The Texas State Capital Building

The People’s House and Senate

by Celia Hayes

So – after a two-hour long stint in the Texas Author’s Association booth at the Texas Book Festival this last weekend, my daughter and I decided that we should explore the grounds of the state capitol building, which reared up at the top of the hill just outside the tent where the booth was. No kidding – the tent was at the intersection of North Congress and 11th, just in front of the gate to the grounds … which looked cool, green and inviting, after two hours in the hubble-bubble of commerce.

We put the two tubs of books in the car, and walked back from the public parking structure on San Jacinto, past the state archives and the statue-topped obelisk monument to Hood’s brigade … that unit which was slaughtered almost wholesale at Gettysburg. In my Adelsverein Trilogy, one of the characters, Peter Vining, is a survivor of that, the only one of four brothers. Most Texans who joined up to serve the Confederate military actually never went east of the Mississippi, but Hood’s brigade and Terry’s Rangers did, and paid a very high price in blood for the privilege.

I had always assumed that the capitol building was white, of that pale limestone that weathers to ivory – and every time I had seen it from a distance, it certainly looked white or ivory, but it seems that the whole thing is faced with salmon-pink granite. At a distance it looks beige. It is the fourth capitol building to stand on this particular site.

The capitol of independent Texas was a peripatetic matter for some years, being lodged in Washington on the Brazos, Columbia and Houston, among others. This one had the good fortune to be built in the last quarter of the 19th century – which to my mind was one of the best-ever for constructing grand public buildings which imposed and impressed with the importance of the work done in them, yet delighted the eye with detailed adornment … and yet have managed (with sensitively-done updates, including a huge below-ground-level element at the back so as not to interfere with the view) to be functional and perhaps even uplifting to work in.

Certainly better than some featureless slab of concrete, I-beams and glass, fitted out on the inside in endless offices and cubicles painted institutional beige or pale green. The Capitol building in Austin has class, panache, and a sense of history about it, what with the huge painting of Sam Houston accepting Santa Anna’s surrender on the field of San Jacinto, with everyone who was there at the time (and apparently a few who were not) in the audience. The names of the great battles of the war for independence, the war with Mexico and the Civil Ware are inlaid into the floor in granite terrazzo – and the floor under the great soaring dome features the inlaid seals of every country which laid claims to Texas. Away up under the very roof of the dome is a tiny spiral staircase, almost hidden against the wall; I suppose it goes to the very top of the dome, but as interesting as it looked – I would not like to venture up to it. It’s not heights that I dislike, particularly – just the prospect of possibly falling from them.

The terrazzo on all the floors of the old Capital was done at the time of the Texas Centennial in and about the mid-1930s. For a couple of the motifs, especially one on a particular second-floor stair mezzanine, we really did wonder exactly how innocent a time that was … and how many people had noticed immediately what we did about one of them. We did ask one of the DPS agents about it, as we left the building. She said that it wasn’t anything of the sort – just an artistic design. But we do have certain doubts.


What to do With Gumbo

Tales of Gumbo

by Celia Hayes

I may be defeated in my ambitions this year to have bounteous crops of tomatoes and zucchini squash … but by way of comfort, the peppers of various sorts and the okra plants are multiplying and producing like champs. The encouraging thing about the okra plants is that I have been able to grow a fair number of plants from seeds left in the pods that I let go last year … and that the darned things do grow like weeks. However, the okra pods of the variety that I have propagated do have to be harvested before they get to be about three inches long; otherwise they are tough and woody to the point of inedibility. (But still good for gleaning seeds for the next crop.) I would actually consider planting a good-sized patch of okra in the front garden, for the flowers are actually rather attractive; they look a bit like a variety of hibiscus which has pale yellow flowers with a red spot in the center. Alas, in the eyes of non-gardeners and farmers, the leaves of okra bear an unfortunate resemblance to marijuana plants, and while I would like to hope that the average neighborhood SAPD officer has enough savvy to tell the difference at a glance … I don’t want to borrow trouble.

So – okra in quantity; what to do with it? Aside from pickles, and breading and deep-frying it, my usual method for okra is to slice up the pods as I harvest them, and put them in a plastic bag in the freezer until I have enough to make a good batch of gumbo out of it. Gumbo is one of those all-purpose dishes like meatloaf or macaroni and cheese; infinite number of recipes in infinite variations, depending on what you have on hand. It all begins with a roux, of course – oil and flour stirred together, until the flour darkens to the color of a tarnished copper coin. This is what gives the gumbo broth it’s thickening substance.

This is a recipe that I like to use, raided from the internet, but with additions from one of my Cajun cookbooks and adjusted to incorporate the accumulated okra harvest.
Combine together ½ cup peanut oil and the same of flour, and simmer until darkened – but not burnt! Add in 1 chopped onion, 1 chopped green or red pepper, and 3 stalks of celery – all very finely chopped, and stir together with the roux until the vegetables are limp. Add in 3-4 minced cloves of garlic, and 1 Tbsp of Creole seasoning, like Tony Chachere’s. In another pot, heat almost to boiling, 5 cups of fish, chicken, or vegetable stock, and blend it gently into the roux-vegetable mixture, stirring constantly. Add 2 teaspoons of Worcestershire sauce and 1 to 1 ½ cups fresh or frozen okra, sliced into rounds. Cover and simmer for half an hour, and add half to 3/4ths of a pound smoked Andouille sausage, sliced into ¼ inch rounds and 1-2 lbs fresh shrimp, peeled and deveined. If the shrimp is already cooked, then just simmer the gumbo long enough to warm the sausage and shrimp through. Serve with a scoop of hot rice in the middle, and a sprinkling of sliced green onion.

Different Kind of Farming

Another Kind of Farmer’s Market

by Celia Hayes

As much as I try to wedge in useful vegetable crops into various parts of my tiny suburban back yard, there is just not enough cultivatable space to grow enough that our needs for seasonal vegetables can be satisfied from it, day in, day out, year in and year out. Oh, certainly, we have gotten good things from the garden – especially potatoes this year. Sing ye the glories of home-grown potatoes, so tender, so luxuriously velvety that we didn’t know whether to eat them, or slather them onto our hands like skin cream. I got one good squash, a fair number of okra pots, and all the fresh herbs I could use – ‘Twas ever thus; herbs in plenty – other edibles, not so much.

There isn’t the custom in this country of garden allotments, as there are in England, Europe and Russia; small plots for personal cultivation on the outskirts of towns and cities, intended for the use of apartment and townhouse dwellers. I have often read that for most of the last half of the 20th century, ordinary Russians city-dwellers were almost entirely fed from what they could grow in their relatively tiny allotments. And it’s not like I have the time and energy for any more gardening than I do already.

But I still want fresh and seasonable garden produce, and enough of it that I can process that portion which cannot be consumed fresh; home-canning, freezing or drying it for later use. After a couple of years of diligent efforts in that direction, I am concluding that my own yard is not the complete and wholly satisfying fulfillment of that ambition. It’s not big enough, I am not that much of a genius at microscopic-acreage farming, and I simply do not have the time, anyway. So – searching around for a means to that end, I did a brief exploration of local farmer’s markets. Alas, I was accustomed to the street farmer’s markets in Greece, where the street in particular neighborhoods was blocked off on one day a week, and all the local truck farmers would show up with a load of fresh produce … fresher than fresh, and cheap as the dirt which was still usually on root crops like potatoes. Also – they were cheaper and better quality than in the local supermarket; a retail location which just barely counted by American standards as a supermarket anyway.

Our local farmer’s markets do provide the high-quality produce – and meat – and eggs – and all sorts of other lovely edibles, but with certain exceptions, the prices are not a bargain. Which I regret, because I would dearly love to support small local enterprises … but not at those prices. So, I will explore the options available with local farmers though something called ‘community supported agriculture’. Basically, you pay a regular fee … and get a weekly share – usually in the form of a basket of whatever produce has been harvested from the farm that you have bought a teeny share in. As the saying goes – you pay your money, and you take your chances. What you get in your weekly basket from your chosen farm is yours to do with as you choose. In last week’s community market in Bulverde, we had a booth next to one of those little local truck farms which offers such an option – and I think that I will give them a call, and see what they can do for me.

Good Stuff

Good Stuff

by Celia Hayes

My daughter and I did our foodstuff stocking up this last weekend, including a run out to Granzin’s in New Braunfels. Alas, we were disappointed in our intent to purchase a large quantity of beef bones to make home-made beef broth out of, and then to give to the dogs for their chewing pleasure. Their stock of bones in the back room was much reduced by demand, I guess. We should have gone up during the week, as we have on previous occasions. No good meaty beef bones this trip! But I still have a sufficient quantity of the last batch for my various cooking purposes, so … never mind. It’s all quite simple, actually; spread out the fresh bones in a single layer in a pan – or several, if necessary – with a quartered onion or two and roast in a 350° oven until the remaining meat and fat and the bones themselves are nicely brown. This should take a couple of hours – then put the bones and onions into a stock pot or Dutch oven with a tablespoon or two of whole peppercorns, cover with water – filtered or distilled if you are really hard-core about it, cover and simmer gently overnight. Strain the resulting broth, which should be a lovely dark-brown color and incredibly rich in taste, into one and two-cup capacity containers, discard the onion debris, and save the bones for the dogs. They will appreciate it no end. Ours do, anyway. The containers go into the freezer – labeled, of course – and make the basis for any kind of soup imaginable.

The other simple cooking hack that I have worked out this summer, is the recipe for HEB’s BBQ chicken salad. They make it from their own rotisseried chickens, but it is which is absolutely divine when made with the leftovers from a whole rotisserie or BBQ chicken from the Riverside Market in Boerne – one of our favorite sources for rotisserie and BBQ chicken. Take the meat from half a rotisserie or BBQ chicken – or the leftovers from same – off the bones, chop the meat coarsely and mix with two stalks of celery – also chopped, and half of a small onion, or a couple of green onions, likewise chopped.

In another small bowl, mix 3/4th a cup of good mayonnaise – we favor Duke brand – with ½ teaspoon each paprika, garlic powder, and chili powder, 1 teaspoon tabasco sauce and salt and pepper to taste. Combine with the chicken, celery and onion, and let chill for an hour or so. It is divine, served on good sourdough bread, or even on a split Kaiser roll.

The BBQ chicken salad is very good served with roast corn on the cob; and the hack for that is also amazingly simple; just peel back the husks from fresh corn on the cob, remove the silk, and then fold the husks back over the corn. Tie the ends of the husk together with a length of husk or a piece of cooking string, and soak the whole thing in water to cover for half an hour. Then drain, and lay out the whole husks on the BBQ grill, along the side. The outer husks will char and burn a bit, but the corn itself will steam … and it will be awesome.

Autumn Cometh

Autumn Cometh

by Celia Hayes

We have already had one cool snap, and a couple of rounds of rain, all of which herald the end of summer in South Texas, and the advent of what I believe to be the fairest and most pleasant season. Spring has it’s moments of attraction, to be sure, but there is always the threat of the soon-to-be boiling-hot summer hanging over it, as the days draw out. Autumn has no other threat than perhaps a couple of days below freezing, and every two decades a promise of snow. We had our ration of show a couple of winters ago, so it will be a good line time before we get it again.

Getting back to the joys of autumn, though – the main one is that one may fully enjoy hours spent in the open air without running the risk of heat-stroke or dehydration – and this particular part of Texas is thick with weekend markets, festivals and shows.

The very first Friday of every month is art appreciation time in Southtown and King William; artists and vendors and galleries like those at the Blue Star Arts Complex put on special exhibits. October’s First Friday also coincides with the local Oktoberfest, celebrated at the Beethoven Mannerchor clubhouse and garden on Perieda Street for the first and second Friday and Saturday of October. The Mannerchor is one of the oldest and continuously operating cultural clubs in San Antonio, by the way.

Wimberley’s Market Day is on the first Saturday of every month, although they give it a break in January and February – the oldest and the second largest flea market in Texas. It also boasts a wonderful permanent venue – a tangle of paved paths, up and down-hill in a grove of trees. Some regular vendors have permanent sheds, usually tastefully adorned and decorated. You can get everything from antiques, to art, gourmet food items, plants and household items. I recommend comfortable shoes and a shopping cart or a wagon, but that is just me. Alas, they do not permit dogs.

We won’t be able to get to Wimberley this first Saturday of October, since we’ll have our own booth all day at the Bulverde/Spring Branch Fall market. This will be in the Beall’s parking lot, at the corner of Hwy 46 and Bulverde Crossing. It’s not anywhere as big as Wimberley and they only have it twice yearly in spring and fall – but a large part of the lot is also shaded with oak trees.

Boerne’s regular market days is the second weekend of every month, held in the heart of downtown Boerne on a town square bountifully shaded by a grove of mature pecan trees. There is a regular vendor there who has the most magnificent puffy tacos in the world. For a third-Saturday of the month market day, head out to Blanco; theirs is held on courthouse square, or to Gruene for the full Saturday-Sunday artistic experience, with live music. The vendors at Gruene are carefully selected – there is noting mass-produced, or imported, and every item must be created by the artist/vendor.

And finally, to fill in the gaps of your weekend marketing schedule, New Braunfels has a regular market every Saturday, on Castell Street in old downtown. Here it was that I saw a local fiber artist displaying an anatomically correct knitted heart, which most definitely was not something you see every day, or even in every market.

And that’s just a portion of what’s on tap for weekend excursions in this part of Texas. Wear comfortable shoes and take plenty of money.