Friday, January 27, 2012

Friday Night Videos

You know, there's a lot of new music coming out that I actually like, believe it or not. And by "new" music, I mean anything from the past 5 years or so. It seems that for every slickly-packaged, insubstantial pop tart like Katie Perry, there's another, more soulful singer emerging that is willing to experiment and take music into less-traveled territories. More often than not, they're Brits. What's up with that? Amy Winehouse is the obvious example, simply because she got there first, but sadly, personal problems limited her musical output before her untimely death. Adele is so wildly successful right now that she's become a popular target of Saturday Night Live. Another sound I'm currently taken with is Florence and the Machine, and their 2009 hit, "Dog Days are Over," is simply breathtaking. The video, considered separately, is also a show stopper--if the parlance of the writer-oriented "Turkey City Lexicon" were applied to this clip, it would best be described as a non-stop series of "Eyeball kicks." The visuals are striking, iconic and infectious, teasing and seducing the viewer with their vibrant surreality. Enjoy.

Previously on Friday Night Videos... Al Jarreau and Sheena Easton.

Now Playing: Stan Getz The Complete Roost Recordings
Chicken Ranch Central

Thursday, January 26, 2012

The perils of rewrites, or, why Dawson and Mier must go

For the past week I've worked furiously polishing up my Chicken Ranch book proposal, adorning it with whistles and bells, all in preparation for sending it off--along with the first several chapters--to prospective publishers. It's put up or shut up time for me if I want the book to see the light of day in 2013, which just so happens to be the 40th anniversary of the Chicken Ranch's infamous closure. Marketing opportunities like that don't come around every day.

So in the course of my preparations, I'm also revising and polishing the first three chapters of the book, which will accompany the aforementioned proposal. You see, not only do I write slowly, I also write sloppily. The need for second and drafts, etc., is not merely desirable but necessary. On my return to chapter one, I was pleasantly surprised by the fact that it didn't suck nearly so badly as I recall it doing when I first wrote it. So, yay! Score one for me. The subsequent revisions took much less time than I'd expected.

Except... something kept nagging at me. I tried ignoring, dismissal, ear plugs, but nothing worked. The nagging continued. A section of the chapter--quite a nice section, which I'd spent a considerable amount of time researching and writing--simply did not fit. I've always been a modest history buff, and find Texas history, in particular, fascinating. So here I am writing about the early years of La Grange, and am faced with two of the most resonant moments in the history of the Republic of Texas, namely, the Dawson massacre and the Mier expedition. Neither are widely known, but the ill-fated Mier expedition is vaguely remembered in popular lore as the "Black Bean Affair." Since many La Grange men were involved with both incidents, and the remains of the dead were subsequently interred at Monument Hill outside of La Grange, it seemed like a no-brainer that this needed extensive coverage in my book.

Well, turns out I was wrong. The complexities of the events are such that you either mention them in passing or devote way too many pages explaining the complexities of each situation. The famed writer's guideline, The Turkey City Lexicon, contains one cautionary trap writers fall into called, charmingly enough, "I've suffered for my art (and now it's your turn)." There comes a time when, no matter how much effort you've put into research, no matter how interesting you find it, that very research must be sacrificed for the greater good of the narrative. It took me a few days to admit it to myself, but now that I've taken the plunge, I feel a lot better. It is the right choice. The nagging has subsided (for the time being, at any rate). Still, I am fond of the material which simply didn't work in context through no fault of its own. So now I share with you a goodly chunk of the stuff I wrote for the Chicken Ranch book which will never appear in said Chicken Ranch book. Who knows? You might even learn something about Texas history along the way. Enjoy.
That nobody took particular notice to a brothel setting up shop in a backwater saloon is hardly a surprise. The decade-long existence of the Republic of Texas was an eventful time for La Grange and Fayette County, and the years of statehood prior to the Civil War were no less so.

Two major events would shape La Grange’s identity in dramatic fashion. In September 1842, following news of San Antonio’s capture by an invading Mexican army, a company of Fayette County men under the command of Captain Nicholas Dawson rode to the aid of a small force of Texans camped near San Antonio on Cibolo Creek. By the time Dawson’s force of 53 men arrived, the fighting had ended. Instead of riding to the rescue, Dawson’s men found themselves face to face with more than 600 Mexican soldiers armed with cannons. Only 18 Texans survived the slaughter, with three escaping capture. The remaining 15 were taken to Mexico as prisoners and eventually released nearly 18 months later. A mere 10 ever made it home to Fayette County.

That December, Texas launched the Somervell expedition in retaliation. After recapturing of Laredo, a force of roughly 300 Texans spoiling for a fight crossed the Rio Grande and continued on to Ciudad Mier. Following a sequence of poor command decisions, the Texans blundered into a waiting Mexican Army unit 10 times their size.

The battle of Mier raged Dec. 25-26, with the Texans inflicting astonishingly heavy casualties against the larger force. In all, approximately 600 Mexican soldiers were killed and 200 wounded compared to 30 Texans killed or wounded, but lack of ammunition, food and water forced the Texans to surrender. The prisoners were marched toward Mexico City, but on February 11, 1843, they effected a massive escape into the mountains. The desert proved too great an obstacle to overcome, and 176 of the prisoners were recaptured. The enraged dictator of Mexico, Antonio López de Santa Anna, ordered all of the escapees executed, but the governor of Coahuila, Francisco Mexía, refused the order, leading to the decimation compromise known as the Black Bean Affair. The prisoners were forced to pick one of 179 beans from a jar. Those who drew white beans were spared; those who drew a black bean--17 in all--were blindfolded and executed March 25, 1843. Of the 15 men from Fayette County who’d joined in the Mier expedition, only William Eastland drew a black bean, and he drew the first one.

The loss of so many men of the Mier and Dawson parties was a bitter pill for Fayette County to swallow, and one not readily forgotten. Compounding the anger was the fact the executed Mier prisoners were interred at Hacienda Salado, in the Mexican state of Potosi, more than 100 miles south of Monterrey. Mexico refused to repatriate the remains, insisting such an act would be a desecration of the consecrated graves. It wasn’t until the U.S.-Mexican War erupted following the annexation of Texas that the opportunity to recover the remains arose.

In 1848, during the period of armistice before the final peace treaty would formally end the hostilities, 11 Texans stationed at Concepción, north of Monterrey, hatched a scheme to ride south to Hacienda Salado to recover the remains of the Mier prisoners executed six years prior. Without official sanction, they crossed enemy lines the morning of May 2 and arrived at Hacienda Salado the next morning after a hard ride. They caught the locals by surprise and forced five Mexicans to dig up the remains. The Texans collected the bones in sacks which they tied to pack horses. As the Texans were departing, they spotted two riders fleeing to nearby Cedral, where 500 Mexican troops were stationed. Alarmed by this, the Texans rode hard through the night, pausing for only a few hours to rest their exhausted horses. They finally reached Concepción with their precious cargo the following afternoon, covering more than 300 miles in a span of 53 hours.

The remains of the decimated Mier prisoners were brought to La Grange in June, and by September the remains of the Dawson company were acquired as well. The two sets of remains were then interred with full military honors in a vault on the bluff overlooking the Colorado River. Over the years the site became known as Monument Hill, one of the most important shrines of Texas history.
I also excised a whole lot of passive verbiage from the chapter as a whole during my second draft rewrite. Passive voice is a failing of mine, I admit. There's more polishing to be done, but we're getting there.

Now Playing: Charlie Parker Ken Burns' Jazz
Chicken Ranch Central

Friday, January 20, 2012

Friday Night Videos

Okay, let's complete the Moonlighting-related trifecta. I mentioned Al Jarreau last week, specifically the duet with Sheena Easton of "On the Roof (Roof Garden)" for her early 80s TV special Act 1. It's pretty obscure--the Act 1 songs were never released on any soundtrack, nor were any included as bonus tracks on her regular album releases (save for her duet of "We've Got Tonight" with Kenny Rogers, but that was already a big hit by then). Three things are apparent in this video--1) Easton and Jarreau sound pretty good together, 2) Easton is very short. We're talking elfin, here, and 3) many 80s fashions were unfortunate, at best.

Previously on Friday Night Videos... Billy Joel.

Now Playing: John Coltrane The Very Best of John Coltrane
Chicken Ranch Central

Friday, January 13, 2012

Friday Night Videos

Last week's video clip from Moonlighting got me thinking about another song from that show. No, not Al Jarreau's theme song (although Al's got some pretty impressive chops. I'm a particular fan of his duet of "On the Roof" with Sheena Easton) but rather Billy Joel's "Big Man on Mulberry Street." This particular song came from Joel's The Bridge album, and while it was never released as a single, the folks at Moonlighting took it and built an entire episode around it, structuring a Broadway-style dance narrative to the music that predated Twyla Tharp's collaboration with Joel by more than a decade. I warmed to Moonlighting late, always viewing it (and rightly so) as a Remington Steele knockoff. But where Moonlighting really shined was in its willingness to push the envelope and turn formula on its head, so much so that Pierce Brosnan and Stephanie Zimbalist both complained publicly they wanted the Remington Steele writing staff to be more creative, like that of Moonlighting, rather than being slaves to formula and writing to the lowest common denominator. Alas, that never happened, and both shows were cancelled in short order. But "Big Man on Mulberry Street" is a great example of the chances Moonlighting was willing to take, even if the sequence does foreshadow the whole Dancing with the Stars trope of the male celebrity essentially standing still as the professional female dancer does all the work.

Previously on Friday Night Videos... Bruce Willis.

Now Playing:
Chicken Ranch Central

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Acorn mania!

There's a big old burr oak outside my office that's dying. It's got a fungal infection and rotting inside, is dropping large limbs and is likely to collapse (on my office!) at some point in the future, so the Texas Forest Service has recommended it be cut down before anyone (namely me) is hurt. It must've overheard those plans, because burr oaks are know to mast on occasion (produce an overwhelming number of acorns) and this tree produced an incredible amount this year, despite, I might add, one of the most severe droughts in Texas history that stressed many trees to the breaking point and drastically reduced the nut crop state wide this year. And burr oak acorns are freakin' huge, I tells ya. They're one of the largest acorns produced by any oak. When they hit the metal roof of my office building, it sounds almost like a gunshot. Here's an average specimen:

burr oak acorn

Folks who know me know that my interests tend to be somewhat eclectic. And can blossom up quite unexpectedly. As I'm picking up a few of these monster acorns with the vague idea of planting them somewhere, I remember that acorns were a major food source for Native Americans and early settlers. The German settlers in Texas relied heavily on acorns in the early years to ward off starvation. So the idea of cooking with a portion of this huge acorn crop took root. The birds nest-like cup holds onto the nut tightly, even after dropping from the tree, so I placed my collected acorns, one by one, on a cast iron skillet and whacked them with a hammer. I didn't hit too hard so as not to crush the nut. Two moderate whacks was usually enough to crack the cup and underlying shell enough to pry everything apart with a flat head screwdriver, as seen below.

shelling a burr oak acorn

shelled burr acorn nut meat

live oak and burr oak acorn nut meat comparison

As you can see, the nut meat of a burr acorn is quite attractive once shelled. It is a nice, creamy color with a texture not unlike a chestnut. In fact, peeling the acorn shell and underlying skin from the nut meat is very, very similar to doing the same with a chestnut (only a bit easier, since the skin doesn't willingly come off a chestnut unless it is cooked some). I also shelled an acorn from a live oak in the neighborhood, just for comparison. Look at the size difference--someone would have to shell half a dozen live oak acorns or more to equal a single burr acorn! And from experience, I can say that live oak acorns do not shell any more quickly, despite their smaller size. Also, note the yellower color of the live oak acorn. This is significant.

shelled burr oak acorn nut meats

I shelled about half the acorns I'd collected, and filled a bowl with the nut meats. Looks pretty good, doesn't it? Yeah, but the taste ain't all that. Any kid who'd seen a squirrel chomping on an acorn and tried it himself knows that acorns are bitter. That's the tannins in them, the same thing that gives red wine its mouthfeel and what originally was used to tan leather. High amounts of tannins can be toxic to humans. What to do? Well, not all acorns are created equal. In North America, there are two general classifications of the various oak tree species: Red oaks and White oaks. Red oak types (which include actual red oaks) tend to have pointed tips on their leaves and produce acorns that take two years to mature and drop. That's a lot of time for tannins to develop. White oak types (which include actual white oaks) tend to have rounded tips on their leaves and produce acorns that mature and drop in a single growing season. Hence, white oak types have less tannin content, and it is my understanding that some species even have acorns that are sweet and edible right off the tree. The burr is a white oak type, with low tannin levels. That yellow in the live oak acorn? That means it's got a lot more tannins, and is a lot more bitter. Yay for serendipity! Also, I have to point out (since I've not seen it elsewhere) that shelled acorns will oxidize fairly quickly. Within an hour of shelling, the pieces of nut meat were browning along the edges and exposed surfaces. It's not particularly pretty, but it seems harmless enough.

crushed acorn nut meats ready for leaching in a nylon bag

coarse acorn meal ready for oven drying

Even so, the burr acorns were still too bitter to use without a bit of processing. The tannins need to be leached out of the nuts. I crushed the nuts into chunks, then used an inexpensive electric coffee grinder to chop them up into a very coarse meal. Native Americans, at this point, would scoop out a hole in clean sand near a water source and place the meal in there and pour water over it until the tannins had been leached away. Contemporary folk often put the meal in a nylon mesh bag and soak in boiling water repeatedly until the tannins leach out. Since water can only hold so much tannin before saturated, repeated soakings are necessary. I read in several places online that if the acorns are transferred from boiling water to room temperature and then heated to a boil, the remaining tannins are actually locked in. Therefore, it's necessary to have two pots of water heating constantly. As this struck me as labor intensive, I opted for a less labor-intensive cold water leaching method--I bagged the meal and submerged it in the reservoir tank of the downstairs toilet. I know, it doesn't sound appealing. But the reservoir is clean, and to make doubly sure, I bleached it out thoroughly. I left the meal in for several days, and the continual flow of water from flushing and filling did the job nicely. I was actually able to track the progress of the leaching by watching the clarity of the water improve as the tannin levels declined. Before long I had unbitter acorn meal. I spread the meal out on a cookie sheet and placed in the oven, setting it to bake at around 120 degrees with the door open for drying. Every 10 minutes or so I'd stir the meal. After an hour or so the meal was dry enough for my purposes.

acorn meal and other ingredients for making acorn bread

Note that acorns are fairly high in fat, so the nut meats and meal need to be stored in cool conditions, or frozen for long-term storage, otherwise they could go rancid. Yuck! Fortunately, I wasn't waiting that long. All of the meal and oxidized during the leaching process, so the resulting meal was a uniform brown. I took the coarse meal, chunks and all (visible in the lower right of the photo above) and ground it to a fine meal using the electric coffee grinder. The resulting acorn meal (center bowl, above) has a nice color and a texture a bit finer than regular corn meal. It is more clumpy, though. I decided to try a very simple recipe first, and came across the following from this site.
Apache acorn cakes
1 cup acorn meal, ground fine
1 cup cornmeal
1/4 cup honey
pinch of salt

Mix the ingredients with enough warm water to make a moist, not
sticky dough. Divide into 12 balls. Let rest, covered, for 10 minutes or so. With slightly moist hands, pat the balls down into thick tortilla-shaped breads. Bake on an ungreased cast iron griddle
The dough is very coarse, even though I used whole grain corn flour instead of corn meal. I figured out right away that "tortilla-like" was a non-starter. They simply wouldn't hold together when pressed that thin. I finally settled for a thicker, cookie-like form, and this worked fine. They cooked quite easily. The honey made them nicely sweet, but not cloying. The texture was similar to a heavy cornbread, and the acorns gave a nutty taste. The Wife wasn't terribly impressed, and the Bug wouldn't touch any, but Monkey Girl and Fairy Girl though the "acorn cookies" delicious and devoured most of them topped with melted butter.

Apache acorn cake cooking on iron skillet

acorn cakes topped with butter or margarine

Buoyed by my modest success with the acorn cakes, I decided to try my hand at actual acorn bread. Since acorn flour is "heavy" and lacks gluten, it won't rise on its own and needs to be combined with other ingredients (namely, traditional wheat flours or similar). I looked around and found an impressive array of acorn bread recipes online, but eventually went with one from this site since it seemed the simplest and most straightforward.
Acorn Bread
6 tbl. cornmeal
1/2 cup cold water
1 cup boiling water
1 tsp. salt
1 tbl. butter
1 pkg. active dry yeast
1/4 cup lukewarm water
1 cup mashed potatoes
2 cup all-purpose flour
2 cup finely ground leached acorn meal

Mix cornmeal with cold water, add boiling water and cook 2 minutes, stirring constantly. Add salt and butter and cool to lukewarm. Soften yeast in lukewarm water. Add remaining ingredients to corn mixture, along with yeast. Knead to a stiff dough. Dough will be sticky. Cover and let rise in warm place until doubled in bulk. Punch down, shape into two loaves, cover and let rise until doubled in bulk. Bake at 375 degrees F for 45 minutes.
I made a few minor substitutions for this recipe. For corn meal I used whole grain corn flour. I used whole grain wheat flour. Instead of cooked mashed potatoes, I used a quarter cup of instant flakes. I also used Red Star baking yeast, since I've had good results with their various strains of brewer's yeast. Everything went well until I formed the dough into a ball and set aside atop the stove (the warmest place in the house) to rise. After several hours (and much yeasty smell) the dough had risen only about 20 percent, if that. Hardly the "doubled in bulk" the recipe called for. I left it alone for a while longer, but no change was obvious. I punched it down--the texture was almost frothy, and it smelled wonderful--and divided it into two loaves. I then set these aside to rise. After a couple of hours, the dough had barely changed, rising maybe 10 percent. Frustrated, I went ahead and baked them, deciding they weren't going to rise any more so I may as well take my chances.

Acorn bread dough

Keep in mind, I'm not a baker. I know what to do with a stuck fermentation with six gallons of ale, but not with bread that refuses to rise even though I can smell the yeast doing its work. The dough was most likely too heavy. In the future, when I try this again, I'll tweak the recipe some, adding a bit more sugar, reducing the acorn flour to wheat flour ratio and including a bit of baking soda. It was also suggested that I substitute milk for some of the water. In any event, the resulting loaves of acorn bread came out of the over looking pretty pathetic:

Acorn bread. Despite the fact the dough did not rise, the bread had a rich, nutty flavor

The loaves are heavy and dark, almost rye-like. The flavor, however, is warm and nutty. There's a richness to the bread that is unusual, vaguely familiar. A cut piece warmed with a bit of butter spread on it tastes quite good. The Wife actually liked the bread, and wants me to try again. Last night The Wife made beef stew, and I broke up some pieces of the acorn bread and mixed them in. The flavors complemented each other very well, and I now understand why there are as many recipes for acorn stew online as there are for acorn bread.

Ultimately, my acorn experiment can only be considered a qualified success. The flavor of the acorn meal is good. The family tolerated my experiments and generally approved of the results. I've got a few cups of acorn meal in the freezer for some day in the future when I attempt bread again, and there's a bag of unshelled acorns waiting to be leached and ground as well. My burr oak source of acorns is about to go away, though, so I'll need to seek out more of this species if I want to try my hand at other acorn recipes in the future. Although the numbers vary by species, in general acorns are pretty nutritious and I read that acorns of the blue oak, a species native to California, produce an oil that compares moderately well with olive oil. I'll probably dabble with recipes here and there over the years, and if I ever get some property out in the country, I'm more likely than not to plant some burr oaks out there. You never know when the craving might strike.

Now Playing: Billy Joel 12 Gardens Live
Chicken Ranch Central

Friday, January 06, 2012

Friday Night Videos

Just got back from a really fun open house at Schlitterbahn, where they were showing off their new treehouse resort area and having a fund raiser to promote continued tourism and open river initiatives in New Braunfels. During our visit, the DJ played the Rascals' "Good Lovin'" which is a song I love. But rather than go with the obvious selection, I present to you Bruce Willis' version of "Good Lovin'" from the supremely awesome "Atomic Shakespeare" episode of Moonlighting from back in the day.

Previously on Friday Night Videos... The Grateful Dead.

Now Playing:
Chicken Ranch Central