Welcome to austinagrodolce … My family and I garden with more intention and enthusiasm than allocated budget or overall design plan. It shows. Wildlife populations don't seem to notice our lack of cohesive design, they just like the native plants here. It seems by growing local we've thrown out a welcome mat. Occasionally, we're surprised at who (and what) shows up.

Sunday, September 30, 2007

Green Fried

Fried Green Tomatoes are so simple to prepare and they are truly delicious. Here's all you need to do....

1) Slice the tomatoes about 1/2 inch thick. They need to be VERY green and firm.

2) Dredge them in a combination of flour and corn meal, well seasoned with pepper and seasoned salt.

3) Fry them for approximately 2 to 3 minutes in very hot peanut oil.

4) Drain on paper toweling.

5) Serve hot and enjoy.

Our Fried Green Feast Menu:
Ham Steaks w Mango/Port Wine Reduction Chutney
Fried Egg
Fried Green Tomatoes
Fresh Fig Preserves

Past that my only advice post-feast is to stay away from offering anybody an after dinner mint.

A week that begins with fried green tomatoes is off to a good start. Hope you enjoy yours as I intend to enjoy mine. Bye for now!

Addendum - I put out a small ripe tomato on the fence this morning for the squirrel. Three hours later it sits untouched. Potentially it smells too much like humans - it had been washed and sitting inside for a couple of days at least. Close second theory, my squirrel may have some uncanny knowledge of epic Latin poetry. Finally, this could mark the presence of yet another picky eater in my midst. A squirrel version of "must pick it myself" snobbery. I'm pretty sure they are only eating acorns still hanging on the oaks. Research continues. Report(s) to follow....

And in the end

the love you take
is equal to the love you make...

Yesterday afternoon I saw "Across the Universe", the film by Julie Taymor, a musical built around Beatle's songs.

It is a lush treat, a trip down memory lane albeit peopled with fresh faces and new voices. Taymor struck a good balance of being true to the songs while remaining respectful to those of us who lived our lives with that music as the soundtrack. As she painted scene after scene for us like Peter Max graphics sprung to life, those songs become the engine to move along an independent story line about life in the 60s/70s with Jude, Lucy, Max and their friends.

It was the cinematic version of when you have a favorite book you are reading and you start to want to slow it all down as you realize you are reaching the end. You just don't want it to be over.

But, everything has it's beginning and it's end.

Like tomatoes.

The online version of the "Texas Gardener", [a magazine for Texas gardeners by Texas gardeners] completely supports my assertion that one of the steepest gardening challenges in our area is that of growing tomatoes. We have temperature issues, a short growing season, and an abundance of pests ready to share if not totally usurp the harvest you might otherwise enjoy.

The growing season here only reaches from the final frost (which averages around mid March) through whenever the daytime temps hover in the 90s with nighttime lows in the 70s. Those warm temperatures can come as early as mid May but are a near certainty by Memorial Day.

That does not give a tomato plant a lot of time to set and ripen much of a crop. Texas gardeners have come up with all sorts of coping mechanisms and devised ways to get around our short season with early starts indoors, in greenhouses, and we've developed all sorts of warming covers and enhancements.

This year however, we had a cooler than usual summer, with lots of additional rain, so the tomato growing season was preternaturally extended.

It is the end of September and I just cut off my two plants right above the soil despite unripe fruit stubbornly clinging. This puts an official end to "our" 2007 tomato season. We are already fully two months past when anybody reasonably gets tomatoes in Central Texas and pest problems had finally overtaken my organic attempts at control.

Besides bugs, I had a bit of a squirrel problem with my tomatoes this year. One squirrel in particular developed quite a tomato habit. This animal waited right until the fruit was ready to harvest - and then did so, eating about half and leaving the rest sitting on top of our fence as a tribute to how little control I had over their activites.

I ended up having to pick the fruit earlier and earlier, trusting windowsill ripening safely indoors out of squirrel reach, to finish what could not happen naturally without potential squirrel intervention.

Now I have a bumper crop of green tomatoes and rather than wait for them to ripen, I have plans for a bounteous feast centered around them for dinner this evening.

Because if you can't bring your tomatoes along safely to realize their destiny as ruby orbs of ripened goodness? You slice them green and fry them.

I'll throw in a couple of other dishes for interest, a ham steak maybe, some fried eggs, biscuits probably, but the real star of the show if all goes according to plan, will be the sliced, fried, beautifully piquant green tomatoes.

I know at least one squirrel out there won't understand what happened to the plants. This small animal will be missing the near constant supply of delicious meals. But as I've willingly shared excess tomatoes all season long with human friends and neighbors?

After I've prepared and my husband and I have devoured our fill of fried green tomatoes, I figure I'll leave one last small fruit out on the fence for my Sciuridae the Tomato Eater.

In my version of the world, when a thieving squirrel develops a palate that so appreciates home grown tomatoes, that animal deserves one last chance as a season ends, to enjoy a final gift from the garden.

Saturday, September 29, 2007

Staying in shape

I walk (BRISKLY!!) with several women, ideally twice a week, in an attempt to stay in shape.

We talk as we walk (hold your snotty comments here please), which makes the exercise more aerobic, at least for one of us at a time.

One of my friends in this group eventually busted me for my strategy of consistently asking her a leading question just as we'd approach the one really steep hill on our route.

This generally saved me having to try to hill climb and talk simultaneously. I've discovered I can make interested noises and/or appreciative faces without requiring any extra aerobic effort. As the elder stateswoman of the bunch, I figured I was due the free pass on that one hill, anyway.

"Stay in shape" is one of those mindless phrases we throw around. We ARE already some shape or another. When I say "stay in shape", I mean, stay in "good shape".

What is a "good" shape for me varies according to a complex equation. I will not reveal the entire algorithm but it involves factors including if I am having a good hair day, my decade of life, the barometic pressure, relative wind velocity, heat index, and the precise phase of the moon. There are other variables including whatever has been my most recent grocery store experience.

You know the scenario. The checker fails to stifle a snicker when the wine rings up triggering the computer prompt on the screen to "check for ID if customer appears under 30". This might be followed by some earnest baby faced sacker all but taking my arm and calling me "ma'am" while being a bit too assertive about offering me "help" to my car.*******sigh*******

So yes, just like everybody else, I am already in shape.

Pear shape.

Which is why I walk. I really don't mess around with weighing in, or tracking my percentage of body fat. I had an unfortunate run-in with the Atkins diet years ago, a regime that doesn't mesh so well with obsessive types like me. I got slender, yes, TOO thin. I lost all the body fat that distinguished me from an 11 year old version of myself. It is not weight or fat distribution I concern myself with, as long as the resulting SHAPE is pleasing.

Personally I am still holding out hope I can grow 2-3 inches taller in order to give my current weight a slightly more stretched shape. And yes, I am aware, all trends point towards us all getting shorter as we age, but I can at least try to stay as tall as I (think I) am. Exercise helps. Which brings us back to walking.

The women who walk with me have all heard me express remorse at the unfortunate inverse relationship between my declining metabolic rate, increased access to better ingredients, and the time to prepare them deliciously.

By way of saying, when I could "eat anything I wanted" and not gain weight? Most of what I could afford was junk food. Now that I've hit the stage of life where I can periodically splurge on fine ingredients and wine? Every calorie I consume seems to want to reappear around my midsection within seconds of swallowing.

As I was explaining to my fellow walkers, part of that is also due to my unfortunate tendency to offset time spent walking with hours lost to the internet.

Day before yesterday, for example, besides getting caught up in taxonomic subtleties trying to identify a snake I snapped photos of in our back yard Sunday, (Texas patch nosed snake, salvadora grahamiae, thanks for wondering), I also ran across a blog on the New York Times lauding Tyra Banks for making ANTM a "no smoking" show.

For the uninitiated, ANTM is "America's Next Top Model", one of several "reality" shows I readily admit a fascination with. The blog noted that a lot of young women watch the series so featuring shots of the models smoking unfortunately glamorized the habit to a vulnerable group. Comments posted in response raised the question of whether or not smoking was more a risk than eating disorders.

The models are in shape too, you see. Plank shape. They are not much more than a pout on legs. Long, thin legs.

I'll leave the rest of the debate to Moms of middle school aged daughters as to which is worse - the lurking threat of eating disorders or smoking. They are both real problems and to focus on one to the exclusion of the other makes no sense to me. But other people's blogs...whatcha gonna do?

I also used my time on the internet to seek out several recipes to prepare the two ahi tuna steaks we had defrosting. I wanted to find a more healthful way than our original (delicious) plan of grilling them topped with toasted macadamia nuts and lime beurre blanc sauce.

I ended up combining the best elements of three recipes. I let the steaks shake off the refrigerator's chills under a coating of olive oil, lemon zest, peppercorns, and finished them with a little lemon juice/tamari wash. The ahi was then pan seared for about a minute on either side, and served on a little bed of chopped toasted almonds.

Bottom line was a delicious presentation done in a much healthier style. Fewer calories, happy palates.

I paired the seared ahi with a delightful Pinot Gris - a 2005 Concannon Limited Release. Grocery store wine, nothing hard to find or expensive, but just right for a nice Friday dinner at home. According to their labeling they ferment using "Burgundian" techniques which I am presuming involves oak barrels, yeast introduction and some stirring. Whatever they are doing, it worked beautifully with the food, supporting without overwhelming the flavors of our dinner.

Now- back to shapes. The pan seared tuna was just one attempt of many to stave off the gradual shift towards pear shapedness for me and my husband. Although the heaviness in the midsection may be inevitable, I do have one more strategic weapon in my arsenal which I freely share here with you.

The ultimate defense against the battle of the bulge?

E-l-a-s-t-i-c waists

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Eat or be eaten

Recently we lost our backyard Green Frog.

Not in the sense of misplaced, or we haven't seen her for a while. She's dead.

I found her the other morning, close to the sidewalk by our pool, in the lawn, on her back, staring sightlessly up into the early morning sky. Mouth slightly agape, one of her front legs had been nearly wrenched off. Other than that she was intact. But quite dead.

She (based upon not having the "swollen yellow thumbs" that are identifiers for the male of this species) had nearly doubled in size over the course of a very wet and buggy summer.

Our green frog had set up shop in the bushes close to our deck and she'd sit vigil most evenings after the sun went low, (guessing now) eating her fill of insects and snails. Then she'd swim a bit, leaving a startling until we figured out what it was and where it came from, poop in the pool, and that would be that.

If we walked out by the pool in the evening, she'd grunt and leap in. We rarely saw her on the sidewalk or during the day. It was that nighttime splash that eventually alerted and then trained us to look for her extended form, stretched full length as she seemingly effortlessly covered the breadth of our backyard body of water in three long, strong, strokes.

Although my husband had wondered aloud at various times if we'd ever come out to find our swimming pool supporting a host of tadpoles, she apparently never mistook it for a natural pond.

I was concerned the chlorine levels of the water would harm her. When I startled her into leaping, or noted her floating in the dark, we'd developed a little pas de deux whereby I'd get the pole with the net to carefully scoop her up and out of the water. She tolerated this calmly for the most part. The vast majority of nights she survived her time in the water without me and my arbitrary removal ministrations, without incident.

We aren't sure what killed her. We think, absent signs of gnawing, it was some predatory bird, swooping down in the dark to grab her. We speculate that she was heavier, or perhaps able to struggle unexpectedly in some way that resulted in her being released, dropped, back down onto our lawn.

Since I found her on her back, I have to guess she was either already dead when she landed, or that the impact killed her outright.

Personally, I am hoping she had a massive froggy coronary on the way down, and never felt a thing past that first lurch of being snatched up into the air.

She was just a Central Texas green frog, sure, but she was somehow also "our" green frog. I was fond of her in an abstract way that defies reason. She was reassuring, a sign that at least in our backyard, the ecosystems are in balance enough to remain supportive of the kinds of life that used to abound all around us.

We try to live gently in the small space we inhabit. We live as naturally as we can in a suburban neighborhood. As proof our efforts are their own reward, we have all sorts of critters that co-inhabit our patch of Texas.

Compost pile eating raccoons, opossum, armadillos, landscape eating deer, tomato eating squirrels, anoles, scorpions, lined snakes, we've seen them all. We have a host of birds as vocal companions, and overhead we see buzzards circling constantly with the occasional red tailed hawk. We've heard more than seen screech owl(s) nearly daily for years, so we are certain they nest nearby.

Under those circumstances it should have been no surprise to find evidence of "nature red in tooth and claw" in our own back yard. Yet it was sad for me to note that this green frog had been predated without being consumed. Not a wasted death exactly, her remains will return to the earth and support all sorts of smaller life forms. All the same, for her to have met such a sudden and violent end bothered me for reasons I can't quite explain.

Why share this little backyard drama in a blog about food? For me it was an object lesson, a reminder. I'm not ready to swear off animal protein by any means, but I do want to try and remain more aware of the ongoing sacrifice my dietary habits require. Nobody who eats with as much gusto as I do ought to ever forget that every meal requires the end of something's life.

Monday, September 24, 2007

In Vino Veritas

Our little celebration in four courses is not quite over yet.

Not only do I have the most amazing meal components to play with as leftovers, in this case more like reincarnations than leavings, but there are the wine pairings to report on. Looking back to share with you what we drank as well as what we devoured, is twice the fun. Sharing IS always best.

Our Birthday Girl had requested we start with a Prosecco. To choose just the right bottle I turned, as I often do, to the two Ginger Guys at my favorite Twin Liquors store. Though not twins themselves, I've found it one of those delightfully quirky Austin things that there are two genuine redheads running "my" Twin Liquors, which was named after one of the "original" Jabour Twins from the 1940s.

Twin Liquors is an Austin enterprise that began as a package store in the late 1800s, was interrupted by Prohibition, and past that has consistently merged with other prominent local retailers into a chain that serves most of the neighborhoods in our metropolitan area. I like the power of a chain, in that, if "my" Twin doesn't have what I want, it can sometimes be found in another location. I like even better that they are a local chain, so the dollars I spend stay here in Austin for the most part, and don't fly off out of Texas to who cares where else because it ain't here. So - back to the Ginger Men.

They suggested a midpriced bottle, a Carpene Malvolti. It is a VSQPRD, or "Vino Spumante di Qualita Prodotto in Regione Determinata" from the Conegliano area. Conegliano, in the province of Treviso, is known for it's dry white Proseccos, and is home to a prestigious wine school. This Prosecco is a Spumante, a sparkler, and it really lived up to that, especially for under $20 a bottle. Pop!

So once the Vichyssoise was doled out, we loaded up the flutes and toasted our Birthday Girl and her brother the chef.

Next up to bat was a wine my son had told me to try when I'd shared with him some of my recent adventures in Non- Chardonnay Whites over the past few weeks. He suggested I find a bottle of Campus Stella, an Albarino varietal that has a somewhat unique flavor. When I was able to secure two bottles, we decided to hold them for the Feast, as this once rare Spanish white pairs beautifully with seafood.

Enter the skillfully prepared and exquisitely plated bacon wrapped scallop and shrimp. A work of art on a plate matched well by the striking Stella Campus label. We opened, we sipped, and to our delight, found ourselves enjoying a light white wine that simply dances on the palate. I'm more a Parker than a Simon at describing wines, so rather than parrot something somebody else wrote, I'll simply suggest you try some on your own. Again, at under $20 a bottle, this is an experiment you won't regret even if it does not prove to be your personal favorite.

On to our beef tenderloin. This would call for a red, a special red, one to stand up to not only a superb cut of beef, but also to the salty tangy richness of the rosemary chevre stuffed inside. Just to show you don't have to go to France or Spain to get fine wine, we went local and uncorked a bottle of the Fall Creek Vineyard's fine Meritus, from Tow, Texas. You read that right. Texas.

A blend, Meritus is only made those years the vintner feels the combination of varietals will serve the palate justly. At around $30 bucks a bottle, it delivers proudly for a fair price. Meritus is a wine I serve without hesitation at any special occasion to any family member, friend or visitor. I am that confident in it to deliver that I'll set up it against nearly any much pricier bottle from anywhere else. Go Texas!

Last, but certainly not least, we had a special wine for our desserts. As luck would have it, I had on hand a bottle of golden Passito di Pantelleria that had been cabinetted (no cellar here, alas) for some 6-7 years, just waiting for a worthy occasion.

Pantelleria is a tiny island just off the tip of Italy's boot. The dessert wines produced there are from a very special Moscato grape, the Zibibbo, where harvested grapes are left to air out in the sun and wind and then are are mixed with fresh grapes and fermented. This wine by legend was substituted by a maiden for ambrosia to successfully win the heart of Apollo. It is a delightfully creamy wine, stopping just short of being syrupy, and works fabulously well with both sweet bites and the varied creamy/salty/tangy bites of a cheese platter.

At 14 proof, Passito is a wine to be judiciously savored in good company. The color and fragrance is as pleasing as the taste itself. Truly a fitting finish to our Feast in Four Courses.

So there you have it. Our amazing wine pairings to go with the equally amazing food.

While we did have a Cordon Bleu trained chef in charge of our menu and food preparation, a reputable local wine store certainly ought to be able to advise you and hopefully carries all you will need to make successful pairings similarly reproducible wherever you are.

As the deceased wine critic Andre Simon once said, "Food without wine is a corpse; wine without food is a ghost; united and well matched they are as body and soul, living partners.".

Sunday, September 23, 2007

He came, We shopped, He cooked

So here you are- the menu and the flowers on display for my daughter's blowout birthday bash as prepared by her big brother. We called this little soiree "A Celebration in Four Courses".

First Course
Vichyssoise with Crostini

Appetizer/Salad Trio
•Bacon Wrapped Scallop
with roasted tomato coulis
•Bacon Wrapped Shrimp
with JalapeƱo Jelly
•Watercress salad

Beef Tenderloin stuffed with Rosemary Chevre,
served with Caramelized Figs, Port Reduction Sauce
and Microgreens

Assorted Cheeses
with Black Pepper Thyme Honey
Mango Chutney
and Assorted Crackers

Assorted Cannoli, Tartlets, Macaroons

Yeah yeah, I know, I'd said 5 courses in my last post but that was Mommy Error. Mommy Error is a lot like Server Error. It happens all the time, can be inexplicable, but it just is. Nothing to be done about it. You get the Mommy Error message, all there is to do is shrug and move on. So let's do just that. FOUR courses, OK?

My Son the Chef and I took his shopping list and headed off to Central Market, an upscale version of an HEB grocery store. Texas chain, very close to the Whole Foods model only much less pretentious. Central Market has a fabulous selection, knowledgeable staff, and are generally less overpriced than Whole Foods. It is not nearly so much "Crunchier than Thou" there. (as in "I am SO much more organic and make my own granola from scratch how about you?", crunchier).

After a quick inventory of what pots/pans/cooking accoutrement were on hand in my kitchen, my son (did I mention he is a CHEF?) got to work on the first course.

Pictures are worth thousands of words. You go ahead and look first, then come back to read what I wrote. Deal?

Gobble. Sigh. Yum.

My main question prior to this Feast in Four Acts had been, would we spend less on this sumptious meal at home than we would pay in a restaurant setting?

And my answer is - yes. We spent less, food and wine and desserts combined, than in any comparable restaurant setting that I am aware of locally. And the bigger payoff than the absolute bottom line?

Well, aside from the satisfaction of watching the people I love most in the world enjoying food prepared with love by somebody I love...there were the.....LEFTOVERS.

That is the one thing you'll never get from a restaurant. I am not talking some styrofoam encased remnants here, I am talking substantial portions of top notch quality meal components waiting in the refrigerator to be revisited, recombined, and enjoyed.

It took hours to clean up even though we had dutifully cleaned up as we cooked (using the "we" liberally since I stood around and gaped at my oldest as he turned out dish after dish with never a glance at a recipe). It was worth every single minute.

Texas Culinary Academy? You have turned out a top notch chef. As we now say with a little chuckle, "that boy can COOK!". Anybody not present to have sampled the results might try to lay this off to Momma/Poppa Pride despite the photographic evidence of our feast. But I will tell you this. As we say in Texas, "that ain't braggin - that's just fact.".

Friday, September 21, 2007

Fun Food Facts to Know and Tell Part Two

Speaking of good places to live (see FFF #1), here in Texas there is a debate raging on at any given time about the origins of that mythical bowl of red - Chili. Around here ordinarily polite folks can get incensed and offended at the drop of a Stetson just talking about whether or not any concoction with beans in it technically qualifies for inclusion in the term. We try not to even get started about tomatoes. It's easier, more acceptable, to talk about sex, politics, or even religion, and still stay friends.

If you bring up green bell peppers and chili in the same breath, you are declaring yourself a damned Yankee and you might find yourself advised not to be venturing into such territorial spats. If the advisor is of a kindly variety you may be informed that once you've lived here for 10-15 years or so you'll "know better".

In this case knowing better means you'll have learned never to broach the topic without a cold beer on hand to judiciously sip, pausing occasionally only to make noncommittal monosyllabic consonant noises. Frowning slightly while offering "Mmmmmm" works pretty well in most cases. If seriously pressed for an opinion, you should immediately respond that you hear your Mother calling you into another county and simply leave the premises. The friendship you save may be your own.

How and where did chili get it's start? One story claims chili originated when folks from the Canary Islands who were "transplanted" (a PC term retroactively applied to people who were more likely kidnapped into slavery) developed the dish in the San Antonio area around the beginning of the 19th century. They reportedly used a variety of peppers in combination with locally available inexpensive ingredients (aka tough cuts of meat) to complement cumin and other spices they'd brought with them.

Supposedly by the middle of the 19th century, "brightly attired Chili Queens" were selling bowls of red that would remove the enamel from cars (if either had been invented yet), all around San Antonio's Military Plaza every night from carts and stalls.

"Brightly Attired Chili Queens". Sounds like a great theme for San Antonio's Pride Parade next year, don't you think?

As to my personal version of "chili"? Shhhh - don't tell, but I do use beans in mine. I started making it that way as a young bride, in Houston. We were experiencing zero based budgeting month to month and there is nothing like pinto beans to stretch a dish.

Now "con frijoles" is the way chili is supposed to taste when I make it. It is "Wilson Way". I tried monkeying with my basic recipe from time to time but family members come to expect a certain dish to taste a certain way when it is a regular feature in the dinner lineup. I can no more change how I fix chili now than I can switch around when we open our Christmas presents. It just won't fly any other way.

So there you have it. Enough food fun for one day at least.

Oh wait, except for this -since we're just getting acquainted in this particular arena, I should warn you I'm not going to verify, much less get exhaustive with listing sources for this kind of "information". If you are one of those wary types who demands proof, this won't be your venue at all. But if you like casual snippets about where things come from and comments on some of the mythology of certain dishes, I'm your go to gal.

Later today I get to go hunter-gathering with My Son the Chef after which he has promised to prepare and serve us a 5 course meal to fete his baby sister in honor of her 24th birthday.

As far as I am concerned, doing the dishes will be a flat out privilege under these circumstances. If I was any giddier at the prospect I'd have to hold weights in each hand to keep my feet on the ground. I've got serving dishes ready, a new tablecloth, wine cooling and I'll buy and arrange fresh flowers as part of the fun. Doesn't get much better for me.

Can the event possibly live up to my anticipatory glee? Will my grown children share the spotlight nicely? All reasonable concerns but my real question is this.

We have spent some pretty extravagant amounts in the past couple of years in various Austin eateries to celebrate special occasions. The experiences were worth it, memories as well as amazing food and wine, but I am wondering now. It is really less expensive to buy our own fresh ingredients, cook and eat in, or will the bottom line be comparable to a pricey restaurant meal for the same number of people in one of Austin's spiffier restaurants? Stay tuned.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Fun Food Facts to Know and Tell Part One

At one time or another, I've been surprised and/or confused about what is considered fruit, what is vegetable, what is considered a nut, what is an herb, what constitutes a spice. (ah for the clarity of mineral....)

There are agreed upon rules, and there are those certain exceptions.

Questions remain about several nuts, er, fruits, well, nuts that might technically be fruits (or vice versa).

For instance, there is debate, not of the raging variety, but more some polite discussion where folks agree to disagree, about whether or not a macadamia fruit is a drupe or a follicle.

I imagine bespectacled people, in lab coats, glasses of port in hand, cigars optional, although smoking and drinking in the laboratory must cross many, many lines. I'm unclear why the distinction between drupe or follicle is important. Strike that, I am still unclear on what either one is, much less why it matters which one a macadamia nut/fruit might be. There are papers based upon on the rationale to go one way or the other with this classification, so it obviously matters a great deal (to somebody).

What I found interesting and much easier to understand was the information that Macadamia nuts originally hail from.... Australia. Yup - throw another shrimp on the barbie and hold the leis. I'd always assumed, since I'd only ever seen macs shipped in from Hawaii, that they started out there.

Turns out like a lot of other happy transplants, the macadamia nut is just another traveler that found a good thing in the Aloha State and stayed on. Drupe or follicle, you have to credit the macadamia for knowing a good place to live when it sees one.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Festus Interruptus

Stick a fork in - ACL Fest 2007 is done, all but for the closeout T-Shirt sales on the internet and potentially hipper looking and longer than usual Monday lines at sweet little Austin Bergstrom International Airport.

When I wrote yesterday that Festers, like cities, have their limits? I was more predictive than I realized. Happy Festing requires flexibility.

All by way of saying my daughter felt the need to attend to her life, Sunday, rather than catch day three of ACL. She woke up with her energy reserves set on "OOOO" and realized Monday will kick off a particularly rough work week. Add in her ongoing application process for law school, which only really advances on weekends, and she made the call that she was Fested Out. As my Fest status has consistently been "companion/comic relief", that meant my Fest experience for 2007 was similarly over.

I've always insisted our approach to ACL Fest be all about the music. We Fest only as long as it stays fun. Fest is there to serve us, and not the other way around. There is pressure to keep in mind the initial expense of a three day pass, but anyone familiar with concert costs realizes once you've heard two-three solid hours of music at ACL Fest, you've easily covered the gate for a three day wristband. We'd done that two times over by the end of Friday, so even the Scroogiest part of me couldn't quibble with a decision to call it a Fest and let that be.

Every year we listen as folks make plans to be there when the gates open and stay until the last strains of music fade, all three days. Every time we are walking down to the park, we are met by people who have already fested out and have called it quits for the day. Same thing whenever we'd begun that uphill trek towards home, we were met by people just then making a trip down to catch the closing acts.

My daughter has categorized Fest Goers into three groups. Fanatic, Normal, and Wusses. Fanatics are there for every note, rushing from stage to stage to catch some of every act as possible. Normal, well we are normal, naturally. For us, the decisions about when to go and and how long to stay are all driven by the music and our appreciation of or desire for that music as stand alones. Wusses go to the park, get hot and discouraged by the dust or freaked out by the long lines or whatever, and leave after only a short stay, or wait until 7:30 or so and only go to hear music offered after the sun has already set.

So the decision to bail on Day 3 this year does shove us a bit towards the Wuss category according to my daughter, but seeing as that was her call to make, I bow to both the decision and the category shift.

I spent the beautiful, cooler than usual afternoon outdoors at any rate, and was treated to strains of music floating over mostly from the AMD and Austin Ventures stage. This meant my husband and I spent time Sunday doing yardwork and floating in the pool as we were treated to snatches of songs from Ben Kweller (Sundress being the easiest to recognize with it's catchy refrain), Midlake, Rose Hill Drive, and what I am pretty sure was My Morning Jacket. We adjourned inside for dinner, but then as we went out so I could check the size of "our" frog who sits poolside vigil each evening, we did so to the sounds of Bob Dylan.

I have to say it has been an outstanding year for music coming in the back door at our house. With our proximity to Zilker park we hear 4th of July concerts regularly, can see the tops of the fireworks from our upper deck every year, but 2007 has so far also brought us both the Rolling Stones and now Bob Dylan, overheard in our very own back yard. Not shabby.

So, sorry, no big wrap up report on Fest as promised, but rather a sigh of relief to have been released back into life's more regular and forgiving rhythms for a Sunday afternoon and evening.

My general observations are that due to a rainier, cooler than usual summer the park stayed grassy, the dust was less a problem than ever and the heat was typically killer only on Saturday. Despite disappointment over the cancellations of Rodrigo y Gabriela and the White Stripes, we certainly heard more than our money's worth of great music. The people were cool, the food was hot. We had us Some Fun. A check in the "win" category all around.

And to close with a lyrical observation I believe applies...
Ob la di
Ob la da
Life goes on, bra.
La la how the life goes on.

On the second day of Fest

My daughter brought to me:
One cup of cold beer,
two bottles of water,
three friends to hang with,
and a Hudson's crunchy chicken cone (cut the pear tree).

Festgoers, like cities, have their limits. Yesterday, for instance, my very intelligent husband realized that not only were the temperatures climbing way past his "outside unprotected" comfort zone, but the music acts listed were similarly outside any "I'd willingly sit in the heat to listen to these guys" parameters.

In the truly friendly spirit that Texans consistently demonstrate, my husband opted to give his wristband pass to my daughter to give to one of her friends, a younger guy with musical tastes and temperature tolerances better met by this weekend's forecast and schedule. This freed my spouse up to perform the invaluable drop off/pick up services, for which I hopefully have expressed appropriate gratitude.

Saturday found the Fest heating up, temperature wise if not musically. There were clouds, big ones, but somehow they all managed to hang around the perimeter of the park, rarely getting in between the sun and the fans. The bands listed were not such outright favorites of anybody's but that's partly the reason to be there. To find those New Favorites.

The first act we caught was on the Austin Venture stage, which neatly places the artists with the sun at their back, and yup, in our faces. The only reasonable thing to do under those circumstances, is to look at whoever it is up there for a few minutes and then batten the hatches, lower the umbrellas, sit back and listen.

Umbrellas are great at blocking most of the sun and don't hamper sound waves at all. So YAY for umbrellas allowing us to enjoy St. Vincent, aka Annie Clark, in the near triple digit heat-indexed afternoon. Annie is a singer/songwriter from Dallas who had her ACL debut this week. Annie's music is deceptively sweet sounding but when the lyrics begin to sink in, the depth and sometimes pain behind her light tonality can be a startling juxtaposition. Her sound is not as well served in the large open setting of the park, especially when competing with the pulsing bass lines from the other stages, but this young artist is a comer, and we will all be hearing a lot more from her in the future. Which is a very good thing.

After acclimating to the heat somewhat, and yeah, downing that first beer, we hit our water bottles and wound our way across the fields to the AT&T stage to hear the second Marley son offered this week, Stephen. Whereas Ziggy Marley sang his own tunes Friday, Stephen reprised a lot of their father's music and sounds uncannily like his Dad.

It came as no surprise then to see a heavy contingent of ElderHips up out of their chairs, eyes closed, arms in the air, bobbing and weaving to the tunes. It was a musical version of the WayBack Machine. What was a little surreal in the midst of all that elder bliss was watching a steady stream of middle and high school students who'd been way up in front by the stage, leaving 15 minutes prior to the end of the set, all apparently heading wherever to hear whoever, en masse. BabyHip wannabe lemmings wandering past their own ElderHip future selves, mutually oblivious.

[Sidebar: These middle and high school students looked painfully young. It was fascinating to watch them self consciously picking their way through the crowd. I'd have told them "It's OK - people are here for the music, nobody's watching you" but that wasn't entirely true. I was watching.

I always watch. People fascinate me. I don't think most people there yesterday were so much watching other people as they were there to be watched. Most of the crowd I saw behaved in ways that communicated a sense of oblivious isolation in the midst of so many others.

I am a little jealous of that ability. Honestly? Crowds rattle me. Walking in to ACL Fest there is always the point where I hit my personal anxiety hurdle, which I must confess is part of what propels me to the Bar Booth to get that first cold beer before finding a spot in what's left of the grass in front of any particular stage.]

So, the parade of pre-end of Marley set youngsters out of the way, we turned our attention, and shifted our spots in the grass, towards the Dell Stage, to enjoy Zap Mama.

At this point my daughter began a series of cell phone texts that were steps along the way to helping several of her friends find us in the confusion that is Fest.

Another protocol begins. There is the distant early warning text, indicating that they are "nearly in". There is the reply text stating the stage/act we are enjoying. There is the "we're here where are you?" text which garners the more specific coordinates meant to give anybody looking a high probability of finding our one laid out towel, pack, cooler and umbrella in the mass of chairs, blankets, standing and walking bodies around us.

There are folks all over Fest planting tall poles sporting various flags, some with large mylar balloons, part of that meant to be fun and most of it meant to help people find each other in the park. When you are directing somebody to where you are, you begin by lining yourself up with whichever of the 8 stages you are closest, to, and then any other stable landmarks around the perimeter. You fine tune that with descriptions of whatever flags/balloons you are closest to, in hopes there aren't duplicates to lead your friends astray.

This can be very interesting when the flags or balloons are not standardized university, NFL team or recognizable shape type offerings. Yesterday the folks closest to us had a flag that for all the world looked like what would happen if a United Farm Workers flag had been re-designed by a Michigan Wolverines fan.

We had a problem with that last year. Calling your friends in to within waving range requires cell phone conversations so you can transmit information in real time, a tricky thing when bands are playing, which they are more often than not. That is, after all the point of a music festival. Or mostly the point.

Texting is great when it works, but from time to time the system gets a little bogged down and you can go for a spell with nothing and then suddenly get 5 texts at once. So trying to talk over the music is required, and past that, if you are not thinking to be very specific, you end up with conversations that run like this...

"We are in front of the AT&T stage."
"OK - so am I".
"We're just to the west of the frog balloon".
"You can't be - I am standing next to the guy with the frog balloon and you aren't HERE.".
"Guy? What guy? It's a girl holding the balloon, not a guy."
"Wait - what color is your frog - this guy is holding a brown frog.."
"Oooooh - noooo - this frog balloon is GREEN - wait - I see the brown frog now - we are closer to the bar booths from your frog guy - I am waving - do you see us?".

Happy ending yesterday - everybody found us relatively easily, and we all enjoyed Zap Mama thoroughly. I'm hard pressed to describe her music, it is loosely classified as "world", but it is highly textured, very nuanced, elements of afro cuban, hip hop, a blend of urban and root music that really defies narrowing down. It was an intense sound that matched the afternoon's heat well. We had fun just listening, and then suddenly it was 7 PM and we realized we were starving.

For our second Fest Dinner my daughter had already made a food recommendation on advice from a friend so it was not a question of what, but rather of who would go. Long story short, two went out to procure the eats, another made a beer run, and I got to sit and hold down the towels, er, fort, and watch everybody's stuff. I enjoyed strains of the very mellow Damien Rice while doing so, and was simultaneously treated to the release and relief of the setting sun, along with the softer tones of his ballads.

My daughter's friend's food nod was right on and we were all totally impressed by the ballyhooed ACL Hot and Crunchy Chicken/Avocado Cones brought to us from the Hudson's on the Bend booth.

Yum. They were indeed hot, crunchy, and absolutely delicious. Add to that the opening strains of the Indigo Girl's set from the stage to our right in lieu of dessert, and I was much, much closer to fine.

So ended Day Two of ACL Fest 2007. More music, more friends, more beers, more heat, more fun food. What's not to like?

Sunday may include a run by Fest's souvenir shop for a T-shirt. As this is potentially my daughter's last September living in Austin for the foreseeable future, it feels some effort should be made to walk away from the Fest this year with something more than ringing ears and a sunburn to substantiate, materialize, embody our memories. I have always been a fan of the souvenir article of clothing to remember a fun time shared. Yes, there are photos, but you can't throw a photo on when you are living 8 states away and missing your family and your home town.

Whether or not we shop, we will be there for one last round of music, sun, fun and food. I'll be back sometime tomorrow with a report - a wrap up of sorts, and then we will settle down to the next serious business on our culinary horizon - determining a menu for my daughter's 24th birthday feast to be prepared by our familial super chef - her brother.

See that's the thing about shared food experiences. If you only work just a little bit ahead? The fun never has to end....

Saturday, September 15, 2007

See Me?

I'm in there somewhere. I'm the one sitting on the towel with my daughter. See me? No, not her - I'm over there, to the right, No no, my right, not yours....

Festing is great fun, but it is something done in the company of a whole lot of other people. 65 thousand of them, more or less. The aerial photo here shows one end of the park. Multiply what you see there by a factor of 5 (recognizing that 57 percent of all statistics are made up) and you get the general idea of the sheer volume, people wise, of the experience.

As to the volume of the music? Well, most of the people attending are in their 20s-30s. You know how loud people that age like their music? Multiply that by 8 stages and you get some idea of the sheer volume of the, well, of the VOLUME.

A quick side note here - yesterday as we first arrived we witnessed an impressively ominous plume of black smoke rising from a fire that started when some propane tanks for the food courts ignited. The fire was put out pretty promptly, but 4 ACL workers were injured, two seriously. I add my prayers to all others that their injuries will heal speedily.

Kudos to the Austin Fire Department and EMS who managed the blaze and the injuries in ways that did not panic or add to the potential damages from such a situation.

Pete Yorn's set was interrupted, but fest goers were appropriately patient considering what triggered the delays, and Fest entry lines were slowed but not stopped. Everybody we saw took this all with good humor, especially considering the heat, dust and then smoke involved. Austin, I am proud of you.

Yesterday we arrived mid-afternoon. Once managing the eternal sunshine of the clueless entry line, we were wrist banded and spent the next 7 hours festing.

I don't know if this gambit worked last year, but apparently some people believed that the staffers checking bags at the entry gates would somehow not sense that the additional weight in the center of a portable chair bag might indicate the presence of something "other than chair", like, say, 3-4 cans of beer. And it was Bud Lite at that. Observers in the lines around us agreed, not even worth stopping and drinking that before it was confiscated. Those people were saved from themselves.

So, safely in the park and all of Friday's Fest to go. For us, that included one stop for printed schedules (already out of date), one go-round at the misting station, two stops for cold beers, a food run for 1/4 pound hot dogs from the Hoffbrau booth, tea from SweetTea, potty breaks, and oh right, the MUSIC.

We heard more than saw the Peter, Bjorn and John set, but were impressed. Theirs is music we'll definitely be wanting to have around past Fest. After that it was on to hear Joss Stone, who rocked the stage for a great hour long set. Yeah, only thing hotter than the sun yesterday was Joss's performance. Catch her if you can - you won't be sorry.

Little break after that to move over and hear Andy Palacios and the Garifuna Collective. Andy, apparently a cultural minister for Belize as well as touring musician, thanked Austin for the honor of being the first Belizean band invited to Fest. If the boogeying around us was any indicator? They won't be the last. My daughter speculated that if her life could have only one type of music for it's sound track? Garifuna would certainly do.

After that we had a bit of a battle of the bands in our decision making. The Fest Wizards, for reasons known only to themselves, chose to schedule local darlings made big, Spoon, at the same time as Queens of the Stone Age. We'd meant to haul ourselves post-dinner across park to catch the Queens, reasoning that Spoon is more likely to be seen locally, but I got stuck in the park's slowest Potty line, and by the time I emerged it was only reasonable to amble over and catch the end of Spoon's set. Which was great, no complaints.

Life lesson learned? As I shared in an email with a young friend living in New York who hopes to get to Fest one of these years, "No diuretics at Fest". Except for beer, naturally. I lay the blame for missing Queens of the Stone Age squarely at the feet of my decision to get 24 ounces of tea with dinner. Stupid tea. Stupid me.

Lesson number two? Towards the end of the day the porta-potties at a music festival hosting 65 thousand fans plus however many additional volunteers and staff begins to resemble a second world situation. There are facilities, yes, but the amenities are over-taxed, shall we say. On the backpack essentials list for today is TP for the ladies.

Potty lines at Fest are a music concert correlate to the drive-through lanes at the bank. No matter which one you choose, it instantly becomes the slowest moving line. If you switch, so does the rate of progress. How that can be a universal experience for everybody in every line no matter where they stand is a mystery yet to be revealed. I can simply tell you for a fact that I was in The Slowest Line and yet overheard people all around me making similar complaints (as they moved ahead faster than I did).

Post-Spoon we were entranced, (along with several thousand others) as a two-level stage set-up revealed the all white clad Gotan Project, including a guitarist that looked a lot like (Sir) Ben Kingley. Their music is tricky to describe, sort of a Parisian Tango fusion, but we liked it. A lot.

The visually and aurally cool Gotan folk finished up in darkness as the sun finally gave up punishing music fan and non-fan alike. We realized we had fested ourselves out for the time being. We called ahead for my husband who was providing drop off/pick up services yesterday, and headed uphill for home.

Isn't that always the case? The way home from any delightful day of sun, fun and wonderful music always seems to go uphill....

Today we will be attending with no drop off services available. This will trigger a switch to a new parking spot in order to avoid spending half as much time walking as we would hearing music.

That is all part of being a smart Fest Game player. Choosing which bands to listen to, what food to get and when, only happens AFTER you have mastered the art of finding a legal parking space resulting in the Shortest Possible Walk. I have to admit, for the first time ever, my family's local connections in combination with a fascination with Google Map is really paying off.

We have the chance this year to borrow a parking spot at one of my daughter's co-worker's condo, with the enticement of a shortcut through her neighborhood to the Fest gates.

Will it prove to be a shorter, downhill, shadier trip to the entrance gates? Will we survive Fest as a Family Trio rather than our usual Mother/Daughter Duo? Who will we choose from Saturday's Schedule Snafu, Damien Rice or the Arctic Monkeys? Will we last long enough to catch my old favorites, The Indigo Girls?

Stay tuned....

Friday, September 14, 2007


This weekend is the Austin City Limits Music Festival. It is a nearly all day affair running Friday, Saturday and Sunday, featuring multiple stages, a wide variety of musical acts, and of course, food.

What can you safely prepare, quickly sell and serve to 65,000 people who are likely to decide that THIS break between the 40 plus bands playing on 8 different stages is THE break to get lunch/dinner/a snack on any given day?

There are obvious limits. The restaurants featured vary from year to year but they are all local - no national chains. There are always burgers and some form of Tex Mex, generally one or more vegan offerings and always one place that is serving "healthy" fare.

Healthy? If you want to assure your health you stay the hell home in the first place.

The weather is hot - mid 90s at a minimum. You are in full sun most of the day. By Saturday afternoon, the park gets pretty dusty. You are allowed to bring in 2 liters of water to last you all day, and past that you are at the mercy of the assembled vendors. People are smoking all around you. Some cigarettes, some marijuana. If there is a breeze, no worries. If not, you are at the mercy of the strangers around you and how they choose to indulge their various habits.

The shaded seating area is a VIP only affair, which you can pay to qualify for, but it is away from the music stages. In years past there were some tables provided in the food vendors area, mostly of the Stand Around This variety - a platform for plates more than anything else, but nothing is available, much less possible to seat 65,000 at once.

There is one small stage out of the sun most of the day, and it provides gospel, funk, and a variety of world music and acts that defy easy categorization, but it is close to a wall of portapotties and off to one side of the food court, so it is more a travel-through space than a place to hunker down and enjoy.

There are two misting stations - giant oscillating fans with spray nozzles attached. These are naturally very popular, and I've been pleased to note a wonderful form of etiquette has evolved there. People, maybe because they are suddenly really COOL for the first time in hours, take their turns in the mist very politely. I've never noticed anybody seriously hogging a spot in front of a fan. The stations are whimsically named "Mister Mister" and "Sister Mister". Gotta love Austin, yeah?

A Fest experience for my family begins as whoever is attending tries to get a ride to the drop off point in our neighborhood, cutting the distance between here and Fest by fully half. This is followed by a saunter down towards Zilker Park - now within reasonable walking distance. You are gradually accompanied by more and more people, and you establish what personal space is tolerable in the heat with various carried chairs and packs. Depending on time of day and overhead sun, the point is not to melt before we can get inside, open our Approved to Bring In "factory sealed" water bottles, and pony up to buy that first cold beer.

There are Festival Protocols for acquiring beverages as well as food. Everyone in a group has to take their turn standing in line or sitting with all the stuff and waiting. Cell phone texting has made last minute inquiries (cherry lemonade or peach?) a snap. Pacing is crucial, and the Water/Beer/Water/Beer protocol is one my daughter and I developed the first year.

The beer lines are always long in the early to mid afternoon. The trick is to bring your water in, open a bottle immediately, so by the time you get your printed schedule, choose a stage, ride the line, score your beer and head out to claim a place to listen to whoever is closest to a favorite band or hopeful new favorite? If timed well, your first bottle of water finishes just as you are ready to sip that still cold beer and enjoy the first act you catch.

We determined a rotation between bottles of water and cups of cold beer will generally keep you happy and reasonably well hydrated without overly compromising your abilities to navigate ACL Fest's shifting Land of Counterpane. A challenging course of uneven park field covered by a constantly evolving haphazard human quilt of chairs, blankets, and towels, it requires skills similar to a crowded city sidewalk traverse. All that, with a full cup of precious cold liquid in hand subject to whatever spontaneous boogeying maneuvers the music calls out of you or your fellow walkers.

The inevitable food run requires Venn diagram coordination. You idle by Food Row early on to see what the choices will be. Out of those choices, you establish what folks WILL eat, and of those, you subset the lines moving reasonably quickly. If you are smart you have chosen food that is stand alone, temperature neutral and carried easily. The final criteria has to be how well it will sit in your stomach in the heat for the rest of your planned Fest stay because the prospect of portable restrooms shared amongst 65,000 people? Well, you can figure those hazards out on your own.

I will be back later in the weekend with a report on our food/beverage choices, as well as the bands we heard. I'll let you know if we are able to match up a meal with a particular act, like, say, gumbo with Garifuna. It's not easy, but we are a determined bunch in my family.

And, as we say here in Texas in response to anything we really like? WHOOOOOOOO!! See y'all at the Fest.

Do Overs

In some parts of your life, you get a chance to start over. That is this blog, a re-do of a false start from a few days prior, and a rethinking of blogging (for me anyway) in general.

I plan on featuring my amateur adventures in cooking and eating. I want to tell you about recipes attempted, altered, my culinary successes and failures. I want to share experiences in restaurants, shops, markets and festivals. I'll feature Fun Food Facts to Know and Tell, and I'll chronicle experiences in our garden.

As to the title? "Agrodolce" is an Italian word for a combination of sweet and sour, generally applied to a type of sauce. The thinking goes, in these sauces, the one flavor complements the other in combination, and the two together are always better than either standing alone.

Agrodolce applies to life as well. The sweet moments are always balanced by, and in some sense defined against, the sour moments. Both taken together are better than any attempt to dwell upon either in exclusion of the other.

I believe any meal shared is twice as delicious. I hope you'll visit regularly and allow me to share with you my Agrodolce musings from Austin.