We spent a week in Alpine, Texas, a few years ago. I was sitting in on a Writers’ League of Texas workshop led by Michael Hall, an executive editor and writer at Texas Monthly magazine. Hall is my favorite writer at that magazine, and his article “The Soul of a Man: Who was Blind Willie Johnson?” is the best thing I’ve ever read in Texas Monthly.
The article tells the story of Blind Willie Johnson, a Texas blues musician who recorded 30 songs in the late 1920s. He lived in Waco for a couple of years, in Marlin for a while. Not a lot is known about his early years, but we do know that he died in Beaumont on September 18, 1945.
Hall begins “The Soul of a Man” by talking about the spaceships that NASA launched in August 1977, Voyager 1 and Voyager 2. They contained sophisticated instruments designed to send data and images back to earth for many years. Both Voyagers are several billion miles away from Earth and still sending back radio signals.
Hall, who is also a musician, then talks about a golden record and a stylus aboard each spaceship. The records contain photos and sounds, “an audio and visual slide show of all things Earthly,” that someday, somewhere, a being might learn about life on our planet. The final song on that record is from Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 13. The next-to-last song is “Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground,” by Blind Willie Johnson, a tune that sounds like “the Passion of Jesus, his suffering on the cross, the ultimate pairing of despair and belief,” Hall writes. It’s just a beautiful article. (“The Soul of a Man” is from the December 2010 issue of Texas Monthly, and is available on the magazine’s website.)
Where was I? Oh, yeah. Alpine. We ate at the house where we were staying when we could, but we did venture out for dinner most nights. One evening, we ate at Reata with Paul and Mazie Will, parents of my Baylor colleague Dr. Liz Bates. Reata is an upscale Texas restaurant that started in Alpine and eventually expanded to Fort Worth. Grady Spears was at one time the executive chef there.
We also ventured to nearby Fort Davis a couple of days and both times ate really good hamburgers at the Fort Davis Drug Store, a restaurant and hotel on the main street there.
And we spent a day in Marfa, an interesting little town. (As of 2018, it had a population of 1,714.) Marfa is known for its arts, so we visited a few galleries, but after seeing a $9,000 piece of string art and a $30,000 sculpture, we moved on. Our first art stop was in a building with a locked screen door to keep a whole herd of pet dogs from getting out. There were some really cool wooden sculptures on the walls, but none of them had price tags on them. I asked the man who I assumed owned the place the cost of one particular piece, and he said that nothing was for sale. It was all his private collection. So we had spent about 20 minutes looking around what was essentially his living room. But he was friendly and didn’t mind showing us around, and the kids enjoyed playing with the dogs.
We also visited the Prada store, an art installation that is not actually a Prada store and not actually in Marfa, but 36 miles away in Valentine. We were standing in front of the small building when an Amtrak train passed by on the other side of the highway, and I felt bad that our presence ruined some folks’ photos of the place.
In the late afternoon on our day in Marfa, we started looking around for a restaurant. Most places didn’t open until dinner, and the only thing open at 3 o’clock was a pizza place in a metal building without air conditioning. Still, when you’re hungry, almost anything will do.
Our lunch experience notwithstanding, there are several dining options in Marfa, though some of them are a bit pricey. (Breakfast toast for $9, anyone?) One such restaurant is The Capri, located inside the Thunderbird Hotel in Marfa. The restaurant’s owner, Virginia Lebermann, and chef, Rocky Barnette, formerly of the famed Inn at Little Washington, have co-authored a cookbook, “Cooking in Marfa: Welcome, We’ve Been Expecting You,” published by Phaidon in May. It contains about 80 recipes from the restaurant and is inspired by that region of the state.
The authors write about their pasts and how they ended up in Marfa; they write about the history of the hotel and restaurant and about much of what makes Marfa so unique. Chapter titles include Cocktails, Smaller Dishes, Composed Dishes, Tortillas and Bread, Helados (or Ice Cream) and a few others. The photography by Douglas Friedman is beautiful, and the recipes are mouth-watering. Many of them, however, might be out of reach for all but the most adventurous home cooks. The Seven-Layer Yucca Dip, for example, calls for the petals of yucca flowers, fresh yucca buds, yucca jam, pickled yucca blossoms and dehydrated yucca petals. And I checked our refrigerator: we did not have the required two pounds of fresh rabbit livers for Rabbit Liver Mousse with Mesquite Toast.
But I was entertained by the ingredient list for Jenny Laird’s Texas Caviar: “Best-quality caviar,” full-fat sour cream and Fritos.
All that being said, we did find some recipes — food and beverage — that could easily be made at or adapted for a home kitchen. We chose a variety that could serve as pre-dinner appetizers or for a finger-food cocktail party on the patio (assuming we can safely gather for parties again one day).
Watermelon Radishes with Habanero Vinegar, Aged Balsamic and Lime sounded good, but watermelon radishes aren’t in season right now. We used a bunch of colorful radishes we picked up at Whole Foods on a trip to Austin. Instead of habanero vinegar, we used the juice from a jar of candied jalapenos we buy all the time at H-E-B and turned it into a salsa rather than plating it as the original recipe suggested. While that recipe was inspired by one in the book, all the others below are used with permission of the publisher. (But we did add a bit of triple sec to the Hibiscus Margarita to cut down on the bitterness of the dried flowers.)
- 1 cup dried hibiscus flowers
- 2 cups boiling water
- 1 ounce agave syrup or simple syrup
- 3 lime wedges, plus more for garnish
- 2 lemon wedges
- 1 orange wedge
- 2 ounces reposado tequila
- 1 ounce triple sec
- Mint sprigs, for garnish
In a heatproof bowl, combine the hibiscus flowers with the boiling water and let steep for 10 minutes. Strain, pressing the flowers to extract all the juice, then let cool to room temperature. Combine 1 ounce of the cooled tea, the agave syrup and citrus wedges in a cocktail shaker and muddle gently. Add the tequila and triple sec and fill the shaker with ice. Shake vigorously for about 5 seconds. Strain into a chilled margarita glass. Garnish with a lime wedge and several mint sprigs.
Makes 1 drink.
Mexican in Paris
- 2 ounces reposado tequila
- 1-3 dashes lime bitters
- Champagne or sparkling wine
- Lime twist, for garnish
Combine the tequila and bitters in a cocktail shaker filled with ice and shake vigorously for a few seconds. Double-strain, to remove any tiny shards of ice, into a coupe glass. Top with Champagne. Garnish with an expressed lime twist.
Makes 1 drink.
Watermelon and Radish Salsa
- 1 cup watermelon, diced
- 3 medium radishes or watermelon radishes, diced
- 3 tablespoons habanero vinegar or jalapeño pickling liquid, or to taste
- 4 tablespoons balsamic vinegar, or to taste
- 1 lime, cut in half
- Kosher salt, to taste
In a small bowl, toss together the watermelon, radishes, habanero or jalapeno juice, and balsamic vinegar. Squeeze the juice of half a lime (or more, if desired) over the top and add salt to taste. Cover and refrigerate until ready to serve.
Makes about 4-6 servings.
Grilled Avocado Guacamole
- 1/2 cup fresh lime juice
- 1/4 cup avocado oil
- 1 teaspoon citric acid (optional)
- 6 firm-ripe Hass avocados, halved and pitted
- Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
- 1/2 medium red onion, diced
- 2 large jalapenos, seeded and cut
- 1/2 cup cilantro, finely chopped
- 1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
- 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
Preheat a grill or a cast-iron grill griddle pan to very high heat.
In a small bowl, combine the lime juice, avocado oil and citric acid (if using). Season the avocados with salt and pepper. Brush them liberally with the lime juice mixture.
Place the avocado halves flesh side down on the grill until they are slightly charred, about 4 minutes. Flip them and grill on the skin side for 1–2 minutes to heat the avocados through but not char the skin. Remove from the grill and brush the flesh side with more lime juice mixture. Set aside to cool to room temperature.
Squeeze the avocado flesh into a large molcajete or bowl. It should slip right out of the skins from the grilling. Add the onion, jalapenos, cilantro, cumin, olive oil and any remaining lime juice mixture from the grilling process. Process with the mano if in the molcajete or with a spoon in the bowl to get a semi-smooth paste with some small chunks about the size of a pea. Season with salt and pepper. Serve immediately with tortilla chips.
Makes about 6 servings.
- 30 Gulf shrimp (20/25 count), peeled and deveined, tails on
- 6 yucca or bamboo skewers
- 1 head garlic, cut in half horizontally
- 1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
- 3 tablespoons coconut oil, melted
- Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
- 3 tablespoons cilantro, finely chopped
- 1/2 lime, halved
- 1 1/2 cups red salsa (store-bought or freshly made)
- 1 1/2 cups tomatillo salsa (store-bought or freshly made)
Thread 5 shrimp on each of the skewers. Place the skewers, garlic and olive oil in a shallow pan or zippered plastic bag. Refrigerate on ice and allow to marinate for 2–4 hours or up to overnight.
In a large skillet, heat the coconut oil over medium-high heat. Season the shrimp skewers on both sides with salt and pepper. Place the skewers in the pan and cook until the flesh is opaque, 2–3 minutes on each side. While in the pan, season them with the cilantro and squeeze the juice of 2 lime quarters over them. Remove from the pan.
Spread 1/4 cup each of the red and green sauces onto each of 6 plates. Remove 1 shrimp from each skewer and place the skewer with the remaining shrimp down the middle between the 2 sauces. Tuck the single shrimp in randomly.
Makes 6 servings.