A Texan Feast

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“In fact, I’m something of a gourmand — I believe you spell it that way.” Robert E. Howard to H.P. Lovecraft, ca. December 1932.

Howard Days in Cross Plains is just around the corner. Thus and therefore (and especially since I’m unable to attend this year), I find myself yearning for fare of the Texan persuasion. My first trip to Howard Days (in 2006), I stayed over in Dallas the night before. One of my Texan cousins steered me to a little hole-in-the-wall called Lee Harvey’s in a fairly disreputable quarter of the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex. Excellent burgers, cold beer and billiards (and discussions regarding Dan Brown and the Knights Templar) made for a memorable evening.

Soon after pulling up to the Alla Ray Morris Pavillion in Cross Plains the next day, I savored the hearty fare purveyed by Joan McCowen and the other estimable members of Project Pride. Nachos and chili just do a pilgrim’s soul good, I must say.

The gustatory highpoint (figuratively and literally) of both my trips to Robert E. Howard’s hometown would have to be the Saturday night barbecues at the Caddo Peak Ranch. Do not breath a word of this to my Kansan brethren, but Texan BBQ has it all over KC barbecue. Marjorie Middleton (and many others) put on a mouth-watering spread of Texan proportions, with attendant Lone Star hospitality.

However, my trips to Cross Plains were but the latest of my personal forays into the splendrous fields of Texan cuisine. Ever since the Christmas of ’76, I’ve visited Texas and sampled its culinary wares. Having relatives in the Dallas area helps mightily in that regard. Probably my most memorable visit (in regards to Texan food) was in 1980. In the short week I was there, my uncle took me to the legendary Tolbert’s Chili Parlor (founded by a Texan with the most Howardian moniker of “Frank X. Tolbert”) and a Tex-Mex restaurant (name unremembered) which served a delectable (and still unknown-beyond-Texas, at the time) dish called “fajitas”. Yeah, I thought my Uncle Gary Bradbury was pretty cool.

Robert E. Howard was, by his own admission, a bit of a “gourmand.” Judging from what Rusty Burke cites in “The Gustatory REH,” Howard was not laying claim to a false title. For a small-town Central Texas boy who reached manhood before the Second World War, REH’s tastes in food were wide-ranging (indicative of his far-reaching studies in numerous other areas). In his letters, Howard speaks of his appreciation for Mexican, Italian, German, Creole (and, by extension, Caribbean) cuisines. Such might be more likely expected (in that era) from a well-heeled sophisticate born to a more cosmopolitan clime.

That said and noted, I believe Robert E. Howard would be highly pleased by the latest (July 2009) issue of Saveur magazine, which is on newsstands as we speak. Most fortuitously (considering that Howard Days are just around 120-121_saveur_cover_306the corner), the editors and writers of Saveur (several of whom have Texan connections) decided to dedicate their most recent issue to the food-ways of the Lone Star State. To my knowledge, Saveur has never devoted an entire issue, cover to cover, to just one region, state or country (depending on whether you’re a Texan or not, the “state” or “country” designation may be problematic).

So, a singular honor has been granted to Texan cuisine by the finest cooking magazine in print (which Saveur is, in my opinion). Several chapters in the July 2009 issue relate specifically to Robert E. Howard’s opinions and tastes. Here’s a few…

Chapter 1: The Best Beef on Earth

This chapter features a fine two-page photo depicting a herd of Texas Longhorns. Anyone who has read The Collected Letters of Robert E. Howard knows how REH regretted that the Lone Star State was diverted from its destiny of being a “cattle empire.”

Chapter 2: Chuck Wagon Cooking

A fine write-up on the origination and evolution of the chuck wagon, without which the “cowboy lifestyle” that REH so admired would have been even more spartan.

Chapter 7: El Paso

This chapter visits the Enriquez family of restauranteurs. A fine recipe for cheese enchiladas is included (REH’s love of cheese just goes without saying).

Mexican dishes I enjoy, but they don’t agree with me much. However I generally wrestle with them every time I go to the Border. Tamales, enchiladas, tacos, chili con carne to a lesser extent…

Robert E. Howard

Chapter 8: Gulf Oystermen

Saveur interviews Misho Ivic, owner of Misho’s Oyster Company, near Galveston.

Too bad sea-food disagrees with you. Now with me, as with many inland dwellers, it constitutes a rare delicacy. And the word ‘rare’ is quite descriptive. Oysters are about the only sort of sea-food which finds its way this far up-country.

When I get in a sea-port town, I revel in oysters, shrimps, crabs, sea-fish, and the like, to my heart’s content.

Robert E. Howard

Chapter 18: Drinks That Beat the Heat

The “Book Club Sangria” and the “Chico” both seem to be mixed beverages that REH would’ve enjoyed, judging from his letters.

Chapter 21: Superlative Sides

REH’s appreciation for cornbread, well-cooked collard greens and frijoles a la charra is pretty well-attested.

Chapter 22: Vaquero Cooking

Howard liked his grilled cabrito (which is now a “trendy” delicacy).

Tamales, enchiladas, tacos, chili con carne to a lesser extent, barbecued goat-meat, tortillas, Spanish-cooked rice, frijoles — they play the devil with a white man’s digestion, but they have a tang you seldom find in Anglo-Saxon cookery.

Robert E. Howard

Throughout the entire issue, Saveur references places and things near and dear to the hearts of Howardians, including Fredericksburg and the Shiner brewery. This is a truly excellent issue of a quality magazine. Don’t take my word for it. Texas Monthly, the “National Magazine of Texas,” has already rendered its verdict.

Howard’s tastes in food roamed far and wide, much like the fictional protagonists he created. Judging from his letters, when Robert E. Howard traveled (much more widely than some assert), he did not seek to “eat like home” in such “foreign” climes. Instead, he leapt whole-heartedly into the native cuisine. In doing so, he displayed an “intestinal fortitude” that many “ugly American” tourists fail to display to this very day. Sampling “native” cuisine (whether it be in Malibu or Malabar, Pitlochry or Pittsburg) is one of the most (literally) visceral ways to connect with a culture. What you eat is where you live, basically. Howard’s attitude towards such outrĂ© fare may be another clue to his ability to realistically depict characters as disparate as Afghan hillmen and Norman peasant girls.