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Dish of the Week: Chiles Rellenos at Cecilia’s Cafe, ABQ

For better or worse, in episode 510 of Diners, Drive-Ins & Dives, Guy Fieri featured a crumbling little corner joint in downtown Albuquerque called Cecilia’s Cafe,

which, even if it weren’t just the sort of fiercely local, downhome fave gastrobsessive-compulsives like me & the author of Gil’s Thrilling Web Site (whose trusty blog I consult regularly before trips down south)—&, of course, Food Network bloodhounds on the scent of “authenticity”—gravitate toward, could obviously play one on TV.

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Gil’s abovelinked blogpost provides plenty of background insight; the most useful tidbit I can offer you is as follows: #4.

Cecilia'schilesrellenos
That’s the chiles rellenos plate with beans, rice & your choice of red or green chile; both are among the purest forms of the stuff I’ve ever encountered, containing little more, so far as I could tell, than roasted hot peppers distilled down to their very essence. (More on the green variety in a later post.)

The beauty of the stuffed chiles themselves was likewise their purity. So often they’re battered beyond recognition, amounting to giant jalapeño poppers. Hell, amounting to giant blobs of fried cheese. If Cecilia’s coating contained any flour at all, it was negligible; if my life depended on guessing by sight & taste exactly how these were made, I’d guess they were dipped in egg, fried, then rolled in cheese, topped with sauce, & broiled. Is that even doable? I don’t know, but these made me believe it is.

They’re filled, of course, with more cheese, but not too much; the chile, in short, isn’t just a vehicle for fat but the ingredient in its own right it should be. Fine  frijoles too, cooked simply & with respect for the integrity of the pinto per se.

***

Read more about Cecilia’s here.

Dish of the Week: Brats & Wurst at the Bombay Club, Salina, KS

If, after all the bubbly, & all the eggnog, all the turkey, & the green beans, & the pumpkin pie à la mode, the leftovers, the bickering, & the leftovers, & the Tums, you can’t fathom why an 8-buck dinner of brats & kraut with peppers & a baked potato (plus salad)

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at a roadside joint in Salina that seems to be advertising really bad tandoori

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would be the biggest & loudest of gut bombs, you don’t know Globeater.

The Best Bar I’ve Never Been To: El Madrid Lounge, Albuquerque

All I know is it’s behind this noted local crazy lady‘s castle

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(pic swiped from Big Albuquerque-like Things, a neat though apparently soon-to-be-defunct blog by an urban planning student)

next to an overpass

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on a dragged-down, chained-up downtown block, which probably explains why there are no windows—but oh, the view from the sidewalk:

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Who’s coming in with me?

En route on I-80, all covered with cheese: The goofy gastronomy of Beefstro & the La Vista Nines

With all the trekking we do through Nebraska en route to Iowa & Michigan & back, the Director & I keep track of our roadside options. Going chowish isn’t really 1 of them, a) because crawling the byroads & backways in search of the troves of chicken shacks, chili emporiums & custard stands they undoubtedly spill forth is only as romantic as one’s willingness to postpone happy hour after all the dreary ones on the road is firm—i.e. not very—& b) because I actually have an abiding fondness for chain hotel lounges in their anonymous sameness (as I’ve detailed here). There’s just something so calming about the bland decor, so appealing about the weird stabs at glorifying American bar snacks & staples.

Actually, though, at The West Omaha Embassy Conference Hotel, the results aren’t half so clumsy as the burnt-orange lobby space the La Vista Nines occupies. Granted, they’re not masterful either—despite the website’s claim that they’re “all prepared by our master chef from Germany!”—being as they are the exceptions to the largely rote rule of the menu: lemon-caper chicken, pork chops in gravy, club sandwiches, etc., with lots of wild rice medleys & buttered green beans tossed in for good measure. Still, there were the quirks I seek. A salad of baby field greens with pan-fried goat cheese, shiitakes, spicy walnuts, tomatoes & honey-thyme vinaigrette, for instance, or tropical fruit sorbets drizzled with chilled vodka.
Or the Cajun potato chips.

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Inspired (like so much that’s good & true in the world) by nachos, they’re hand-cut & fresh-fried to golden-brown, bubbly warped disks; smothered in cheese, crumbled Andouille sausage & green onions; & served with, of all things, a fairly spicy remoulade & a chunky, pinkish, but interesting black-eyed pea dip.

Or—I can’t believe I’m admitting this on national TV—the Alfredo flatbread.

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While the Director’s “margarita”

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was a travesty of the Americanized name—cheddar, basil flakes & tomatoes stuck in a glue of mozz does not a margherita make—my choice was gloriously honest in its gluttony, topped not only with the glut of gut-destruction that is Alfredo (butter, cream & parm) but also yet more mozz, plus bits of grilled chicken & red onion. Ugh! Yay!

The Nines on Urbanspoon

***

Familiar as I am with a few of Iowa City’s diamond dives, it came as a self-surprise that my soft spot for schlock is firmer even than my devotion to dumps. But there you have it: standing between me (with pal Joey) & the likes of George’s, the Deadwood & the Foxhead, only moments away, was

Beefstrosign !!

I was powerless to resist.

Not that it offered much beyond the opportunity to say I was there. Sort of a steakhouse, Beefstro looks like a cross between the lobby of a ski lodge & a heartland diner; plods along servicewise; & engages in such exercises in awkwardness as
a chicken Caesar whose supposed grilled hearts of romaine turned out to be raw halved heads of romaine

BeefstroCaesar

see? awkward!

sprinkled with green-can parm
&

salt-lipped baked potatoes. Beefstropotato

Is this a common flourish I’ve somehow missed? Did someone mistake my spud for a margarita glass? Not that I minded—that’s 1 less garnishing hand-motion for me! Therein lies my compliment to the chef.

River City Beefstro Bar Grille on Urbanspoon

Dispatch from Bacchus Knows Where, OK: McGeHee Catfish Restaurant

The Toy & Action Figure Museum (whose logo tee the Director’s rocking as we speak) isn’t the only detour Wampus took me on during my trip back home for the Okie Noodling Tournament. On the eve thereof, he & Suzy—his expectant wife, co-gourmet cheesemonger & rare comic equal—drove me all the way to the OK-TX border to do mouth-based research at a legendary catfish palace called McGeHee.

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Housed way, way off any main road in an Americana-bedecked cabin overlooking the Red River, the place evokes a clubhouse for ballcapped, grizzled good old boys to sit around in guzzling beer, cheating at cards & spinning fish tales. But when we met a couple of Wampus & Suzy’s friends there around 8 on a Friday night, it was virtually empty—8 being nearly closing time in the middle of nowhere.

I’m not sure there’s anything on the menu besides catfish fried or grilled (but who doesn’t get fried? no one, that’s who), served AYCE family-style with all manner of sides; certainly the ordering process amounted to a smiling confirmation that that’s what we’d be having.

In no time, the waitress returned with a trayful of this & that & this—not only a dish of raw onion slices, peperoncini & lemon wedges but also

Mcgeeheestomatoes Mcgeeheescoleslaw

sweet pickled green tomatoes, hypercreamy coleslaw

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& crunchy-tender free-form hush puppies,

which we had just the right amount of time to plow through before the presentation of the beaucoup pièces de résistance.

Mcgeeheesfish

The cornmeal-fried catfish was expertly done—greaseless, moist & flaky—but I gotta say it was the snappy, salt-dusted, mahogany-hued, skin-on fries that enthralled me most, not least for being the 2nd absolutely spectacular batch of spud sticks I’d had in as many days.

Had we been anywhere Bacchus actually knew—McGeHee is dry—no telling how many I’d have polished off in inebriated bliss, hid in my pockets & otherwise hoarded. So many I’d still be eating ’em now, that I can t ell you.

Lee’s nuggets, Bob’s riblets & Darth Vader’s Potato Head: The 10th Annual Okie Noodling Tournament Pt. 3!

***Subpart 1 of the 3rd & last part in my extra-special miniseries on the Okie Noodling Tournament in Pauls Valley, OK; see Parts 1 & 2 here & here.***

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With a name like Wampus, you just have to be the host of the first-ever catfish cookoff at the 10th annual Okie Noodling Tournament.

You may also have to own the best gourmet shop for miles & miles around, as does my old pal Steve “Wampus” Reynolds, along with his ultralovable wife (& former Martha Stewart payrollee!) Suzy Thompson—namely Norman’s (& soon to be OKC’s) Forward Foods. You definitely have to wear a T-shirt depicting legendary OU Sooners football coach—& bootlegger’s boy!—Barry Switzer that reads “Hang half-a-hundred on it.”

But above all, you really have to launch that Okie Noodling Tournament catfish cookoff—an event that’s sure to get inked in on the smudged & spattered kitchen calendars of aspiring chefs forevermore.

SkedWith a name like Denveater, meanwhile, you have to be terribly restless & afeared to miss a noodlin’ thing—to the point that, instead of waiting for Wampus (“He said Saturday [pause]. I think”) to close his store for the afternoon, you force your poor mom to chauffeur you 45 min. to the fairgrounds, i.e. the half-block radius around Bob’s Pig Shop, just in time for the official weigh-in to begin.

Luckily mom is a trooper.

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Such a trooper, in fact, that this JewBu who bore me uprighted her vegetarian leanings (never mind risked her kosher cred) just long enough to join me in a luscious, luscious lunch of Bob’s ribs.

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Served on plates when the place isn’t getting slammed by more orders than Pauls Valley has residents, the rib platter includes beans that I’d swear were baked, not quite the same (but no less tangy) than the spiced pintos that came with my pig sandwich on Friday (see above link); extra-creamy coleslaw & potato salad; house-baked, toasted white bread; &, oh my, the ribs themselves.

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I’m no BBQ expert, but I know a thing or 3: 1) That’s a serious smoke ring right there. 2) The meat slid—not collapsed, not yanked, but slid horizontally, easily yet precisely—off the bone. 3) The bark was addictive—deep, dark & peppery.

Here’s what I didn’t know til my nominee for world’s truest gentleman (too bad, old dad; them’s the breaks, Director, love of my life) showed me—tuckered out as he must’ve been at the end of a 100-plus-degree day spent overseeing a famous fishing tournament, running a beloved BBQ joint & babysitting his blur of a 2-year-old granddaughter: that those ribs get an ungodly-early start every morning in the brick pit that’s as old as the Pig Shop itself—76 years & counting.

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(That Bob’s Pig Shop is full of such treasures I showed you here—but I saved the best for last. Check this out—it’s dated April 15, 1865:

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BPS25 .)Here’s what else I didn’t know til Wampus whisked me away around 3, at the height of the heat hence the lull of the goings-on: Pauls Valley’s home to 1 wacked-out showcase of a Toy & Action Figure Museum

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—which you’ll get a full load of when I resume this post ASAP.

*****

To pick up where I left off, Wampus & I dodged the dusty scorcher for a spell by ducking into the above, also in little old (pop. jut over 6,000) Pauls Valley. Enthusiast or no, you gotta love it.

First of all, look what’s across the street.

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Second of all, scattered here & there amid all the expected WWII battle scenes—both the European & the Asian Pacific front, right down to the SS helmets & the samurai swords!—
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& the gamut of all knickknacks superhero, evil nemesis, Stars Trek & Wars
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were my kind of action figures:
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Blue Meanies (+ Spidey making, as Wampus pointed out, like
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Dio); Ash, Jason,
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Pinhead, Alien aka The Xenomorph, & Terminator;
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&, if eyes don’t deceive, Fat Bastard!
Third of all, check out the 7th-grade-bedroom installation!
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TAFM3KISS dolls & GI Joes, He-Men & Wonder Women, Godzillas, Transformers, aliens, spaceships, racecars, a TV tuned into cartoons—& to top it all off a box of oatmeal creme pies on the nightstand.
But having gotten our fill, it was time to head back to the festival & get our fill of even cooler playthings—entries in the 1st-ever tournament catfish cookoff, which Wampus (center) organized & cojudged along with Phil (left) & Mark Amspacher (right), longtime fixture on the Norman, OK, food scene & celebrated owner of The Diner.
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The fact that I was just there to observe didn’t stop me from swiping some leftovers—
Catfishnuggets Catfishtacos
from catfish nuggets over Okie caviar with molasses–Maker’s mark sauce to catfish tacos,
Grilledcatfish Zestycatfishsaladsandwich
grilled catfish with jalapeno-tomatillo sauce, the winning zesty catfish salad sandwich,
Friedcatfish
& Lee McFarlin‘s own fried catfish with original seasoning, which the judges found a bit salty but I loved—granting that the word “seasoning” is itself too bland for this stuff.
By then it was evening, & we were dirty, sweaty, sun-drunk & ready to head back to Norman—after, that is, refreshing ourselves, joined by Phil’s kickass daughter Heidi, with some booze in Bob’s walk-in cooler.
Coozy
‘Til next year.

Catching Catfishing’s Fattest Cat, Lee McFarlin: The 10th Annual Okie Noodling Tournament Pt. 2

***Part 2 of a miniseries about the kaleidoscope of scoundrels, souses, smartasses, shit-kickers, schoolkids, septuagenarians, flathead catfish & barbecued pigs that is the Okie Noodling Tournament in Paul’s Valley, OK; see Part 1 here.***

To have even heard of noodling is to know Lee McFarlin. To look “noodling” up on Wikipedia is to see his picture. To Google “noodling” & “Gordon Ramsay” is to catch a slide show of the respective stars of Okie Noodling & “Hell’s Kitchen” gurgling à deux amid the red swirls of an Oklahoma fishing hole. To scan article after article on noodling on the New York Times & ESPN websites is to learn of his legend.

But you could also just show up at the Okie Noodling Tournament, because Lee, even as he’s being trailed by Discovery Channel camera crews & prepping for an August trip to Spain in search of a half-ton catfish,** is a man of the people in the least ironic, most gregarious sense, & he will blithely bend your ear at every turn.

From, say, the inside of the huge fishtank in the parking lot of the great Bob’s Pig Shop, where he performs the aquatic art he has perfected.

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(The seat of his trunks reads “Noodlers Anonymous,” the name of the group of Missourians I mentioned in my last post who flout state law to grabble.)

Or from the cook station
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his wife, he & his daughter Misty—

also a noodler & a past tournament queen—man every year to fry up some 400 lbs. of catfish over the course of the festival,

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coated with his own original seasoning, for the crowd of thousands.

Or from any old spot where he happens to be taking a breather with the jug of goofy juice he totes around all the livelong day.

Lee

I don’t know what it was exactly, but when I asked his answer was to give me a sip in which vodka figured very, very heavily.

And if you admire his hands,

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you might, despite the fact that your back is a filthy, fleshy waterwall in the 100-plus-degree heat, get an under-the-shirt rub to verify the exfoliating aptitude of callouses (& only that, rest assured. What a gent!).

More on the catfish cooked up by those hands, & many other dishes by many other hands, to come in Part 3.

**That reminds me—ever seen the episode of “Fishing with John” where Lurie & Dennis Hopper go on the hunt for giant squid? Almost as good as the one where he & Jim Jarmusch look for sharks in Montauk. More for film buffs than fisherfolk, granted.

Powwow for poobahs of daffy derring-do: The 10th Annual Okie Noodling Tournament Pt. 1

***Over the course of the next few days I’ll spill all the half-baked beans I happily gathered at the 10th Annual Okie Noodling Tournament in Pauls Valley, Oklahoma, while hanging with an array of insiders whom I’d now count among the coolest, kindest, oldest souls a person can be lucky enough to encounter all at once.***

Horse Let’s get a few things straight:
Noodling, also called grabbling, is fishing for catfish with your hands, or, in some cases, feet—essentially grabbing hold of them from the inside by letting them clamp down on your arms & legs, risking digits in the process, & then wresting them loose from the riverbed nooks & crannies they occupy.
It’s legal in a handful of states, including Oklahoma, where flathead catfish are the favored catch (& excluding Missouri, whose die-hard noodlers do it on the down-low while grappling with local lawmakers to get the papers pushed).
The tournament is held one day every July in the parking lot of Bob’s Pig Shop, a venerable BBQ joint & de facto antique showcase of curios I’ve only begun profiling here.
On the eve thereof, the noodlers, who operate on the honor system, can head to any fishing hole they choose, so long as it’s in Oklahoma, as of 7pm. They have 24 hours to make it to the weigh-in station, manned by OSU fisheries biologist Joe Bidwell & some of his grad students.
Weighin6 Weighin5
Meanwhile, thousands gather (4,000 this year, not a huge crowd by the standards of recent years until you consider the 100-plus-degree heat) watch noodling demos, slurp Sno-Cones & guzzle beer, chow down on ribs & of course fried catfish platters (more on which later), try their luck in catfish-eating contests & catfish cookoffs (more on which ditto)—&, to the strains of live country, cheer on the noodlers as they trickle in with their catches. As the deadline nears, the trickle becomes a gusher & North Ash looks like a pick-up parade whose poobahs—both human & piscine/piscatorial—are filthy, sweaty, bloody badasses.
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Contestants

Prizes go to both the most massive beast & the poor puniest loser—the latter this year being 12 & the former being

Prizewinner 68!!
Prizes also go to the biggest stringer, a group of 3. After the noodling queen is rather haphazardly crowned—
Pastqueens
among the past queens onstage, including noodling king Lee McFarlin‘s wife & daughter (the 3rd & 4th from L, respectively), the leftmost one was in her cups in all kinds of ways—
the band plays on for the boozy crowd of proud rednecks, goofy hipsters, grandmas, toddlers, punch-drunk camera crews, hardcore outdoorsmen & the women who love them & vice versa into the night—& until they meet again next year.

(We straight for now? If not, or even if so, go here to get the cinematic scoop from filmmaker-founder Bradley Beesley & the gang.)

Bob’s Pig Shop, Pauls Valley, OK: THE COOLEST PLACE ON EARTH?

We at Denveater grew up in big bad Oklahoma.

Like megamesmerizers The Flaming Lips, like notorious Normanite & owner of great gourmet shop Forward Foods’ Wampus (whom you may have met here), like doc-directing dynamo Bradley Beesley & spell-casting yarn-spinner

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Phil Henderson—

fisheries biologist & proprietor for the past 3 decades plus of the beloved 76-year-old BBQ pitstop Bob’s Pig Shop—I grew up in the Sooner State.

Unlike them, though, I can’t take any credit for the global phenom that the Okie Noodling Tournament has become since its inception in 2000.

That said, this year, for the 1st time, I’m at least attending the bare-handed catfishing contest founded by Beesley & Henderson, scored in spirit by the Lips & rounded out by a Wampus-sponsored catfish cookoff.

The noodlers were off in a cloud of dust—or a spray of murk, I guess—as of 7pm CST this eve to go sticking their fists down the faces of ancient aquatic beasties, & they’ll be due at the weigh-in in Bob’s parking lot by no later than 7pm tomorrow (last year’s piscine prizewinner was nearly 65 lbs.).

Until then, I’ll be stuffing my own face in the museum of major mementos & cracker-ass curios (in the positive sense) that is the Pig Shop dining room.

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no relation

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look familiar? see way above & below
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While the noodlers are flailing all over Lake Eufaula (or wherever their secret holes are), & the toddlers are flocking & gawking ’round the catfish-&-human-filled demo tank, & the cookoff contestants are grilling up to their gills, I’ll be chowing down on

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the marinated & chopped Pig Sandwich

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with red pepper–spiked pickle relish & some of the best table sauce I’ve ever tasted (catch the splotch at the bottom)—a vinegary variation on Phil’s great-uncle’s sweeter original—plus satisfyingly soupy, lightly spiced beans on the side;

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hand-cut, skin-on, perfectly crisped fries coated in Phil’s own special blend of seasonings;

& lordy knows what all else I’ve yet to try—the babybacks? the tamales with chili (does not equal chile)? the prime rib on house-baked sourdough? a bowlful of that table sauce I’d lap up in a patch of sunlight like a kitten? (kittenfish?) in a flash?

Tune in this weekend to find out. (UPDATE: More about Bob’s here!)

Bob's Pig Shop on Urbanspoon

The Scoop Series: Salsa-gardening in the desert with Denveater’s favorite off-the-grid crackerjack Rebecca Ballenger

Nowadays, if I don’t check in with old pal & fellow blogger Rebecca every so often to find out what chickens she’s kicking it out in the backyard with or what sort of prickly-pear pies she’s baking in her solar oven or just generally what’s doin’ at the endless summertime block party that is her brain, all box guitars & lemonade, I begin to wither on the vine that is my couch.

So I sprouted a few new tendrils (ew) when she mentioned she was growing tomatoes. Now, if she lived in San Marzano or something, all surrounded by

Caggiano-vineyards ,

that’d be one thing. But she lives in hardcore Arizona. So I had to ask, & she kindly obliged.

*****

The Sonoran Desert is a hot mess. She’s a vampire sucking dry the landscape, the flora & the criminals creeping about in the sand. (Denved.: Really, criminals in lieu of ground cover? Sweet.) Desert survivors are stingy in their use of scarce resources. Among the most notable characters is the prickly phallus known as the saguaro (that’s pronounced suh-WAH-ro). Saguaros are native only to the Sonoran Desert. They show their supremacy & stake their claim by flipping the bird to any and all who pass by.

Saguaro1

Well, that’s not fair. It can take 50 years for saguaros to reach 3 feet tall. Considering how often my kids beg to be measured, it must be like waiting for Christmas to get that big, except it’s waiting 50 Christmases. Eventually they do grow up & they sprout flowers—the state flower of Arizona, in fact. These flowers turn to fruit, which the Hohokam dried, crushed into powder, & added to water. Makes the 55-year-old Kool-Aid Man look spry.

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(Actually to me he looks like he has a few ice cubes loose—I never really thought about the fact that he’s a big full pitcher holding a small full pitcher. You’re already it, dude! Just drop it & run! Run for that brick wall!)

Desert is a misnomer, as we receive just a twee above true desert precipitation levels, but I bet more than a few parched indigents would love to see Kool-Aid Man plowing down the delicate ecosystem with an icy pitcher of red-flavored CAP water. I don’t know from Kool-Aid though. Apart from my youth, when other kids flaunted their Kool-Aid in my face & bade me drink my spit, I still contend its best use is for coloring hair. Even then, my hair has always been too dark to take wicked awesome color like Berry Blue.

Anyway, now that the Palo Verdes—green stick trees, of which the blue variety represent the state of Arizona—are in bloom

Blooming Palo Verde

& everyone has allergy headaches, it’s time to put the salsa gardens in the ground. As a child, I loved to walk among the rows of tomatoes that grew over my head in my backyard. I loved the smell, but even more I loved the taste. I could take salt & pepper shakers out with me, but more often than not, I’d pull the tomatoes off the vine & eat them like apples. One summer I ate so many that I developed canker sores. Then the canker sores got canker sores & I still couldn’t stop myself.

(Maybe grind some Canker-cover-dninto the soil next time?)

I haven’t had a single good tomato since moving to Arizona. Natives tell me that I’m not getting the right variety, not going to the best farmer’s markets, not growing my own. I call bullshit. I’ve chased down every lead & am still unable to get a good tomato.

Now, that doesn’t stop me from trying. I eat tomatoes every chance I get. I eat mealy tomatoes, waxy, hard-skinned tomatoes, even the most disgusting tomatoes on earth—the ones that come with ranch dressing & squirt like nursing babies when you bite into them.

Recently some very famous—two degrees of separation from Rachael Ray—tomato seedlings came my way, accompanied by cilantro and pepper seedlings. They all looked pathetic, but my friend Hawt Mz. Molly, who has inspired many a discussion about trade-off licking, gave them to me, so I figured I’d put them into the ground. (Folks, no idea what “trade-off licking” means. Google went straight for hybrid cabs & black lesbians. Case in point for why I dig Rebecca.)

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In the past, I’ve tilled the garden, enriched the soil, & prepared sweet beds for my beloved fruits. This time out, I just couldn’t be bothered. In fact, I didn’t even manage to put on proper shoes. (Says you.)

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The peppers, cilantro, & basil (from Caddo Artist—which are not yet seedlings, just seeds), went into pots, while the tomatoes went into the ground.

Garden collage

See how my garden grows? So much green!

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Honestly? I expect only the paddle cactus there to thrive. Or maybe—given the brutal environment and hostile caregiving—killer tomatoes.

(Update forthcoming like crazy.)