Monday, September 24, 2007

Hill Country Respite

I've been a bit under the weather recently, more than a little tired in both body and spirit. A required continuing education seminar in Kerrville, TX last Saturday provided me the perfect opportunity to recharge my batteries while enjoying a bit of the Texas Hill Country. Really, a day or two out and about around Austin does me more good than most anything I know. I left after work on Thursday and returned home on Sunday. I had to spend 8 hours on Saturday at the seminar. But being an old hand around these environs, I managed, along the way, to work in the following extracurricular activities:

  • Enjoyed a vanilla shake at the Health Camp Drive-In, "on the Circle," in Waco
  • Had a beer with a former co-worker at the "Derrick Hands Club" in Mexia
  • Took a refreshing dip in Lake Travis--the water being absolutely perfect
  • Met my cousin for a mango margarita and Mexican food at the Fonda San Miguel in Austin
  • Busted my book budget at the best little Orthodox book store in Texas, while Rdr. Mark treated me to a glass of his specialty tea
  • Enjoyed two long swims in the best motel pool in Texas
  • Had a chicken-fried steak at the Bluebonnet Cafe in Marble Falls, still going strong after 78 years
  • Visited my grandparent's graves in the old family burial ground
  • Attended Great Vespers (in Greek) at Holy Archangels Monastery in Kendalia
  • Read copies of Fr. Stephen Freeman blog posts during my seminar
  • Had a fillet at Hill's Steakhouse on South Congress
  • Savored early morning coffee, papers and croissant on outside table at Jo's on South Congress
  • Pancakes at Magnolia Cafe
  • Sunday dinner at the Stagecoach Inn in Salado
  • Attended packed Divine Liturgy at St. John the Forerunner Orthodox Church in Cedar Park

Austin is one of the big "what ifs" in my life. Like most everyone who attended college there, I really didn't want to leave. Of course, the Austin of my memory and imagination is long gone. The city is our version of Silicon Valley, awash in money and experiencing explosive growth. I was surprised to see that the Austin suburbs have reached Seward's Junction on Highway 183 North. And there used to be a interesting little crossroads community called Bee Caves, on the road to Llano, right before the turn-off to Hamilton Pool. There was never much there--a general store, a Baptist church and cemetery, a clutch of homes and a cedar-chopper's shack with a hand-painted sign advertising his prices for fence posts. It is now, simply gone. In its place is a shopping mall and a huge highway interchange at the main turn-off for the ritzy lake area subdivisions. The hills around the city are chock-a-block with faux Tuscan villas spilling down their slopes, each a little more over-the-top than its predecessor. I had to wonder, what with all the concern about the banking and mortgage crisis and fears of a recession, etc., just how close to the edge of financial ruin the occupants of many of these pretentious homes must be.

But in spite of our best efforts, and in light of all that has been lost, thankfully Austin is still Austin. Progress has failed in its concerted attempt to destroy the place absolutely. For Austin still attracts a certain kind of person, and that is where the real beauty of the place lies.

My headquarters in Austin is always the Austin Motel, a funky little tourist court on South Congress (or as some are trying to tag the area "SoCo"). It dates back to 1938. Actually, a German family bought the entire block in 1888 and operated various mercantile business there before building the motor court. Incredibly, this same family continued to operate it up until 1961, when they sold it to the current owners. So, the property on the main drag in Austin, within sight of the Texas Capitol, has been owned by only 2 families in the last 119 years. You can read about its history, here. What clinches the deal for me, though, is the best motel pool in town. Designed in the old style for real swimming, it is a secluded little oasis under the shade of a 100-year old live oak. And right next door is Jo's, a walk-up coffee and sandwich place. There's no better place to soak up a little authentic Austin atmosphere than sipping your coffee on one of their street-side tables.

I enjoyed visiting with my cousin. She divides her time between her parent's old home in Austin and the ranch house that has been in her family for 5 generations, some 80 miles north of the city. In her great-granddad's time, the ranch had encompassed 1100 acres or so. Sales and family partitions have reduced that to the 143 acres her dad inherited, including the old home place. She has lovingly restored the old place and spends as much time out there as possible. The surrounding area is being developed into 10-20 acre ranchettes, which is in the nature of things, I suppose. We talked of Major, the Australian sheep dog who was the last in a long line of sheep dogs on the ranch. I remember Major from visits to the ranch in the early 1990s. After her grandfather's death in 1994, Major continued to live on the ranch, as my cousin's father made almost daily trips there. But in time, he was moved to the Austin neighborhood, where he passed away in March, at over 18 years.

Holy Archangels Monastery is a bit hard to find (as it should be, I suppose), but well worth the effort. The construction of the complex surrounding the church is quite impressive, and beginning to take shape. There were about 12 of us there at the service, in addition to the monks. Of course it was all in Greek, with men on the right and women on the left. But once again I was reminded of how important the monastic presence is to the continued growth and expansion of Orthodoxy in North America. The next morning, I attended Liturgy at an Antiochian congregation in the northern suburbs of Austin. They are currently meeting in a converted ranch-style home, with fairly advanced plans to build in the coming year or two. The service was packed--easily 80 people in the former home, with probably upwards of 100. The service was vibrant; everybody participated in the responses, like the good ex-Baptists and ex-Church of Christ folk they probably all were. I was struck by the youth of the congregation--young people and young families predominated. At first glance, these two services seem dissimilar, but taken together, each speaks to the steady growth and vitality of Orthodoxy down here in the South land.

Eat at Jo's


Mimi said...

It sounds like a good time. I can totally understand busting a budget on books.

I am sorry you are feeling poorly. Continued prayers.

The Scylding said...

I notice that in the "extracurricular activities" that had a soothing effect, a sizeable portion had to do with good food and drink. And that's spot on - Georgia must have robbed off on you!.

BTW, Georgia has of late being making a name for itself - in rugby! It also has the distinction of being the only Orthodox nation at the rugby world cup, currently being hold in France.

John said...

mimi--thanks. I am doing much better. Just a little weak, still.

scylding--the food and drink, absolutely! In giving an account of my weekend, I told a friend it sounded as if I ate my way across central Texas. Every place I patronized was a noted local establishment. And yes, Georgia did indeed rub off on me. I have located a place in DC that will ship Georgian wine by the case! Ahh, civilization comes to the hinterland.

And Georgian rugby? I had no idea. I'll try to check it out.

cdgilpin said...

My family has been going (and my mom still stays) at the Stagecoach Inn for many years. Their hushpuppies and their strawberry kiss dessert are both absolutely incredible.

Good stuff! Hope you're feeling better.

The Scylding said...

Georgia plays Namibia tomorrow in what could be Georgia's first victory ever at the RWC. Go to and click on the live tracker. The game is on at 11am Atlantic time.

John said...

cdgilpin--I've been going there for 34 years myself. The food is still wonderful, there are still no menus, and the same lady is still maitre d'. But, as you note, what one really remembers are the hushpuppies and the strawberry kisses!

Anonymous said...

Sounds like a great time indeed. May I ask what "chicken-fried steak" is? Steak fried with chicken? Steak fried in chicken stock? something else? Thanks.

Prayers that you regain your strength.

John said...

Simply put, the chicken-fried steak is the national dish of Texas. They do it elsewhere in the South, but it is really not the same.

You start with a cut of round steak, and then tenderize it, and then tenderize it some more, and then tenderize it again! Then you batter it in an flour and egg mixture, and then fry it in a skillet as you would a chicken, hence the "chicken-fried."

The steak is always served with thick cream gravy, and usually mashed potatoes on the side. You should be able to cut the steak with a fork. If you can't, it's not done right.

This type of meal was fine back when most people worked outside, doing some sort of manual labor. For most of us these days, however, such a meal is an artery-choking, heart-attack-on-a-plate. So, indulging in a chicken-fried steak is now something of a treat, and a bit of a guilty pleasure.

Steve Hayes said...

I thought Romania was also at the rugby world cup!

But what I really want to know is: what's a chicken-fried steak?

You have chickens working as chefs in Texas, or what?

John said...

Steve, that's funny! My explanation to Ian should answer your questions. Basically, it is steak battered and fried, as you would a chicken.

Anonymous said...

Thank you -- wow; if I ever make it over there, I'll have to give it a go.

[and then do a 2km swim afterwards :)]

David Bryan said...

Mmm...chicken fried favorite dish growing up...

Glad you had a good trip! We were in Austin Sept. 1 at St. Elias' to celebrate the wedding of a good friend of ours from ORU; where was this packed parish you attended?

John said...

David Bryan, I have attended St. Elias before, as well. The parish I visited was St. John the Forerunner, which began, I believe, as a mission from St. Elias. I suppose it seemed packed because we were all in what had once been the living room (albeit extended) of a home. St. John is a little hard to find if you are unfamiliar with the Austin area. Cedar Park is a northern suburb, on Hwy. 183. Park Street intersects 183 between Hwy. 620 and Hwy. 1431. Turn west on Park Street and the church is about 4-5 blocks down, on the left. The bookstore (closed Mondays) is well worth a visit, even if you are unable to attend services.

The Scylding said...

Steve - But Romania is much more heterogeneous, as far as I know.

Of course, Georgie recorded their first ever RWC win by thumping Namibia 30 - 0.

Kirk said...

>>"May I ask what "chicken-fried steak" is? Steak fried with chicken? Steak fried in chicken stock? something else?"

LOL!! Don't worry, Ian. This Texan's laughing with you, not at you.

John, any rock climbing or hiking this year??


Jacob said...

It sounds like the wife and I should take a weekend trip to Austin. I was there a couple times on business in the early 1990s, but nothing since then.

You even have me hungering for a chicken-fried steak. I've been in Texas for over 17 years now, and don't think I've had one here yet. For me, if it's not a grilled sirloin or T-bone or strip, it's not a "steak," just like it's not "ice cream" unless it's chocolate. ;^)

John said...

Kirk, my wife made me promise not to climb Enchanted Rock this trip. But next time...hmmm. (Actually, I hadn't even thought of it until she mentioned it!)

Jacob, 17 years in Texas w/o a chicken-friend steak?? That's just wrong, my friend. We must do something to remedy this situation.

I must tell you about my "first time." I was 20 years old--and had never had a real chicken-fried steak. My mother was an excellent cook, in all things save beef. We raised our own beef, but my dad did not have the meatpacker to tenderize it. Then my mom did not tenderize the cuts of round steak at home. A true child of the Depression, she was also very frugal when it came to the dispensing of flour. So, what she called a chicken-fried steak was basically a slab of meat thrown into a skillet and fried until it was black and tough as shoe leather. I hated it. And from the time I was 11 or 12, I refused to touch it. I grew up thinking that this was a chicken-fried steak. Time passed. I moved away from home to Austin when I was 19 years old. One Saturday, during my first summer there, I drove the 75 miles out to Llano to visit my cousin Siambra. On the way back, I passed a small roadside diner, advertising chicken-fried steak and cold beer. On a whim, I pulled in, determined to find out once and for all, what all the fuss was about with these chicken-fried steaks. So, I ordered a chicken-fried steak, salad, baked potato and a mug of draft Lone Star beer (what can I say, this was the 70s). Well, let me tell you, that first bite of a real, authentic chicken-fried steak was the best thing I had ever put in my mouth. It was a near religious experience. I have never looked back, and my life has never been the same since!

Kirk said...

John, I was blessed to have a mother that could cook real chicken fried steak. For those of you that don't know, the chicken fried steak you get in most restaurants is a cheap imitation. Mom would take an untenderized round steak and tenderize it herself with a butcher knife. (wham! wham! wham! wham! wham!) Then she'd cut the steak into smaller pieces, dip them in milk, dip them in flour with salt and pepper, and fry them in a skillet in Crisco. (I think this was before all-vegetable Crisco.) It was sometimes tough, but always delicious. If you couldn't chew it, you could at least suck the flavor out of it. It was, of course, served with very thick home made gravy.

Mom also fried a mean chicken. She'd start with a whole chicken, and cut it up so that one of the pieces was the wishbone--that was my favorite piece.

Mom's still alive and well, but alas, she doesn't cook the same way she used to...

Andrea Elizabeth said...

I've had Rdr. Mark's delicious tea! Yes, that is the best Orthodox bookstore I've ever been to. And the "living room" is very sizable, though we weren't there for a service.

There's people who haven't heard of chicken fried steak? My yankee husband told me that he never had fried okra till he moved down here.

Ahh, the Texas Hill Country. My favorite. I used to spend summers in Comfort, Texas, south of the awesome "Enchanted Rock", near Kerrville. Beautiful.

Woody said...

That bookstore really is the best Orthodox bookstore in Texas, at least that I know of, and holds its own with one of the St. Herman stores that I visited in L.A. a while back.

Tell Rdr. Mark to keep up the good work, and Many Years!