Sunday, February 23, 2014

February Migas (Before It's Gone)

Okay, this is much more like it:

I think that's even the same quarter.
Last weekend, acting on a tip from one of my Facebook friends, I went and bought some more jalapenos. This time, instead of heading to the supermarket, I went to the local La Michoacana Meat Market, a wonderful insitution (there are three of them here in Austin), woefully inadequately named.  Not only do they have some of the best tacos in town (hideously expensive at $1.39 each), but they have loads of Mexican products -- as well as meats to use them with. I carefully selected some jalapenos and a couple of tomatoes, since I was planning to attempt migas again, and rushed home to photograph them in approximately the same situation as the ones in the last blog post.

These are fresh from the store, but the lower one is kind of funky. The others had been around at least a week, and they were getting rotten at the end of the stem (you can even see this if you look closely: one has part of the outer layer of the stem missing). These weren't all shiny and plump, but you know what? They sure did the trick when they got stirred into the breakfast fixin's. Not peel-the-inside-of-your-mouth hot, but, shall we say, definitely present. Maybe one of them will turn red before it goes bad: I have a Chinese recipe that asks for a red jalapeno, and would seem to benefit from such a thing. I don't actually know, having not been in the presence of one for some years. We shall see.

* * *

Incidentally, making actual migas turns out to be really easy, as long as you pay attention. I naturally went to the method Robb Walsh uses in his Tex-Mex Cookbook. Tear up about three tortillas into what he calls "dime-sized pieces," and fry them in some oil (corn oil is good) over medium heat. He doesn't specify it, but I'd say this works best if you get them all the way to crisp. Then you throw in a baseball-sized onion and two (of the size in the photo) jalapenos, chopped, and let it fry til it softens. Next, a similarly-sized tomato, also chopped, stir to incorporate everything, a bit of salt (which I always forget), and then three scrambled eggs. Keep stirring and toss in a handful or so of grated cheddar, raising the heat just a tad. Once you get this down you can start tweaking proportions and playing with ingredients (chorizo, mushrooms, different cheeses, etc). It's weird that Texas seems to be the only place this amazing dish is made. (I once got into a conversation with an older Mexican guy in a San Francisco Mission-district supermarket about migas, and wondered why I couldn't get them in California. He gave me an odd look and said "You make 'em at home!") 

Now to work up some of my other favorite Mexican breakfasts. 

* * *

Owning a car is turning out to be a bit of an adventure. Not driving it around town and on the local highways -- I knew that'd be an adventure.  No, the official stuff connected to it. First there was the cost of insurance: I hadn't owned a car in 20 years, so I pay the max, although I'm hoping it goes down after a while. Then there was transferring the title. Egads! Who knew that, because I bought from an individual, I'd be paying the sales tax? Ouch! But at least one sticker was up-to-date. My latest adventure was getting it inspected. Oh, boy, do cops like to stop you for out-of-date inspection stickers, and oh, boy do I not need a ticket. There's a place around the corner that does it, but I spent several weeks dropping in there and being told there was no time and I should show up at 7:45 so I'd be there when they opened. That wasn't going to happen. Finally, I was told of a place where that was all they did, and was in and out in 20 minutes, and that was only because there were two other cars ahead of me. Now to get the transmission fixed: I think I'd like to take a weekend off and go to Louisiana before it gets too hot and the crawfish disappear. Also bring back some sausage and tasso, because what passes for those things here is laughable. 

There was one more surprise awaiting me, the naive car-owner. After I transferred the title, I got a postcard in the mail. A couple of days later, I got a postcard that looked like a government document. VEHICLE ALERT NOTICE: 2003 PONTIAC it screamed. VEHICLE DOCUMENT/ALERT NOTICE. The rear explained that my factory warranty "is expiring or has currently expired!" and that I was to call an 800 number to "speak with Motor Vehicle Division to continue coverage." I was a bit confused. After ten years, yeah, I'd expect all the warranties to have expired. Finally, I noticed that it had been mailed from St. Louis. The one in Missouri. And I got another from Sacramento a few days later, and another one shortly after that that I just tossed in the trash. (Excuse me: recycling. This is, after all, Austin). 

I e-mailed a patient friend who often explains things like this to me and he wrote back "Didn't you know? The government sells your data to these people. It's a scam." Boing! Culture shock. I lived in Germany for 15 years, a country where your privacy is sancrosanct to the point where they won't send you an itemized phone bill because to do so would break the privacy laws adopted after the de-nazification process. (What the connection between finding out what Opa did in the war and your phone bill might be, I never was able to find out). France is a little looser, but this would be similarly unthinkable there. I suppose in a country that can get away with NSA data-vacuuming of ordinary citizens I shouldn't be too shocked. But it's a bit unnerving just the same. 

* * *

One of the best times I've had in a while was two Saturdays ago, doing a workshop on writing for media like radio, showing the difference between the kind of thing people are going to read and what they'll listen to. It was all done for the Writers' League of Texas, and I hope to do some more stuff for them soon. Not only did I have a small but lively bunch of attendees, but I got to snoop around the campus of Austin's second-largest university, St. Edward's. Although I once had a friend who worked in its library, I'd never been inside. It's a Catholic school, but it seems pretty up-to-date in its offerings. And it does have a grand old central building, as any campus should. 

Too bad some photographers can't frame a shot better than this. Of course, it was shot on a phone. 
I naturally worried a bit, so I got there early, and among the things I did was shoot a photograph of Austin from the hill St. Ed's sits atop. I'm not sure I can name more than one or two of the buildings in this picture, and among the ones you can't see are the Capitol and the Texas Tower, both of which were integral to the cityscape when I lived here before. (I used to be able to see the Capitol dome from my bathroom window on 9 ½ St. if I stood facing the toilet, which made me think of a real estate ad that'd say "Capitol view, men only." Oh, and this was only when the leaves were off the trees.) Anyway, here's Austin, 2014: 

The real tall one with the hat on top, I'm told, is the one where Kanye West has an apartment. 
At any rate, I'll be doing another course starting on April 2, over at that larger, better-known university here in town. It'll focus on the history of Austin as a music town, four classes, four decades, starting in the 1950s. I'm hoping to line up a bunch of people who were there for most of this, and it should be fun. Only eight people have signed up so far, and that's not very exciting, so if you're in town (or plan to be here for the month of April), sign up here and come on down. 

* * *

One more bit of self-promotion here and I'll go. Things haven't gone as smoothly as I'd thought on this move, and it's pretty tight around here, but one thing that's been making a lot of difference is my Amazon store, where a bunch of books I found in storage and shipped from France have wound up. It's a pretty miscellaneous collection of stuff for sure, but there could well be something there you or one of your bibliophilic friends wants. I ship the orders pretty much as soon as they arrive, and so far the feedback's been good. 

As I write, I'm waiting on some additional stock, too: as soon as they arrive and I get them listed, I'll be selling some CDs from the eccentric but culturally valuable Revenant label, started by John Fahey and a young guy here in Austin. They've moved on to a partnership with Jack White's Third Man label, but the past output includes gems by the Stanley Brothers and Dock Boggs, collections of old gospel music, the unissued fourth volume of Harry Smith's Anthology of American Folk Music, and much, much more. Stop by in a couple of days and start shopping!

Dock Boggs as a Serious Young Man
Late Edit: Turns out I have the John Fahey box set Your Past Comes Back to Haunt You (ten copies), the Harry Smith and Stanley Brothers, and Jim O'Rourke's Happy Days (many copies of each). Dock's record sold out long ago. Sorry to get you all worked up...

Sunday, February 9, 2014


Hang on. Just wait a dang minute here.

We will sing the praises of Chinese cleavers in a future post.
Something happened to jalapenos while I was away. Actually, a couple of things. First, they used to be hot. Not insanely hot, but hot enough to perk up your salsa or add some fire to a recipe. Second, unless my memory deceives me, they used to be about half this size. Now, well, I'm not sure what they're good for. Serrano chiles are also about the size jalapenos used to be -- and about as hot as they used to be, too. A couple more years, and these jalapenos will be about the same size as a New Mexico Big Jim.

Since I've been gone, everything's gotten bigger. Austin's gotten bigger, of course. Back when I lived here before, I had a girlfriend who lived up by Braker Lane, which seemed impossibly far away, but was only 15 minutes from my house in central Austin. That was the northern frontier, though: over at Braker and Lamar stood the Skyline Club, the notorious nightclub where both Hank Williams and Johnny Horton played their last gigs, back when its location was described as "just out of town on the Waco Highway," which was to say North Lamar. Austin's beloved Soap Creek Saloon was housed in the Skyline's building for a brief while, and it seemed like a long way to go for a little honky-tonking. Not that that stopped me. At least you could get there. I'd be reluctant to head off to my ex's place between 3 and 7 pm most days now because of the traffic, and the site of the Skyline is across from Austin's Chinatown mega-mall, featuring a supermarket that's bigger than any supermarket here in town when I lived here last, and it only sells Asian groceries.

The cars, too, are bigger, to the extent that anyone even drives a car any more. I'm not even sure I'd describe what I drive as a "car," for that matter. Someone told me it's a hatchback. It's not quite a station wagon and not quite a small truck. But it's also not an Escalade, which may be the most ridiculous thing I've ever seen. "The most-stolen car in America," as a friend calls it, is nothing short of a Cadillac truck. Of course, the other luxury marques have to compete, so Lincoln has one, as does BMW and Porsche, all producing vehicles that hover around the SUV/truck/assault vehicle axis. (Oh, yeah: they're not as common as they seemed a couple of years ago, but there are still Hummers around, too). Buick has something called an Enclave, a word I suggest they'd want to look up, but it's a bit too late for that.

Lots of people, though, drive trucks. Huge, stretched-out pickups, like you'd use on a ranch. (My favorite is the Toyota truck advertised on billboards all over town: "The only truck built in Texas," it proclaims. Its name? The Tundra. Because nothing says "Texas" like tundra. I'm not a hunter, but I do appreciate it when friends come through with some reindeer or a brace of ptarmigan). Of course, particularly in the part of town I live in, a lot of folks use their trucks for work, but from looking in parking lots around town, I'd say not all the trucks out there are used for anything but transportation from A to B. It's always amusing to see one of these things squeeze into a parking space, its door open, and a tiny woman get out. She's actually not that tiny, but between the message the truck sends and her actual dimension vis a vis its size, it seems that way for a second.

I've learned to keep a respectable distance around these things, since they can rarely see me, even in my larger-than-I'd-like car, and the way people throw them around like they were sportscars is indeed scary. And I really don't see bitching about gas prices if you drive one of those things. I suppose I could look up an Escalade's gas mileage if I wanted to, but I'm more concerned about keeping my fairly efficient hatchback fuelled -- and finding it in parking lots where it disappears among the giants.

Texans have always liked things Big, but I suspect this is the way all across America now. Certainly, my fellow Americans were always easy enough to spot in Europe because of their size (and the bottles of water they clutched tightly). But one place this really hits home is when I go shopping for food.

Okay, guilty pleasure time. Sometimes -- not often, but sometimes -- I like to have some fishsticks for dinner. This must go back to my childhood somehow, but there you have it. (In France, they had fish croquettes, in which fish was mixed with mashed potatoes seasoned with garlic and herbs. They were even cheaper than fish sticks, tasted better, and I miss them.) So the other day I was stuck for something for dinner and wound up at the supermarket staring at the frozen food aisles. Apparently they don't make just plain fishsticks anymore, so I wound up looking at frozen breaded fish fillets. Here was a bag of 12. Here was a bag of 24. Here was a bag of...102. What? Well, I've never had a family of eight to feed, so maybe it makes sense. Thing is, it's kind of hard to buy for a single person. Even a dozen is pushing it. But I was impressed. That's a lotta fish fillets.

Ah, but I hadn't seen anything yet.

In my last post I was grumbling about going to get my first prescription here in the U.S. and getting socked for $110 and change for it. Turns out, there was a little trick I didn't know about -- and still don't fully understand. Apparently Walgreen's has a "generics club" I could have joined that would have deflated the prices significantly. Someone showed me HEB's version of it, for those of their supermarkets that have pharmacies attached. And other people informed me that the pharmacies at Walmart (ain't gonna go there), Target (not exactly in the 'hood) and Costco (aha!) sell at those prices without your having to join anything. Okay, I'll try it out, I said, since I had a new prescription and had just discovered that there was a Costco behind the Whole Foods near me. Went down there, marched up to the window, and the guy quoted me a price that was about right. "Give me about 20 minutes," he said, "and this'll be ready."

I suddenly realized that I was in the Cathedral of Big. Here was an institution I'd heard lots about while I lived in Europe, but never seen. Members-only, $55 to join, many benefits: if I'd known about their travel club, I could have saved a barrel when I first got here and had to rent a car before I found one to buy. There's the cheap pharmacy (although you don't have to be a member for that), and apparently all the electronics and so on are rock-bottom priced. Of course, whether a single guy not making a major purchase could make that membership fee pay off over the course of twelve months is another question. But I had 20 minutes to find out, so I started walking.

I have to admit, it was staggering. There was a grocery section. I doubt that there was anything as minuscule as a 105-fillet bag of fish. There were boxes of cereal that were four or five times as large as the largest I'd ever seen, multi-can packages of tuna shrink-wrapped together, vats of olive oil, tubs of lard, unimaginable quantities of ketchup and began to blur after a while. But, at the same time, other things became clearer, like how middle-America consumes stuff. Apparently it's not just the Mormons and the survivalists who shop in these quantities.

To cool off I wandered among the TV screens, which were also Big. Some day I may want one of these, since the whole Netflix thing is interesting (but I do have to cancel my account since there's very little they stream that interests me, plus sitting in front of this screen all day means I don't want to do it any more than I have to) and the amplifier I have to play CDs through has all kinds of facilities for modern TV watching, things I only dimly understand at the moment because I can't afford to install one. Near the electronics was a section of office supplies, something I definitely could get into, but again, the quantities were disturbing.

Fortunately, my prescription was just about ready, and it was going to be something of a hike back to the pharmacy window, so I took off, only getting lost a couple of times. I was in the belly of some kind of beast, one that wasn't entirely hostile: my 90-day supply of pills cost around ¼ what Walgreens had euchred out of me for 30 days' worth at half the dosage. Still, I took a deep breath when I was finally outside and scurried back home. I thought about the reaction some of my European friends would have to such a place (and the cars and trucks in the parking lot, for that matter). And I realized that I'd have to go back soon -- today, in fact -- to transfer my other two prescriptions from Walgreens to Costco and have another waiting period to wander the Cathedral of Big and stir my thoughts up some more.

Okay, now, about those jalapenos...

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