You cannot understand a nation’s culture without eating its food

That was the motto painted on the wall of the North Sea Village, a Chinese restaurant in Edinburgh, about 20 years ago.  I don’t know if the restaurant is still there (probably not) nor which North Sea village its name referred to (Inverbervie?  Sandhaven?) But I still like the motto.  So, in one more Tour Top Ten, I offer you:

TEN MOST MEMORABLE WAYS TO UNDERSTAND THE USA.

1. Czech-American Restaurant, West, TX.  On our way up from Austin to the Tommy Duncan Festival in Hillsboro, we stopped at West, site of a previous culinary pilgrimage for me about 15years ago.  Last time I’d been mildly disappointed, this time I found the right place and was wildly excited: at last, Czech food of great flavour and character in a community still influenced by its original central European settlers 150-odd years ago.  The Czech-American is a somewhat dilapidated joint, ancient pictures hanging off the walls, lighting somewhat murky, fittings a little mix ‘n’ match.  My guess is they’re too busy cooking great food to worry about fripperies like interior design.  It had to be smoked sausage with sauerkraut and Czech fries…yup, good choice…washed down with iced tea.  There are shinier, better-lit places in West, but this is the real deal, and a fine introduction to the Texan melting pot.

2.  Hermitage Cafe, Nashville, TN.  3am breakfast of omlettes, biscuits & gravy, bacon, orange juice, coffee – distributed amongst everyone in different proportions – and the best jukebox of the whole darn trip, pumping out Hank, Left, Loretta and a host of other historic honky tonk greats to a cafe full of current honky tonk greats sharing our breakfast: Chris Scruggs, Danny Mohammed, Scott Icenogle and last but not least Craig Smith. Perfect refuelling stop after a fantastic day and night of music-making and listening on Lower Broadway.

3.   Smitty’s Barbecue, Lockhart, TX.  By general consensus the best of several good barbecues in Lockhart.  I was last here about 1999, when it was still called Kreutz Market. Following a family split, Kreutz moved to a big new location elsewhere in town, but the magic seems to have stayed here in the old building.  Beef brisket tender as marshmallow, and nearly as sweet…  40 miles or so outside of Austin, but unmissable.

4.  Triple XXX Diner, West Lafayette, IN.  A haven of good old fashion American cooking in the fast-food hell that was the Purdue campus.  Sure, they sell root beer, milk shakes, fries, cherry pies and burgers – but all of these things are made here, freshly made, expertly made, made with love and care!  Not much wonder their speciality burger, the Duane Purvis  All American, had reached the finals of the Superbowl Sandwich competition while we were there.

A unique and striking burger, made special by having dollops of peanut butter smeared over the chopped sirloin after cooking and before bunning, this was a memorable treat washed down by a pitcher of their own root beer.  This is the American diner you’ve always dreamed of.

 

 

5.  A tiny taqueria somewhere on the outskirts of Lafayette, IN.  We were whisked in here so quickly by Paul Baldwin, local man about town and owner of the excellent Black Sparrow pub (no mean eatery itself: the blue cheese and fig pizza was our fave), so quickly, I say, that we didn’t catch the name.  The menu two was merely waved in front of us, as Paul recommended one thing in particular: ox tongue tacos.  I’m glad he did: they were fantastic: simple, fresh and flavoursome.  Street-food simple, I suppose you’d say.  And all the better for it.  Mexican food in the UK is rubbish: it buries itself under a burden of refried beans, stodgy rice, guacamole, salsas, corn, tomatoes, grated cheese, multiple flatbreads and pounds of meat.  Here’s the secret, guys: keep it as simple as this and you’ve got one of the world’s great cuisines.

 

 

 

 

 

 

6.  Birrieria Zaragoza, Chicago, IL.  It was only me who went here, no one else fancied it.  Well, it was a dozen or so miles out of the city centre in an area that we were advised to avoid.  The other thing that might have put folk off was that the only dish it serves is goat meat.  Not to worry, I persuaded two Chicago resident friends, Gene and Debby, who had never heard of it and were not overwhelmed with anticipation, to drive me down there and use their excellent Spanish to smooth the way.  (Not essential, but I think it helped get us an even warmer welcome than we would have done.)  So, nothing but goat…to be precise steamed and braised goat meat, served in a deep, subtle ancho chile sauce.  Accompanied by a picante salsa in a granite bowl, and condiments: lime quarters, diced raw peppers, cilantro (coriander leaves) and dried chile peppers of some kind.  And lots of paper napkins to wipe the inevitably sticky fingers.  Ask Gene and Debby, folks, it was an absolute joy: simple food cooked to perfection.  They’re on the web if you want to check them out, or better still just pop down to 852 South Pulaski Road: a Polish name but a Mexican neighbourhood…and a chowhound’s dream.

7.  Cartino Italian Restaurant, Chicago, IL.  A fantastic procession of Italian ‘tapas’ – i.e. small pizzas, pasta bowls, saucers of octopus, parma ham, cheese, etc – to celebrate Dick’s birthday.  Checked tablecloths, giant pepper grinders, cheap red wine…the works. We all had a great time.  (Me, Stevie and Emma had a great brunch the next day, too, at Lula’s Cafe.  A very hip place with a good wine list – including an Arbois from the Jura – wow – though we didn’t sample it at brunch, you’ll be glad to hear.)

8.  Texas de Brazil, Chicago IL.  A woman in a lift recommended this to Dick, and he recommended it to me and Iain.  A good tip, lady…  The idea was to marry the beef-overload culture of Texan cowboys with the, eh, beef-overload culture of Brazilian gauchos.  So you paid a set price ($45, the dearest meal of our trip) and for that got unlimited supplies of freshly grilled beef (various cuts) delivered to your plate on three-foot-long skewers by guys in gaucho gear (several of whom turned out to be Romanian, not Brazilian, but never mind.)  Also sausages, lamb chops and quarter chickens.  They just kept coming, the meat kept piling up faster than we could eat it – till we discovered that if you turned over a little card by your water glass so the red rather than the green side was uppermost, they stopped persecuting you with their delicious, succulent fillets and strips…  Here’s the funny thing, we would happily have paid almost as much money not to have eaten meat at all, and just to have feasted on the fantastic salad and vegetable buffet, all of it sparklingly fresh.  We saw more vegetables this night than we had in the whole of the previous two weeks in Texas and Indiana!  In fact, the three of us probably ate more vegetables this one night than the population of Texas…  To cap it all, if anyone ordered a bottle of wine, a waitress swung down on a trapeze, twirling head over heels as she went, and plucked the required bottle from its shelf on the three-storey-high wine shelving, behind smoked glass, all along the side wall of the restaurant.  It was the stupidest feature I have ever seen in any restaurant anywhere…and another reason to check out this remarkable place.  (Bizarrely, vegetarians would actually eat better here than in most other places we tried across the US.)

9.  Spruce Creek Diner, a few miles outside Huntingdon, PA.  Local presenter and all round good egg Chad Herzog drove us to this place after an early morning visit to an Amish/Mennonite market nearby for pepper & garlic cashews and fresh (non-alcoholic) sweet apple cider.  Spruce Creek Diner is famed for its speciality, the Tray of Fries.  (Which, to the uninitiated, is indeed a trayful of chips.)  A ‘Wall of Shame’ inside the front porch shows photos of the handful of folk who have eaten a whole tray themselves and lived.  We managed a tray (just) between six of us.  Also worth a mention is the soup of the day that day, a sirloin burger broth, and the pies from the bakery next door.  Afterwards we walked, or waddled, fifty yards to what is supposedly the best trout fishing stream in the USA.  Enthusiasts pay many thousands of dollars to come and fish here.  They could come to Stenness Loch in orkney and fish for trout for free (and keep what they catch, rather than having to throw them back…)

 

 

 

 

 

 

10.  A dozen Apalachicola oysters (‘the best in the state’) in Bird’s Aphrodisiac Oyster Shack, Tallahassee, FL.  $8 for 12 oysters!  Luxury at fast food prices!

Let’s leave it there: I’m full…

. . .

PS  Except maybe just…how about a milk shake at the Triple XXX?  http://youtu.be/h5qicdxIyIo

PPS  You want cheese on that?

A tale of two hats

Sunday, our last day in Austin, was also a day off, so Iain and I took off into the country south-east of Austin with some new friends we’d met through the theatre: Eunice and Morgann (both grad students at UT) and Joel Gammage, fourth generation hat maker at Texas Hatters in Lockhart. (www.texashatters.com)

Up till now, Lockhart has always meant BARBECUE to me, and we did indeed start our visit with some fantastic brisket and sausage at Smitty’s (which I lasted visited about 15 years ago, when it was still – before a family split – called Kreuz Market.)

Then we went a couple of blocks along the dusty road to Joel’s shop and workshop, an amazing, Dickensian place stuffed with hundreds of hats of all shapes and sizes (many, but not all, what we would call cowboy hats), as well as steamers, gluers, sewing machines, wooden hat moulds (many over 200 years old, Joel said), big squares of different felts (South American beaver being most prized, and New Zealand hare next best) – and hundreds of photos of celebrities wearing Texas Hatter hats. Everyone from Willie Nelson to Prince Charles to Guich Cooke to Stevie Ray Vaughan to ZZ Top to Jerry Jeff Walker to George Bush has had their head measured here.

Well, I don’t know if Iain and I will end up with our photos on the wall of fame, but we certainly ended up with Texas Hatter hats on our heads. The wind in Orkney makes wide-brimmed cowboy hats unwearable (they keep blowing away) but these fedoras looked both snazzy and practical to us. Joel decorated them for us, stamped our names on the leather liner and hand stitched that into place, then sized them to the perfect fit with stem and a ingenious wooden stretcher.

We decided against the coon skin hats…though the picture does remind me of that funny pic of Thomas with a cat balanced on his shoulder.

Apparently Stevie Ray Vaughan bought his first hat from tips earned busking on the very shoe-shine stand Iain and I sat on to sing Crazy Arms. Our tips were few, I’m afraid, but the joy of wearing these hand-customised hats was – and is – plentiful.

Review!

Just found this link to what might be our first review here in the states from one of the Austin shows.

Have been flicking through more Austin pics today too… what an amazing city to kick off in! We flew up north yesterday and are now settled in at Purdue Uni, West Lafayette, Indiana. Huge Uni Campus so totally different feel to Austin. Shows Fri, Sat and Sunday. Bleedin’ FREEZING here – shock to the system after Austin.

 

Tommy Duncan Festival

A few months ago, Graham Simpson, drummer with Lone Star Swing band for 2009 tour (originally due to be on this tour but unfortunately not able to make it) was in touch via Facebook with a group of people organising the Tommy Duncan Tribute, in Hillsboro, Texas.

Tommy D is a legend of Western Swing, and was vocalist with Bob Wills (aka the King of Western Swing)… and sang hits such as…Stay a little longer. Tommy is the one sitting on the table singing in that clip – impossible to not love that sound! Bob Wills’ sound led to Duncan’s obsession with all things Texas a few years ago now, and eventually on to his Thomas Fraser obsession years later.  Anyway, back to the story…

Tommy’s family has started a festival in his name, to raise awareness of his huge contribution to Western Swing music and through Graham’s contact, Lone Star Swing were invited as special guests!

Fast forward to Fri 13th January… after arriving in Austin the previous night, we headed 2 hours drive north! Got to thinking on the way up that Tommy & Thomas kinda look alike. They were only 17 years apart in age – Tommy would’ve been 101 this year, and Thomas 84. Feels like they met indirectly that weekend when we told Tommy’s family about Thomas.

Duncan had arranged for us to meet the organisers in Whitney, Texas, Tommy’s birthplace. We were met in Whitney by Pam Townley, the organiser and a few others including Guich Koock – who was a great host to us – and Billy Mata – a Western Swing musician himself.

We followed them down a long, dusty 2 mile track to the house Tommy was born in. Amazing wood built, ‘Little House on the Prairie’ style. There we met Glynn Duncan, Tommy’s brother!

Duncan was keen to get as much chat with his as possible, as you can imagine. Check out those red boots!

Glynn is 90 but still sharp and told a great few stories. He sang with Bob Wills for a short while too. That tiny little house was home to a family of 14! Amazing introduction to Texas, and it’s people – they were all so friendly, and welcoming and keen to tell us all about the area and it’s musical history. I think Dick might’ve managed to transport himself back 100 years – he seemed to blend in with the house as if he’d always been there!

Later that night, we were invited for dinner at the house of Tommy & Glynn’s nephew. We felt so honoured to be invited in to the family. A great night of Texas food and hospitality! Little bit of a shock to be met by the stuffed bear, and the numerous deer and elk heads but they soon blended in just fine.

In true Texas tradition, all the men were dressed in cowboy style, with hats, boots and western shirts… and true polite (take their hat off to say hello to a lady!) cowboys too. And all of that was only just the beginning!

Festival took place the following day, Saturday – our second full day in the States! The ‘Chuckwagon breakfast’ to start the day was amazing! Everything cooked on the fire, by the wagon… bliss.

We were interviewed for local radio then spent the rest of the day listening to the best Western Swing I’ve ever heard… with lots of people on the floor, Texas Two-Stepping!!

We sneaked out to meet Dave Alexander and to visit his tour bus. Could definitely cope with a life on the road in one of those.

The whole experience of that first weekend was just way beyond my best expectations of Texas. Really nice people, amazing music and a nostalgic feel of times past. One thing that I couldn’t help notice was a missing age group of 20-40 year olds. There were only two (really cute) young people there – two young cowboys who were like miniature versions of the older men in the community. They were having a great time though, and seeing them with their families reminded me Shetland and Orkney where music and that old sense of nostalgia are still linked. Texas feels like home! Sure Thomas would have thought so too!

 

Adios Austin…

Sunday, and a day of rest in Austin. Much needed after a hectic few days. Great day yesterday – standing ovation for the afternoon show! Amazing. These are my first few shows so I was kinda relieved to get them out of the way. I’m replacing Fiona Driver, fiddle player who did the last tour with Long Gone Lonesome – a hard act to follow!

Was great last night to get a chance to sit down with everyone who’s worked so hard this week to make everything run seamlessly! James Gardner‘s here with us as Production Manager, and Stevie Jones on Sound – both brilliant to work with, and doing an amazing job. The techie/venue team from Bass Concert Hall have been amazing too – thanks y’all! Few beers and a taste of whisky combined with a little backstage tune was a great way to round off the Austin shows. Managed to persuade everybody to pose for a pic!

L-R Back - James (NTS), Kirsten (Austin), Iain (LSS), Dick (LSS), Neil (NTS), Stevie (NTS), May (Thomas' daughter), Alexis (Karl's partner), Karl (Thomas' grandson). L-R Front - Jeremy (Austin), Michael (NY), Duncan (LSS), Lynda (LSS), Ben (Austin), Cynthia (Austin), Mackie (May's husband) & Emma (NTS).

Great to have some of Thomas’ family there – makes the whole story feel even more real when people who knew Thomas are there in the crowd. Austin itself has been a great city to experience.

Cedar Fever and Sell Out Shows

Day 3 in Austin! Two sell out shows so far – both well received!

We’ve recreated a village hall in Scotland on the huge stage of Austin’s Bass Theatre. As in Orkney or Shetland, the show is followed by a raffle and dance! In true Texas style, the crowd stuck around and took to the dance floor! Amazing to see the cowboy hats birling around the floor. They were even up for a strip the willow, expertly led by our Director, here with us on the tour, Emma Callander and NTS Executive Producer Neil Murray who has been around for the start of the tour. The Texans did a great job! Great to have six Shetlanders there last night too, including May, Thomas’ daughter and Karl, his grandson.

Opening show on Thursday was a tough one for Duncan, who all but lost his voice to cedar fever – a common allergic reaction round these parts at this time of year. Trip to the doctor yesterday sorted him out and he was back in full voice last night.

Two more shows here in Austin today, day off tomorrow, then we head for Indiana on Monday. Austin has been an amazing experience – renowned for it’s live music scene, Duncan’s recommendation for gigs and venues is never-ending, in true music fanatic style and he’s been rushing round to as many as he can squeeze in, from the Broken Spoke, to the White Horse and the Continental Club. Iain has been keeping up with Duncan, but Dick and I took the more leisurely option of the hotel bar last night, where we bumped into some of Thomas’ family so a good chance to have a catch up with them. It’s great they’re over here.

Still tales to tell of our trips during our first week in the US before the start of the tour – to Hillsboro, Texas as special guests at the Tommy Duncan festival, and to Nashville, to introduce the guys to the best in honky tonkin’… including Dick’s spectacular Nashville debut, at Rippy’s, Lower Broadway! If I can just figure out how to get the video uploaded I’ll get it up here. In the meantime, here are some shots from the Bass Hall. Time to get the dress on and get downstairs! Bye for now, Lynda.

Austin stage! Preparing for Opening night...

Taking Thomas Fraser ‘home’

We’ve made it through our first two shows to kick off the tour, here in Austin, Texas. The Austin audiences have been fantastic – even up for dancing an Orcadian Strip the Willow!

Six Shetlanders were there tonight, amongst them May (Thomas’ daughter) and Karl (his grandson). It was brilliant to see them there, and for them to be sharing in the experience of what really does feel like taking Thomas Fraser ‘home’ to his musical roots.

For some background in case you’re not familiar with the show… we (the Lone Star Swing Band, aka Duncan McLean, Iain Tait, Dick Levens and me – Lynda Anderson) are here in the USA touring Long Gone Lonesome, a National Theatre of Scotland production about the life of Shetlander Thomas Fraser.

Thomas was a crofter and fisherman in the remote Shetland Islands, who fell in love with the country music of America… the songs of Carl Smith and Jimmie Rodgers amongst others. Not only did he listen to the music obsessively, he learned to play guitar and sing the songs to a standard to rival the original artists.

Although known as a talent in the local community during his lifetime, his extreme shyness limited his public performances and it was really only 20 years after his death that the true wealth of his talents were discovered, when his grandson, Karl Simpson, listened through old reel to reel recordings Thomas had left – no less than 1000 tracks!

Karl got to work preserving the tapes, and to date has released 6 CDs of Thomas’ music to worldwide acclaim. Duncan was gripped by the music and story of Thomas’ life and the play is a combination of that story together with some of the songs Thomas loved so much. Although he was never in America, I really do feel like he’s travelling with us to his musical ‘home’. Just wish he could be here to see it for himself.

Opening Night!

Hello from the Lone Star Swing Band – at last! Hard to believe we’ve actually been in the US for a week! We arrived last Thursday, and have since had a wild and wonderful week of exploration and adventure – in Texas and Tennessee! More stories and photos of those trips to follow soon… Just to say hello for now since we haven’t had the time to yet! Busy times today too, in preparation for our US premiere!! tonight at 8pm at Austin’s Bass Concert Hall. Exciting!!! We just finished the dress rehearsal and are raring to go! Right, no more time to write just now… time to go eat, prepare and dress for the show!