Educating the world about Texas one Yankee at at time.

Educating the world about Texas one Yankee at a time.

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.


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.