It’s Nice to Remember

El PatioLike many big cities much has changed in Houston since I left my childhood home fifty years ago. My family moved a time or two until my father died and then we stayed in one place until my brothers and I were grown and finally gone.

The first place I remember was on Kingsbury Street just a few houses from South Park Blvd. which is now known as Martin Luther King Boulevard. Ours was a quiet and modern neighborhood that echoed the growth of Houston and other American cities after World War II. Our neighbors were young like my parents save for a couple of older folks here and there. There were a slew of kids with whom I played, and we were free to roam around all by ourselves even though some of us were not yet old enough to attend school.

The area began with little more than our subdivision and a U Totem convenience store where a man named Shorty regaled all of us with his humor and friendliness. Eventually one of the first ever shopping centers, Palm Center, was built just within walking distance of our house. It was like a wonder of the world to us and we spent many an hour wandering through the stores or just walking around gazing into the shop windows.

My father was doing well with his engineering career and he grew weary of driving a rather long distance to his job near the refineries along the Houston Ship Channel. His coworkers told him about a brand new area just a bit farther into the suburbs that was booming with progress and attracting great schools and a quieter form of life. Best of all it was only about ten minutes away from the plant where he worked.

Before long we were moving into Overbrook and an all brick home that my father and a builder had custom designed. Our place on Northdale sat close to a wooded area along Sims Bayou clustered among homes so new that they still smelled of fresh paint and just sawed wood. I was sad to leave behind my friends on Kingsbury Street but in no time I was riding my bicycle through the streets and playing with other children who would literally become friends for life. Ours was a kind of kid heaven that seemingly had no restrictions as we explored the Bayou and trudged through the woods.

The neighborhood was filled with young families just like mine and every house was teeming with life and possibilities. A bridge linked Overbrook with Garden Villas, an older area with huge lots and pecan trees around homes many of which had been built in the 1930s. Together the children from each subdivision filled the schools and sent up the joyful sounds of playtime that echoed happily into the open windows of homes not yet fitted with air conditioning.

My father was as changing as the city of Houston itself and before long we were following him to California and even bigger dreams. For reasons that I will never know things didn’t work out for him and within months we were back in Houston again looking at even newer and bigger properties. His untimely death changed all of our family plans, and my mother decided to move us back to Overbrook for the sake of continuity. There we would be able to reunite with friends and make new ones on Belmark Street.

Ours was a very happy place to be back in the nineteen fifties and sixties. We had little need to venture far from the confines of our neighborhood. All of the conveniences we needed were close. Eating out was still a kind of luxury, and even when we splurged now and again we had local favorites that we visited. Our mother took us to the Piccadilly Cafeteria at the city’s newest shopping mall, Gulfgate, where we were admonished to only order one meat and two vegetables or one meat, one vegetable and dessert. We usually chose the later.

I suppose our favorite place was El Patio Mexican Restaurant on Telephone Road. As kids we thought that their dishes were gourmet delights, especially the cheesy enchiladas. Since our mom was devoted to cooking healthy food for us, getting to deviate from vegetables was a treat.

I suppose that if I had to pick one food that I would be willing to eat over and over again it would be a hamburger, and back then I thought that the very best came from Chuc Wagun. There was no indoor dining there. Instead a clerk and a cook worked inside a tiny building designed to look like a covered wagon. The beefy guy who made the delightful sandwiches was gruff and married to his work. He grilled beef patties by the hundreds and chopped his onions and tomatoes like a Ninja warrior. The resulting burgers were pure heaven.

We bought all of our cakes at the Kolache Shoppe on Telephone Road. My mom loved the lemon ones and even years after we had all moved I would sometimes return to that spot to get her one for her birthday. The kolaches were rather good as well.

My brothers and I spent many a Saturday morning at the Fun Club inside the Santa Rosa movie theater. Our mom would drop us off with a quarter each which was enough to purchase a ticket and a candy sucker that lasted for the duration of the double features. The event included games with great prizes and films suitable for kids. It was a wonderland for us and a great break for our parents.

Most of the places that were so delightful back then are either gone or very different from what they once were. The neighborhood itself has a worn look and nobody would dare allow their children to roam freely anymore. It would be considered too dangerous. The Disney like atmosphere that defined my youth is now just another memory from my past. When I take my grandchildren to see the places where I played and grew, they have little understanding of the lifestyle that I describe. Theirs has been a more structured way of doing things, a routine of play dates and adult monitored activities. I suppose that my stories of southeast Houston don’t ring true to them as they see fifty years of change that have transformed the places where I lived.

My friends and I all agree that ours was a glorious time to be young. We were innocent and unafraid as we roamed together finding adventure. By the time we were young adults we learned about hardships and injustices that were unfamiliar to us. We revolted as a group against the signs of racism and unfairness that we finally saw. Our city grew i and grew and grew in the name of progress consuming much of what we had experienced in our youth. Now and again we like to look back to a time when we didn’t have a care in the world. Its nice to remember.

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Summertime and Burgers

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Photo by Dana Tentis on Pexels.com

Even with my healthier diet I enjoy getting a hamburger now and again, especially when summertime rolls around. My dad used to grill burgers every weekend and after he died my mother continued the tradition. I’d rather just pick one up at a drive though than have to go through all of the trouble of making one at home, and in my mind there is no substitute for a Whataburger. I’ve tried In n Out burgers and they just don’t cut the mustard. (Pun grossly intended) The only other version of the American classic that I ever really liked came from a local chain called Chuck Wagon.

The first Chuck Wagon that I visited was on Old Spanish Trail in Houston. It was good but lacked the ambience of the one on Park Place that ultimately stole my heart. It was little more than a truck eatery without wheels. It was a box just large enough for a small crew and a griddle along with places to stash the meat and other supplies. A big hulk of a man labored over the cooking while sweating profusely and wielding salt and pepper shakers like a Samurai sword. He was a sight to behold along with the heavy red faced woman who took the orders. The only seating was outdoors, so unless it was a perfect weather day we would take our food home where we savored the lusciousness of our beef sandwiches that were cooked and dressed to perfection. That hole in the wall lasted for most of my childhood and early adult life and then simply faded away, being overtaken by bigger chains with drive in windows and more variable menus.

For a time there was a great place for burgers on the campus of the University of Houston in a little wooden building called The Woods. It was located on what was then the edge of the campus and run by a couple of ladies who were so business like that they rarely smiled or paused from their work to chat. They had learned how to prepare their juicy delights as quickly as possible to keep the long lines moving. I rarely had the money to purchase their gourmet cooking but when I did I truly enjoyed their culinary expertise. Their fare was dripping with greasy delight that didn’t worry me at all because I was not yet twenty years old and weighed under a hundred pounds. A little fat and cholesterol probably did me more good than bad, and I got plenty of both there. My mouth still waters when I think of those yummy bites of beef. Unfortunately progress and growth required cutting down the trees that gave the place its name and putting in a big building to house more classes and research.

I really can’t take a bad burger and there are so many candidates for that dishonor. I avoid MacDonald’s unless it’s breakfast time. If I’m forced to try one of their traditional offerings I prefer the kiddie version. I find that less burger is best in that establishment. I also avoid Carl’s Jr., Red Robin, Wendy’s and the worst of them all in my mind, Burger King.

I can’t completely explain what I despise about Burger King. It was a favorite of my mom and I always see a big crowd wherever they set up a restaurant. I just almost gag even at the thought of eating there. I suspect that I have some deep seated psychological problem with the place brought on by a traumatic event that I have blocked in my mind. I can’t otherwise think of any other reason for my extreme feelings of loathing. I would literally prefer going without food to consuming a meal from there. In fact, I once did on a long road trip to Chicago.

We had driven from early morning and when lunchtime game we were in the middle of nowhere with few choices for eating. Mike attempted to find a place that would be satisfactory for me with no success. Frustrated, he finally saw a Burger King and announced that I would have to make do. I almost barfed at the thought but decided that my strange feelings were perhaps a bit silly, and so I agreed to give it a try as long as the burger was made according to my specifications. When we got the order and continued down the highway I opened my sandwich only to find that they had used mayonnaise in spite of my very specific demand that mustard be the only acceptable condiment. I wanted Mike to turn around and go back but he was on a mission to make time and told me to show a bit of flexibility and just do my best to enjoy the nourishment as is. Instead in a flash of fury I threw the whole thing out the window onto the highway to the delight of a flock of vultures that immediately descended on the feast. I pouted for hours searching hopelessly for another place to stop. That didn’t materialize until later that night at a service station where the only offering was a tuna sandwich in one of those plastic sleeves. I decided to go hungry and sulk rather than take a chance on being poisoned. Mike on the other hand found the repast to be delightful.

Not long ago there was a news story about a Burger King in Delaware that showed mice crawling around inside bags of buns. The health department rushed out to the restaurant after a report from a customer and found mouse droppings and other filth all over the place. They summarily shut the place down. My stomach heaved as I watched the images and I found myself feeling a bit justified for my strange aversion to all food from Burger King even though I’ve never had any evidence that the ones around here are unclean. 

For now I’ll stick to Whataburger since I don’t indulge in that sort of diet much anymore. A local chef named Killen makes a rather good version that I like to consume now and again as well but his are a bit more pricey. Amazingly the most memorable hamburger that I have ever eaten was in a hotel in Minneapolis. It was so good that I went back for more multiple times before I left that town. The meat was superb and it didn’t hurt that it was smothered in blue cheese which I didn’t initially think that I would like as much as I actually did. My mouth waters just thinking about it.

For me a hamburger is the great American summertime sandwich, but if it isn’t done right, then I’m not interested. I’d rather feed a bad burger to the buzzards than compromise my standards and at least for now Whataburger has my loyalty.

A Taste of Home

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Have you ever had a yearning for a particular something to eat only to have your hopes dashed because it wasn’t available? That happened to me and husband Mike last week. He’d visited one of his doctors and underwent a multitude of lab tests that required him to fast. He received positive news from his doctor regarding his progress in regaining his health, so we decided to celebrate by getting an omelet at The Union Kitchen on Bellaire Blvd., a favorite place to meet up with good friends for Sunday brunch. We were almost salivating as we contemplated the yumminess that was in store, and happily we got a nice table on the patio right away. The weather was quite lovely and it felt as though we were experiencing one of those picture perfect days in Houston, something for which we longed after being somewhat homebound for the past three months, not to mention having witnessed the horrors of hurricane Harvey. When we opened the menu and it became apparent that there was not an omelet to be found. A quick inquiry with the waiter revealed that breakfast items are part of the weekend brunch offerings but not the weekday fare. Mike’s disappointment was palatable.

I was willing to compromise by trying something else but Mike had his heart set on an omelet since he had missed having breakfast earlier in the day. Besides we had chosen this particular restaurant for a very specific reason. We had intended it to be yet another medical test on that day.  You see, from taking Plavix as a blood thinner after his stroke Mike had lost all sense of taste. His description of the sensation was that his tongue felt as though is was wrapped in plastic. Everything that he ate had the flavor of water crackers, blandness that had taken away all the joy of eating. He was able to discern textures but no flavors. Eating had become an exercise in getting proper nutrients but little more. When he reported this side effect to his neurologist the medication regimen was changed, but it had nonetheless taken quite a while for his tastebuds to become active again. Only days before had he begun to slowly enjoy the essences of food. Eating the omelet at The Union Kitchen was intended as a treat on many different levels because he had found that delicacy so enjoyable in the past when we had been there with very dear friends.

I suggested that we just leave since we had not yet ordered. I doubted that anyone would even notice our departure, but in that regard I was wrong. Mike was polite enough to inform the hostess that we had changed our minds and would not be staying. We had no sooner walked out the door than the manager, Rob Thomas, and the owner of the restaurant rushed outside to determine what might have happened to cause us to want to depart so suddenly. When I explained the situation they requested that we return to our table and insisted that it would be no problem whatsoever to prepare any kind of omelet that we desired. We smiled and sat down feeling rather special. We decided on a vegetarian omelet and waited with pleasant anticipation.

Mr. Thomas brought our food to us personally. He had included extras on the plate like freshly sliced avocado and roasted potatoes and peppers. The presentation of the meal was a work of art with a delightful color palate and an aroma that made us even more eager to eat. As expected the omelet was exceptional with the perfect pairing of onions, peppers, mushrooms, eggs and Swiss cheese. Best of all Mike was able to savor every lovely flavor because his tastebuds were as active as they had ever been. We relished the moment and marveled at the extraordinary service that Rob Thomas had insisted on providing us.

While we ate we watched Mr. Thomas visiting with the diners at every table, making unique orders become reality over and over again. Eventually he came to see if we had been satisfied with our meal, and we were able to tell him the entire story of Mike’s stroke and the journey that we had made in the ensuing weeks. We were no doubt a bit long winded and there were so many customers, but Mr. Thomas never once acted impatient to leave. He listened with great interest and sympathy even joking that as a restauranteur he would rather go blind than not be able to taste food. He also told us that because the Union Kitchen is a scratch kitchen he can alter most recipes and fulfill special requests with little or no problem. He noted that with several grocery stores in the area he would not be reluctant to run out to get whatever he needed in an emergency. Then he gave us his business card with his personal phone number, urging us to call him ahead of time if we wanted something unusual on one of our future visits. He even revealed that he has special pans in the kitchen marked with the names of customers with severe allergies. He uses them whenever they come so that the dishes he prepares for them will not be cross contaminated.

We laughed and joked and mentioned that we felt as though we were a bit like Jack Nicholson in the diner scene of Five Easy Pieces ordering dry toast. When we explained that classic bit of Hollywood brilliance he laughed and said that he was going to use it at his next meeting with the waiters. Then he began to wonder if Mike would also be able to taste something sweet and insisted that we choose from among the restaurant’s desserts for a treat that he was going to give us without cost. We’re suckers for bread pudding and the creme brûlée variety sounded particularly tempting, so we decided to forget the diet for a few minutes in the interest of experimenting. We were not disappointed in the least. Not only was Mike able to distinguish its delicate blend of sugars and spices, but it was also one of the best versions that we have ever eaten.

We left The Union Kitchen so full that we only ate raisin bran for dinner later that night. Most of our satisfaction though came from the superb customer service that Rob Thomas had provided. He had made us feel quite special on a day that was particularly important to us. We both agreed that we would make The Union Kitchen a regular outing. We still eschew salt and sugar and carbs at home, but even Mike’s doctor has told him that he doesn’t have to be a repentant monk all of the time. It really is okay to enjoy some remarkable tastiness now and again, and I can’t think of any place that I would rather go than The Union Kitchen, a place with wonderful food and even better friendliness. I’m so glad that Rob Thomas came after us. He managed to provide us with a brunch that we will probably never forget. He gave us a taste home and old fashioned service that is all too often missing in today’s hurried world. It was a five star experience. You should try it yourself sometimes. Just tell Rob that they guy who couldn’t taste sent you.

Live Aqua

19113568_10212800199540924_6522367500719525467_nIt is difficult to believe that as late as the nineteen sixties Cancun was little more than a sleepy fishing village with fewer than two hundred inhabitants. Today it is one of the most popular seaside tourist towns in Mexico and boasts a central hotel zone of immense resorts that are visited by people from all over the world. The population of the city has ballooned to well over a million citizens since it was first envisioned as a vacation mecca in nineteen seventy. The economic engine of the area depends on a huge service industry workforce that caters to every need of those who come in search of sun, sand and relaxation. Cancun is a place where even the common man or woman is made to feel like royalty.

The city is located near the easternmost tip of the Yucatan Peninsula and is graced by white sandy beaches and the colorful waters of the Caribbean Sea. It was once home to the great Mayan civilization and not far from the hotels ruins from the height of Mayan influence remain even to this day. Many of the local people are descendants of that unique and fascinating society which was ultimately decimated by drought, famine, disease, war and the brutality of colonization.

Among the many resorts in Cancun is Live Aqua, the hotel where my husband and I stayed for a few glorious days. The cost is all inclusive meaning that all of the food and drink as well as the room are part of the contract. It is a five star world class destination with spectacular views from the luxuriously appointed rooms. Ours featured a private balcony that looked out on the Caribbean. It had a mini-bar that the staff kept loaded with drinks and snacks, replenishing the stock multiple times a day. The bed was amazingly comfortable with sheets as soft as silk. There were enough drawers and closet space to hold our belongings without crowding. The bathroom was as large as an en suite and had both an oversized bathtub and a huge shower. It was stocked with specially scented soaps and toiletries as well as large bath towels. There was no skimping on the kind of details that make such environs feel more special than most.

From the moment that we arrived we became honored guests. A young woman named Jessica gave me a hand massage and brought us a special iced tea to drink along with cold cloths to freshen us and take away the sting of the summer heat. Soothing music played in the background and exotic scents filled the air while another beautiful and energetic employee named Carla put herself at our service. True to her word she became our go to helper for the duration of our stay, making certain that we had exactly what we needed at all times.

Live Aqua features many restaurants all of which offer delicious food served with impressive care. Siete is a buffet that is open most of the day to serve breakfast, lunch and dinner. It has an almost limitless number food choices to satisfy virtually anyone’s tastebuds. The Hidden Garden features asian cuisine that is high end and quite tasty. Mb is perhaps the most elegant of the places to eat and has a somewhat formal dress code. Its three course dinner is a sumptuous feast featuring soups like the habanero cream that literally melts on the tongue and desserts that perfectly end a memorable meal. The hotel also offers also outdoor dining near the multiple swimming pools and the sea. There are both alcoholic and nonalcoholic beverages everywhere being delivered by staff members who seem to have permanent smiles tattooed on their faces. No request goes unanswered at Live Aqua. The accommodations are extraordinary and the employees are trained to anticipate every possible need, all of which leads to a sense of well being and enjoyment.

For those who want a true resort experience there is also a spa offering everything from facials and massages to manicures and pedicures. A large and well equipped gym is available for those who want to maintain their exercise regimen. Chaise lounges with umbrellas line the pools and the beach as well as cabanas that are available for an extra rental fee. The best feature, however, is the beach itself. The water changes colors throughout the day ranging from a lovely sea green to aqua to an almost purple hue. The sand is soft and white and most of the time the sky is a deep and beautiful blue.

The government of Mexico is quite proud of this remarkable town and works hard to insure that tourists are safe from the cartels that have made visits to other parts of the country worrisome and unpredictable of late. There are guards even at the airport and great efforts are made to keep Cancun free of incidents that might discourage visitors from coming. There is a welcoming spirit everywhere one goes and so many events and interesting places that it would take days just to experience it all.

Live Aqua may at first glance appear to be a bit pricey but there are deals to be had. We found ours on Expedia but friends used other sources to get as much as forty percent off of the regular costs. It would be well worth the effort to search for special rates and then make a reservation for this truly remarkable place. I can promise that you will not be disappointed. I personally left feeling nourished and reenergized. The memories of my experience keep replaying in my head and bringing a smile to my face. I find myself mentally planning my next visit.

Quite frankly I arrived in Cancun doubtful that I would be all that impressed because I have experienced some very grand vacations in the past. I departed feeling as though my trip had indeed been one of my very best, not in small part due to the care and diligence of the staff at Live Aqua. I will be forever thankful for their friendliness, courtesy and never ending efforts to make my stay one worth every penny that I spent to be there. I look forward to the day when I return.

Tea Time

564_HighTeaAtTheEmprassHotelFor most of my life I have rushed around with a schedule so busy that I rarely stopped blowing and going until I fell into bed at night. Now that I am retired I have developed a lovely habit of pausing for afternoon tea. I noticed that between two and three each day I would suddenly become sleepy. I’m not yet ready to take naps so I decided to perk myself up with a cup of brew in the English style which meant drinking tea rather than coffee. I sit in my favorite easy chair with a view of my gardens and sip on Earl Grey, Chai, English Breakfast or some exotic blend of teas from the east. It is a rather invigorating experience that I have grown to love.

My daughter who is a nurse says that there is actually a physiological reason that we grow weary in the afternoon. It has to do with food intake and elevated body temperature. I suppose that long ago certain cultures took note of the general dip in energy that we humans experience and decided to create traditions of ingesting caffeine products to induce a feeling of well being. The afternoon tea was part of that trend and has been followed now for centuries. I am one of its more recent converts.

There is something very civilized about taking care of oneself by pausing for refreshment that we tend to ignore in our go go go society. It’s truly a shame that we mistreat ourselves. Back when I was a child my mother always took a break at almost the same time every day. She gave me and my brothers fruit or cookies and a glass of milk. She prepared herself a cup of coffee and sometimes shared it with friends who would drop in for a brief respite from their chores. The tasks that she had to perform seemed far less odious after a little pause. We tend to do less and less of that sort of thing as we focus more and more on constant productivity.

One year Mike and I accompanied a friend from Austria on a trip to his homeland. We enjoyed a lovely concert in one of the local schools which prompted a discussion of the school day schedule in that country. Our friend told us that the required time in the classroom was much shorter than what our American students experience. He said that pupils are usually finished with their lessons rather early in afternoon and go home. In fact, throughout much of Austria shops, banks, restaurants and places of business close for a time each afternoon so that employees will be able to relax before completing the day’s work. I know that we had to wait for almost an hour one day before getting inside a bank because it was the time of day for a long break. The coffee and tea shops opened for the crowds of people who sat for a time enjoying warm drinks and conversations.

I had always read about the tradition of high tea. On a number of occasions I found myself walking through five star hotels where people were enjoying such a luxury, but I never actually got to try the experience. On a trip to Victoria, British Columbia in Canada I finally fulfilled an item that had long been on my bucket list when Mike and I and two of my grandsons went to the high tea at the Empress Hotel. It was not exactly an inexpensive diversion, but certainly one that I will always remember.

I felt like a dignitary as we sat at a table draped with a brilliant white starched tablecloth in a room dripping with chandeliers and warm mahogany. An elegant waiter explained the process to us and asked if we had any special requests. Soon he was bringing us heaping bowls of strawberries with real whipped cream along with trays of crumpets, delicate sandwiches, chocolates, scones and other delights. The tea itself was a special blend unique to the hotel which was served in delicate china cups. The waiter was at our service and his every move was refined and almost balletic. The funny thing is that we had brought two ten year old boys, one of whom was in thrall with the occasion and the other who seriously wanted to get away as quickly as possible because he did not like the smell of tea. The disgruntled one behaved beautifully in spite of his reservations and managed to find enough to eat to make it worthwhile. The happy one was so ecstatic that he swore that he wanted to move to Victoria one day and then take his mother and his future wife to tea time whenever he wished.

I purchased some of the special tea and brought it home to share with my other grandchildren who like to have a tea party when they come. They insist on using my china and having sugar cubes to sweeten the lovely brown liquid. When I finally ran out of the exquisite tea I tried to send for more only to learn that the hotel will not mail items to the United States. A friend of my daughter’s who lives in Calgary came to the rescue when she heard of my dilemma. I have it sent to her and then she forwards it to me. It is a rather expensive process but so worth it in the long run. My grandchildren grow excited when they hear of a new delivery arriving at my home.

I carry a metal teapot in my travel trailer for afternoon tea time. We used it over and over again last summer when we journeyed to California. It made us feel as though we were passengers on the Orient Express, seeking new lands and adventures. I was so happy that I had someone with whom to share my special passion.

My sister-in-law introduced me to a wonderful tea store in Estes Park, Colorado not long ago. She recommended that I try their Cream Earl Grey and it is phenomenal. I try to visit there at least once a year now to replenish my stock. When I am unable to travel I use their mail order service to keep myself always at the ready.

Tea is so delicate and has such an amazing history. One of my all time favorite mornings was spent with two of my former students who treated me to a tea tasting. We sipped on golden colored liquids from China and India while talking of the world’s problems and solving them at the same time. Later one of them gave me a book on the history of tea and a lovely teapot with matching cups along with cans of my favorite varieties from a Chinese market. I remember our special time whenever I use those items. There is something about sharing food and drink that creates a never forgotten bond.

When I was still working at South Houston Intermediate one of the teachers hosted a tea time for her students. She asked them to dress in their finery and she brought lovey dishes and china from her home for them to use. Few of them had ever experienced such a thing and they were so excited. I suspect that they recall that lovely treat just as much as I do and think of their thoughtful teacher warmly. Maybe they even began the tradition in their own homes.

I truly understand why tea has played such an important role in the history of the world and why rebellious colonists scoffed at the taxes levied on the imports of their favorite brews. Enjoying afternoon tea becomes a delightful habit that makes even a dreary day feel a bit brighter. If you’ve never tried it maybe now is a good time. Even a pot of plain old Lipton served in a pretty cup will energize you and send you back to work ready to tackle anything.