biggest concern on the Texas Gulf Coast is tourists not wearing enough sunscreen. More than the sharks or the man-of-war critters, people should be worrying about getting sunburned and setting themselves up for skin cancer, because that kills more people every year than anything out of a Peter Benchley novel.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

What constitutes the Texas Hill Country?

Awhile back I read a story about the Shiner Bock Brewery in Shiner. The brewery’s website touts it as being located in the Texas Hill Country. Shiner is in Lavaca County. Lavaca County is more Gulf Coast Plains than Hill Country. Folks, Shiner is NOT in the Texas Hill Country, even though many would disagree, saying that Shiner at least has “Hill Country” attitude, whatever that is.

So just where IS the Texas Hill Country?

Twenty-five counties, according to the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, are considered officially “Texas Hill Country.” They are:

• Bandera

• Bell

• Blanco

• Burnet

• Comal

• Coryell

• Crockett

• Edwards

• Gillespie

• Hays

• Kendall

• Kerr

• Kimble

• Lampasas

• Llano

• Mason

• McCullouch

• Menard

• Real

• San Saba

• Schleicher

• Sutton

• Travis

• Val Verde

• Williamson

Good news, Salado. We are officially a part of the Texas Hill Country.

Yeah…I don’t feel like that’s true either, but the TPWD says so, and I’m not gonna argue.

What makes up Texas “Hill Country?”

Karst topography. Nope, I didn’t know what that was either so I looked it up. The official-sounding definition is a landscape shaped by the dissolution of a layer or layers of soluble bedrock, usually carbonate rock such as limestone or dolomite.

Due to subterranean drainage, there may be very limited surface water (got that right), even to the absence of all rivers and lakes (except for all the ones we Texans dug ourselves). Many karst regions display distinctive surface features, with sinkholes or dolines being the most common. However, distinctive karst surface features may be completely absent where the soluble rock is mantled (huh?), such as by glacial debris (oh for one of those glaciers now that summer is coming), or confined by a superimposed non-soluble rock strata. Some karst regions include thousands of caves, even though evidence of caves that are big enough for human exploration is not a required characteristic of karst. All continents have regions with karst topography except Antarctica. Well, okee dokee then. We meet all those criteria. We share geologic features with areas in the world such as Bosnia and Herzegovina, France and Ireland.

Cool. I can go to the Hill Country and see the world without ever leaving Texas.

What, then, is “Hill Country” attitude?

I don’t know. My best guess is that unpretentious, laid-back, easy going, friendly, come-as-you-are personality so many Texans have anyway. If that’s confined to the Hill Country, then we’re all from the Hill Country. The exceptions are the big city folks who usually are from some place else anyway. I’m not saying that’s bad; just different.

What is so special about the Texas Hill Country?

Everything.

No, really. Everything really is better in the Texas Hill Country. It’s not as humid. There is an abundance of wildlife. Life in the Hill Country is not nearly as hectic as in the big cities or even the small towns of other Texas regions. Every morning when you walk out your front door, the view is generally beautiful. Okay, look beyond your subdivision. Drive around our area and really look at the hills surrounding us. Copperas Cove has the Five Hills in its city seal, honoring the area in which it sits: the Five Hills Area. Look beyond the urban (folks, Killeen/Fort Hood and Temple/Belton are a larger municipality in this area) and really see what I’m writing about.

It’s beautiful.

I think our position in the Hill Country is why so many soldiers at Fort Hood decide to retire here. Besides the lower cost of living in Texas, this area has everything to offer, including proximity to Austin and the Dallas/Fort Worth area. Just take Highway 190 east and go north on Interstate Highway 35. In less than three hours, you’re in D/FW. Take Highway 195 south and you’re in Austin in under an hour. That’s pretty decent drive time to civilization…by Texas standards anyway.

If you want excellent examples of Texas Hill Country towns, the ones that come to my mind are Fredericksburg, Lampasas, Marble Falls, Dripping Springs, Boerne, Kerrville and little ol’ Ingram.

And then there is Luckenbach (www.luckenbachtexas.com/). The weather is perfect for a bike ride (and I don’t mean a Schwinn) over to Luckenbach for some live music and other amusements. Just be sure to wear your helmet, don’t imbibe before you drive and carry a toothbrush to get the bugs out of your teeth.

Monday, July 7, 2014

Remembering Texas as it was from a Texan’s perspective

Many of you aren’t old enough to remember drive-in theaters. You probably don’t remember life without computers, cable television or cell phones.

Most of you never set foot in Texas until just a few years ago, if not later.

I want to share with you the Texas that I knew growing up; the Texas I remember and try to preserve when I write this blog.

I remember the early 1970s in Texas. We just didn’t seem to have any of the same experiences of the rest of America. Not that I can recall, anyway, though I do remember a hippie or ten in Austin back then. They’re still there.

I remember a kinder, gentler Texas. It probably wasn’t—in fact, I’m certain it wasn’t--but that’s what I remember. Men still wore hats and tipped them when a woman passed them on the street. It was a straw hat in the spring and summer; a gray felt in the fall and winter.

I remember when we were more isolated; when the towns and cities of this state were spread farther apart than they are now. I remember a time when Interstate Highways 20, 35 and 45 were banked by mostly farmland and small towns. I remember riding at night in the car with my parents on a trip to my grandmother’s house and seeing nothing but stars in the sky. No light pollution for miles. Just stars. And in the daylight, the view was cattle, cotton and corn.

I remember life before convenience stores, when it was common to stop at a little country store with hardwood floors, screen doors and fountain drinks. Right up until the mid-1980s, they weren’t hard to find.

I remember going to the barn at my grandmother’s farm in Greenville and seeing my grandfather’s 1956 Ford parked there as if it were waiting for him to come start it up. It was two-tone turquoise and white. My uncle has it now. He got it up and running a few years ago. But my memories always will be of that car lovingly tucked away in the shelter of the tin barn next to the feed room.

I remember the smell and feel of raw cotton in that barn too. I remember it, all gathered up in the back of a wood-frame chicken wire trailer, about to be hauled to the gin.

I remember life before WalMart. We had Gibson’s. And it had everything. At least, to us it did.

We didn’t have fancy coffee shops, but we had city cafes and Southern Maid Donuts.

Dairy Queen was the social center of every small town.

I remember drive-in theaters. I went to see movies at them with my parents. The last one I went to was in Kerrville. I was performing at the Presbyterian Church camp, Mo Ranch, with students in our drama department from Austin College back in the summer of 1988. We went to the Bolero Drive-In when we weren’t scooting a boot at Crider’s in Ingram near the rodeo arena on a Saturday night after our shows. The theater owner did all the public address announcement himself:

“We’d like to welcome all y’all to the BO-LAIR-O Drive-In. Please feel free to visit our concession stand at any time deyurin’ the fee-chur presentation. The BO-LAIR-O is proud to present all first-release films for your viewin’ pleasure.”

I remember shelling peas on the front porch or in the kitchen with my grandmother. Of all my memories of her, the most precious are of her cooking. I remember that she got her first microwave oven along about 1978. We baked a cake in it one evening and it came out tasting pretty good.

“Not bad,” she said. “But I think I’ll just keep making them in a regular oven the way I always have.”

I remember when Tom Landry still coached the Dallas Cowboys. I remember Roger Staubach and Don Meredith. And, of course, Bob Lilly.

And I remember the Houston Oilers. You know them now as the Tennessee Titans.

I remember colleges and universities before many of them were absorbed into either the University of Texas or Texas A&M systems.By the way, that’s not a bad thing. I’m just saying that I remember. East Texas State University was where my parents went to college. They met there sometime around 1958. They married in 1961. The university is now Texas A&M University at Commerce.

I will always think of it as ETSU.

I remember standing at the ceremony when Texas Eastern University became the University of Texas at Tyler. My father was a professor there. And I got to see then-governor Bill Clements in person.

And I still think of UT-Tyler as TEU some four decades later.

I remember being taught that a person’s value was not in how much money they made or what they did for a living, but in “who” they were as a person. Their character and that of their family meant more than anything.

“Money might buy happiness. It might buy food, clothes and shelter,” my father said. “But it cannot buy class or honor. A man with money is just as likely to be without ethics as a man without.”

I remember Texas when there were more of us: homegrown, homespun and at home with the values of honesty, strength and courage. American values that transcend status and state boundaries.

So many of us native Texans are gone now, that those of us who remain are left to try to preserve some memory of Texas as it was.

Even as our state changes for the better due in part to the influx of outsiders, we hold it dear and try to preserve it as we remember it: larger than life and legend with stunning simplicity, stark beauty and…well, I just don’t really know what else to say. It was Texas. It is Texas. And, I pray, it will always be Texas.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Tales of tough Texans are woven throughout Texas military, civilian history

Texans are tough as tanks and about as subtle.

In June 2011, Monique Lawless challenged three thieves who ran out of a Houston Walmart with a case of “adult recreational beverages.” As a clerk stood by helplessly, watching the men leave, Lawless shouted, “Do something! They’re leaving!” When Lawless saw that no one was doing anything to stop the three men, she told the clerk to hold her purse and she ran after them, jumped on their car, kicked the windshield as hard as she could and hollered for help. They sped off, laughing, and dragged her a few feet before she let go of the car.

Within minutes, a police helicopter found the car, chased it with the help of Texas Department of Public Safety officers and state troopers were able to arrest all three men.

Lawless, who got pretty banged up and had two black eyes to show for it, said, “I'm tired of it. Our society needs to stand up and say, ‘This is not right. We are not going to put up with it. You will be punished.’”

Lawless also said that, while she probably won’t be trying to physically intervene anymore, she would never stop doing what’s right because she’s fed up with people just “looking the other way when something bad happens.”

In March 2009, then-65 year-old Val Renfro of Fort Worth had finished shopping and was getting into her car when a man shoved her, grabbed her purse and ran off.

Val pulled out her cell phone and dialed 911.

On the 911 tape, Val can be heard shouting, “Put it on the hood, now! You give me my purse, right now.” She then hit the purse-snatcher with her car.

Also heard on the recording, the man said to her that he will return the purse if she rolls down her window. “Like hell I will,” she responded.

At one point, the purse snatcher got away, but other people joined the chase and eventually cornered the man near a movie theater.

“I was madder than hell is what I was,” Renfro said. “I didn't think about anything else except, ‘He’s not going to get away with this.’”

Those are just a couple of examples of what it means to be “Texas tough.”

Our legendary fortitude goes back years. Some would say it goes back centuries.

Lieutenant Harry Buford was actually born in Cuba…and female. Buford was actually Loreta Janeta Velázquez, and while she lived sporadically in Texas, it was in Texas that she wrote her memoirs. She served in the Confederate army and fought as a man until she was wounded and a doctor discovered her secret. She was discharged, only to take up the disguise again and re-enlist. This was a woman determined to fight. For her courage, fortitude and downright eccentricity, she qualifies as a Texan.

Doris Miller was a man named for a woman because the midwife who delivered him was convinced the baby was going to be a girl. Born in Willow Grove, near Waco, Miller grew up to be the first African American hero of World War II.

Miller’s ship was among those berthed on Ford Island in Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 when the Japanese struck air, land, and sea forces of the United States. He was picking up dirty laundry when the attack began, and rushed to the deck to learn what was happening.

After helping the ship’s wounded captain, Miller took over a deck gun, though he had never been trained in its use, and started firing at the Japanese fighter planes that continued to strafe and drop bombs on the anchored American ships.

Miller was awarded the Navy Cross for valor beyond his training and assignment. Later, he was assigned to the aircraft carrier, Liscome Bay, as a cook.

The Liscome Bay was torpedoed and lost while engaged in action in the Gilbert Islands on November 24, 1943, and he was lost at sea. Miller was honored by associating his name with the destroyer escort USS Miller.

Eddie Fung was born and raised in San Francisco’s Chinatown, but he dreamed of being a cowboy in Texas. Fung moved to Texas at age 16 and went to work on various ranches north and west of Midland. Anybody that determined to be a Texan deserves the honor, so I’ll count him as one of ours. When World War II happened, Fung joined the Texas National Guard’s 36th Infantry Division. Fung proved to be one of the toughest Texans ever, in that he survived as a prisoner of war in the Japanese POW camps from 1942-1945 through situations that killed most of his fellow American Soldiers. Last I heard, Fung is alive and well and married to Dr. Judy Yung, a retired professor from the University of California, Santa Cruz, and she wrote his biography, The Adventures of Eddie Fung, Chinatown Kid, Texas Cowboy, Prisoner of War.

Texas history is full of Texans, native and naturalized, who have similar tales to tell. Were I to write about them all, this blog would have a higher word count than a James Michener novel.

If it’s true that a people make a place, then that’s what it is about Texas: the people, whether native or naturalized. It’s the fortitude of the people that inspired the slogan, “Don’t mess with Texas,” as a statewide anti-littering campaign that eventually became the mantra of every Texan for just about everything.

We come by our courage not by bravado, but out of necessity. Our history shows over and over again ordinary people suddenly thrown headfirst into impossible circumstances and forced to fight or flee. It was Texan and Fleet Admiral Chester Nimitz who summed up Texan fortitude best when he said, “God grant me the courage not to give up what I think is right even though I think it is hopeless.”

I have to chuckle at our reputation for courage and toughness. Honestly, I don’t think that being a Texan is what makes us that way. I think it’s broader than that. I think it’s because we’re Americans. We have a collective history of fighting for our freedom and independence. We’re still in that fight and probably always will be.

But considering who we are—as a people—well…I think we’ll come out just fine.

Monday, June 30, 2014

Cotton is the fabric of Texas lives

My earliest, and about the only memories I have of my paternal grandfather involve cotton. Stanley Casstevens was a cotton farmer until the day he died. I remember, albeit vaguely, flatbed trailers enclosed with chicken wire full of harvested cotton. I remember sitting in a pile of the stuff and the feel of soft cotton and scratchy, dried bolls in my hands and on my bare legs. I was probably barely three years old at the time.

Texas, according to the AgriLIFE Extension of Texas A&M University, is first in United States cotton production, and cotton is the leading cash crop for the Lone Star State. Every now and then, while driving through the state, I’ll see cotton ready to be harvested.

Cotton fed my family for generations. Not literally, of course. It was the crop they raised from the middle of the 19th century up until about 1969. My father used to tell me stories of how he and his brothers hoed cotton until their hands were blistered. “Go to college,” my grandfather told the boys. “If you go to college, you won’t have to be a farmer.”

All three boys and their younger sister heeded that advice.

Probably just about every Texas family who has been here for three or more generations has a cotton story to tell. Cotton, as the slogan goes, really is the fabric of our lives. A friend of mine once told me her grandfather died in a cotton field off of Highway 84. He was an entomologist checking a cotton field for bugs, and had a heart attack right there in the field.

The “Cotton Belt” was the name of a railroad line (St. Louis Southwestern Railway) that ran through Arkansas, Illinois, Louisiana, Missouri and Texas from 1891-1992 was based in my hometown, Tyler.

The Cotton Bowl in Dallas is, you guessed it, based on the crop and its importance to Texas.

The earliest known evidence of cotton production dates to 5,800 B.C. in the Tehuacan Valley in Mexico. Cotton is believed to have reached Texas in the early 1800s. There were cotton plantations along the middle Brazos River, the first of which were near Washington-on-the-Brazos, the birthplace of Texas independence.

The Texas Cotton Ginners’ Association is one of the oldest cotton organizations in the U.S. It was founded in Waco in 1897. Some interesting facts about cotton in Texas from the AgriLIFE folks:

*Cotton generates $1.6 billion for farmers, with a state-wide economic impact of $5.2 billion. *Cotton is grown on five million acres in six different regions.

*Insects that affect cotton include the boll weevil, bollworm, fleahoppers, aphids and something called a thrip. Also on the list, budworms, cutworms, beet armyworm, spider mites and whiteflies.

A thrip, by the way, is a tiny, slender insect with fringed wings. They’re also called thunderflies, thunderbugs, storm flies or corn lice.

Yep, that pretty much put me off my lunch too.

Cotton requires a minimum of 180-200 sunny, warm days and dry weather for harvest, which is why Texas is king when it comes to cotton. A crop started in March or April should be ready for harvest in September.

When it comes to Texas, most people think about oil and cattle. While those do constitute a large part of Texas economics and legend, for Texans, cotton is the feel of the Lone Star State.

I have the hay hook my grandfather used to hoist bales of cotton. My Aunt Susan remembered using it as a teenager. “Nearly hooked my own leg with it a time or two,” she told me.

My ex-husband tried to throw it away once. “What do you want with that old thing,” he asked. “It’s old and useless.”

“That’s a part of my family history. It’s a part of our daughters’ history. That old hook represents who we were and where we came from. That’s 125 years worth of Texas and Casstevens right there,” I said. He never understood, but then he’s from New Jersey. I think it’s only a Texas/Southern thing to care about who your people were and what they did to get you where you are now.

So while the rest of the world sees cattle and oil as something unconditionally “Texan,” for me, it will always be cotton. It’s the fabric of our lives and the history of our people.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Clothing, tolerance, diets, vegetarian barbecue explored in Texas

Four years ago, when my daughters were in a Mother's Day Out program at church, a particular Thursday was Western Day for my daughters' class. Being the Texas woman and mother that I am, no discount knock-off western wear would do, so I went to a specialty store to make sure my babies were appropriately attired.

Y’all might think pink pearlized lizard and turquoise Ariat Fat Baby boots with matching belts are a little excessive for a pair of four year-olds, and you’re probably right. But my babies are Texans, and they’re not just any Texans, they’re seventh generation Texans. I had to do it right.

As I was shopping, I overheard another mother chatting with the clerk about an event she was about to attend that required western attire.

“I’m from California, so I don’t really wear this kind of stuff, but this is an upscale barbecue, never mind that I do not eat meat,” she nattered…and I tried real hard not to upchuck. “Upscale barbecue?” Really?

The clerk, a saint, helped her find something that didn’t make her look too much like Sparkle Plenty and listened with infinite patience about the woman’s macrobiotic vegan diet and how she was stuck in this backwater of Central Texas.

The California gal made me think of the Gretchen Wilson song, “California Girls,” the lyrics of which proudly state:

“Ain't you glad we ain't all California girls

Ain't you glad there's still a few of us left, who know how to rock your world

Ain't afraid to eat fried chicken and dirty dance to Merle

Ain't you glad we ain't all California girls”

Aside from the copious use of bad grammar that makes me want to scream, the thing about dirty dancing to Merle and the fact that Ms. Wilson is from Illinois, I do share the sentiment.

I realize that not all Californians are out of a bowl full of granola, meaning that what aren’t nuts are flakes. I fully realize that Californians are as unique and individual as anyone else on the planet and that to judge all of them by the one high-maintenance diva is wrong.

But, y’all, she really was the walking stereotype, and I imagine I’ll garner a wave of hate mail after this blog is posted.

Non-Texans are a continuous source of amusement to me. There are three varieties of non-Texans: one kind is the Yankee, the word “Yankee” usually preceded with a six-letter epithet that cannot be repeated here. The second kind is the Texas Tolerater who is here for reasons other than choice, but pretty much does not care one way or the other about what we do here or why we do it. The other is the “Gone Native” which is the non-Texan who sports the bumper sticker on his truck that reads: “I wasn’t born in Texas but I got here as fast as I could.”

Yankees either make me laugh or tick me off. They hate Texas; they put the state down and complain about living here. To that, I say, “Go home. I’m tired of hearing the belly-aching.”

Toleraters accept Texas quirks and Texans as they are, ignore the weirdness, and move when the opportunity presents itself.

Gone Natives are sweet about being from out of state. Gone Natives make up for not having been born here by becoming “super Texans” and completely embracing Texas culture just as it is, even the stuff that shouldn’t be embraced. They won’t admit to being born out of state.

My favorite Gone Native has to be David Crockett. Born in 1786 in Tennessee, Crockett came to Texas in 1835. He had lost an election for a seat in Congress, at which point he told the people in his district, “You may all go to hell, and I will go to Texas.” That famous phrase currently can be seen on bumper stickers, coffee mugs and T-shirts to this very day. Crockett, of course, probably regretted the decision to come to Texas. He was killed at the Battle of the Alamo less than a year after his arrival.

Texas can be a little hard on its newcomers.

Nevertheless, Gone Natives really try to love Texas. I appreciate that. I am touched that they find something to love about this wild, dangerous, strange place. I like that they overlook the media-driven prejudices to find that Texas has a lot to offer beyond a low cost of living.

As for the Vegan Queen, I really have to cut her some slack. She dropped a good chunk of change on some pretty nice stuff and was making a decent effort to blend and embrace something she thought was truly Texan. I think there’s hope.

In Miss California’s honor, I learned that there is such a thing as vegetarian and vegan barbecue. There are a number of recipes available on the Internet featuring dishes such as grilled eggplant teriyaki and tofu/potato kebabs. Most of the recipes sounded pretty good. Considering that a diet full of too much red meat can contribute to a host of health problems, I’m considering adding some of these dishes to my outdoor celebration repertoire.

GRILLED EGGPLANT TERIYAKI

Serves: 6

• 2 medium-large eggplants, about 2 to 2 1/2 pounds total

• Teriyaki Marinade (recipe follows) as needed

• 2 scallions, green parts only, thinly sliced

• 1/2 red bell pepper, finely diced

• 1 tablespoon sesame seeds

Slice the eggplants 1/2-inch thick and peel. Salt them and let stand in a colander for 30 minutes, then rinse well. Prepare grill. Brush the eggplant slices generously on both sides with Teriyaki Marinade. Grill on each side until nicely browned and tender (5 to 10 minutes on each side, depending on the heat of the coals). Remove and let cool slightly on a cutting surface. Cut into strips and place in a serving container. Stir in the scallions. Add enough additional Teriyaki Sauce to moisten and flavor the eggplant to taste. Sprinkle the top with the red pepper dice and sesame seeds.

As for the tofu/potato kebabs, you’re on your own. I don’t mind the occasional chunk of tofu hidden in a dish, but I’m not going to actively seek the stuff out at the grocery store. Chalk it up to my stereotypical Texas attitude toward things that just don’t sound all that…natural.

Bon appetite, y’all!

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Old tin barns and older memories shaped the Lone Star State, our nation

Once upon a time in Texas, you couldn’t drive anywhere without seeing barns built from corrugated tin. Texas has never been known for having picturesque red barns built in the Dutch revival style of architecture. Not many Texas farmers had that kind of money. Corrugated tin, however, was affordable back when these barns were built and there wasn’t much in the way of construction “code” to which they had to be built. The architecture was creative, but functional.

I remember corrugated tin barns from my childhood. You could see ‘em from the highways or the back roads all over Texas, and there was almost always a windmill standing next to it. My father and his father built one on their farm in Greenville when Daddy was in high school, so I remember not only what the barns looked like on the outside, but how they were built on the inside. I remember stock troughs and runs and feed storage. The floors were dirt and the barns smelled of sweet feed, hay, animal sweat, wormer, machine oil and manure. I remember that electricity was optional.

I remember cold mornings, sitting on the back of a Hereford bull as he ate. I remember the steam rising from the noses and mouths of the cattle and how the frost clung to their coats.

I remember hot summers and the bugs. There were lots of cicadas, June bugs, dragonflies, butterflies and just plain flies flying in and out of the barn.

Milkweed and sunflowers grew all around the barn for as long as the cows would let ‘em. Calves, lots of them, were born in that barn, as well as kittens. There was nothing sweeter than seeing the farm cat’s new litter of kittens crawling out of hiding for the first time and playing in that barn. It was an awesome place to be a child.

Texas isn’t like this anymore.

The Lone Star State has one of the fastest growing urban populations in the United States. Our rural areas are disappearing at a rapid clip. We are losing our agrarian identity.

Of the seven cousins born of that Casstevens family, only Amy, Jason and I remember the barn or the farm. Rachel might remember some; she was born while her parents lived there for a time, but I’m pretty sure her memories aren’t as clear as mine and Amy’s. I’m certain that there are at least two generations of Texans who have grown up minus the farm experience. For that, I’m very sad. The family farm and Texas are two things that should never exclude each other.

I shouldn’t romanticize the farm experience; it’s not romantic. It’s hard. It’s brutal. I wouldn’t wish it on anyone.

I remember when cows got sick and died. In my memories as a child, I remember my father on a tractor hauling a cow carcass out to be burned because the farm didn’t have equipment big enough to dig a hole for her. Burial was not an option anyway for the sake of health and safety. That’s not a pretty sight.

I remember finding calves that had been shot by someone hunting illegally on our property. I remember a cow that had a real hard time giving birth. The calf was stillborn and the cow died shortly afterward. And folks, there’s a reason you don’t name the baby pigs. With a large amount of livestock, a farmer has to worry a lot about disease. Rabies, worms, ticks, fleas, hornets, and snakes figure large in the picture. And then there are the predators. Coyotes, foxes, owls and hawks take their toll. Farming is hard work and it will kill you sooner than an ulcer developed by office politics and a sedentary lifestyle. As a hobby, it’s all-consuming; as a profession, it will leave you broke and exhausted.

And so, the tin barn continues to disappear from the Texas landscape. It is the way of things; the way of evolution, I suppose. Years ago, I had a non-Texan student in my mass communication class that I taught at an area institution of higher learning. The woman, oddly enough from a state known for its farming, made an insulting remark about “agricultural types” and how backward Texans were, so I rose to the occasion with my usual aplomb. I told her that without those “agricultural types,” there wouldn’t be food on her table of either the meat or vegetable variety. I asked her if she sincerely thought meat arrived in neat plastic-wrapped packages from the grocery store, or if she thought a cadre of elves not only dabbled in baking cookies but picking vegetables as well. I gave her a terse lecture about how farming shaped this nation and that Egypt was once the bread basket of the Roman Empire. Farming had even touched mass communication. The term “broadcast” synonymous with television and radio is a farming term for casting seed.

“Farmers have molded nations throughout the centuries, my dear, and don’t you forget it!” I finished, standing high on my soapbox. It was from a long line of farmers that her professor had come and I was not going to let her forget it. I don’t want you to forget it either.

Take a look around sometime as you drive our Texas highways. Look for an old tin barn. Look to see the remnants of a windmill next to it. Look for them and find them if you can. They’re going the way of our drive-in theaters, feed stores and, I’m sorry to say, our values.

We remember to thank Soldiers for their service and we should. We should also remember our American farmers, regardless of the state, and thank them too.

Remember that the next time you see an old tin barn.

Cowboy chic is an oxymoron

“Cowboy chic” is about the silliest pairing of two words I’ve ever read.

I was surfing the Internet looking for topics for this column and found “cowboy chic” being used to describe an expensive restaurant in Dallas.

This restaurant was touted as “…Cowboy Heaven. … The New Texas Cuisine blends Southwestern, Latin and Southern cuisine with pure Texas elements. The millionaire ranch design echoes the heritage and natural wonders of the Lone Star State.”

Another example of goofy wordsmithing: “millionaire ranch.” With a nod to the XIT and the King Ranches being the exceptions, there’s not a whole lot of money in runnin’ cattle. As my father used to say, “Crime doesn’t pay. Neither does farming.” Cowboy chic, evidently, is a style some high-brow folks have applied to make all things Texas and western palatable for themselves. Here it is, as described by a home interior designer who, by the way, is from Cherry Hill, N.J.: “Cowboy chic is a rugged, daring and sophisticated all-American look that combines personal style with rustic charm and ties it all together with the romance of the west. The rustic feel comes from the colors and textures that form the foundation of the cowboy chic look.”

Romance of the west? Huh?

Watch enough Saturday afternoon westerns on TV and I guess there’s romance as portrayed by Hollywood, but real romance in the Old West? There really wasn’t much time for romance when a man was busy running stock, digging postholes and shoeing horses.

Cowboys? Romantic? Not the ones with whom I grew up, unless you consider your boyfriend naming his show heifer after you. Never happened for me and I’m still a little hurt. I’m not denying that cowboys can be sentimental. I’ve read my share of cowboy poetry. But romantic? Nope. And they’re not particularly emotional, either. In fact, cowboy stoicism is probably just slightly more emotional than that of Roman centurions.

Love, for a cowboy, is totally different from romance. Catching and keeping a cowboy’s heart is a real goat rope. If you’ve ever loved one, you know exactly what I mean. He won’t know what to do with himself at a candlelight dinner for two. He will, however, know what to do when you need him the most.

Let’s get back to the subject of “cowboy chic.” The cowboys I know are anything but chic. With regard to clothing, a cowboy chooses comfort and functionality over fashion. They’ll drive their trucks until the trucks won’t run anymore. In so-called “home décor,” a cowboy’s living room is likely to double as a tack room for his horse; the air permeated by the scent of “Eau du Cutting Horse.” And as for “New Texas Cuisine,” well, I don’t know what was wrong with the Old Texas Cuisine, and neither do they. Not many cowboys know arugula from Ariat, so using “Texas” and “cuisine” in the same sentence is about as silly as the phrase “gourmet pork rinds.”

My father, to me, was more cowboy than he was college professor and he was only a college professor because it paid slightly more than being a cowboy, provided health insurance and it meant working indoors in air conditioning.

Daddy thought two plowshares from his father’s tractor, welded to metal plates, made cool-looking bookends…and they did. Those plowshare bookends were real heavy too. The books wouldn’t fall off the shelf, but the bookends might cause that shelf to drop through the floor. Dad welded those bookends himself. Not bad for a college professor working indoors to earn his pay.

Cowboy chic is not to be confused with cowboy “mystique.” Cowboys, real ones, are practical, salt-of-the-earth types who don’t really go for “flash” or “loud” in personal style. They just go for what’s real and right. I guess my idea of “cowboy” is a little more grounded in reality and not in the whole Rexall wrangler fantasy.

If I were to use Hollywood as a reference for getting “cowboy” anything right, it’d be in the 1952 film, High Noon. That’s “cowboy” to me, and it’s not particularly “chic.” Marshall Will Kane (portrayed by Gary Cooper) is about as unchic as a man can be. He’s personally compelled to face a returning deadly enemy, and finds that his own town refuses to help him. In true “cowboy” fashion, he’s too proud to run and too proud to follow the crowd, much to the dismay of his wife, Amy, played by Grace Kelly.

Will Kane is not a man you would find being served “New Texas Cuisine” in a fancy “cowboy chic, millionaire ranch” kind of joint or rubbing elbows with the beautiful people who are striving for some twisted, westernesque high fashion. You’re more like to find the Will Kanes of this world at a small town café at just after the break of dawn getting fueled up for the day. Some of ‘em are sitting at the desk next to you every day at work. And a whole lot of ‘em are eight thousand miles from home defending your freedom right now.

Not chic, but certainly a style worth following.