Tuesday, December 1, 2009

I'm Thankful For..

The first thing I'm struck by is that it's not much warmer in Houston than it was in New York.  I haven't been here in a little over three years, and - for some reason - expected it to be hotter.  As it will turn out, the external temperature will be the least of my problems.

Neil needn't tell me the car approaching the passenger pickup area belongs to his parents.  Between the one time I've met them and his stories about them, I would have zeroed in on the enormous American car even if it weren't roughly the size of New Mexico (Chevy Caprice Classic - google it, they don't even make them anymore.)  We load our stuff in the trunk, exchange greetings, and board this land cruiser.

After a few minutes of chit-chat about the flight, the weather, and the traffic on the way to the airport, I notice the air conditioning is on.  Full blast.  This will not change over four days.  According to Neil, it actually hasn't changed in forty years.  Over the course of the weekend the weather will vacillate between 70 and sunny to 40 and windy, however, in the car it will always be a breezy 55.

The other thing I notice - and should have realized it when his folks were in New York in April-  is that they've survived nearly four decades in Houston with their New York accents completely intact.  Maybe it's because my ear for regional accents is pretty sharp - so much so that a business trip to Nebraska sends me home with flat "o"s and a weekend in Boston starts to replace my "r"s with "h"s - but it's rather remarkable that what I'm hearing couldn't be characterized as southern in any way, unless you include the South Bronx.

After a short ride we're home, and being greeted by the most excitable, neurotic dog I've ever met.  It's a Schipperke - a Belgian breed known for being active and tireless, and this one lives up to its reputation. It's somewhat foxlike, with a muzzle and coat that are reminiscent of a Sheltie - but smaller, and a size and shape similar to a Corgi.  The dog will spend the next four days racing for the door, jumping on everything, and perpetually waiting to be fed.  Over that four days I will see him eat turkey, stuffing, cheese (brought home from the supermarket specifically for him) among other delicacies.  I will not see him consume a single biscuit or ounce of kibble.

By afternoon we've begun what will be a two-day tour of every supermarket and grocery store in The Woodlands, the planned community north of Houston where his folks live.  The Woodlands is a very large suburb, and was one of the original examples of planned growth; lots of subdivisions, incorporated playgrounds, parks, man-made lakes and green-spaces, sidewalks, and retail.  As far as suburban living goes, particularly in western and southern cities that can be overrun by sprawl, it's rather nice.

I'm grateful for the sidewalks come Wednesday when I desperately need to go for a run, not just to prevent falling out of my exercise routine and ward off whatever I may eat over the next few days, but for the blessed freedom of being on my own for an hour.  It's hard enough to get time to yourself during the realities of day-to-day work and family, but when you're a guest in someone else's home, it's pretty much impossible to get some space to clear your head.

Am I the only who - as I age - feels the need to protect an hour or so every day to be by myself?  It seems to be the only thing that can quiet the voices in my head.  Well, alcohol works, too.

On Wednesday afternoon, one of Neil's oldest friends drove up from Houston to pick us up and take us to dinner.  Armed with a luxury Cadillac that bears multiple cracks in the windshield, we find ourselves careening down the interstate, tailgating multiple "lousy" drivers, and using the directional infrequently when rapidly changing lanes. It's amazing I had an appetite when we finally arrived at Lupe Tortilla.

Lupe Tortilla!  Yay!  I used to eat at this restaurant when I had clients in Houston!  They've got several locations around the city, and the Mexican food is delicious.  It's nothing fancy - just down and dirty Mexican food - but if you're ever in Houston, check out Lupe.  The guacamole is just how I like it - nice and chunky and well-seasoned - and they're famous for their fajitas.  If that's not your thing, check out the chile relleno.

Neil's sister met us at the restaurant - the first time I ever met her.  I adored her immediately, she's funny and smart and we all had a great time.

After dinner, we went to see Neil's friend's new house - a ranch-style home in a very nice area of Houston.  The house was quite nice, and includes some beautiful period furniture from the late 50s and 60s.  It's interesting, though - if you've never been to Houston you might not know that, by some quirk of local politics, Houston has very little in the way of local zoning laws.  Thus, commercial, industrial and residential neighborhoods blend together much more than they do elsewhere, resulting in businesses and homes being virtually next door to each other.  I'd find it a very difficult place to live.

After the house tour, we headed back to Neil's sister's house, where we were spending the night.  When we got there, Neil's friend stopped the car.  I thought he was coming in to say hello, but ended up spending over an hour chitchatting.

You know how some people never seem to know when to go home?  When you arrive at someone's home and the host is in their pajamas, and it's after 11pm, you say hello and goodbye and GO HOME.  The same thing happened the next night at Thanksgiving.  Our guest stayed long after dinner, through the entire UT/Texas AM game, once again treading the 11pm line.  You'd think yawning, changing for bed and repeatedly commenting on how tired you are would be a good enough hint, but subtlety is lost on some people....

Thanksgiving was, by the way, delicious.  Neil's sister made a tur-duc-ken.  I'd never had one and have always been curious about them.  It was terrific.  I had always pictured a whole chicken, deboned and shoved inside a duck, then shoved inside a turkey.  That's the general idea, but the chicken and duck are more than deboned - it's pretty much just their meat that gets stuffed inside the turkey, along with Cajun Dirty Rice.  It's much like how you'd mix sausage with bread stuffing in traditional dressing.  The turkey was mist and delicious, and the stuffing of poultry and rice was aromatic and flavorful.

Just in case it didn't turn out well, Neil's mom also made a turkey, so our dinner for 6 had enough meat for 60.  That second turkey never got touched until Friday and accounts for the most leftovers I've ever seen at Thanksgiving.

I'd offer you some recipes from the rest of the meal - but Thanksgiving is pretty much a meal you only make once a year.  The remainder of our meal was fairly traditional - corn pudding, sausage stuffing, mashed potatoes, mashed turnips, brussels sprouts, green beans.  Most of these you wouldn't make for any other meal, and everyone has their own Thanksgiving recipes they prefer.

However, here's recipe that's great all winter long and not Thanksgiving-specific: Pralined Pecans.

1 lb. pecans
1 cup sugar
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 egg white

Beat egg white until it's stiff and frothy.  Mix in pecans.  Add salt, sugar and cinnamon and mix until well coated.  Arrange on a making sheet and bake at 200-250, turning every 10-15 minutes so they don't burn.  30 minutes or so should do it.  Cool.  A sweet, tasty snack!

We awoke on Friday to a pile of leftovers and Fox News once again on the television (God, I would have killed for ten minutes of CNN!)  And Neil once again being called by the dog's name.  After a run and a lunch of leftovers, Neil's sister picked us up to take us to the movies.  Virtually everything worth seeing was sold out, so we wandered the mall, watching the holiday shoppers and slurping sodas from Sonic.  I love Sonic - they have the best ice - and if you don't know what I'm talking about, then you've never experienced the magic of Sonic Burger.

Unable to face anymore leftovers, we stopped for a few classes of wine, then dinner, while I obsessively checked my Blackberry for updates on the Auburn/Alabama game (Alabama blew them away in last year's Iron Bowl, but this year almost ruined their undefeated season.  They clawed their way back with a field goal in the third and a touchdown with only 1:27 to go, winning 26-21.)

And that's it.  Saturday morning we were up at 5 and headed back to the airport.  Our flight was full, but it was nowhere near the craziness we would have experienced if we had flown on Sunday.  Plus, we got home in time to head out with the boys for a few drinks and bathe in the warm glowing embrace of TiVo.

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