Austin is the kind of laid-back city where even Hollywood stars and music legends can abandon their dark glasses and be themselves. No wonder Willie Nelson, Sandra Bullock and Matthew McConaughey have called it home, while everyone from Quentin Tarantino to Dennis Quaid enjoys its eclectic charms whenever they can. Its sophisticated skyline is reflected in the tranquil waters of Lady Bird Lake, but you can eat even the most haute cuisine in your boots and blue jeans.
Of course we Austinites are in love with our city twelve months a year, even if it is only the thought of autumn that gets us through August. Upwards around Thanksgiving this jewel of city shines especially bright. Where I grew up, Thanksgiving meant mostly sitting around the television watching football, visiting with relatives, and gorging on delicious food until you could eat no more.
But here in Austin and surrounding Texas, the options are much greater. For instance, it’s still warm enough to take the plunge in Barton Springs, a spring fed natural phenomenon that maintains a temperature of 68 degrees throughout the year. Each part of the springs hosts a mini-culture of its own. Young families frolic in the shoals, while goggled devotees swim their daily laps impervious to outside temperatures. Seniors chat under the shade of the live oaks and teens practice the art of flirtation on the grassy shores.
Just footsteps away is the famous Zilker train that takes young and old on a trek though the much of Zilker Park, past dogs cavorting in the churning waters below the springs, lazy turtles sunning themselves on rocks, swans and an occasional cygnet paddling elegantly along in the water below its track. You might catch a heated contest on the soccer fields or smell everything from burgers to sizzling fajitas as you pass by happy families grilling under the towering pecan trees. While it’s now somewhat more than the 25 cents I remember paying when my children were small, the ride is still a bargain, especially since they allowed us to buy a seat for Spatzle, our 80 pound Weimaraner.
A more active trip through Zilker Park is on the Town Lake Hike and Bike trail, a scenic loop around the city and park that extends 11 miles. If you so choose, you can bike over the new ten million dollar bridge reserved solely for pedestrians and cyclers, although once I did see a parade of miniature horses making their way over it on their weekly trek. Let’s face it, any city Lance Armstrong calls home had better show some commitment to bike traffic.
Along the north side of Lady Bird Lake, our affectionate word for the Colorado River that runs through downtown, you can stop to pay homage to Texas’ beloved legend, Stevie Ray Vaughan, who met his death in a helicopter crash on August 27, 1990. As with his music, so too the bronze statue is bigger than life. Fifteen years later, you can still find flowers and hand scribbled notes at its feet. While many cities reserve their memorials for honored statesman, it says quite a bit about Austin, capital of a state that produced no shortage of politicians, that a statue of this blues guitarist graces the shoreline of our city.
If you look out onto the waters, you may see a solitary kayaker ribboning through the placid waters as he strives for perfection. Its calm waters – no motor boats allowed – also lure hoards of college rowing teams here for practice as well as a few meets. A spring or summer evening at dusk may find you twice blessed as you stand on the Congress Bridge watching the muscled rowers touch their oars into the water in synchronized harmony and then looking upward, catch the nightly ascension of the free tail bats as they leave on their nightly quest for mosquitoes. From March into November, the city is host to the world’s largest urban bat colony, as upwards of 750,000 bats take up residence and birth in the crevices under this concrete bridge. At their peak, the colony surges to one and a half million, but they are loved and welcomed rather than feared. Perhaps these facts explain one reason for the affection accorded our bats: On a single night, it is estimated that they cover 1000 square miles of countryside and consume 10,000 to 30,000 pounds of insects!
We can assume that with all this swimming, cycling, kayaing, or hiking, you have worked up an appetite and are ready to make preparations for your Thanksgiving feast. For a break from the shoulder-to-shoulder crowds at the supermarket, Austin offers a wide variety of farmer’s markets, since garden vegetables can be grown all year round. One of my favorites is the Sunset Valley Farmer’s Market, which is strictly organic. Not only can you find wonderful veggies, but there is also a festive atmosphere with music, crafts, and all the celebration you would expect at a state fair. To keep your strength up as you stroll from booth to booth, indulge in the delightful pastries offered – currant scones, hot crossed buns, and hand-made cinnamon rolls – which you can wash down with exotic, healthy, and delicious herb teas or ginger spritzers.
If I’m lucky, I can also depend on my own small country garden to help supply the Thanksgiving feast. This year, even the draught couldn’t kill off the butternut squash, and I choose them as an alternative to yams or sweet potatoes. Fresh sage, Italian parsley, rosemary, and chives will give my stuffing just the right flavor. Too bad the thyme can never make it though a hot summer with only my weekly watering. I’ll save the dill for salad along with the cherry tomatoes that have had a rebirth with some recent rain. And the miniature red and pink roses will make a grand bouquet for the table.
I’ll be up early to make the stuffing and get the turkey in the roaster, unless my son has his way and tries out his new turkey fryer this year. His most persuasive point is that this method only takes about forty minutes. By noon, the kitchen smells of sautéed onions and celery, turkey broth, and fresh herbs.
Most of the work is done and I am free to saddle up beautiful Alazun, my retired Arabian racehorse, who is now content to shepherd me around the rolling hills of our pasture. Gary mounts Baby Blue, his grey gelding named after a favorite Bob Dylan song, and we are off. We pad through the tall grass, an amber sea in the wind, and surprise a great blue heron fishing the back pond. He lifts his wings and arches across the Texas sky, a gray silhouette of grace and beauty. Sure beats watching football on TV.
North and South Stuffing / Butternut Squash
(Makes enough for a 14 to 17 pound turkey)
While I still relished the taste of whole grain stuffing from my childhood, the longer I lived in Texas the more I became enchanted with the texture and crunchiness of cornbread stuffing. My compromise is to split the difference and use half regular bread cubes and half cornbread cubes.
If you have time, you can make your own cornbread the day before, let it dry out, and cube it. The same goes for toasting your favorite whole grain bread. I used to do both, even when my children were small and I worked full time. Now I prefer to spend the hours with the family, especially our five terrific grandchildren. And to tell the truth, I can’t taste the difference.
- 2 cups finely diced celery
- 2 onions, chopped
- 1/2 to 1 stick butter or margarine
- 2 tablespoon each, finely chopped
- fresh garden sage
- fresh rosemary
- fresh lemon thyme
- fresh chives
- 1/3 cup snipped Italian parsley
- 3/4 teaspoon salt
- dash coarsely ground pepper
- 3 tablespoons wild rice
- 1 package cubed corn bread
- 1 packages cubed whole grain bread
- 1 cup chicken stock
- 1 beaten egg
Sauté the onions and celery in the butter until tender, about five minutes. Remove from heat and add the herbs, parsley, salt, pepper, and wild rice.
Combine with the bread and cornbread cubes until well mixed. Add the stock and beaten egg and toss. Your stuffing should be moist but not packed together.
Lightly stuff and truss your turkey and bake according to directions.
To cook separately, turn into a large, shallow buttered baking dish and bake at 350 degrees until the top has formed a crust and the stuffing is heated through, about 25 to 40 minutes.
With all the heavy and sweet food of Thanksgiving, sometimes it is a starch overload. We aren’t really facing the winter chill in the same way the Pilgrim and their Native American celebrants did at their original Thanksgiving and don’t need all those heat producing calories, anyway.
For that reason, I will be using the butternut squash instead of sweet potatoes. And instead of the brown sugar or honey usually sprinkled on top, I use a little butter or olive oil, and sprinkles of cheese.
- One large or two medium butternut squash
- Several pats butter, margarine, or light coating of olive oil
- 3/4 cup of your favorite cheese, sliced or grated
- Mrs. Dash seasoning
If your squash is small, you can simply poke a few holes in the skins and microwave it for 6 to 8 minutes.
Larger squash can be sliced lengthwise, and then microwaved.
Either way, the final product is sliced lengthwise, with the pulp and seeds removed.
Dot with butter, season, and sprinkle cheese on top. Return to the microwave for 1 minute, just long enough to melt the cheese.