Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Texans and Fried Catfish

Five of us were dining at a round table at the Dallasretirement home where I now live.   To uphold his reputation as a “gourmet chef”, our cook prepares dishes that are totally unfamiliar to most Texans.  That evening he did a superb job with “salmon en pippillote”.  Four of us agreed that, along with cheesecake for dessert, this was one of the best meals served to us this week.

But the fifth person at the table ordered a hamburger, saying, “I don’t like fish – except catfish.” As soon as she said, “hamburger” I recognized the old lady sitting opposite me as one of those Texans who grew up on a farm (in her case, a ranch in the Panhandle) and only ate foods her mother and grandmother cooked for her when she was a child.

I recalled a river cruise from the Black Sea to Budapest.  As our ship steamed up the Danube, we ate nightly gourmet meals, including fish prepared in an amazing variety of ways.   One night I had dinner with a couple from Houston.  They saw catfish on the menu and ordered it for both of them, but when it was served, a beautiful fillet baked with a special sauce, they called out loudly, “This is NOT catfish“, and sent it back to the kitchen.  For Texans, the only catfish is fried catfish.

“I never heard of fried catfish until we came to Texas,” said the only man at the table.  His wife, sitting next to me on the right, nodded agreement.

“Neither did I,” said the woman on my left. 

The couple are from Chicago.  My dinner companion and my first husband both attended Taft High School on Chicago’s northwest side.  She graduated one year before him but did not remember him.  Still, small World!

I turned to the woman on my left and asked, “Where did you come from?”

“Philadelphia,” she said.

“Oh!”  I said, “I lived there, too.  I loved living in the Philadelphia area.”  We talked about all the things to do in the city (one of the World’s finest art museums), plus the pleasures of living 90 miles from New York City to the north, Washington, D.C., to the south, and the Amish country to the west towards Lancaster.

The Texan sitting across from us was silent, except to say she had not seen any of those places.

It could have happened to me.  I, too, am a Texan.  I grew up in Fort Worth.  I’ve always been independent.  When I was five years old I told my mother, “I’ve eaten enough black-eyed peas to last me the rest of my life.”  I still refuse to eat black-eyed peas, not even on New Year’s, when all other Texans eat a bowl-full to guarantee luck in the coming year.    

Without eating black-eyed peas, I am lucky.  I escaped from Texas by marrying a fellow from Chicago.  I came back to Texas after living in Illinois, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and New Mexico. Everywhere I lived the people believed the place where they have lived all their lives is the best place in the World. 

Texas is totally transformed, Dallas and Fort Worth melded into one giant Metroplex, with suburbs populated with over 200,000 people, larger than Fort Worth when I was a child in the 1930's.  Millions of people have moved into our giant cities.  But Texans are still Texans.

Besides seeing all of the U.S., I traveled abroad.  That Danube cruise was only one stop in a life that took me to many foreign countries, where kind people assured me that theirs was the best place on Earth.  I tried local foods.  Learned to eat fish prepared dozens of ways.  Loved borsch in Russia, but as my companion in China said, “The Chinese should send to Chicago for a chef to teach them how to cook Chinese food.”   

After I went back to my apartment after supper, I thought about Texans and catfish.  They pridefully refuse to learn anything from anyone else.  Their attitude is: “We Texans are independent people who do things our way, and we refuse to change.”  It explains why Texans carry guns into supermarkets, presumably to protect themselves from Peruvian grapes.  Against all scientific evidence, they believe the Earth was created in six days in 6,000 B.C. “because the Bible says so.” 

And that explains why Texans enthusiastically vote for people like Ted Cruz and Ric Perry.  And why Ted and Ric confidently expect all the World to agree with them.  The way to improve the economy is give more money to the rich, and the only fish is fried catfish.

Monday, September 1, 2014

My Sibling Rivalry

On Saturday I sat in my apartment in Dallas watching the U.S. Open tennis matches in New York when my brother called and invited me to lunch. I had to miss Djokovic’s match, but I never miss an opportunity to see Don and Mary. 

I do not see them often.  They are both busy people.  Some people refuse to retire, saying “I don’t want to sit around all day doing nothing.”  I say, “After I retired, I was involved in so many things that I wondered how I ever had time to work.” 

Don and Mary are like that, too.  Or perhaps Mary wants to avoid the lively “discussions” that Don and I have.  She does not realize that Don and I can disagree without really getting angry with each other.  

Don is a retired engineer.  When he worked for Turner Construction, he supervised the construction of big buildings all over the World.  From their offices in New York, he traveled to places like Berlin and Sao Paulo and Tokyo to supervise all the mechanical (heat and air conditioning, plumbing, and electrical) in sky scrapers.  Recently he was hospitalized in a brand new hospital just a couple of miles from their Garland home.  A group of “experts” from came into his room and asked his opinion of their facility.  They expected praise for their radical new design.  Instead, Don said, “I’ve built over 100 hospitals, and you made a lot of mistakes here, starting with these high windows above my bed.  When the sun comes up, light bounces off the wall opposite and right into my eyes.  You need blinds on those windows.”

At our lunch typical Texan Don ordered chicken friend steak with mashed potatoes and cream gravy.  I had chicken breast with spaghetti marinara.  We had a very pleasant meal, carefully avoiding any mention of politics and religion. 

Mary is a fundamentalist Christian who believes that every word of the King James Bible was dictated by God (in English, of course).  Evolution is some crazy theory that Darwin thought up with no scientific basis, and the World was created by God in six days in 6,000 B.C.  

Don is one of those gun-toting Texans who believes every word put out by Fox and the Koch brothers’ propaganda machine.  He knows nothing about economics and history.  He quotes the second amendment without knowing what it meant to the men who wrote the Constitution.    

Looking for a safe topic to talk about, I mentioned that I had been watching the U.S. Open on television.  That’s when Don surprised me.

 “I built that new stadium,” he said.  “They wanted to fill the seats in both the new stadium and the old stadium.  At the same time that we built the new stadium, where the most important matches are held, we took off the top of the old stadium, just like slicing an orange in half, taking off several rows of seats at the same time, so television viewers would see the old stadium filled with people for the secondary matches.”

My brother.  He may be ignorant when it comes to politics, but he is an amazing engineer.  Here I had been watching Federer and Serema Williams fighting for the men’s and women’s championships, completely ignorant of the fact that my brother built the stadium where they were hitting balls over the net.