Saturday, February 23, 2008


It seems as though I'm adding names to my "good life" hall of fame quite often these days. Recently, when my sister, son and niece were here for a visit, I added three in one day! There must be some magnetic force inside these hills that draws certain kinds of people to them. People like Sue Ellen, who just opened up the new fiber arts center at Old Oaks Ranch (, and who was hosting a big open house Saturday morning. I have a feeling I will be spending many hours there, once we are living here on a full-time basis.

Now, a lot of people have opened up yarn shops of late, but how many are located on a working alpaca ranch? I don't know if you are familiar with alpacas, but they look like a cross between a llama and a fuzzy teddy bear, and their fleece provides one of the most luxurious specialty fibers. Our son Austin has changed his mind about wanting a dog as soon as he's out of college, and is now pining for an alpaca. And how many of those new yarn shops offer classes , not only in knitting and crocheting, but also in spinning, weaving, felting, dyeing, rug hooking, quilting, and even yoga? I can see it all now. I'll start the day off with a yoga session, attend a morning class on one of the fiber arts, have lunch out under the trees with the alpacas, then I'll join in on the monthly "Sticks & Strings" session, where fiber artists of any kind can share their current projects, get answers to questions, or just enjoy one another's company. By the end of the day, I'm sure you will probably hear me murmuring "It just doesn't get any better than this!"

Our second addition occurred that same afternoon, on our way over to Blanco, when we stopped in at Frank and Pamela Arnosky's farm stand ( I first heard about them about eight years ago from one of my horticulture teachers. She brought an article to class about an amazing young couple who had bought 12 cedar-covered acres in the Texas Hill Country, cut a road in, pitched a tent, and started clearing space to grow some vegetables to sell, and maybe a few flowers. Gradually, more and more space was given over to flowers, less and less to veggies. Nowadays, anyone who has ever bought a beautiful fresh flower bouquet from Central Market or Whole Foods, has probably had one from their farm, which is called Texas Specialty Cut Flowers. Over the years they built their little blue house, grew their production to over forty acres of flowers and put up fourteen greenhouses, raised four children, remained true to their path, and in Pamela's words "still do a pretty mean two-step." Just my kind of people!

In addition to this huge production, they maintain a little roadside farm stand, not so much as a money-maker I think, but more as a service to the community. I stop by every chance I get. Last fall I noticed something unusual around town - fliers announcing that the Arnoskys were holding an old-fashioned barn raising, and anyone who wanted to participate was welcome to attend. Unfortunately, we couldn't be in town on that date, but I was very anxious to check out the results. Much to my relief, it was a resounding success! The raising was held over two weekends, and over 200 volunteers showed up to help. The barn design was based on the 100 year old architecture of the historic Fischer Hall that we happened upon not long ago, and is quite an improvement over the tiny little shed where they used to sell their flowers, produce, herbs, a few local cheeses and free range eggs. The most exciting development is that they are now hosting monthly potluck dinners in the barn, and I don't think they were exaggerating when they told me "We eat good at our potlucks. You should join us some time!" Well, thank you. Don't mind if I do!

After leaving the barn, we had just enough time to stroll around the Blanco town square, peek in a few shops, and check on some historic buildings that have been undergoing a renovation, before we were off to our main destination, Onion Creek Kitchens at Juniper Hills Farm ( We were greeted by owner Sibby Barrett, and since we were the first to arrive for the Greek cooking class being held that evening, we were told to help ourselves to some wine, grab a name tag, then come on in to the kitchen to keep her company while she finished peeling potatoes for us.

Sibby began her career back in the Dallas neighborhood where I grew up. She started off with a bakery-cafe, but became so well-known for her specialty cakes that she was forced to concentrate all her efforts there. Almost 20 years later, Dallas Affaires Cake Co. is still going strong, but with a competent staff managing the day to day activities, Sibby has been able to back away from the business enough to spend about three weeks of each month at her Tuscan-styled home overlooking the Blanco River Valley. She began hosting cooking classes soon after she moved in, and they became so popular with friends and family, she soon realized that she would need more spaces for people to sleep. Now several cabins have been added to the property.

Although she refers to these sessions as classes on her website, I believe that is a misnomer. This felt more like a group of friends who just liked to cook, laugh, and hang out together, and Sibby was their more experienced hostess, who wandered from group to group, answering questions, helping out where needed, and making sure that everything came together on schedule. Since you have the option of being a cook or a spectator, my sister and I sat on stools sipping wine, while our offspring chopped their little hearts out. Years spent running her bakery must have made Sibby a whiz at organization, because although the kitchen appeared to be mass bedlam, our baked pita chips, whipped feta dip, spicy roasted olives, and Greek salads all came together right at the same time, and we were able to adjourn to the living area to partake of our first course, while the rest of the meal simmered on the stove. Some of us sat on comfy chairs around the coffee table, others sat at a huge farm table nearby. By the time we had finished that course, the Greek meatballs and potato tagine were ready, and as we licked the last drop of tomato sauce off our fingers, Sibby was in the kitchen preparing coffee and scooping out our luscious lemon gelato finale.

Although we had all started out as strangers, by that point we felt more like friends, and I had made my way around the room, visiting with different groups during each course. During dessert I overheard one group discussing the Wimberley Players and their new theatre, so I wandered over to join them. Turns out some of them were volunteers there. I mentioned that my husband was thinking about doing that, once we were living in Wimberley full-time. When conversation turned to the amazing set of the most recent production, I discovered that one of the men there had a major hand in its construction. I said "Oh really? Set-building is what John was kind of interested in. In fact, he recently donated his father's table saw to the new set shop." The man's eyes lit up, and he said "That was your saw? Oh boy, we sure have put it to good use! Now you tell your husband he doesn't need to wait until he moves up here full-time. He can drop in any weekend and we will be happy to put him to work." Oops. Sorry, John. Sure hope you were serious about wanting to do this, because there's no way you're getting out of it now. They know where you live!

SECRETS (2/07)

We arrived at Cypress Creek Cafe earlier than usual this Saturday, and were lucky enough to find Miss Bobby's booth empty. Instead of waiting to be seated, as the sign at the front door requests, we just walked straight over and grabbed the booth adjoining hers. I had barely managed to sneak my little tin Valentine's mailbox up into her window display, and get myself seated again, when she came through the door. There were a few other people in the restaurant at the time, but I don't think anyone saw what I was doing. She didn't notice the addition right away and I could tell that John was getting antsy. I whispered roughly "Don't you dare start nodding your head towards that window, to call her attention to it - you'll give everything away!"

Apparently, I wasn't the only one playing Cupid this week. As soon as Bobby got settled, her favorite waitress came over to the table. We could hear them discussing a beautiful plant that had been added to her window ledge recently. Unlike me, this person had been kind enough to leave a card with a name, although it was one Bobby couldn't pin point. The waitress was in the middle of reminding Miss Bobby that the plant was from Lisa, who just opened that wine bar, and her friend Amy, when suddenly she stopped and pointed to the window. "Miss Bobby!" Did you see that little mailbox in your window?" Bobby said "What?", and turned to look. "Oh my word! Where did that come from? Did you put that there?" The waitress replied "No, it wasn't me", then headed off to place Bobby's breakfast order.

As soon as she was out of sight, Bobby crept out of her booth and over to the wait-station, placed a frilly gift bag on the counter, then scurried as quickly as her frail bones would carry her, back to her seat. The waitress came out of the kitchen and found it, poked around to see what was inside, then started grinning when she read the attached card. She came back to Bobby's table and said "Well, look what I got Miss Bobby! It says it's from my secret elf, but I think it must be from you!" "Oh no! It's not from me!" said Bobby, giggling. "But Miss Bobby, it's full of all those nice bath and beauty things you usually give me, and it even has one of your special decorations on it! If it's not from you, then who?" Bobby giggled again, then said "I don't know, maybe you have another boyfriend", to which the waitress grimaced and said "Lord, let's hope not - I can barely handle the one I have!" Then Bobby said "Well, what about this cute little mailbox? I still think you put it there." Laughing, the waitress replied "I promise, it wasn't me." Then Bobby said "But you know who did, don't you?" The waitress composed her face, raised her right hand, and said "I swear Miss Bobby, I didn't see a thing!"

Later, when she returned carrying Bobby's grilled biscuit and bacon, she glanced at the mailbox again, then frowned and said "Look! That mailbox has a little red flag, and it's sticking up." Bobby's eyes grew wide, and she said "Do you think they left a card inside?" The waitress replied "Well, there's only one way to find out", and then lifted the box down from the ledge. After fumbling around for a bit, she finally got it open, then she said "It's even better than a card Miss Bobby - it's full of pralines, and it looks like they are home-made!" "But who could have done this for me?" asked Bobby. "I don't know. I guess you just have a lot of fans around town." Giggling girlishly, Bobby said "Oh my! This is embarrassing. I don't deserve all this. I'm just a crazy old lady!"

A short while later, a lady named Ruth came in, and wandered over to visit with Bobby for a bit, as she usually does. Bobby showed her the mailbox and accused her of being the secret elf, but Ruth managed to convince her otherwise. Bobby said "I thought it was my waitress at first, but she didn't even know how to get the silly thing open, so it can't be her. What about Elaine? Could she be the one?" Ruth replied "Well Bobby, she moved away a while back." Bobby said "I know, but it's just the kind of thing she would do, isn't it?" As we paid, and headed toward the door, they were in the process of naming just about everyone in town, discussing the likelihood of each being her secret cupid. As soon as we had stepped outside, John said "You know you are probably going to drive her crazy, don't you?" "Yep, I reckon so." And then a moment later he asks "Are we going to do it again?" "Absolutely!"

Friday, February 22, 2008


I met an interesting person last night. When gas prices got so high, we started cutting back, and switched to an every other weekend schedule for coming up to Wimberley. However, we had so much fun last weekend, and it flew by so quickly, we ended up feeling that we just didn't get enough of a fix to last us two full weeks. Then there was the fact that the wine bar was hosting another get-together this weekend - this one to celebrate the launch of Terry Thompson-Anderson's new website for Texas foodies. When we heard that there would be free food and music, how could we resist? Her website covers all things gustatory in Texas, from where to find the best cookware shops and cooking schools, to how to locate the best wineries, wine bars, joints and honky-tonks. Of course there are great recipes, and tips on finding Texas food products, but there is even information on how to find a great B&B or boutique hotel. If you live in Texas, have ever lived in Texas, or have even thought about coming to Texas, or if you like wine, or even if you ever eat food, you need to check out her website,

I had only a slight familiarity with Terry before this event. I had seen her beautiful book, Texas on the Plate, at our own little Wimberley cookery shop, Kiss the Cook. I came very close to buying it, but that was before I became obsessed with cooking and eating locally, and since I already had way too many cookbooks, I talked myself out of it. Hearing that the author herself would actually be at this function gave me the perfect excuse to go back and buy it Saturday morning, then I spent the entire afternoon devouring it, page by provocative page. Although the recipes looked fabulous, and I can't wait to try them, they weren't the hook that pulled me in. As I said, I have way too many cookbooks, and am about to undertake a major purge, donating all but a handful that have stood the test of time. Which ones will avoid expulsion? The ones that tell a story. The ones that transport me to another place or culture, and make me want to be a part of it so badly that I must cook the recipes and eat the food, just so that I can immerse myself even further. John hates it when I get one of these books. For instance, when I bought Joie de Vivre by Robert Arbor, we ate nothing but French food for a week or two, and all my sentences began with "Did you know that in France, they..." The same thing happened when I read Under the Tuscan Sun. Do you honestly think Tuscany would have become the hottest travel destination, or that the book would become a hit movie, or that stores everywhere would be filled with Tuscan-themed merchandise, if Frances Mayes hadn't been a lifelong foodie, who ate and cooked her way through Tuscany, describing every bite in mouth-watering detail, and including recipes?

As I sit here staring at my bookshelf, which is directly above my computer, I am shocked to realize that there are only a handful of books I could not bear to part with. First would be Sarah Leah Chase's Nantucket Open-House Cookbook. In her introduction, she said "I have learned how to cook fish so that it summarizes the sea, to arrange tomatoes in alternating splashes of red and orange in tribute to Madaket sunsets, and to seal memories of September in jars of beach plum jam." I guess you could say she had me at hello. I think I would also have to keep Ina Garten's Barefoot in Paris, and probably my whole Heart of the Home/Vineyard Seasons collection of books by Susan Branch, because they did for Martha's Vineyard what Sarah Leah Chase did for Nantucket. I guess that's about it, except of course, for my newest addition, Texas on the Plate.

Terry's book not only tells a story, it tells many, and it has breathtaking, mouthwatering photographs to go with each. Maybe it's not a story she set out to tell, but to me the most interesting one is that of Terry herself. Her jacket bio spoke of membership in the International Association of Culinary Professionals, and Les Dames D'Escoffier International, and lead me to expect one kind of person, but the book painted a different, much more interesting picture. I caught glimpses of the girl growing up in Houston who's reward for spending the day shopping with her mother was lunch at Sakowitz's Sky Terrace, where she always ordered the Shrimp Salad Remoulade. Then I got a glimpse of her as the hell-raising teeny bopper who spent Saturday nights devouring pizza at Valian's Italian Restaurant, across from the old Shamrock Hotel. It showed me that she is a passionate person, who experiences life through her palate, and is happiest whenever she and her husband manage to sneak away to Rockport. There they set out crab traps whenever possible, and eat the luscious stuff daily. When wade fishing in Matagorda Bay, they have even been known to pry oysters right off of a reef, open them up, and eat them straight from the shells, while standing in the chilly water. On a blustery winter day, just give her a steaming bowl of gumbo, a slice of good French bread and a cold Shiner Bock, and she's a contented woman. Congratulations Terry, you've just been inducted into Becky's Living-the-Good-Life hall of Fame!

And speaking of interesting women, remember Miss Bobby, the little lady who holds court every morning at Cypress Creek Cafe? Well, I had noticed over the past couple of years that there were occasionally seasonal decorations set out on some of the window ledges in the restaurant. What I hadn't noticed was that it was actually just one window ledge - the one in "her booth". That didn't sink in until yesterday, when we were in the adjoining booth, and I heard someone say "Well Miss Bobby, I see you've got your Valentine's decorations up." How about that? Someone else who, like me, is a devotee of living one's life with seasonality. I knew there was something special about that lady, the first time I saw her cane, which she had decorated with a big, fancy bow. Now, that's a gal with style! Guess I'd better wrap this up. I'm on my way to the store to look for the most interesting little Valentine's box I can find. I'm going to fill it up with homemade goodies, then I'm going to sneak it up into her window display, along with a card that says "Happy Valentine's, from your Secret Seasonality Elf".


On Saturday we spent most of the day working around the house. Although Austin was good enough to dispose of all the rotten food from the freezer, he didn't want to deal with the multitude of jars and bottles in the refrigerator, so I tackled that first thing. If that weren't bad enough, I still had Christmas stuff to pack up and store. Bummer. Guess I didn't learn my lesson last year. I really hate leaving here at Christmas, going back to work and to market, throwing myself into preparations for spring, then coming back here to deal with the dregs of Christmas. It was all so depressing that I was forced to take a break mid-morning, to watch a little Food Network. Funny thing about that. John bought a fancy plasma television to go downstairs in his bat cave recently, then he ruined our idyllic property by having an ugly old satellite dish installed. Now he's trying to convince me that he can't pick up Food Network on that TV. He says if I want to watch "that cooking stuff", I need to watch it on the mini TV upstairs. What a crock (but pretty amusing, I have to admit). There actually has been a down-side to watching all these food shows, though. It seems to have raised the bar on my expectations. I am no longer content with eating food that is just OK. In fact, last night I watched one of those classic foodie movies - "Big Night", with Tony Shaloub and Stanley Tucci. At the end of their exquisite feast, one woman was face down on the table, sobbing. When asked why she was so upset, she cried "My mother was a terrible cook!" Another man grabbed the chef by the collar, shaking him back and forth, and crying "I could kill you! For making such a wonderful meal, I should kill you!" A few months ago, that would have been lost on me, but now it makes perfect sense. After tasting the divine, he would never again be content with less, and she bemoaned all the years wasted on inferior food.

For the rest of the day, I had a craving for something really special, but I just didn't know what. Deciding what to do about dinner was a problem. Wimberley does have some really good food, but the choices are limited, and we had exhausted them all during our extended holiday stay. After spending the day purging the refrigerator, and knowing that another severe cold front was on its way, I was loathe to go out and restock it right away, so cooking would be difficult. And, since the weather was what you might call yucky, we weren't in the mood to drive over to Austin or Blanco. What to do, what to do? John had the perfect solution. We would put off having to make a decision by going to check out the new wine bar that opened up here not long ago.

It's a homey little place, tucked back amongst the cedars and live oaks, with lovely decks along two sides - the perfect place to sit sipping wine, and watching the sun set on a nice warm evening. But not tonight. Like I said, it's yucky out. Luckily, there was a nice little fire crackling away inside. We each ordered a glass of wine, then decided to try one of their hors d'oeuvres, to hold us down until we made up our minds about dinner. Then we tried another. And a third. When I took my first bite of their mouth-watering pesto bruschetta, I realized that this was it - that special something I had been craving all day. Something that could make me moan. Screw dinner, I decided. I'm staying right here!


I have good news, and I have bad news. Bad news first. If you recall, I mentioned doing a bunch of cooking while we were here at Christmas, and stocking my freezer up with containers full of a beautiful homemade marinara sauce. Well, a week or so after we left, Austin and a couple of his buddies came up here for the weekend. When they opened the door to the house, they were greeted with an horrific odor. At first, he thought something had died, but finally he discovered that our refrigerator wasn't working. Poor kids - spending the day hauling rotten food down to the trash bin wasn't exactly the weekend they had planned. Talk about bad timing. Usually this refrigerator doesn't have much of anything in it, but it wasn't until later, when I remembered what was in the freezer, that I almost burst into tears. This house happened to come with one of those fancy, built-in, Sub-Zero refrigerators, and it was the thought of finding someone to fix it, and how much it would cost, that almost brought John to tears. Now here's the good news. Turns out we had just blown a fuse. Thank goodness we discovered that before paying for an expensive house call. If only someone had been here when it happened, we could have saved all the food - one downside to being just a week-ender.

Another down-side is that when we heard that a bad ice-storm was headed this way, John had to make a mad dash up here to be sure all the hoses were disconnected, and to do whatever he could to prepare the house for the blow. He barely made it back out in time before the storm hit, and it hit with a vengeance. Pretty much everyone in town was house-bound for days, many without heat or power. In near-by San Marcos, they had a tornado thrown in for good measure, and several places had roofs ripped off. We hurried back this weekend to check on the house, and luckily, everything seems fine. Now for some really good news. Between this storm, and the rains at Christmas, we've had somewhere around 14 or 15 inches of rain total (more than the last two years combined, I suspect), and our creek is now full to overflowing. Glory Hallelujah! There's even water on the road again, at our low-water crossings, and I found myself speeding up as I approached the dip each time, for the sheer joy of making a big splash. And speaking of joy - nothing has ever sounded as sweet to my ears as once again hearing the water as it spills over the little dams in our creek.

Thursday, February 21, 2008


Boo Hoo! Today is the saddest day of the year - Christmas being over and done with for another 365 days. Oh well, it was great while it lasted.

On Christmas Eve, we began our day by heading over to Austin. We had so much fun last year, cruising the aisles of the amazing new Whole Foods flagship store, that everyone wanted to go back this year to search for goodies to add to our Christmas feast. My mission was to find El Rey chocolate. According to Rebecca Rather, of A Rather Sweet Bakery in Fredericksburg, it's the only one worth baking with. Mission accomplished! Austin was not so fortunate. His goal, having just turned 21, was to cruise through their "Beer Alley" and find something unusual, or interesting to try, which he did. Unfortunately, since Christmas Eve fell on a Sunday this year, and it wasn't yet noon, Texas law forbade them from selling it to us. Poor Austin. Luckily, he did find an interesting hot cocoa mix containing cinnamon and ancho chilies, so that cheered him up a bit. Alexis had a great time wandering aisles full of clothing and beauty products made with natural fibers and ingredients, while John, as usual, ran around like a crazed person, filling his entire cart with more stocking stuffers for everyone (as if we didn't already have more than enough!) and trying his best to keep us all from spying on him. In our family, you only have to do something two years in a row before the kids will be saying "But Mooommm, you know it's a family tradition!" I guess a Christmas Eve trip to Whole Foods has now joined the hallowed ranks.

By the time we had finished lunch at a new spot called S. Congress Cafe (Yummo!), we needed to get our fannies back to Wimberley Pie Co., before they closed for the holidays. We had just enough time after that to kick back for a read or a snooze, before cleaning up and heading off to church. This year we decided to try St. Stephen's Episcopal, a beautiful little church that resembles an old Spanish mission, and which is just down the road from us. We were a little nervous about how to behave. However, despite the priests and kneeling benches, the similarities to what we were used to far outnumbered the differences, and we managed not to make any embarrassing mistakes. Since it was extremely cold, wet, and windy out, we opted to forgo walking the trail of lights this year, and went directly home to prepare our feast, which was followed by the usual bad "B" movie - this year the special anniversary edition of "Attack of the Killer Tomatoes" (the one that started this whole crazy tradition!)

In typical fashion, on Christmas day I was the first one up. I wanted to be nice and let everyone sleep a while longer, so I crept quietly out of the bedroom, softly shut the door behind me, made a cup of tea, then sat in the living room, writing and enjoying my beautifully lit tree. I was so good, I didn't even try to peek underneath the afghan that John had draped over the entire chair that held my stocking. When it was finally light outside, John woke up and joined me in the living room. After a while, when there were still no signs of life from downstairs, he got up and turned on some Christmas music, hoping that would rouse the kids. We waited patiently a while longer, and when I just couldn't stand it anymore, I started doing a hippo-ballerina dance, back and forth across our wood floors, directly above where they slept. That did the trick, and pretty soon we heard the pitter-patter of not-so-little feet, coming up the outside staircase. Surprisingly enough, they weren't dragging as I had expected, and even sounded almost perky. Even more amazing, instead of coming through the door with grumpy you-woke-me-up faces, they were actually grinning their heads off! When asked what was so funny, Lex began snickering, and Austin explained that not long after they heard the music, Alexis said "I guess we'd better go on upstairs. It sounds like Mom is getting restless." Austin replied "Nah. If she was really getting restless, you'd know it. She'd be clomping around on those wood floors, trying to wake us up." No sooner were the words out of his mouth, than they heard me launch into my hippo dance, and Austin just lifted his hands, gave her a what-did-I-tell-you grin and shrug, and they both burst out laughing. I'm afraid my kids know me a tad too well.

We had a lovely time opening gifts, and if Austin was a little disappointed in the crockpot he received (Lex let it slip that he was guessing the package contained an xbox), he hid it well. Once we had finished John's yummy Christmas breakfast, picked up the piles of wrapping paper balls that he and Austin insist on shooting at each other every year, and had a little time to play with our new toys (or crockpots), we were ready to head out for the traditional Christmas day movie. This year we decided to go see Ben Stiller and Robin Williams in A Night at the Museum. We also decided that if we drove into Austin this time, rather than San Marcos, we might have more choices of where to eat afterwards. We were correct and, in fact, had a whopping three choices. There was a fast food place that John abhors, a cafeteria which, my kids claim, doesn't allow anyone under 60 to come in, and yes, you guessed it, a Chinese place. At least this one wasn't an all-you-can-eat buffet. Instead it resembled a 50's diner, and the food wasn't half bad. When we got a cute little waitress with jet black hair, and with dimples and piercings to match Austin's own, and who couldn't seem to stop grinning at him, every time she came to the table, I sensed a new "family tradition" coming on. Sure enough, as soon as she walked away, Austin let out a long, low "Oooohh yeahhh - we are definitely coming back here again!"


When I was in my mid-forties, I finally discovered the difference between yard-work and gardening. It was like coming to a sharp turn in the road, and heading off down a completely different path from what I had planned. Well, it seems that I am now undergoing a similar epiphany concerning food and cooking.

Far as long as I can remember, the women in my family have managed to "get dinner on the table." It was just another chore in a busy day, and none of them particularly enjoyed it. My father was the only person who actually seemed to think cooking was fun. He and his two older brothers were raised by a single, working mom, who also just managed to get dinner on the table. He learned early on that if he ever wanted to eat anything sweet, or really special, he'd best learn to make it himself. So he did.

My parents married during WWII, and legend has it that in order to secure a place for my mother to live, so that she could be near him until he was shipped out, he had to hire her out as a cook to the landlady. Since Mom, unfortunately, didn't know a thing about cooking, Dad would stay up half the night with her (probably AWOL), trying to coach and prep her enough to get her through each day. It wasn't long before the ruse was uncovered, I'm afraid, but I hear the landlady was kind enough to teach Mom a bit about cooking, before firing her.

While we were growing up, my father worked such long hours that he rarely had a chance to cook, other than breakfast on the weekends, or for holiday get-togethers. Whenever he did, though, it always amazed me that not only did he manage to do it without using any recipes or seeming to measure anything, he also seemed to be having a great time! I guess for the most part, I thought of cooking as a chore, but once in a blue moon, when I wasn't rushed, and I was fixing something that I just knew was going to turn out fabulous, I caught a glimpse of what he was experiencing.

My brother, on the other hand, is definitely following in Dad's footsteps, for lately he has been attending lots of cooking lectures at Central Market, and he creates fabulous, exotic dishes to bring to our family celebrations. I once said something to his wife Dani, about how lucky she was to have a husband who likes to cook. She just rolled her eyes and said "Yeah, I guess. If only he didn't have to destroy the whole kitchen, and use every single pot and pan in the process!" That's when I had one of those lightning bolt moments. I finally realized why getting dinner on the table was completely different from actually cooking. One is that which you do at the end of a long day, when you are already exhausted. You are trying to make as little mess as possible, because you just want to get out of the kitchen and kick your feet up for a second, before having to go help the kids with homework, or baths, or bedtime stories. The other is done with complete abandon. You are not worrying about the mess, or the nutrition, or the calories, or any of those left-brained things. You have let yourself slide over into right-brained mode, just as I do whenever I am immersed in one of my design projects, and you are completely oblivious to the passage of time, or anything else that is going on around you, for you are a creator. Now, we're cooking!

* * * * *

Speaking of the passage of time, I can't believe it has already been six days since we left Houston, and that Lexie comes in from San Diego tomorrow night! It just amazes me how quickly time always passes here in Wimberley, and how I never seem to accomplish any of the chores I have set out for myself. As yet, no Christmas cards have been sent, the house isn't particularly clean, and the shopping and wrapping still aren't complete. So what have I been doing since we arrived? Well, happily, John did find the missing Christmas stuff in that space above the garage, so we now have a beautifully decorated tree. I've spent a lot of time just sitting here, admiring it. I've also spent a good bit of time on my new addiction - watching a show called Everyday Italian on Food Network. The host is a gal named Giada de Laurentiis. I bought one of her cookbooks to give Alexis for Christmas, then sat here poring over it, page by page, before I finally got around to wrapping it. The upside of that is that we had a couple of really great dinners this week (petite tenderloin filets with a porcini mushroom-gorgonzola sauce - ya should've heard the moans!), and my freezer is now stocked with plenty of homemade marinara sauce.

I've had a lot of fun just hanging with my boys - going to a movie, to Central Market over in Austin, to the bookstore, etc. While at the bookstore, I discovered that Russell Crowe's latest movie, A Good Year, was actually based on a book by one of my favorite living-the-good-life authors, Peter Mayle. He's the one who wrote A Year in Provence. Of course, I had to have it, so I spent most of yesterday snuggled up on the sofa, listening to the rain, and reading my new book. Yes, you heard me right. I said rain! Mostly, it just misted, but there were a couple of times when it came down pretty hard. We've got our fingers crossed that it was enough to get the burn ban lifted, and that we can finally roast those marshmallows.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008


We ran out of time and didn't manage to get any decorations up at all, before we left Wimberley after Thanksgiving. It was just breaking my heart to think of my poor little house sitting up here all sad and forlorn, with nary a bow, garland, nor twinkle light to be seen. I know a lot of people from up north don't decorate their Christmas trees until the last minute, but to me that's akin to sex with no foreplay. I'm all about the foreplay.

I learned at a very early age that ecstasy is 90% anticipation. I was about seven years old when Barbie dolls first came on the scene. I wanted one so bad, I could taste it. Fortunately, my parents wouldn't just go out and buy me one. I say fortunately, because I learned one of my most valuable life lessons from that. Christmas was eons away, so my only choice was to save up the $3.00 myself. Since I only received 25 cents a week allowance, that meant it would take at least 12 weeks, if I didn't spend a penny on anything else (which was a big IF). Everyday I took the money out of my bank to count it, and went into lengthy day-dreams about all the wonderful things I would do with my Barbie, once I finally had her - the clothes I would make for her, the house and furniture I would improvise, the fun I would have taking her with me to my friends' houses. I also spent an inordinate amount of time trying to decide which hair style and color I wanted my Barbie to have. The red "bubble" hair-do won. At last the day finally arrived, when Mom drove me up to JoJo's toy store to make the big purchase. It still stands out in memory as a major highlight. Unfortunately, it was all downhill after that, for I discovered that everything gets old after a while, and nothing was quite as much fun as all that delicious anticipation.

The same thing goes for vacations. I had the great good fortune to belong to an amazing Girl Scout troop, consisting of 30 girls who stayed together from 1st grade through our senior year. The reason we stuck it out so long is that when we were young and first heard about the Girl Scout Chalet in Switzerland, we told our leader that she should take us all to Europe some day, and she said "Why not?" We worked towards that goal for years, holding all kinds of bake sales and fundraisers. When we were fifteen or sixteen, it finally came to pass. Unfortunately, in spite of all our fundraising efforts, each girl was still going to have to come up with a sum that was just out of the question for my family. My leader refused to leave anyone behind, so she came up with a plan where I could pay her back after I'd found a summer job. The trip was truly amazing, but by the following summer, when I landed a job at the local fabric store, the memories were starting to fade. Each week, when I had to turn over my hard-earned paycheck, another important life-lesson was brought home to me - that it's much more fun to save and pay for pleasure that's yet to come, than it is to keep paying for months, or even years, after it's all over and done with!

Which brings us back to Christmas decorations. To me, it's all about the anticipation. I start thinking about it in September, or before, and about the time everyone else is just getting really cranked up, I start getting depressed at the thought of it all being over with for another whole year. After Christmas day, I can't wait to get it all packed up and put away, because it's just too sad to look at - like trying to drag a dead horse through the mud. I was afraid that if I waited until we got back to Wimberley on the 17th, I would end up saying "Christmas is almost over with now, so why bother putting up any decorations at this point?" This is a long and convoluted explanation for why I got up at the crack of dawn yesterday, threw a few things in a bag, and headed to Wimberley to start decorating, while John headed off to deliver some goodies to kids in need.

Thanks to our recent remodeling, we actually have room for a tree in our living room this year. I managed to get furniture moved and the tree set up, only to discover that the lights on the upper part of the tree were no longer working. We have two storage rooms in the house, one in the garage, big cabinets above the closets, and an attic. I searched every single space after I got the tree set up. In one I found the box of nutcrackers. In another was all of the garland and icicle lights for the porch. In yet another was my crate of Christmas dishes. But nowhere did I find the two things I wanted most - the crate containing the tree skirt I quilted when we lived in Indonesia and the antique lace and velvet stockings Mom made for us years ago, and the crate full of ornaments we have collected over the years. That can only mean one of two things - both of them bad. Either they are in that little hayloft-like space over the garage, which can only be reached by a treacherous extension ladder, and which is probably inhabited by bats and who knows what else, or they somehow got lost in the move - a thought too horrible even to consider.

* * * * *

Well, I guess it's true what they say. Things always look better in the morning. I don't know when I have spent such a wonderful, decadent day. Other than a quick trip over to the River Pub for a Baja fish taco fix, I didn't leave the house all day. Although I started the day off in a grinch-like mood, it was no match for the Food Network's non-stop Christmas blitz on TV. Normally, I never turn a television on in the daytime, but I guess I was feeling a bit lonely out here all by myself, so I flipped it on for background noise. In addition to having Paula Deen and Emeril to share their best holiday recipes with me, I also discovered two channels that were showing back-to-back Christmas movies all weekend long. I am such a sucker for holiday movies - the cheesier, the better. Although I still haven't found the ornaments, I did come across a box full of old Christmas photos. I was just going to dump them in a basket on the coffee table, for the kids to enjoy when they arrive, but next thing I knew, I had gone through the whole pile, one by one, as well as an entire Christmas movie!

I decided to go ahead and plug the tree in, even if it was only half-lit, and totally devoid of decorations. It seems that even a Charlie Brown tree is better than nothing, and I started to feel a bit better. Next I went out onto the porch and draped some garland around the porch rails, with big red bows. And felt even better. By the time I had the icicle lights hanging from the eaves, I was feeling almost jovial. I came back inside, brewed some of that blood orange tea, lit a few pine-scented candles, and spent the rest of the day alternating between arranging nutcrackers, crying over sappy movies, and drooling over yummy looking food (and those yummy looking Il Divo guys who were doing a concert on PBS!). Some time mid-afternoon, I heard something go click, and the lighting in the room seemed to change. When I glanced up, I discovered that my tree was fully lit, from head to toe! And so it seems, just like the grinch, with each thing I had done today to make the house more festive and welcoming, my heart had grown another size. Now, all is right with the world, and I can go back to Houston, with the memory of this wonderful day, and the picture of my twinkling house, to get me through the rough spots (which turned out to include the stomach bug from hell).


I have mentioned several times how the Wimberley Magic weaves it's spell on John, causing his stress to ooze away, but I'm just now beginning to see the effect it has had on me. Although I have learned lots of tricks to make entertaining easier over the years, and have become as loose as a goose when hosting my siblings and closest friends, there is one group that always left me quaking in my boots - the in-laws. Now don't get me wrong. I happen to adore mine. But the clan includes a couple of the finest cooks you will ever come across, as well as a vegetarian, and Mr. Where's-the-Beef. Since I grew up in a family that got their vegetables out of cans, and their mashed potatoes out of a box, you can see why I might have felt intimidated. For more than 30 years, not a holiday has gone by that someone didn't bring up the time when they caught me using a recipe to make mashed potatoes, or tell me they have a great recipe for boiling water if I'd like to borrow it. Well, this year something amazing happened - I was completely calm and relaxed the entire time they were here!

Since buying this house, I have been trying more and more to cook and eat with seasonality - using what's in season, and grown or produced locally. I've developed a few basic recipes that respond well to changing out ingredients according to what's on hand, and I use them so often, I no longer need to have a written recipe for every single thing I prepare. So this year, I decided that we would celebrate the holidays with seasonality. I made it my goal to keep it simple, keep it fresh, and keep it local. I also gave myself permission to do what I do best, and delegate the rest.

Now, my John really doesn't like to cook, but there are a couple of things that he is willing to do. One of those is grilling. So, on the night Mike and Priscilla arrived, I let him grill some steaks, and I just tossed together my favorite seasonal salad with a homemade vinaigrette dressing, and I roasted some cute little fingerling potatoes, broccoli and carrots with fresh garlic cloves and a toss of olive oil. Yummy, but oh so simple. Priscilla's parents, Jack and Alma, were driving in from Louisiana, and didn't arrive until lunchtime on Wednesday. I had two different soups in the freezer, which I had made earlier, so I just heated those up for lunch and served them with that local Tex-Mex favorite, guesadillas. I stuffed mine with havarti cheese (I know, not local!) and some of my uber-delicious spiced pecans (made with brown sugar and Cholula hot sauce), then served them with a dab of pear preserves for a nice fall twist. Another thing John doesn't mind doing is cooking bacon and eggs (because that's the only way he ever gets them!). Although I usually set out a fancy breakfast buffet when I have guests, I finally realized that since the guys actually prefer plain old bacon and eggs, and John doesn't mind fixing them, I'd be nuts not to let him.

On Thanksgiving morning, while John was fixing breakfast, I pulled out paper and pen and started to make my usual detailed schedule, listing every single thing we would eat that day, and when each item needed to be mixed, or heated, or whatever. Then something came over me, and I just thought "Screw it!" I wadded up the list, then announced "Here is our cooking schedule. When John has the breakfast mess cleared away, we will put the turkey in. When it is ready, we will eat." And that was it.

Alma had brought wonderful fresh shrimp from Lafayette, and made her special remoulade sauce to go with them. She also made her Cajun-style sweet potatoes, and brought some homemade pralines. I put Priscilla in charge of making cranberry sauce and the dreaded mashed potatoes (let them tease HER for a change), and I sent the guys to pick up the pies we had pre-ordered from Wimberley Pie Co. They were so tasty, I will probably never make a pie from scratch again!

That left me with nothing to prepare but my turkey with enchilada gravy and tamale stuffing. I took it out of the oven when the thermometer reached the proper temperature, but when John cut into the dark meat, it was still a bit pink. In previous years, that might have sent me into a tizzy, as everything else would have to sit around getting cold while we waited for the turkey to get done. Instead, I just let John go ahead and slice the white meat off the turkey, then we put the rest back into the oven, turned it off, and let it finish cooking in the residual heat. That turned out to be the best mistake we ever made, because, for the first time ever, that white meat was just as tender and juicy as the dark usually is, instead of the typical dry and stringy!

We couldn't have asked for more perfect weather, so we served our feast out on the porch, and the only thing missing was our kiddos. Alexis wanted to save all her vacation time for coming home at Christmas, and since we didn't want her to be alone, we let Austin fly out to be with her in San Diego. When we spoke with them on the phone, it sounded like they were having a grand old time. The high point of the entire week was when I fixed my special salad and roasted veggies to go with John's steaks. Priscilla noticed right away that I wasn't using any recipes, for once. Then as we were eating, not only did they fail to make suggestions for how I could improve everything, for once, they actually asked me how to make everything, because they really liked it! When all was said and done, Prisi said "Guess we are going to have to quit teasing you, huh?" Well, it's about frigging time.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008


Sometimes I feel like a bigamist, because I am married to two different men. My Houston husband spends all of his time putting out fires at work, starts his days off already feeling exhausted, spends evenings working on the phone and on the computer, then has trouble turning off his brain enough to sleep at night. Now, my Wimberley husband? He's not like that at all!

After spending most of the day helping me to clean house on Sunday, John wandered outside to putter around. Later, when I went out to see what he was doing, I found he had built a little fire in our new fire pit, and was just sitting there, puffing on a cigar, with a positively beatific expression on his face. When he saw me he grinned and held out his arm for me to come snuggle beside him, then said "I just love this fire pit!" We sat there for a while, in comfortable silence, with John occasionally hopping up to prod the logs. Each time he sat back down, he would say something like "This is so great! Don't you think this is great?" Yeah, I have to admit. It's pretty damn wonderful.

There's just something about a campfire that's almost mesmerizing. It brings back great memories of my Girl Scout days, and of our family vacations in Colorado. Several times during our stay in Creede each year, the men would all pool the trout they had caught, and we would have a big fish fry down by the river, that lasted late into the night. Having been raised in a big city, I had never seen so many stars, and it felt as if they were so close, you could almost reach out and touch them. Needless to say, it tickled me to death when my kids echoed those exact same sentiments, the first time we sat stargazing on our porch here. John finally agreed to come inside when I promised him that we could roast wieners for dinner one night after our guests arrive.

The next day I headed in to the laundromat to wash bed linens, then made one final run to the grocery store. While there, I not only bought wieners and buns, I also grabbed all the makings for S'mores. When I got back home, John met me at the door with the announcement that the dang burn ban was back on, so there will be no more campfires for a while. Now what am I going to do with all those marshmallows?