Sunday, 15 July 2018

Ranch dressing

Texas is so much more than just ranching and oil.  And yet, in so many ways, it's all just ranching and oil.  We have the oil bit nicely covered here in Houston so it was time to take Charity out into the wilds, past San Antonio, for a weekend on the Dixie Dude Ranch.

In times gone by, "dude" was something of a pejorative term for people who wanted to come and slum it on the western frontier, to see how the other half lived before heading back east to comfort and civilisation.  So a perfect description of us, really.  We started with a horse ride ("boring," Pete declared, refusing to sit in a saddle for the rest of the weekend), enjoyed petting animals from longhorn cattle to kittens, watched a trick roper hop around with a lasso, and hungrily stuffed ourselves on home-cooked food in the chow hall.

I think Charity found it somewhat overwhelming, especially the fact that wifi was only available in the main lodge and went down for a few hours one night!  But she didn't shy away from the ranch lifestyle, even volunteering to get whipped by the cowboy entertainment one evening, and spoke to far more people than we did.  It's that Geordie friendliness, and Durham on a Friday night is pretty much the Wild West, so it makes sense.

We drove home thoroughly exhausted from playing at ranchers for a weekend.  Even that journey - a four hour drive, from what is basically the next town along from Houston - reminded me that things here are somewhat different from the rural Somerset of my youth, where whips and lassos aren't usually required to farm apples and cheese.  I think we'll stick to oil.

Welcome, dudes.

Only one person has fitted boots that did not come from a thrift store (hint: the one who earns a salary).

One day, Goddaughter, all this will be yours.  If you marry a cowboy.

Ready for the glue factory.  The horse, not Hannah - she's still got a few seasons left in her.

Two-in-a-saddle selfie.

 Country star.

The first night's entertainment.

Rope 'em!

Whip 'em!

For her troubles, Charity got a signed photo of cowboy Will.  Hmm.

Hannah demonstrates why she chose business school over ranching.

 Wild animal.

A Texan morning.

Back in the saddle.

The view from my steed.

That moment in a western when the saloon door opens and the shadow of the meanest outlaw in the state is cast across the floor.

Herding cats!

Something that will not be traveling back to Britain with Charity.

Give a 5-yr-old a bullwhip.  What could go wrong?


 Skinny longhorns.

Our California baby is now full Texan.

Another farm resident.

Rocking on the porch after a hard day's farming.

Moon over Texas.

Monday, 9 July 2018

Youth of today

When Charity, our Goddaughter, told us she was flying over to visit for three weeks I was shocked - do they let babies fly unaccompanied?  Then she informed me that she's now 16, and has just finished her GCSEs, so is coming for a break in Texas.  How come everyone around me keeps getting older but I still look 25?

We picked her up from the airport, somewhat late as she was taken into a back room and questioned because someone in LA has the same name as her and a criminal record.  We showed her no mercy either, taking her straight out to the shops to buy Houston Astros stuff for a baseball game we had tickets to the next day.

It's a long time since I was a 16-yr-old girl but I'm very impressed with my Goddaughter, mostly because she has endless patience while sitting and reading with Pete.  She tells me she likes shopping, which is what we'll be doing today.  She's asked to go to a shop called "Victoria's Secret".  I have no idea what they sell, probably cuddly toys or dolls or something - the type of thing girls Charity's age are into.

Remember all that babysitting?  It's payback time.

An intro to Texan cuisine: chicken and waffles, liberally doused in syrup.

Out at the ball game.

She's taller than I remember.

Not the most expensive seats in the place.

Young and beautiful.  But enough about me...

Friday, 29 June 2018

Meet me at McDonald's

I'm broadly in favour of educating children, but the downsides cannot be overlooked, mainly that they get to mix with other children.  Again, I think socialising with others your own age can be beneficial, but it does lead to problems such as kids talking to each other.  And suddenly bad words like "Pokemon" and "baseball" enter my innocent angel's vocabulary and, worst of all, over the last couple of weeks: McDonald's.  Apparently some deeply questionable parent sent their son to school with a Happy Meal, and talk in the classroom - and hence in our compromised home - has been of little else.

So, in the face of Pete doing very well at swimming lessons and reading, and because he'd managed to save up two dollars himself (thanks, Grandma) we begrudgingly drove down to our nearest McD's restaurant, all of thirty seconds from our house, on Friday after school.

Things have changed since Margaret Thatcher opened their UK head office in Finchley in 1983.  Today we ordered at a giant touch-screen, thus increasing the chances of catching other people's diseases through greasy fingerprints.  There's also a lot of organic and healthy stuff on the menu.  When exactly does McDonald's stop being McDonald's?  Luckily the chicken nuggets and chips were still an option, one which Pete went for without hesitation.

I sat across the table from my son and wept for the organic vegetables grown by former refugees that I cook for him each night.  My stomach knotted as I contemplated how exactly you produce a complete meal for $2, including bright packaging and a plastic toy!  I marvelled at the marketing savvy that recruits 5-yr-old school friends; the world's most powerful force in advertising.

Pete, of course, declared that the whole experience was even better than he thought it would be and when can we come back?  Hannah enjoyed the fries she was able to steal from her son while slurping down a large diet coke ($1).  Me?  I began planning the curriculum for when homeschooling begins on Monday.

At least in the past the cashier's judgemental gaze would hold me back from ordering five Big Macs and three milkshakes for myself.  Now...?

Pandora's Box, containing Pete's Happy Meal.

What have we begun?!

Saturday, 16 June 2018

Funny shaped ball

While most people seem distracted by the World Cup, the real sport was happening right here in Houston where the USA took on Scotland at rugby!  All the home nations are off playing somewhere at the moment, but only Scotland got lucky enough to come to a place with 100% humidity, 35C temperatures, and swarms of mozzies at 8pm at night.  Not too dissimilar to Glasgow at this time of year, I guess.

Due to rugby still, unbelievably, not being the most popular sport in these parts, I got front row seats for $30 at the last minute.  But what should I wear?  My Wales top, just to annoy the Scottish fans?  My Houston Sabercats T-Shirt, to show my Texan credentials?  In the end I put on my Haas rugby shirt, from the last time I played rugby competitively (I use that word as loosely as is possible).

I walked over to the stadium, through the "fan zone", where plenty of kilts and much drinking was in evidence.  Inside it was actually a good deal fuller than I'd feared, and a fluffy bald eagle was wandering about distributing T-shirts, because America and whatnot.  Scotland are ranked so far above the US that it was wise to party before the match.

Scotland scored within the first minute, which confirmed my lack of optimism for a competitive evening.  The USA trailed by two scores at half-time, when their coach must have employed some choice language in the changing room because then it was a different story.  After a blistering second half from the home team the Scots scored a try after the 80th minute which meant everything came down to Blair Kinghorn slotting the conversion.  And he missed!  Cue huge celebrations from the crowd, most of whom had been chanting "U-S-A, U-S-A" for the previous half-hour, with a 30-29 victory, their first ever over a major, "Tier 1" nation.

All-in-all it was surprisingly fantastic, with the local Sabercats in attendance and the kind of good-natured atmosphere that accompanies rugby anywhere in the world.  Will the USA be added to the Six Nations next year?  Will the Houston sun be baking the pasty skins of even more Europeans as they travel with their teams?  Will "Guide Me O Thou Great Jehovah" and "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot" be ringing out over the terraces of Texas?  About as likely as finally getting my Wales call-up, methinks.

Beer?  Check.  Man in kilt?  Check.

 The Scots warm up, as if that were necessary.


I wonder if I'll meet anyone else who played for Haas?  Hint: no.

 And there's the Scottish try, at 0:59.

 I even made it into the BBC's highlight package!  Fame!!

Decent line-out for USA.

And the hooker scores!

Regardless of crowd size, USA supporters always win the enthusiasm trophy.

Friday, 8 June 2018

Pie man

The life of a thrift store connoisseur is a turbulent one.  Tremendous highs, like when I found cowboy boots in my size and they didn't even smell too much of the previous owner's sweaty feet.  And then crushing lows, like my Christmas tree that I discovered had the top branches missing after I'd dragged it home on the bus.

But sometimes you unearth something in the dusty piles of other people's discarded stuff that changes your life, and today was that day.  In the Charity Guild of Catholic Women shop I discovered...a mini pie maker.

I'll say that again.  A mini pie maker!  It automatically makes mini pies; it's like a sandwich toaster, but instead of toasties it makes pies.  And they're mini pies!  Everything's better when it's mini.  A lamb is better than a sheep, a puppy is better than a dog, a kitten is better than a cat.  Now imagine each of those in an appropriately-sized pie!  It doesn't get any more amazing.

Disappointingly, I found that the pie machine isn't totally automatic - you still have to make the pastry and the filling to go in it.  But once my prep was done, and the kitchen was covered with flour and used bowls, the magic could begin.  In the wink of an eye I had chicken pies and cheesy vegetable pies on Hannah and Pete's plates, followed by dulce de leche cheesecake pies for pudding.

"But David," you may say.  "Why don't you just use muffin tins, which you already own, and bake mini pies in the oven, which you already own?"  To which I respond: "I'm asking the questions around here."  Also: never underestimate the power of the argument "really I'm just making a donation to charity!" when justifying the purchase of something random at a thrift store.

It's fair to note that the rest of my family did not immediately grasp quite how significant this development was in our culinary lives, and that from now on everything will be served in a pie.  After eating three myself, I did reflect that the mini pie does skew the crust-to-filling ratio towards pastry.  It's a good job pastry isn't fattening!  Ha ha...

Having spent most of the day making pies, then cleaning up after myself, then eating probably too many of them, then realising that heavy hot pies that linger in the tummy are more suited to the British climate than the 100F+ Texan one, then having pies in the fridge for leftovers tonight, I developed some empathy for whoever donated this item in the first place.  Maybe I'll leave it a week before cooking some more pies.  Or visiting another charity shop.

It even came with a free mini pie recipe book!  I was glad I got to it before any other thrift vultures.

First batch.  A little messy, but...

...deliciously filled, and excellent crumbly pastry.

 Somewhat skeptical, but they will come to accept.

You can make pudding pies as well!  So versatile.

A happy, slightly bloated, pie man.

Sunday, 3 June 2018

Austin space

After stuffing ourselves with ice cream we continued west, over to Austin and then to hill country a little way beyond, to visit Jim.  When we first met Jim in Berkeley he was better known as "Claire's grandpa", but since then has ditched the freezing Chicago weather and retired to Texas.  We last saw him at Thanksgiving so it was high time to make another visit.

Lago Vista, where he lives, is a fabulous lake community, where Jim has found himself a friendship group of similar retirees who...basically do whatever they want in the glorious Texan sunshine; golfing, boating, shooting pool, dining out, etc.  Cocktail hour usually starts around 11am, and he has a hot tub if the evenings get chilly.

He was quick to remind me that Friday night is karaoke night.  I left Hannah and Pete in the hot tub and joined Jim and his girlfriend Jean at their local drinking hole, where the large book of available songs had one heading: country.  But after a lot of nagging and some more drinks (always the way with karaoke, no?) I decided to introduce some British punk into the situation and climbed on stage to belt out Should I Stay Or Should I Go? by The Clash.  "You should go," was the consensus from the crowd.

The rest of the weekend was spent hanging out, taking a trip into Austin, trying new cocktails, eating barbecue, playing bocce ball, hot tubbing some more...all the things I aspire to do every day.  We returned to the metropolis of Houston thoroughly relaxed, ready to tackle the next week of high-stakes work in the oil business.  Well, one of us.  I'm about to look up secondhand hot tub prices.

There are loads of these little Bambis around where Jim lives.  So cute!  Only a few months until they're a good enough size for the barbecue.

A highly competitive game of bocce.

Me at karaoke.  It's strange, because when I was up there I could have sworn I looked like Mick Jagger and sounded like Freddy Mercury.

Jim puts me to shame.

Down in the huge Zilker Park in Austin.

Waterlily at the same place.

Contemplating the wonders of nature.  Or taking a breather because it was so hot!

Jean and Jim, taking us out to the famous Salt Lick BBQ.

The kitchen.

Some barbecue sauce with that, sir?

Our order of "small plates" arrives.

Finishing off with a peach cobbler.

 A saunter around Jim's neighbourhood.  So busy here!

Lunch on the lake.

The view from the restaurant.

Something to keep us going on the road back to Houston.