Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Charlie Robison's Beautiful Day

For anyone that travels the planet for business, airports are the monotonous purgatory of the entire experience. But thanks to Charlie Robison (and Johnny Walker), my extended wait at Houston Hobby this afternoon is a little bit less painful.

Charlie Robison's title track from Beautiful Day is playing on the Pappas Burger stereo, and it only reaffirms what a great CD this is. In fact, in an ideal world, it's what country music should be.

It came out in June, but it hasn't left my playlist since. For those of you who don't know, Charlie is brother to Bruce Robison, an accomplished singer-sonwriter in his own right that is married to the lovely Kelly Willis. Charlie WAS married to Emily Robison (of Dixie Chicks fame), but they split some time ago. Beautiful Day is Charlie's Robison's first effort since that split, and it proves the maxim that sometimes the worst can bring out the best.

In addition to the exuberant title track, Robison's take on Bobby Bare, Jr.'s Nothin' Better To Do is a wry look ("you dig me, more than I dig myself... two parasite hearts, coexisting") at a relationship that we've all been in, for better or worse. And if you ever been on the losing end of love, one listen to Reconsider will have you reliving the more painful moments. It's an album that doesn't skip a beat from beginning to end.

I'm not alone in this review... looking out over my laptop, one West Texas cowboy, one tired-out UT fratboy, and one high-powered, high-heeled Houston attorney are all either singing or finger -tapping to the last chorus of Charlie. You should too.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

You Can Have My Girl, But Don't Touch My Hat

The great Kinky Friedman has famously said that "there are two types of people who wear cowboy hats: cowboys and assholes." I've been known to wear the aforementioned headgear from time to time, but since I don't run any angus in the Country Hill subdivision, I guess I fall into the latter camp.

Which is unfortunate. Why is it that when it comes to real, classic, honest-to-goodness American apparel, you have to be a real-life John Wayne or J.R. Ewing to wear cowboy hats (and to a lesser extent, cowboy boots)? You don't have to play in the big leagues to wear a baseball hat (that other patently American headwear), do you?

Maybe it's the circumstance that dictate proper hat-wearing. I don't do it while mowing the lawn, at restaurants, or even at the twang-filled live music venues that I frequent. My western lid-donning is almost exclusively while I'm out hunting. In fact, I sometimes prefer a cowboy hat -- the bill is much better at shielding my eyes from the glare of a rising or setting sun. Plus, I'll admit it, I like the way I look in one (that's probably where the asshole comes in).

Many, many years ago, my soon-to-be-wife (and native Texan) bought me a Larry Mahan straw for Christmas. I wore it occasionally back then, but I'm finding I'm wearing it more and more over the last couple of years out in the field. It's been properly beaten up, crushed, and sweated in, so it looks the part. Yet it's an honest, well-made cowboy hat, not one of those cheesy, cheap, pre-tattered, rolled brim types that you'd get at The Gap. Those ARE for assholes.

For Father's Day, I got a great looking black Resistol Spotter B that I can't wait to wear as soon as things cool down. Some know-it-alls content that felt should only be worn from Labor Day to Easter, and straw the rest of the time. But for me though, depending on the temperature, I'll just wear what feels right.

And for me, wearing a cowboy hat now and then just feels right... asshole or not.

(And no, I don't really mean what I said in the title, sweetie. I just like Lyle Lovett.)

Monday, August 17, 2009

It Was the Best of Tapas, It Was the Worst of Tapas.

Sunday night at Casa Scampwalker was Spanish tapas night. I'm the first to concede that while I haven't mastered this cuisine by any stretch, the sublime flavors of Spanish small plates is really refreshing on a lazy summer evening.

This meal was actually planned for over a week. Last weekend, I was thawing some sharptail grouse for a sausage, and got the wild idea to attempt converting a couple of breasts into prosciutto. The recipe is easy enough -- cover the breast fillets in kosher salt for 24 hours, wrap in cheesecloth, and refrigerate in 50-ish degree temps for a week. Our basement wasn't that cool this time of year, and our fridge was too cold. That meant a weekend trek to my personal office fridge was in order.
As we pulled into the office parking lot with two mummified grouse breasts, I opted to NOT check my kids in through security -- after all, we'd only be there long enough to deposit the charcuterie and be on our way. I told the kids that if security stopped us somewhere along the way, we'd do the right thing and just tell them what we were up to.

"Dad, how do you explain to a security guard that you're just putting two sharptail grouse breasts wrapped in cheesecloth into a fridge??" my fourth-grade son asked incredulously. Good point, that boy.

Luckily, the rent-a-cops never showed, and I brought the bounty home for our Sunday dinner. I'd already determined I'd slice it paper-thin and serve it with melon, the traditional pairing. Before plating, I sampled a piece. Horrible. Maybe I just got a funky slice. I tried again. Rank! I've eaten a lot of gamey food in my life, and a mild gameyness I don't mind. But this was atrocious. Not spoiled, but terrible. The recipe I used was based on duck, and I figured a sharpie couldn't be that different. Boy was I wrong. I'll try it again someday with a milder (less red) meat, but for now, I'll admit defeat.

Anyhow, the rest of the meal turned out wonderfully. We served gazpacho and tortilla both prepared with recipes from Jose Andres' Made in Spain. Dynamite, especially when combined with Mrs. Scampwalker's fresh-baked baguettes, some manchego and creamy goat cheese, farm-fresh cantaloupe, and a plate of olives. But what I wouldn't give for some Jamon Iberico de Bellota...

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Bluesman Goes to Heaven: RIP Jim Dickinson

This past week, the music world lost a great one -- Memphis musician and producer Jim Dickinson. He certainly won't get the coverage that MJ has received, but his influence was no less profound.

But don't take my word for it -- just ask The Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, Aretha Franklin, Johnny Cash, Jerry Jeff Walker, Sam Phillips, Duane Allman, Paul Westerberg, John Hiatt, and Chuck Prophet. Those are the cats that Dickinson produced or sessioned with. He played piano on the Rolling Stones' Sticky Fingers album, lending a rollicking but bluesy groove. He helped Bob Dylan re-find his mojo with the Grammy-winning Time Out of Mind -- so much so that Mr. Dylan called him a "brother." And when The Replacements made the move from insolent garage band misfits to (less) insolent bar band misfits, Jim Dickinson led the way, peppering the album with sunny horns and a dash of soul.

Thankfully, his music lives on -- you can check out A Thousand Footprints in the Sand, a Memphis blues live album that'll have you craving a night on Beale Street by the third track, or the harder-to-come-by Dixie Fried. Or take a listen to anything by the North Mississippi Allstars, founded by Jim's sons Luther and Cody Dickinson. Talent runs in the family, and today, there are a ton of sad eyes in Jim Dickinson's extended family of musicians.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Best Bar: You Show Me Yours, I'll Show You Mine (-hic-)

I'm passionate about hunting for many reasons -- witnessing great dog work, experiencing the limitless expanses of nature, and indulging in the camaraderie that comes with close friends.

But I also like those small-town bars that invariably beckon me when I'm on a bird hunting adventure. I'm pretty sure I come by it naturally. As a wee tyke back in central Nebraska, I can remember my dad and I (and later, my kid brother) stopping at the Beer Barrel Bar in St. Libory (shown above) after a morning of pheasant hunting. We'd order charburgers, dad'd get a draft beer and I'd get a cherry coke, and we'd watch the Cornhuskers pummel the living shit out of some hapless Big Eight opponent.

My, how little things change. To me, there's nothing better than finding a local watering hole for a cold beer or two after a hot (or bracingly cold) yet rewarding day afield.

In small town America, you're almost universally welcome in bars -- the folks are friendly, the beer is icy, and the tab is almost always embarrassingly cheap. Nearly every establishment is the same -- same as in comfortable and familiar -- but the antithesis of the insipid "entertainment-lifestyle-experience" franchise bullshit that developers and marketers concoct to justify charging $8.00 for a Bud Light.

I am not the only one to comprehend the awesomeness of small town bars, of course. In fact, a couple of gents who are apparently based here in the KC area recently went on a five-day, three-state, 101-bar pub crawl through (mostly) small Midwestern towns. I must admit, I was proud (and maybe a bit embarrassed) that I've probably hit more than 50 percent of them. It's a wonderful directory and plainspoken diary -- one I suspect I may consult this fall. At the very least, I'm looking forward to expanding my own list of mid-American small-town dives.

Check out the full "101 Libations" list here. Do you have any special memories at any of the bars on the Libations list? What other small town dives hold a special spot in your, um, liver? Comment, folks.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Bichelmeyer Meats: A Carnivore's Amusement Park

If you know anything about Midwesterners, it's that we take our meat very seriously. I'm willing to bet that the north-south axis from North Dakota to Texas probably holds the lowest numbers of vegetarians (or vegans, God forbid) than anywhere else in the country. And no wonder -- we're surrounded by farms, ranches, feedlots and slaughterhouses that help deliver beef and pork to the rest of the world.

Much of the industry is of course is run by ultra-efficient "corporate farms." There's been plenty of ink devoted to either demonizing or deifying those operations, and I'm not about to jump into that tarbaby of a debate here. Whatever the case may be, it's an undeniable truth that the butcher has gotten short shrift. Hell, at most grocery stores, that pimply-faced kid behind the meat counter wouldn't know a pork butt if one hit him in the head.

Not so at Bichelmeyer Meats in Kansas City, Kansas. It's located in Argentine, which can most politely be described as a blighted neighborhood. But once inside Bichelmeyer, it's apparent that regardless of language, skin color, or economic status, everyone is united in life, liberty, and the pursuit of meat.

This is an old-school butcher if there ever was one. No cryovac or modified atmosphere packaging here -- flesh from cattle and pigs is cut to order. Each item is wrapped in butcher paper, tied with twine, and labeled with grease pencil. If it moos, oinks, or clucks, Bichelmeyer's sells it -- from pork bellies (that I use for my bacon), to pig maws, to pre-marinated adobada, to the somewhat disturbing but tasty cabeza de res.

The place is run by Jim and Joe Bichelmeyer, whose family opened their doors back in 1946. They're friendly, happy men -- and prone to showing the place off. On our first visit, during Urban Photo Safari, the kids were happily snapping pictures of the meat cases (try doing that in most grocery stores) when we were invited to see the meat locker. It was an amazing sight -- dozens of whole pigs and sides of beef aging and waiting patiently for their time to fill the meat case. (My kids, incidentally, were fascinated and not grossed out -- a fact I was particularly proud of.)
Every time we go, there's a new surprise. On Saturdays, at one end of the building, senoritas sell delicious carne asada, brisket, chorizo, and buche tacos that are as authentic as you'd find at a Guadalajara taqueria. Just last weekend, we noticed a heated case behind the cash registers -- upon closer inspection, they were selling fresh pork tamales and carnitas -- which became yesterday's lunch.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Words to Live By

"To brag little, to lose well, to crow gently if in luck, to pay up, to own up, to shut up if beaten. These are the virtues of a sporting man."
I wish I could remember where I stumbled across that quote -- it was undoubtedly some online outdoor publication. But to me, it sums up more than my philosophy afield -- it's how I strive (sometimes successfully) to live my life.

The author is Oliver Wendell Holmes, the 19th century doctor, poet, and intellectual. He's probably more often than not known for his son, Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., a universally respected Supreme Court Justice.

Anyhow, this particular quote by the elder Holmes first appeared in The Autocrat of the Breakfast Table (don't you just love that name?). It was a series of essays that appeared in the Atlantic Monthly magazine 152 years ago. I've enjoyed reading the text, and I'm struck at how much it resembles a modern-day blog. No, really, it does -- stick with me here.

The essays recount conversations that Holmes had at breakfast with his boarding house table-mates. To protect the innocent and not-so-innocent, he refers to them by pseudonyms -- "the Schoolmistress," "the Professor," and so forth. And his topics veer wildly from religion to societal commentary to medicine to the outdoors to gambling (the latter is where my quote comes from). Very blog-like. And why not? Hell, John Quincy Adams is Twittering these days. I'd encourage you to peruse it -- the man's got a way with words.

None of this is meant to somehow compare my random noodlings to one of the preeminent thinkers of the 1800s. But it sure is interesting to realize that some old Boston fuddy-duddy in tintype really isn't all that different from me. As Ollie would say:

"A thought is often original, though you have uttered it a hundred times. It has come to you over a new route, by a new express train of association."