Friday, March 14, 2014

St. Patrick's Day

When I was a kid St. Patrick’s Day meant I could pinch anyone not wearing green.  I thought this was great fun until I forgot to wear green when I was eleven years old, and everyone I had ever pinched got even.  Now no one would even consider pinching this old fat man.  And I find that it’s best if I don’t try to pinch anyone else.
St. Patrick’s day was also a day for celebration of sorts.  I had heard of gatherings of people to eat boiled corned beef brisket, boiled cabbage, boiled potatoes, and dry soda bread.  But we did it a little different.
My family was a mix of cultures from Europe and a few other places.  My dad’s mother’s dad was an Irish ‘Adams’ but they had been in America since at least the late 1600’s and had missed out on developing many Irish (from Ireland) traditions.  To mix it up a little, my great-grandfather was also mixed with some Irish-Mexican and some Irish-Cherokee.  Then consider this branch of the family had been in Texas since the 1820’s.  Overall, my family possessed only a small percentage of Irish in the mixture, but in Texas it was enough to have at least some kind of a celebration on St. Patrick’s Day.
Our version of the corned beef brisket was simply to skip the corning process and just toss a fresh brisket onto the smoker for some twelve to sixteen hours.  During the last couple of hours a few cabbages made their way onto the smoker also.  Potatoes were usually baked or mashed in the kitchen, and bread was white sandwich bread, crackers, or tortillas.  And we mustn’t forget beverages.  Depending upon age we drank Dr. Pepper, Big Red, iced tea, or beer (Lone Star, Pearl, Shiner Bock, or any other Texas beer).
Over the years I began to appreciate the more traditional Irish-American approach to the celebration meal, although I never quite made friends with green beer.  I do, however, like warm brown soda bread with Irish butter.  This is good stuff.  Really good.  I find I could eat this stuff every day, but only if I make it fresh.  Stale Irish soda bread does not make me happy.
Every month the Long Beach Casting Club has a luncheon on the third Wednesday, and each March we have a traditional Irish-American St. Patrick’s Day meal of corned beef and cabbage.  I’m not certain, but I think this is the most attended lunch of the year.  Everyone nowadays seems to find a way to celebrate this most American of Irish days.
I recently was in communication with one of my last remaining family members who shares the same great-grandfather as me.  I asked if he was doing anything special for the day o’ the green, and he got all excited.  He told me he had just discovered a way to prepare brisket without firing up the smoker.  It’s called ‘corning’.  He told me all about it.  He told me all about it several times.  I suggested he make an extra one just to smoke after the corning process was over, and he got even more excited.  I didn’t tell him it’s been done before, and it’s called pastrami.  I think he’ll like the results.
Vern never lived outside of Texas, but that doesn’t mean his world is narrow.  As a Texan he has plenty to keep him occupied, but I have to admit there is another world of excitement to be found beyond the borders.  I just wish good barbeque was more readily available.  There is nothing quite like a Texas St. Patrick’s Day Barbeque.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Remember the Alamo

It was the summer of 1955, and I was almost 6 years old the first time I saw the Alamo in San Antonio.  Dad had some vacation time, so he packed up the car, and the family went for a Texas road trip.  I don’t remember much about traveling in the car, but I do remember several of the stops we made before returning home to Fort Worth.
The first stop was in Hillsboro (just a little south of Itasca and not too far from Carl’s Corner) where we stopped for gasoline and a Dr. Pepper.  I remember it because I wanted to know where the hills were.  For some reason I needed to know the answer to this, and I made certain to ask everyone I saw why there were no hills in Hillsboro.  Finally Dad put me back into the car and we drove down the road to West.
Wait a minute!  West?  It was a great stop, and I was introduced to my first kolache at a bakery where no one spoke English or Spanish, but why was the name of the town West when clearly it was South of Fort Worth?  Dad rushed me back to the car.
It was just about one half of an hour before we stopped again.  Mom went into a convenience store for a few minutes, and Dad, my brother James, and I walked around outside.  I couldn’t read much at that time, but I could figure out some simple words.  It didn’t take me long to figure out the name of the town—Waco.  Now Waco is pronounced with a long ‘a’ as in ‘David,’ but I was absolutely certain it was pronounced a short ‘a’ as in ‘wacko.’
I needed to know how and why this town got the name Wacko.  Was there something wrong with the people living there?  Or was there something wrong with the people who stopped there as we had done?  As soon as Mom came out of the store, we hit the road again.  A little fast as I remember.
Where was the big wooden horse in Troy?  I want to see the temple in Temple.  I can’t hear the bells in Belton.  Is everyone in Georgetown named George?  We spent the night in Round Rock, and I never did see that rock.
The next morning was a new day, and the things so important to me yesterday were already forgotten.  Our first stop was the Texas capitol building in Austin.  I think I was actually speechless.  I can remember the giant paintings hanging on the walls in a big room.  Sam Houston, William Barrett Travis, Stephen F. Austin, and many other heroes of Texas history were depicted there.  But as hard as I tried I couldn’t find Davy Crockett.  I was told he was on one of the paintings, and all I had to do was look, but he should have had a prominent place on the wall.  He should have been easy to find.
I didn’t say anything about this, but it bothered me that I couldn’t find the greatest hero in world history among the paintings on the walls of that huge building.  Didn’t they see the television show about him?  I kept my disappointment to myself, but I thought about this for years.
We hit the road again, but this time we turned east and drove to a market in Elgin.  There Dad bought a big bag of sausages, some Dr. Pepper, Grapette, Big Red, and orange Nehi sodas along with some ice for our cooler.  As we traveled, we munched on those sausages and drank those sodas to cool the burn, but we kept on munching.  This was my first taste of the famous Elgin ‘Hot Guts,’ and it certainly wasn’t my last.  Yes, they were hot, but to someone raised on fresh jalapeno peppers for breakfast, this wasn’t a problem, even at my young age.
We ended up in San Jacinto where Sam Houston and his rag-tag army defeated General Santa Ana and gave Texas its independence from Mexico.  I understood some of this, but why didn’t anyone acknowledge Davy Crockett’s contribution?  That night we were on Galveston Island and I saw my first palm trees.  But where were the monkeys and coconuts?
I think we spent another night there before driving up to Houston.  Somewhere in that city we stopped for lunch and I can remember that hamburger as though it was yesterday.  It had three slices of bread and two pieces of meat.  I didn’t know this could be done to a hamburger, but there it was.  Should I eat the top part or the bottom part first?  I can’t remember just how I resolved this problem, but I also don’t remember going hungry.
We got back on the road and that night we slept in San Antonio.  The next morning I had one the best surprises of my young life.  We went to the Alamo.
I couldn’t understand how the big battle took place with all the department stores just across the street, but I was assured this was where it happened.  There was as much about Davy Crockett as I could hope to find.  Coonskin caps were being sold at a small desk set up in the courtyard out front, and small plastic rifles called ‘Betsy’ were right beside those caps.  Finally someone appreciated this great hero.
There were a number of cannon on display nearby, and I didn’t want to leave without taking one of the cannon home with me.  Dad told me I could have one if I could get it into the car by myself, but in the end, I left it behind to safeguard Texas again if need be.
There are other missions in the San Antonio area and we did go to one or two of them before we drove to Brackenridge Park for a late lunch picnic.  Then we drove into the evening before we stopped in San Marcos.  The next morning we were back on the road, and Dad was in a hurry to get to some destination before it was too late.
By mid-morning we were a few miles to the east in Lockhart, and Dad stopped near an old brick building where he disappeared behind it for a while.  When he came back to the car he had a bunch of meat and bread wrapped up in butcher paper for us to enjoy for lunch—if we could wait that long.  The smell was wonderful, and I don’t think he drove more that a few blocks before stopping the car.  We devoured the barbeque.  As if that wasn’t enough, we were parked just a few yards away from another barbeque place.  Dad went in.
It was quite a few years later before I became a regular customer at those two places, and I certainly miss them now that I live in California.  The first one was Kreuz Market (now known as Smitty’s), and the second one was Black’s.  Two of the best.
We traveled home with a huge bag of barbeque, but by the time we drove into our driveway late that evening, the bag was empty, the sodas were gone, and James and I were asleep in the back seat.
I started the first grade in the fall of that year, and a few weeks into the torture process, I was asked to tell what my family had done that summer.  Like a true Texan, the only thing I could remember was the Alamo.