Wednesday, December 31, 2008

"Gently Resisting Change Since 1872"

Gruene, TX, is a gem.

There is something about a town whose motto is "Gently Resisting Change Since 1872." Something about a town that is not on the map, yet certainly exists. Something about a town whose address is another town--Gruene, New Braunfels, Texas.

In a setting much like I imagine Garrison Keillor's Lake Wobegon to be, the Gruene Mansion Inn welcomes visitors to Gruene (pronounced "green"). The Inn was built in the 1850's by Henry Gruene, the second son of Ernst, who founded the town.

The first mercantile store (now Gruene General Store) was built in 1878. The fellow and the little dog served as the greeters for the General Store.

Once inside the General Store, the soda fountain served as another form of greeting--an invitation to return to days goneby. Somehow the invitation was a bit difficult to accept. The counter was covered with packages of candy, so it was a bit difficult to imagine ordering a milk shake. The license plates on the floor may have been typical of days gone by, but I would rather hear the floor creaking than clinking as I walked to the stools.

Construction during the late 1800's included a dance hall and saloon (Gruene Hall), which became the center of the community's social life. It is Texas' oldest dance hall where George Strait, Lyle Lovett, and Hal Ketchum got started.

As the town continued to prosper, a new mercantile building (now The Gruene Antique Company) sprang up in 1904.

Except for Gruene Hall, the stores of Gruene gradually fell on hard times following the 1930's and eventually all closed. It wasn't until the mid-1970's when Pat Molak purchased Gruene Hall and with the help of his friend Mary Jane Nalley, changed the town's future. They worked to preserve the authentic, turn-of-the-century look and feel of Gruene by purchasing and repairing several of the town's most notable structures and transforming them into thriving businesses.

The four-block center of town is on the National Register of Historic Places, but there is a quirky side to this town. The best example of this aspect of Gruene is Gruene Gardens and its array of pottery.

These are just two photos of the variety of pots, planters, and containers. I spent several minutes here just enjoying the shapes, sizes, and colors of the artists' work.

As we were leaving town, we noticed one last bit of whimsy on a resident's part. On first glance it appeared to be an outhouse. Upon closer look, we found its identity.


Gently resisting--but not ignoring--change.


Tuesday, December 30, 2008

"Food and Live Bait"

You come around the corner on a gravel road and see this colorful tucan on a part of a sign and some metal fowl sitting along the roof line.

Where would you guess you are? Key West? Southern California? Then your eyes pan to the right to see the entire sign.

You see that Dave's Place has Beer, Ice, Food, and Live Bait listed and wonder if it could be someplace along the Gulf Coast? Maybe a potter's home in a coastal village of western Mexico where one could learn pottery-making.

Welcome to Dave's Place, a restaurant about 35 miles west of San Antonio. Nowhere near Key West and no Jimmy Buffet in sight. (A restaurant where nothing says, "Hey, let's eat here" like the couplet "Food and Live Bait.")

Owner David John, a master potter who played the role of "Tom" in the TV movie "Price of Innocence," held court from his chair by the hand-carved bar, telling stories and bantering with the regulars.

As Dave put it, "We had people from every state in the U.S. and people from 29 different countries here last year--this is Center Point Texas! If anyone finds us they had to hear about us from somebody else." The town's population is 2383.

As if on cue, Dave announced the entrance of a former member of the Bulgarian national gymnastics team, and within the hour, a traveler from New Zealand introduced herself to Dave.

We quickly realized that it was Shelley, Dave's wife, who made the place run. She was the bartender, cook, and server.

Must have been quite a marriage "contract."

The authentic fish and chips that Shelley prepared and served with the typical side dish, peas, was surprisingly tasty. "Made with fresh cod," was Dave's contribution.

Additional seating was available on the stairway leading to the Guadalupe River

and in the botanical garden.

In one corner of the garden, was a display of some of Dave's pottery. Roosters and chickens seemed to be popular subjects for many of his creations.

As was quickly apparent, the food seemed secondary to the "ambiance" of Dave's. We visited the aviary after lunch and met these two macaws from among the "over 300 different birds," some in large cages, others running around the yard,

and this one with a somewhat metallic coat perched above the entrance to one of the most interesting places for food and stories that we've visited thus far.

Just down the road from Nowhere.

Monday, December 29, 2008

151 and Going Strong

“You must visit the historic district of New Braunfels (TX) while you’re here,” was the advice that we received from the staff of the Visitors’ Center. Since this focus of a visit fit our interests very closely, we picked up a map with an outlined route and were off.

We started at the Main Plaza with the bandstand at the center of a traffic circle. The bandstand was built in 1905.

At one point on the circle was the Comal County Courthouse. The bell tower of this beautiful Romanesque revival style building still announces the hour.

Heading down the main street off the circle, we found two representatives of our favorite components of a town's history. The first was the Brauntex Theater. Although it was not open at the time we were there, the marquee indicated that the theater was featuring the Three Redneck Tenors and "A Christmas Carol." (There's a comment here, but I'll leave that to the reader.)

The second building that caught our attention was topped with this identifying marker.

We then read the name on the building. This building housed Henne Hardware and Electric, built and operated by Louis Henne in 1893.

Walking under the stained glass entryway, I passed the sign: "Henne Hardware - Since 1857." In the main window was the number "150," indicating an extended celebration of its 150th anniversary.

I was thrilled to be walking down the aisles listening the creaking underfoot of the bowed floor. A beautiful sound. I was so caught up in the history of the store that I forgot one of my procedural courtesies. I had forgotten to ask the owner/manager if I could take photographs in the store. I was painfully reminded of this when the owner (perhaps a fourth or fifth generation Henne) asked if I was finding everything.

My story about my early career in a hardware store similar to this one was met with a nod. (The oversight had cost me.) "The oldest hardware store is somewhere in Indiana," was the owner's only comment.

I'm sure I missed hearing about some historical anecdotes or hearing the story about how the tin ceiling of the store was manufactured in the Henne Tin Shop next door, but I did manage to read about the "money trolley."

When the store opened, all transactions were completed in the office in the back of the store. The list of items purchased and the money for the purchase were put in this cup that unscrewed from its top and "a yank on the rope would catapult the cup and its contents to the bookkeeper in the main office." That person would record the sale and return a receipt and any change in the cup on the money trolley.

Right below the money trolley was an array of toys that I believe must have been quite old, but I did not feel like pressing my luck and asking about them.

I'm not sure the metal toys were for sale, but there they were, just sitting on the counter.

As I walked out the store, I couldn't help but wonder how many interesting stories I had missed hearing because of my oversight.

Sunday, December 28, 2008


One of the delights – and challenges – of life on the road is finding local groceries with either a specialty or a wide variety of choices. As with most things in life, you win some and you lose some. There was one chain (which will remain nameless) throughout Virginia, Tennessee, and eastern Arkansas in whose stores I would only purchase items in bottles, jars, and boxes. I didn’t trust any fresh foods be they breads, meats, or produce.

While we were staying in Duson, LA, we were less than a mile away from a small grocery store, Champagne’s, that was part of a Cajun country chain. Since they didn’t have the economies of scale, their prices for staples were high. But I found a wonderful spicy, course-textured, store-made pork sausage. My meatloaf recipe calls for one-half to three-quarters of a pound of pork sausage for every two pounds of ground beef. This worked so well that we left Duson with enough sausage in the freezer for two more meatloaves. (Meat loaf tip: Instead of using bread crumbs, crackers, or oatmeal for your meatloaf, use Stove Top Stuffing instead. I use a half of a box for every two and a half pounds of meat.)

In northeastern Tennessee, we found the Ingles chain. Near the Smokies and in eastern Arkansas, we found Kroger’s. In Lafayette, LA, we found Albertson’s. All were very good stores, and at Albertson’s, we found the only semi-authentic bagels we’ve had in six months. And, of course, wherever you go there is a Wal-Mart Super Store.

All pale in comparison to the store we found in Kerrville – H•E•B (Here Everything’s Better). The first H•E•B store opened in Kerrville in 1905 in the building that now houses Hill Country Café (our favorite restaurant in Kerrville). The minute I walked through the doors I knew I had found food nirvana. With the exception of Wegman’s, I didn’t have a better store in my suburban Bucks County shopping region.

The minute I saw that H•E•B had a real deli counter and sold store-baked torpedo rolls, I knew it was time for me to make my knock-off of the Chicago Hot Italian Roast Beef sandwich. There in the case was the most beautiful, ultra-rare, store-roasted roast beef. To make things even better, from an expensive olive bar I was able to prepare a form of giardiniara, that marinated Italian salad of cauliflower, carrots, and hot and sweet peppers. H•E•B’s mixture also included green and black olives and was marinated in oil and vinegar rather than just vinegar. My version of the Chicago Hot Italian Roast Beef Sandwich.

H•E•B has a fairly extensive cheese counter with mostly domestic cheeses but also a fair number of imported cheeses. The produce is beautiful - crisp and fresh with an extensive variety of greens and veggies.

The peppers include fresh red, yellow, and green sweet peppers along with jalapenos, poblanos, habeneros and a large variety of dried peppers.

In the meat counter I found thick cut (inch-thick) pork chops. These became the main feature of our Christmas Eve dinner – Giada De Laurentis’ Pork Chops alla Pizzaiola. This is the only way we’ll eat pork chops!

In addition to a frozen seafood case, H•E•B has a large fresh fish and seafood section. It was there that I found the ultimate – real jumbo (and I mean jumbo) white lump crab meat. For years, our Christmas (anniversary, birthdays) celebration meal has been a crab dish, the recipe for which I found in Chesapeake Life magazine. This is one of those deceptively simple meals that rely on the best ingredients, especially the crab. The minute I saw this in the seafood case, I knew that we would opt out of the campground pot luck Christmas Dinner and have dinner at home. The crab casserole was served with saffron rice, using Ellis Stansel’s gourmet popcorn rice from Gueydan, LA. (Yes, this RV chef travels with her own supply of saffron stored in the freezer to keep it fresh.)

We had a chance to talk with George, the store manager, and told him how much we had enjoyed shopping in his store. George told us that this store had undergone substantial renovations to celebrate the chain’s 100th anniversary in 2005. The Kerrville store is now the crown jewel of the chain and has specialty areas, like the deli, that you don’t find in all H•E•B stores.

We felt lucky to have chosen to camp near this store!

Saturday, December 27, 2008


We visited the city of Boerne (pronounced "Bernie"), TX, on Market Day.

We parked near the Hauptstrasse (Main Street) in the town named for Ludwig Borne, who inspired many young men to leave Germany in the 1840’s and travel to the new world.

We heard some music coming from the town square and knew that there could only be one source--an Oom-pah band. Following the music led us to a small, but strong, group of musicians.

And at the center of the sounds of this type of band is the tuba player. This gentleman fit the mold of the typical tubist.

Never mind that "Walking in a Winter Wonderland" was playing while we walked through the aisles of booths on a very non-wintery, sunny day with mild temperatures. The winter themes and the Christmas carols put us in the Christmas mood.

We later learned about Boerne's history regarding religion. Because Boerne had been established by “free thinkers” – Germans who had no religion – churches were not permitted in Boerne. Legend tells of signs posted outside the city limits warning that preachers found inside the town after sunset would be shot. George Wilkins Kendall decided to build a Catholic church to honor his wife in 1860, and he was forced to build south of town, outside the city limits. St. Peter’s Church stands on what is now Main Street.

When we left the area of the Market Day booths, we passed the town hotel, which was a very impressive-looking building.

As we continued downtown, we learned that many people suffering from lung ailments traveled to Boerne to recuperate. It has been said that at one time, Boerne contained more invalids and sick people than healthy citizens. Apparently, the people of Boerne grew tired of having so much illness around. When the owners of the Veterans Administration Hospital offered to build their facility in Boerne, they were turned down and the hospital was instead erected in the nearby town of Kerrville in 1947.

Then it was back to the truck. We had parked near the jail (left) and the courthouse (below). So our last views of Boerne were of buildings that we wanted to see only from the outside.

Friday, December 26, 2008

Feliz Navidad -2

Being disappointed and knowing that we would soon be headed to New Mexico, home of my second favorite regional food (of course, the food of Cajun Louisiana is my favorite), we decided to forget looking for good Mexican food. Then I saw a reference to a small café just a few doors away from Hill Country Café – Conchita’s on Main. Conchita’s was described as serving gourmet Mexican cuisine with imaginative twists on Mexican traditional staples.

Off for lunch we went to this small (seating for twenty-eight) and colorful café. I noticed that Conchita’s serves fish and salmon tacos, but I was looking for a good Chili Rellenos. So I chose that with sides of rice, beans, and guacamole salad. Chuck ordered al a carte and got a beef taco, beef burrito, and beef enchilada with a side of beans.

He ate his enchilada so fast that I didn’t get a taste, but he reports that it was very good. So were the taco and burrito, (I did get a sample of those). His only disappointment was that the beans were charro style rather than refried. Since I prefer the whole beans I was very happy with mine. My rice was mixed with chopped tomato and peppers and the guacamole was excellent with a hint of lime for acidity.

But let me tell you about the Chili Rellenos. This was a huge poblano pepper stuffed with the same seasoned beef that Chuck got in his three choices. The chili was topped with a copious amount of very good green chili sauce. But what made this a standout was the owner’s (Theresa, left) twist with the coating. It seems that a customer came in one day and lamented that one of his favorite restaurants in New Mexico had closed. This place, instead of battering the chili, wrapped it in a rice paper wrapper. Theresa thought that this was an interesting concept and gave it a try. And so, she has been serving her Chili Rellenos this way ever since. When fried, the rice paper wrapper becomes very crisp so you get a crunch with every bite. And the substitution of the rice paper for the batter makes for a lighter chili. While this may not be traditional, it is an excellent way to present a Chili Relleno.

But it was Theresa's story about her grandmother, Conchita (after whom the restaurant is named), that was very special. Conchita had come to the U.S. at age 18, married at 19, and lived to the age of 101, outliving three of her five children. Her passport and other meaningful items were arranged in the wreath on the wall.

Intrigued by one of the special desserts – fried pumpkin cheesecake – we had no other option than to share an order. What came was not my idea of cheesecake but was a decadent serving of intensely flavored pumpkin with the nutmeg and cinnamon that one associates with pumpkin pie. This was incased in rice paper wrappers and fried. This was served with a dusting of powdered sugar and cinnamon and a sweet sauce. Very good but not really cheesecake. But then, what's in a name.

Finally, we had found delicious– if not traditional – Mexican food. We give Conchita’s 4.5 Addies and hope that time permits a return visit.