Final Cover with Lettering(This is the background, or essential info-dump relating to the history of Luna City, Texas. This will be one of my books for this fall, as soon as I dash off another hundred pages or so, of the doings of a little town where eccentricity is on tap, day and night.)

Luna City is an incorporated township, located in Karnes County, Texas, at approximately 28°57′29″N 97°53′50″W, a point where Texas Rte 123 crosses the San Antonio River. The population of Luna City and environs in the 2010 Census was 2,453. The nearest large town is Karnesville, the county seat, approximately ten miles south of Luna City. Those residents of Luna City not employed in their own small businesses commute to Karnesville for work, or to nearby enterprises such as the entertainment/spa/commercial venue of Mills Farm, the Lazy W exotic game ranch, or in various oil-production ventures associated with the Eagle Ford shale oil formation. Notable people from Luna City include the prima ballerina Johanna Gonzales Garcia, international financier Collin Wyler, noted historian Douglas McAllister, Korean War jet-fighter ace Hernando “Nando” Gonzalez, and the legendary bootlegger Charles “Old Charley” Mills.

The land on which Luna City was later established was part of a 1769 Spanish land grant of a league and a labor to one Don Diego Manuel Hernando Ruiz y Gonzalez (or Gonzales), who may have been already settled in the area at the time that his grant was recorded. It is a matter of undisputed archeological record that Don Diego, members of his family or in his employ were engaged in grazing cattle, goats and sheep in the area, as an adobe structure on the northern outskirts of Luna City was extensively excavated and studied in the late 1960s. The structure apparently served as a shelter for both animals and people. Evidence of regular camping and hunting by elements of the native Tonkawa people at a fairly early date was also found in later excavations in the area. The first recorded permanent dwelling in the area was built in 1857 adjacent to an easily-forded stretch of the San Antonio River, by Herman Borgfeld, an immigrant stonemason from Bohemia, who ran a small general store, tavern and inn catering to travelers between San Antonio and the coast.

In 1867, a large portion of the tract originally part of the Gonzales or Gonzalez grant were purchased by Herbert Kling Wyler, formerly a captain in the Confederate Army, assigned during the hostilities to various garrisons west of the Mississippi and in Texas. Captain Wyler had been involved in various capacities with operations to move Confederate cotton to Brownsville and thence over the border to the Mexican port of Baghdad, from where it was shipped to Europe. He emerged from his wartime service with sufficient wherewithal to purchase outright what is presently the Lazy W Ranch, still run by his great-grandson, Dr. Stephen Wyler. Captain Wyler caused to be built a palatial residence, modeled after the magnificent Greek Revival-style mansion of Windsor, at Port Gibson, Mississippi, a mansion distinguished by a series of ornate columns all around the perimeter of the structure which extended from the main floor through two stories to the roofline and supported a wide veranda on the main floor, and wrap-around galleries on the second. It is thought that the local economy revived to a not inconsiderable degree, as construction of the house itself employed hundreds of local workers at a time and in a place where money was scarce. (The ranch residence and gardens are open to the public once yearly, for the term of a week in mid-September, as part of the observances of Founders’ Day, although application for private tour may be made through the website for the Wyler Game Ranch.)

Around 1884, or 1885, having made another considerable fortune in trailing herds of cattle north to Kansas, Captain Wyler became intensely interested in the possibility of establishing a town on his property, since the proposed town-site lay along a possible route proposed for the as-then-unbuilt San Antonio & Aransas Pass Railway. Along with Don Antonio Gonzalez, presumed descendent of Don Diego Manuel Hernando Ruiz y Gonzalez (or Gonzales) and the second largest landowner in the district, Captain Wyler formed a corporation to attract investors and businessmen willing to settle in a new town. Captain Wyler brought in as a partner in the project, an ambitious surveyor and engineer who dabbled in architecture, Arthur Wells ‘A.W.’ McAllister, to not only survey the site and create the city plat, but to design various public buildings, including a suitably impressive courthouse. It was confidently expected that Luna City, as Captain Wyler dubbed his project, would become the county seat. Arthur Wells McAllister in turn was so confident of success and committed to the project that he moved his family to the site, after purchasing, expanding and renovating the original Borgfeld stone house. (The house still stands amid spacious and well-maintained gardens along Rte. 123, and is lived in by his descendants.)

Alas for Captain Wyler’s ambitious plans; they were undone by love – specifically that of his daughter, Myra Elizabeth “Bessie” Wyler. Having married relatively late in life, his progeny numbered only three; two sons and Myra Elizabeth, the youngest. He doted upon them to a considerable degree, and especially on Myra Elizabeth – beautiful, indulged and impetuous. On returning from a year in a finishing school in New Orleans, which the Captain and his wife had hoped would curb Bessie’s naturally youthful high spirits, the young woman fell hopelessly in love with one Edward Standifor, some ten years her senior and employed as a locomotive engineer on the GH & SA Railway. Bessie Wyler eloped with Edward Standifor; they were married by a Justice of the Peace in Fort Worth and settled down to a life of respectable tranquility – but Captain Wyler’s fury knew no bounds. He not only disowned his daughter, but declared that his enmity against the railway – all it’s works, ways, establishments and personnel – was unremitting. The railway was, he declared in an impassioned statement to the San Antonio Express News, an open invitation to the establishment of vice and debauchery of every kind, a threat to the virtue of susceptible young women and girls everywhere … and he vehemently withdrew any support previously rendered to the establishment of a route for the San Antonio & Aransas Pass Railway which led through his property. From surviving correspondence, it appears that A. W. McAllister blithely assumed that this was an attempt by Captain Wyler to pressure the builders of the SA & AP into offering a higher price for the right-of-way through his property. A.W. had a basis for this belief, as Captain Wyler had a long-established reputation for driving a hard bargain, using every possible means at his disposal – including treachery and personal tragedy, as they served his immediate purpose.

Alas for the future of Luna City as a station on the SA & AP – Captain Wyler was completely in earnest. The managers of the proposed railway line shifted the proposed route to run through Karnesville – and all the investors in the Luna City project were left high and dry, including A.W. McAllister, who had sunk all of his own funds into the project and therefore had to make the best of it. Fittingly enough, he did prosper in a mild way – although not to the degree that he would have, if the whole project had come about as originally projected. Still – he was respected and honored, as the decades wore on; the man who originated the vision of Luna City, and designed nearly every one of its surviving public buildings. Architectural historians and aficionados for this kind of thing laud Luna City as a peerless and harmonic jewel of minor late Victorian and Beaux-Arts city planning.

As for Bessie Wyler Standifor, she and her husband lived to a ripe and happy old age, parents of a large and prosperous family. In the early years of the 20th century, she and whoever of her children wanted to accompany her were frequent guests of honor at Founders Day observances. It is noted, however, that her father throughout the remainder of his life eschewed railway travel, choosing to travel in a horse and buggy until the development of other means of transportation. Captain Wyler was the first recorded owner of an automobile in Karnes County in 1901 – a Columbia Electric Runabout – and the first to die in an automobile accident five years later, when – at the wheel of it and against the advice of his chauffeur – he collided with another motorized vehicle on what would become Rte. 123. There is a historical marker alongside the roadway where this occurred. Folk memory has it that the driver of the other vehicle was none other than Charley Mills, with a load of illicit whiskey.

Final Cover with Lettering(Working away at the two upcoming book projects – and have completed a chapter of the Luna City chronicles … yes, what happens at the Luna Moths Homecoming game this year … an event which seems to be erratically cursed.)

Autumn had begun to touch the oaks and sycamores with gold; the nights and days were already cooler by several degrees. Both Luna City schools began their fall term; once again, the strains of Sousa, Alford and Orff floated on the early morning air early on Tuesday and Thursday mornings, for Coach Garrett was a martinet when it came to band practice. The new school bus – with all the latest and most high-end bells and whistles available – circulated through the streets and country roads like some mammoth orange fish, retractable stop signs on either side flapping open and shut like monstrous gills, and all lights blinking on and off. Petra Gonzalez, the regular Luna City School District bus driver had not quite gotten the hang of the new bus, being that it was a considerable leap forward, technologically-speaking from the previous iteration. (The previous bus had become unreliable in the extreme, to the point of barely making it out of the school bus barn, and so the Luna City PTA held a series of fund drives.)

“It’s quiet,” Joe Vaughn complained one morning, as he sat with Jess Abernathy at a sidewalk table out in front of the Luna Café and Coffee. “Too quiet; like the lull before the storm.”

“You always say that before Founder’s Day,” Jess reminded him, and Joe scowled.

“It’s not Founder’s Day,” he replied. “That’s only a matter of practicing good community policing … and keeping ready to drop on visiting dirtbags. It’s the Homecoming game that keeps me up at night.”

“Yeah, I’ve been meaning to talk to you about that,” Jess quoted their conversation of the night before. “’Come to bed, sweetie,’ ‘Sorry babe, I can’t sleep’ – because you are walking the floor, worrying about what fresh hell awaits. Nothing happened last year, the year before, or the year before that.”

“But something will happen,” Joe scowled even more. “That it didn’t happen last year, or the year before – that just ups the odds that something will happen this year. Something always happens, every three or four years.”

“I think you’re being unnecessarily paranoid, Joe,” Jess argued, although she was also well aware of the erratic series of disasters which had plagued Moths homecoming game since time immemorial.

“It’s not paranoid to take a realistic view of the situation,” Joe replied, and began ticking off events on his fingers. “The plague of frogs in ’84, Hurricane Gilbert in ’88, the sudden sink-hole in the end zone in ’91 or ’92, the *sshole prankster with the live beaver in ‘96 … and no, that was not my circus and not my monkey.” More »

Sunset and Steel Rails Mockup Cover Pics with titles

(All right, then – I have been working away on one of the works in progress – a continuation of the family saga established in the Adelsverein Trilogy, and suggested in the Daughter of Texas/Deep in the Heart prelude. What happens when the granddaughter of Race Vining’s wife in Boston comes west … and marries peripatetic adventurer and long-time bachelor Fredi Steinmetz?)

Chapter 20 – A Man of Family

“Sophie, my dear,” said Lottie Thurmond on the occasion of the baptism of the Steinmetz’ sixth child and third son, “When I suggested after your wedding – and it was only a suggestion, mind you, although based on Scriptural authority – that you and Fred should go fourth and multiply, I did not for a moment think that you should take me so literally. It’s as if you are attempting to fill the children’s Sunday school single-handed.”
“We love children,” Sophia replied, serenely. She settled baby Christian to a more comfortable position in her lap. “And we agreed that we would try and have a large family.”
“Yes, but it must seem as if every time Fred throws his trousers on the foot of the bed, you are in the family way again. Six children in ten years! At this rate, you will never get your figure entirely back.”
“I don’t care,” Sophia smiled at her friend. They were sitting in the parlor of Lottie’s house. “Looking after the children and the house keeps me thin, and I never was very plump to begin with.”
“At least, motherhood suits you,” Lottie acknowledged in humorous resignation. “And you are happy in it. And fatherhood suits Fred – who would have ever thought it!”
Out in the garden, Fred was throwing horses-shoes with the older children, while Frank Thurmond smoked a cigar in the shade of the one cottonwood tree in the Thurmond’s garden. Lottie despaired of ever having grass grow in it, and had settled on raked gravel and pots of shrubs and flowers. Now the children romped with happy energy, little constrained by their good Sunday clothes, for Sophia had long decided to be practical. Minnie, Carlotta and Annabelle all wore sailor dresses of stout broadcloth, in the same general cut, and handed down from sister to sister, as they grew. Their brothers Charles Henry and Fred Harvey would likely follow the same pattern as far as hand-me-down clothing went. They were stair-step children, from Minnie down to the toddler Fred, although Annabelle and Charles Henry were twins, and otherwise identical. This had pleased Fred Steinmetz very much. He reminded Sophia that he was a twin himself, and there was a pair of twins in his sister’s family as well. Sophia loved them all with fierce affection, although if pressed, she would have to confess that she was especially fond of Minnie, grave and intelligent beyond her nine years. It seemed that she had inherited Great Aunt Minnie’s intellectual leanings along with the name.
“So, this journey to Galveston is still in your plans?” Lottie asked.
“Oh, yes. It’s going to be quite an occasion for all of Fred’s relations – the wedding of his oldest nephew’s daughter. And it will be the first time that I will be meeting most of them. His sister and her son and daughter-in-law came out to Deming four years ago, so I have met them – her son was the one who painted those perfectly splendid pictures which you admired so much in our parlor. My friend Laura, whom I shared a room with the first year that I worked for the Harvey House? She lives there now. In her letters, she says such wonderful things – so very modern and fine! The seashore there is marvelous, and it is almost the richest town in Texas … and I am actually looking forward to it. It’s been … it seems like forever since I saw an ocean.”
“You still don’t sound as if you are looking forward to it,” Lottie observed, acutely, and Sophia sighed. “Is it the thought of a long train journey?”
“No – I still adore traveling by train, and I have friends in so many places! The children will love the excursion, I am certain …”
“Fred’s family, then?”
“No, although it will be quite daunting for us; Fred married me so very late … all his sisters and his brothers’ children are quite grown, so much older than our little gaggle. I imagine that I will be the object of considerable curiosity… but his sister is quite the queenly matriarch, and she approves of me, at any rate. No, it’s my nephew, Richie. He’s going to come to Galveston too … with the intention of seeing me.”
“Oh, dear.” Lottie sat back in her chair, entirely sympathetic. “So that is it … this will be the son of your brother? He went to a great deal of trouble to locate you, and assure himself that you were still alive, my dear Sophie. Do you have reason to fear his interest, in some way?”
“I don’t know,” Sophia answered, bleak and miserable. She was glad that Fred and the other children were all outside. “He was a pleasant and very charming boy, and his letters to me are affectionate and what one would expect … but he was only the age of Minnie when I last saw him. My brother also appeared to everyone to be a pleasant and charming boy … but he was a monster. Once that one has been fooled in so significant a manner, one will always have doubts about one’s judgement of character, you see. And it is not just me, but our children. He is a grown man himself, now – and I fear that he will have turned out like his father.”
“Fred will be there,” Lottie spoke with stout assurance. “And all of his family; he certainly will not permit anyone to do harm to you – or the little ones, either.”
“I suppose,” Sophia acknowledged, for that was a comfortable consideration. “Fifteen years – nearly sixteen – is a long time, time in which I have put aside so much of the girl that I used to be. I hate any reminder now, of how persecuted and desperate I was. Lottie – my best friends and dearest kin – they turned their backs on me, and I was helpless! I had nowhere to go, no means of throwing back the calumnies that they heaped upon me!” Distressed and agitated, she wrung her hands together – this was the first time that she had been able to speak of her fears freely, to an understanding person. “I do not like being reminded of that person that I once was, Lottie … I fear that I might be thrown back into that helpless state of mind…”
“But you are not that helpless girl any more,” Lottie reached out her hands and captured Sophia’s in hers. “You became a strong and independent woman, with a darling family and friends who would not consider turning their back on you in distress. We become many people in our lives, as we pass through the stages of womanhood. I am no longer the sweet obedient belle that my mother sent out to snag a rich husband and you are no longer that desperate girl, escaping your brother’s machinations. Nothing in our lives can no put us back to what we were, once … not after so long a time has passed.”
“I suppose so,” Sophia confessed, somewhat comforted by Lottie’s vehemence. “And I will do my best to recall your words.”
“Do, my dear. When are you leaving for Galveston?”
“A week from tomorrow; we’ll go as far as San Antonio on the regular Pullman coach. The family has a most splendid parlor car of their own, and we’ll go on to Galveston together with those relations who live there.”
“It sounds as if it will be a wonderful excursion,” Lottie assured her. “You must write me of every detail.”

* * *

San Antonio
August 21, 1900
My dear Lottie:
Here we are safely arrived in San Antonio after our rather tiring journey. The dear children and I are all well, as is darling F. He sends his best wishes, and says that you and Frank would likely not recognize your old haunts! The old city is much changed – as have many cities – most especially by the arrival of the railroad. Little remains of the old Spanish citadel save the original chapel, now that the Army has established their new post in the hills to the north of town. The children have enjoyed the journey so far, and have been most angelic in their behavior, and Min has asked me the most searching questions – such a solemn little Miss!
Here we have met with the closer portion of F.’s family; his older sister Magda Becker, her two sons and two daughters, all with their wives and children. There is a certain consistency in appearance, by which we discern that branch of the family – a tendency to be tall, with very fair straight hair and blue eyes. The family of F.’s other sister, the Richters, (both she and her husband are deceased, alas) are also uniformly recognizable by appearance: rather shorter, with very dark hair and eyes of a brown hue. This is all complicated somewhat by intermarriage. To my astonishment, there is also a portion of the family with the surname of Vining – the very name of my maternal grandfather – and I was first assumed on the basis of my own appearance to be a connection of theirs.
On the morrow, we depart in a large party for Galveston …

* * *

Sophia omitted from her letter to Lottie one or two of the most awkward moments; once when she overheard Magda Becker’s younger daughter Charlotte Bertrand remark in astonishment to her sister-in-law,
“She is so young! Where on earth did Onkel Fredi meet up with her – I sincerely hope it was not some low dance-hall!”
Jane, the sister-in-law was the wife of Sam Becker the painter; they had stayed in Deming for several weeks, so that Sam could paint some lovely landscapes in New Mexico. Jane now replied,
“No, dear – she was working at a Harvey house. Her family was most respectable, but they fell on hard times.”
“Oh, I see.” Sophia was about to tiptoe away quietly from the doorway out to the terrace of the Richter mansion, before her presence was noted, but for Charlotte Bertrand observing,
“It is curious, though … she resembles Cousin Horrie in almost every particular. They could be brother and sister, almost. Have you noticed?”
“I can’t say that I have,” Jane replied. Shaken, Sophia slipped away. Was there some closer connection to these Texas Vinings?

The question weighed on her, especially when the Vinings – connected by marriage to both families – arrived from Austin within days; Peter Vining, the patriarch of that branch with his wife Anna – whom Sophia recalled with particular fondness from that brief meeting in Newton, at the start of her time in Fred Harvey company. Peter Vining also brought his daughter Rose and his nephew, that Horrie Vining which she was herself said to resemble. As Horrie and his wife were little older than Sophia herself, their children were of an age to be playmates with Fred and Sophia’s children.
Sophia had to admit, the likeness between herself and Horrie was more than a little unsettling; of the same light frame physically, but cast in a masculine mold, the same shape to their faces, eyes of the same blue-grey color … and the same tightly-curling light brown hair. Horrie Vining was the very image of young Grandfather Vining, in that antique portrait of he and Great-Aunt Minnie, which once had hung in the old Vining mansion on Beacon Hill.

(Another chapter in the continuing series about Luna City, Texas: Richard, the so-called bad boy chef, fleeing certain professional and human disasters, has been offered an opportunity to manage the Luna City Café.)

Final Cover with LetteringMindful of Dr. Wyler’s admonition – to appear at the Luna City Café at 10 AM, clean, sharp, sober and dressed, Richard Astor-Hall did not overindulge; that evening, he had a glass or two of the rather nice Texas chardonnay from the bottle in the tiny fridge, which the Gonzalez housekeeping ladies had thoughtfully placed there, along with some milk, a package of bacon, a box of teabags and another of sugar cubes, half a dozen eggs and a loaf of bread. The wine and bread went splendidly with the caldo. He whiled away the remainder of the day trying on the castoff clothing – which generally fitted him well and had the additional and supremely attractive virtue of being clean – and reading Larousse Gastronomique, while wondering what it was that Dr. Wyler had in mind. It was an amazingly restful afternoon and evening, unmarred by the constant buzzing and beeping of his cellphone.

He woke with the sunrise – no, it could not possibly be anywhere near 10 AM – the sunrise was a mere pale primrose band, just above the wooded horizon. Richard dressed hastily in a pair of board shorts and a tee-shirt chosen totally at random. The tee-shirt had FBI written in large letters across the chest, and something below it in smaller letters. Looking out across the deserted campground, he watched a brief pale mist rising like smoke from the river, and noted that one of his erstwhile hosts was out in the goat field, towing a small cart on spindly bicycle wheels. From the manner in which the goats – large and small – were gathering enthusiastically around the cart, Richard assumed that it must contain something which they wanted to eat … and wanted to eat, very much.
He went hastily across the campground, and leaned over the haphazard combination of fence and spindly hedge which enclosed – not very efficiently – the goat pasture.
“Oi!” Richard shouted, and the man with the cart looked up, distracted from the herd of goats, jostling each other for his urgent attention. “I’ve got to be at someplace called the Luna Café at ten of the morning … can you tell me how to get there from here?”
“Better yet,” his informant called back – it was Sefton Grant, in his customary at-home working attire of battered cowboy boots and nothing else. “I can take you there, as soon as I’m done with the kids. We have a regular delivery, mid-morning. When you are ready, just come to the yurt. You can’t miss it.”
“I hope not,” Richard said, but only to himself; a yurt, here in the highlands of Texas.
Twenty minutes later – after affirming the time through the medium of the television set, and having a quick and unsatisfactory cup of tea, Richard switched off the television set. The picture it broadcast was black and white and grainy in the extreme, and the lead story seemed to be a breathless update regarding a fugitive celebrity. The celebrity wasn’t him; Richard didn’t know whether to be relieved or slighted by the lack of interest. He also didn’t know whether to lock the Airstream caravan or not … nothing in it was his personal property at all, strictly speaking, save the chef’s jacket which he was taking with him. Roman Gonzalez had commented that no one locked their doors in Luna City. Richard did make certain that the door was closed all the way, to preserve the delicious coolness inside. Three steps away from the shelter of the metal awning, in the full glare of the morning sun – and it was already hotter than a brilliant English summer day in Bickley.

He walked down a small and winding path that seemed to lead back into a grove of monumental trees – tall trees, with massive trunks and small and dark green leaves. There was musical sound of chimes coming from that direction, and the regular flashing blades of a small windmill at the apex of a weathered metal-frame tower. Cloth banners fluttered from here and there, some of them faded, some of them bright. He passed by a vegetable garden, surrounded on all sides by a tall metal-mesh fence in a surprisingly good state of repair, and … even more surprising, a line of whitewashed square beehives. And in that way, Richard came upon the eccentric and colorful establishment which housed the Grants, their assortment of livestock, and the occasional visiting kin or former commune members. A number of small structures – a metal-sided garden shed, a chicken run and coop made of reclaimed doors and windows, an even more rambling greenhouse constructed of even more reclaimed windows, an Indian teepee, another ancient caravan, with wheels long decayed, a water tank on tall stilt legs, and a towering pile of cut firewood, scattered throughout a half-acre stand of oak trees.

All these structures orbited around the central sun of a towering fabric-covered yurt. Overhead, the windmill turned with a slight metallic clatter, and chickens wandered freely, scratching industriously in the dirt and leaf-mast. A tall white llama looked at him scornfully, and then wandered away – to Richard’s relief. A most extraordinary vehicle sat before the yurt’s single entrance. The front half, all the way back to the first pair of doors looked like – and was, by proof of a large, circular Volkswagen logo adorning it center front – an ancient VW bus. But the back half had been replaced by an open truck bed, and the whole adorned by random free-hand graffiti in brilliant spray-painted designs. It was impossible to tell what color, aside from rust, that this contraption had been originally. Sefton Grant – now more conventionally clad in jeans and an old Grateful Dead concert tee shirt – was loading the back of the bus-truck with flats of eggs, and a box of garden produce. Judy Grant emerged from the caravan with a large jar and a small brown-paper bag in hand. She was dressed – or more accurately – undressed in the Grants customary manner.

“Good morning!” she greeted Richard, and Sefton dusted off his hands on the seat of his jeans. “Up with the chickens, I see – but not as early as our chickens! Seftie-dear, these are for the Abernathys, if you can drop them off as well. And don’t forget – supper tonight is Lentil Surprise. Mr. Hall, you’d be welcome to join us.”
“Got it, Judikins,” Sefton replied, with a notable lack of enthusiasm, as he turned to Richard. “Sure – Judikin’s Lentil Surprise is … unforgettable.” As the combination van-truck bumped down the unpaved dirt track, and Richard tried to keep himself more or less steady in the passenger seat with the aid of a tattered seat-belt, Sefton added, “Yeah, and I wish that she would go ahead and forget the recipe … but wish in one hand, and cr*p in the other; see which hand fills up first. That’s what the damned stuff tastes like, too.”
“My sympathies,” Richard offered. “I’ll consult Larousse Gastronomique, and see if there is some tastier surprise one can achieve with lentils.”
“Don’t worry about it,” Sefton answered. “As soon as I drop all this off, I’m driving over to Karnesville and grab a double-bacon-cheeseburger at the Dairy Queen.” He winked at Richard and added, “Keep my secret, ‘kay?”
“My lips are sealed,” Richard assured him. The motley van-truck emerged from the dusty farm track, and onto a narrow paved road – which, within a few hundred feet, went from pastures and cultivated fields – of something, Richard wasn’t the least certain – to scattered houses, surrounded by ragged lawns and gardens ornamented with items like planters made from inside-out truck tires.

“This is the short-cut into town,” Sefton explained. “Straight on to the right, there’s the high-school … and one block past the lone oak, there’s Town Square.” Sefton carefully edged the van-truck around a gargantuan oak, sprouting inexplicably from the center of the road.
“Singular place to have an oak tree,” Richard commented, and Sefton replied,
“Well … folks around here, they loved these big oak trees. When they platted out the town, the story is that Old Antonio Gonzalez swore that if they cut down any of the big old oaks, than town would only last for as long as the stumps rotted. They’d already lost the railroad, through Bessie Wyler running off with an engineer on the GH&SA. Ol’ Antonio, he knew his curses, so they say, and folk hereabouts didn’t want to take a chance of them sticking. Ah … here we are. A mountainous pile of capitalist-pig enterprise, but … hey, we do what we can.”

Richard regarded the pleasant tree-grown square with mild pleasure. This was so much better than what he had half-expected. When Dr. Wyler mentioned that the Café was on something called Town Square, Richard had automatically assumed some barren and charmless concrete square rimmed with geometrical shop-fronts in brutal Bauhaus modern style, all plate glass windows, a few discouraged sapling trees with uncomfortable bench seats underneath them, and a fountain; a plain geometric shape with a formless metal turd in the center. The aspect before him was the complete antithesis of that dismal late 20th century urban vision; a sweep of lawn underneath the heavy branches of ancient oaks, crowned with a tall domed bandstand in the center, and late Victorian storefronts on three sides, all lavishly ornamented with balconies, window pediments and colorful brick and tile work. The building on the fourth side of the square took up the entire block and sat a little way back from the sidewalk. A playground – with swings and slides, and yellow squares marked out on the paving for games – made the letters across the porch reading “Luna City Unified School District” entirely redundant. Sefton turned to the left, and drove around two sides of the square, before finally parking. Gold block letters on a pair of tall old-fashioned shop windows spelled out Luna Café & Coffee. A number of tables surrounded by chairs were arrayed in the shade of a hefty wooden awning which covered nearly all the sidewalk.

“This is it,” Sefton announced, rather unnecessarily. “And you said ten? I see Doc Wyler is already waiting for you.”
Yes, there was the old veterinarian, sitting at a table just inside. Richard sighed inwardly. He had not felt quite like this since he was at school and summoned to the headmaster’s study. He took up the folded chef’s jacket and sauntered inside, assuming a confidence he did not really feel. Two women and another young man shared Dr. Wyler’s table, but otherwise the place was empty. A small ice-chest sat at their feet. The younger woman was the sandy-haired young woman with her hair in cowgirl plaits – the girl who had been at the campground the day before. A handbag large enough to be a briefcase hung from the back of her chair. Richard did not want to recall the embarrassing moment of that previous meeting. The older lady, impeccably turned out in an old-fashioned rayon shirt-dress with matching hat, gloves, and handbag, looked as if she just come from a fashion-magazine shoot for a publication featuring vintage clothing for the geriatric set.

“Ah … good of you to join us, Mr. Astor-Hall; take a pew – you’ve already met my financial advisor, Jess Abernathy, I think. This is my business associate, Leticia McAllister, and Christopher Mayall – a good person to know.” Dr. Wyler rose, and gestured Richard to a chair, whereupon the young man stood, stuck out his hand and said, “Take mine – I gotta get back to the Icehouse. Just call me Chris, Mr. Hall.”
“I think I owe you for groceries,” Richard said, and Chris Mayall shrugged. He looked to be about Richard’s age, gangly and smooth-faced, the light-brown color of excellent café-au-lait. “Pay when you can,” he replied. “I know where you live. Miss Letty, you promise you call me when you’re done, and I’ll come get you,” he added, and to Richard’s utter astonishment, he leaned down and dropped a brief and chivalrous kiss on the back of Miss Letty’s raised hand.

“You’re a good boy, Chris,” Miss Letty replied, and Richard wondered if his eyebrows were up in his hairline already. He took the seat indicated, and Dr. Wyler got straight down to the point.
“Your papers say that you’re a chef, son – Paris-trained and all that. Well, we here in Luna City may live in a bitty little town in the sticks, but we got newspapers, TV and the internet, too. We heard tell that got yourself into a pickle in your life … well, we here in Luna City, we’ve got ourselves a situation, too. This here little enterprise is crying out for lack of a good chef, since those bastards at Mills Farm …”
“Language,” Miss Letty interjected in a warning tone of voice.
“Sorry, Miss Letty.” Dr. Wyler didn’t sound particularly contrite. “See here, Mr. Hall – this place is the heart of Luna City. Sit here long enough, you’d see everyone you know in town. It’s the only place to get a decent cup of coffee without driving to Karnesville … and the only place aside from the Icehouse, and Pryor’s Good Meats BBQ where you can get a bite to eat. The Icehouse does hot grill sandwiches in the evenings, and Pryor’s is only open on weekends. We can only get along for so long on Costco cinnamon rolls and Little Debbie cakes. Hell, if that’s what people want, they can get it at home, or out at the Icehouse. You told me that you liked cooking for folks? I’d consider offering you a position straight off the bat, but Miss Letty is the skeptical sort and don’t know you from a hole in the ground. So … we thought we’d ask you to audition. Fix us a lunch.”
“Sole meunière,” Miss Letty announced. “With a green salad, and everything scratch made.”

Richard gaped at them, and Dr. Wyler indicated the ice chest at their feet.
“There’s two pounds of New England sole filets in there – I had ‘em flown in overnight on ice. Butter, parsley, lemons. Everything you need is in there or back in the kitchen. Sefton just brung in the salad greens, so – if you want to acquaint yourself with the kitchen facility, give yourself an hour and a half. Dazzle us with your Paris-trained brilliance, and the job is yours. And,” he added, with a faint touch of menace. “I’ve et meals at five-star places and in Paris in my time; don’t even think you can fool this ol’ Texas cowboy.”
“You might also want to reconsider your shirt,” Jess Abernathy murmured. It was the first time she had spoken.
“It says FBI,” Richard answered, utterly baffled. “I thought the FBI was something you Yanks were in favor of…”
“Do not, if you value your possible future career here,” Jess Abernathy replied, with an edge in her voice that one could have sliced carpaccio on, “Refer to us as Yanks, or even Yankees …”
“My Grandfather Arthur Wells was a Confederate man,” Miss Letty put in. “And he would have called you out for insult, on that account alone – although likely he would have made allowances for a foreigner.”
“Read the small print,” Jess Abernathy sighed. “Really – so many of my clients could have been spared by reading the small print.”

Richard looked down at his own upper abdomen, baffled by not being especially skilled at deciphering upside-down lettering. “So, what does it say?” he asked, being fairly certain that he did not want to hear the reply.
“Female Body Inspector,” Jess answered. No … not an answer that he wanted to hear. Good thing he had the chef’s coat with him. In silence he put it on and picked up the ice chest, while Miss Letty nodded in grim approval.
“Lunch will be at 11:40 precisely,” he said, silently committing what he had left of his soul to his Maker, knowing that the two geriatrics at the café table likely had first call on his mortal backside.
Now, to investigate the mysteries of the café kitchen, behind the door at the back; he had to admit, not bad, not bad at all. There was only the one gas range, but it was a massive one, with ten burners and two ovens. The refrigerator – a three-door model – was equally massive. Walk-in freezer – very good; he tested the door. Alas, the freezer was nearly empty. So was the refrigerator, save for two flats of eggs and the box of vegetables which Sefton Grant had placed within. The racks of dry storage was a little better; oh, good. The array of pots and pans, not quite so good, but … eh, he could deal with it. A massive Hobart mixer – Richard felt his spirits rising. Pastries and breads; he always liked making them, and that was one of his strong suits. Cinnamon rolls … Dr. Wyler had mentioned commercial cinnamon rolls. The commercial dishwasher was humming away, so there was proof already that someone was minding the shop.

“I can do better,” he said, aloud.
Knives … that was sad. Nothing had a good edge. Where to begin? Find the knife sharpener. And within another ten minutes, Richard was agreeably lost, swimming in his own element, doing that which he loved best. Not even the pretty, dark-haired young woman who came in with a tray of dirty cups and plates to feed into the dishwasher could entirely break his adamantine concentration.
“You the new cook?” she asked, interested. “Your coat says Carême – I’m Araceli Gonzales, and boy, am I glad to see you! I’ve been holding down the fort since the last guy quit, and I’m about run off my feet.”
“Chef,” Richard corrected her.
“Chef Carême … that’s a cute name – you’re new in Luna City, aren’t you?”
“I am but recently arrived,” Richard agreed, absently. “Araceli, my darling, your devotion to duty is doubtless appreciated. And now would you be so kind as to set three places for luncheon at the table by the window?”
“On it, Chef Carême,” she answered, with a becoming show of enthusiasm.
“Thank you, Araceli … and if there is such a thing as proper linen napkins in this establishment, please use them. Fine food deserves the best.”
“If there isn’t, I’ll find them,” Araceli promised. “Say, Chef Carême … you talk a bit like that TV chef that my grandma likes. Are you related to him?”

“Probably not,” Richard answered, concentrating absolutely on properly browning the butter. Oh, yes – it was coming together nicely. And service for only three and the same entrée? Piece of cake; he set the browned butter aside, and went to explore the food storage shelves and the refrigerator again. Olive oil, lemon juice, a dash of Dijon mustard and a quick grind of pepper; the salad greens wouldn’t need much other than their own exquisitely fresh selves. “Gilding the lily,” Richard said to himself. Alone in the kitchen, he liked talking to himself. Sammi once asked him why he did that; his reply of “Because it’s the only chance I have of an intelligent conversation,” was not received well. Just as well they had broken up. Sammi was spectacularly gorgeous, but wit had never been her strong suit.
Alone in the kitchen, absorbed in the moment: that was where he liked to be. Providing food was not just one of those needed things; it was an art, a calling, and at that moment, Richard realized how he had been so badly distracted into becoming something else … a clown, fretting and strutting upon a stage. No, never again – here, in this neglected café kitchen in a small town that no one had ever heard of – this was the pure, unfiltered experience of creation and skill, merged together. Everything else prepared and in readiness – lemons sliced, parsley chopped; Richard opened the last package in Dr. Wyler’s ice-chest; the filets of sole were excellent; fresh, nearly odorless, and expertly trimmed. His spirits rose again, and he became wholly lost in the simple art of haute cuisine … the portion-sized fillets dipped into milk and then dredged in flour. 11:35 of the clock; Araceli arrived in the kitchen, panting slightly from exertion.

“There weren’t any cloth napkins, Chef Carême … so I took some funds from the register, and went and bought some at Abernathy’s.”
“Good,” Richard hardly heard her. “Wine, damn it … only lunch, but wine! A nice white: Crisp and not too sweet. God … I miss having a good sommelier! That bitch Sammi ran away with him, poor chap; he doesn’t know what he is getting into …”
“Dr. Wyler is on it, Chef,” Araceli assured him. “He has a bottle that he brought with him.”
“Open it,” Richard commanded. “Let it breathe … glasses! White wine glasses … God!”
“I already put them out,” she replied, slightly reproving. “You shouldn’t take the Lord’s name in vain, Chef Carême. It’s not approved of, around here.”
“My dear Araceli, you would hear worse in any high-class kitchen in the capitals of the world,” Richard replied, feeling slightly waspish and out of the mood, even as he said it. For some reason, Araceli reminded him of someone … oh, yes; Berto and Abuelita Adeliza. They must be related. He turned the sole fillets, and viewed the delicate brown and mottled crispiness of their top sides with relief. “Plate the salads. If we are going to work together, you must know how I want things done.”
“And how do you want things,” Araceli ventured. “Since we are not in the capitals of the world?” Richard fixed her with the ferocious glare which on many previous occasions had reduced kitchen and wait-staff to hysterical tears and screaming death threats.
“Perfectly!” Richard barked.
With aplomb, Araceli straightened her shoulders and glared back at him. “Whatever you say, Chef Carême; Perfect it will be, then.”
“I like you, Araceli,” Richard replied, obscurely pleased that she hadn’t crumbled. “You have something resembling a spine. Here – we have hungry guests. See to them.” He plated the three portions of sole, sprinkled each with a careless dash of chopped parsley, a little dab of brown butter, and a judicious squeeze of lemon, and Araceli carried them away on a large tray. When she returned, the tray under her arm, they both watched from behind the kitchen doorway.

A sudden question popped up in Richard’s mind, and he whispered,
“Araceli, you speak Spanish, do you?”
“Well, of course,” she replied with heavy sarcasm.
“What does ‘Él tiene un buen culo’ mean?”
Araceli giggled. “Nice ass. Not the donkey sort … They like your fish, I think,” she breathed. There was no need for either of them to hear the words, the attitude and what they could see of the faces of Jess, Miss Letty and Dr. Wyler said it all.
“Of course,” Richard replied. “It was perfect … Ah; the Doctor wishes a word with me.”
Wiping his hands on a towel, he approached the table. “I trust that your meal was satisfactory?”
“Don’t be such a snot,” Dr. Wyler grunted. “Of course it was – only the best damn meal I’ve set down at at years. You’ve got the job. Sit down; I’m getting a crick in my neck looking up at you.”

Richard obeyed – not that he had been in any particular doubt. Jess Abernathy took out a manila folder from her briefcase and pushed it across the table at him. “Everything you need is in there,” she said. Dr. Wyler continued,
“I can’t authorize hiring more staff until the Café turns in more of a profit, so if you can manage with Araceli – more power to you. The place has always done breakfasts. Coffee and pastries at mid-morning, hot sandwiches and soups for luncheons; not much call for suppers, but if and when demand justifies it, I suggest Friday and Saturday evenings only. Most folk here have jobs, and prefer eating supper at home during the week. Jess has given you a monthly budget to get started with on that basis – just bare bones. Includes your salary, too. I know it’s not what you’re accustomed to, but …”
“I’ve already made up my mind to take it,” Richard answered.
“Good. Araceli!” Dr. Wyler bellowed and she popped out of the kitchen.
“Yes, Doc?”
“Another glass for Richard here – I want to drink a toast to the management with the last of this.”
And with that, Richard Astor-Hall became a Lunaite, a mere thirty-six hours after arriving.

So I saw a couple of variations of a news story regarding the home in a teeny town in Oregon which was the location for exteriors in a movie shot at about the time that my daughter was in elementary school. Yes – the simple white frame house on a hill overlooking a Hampton Inn, a major local road, and something of the sea-front; the house featured in the movie The Goonies … a fun and funny kid’s movie, which has lately been headlined because the current owner of same is sick to death of movie fan visitors showing up at the garden gate and being … well, showing up and apparently in herds and a good portion of them being rather invasive, rude and awful. It is the 30th anniversary of the making of that movie, and the surge of visitor interest has become overwhelming, at least as far as the current owner is concerned, although it seems that the administration of the city of Astoria has seized the day and posted signs all over the place, referencing the Goonies House. Well, all props to them, and I am certain that they are reaping some benefit through tourists visiting. I live in a town which boasts two major tourist draws, so I cannot be dismissive of all of that. I also grew up in Sothern California, where seeing a camera crew at work, or recognizing a familiar place in the background of a movie or TV was just part of the charm of living there.

There are lots of houses which were used as exteriors for movies, some of them with every bit as much of a cult following; Ralphie’s house in A Christmas Story, for instance, although in that case, the house itself is now a local museum. The Winnetka house used in Home Alone, and Home Alone 2 is still a private residence and the current owners don’t seem to be particularly bothered by sightseers. The Money Pit mansion seems to be located at the end of a quarter-mile long driveway, which probably helps to keep sightseers at a respectable distance. The house used for exteriors of The Godfather movies is perhaps a little closer to the street, but still … These last three are or were recently on the market; I am certain that whoever purchased them, or is thinking about purchasing them has noted the past use of the property for a movie or movies as just a curious tidbit. But still … When did private property become a public utility?

The comments on the various news stories about the Goonies house are a bit dismaying, to me as a home-owner. The current owner bought the place – which really looks to be quite a modest little hillside cottage with a splendid view – some fifteen years ago. Likely, she viewed it having been used as a movie location as just another curious tidbit; oh, yeah, that’s interesting, right along the lines of having had a now-famous person born there, or having guested George Washington for a night or two. Slap up a historical marker and call it a day; not everyone wants to set up a museum or souvenir shop in Home Sweet Home. A fair number of comments seem to suggest, with various degrees of snideness, that is what the owner should do – but really? Turn your house into a commercial enterprise? Again, when did private property become a public utility? It seems that the owner was quite gracious in earlier years, with a relatively small trickle of Goonie fans, but the trickle has become an ungovernable, unendurable flood. There’s a limit to what the owner of a private home can put up with – and no, selling and moving away (the other snide suggestion) is no solution, either. Hanging up blue tarps and declaring the house closed is a relatively mild response; I am only surprised there isn’t a ten-foot wall, and restricted access at the bottom of the driveway.

By way of decency, one of the stars of the Goonies is asking for consideration on the part of the beleaguered homeowner. Good for him.

Alas, I am  defeated once again in my ambitions this year to have bounteous crops of tomatoes and zucchini squash … but by way of comfort, the peppers of various sorts and the okra plants are multiplying and producing like champs. The encouraging thing about the okra plants is that I have been able to grow a fair number of plants from seeds left in the pods that I let go last year … and that the darned things do grow like weeks. However, the okra pods of the variety that I have propagated do have to be harvested before they get to be about three inches long; otherwise they are tough and woody to the point of inedibility. (But still good for gleaning seeds for the next crop.) I would actually consider planting a good-sized patch of okra in the front garden, for the flowers are actually rather attractive; they look a bit like a variety of hibiscus which has pale yellow flowers with a red spot in the center. Alas, in the eyes of non-gardeners and farmers, the leaves of okra bear an unfortunate resemblance to marijuana plants, and while I would like to hope that the average neighborhood SAPD officer has enough savvy to tell the difference at a glance … I don’t want to borrow trouble.Okra Blossom

So – okra in quantity; what to do with it? Aside from pickles, and breading and deep-frying it, my usual method for okra is to slice up the pods as I harvest them, and put them in a plastic bag in the freezer until I have enough to make a good batch of gumbo out of it. Gumbo is one of those all-purpose dishes like meatloaf or macaroni and cheese; infinite number of recipes in infinite variations, depending on what you have on hand. It all begins with a roux, of course – oil and flour stirred together, until the flour darkens to the color of a tarnished copper coin. This is what gives the gumbo broth it’s thickening substance. This is a recipe that I like to use, partly raided from the internet, but with additions from one of my Cajun cookbooks and adjusted to incorporate the accumulated okra harvest.

Combine together ½ cup peanut oil and the same of flour, and simmer until darkened – but not burnt! Add in 1 chopped Gumbo - All readyonion, 1 chopped green or red pepper, and 3 stalks of celery – all very finely chopped, and stir together with the roux until the vegetables are limp. Add in 3-4 minced cloves of garlic, and 1 Tbsp of Creole seasoning, like Tony Chachere’s. In another pot, heat almost to boiling, 5 cups of fish, chicken, or vegetable stock, and blend it gently into the roux-vegetable mixture, stirring constantly. Add 2 teaspoons of Worcestershire sauce and 1 to 1 ½ cups fresh or frozen okra, sliced into rounds. Cover and simmer for half an hour, and add half to 3/4ths of a pound smoked Andouille sausage, sliced into ¼ inch rounds and 1-2 lbs fresh shrimp, peeled and deveined. If the shrimp is already cooked, then just simmer the gumbo long enough to warm the sausage and shrimp through. Serve with a scoop of hot rice in the middle, and a sprinkling of sliced green onion.

Final Cover with LetteringOh, what is there to say about Mills Farm, the destination event-venue, country-themed retail emporium, petting zoo, specimen herb garden, and country amusement park just to the south of Luna City which has not been said a thousand times already in expensive full-page advertisements in glossy lifestyle and travel magazines, or in television spots that are enticing mini-movies all crammed into sixty seconds? Because Mills Farm is owned and run by a large corporation who also own and run many similar properties – all tailored to local idiom and conditions – star-scattered across the United States and Europe, the money and expertise is most definitely there.

Nothing shows of this, of course, with regard to Mills Farm. It’s all a carefully crafted down-home Texas experience, down to the cherubic and beaming countenance of Mills Farm’s official greeter, Old Charley Mills himself, resplendent in immaculate overalls and calico shirt, with a carefully ragged straw hat on the back of his head, presiding over the entrance and occasionally throwing down a pitchfork of hay into the calf enclosure, or riding around seated on a carefully restored small-front Farmall F-20 tractor. Mills Farm is all about the theater.

There is a theater, by the way – an open-air amphitheater, with a series of expertly graded, terraced and grass-grown slopes, where the audience can spread out picnic blankets or folding chairs. There is also a carefully quaintified old-fashioned style dance hall for smaller, more intimate gatherings and dances. The Mills farmstead – a turn of the last century ginger-bread cottage painted white and adorned all the way around with covered screen-porches – is a bed and breakfast. It is not the original Mills farmhouse; oh, dear no – that was an unsavory shack which burned to the ground in 1927, possibly by the last private owner of Mills Farm for the insurance money. This present building was moved with great care from the lot in Beeville where it had originally been situated. Other, smaller cottages on the property are also available for overnight stays. Most of the other structures at Mills Farm have also been brought in, or reconstructed to serve the various purposes. They host weddings, corporate retreats, concerts and what-have-you; but the traveling public is always encouraged to drop in for a brief visit to the general store, to wander in a herb garden laid out in the form of an acre-sized Texas flag and then to restore themselves with a meal at the Mills Farm Country Restaurant; part of the dining area is in a wide screened porch above a scenic bend in the river, with a grove of noble oak trees and a seasonal wild-flower meadow beyond. Every aspect pleases – and no expense has been spared in making and keeping it so.

Mills Farm is one of the largest single employers in the area. Since it opened, some thirty years ago, two generations of Luna City teenagers have cut their teeth in the job market by working there in the summer – waiting tables, working the cash register in the general store, or helping set up for events. The Gonzales and Gonzalez family enterprises are also important cogs in the machinery of Mills Farm, for facility-maintenance and grounds-keeping, mainly, although Cousin Teodoro “Teddy” Gonzalez also plays an extremely vital role in the grand theater of Mills Farm.

Teddy Gonzalez was raised in Chicago after his father – Jaime Gonzalez’s younger brother Alfredo – went to work in Henry Ford’s River Run aircraft plant during World War II and married an Anglo girl from Minnesota. He didn’t come back to Luna City until he retired and got tired of shoveling show in the winter. Teddy sports a snowy white Santa Claus beard, and when he forgets, he sounds more like a Minnesotan when he speaks, but mainly, all he has to say is, ‘Howdy, partner – welcome to Mills Farm!’ or ‘Bye, folks – y’all come back here right soon, you hear?’ ”

Yes, Cousin Teodoro plays Old Charley Mills: he and his wife live in one of the staff cottages on the grounds, so that he is always on hand. It’s an easy job for him, though – the general manager, Benny Cordova takes care of all the heavy lifting. Benny Cordova is mildly renowned for being the only local Hispanic employee not related in any way to the Gonzaleses or Gonzalezes – he is, in fact, a foreigner from Beeville, and has only a vague notion of the true history of the real Old Charley Mills – reprobate, bootlegger, drunkard, bigamist and all-around blot on the civic escutcheon.

Only a few of the oldest inhabitants of Luna City have any first-hand recollection of Old Charley Mills: Miss Letty McAllister, Dr. Wyler, and perhaps one or two others. Charley Mills was in his final disgraceful decade of life when they were children; he was the sort of character whom small children were usually warned against by their mothers, so vivid memories of him persisted. An accounting of his criminal and antisocial deeds take up a full chapter of A Brief History of Luna City, Texas, and are memorialized by the historical marker in Town Square at the foot of the tree from which he was nearly lynched in 1926 by long-suffering and wholly exasperated citizens. Upon his death, during the depths of the Depression – from natural old age, much to the surprise of the county coroner and the Luna City police department, and the disappointment of any number of his present and former wives – the property comprising the farm fell even more into disrepair. The surviving wives, assorted Mills family heirs and associates, and the even more numerous creditors fought over it like the gingham dog and calico cat for the next thirty years, until there was nothing left but a collection of ragged scraps and forty acres of derelict farmland. The corporation which now runs the revived Mills Farm purchased it from the last heir left standing in the 1970s, and dedicated another decade to rebuilding it to their vision.

Now and again, the corporate managers give a thought to expanding the attractions in the direction of Luna City … but then someone reminds them of the Charley Mills file in the offices of the Luna City Police Department, and soberer judgement reins in such plans. For now, anyway.

The raw ingredients - cabbage and pickling salt

The raw ingredients – cabbage and pickling salt

I swear, I had never really eaten sauerkraut in any form when I was growing up. Why Mom never had a go at making it herself is a bit of a mystery, since the basic ingredients are cheap and plentiful, the process pretty simple and the results quite tasty. Likely this was because our own ethnic background is English and Scots-Irish, and it’s just not one of those things. Cabbage being a sturdy green vegetable and well-adapted to the frozen northern hemispheres, it’s a mainstay in peasant cooking from Germany, through Eastern Europe and Russia – and even into Korea, where they make a high-octane variety spiced with garlic and hot red peppers known as kimchi. But the ordinary sauerkraut is the simplest to make at home; basically, it’s thinly-sliced fresh cabbage and Ball pickling salt.

At some point a couple of years ago, we were buying a brand of pickles or marinated artichoke hearts at Sam’s Club which came packaged in massive glass jars, which hold 6-quarts to two gallons. I saved out two of them to store bulk foods in, although they had to go through the dishwasher several times to entirely remove the smell of pickle brine. They’re perfect for fermenting the shredded cabbage in the first step.

Thinly-sliced cabbage, wilted with salt

Thinly-sliced cabbage, wilted with salt

Trim of the outer leaves of four heads of cabbage, quarter the heads and cut out the solid core, then either thinly sliver the quarters, or cut into eights and run through a food processor fitted out with a slicing blade, or a mandolin – or even an old-fashioned sauerkraut slicer. It was customary back when to make massive quantities of kraut at a time – a friend of mine in Fredericksburg recently purchased an old-fashioned 5-gallon crock which would ferment enough to feed a small army. I have a huge metal mixing bowl made for restaurant use, so the shreds of cabbage from four heads fill it rather nicely, but you may have to process it one or two heads at a time. Mix the shreds of cabbage with ¾ cup of pickling salt, kneading it gently, as the salt dissolves and the cabbage begins to give up liquid. Let sit for a few minutes and then pack it tightly into the jars until just to within an inch of the top. One of the cabbages I used this week was rather large – so the cabbage shreds filled both big jars and then a quart canning jar. One of the big jars also had two teaspoons of caraway seed added, for extra flavor.

Packed in a tall jar, juice and all

Packed in a tall jar, juice and all

There should be enough brine from the salted cabbage to cover – if not, mix 1 ½ Tablespoons of salt in hot water, allow to cool, and top the jars with the additional brine. The cabbage has to be below the level of the brine. Another recipe I saw for this recommended cutting a cabbage leaf to size, and using it as a topper, to keep the cabbage shreds underneath – or just use a smaller jar filled with weights to keep the cabbage submerged. Cover the tops of the jars with cheesecloth held on with a rubber band, and let sit and ferment in a sheltered cupboard for 3-6 weeks, removing the scum which forms every day or so. When it’s ready, either refrigerate it and eat fresh, or empty the sauerkraut into a big pan and bring to a gentle simmer – not a boil. Pack it into clean hot canning jars, leaving about half an inch of head-space, seal and process in boiling water; 15 minutes for pint jars, 20 for quarts. We have finally finished off the sauerkraut that I did last summer – so time to pickle again!

When my younger brother and sister and I were in elementary school, my father was a grad-student in hot pursuit of a doctorate in zoology, and my mother was – in the tradition of the time – a full-time stay-at-home mom. This was in the late 1950s to early 60s, and it was the commonly accepted practice. As there were three of us (later to be four) it was really the only practical option – and one of the reasons that it worked was that Mom was a fair to middling cook, very much into the traditional D-I-Y household arts, including sewing childrens’ clothes and decorating our home with cast-off and inexpensive furniture. I would hasten to add that it was usually quality stuff; ages later, when Mom and Dad were figuring out the insurance claims after the fire that burned their retirement home in 2003, it turned out that the teak Danish Modern style dining room table and chairs were worth a bomb, although Mom had originally picked them up for next to nothing. I hated that set, by the way – the edge of the chair seat hit the back of your knees like a karate chop – and bore the loss of it cheerfully.

We almost always ate family dinners around that table, when we had guests, and at holidays, since there was an insert which enlarged it substantially – but for everyday, we ate at the table in the kitchen, and when my parents moved to their retirement home, at the table in the sunroom. Then we had plain ordinary comfort food; things like meatloaf – which in my mother’s version only contained about 50 percent actual meat – and the classic stand-by of macaroni and cheese. Mom prided herself on making it from scratch, and although I have tinkered with her basic recipe over time, I still follow many of her precepts, such as undercooking the macaroni just slightly, and making the cheese béchamel sauce slightly runny, so that it all cooks together in one delicious symphony.

Drop into a generous pot of boiling water, one half-pound (8 oz) macaroni shells or elbows, or even cavatappi pasta, and cook until almost but not quite done. Drain and reserve in a covered dish which the mac and cheese will bake. Slice up a quarter to a half-pound length of kielbasa sausage, or cubed leftover ham and mix with the cooked pasta. Cover and set aside.

In the pot in which the pasta cooked, melt ¼ cup butter, and blend with ¼ cup flour. Add ½ teasp dry or whole-grain mustard, a dash of pepper and a dash of paprika. If feeling really adventurous, substitute a dash of cayenne pepper for the paprika. Add 2 cups milk and blend with the flour mixture. When slightly thickened, add 2-3 cups grated sharp cheddar cheese, or a mixture of cheddar, jack or mozzarella, and stir until cheeses are melted. Pour over the pasta/kielbasa mixture, and top with 1/4 cup additional grated cheese (of any kind – Parmesan works really well) mixed with ¼ cup dried bread crumbs and 1 tbsp. butter. Bake at 350 degrees for 45 minutes to an hour, until bubbly, and topping is browned. My father always liked his mac and cheese with a dash of tomato ketchup. When made with kielbasa, this makes a very satisfactory main dish. I have another alternative cheese sauce, which depends on cream, simmered gently with  four different cheeses, which makes an absolutely splendid sauce for cooked pasta with any number of flavorful additions – but that’s for another post. Who the heck needs Kraft, anyway?

(The Englishman known as Rich Hall,  the Bad Boy Chef has arrived in Luna City after a spectacular and very public meltdown. He appears to be staying for now in an ancient Airstream trailer in a semi-abandoned campground and goat farm known locally as Hippy Hollow.)

Final Cover with LetteringLeft alone, save for the friendly goat and the throbbing of an acute hangover, Richard sat at the table, listening to the incessant buzzing of his cellphone, with a musical accompaniment of a cicada in the tree over his head. The Airstream, while not actually a charmless pit of domestic despair, was where a generation of small insects had gone to die in the dust, neglected and bare of home comforts. Better to sit outside, listening to the cicadas. Presently another plume of dust appeared; a car bumping slowly over the ruts and bumps; an oddly familiar town car, which pulled into the same patch of trampled grass and came to a halt. The driver was also strangely familiar; a gangly young man with dark hair, and a curiously innocent face. Richard squinted against the bright sunshine, trying to figure out why car and driver seemed so familiar

“Good morning, Mr. Astor-Hall … you don’t remember me, do you? I’m Berto Gonzales. I brought you here last night – you said you wanted to go anywhere, and I thought … well, Luna City would do. It’s where I’m from when I’m not going to school or driving for Uncle Tony in Elmendorf.” Berto Gonzales opened the passenger door, and assisted a very tiny and elderly lady from the car. She carried a small covered pot in her hands, padded with a pair of oven mitts. Richard, in attempting to rise from the picnic table, was entangled briefly by the bench and table legs. “This is my grandmother – everyone around here calls her Abuelita Adeliza … she watches the Food Channel a lot. She’s a fan of yours. I said you were pretty drunk last night, so she brought you some caldo … it’s good for you, ‘specially if you aren’t feeling well.” As Abuelita Adeliza beamed at Richard, Berto Gonzales added, “Oh, she don’t speak English.”

Abuelita Adeliza said something in Spanish to her grandson, who relayed the message.

“She says she is going to put the caldo on the stove burner, so that it will keep warm. It’s real good caldo, home-made chicken broth, with lots of fideo in it … you might like it, even if it’s only home cooking an’ not from your fancy restaurant.”

“I appreciate your grandmother’s consideration,” Richard sketched a gallant half-bow, as Abuelita Adeliza marched across the trampled grass, and spryly mounted the sagging steps of the Airstream without any assistance.

“So, what do you think of Luna City?” Berto ventured, after a moment. It was an awkward moment: Berto didn’t quite know what to do with himself, and Richard couldn’t think of anything to say save, “I haven’t seen all that much, actually!” They sat in silence for some moments.

“Berto!”

That came as a steam-whistle shriek of outrage from inside the Airstream. Both men started, the baby goat fled emitting a frightened bleat or two. Even the cicada shrilling in the tree overhead was briefly silenced.

Abuelita Adeliza appeared in the doorway, snapping, “Berto, su teléfono, ahora!

Berto obediently fished out his cellphone from his jeans pocket and handed it to her. Both men listened to a stream of Spanish, like rising floodwaters overflowing the riverbank, as Abuelita Adeliza dialed call after call, snapping out what sounded like preemptory orders. Finally, she returned Berto’s cellphone and marched to the car, commanding, “Llévame a casa, Berto!” She also directed a comment at Richard, who of course didn’t understand a single word.

“What did she say?”

“She said ‘take me home, Berto.’ But before that, she said ‘this won’t do at all,’ and she said some pretty raw things about Miz Grant’s housekeeping, which I won’t repeat ‘cause they are rude, and anyway, it’s not like anyone who stays here for long, they bring their own things.”

“But what did she say before all that?” Richard repeated, still amazingly baffled. His head ached so fiercely, he feared that it might split.

“Berto!” Abuelita Adeliza shrieked again, from the back seat. Richard winced and Berto opened the driver’s side door. “She said, not to worry – the Family is on the way and they will fix it,” he replied, cryptically. The town-car bumped away, trailing a plume of dust and leaving Richard even more baffled than before, and wondering if he should answer his cellphone, or just leave it ring and ring and go to voicemail. It was getting hot out here, as the sun was nearly overhead, but the inside of the Airstream was even hotter – an oven, even with the glass windows cranked open to their farthest extent. The cicada shrilled, louder and louder overhead.

Twenty minutes passed, and Richard’s phone kept on ringing. He kept on ignoring it, in the faint hope that it would go away or at least stop ringing. He had just about decided to stand up, walk over to the Airstream, retrieve his phone and throw it into the deepest pool of the river at the bottom of the campground, when he saw that tell-tale plume of dust rising over the dirt road leading into the campground field – but a bigger, denser and longer plume of dust than ever raised by a single town-car or the pick-up truck with the custom paint-job. The noise of multiple engines quite drowned out the cicada, and the insistent buzzing of his cellphone, as a whole cavalcade of vehicles spilled into the campground, and parked in a ragged line just short of the picnic table; vans and pick-up trucks of every degree and made, and condition of repair, many surmounted by welded-metal racks holding ladders, lengths of pipe and lumber, or towing low-bed trailers full of … well, Richard couldn’t quite tell what they were full of, although one of them at least held a medium-sized cement-mixer and a couple of portable generators, and another held half a pallet of heavy concrete pavers, and sacks of sand, all neatly piled, while a third held a small earth-mover. People spilled out of the vehicles – men with serious-looking tool-boxes and equally serious-looking faces topped with construction hard-hats, calling brisk remarks in Spanish to each other. Three women in crisp pinafore aprons emerged from the most well-kept van, lugging a vacuum-cleaner and a cart of cleaning supplies between them, although the youngest carried a large laundry-basket piled high with … Richard couldn’t tell what it was piled with, but all was neatly folded.

More »