Monday, September 1, 2014

Modest Disappointments

One of the books I discovered when I started to unpack my stuff from storage was T. R. Fehrenbach's classic history of Texas, Lone Star. I was happy to find it: after all these years, perhaps it was time to dive into what most people say is the standard history of this state.

It's a tough slog for a number of reasons, not least of which is that the narrative lurches around out of sequence for much of the book, and several long passages seem to be papers Fehrenbach presented just inserted into the book, making the idea of a flow ridiculous. It could also use way more maps than it has. Still, given the time it was written and the place it was written about, Lone Star is remarkable in a number of ways. Fehrenbach's concept of the "races" of Texas (not the word I'd use) posits that the Anglos who came here came directly from the frontier of Tennessee and Kentucky, and their ancestors had bypassed the civilizing influence of the Enlightenment thinking that was developing in New England and Virginia. They were no to much anti-intellectual as, well, a-intellectual. This put them at odds with the Europeans who moved here, and with the Mexicans who were already here. He makes the black experience sound like hell on earth, even compared to other parts of the U.S. The female experience he doesn't consider at all.

I bring this up not to mock a classic work or pretend that I know better than he (although I certainly would have added and subtracted information were it my book, and if I had the knowledge), but to give some context to what I did last Thursday. The Bullock State History Museum had a travelling show called 1968 that I wanted to see, as did my pal GB, and she, having worked as a consultant on another special show there, had a contact, so she called and got us free entry and a parking pass.

The 1969 show was perplexing, taking up very little space, and cramming stuff into it in a rather claustrophobic way. The artifacts on display -- weird to think of a year from your young adulthood as possessing "artifacts" -- were all over the map. Some of the wacky, zippy furniture and other design elements may have been available for purchase, but few bought them because they looked as ephemeral as they turned out to be. Instant museum pieces, I guess. The war in Vietnam was very well covered, and there was most of a Huey helicopter taking up part of the space, as was part of a space capsule in which astronauts had ridden. The pop culture items were well-chosen (although the dorm room with the dope in one of the desk drawers could have used with a curator who knew how to roll a joint), and the use of video was excellent: short, informative pieces you could watch and then go. The Presidential election had the requisite number of campaign buttons and an oddly moving display, down near the floor, of a bunch of china from the kitchen of the Ambassador Hotel, where RFK was assassinated.

But it was tiny, and before long we were through. "Want to look at the rest of the museum?" GB asked, and, well, of course I did. So off we went.

Lack of space isn't a problem at the Bullock: its cavernous interior recalls the rotunda of the state capitol building, perhaps intentionally. It has an IMAX theater, a conference center, a restaurant, a concert hall, and three floors of exhibits. Which is where Fehrenbach came in handy. The ground floor seems empty, despite a good reproduction of a "dog run" house of the sort early settlers built (I thought I knew what one looked like, but Fehrenbach's description confused me). There's just not much Stuff, and after 20 years in Europe, I'm used to museums with Stuff galore. What it does have, in enormous quantity, though, is text. Text on the walls, text in documents, framed next to more text. But having read the book, this made sense: the Spanish had artifacts, but the Apaches, the dominant Indian tribe in Texas, had none becauses they had no culture, at least not in the way we'd define it. They made no art except to decorate weapons of war, and had no settlements. (Reading Fehrenbach, it seems like a miracle that they survived into the 19th Century, having no technology other than superb horsemanship skills, and, later, some marksmanship with captured rifles; it was like the Mongol hordes surviving into early modern times). As for the early Anglos, their goods were very modest, and the display that made the point that the Colt revolver had won the war against the Apaches was dull: old rusted guns tend to look very much alike, and a display of a couple of disassembled Colts, showing the original model and the model made after the Texas Rangers bailed Colt out of bankruptcy by ordering a thousand or so guns made from their suggestions would have been very welcome.

I started reading the texts, but soon got fatigued by them. GB, for her part, wanted to continue upstairs, so we ascended the staircase to the 19th century, where there was a bit more Stuff. There, the Civil War awaited us, confusing as all get-out, although the video showing comments from Texans' writings during the period had its moments. It, however, showed one of the museum's big problems. In trying to be fair to the Texas experience of Mexicans, women, and blacks, the exhibits often spend time on matters that are either trivial (some of the women's stuff) or odd (you cannot sugar-coat the black experience in Texas, which was right up there with Mississippi as one of the worst places to be a slave -- or, starting a short time after Emancipation, a free black -- and there are very few positive role models among black Texans during this period).

We drifted on, surrounded by text, which was often in black letters against a brown background, and some of that in reduced light to preserve documents and artifacts. GB complained that representative costumes would have been a good idea, there not being any before the 1920s, which I hadn't noticed, but was a good observation. I suggested that in a climate like Texas', preserving clothing against decay for a century or more might have been impossible, but more likely, it was the people themselves who didn't see the point of saving anything. Life was hard enough, after all. When the costumes appeared, they were in one of the ingenious displays that were behind a scrim, with the lighting changing to make it more or less opaque. The change, however, was fairly quick and you couldn't really get a good look at the contents of the window until the next cycle.

By the time we got to the third, and top, floor, I was frankly bored. There was an Exxon-sponsored display about the oil business, which saved Texas when the cattle boom faded, a nice old neon sign from an old movie house called the Texas, some cool stuff from NASA, a video about Texas today starring my old friend Ray Benson (who is, as he'll tell you, a nice Jewish boy from Philadelphia), and, as you exited that room, a small adjunct to the 1968 show called The Years That Made Texas Weird, which was no such thing, but, instead, a tribute to a number of the great local poster artists with a small display of each one's work.

We descended the staircase into the rotunda, checked out the gift shop (filled with stuff you'd want to take home to New York or Illinois), and walked outside where, to our amazement, a thin rain was blowing in. It was, in context, the high point of the afternoon.

* * *

"Hey," said the voice on the phone last night. "Got dinner plans? Want to go get noodles with us?" It was Andrew, whose suggestions on where to get great food around Austin had never let me down, starting with, years ago, a phô place that's now in my neighborhod. It was late afternoon, so I suggested we wait a bit, and he agreed, saying he was going to grill one of his kids about where to go. This son lives up north, where a lot of the Chinese and Vietnamese places are. 

"How about Chicken Lollypop?" he asked a couple of hours later. Um, what? "Noah says it's great and he's been there a lot. It's Indian food." Okay, sure. As I have learned to do, I called up its website, which is why I know it's misspelled. Also how I knew that I had no idea what was ahead, because the menu is too small to read. But you couldn't miss those three words: "INDIAN CHINESE CUISINE."

Now, I knew that fusion was the new thing. I also know that my favorite Austin South Indian vegetarian restaurant has an "Indo-Chinese" section on their menu that I always ignore. I've also seen "Szechuan sauce" in jars at my local Indian grocery store. So who knew what this was? 

The surprises didn't end there. We drove up to a strip mall. A huge convenience store shared space with a hospice. Fortunately, we were headed to the convenience store, in the back of which was a window and a menu on the wall. As it developed most people did, we hung out in front of the menu trying to make sense out of it. There were "House Signature Delights," which featured the eponymous Lollypop, spinach, and Bombay Potatoes. There were sandwiches, soups, and Naan wraps, all of which featured stuff cooked in "Shezwan" sauce. For entrees, you can get chicken, paneer (a kind of Indian cheese that doesn't melt when cooked) or shrimp, as either chili, garlic, ginger, Shezwan, Manchurian, or sweet and sour. Then there are many kinds of fried rice, more or less along the lines of the entrees, a spinach fried rice, triple Shezwan fried rice chicken or shrimp, which features "Yummy in a Separate Bowl," pav bhaji (vegetables, something called Amul butter, and pav, which appears to be a tomato concoction), and naan, which we were told by some diners we shouldn't miss. We ordered the Lollypop (of course), the spinach appetizer, spinach fried rice, garlic paneer and chili chicken. 

We then wandered the convenience store looking for drinks. It was immense. There was a decent selection of craft beers, and all manner of industrial wines, some weird alcoholic jellies, and stubby little bottles of Dublin Dr. Pepper, made in a holdout bottling plant in Dublin, Texas, that refuses to use high-fructose corn syrup as a sweetener. I grabbed one in solidarity: it is Labor Day Weekend, after all. Andrew got a beer, then had to put it back: they don't have a license to let you drink it. 

The food comes in round foil containers like you use for take-out. The Lollypop (four to an order) are like chicken wings: the drumlet from the wing, cut in such a way that you can jam the meat down on the bone, leaving the bone to hold it by, marinated, then probably baked. They were delicious. But, as it developed, hardly a harbinger of things to come. The spinach appetizer was also delicious and pretty copious, sauteed, the menu said, with herbs, some of which were sour. I never did figure it out, partially because it vanished so quickly. The chili chicken was in a bright red sauce with lots of vegetables. The red was, as Andrew noted, a color not found in nature, and the increasingly gelid texture of the sauce belied the presence of that ubiquitous Chinese ingredient cornstarch. For all its flamboyance, it didn't have a hell of a lot of flavor. The sauce on the garlic paneer was lightly garlicky, with herbs and vegetables in the mix, also cornstarched to within an inch of its life. The spinach fried rice, though, was lovely: covered by a thin egg pancake, the rice and spinach was complex, savory, and compulsively edible, although that might have been because the other entrees were so bad and we were hungry. The naan was a disc of cooked flour, unlike any naan I have ever had, or, I hope, ever will. 

I have no idea where this cuisine was dreamed up, although I note that the to-go menu amplifies the provenance by saying "INDIAN CHINESE CUISINE MUMBAI STYLE," and I do regret the fact that in all the confusion we neglected to order a "Shezwan" dish. The man behind the window was upbeat and friendly and very concerned that we were enjoying ourselves. Twice, he noted that the spinach was local, supplied by a man in Buda, and that he went through five pounds of it a day. On the way out, the guy behind the main counter said that they were thinking of opening a place in South Austin, or perhaps downtown. I might go back and have some different stuff if so, but this was one of the most bizarre dining experiences (talking about the food, not Mr. and Mrs. Andrew) I've had in a long, long while. 

Chicken Lollypop, 1005 E. Braker Lane, Austin, 78753, 512-412-1260 or 512-909-9826 for takeout. 

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