Friday, May 29, 2009

Deep in the Heart of Texas 2-Collin Street Bakery

Our side trip to Corsicana, Texas continues...

In addition to a real love for their home, my Grandparents also began to take great pride in their newly adopted hometown. They supported the local Theatre and the historic preservation of the town. Each time we'd visit they'd drive us to the see the local sights. Sometimes it would be a new factory being built in town or perhaps an old building downtown that was being revitalised. For ages we had to drive out to witness the construction of the new overpass. I admit, as a kid, some of these outings weren't particularly interesting, but I can now appreciate the great love they had developed for their little town. Over the years, they slowly introduced us to the town's hidden treasures.

One of those "hidden treasures" and perhaps the reason Corsicana, Texas rates on any one's radar is the Collin Street Bakery at 401 W. 7th Street. This family owned bakery founded in 1896 is probably most famous for its DeLuxe Fruitcake which it sells directly from its Corsicana headquarters to about 196 countries worldwide via mail order and more recently, online. Chances are if you've eaten a fruitcake at Christmas, it might just have been one from this little bakery in Texas. Who knew? According to Wikipedia, they make approximately 3 million pounds of fruitcake each year which translates into about 1.5 million individual cakes. Apparently the fruitcakes account for 98% of their sales. That's a lot of fruitcake folks!

On this particular afternoon in May, it wasn't fruitcake that I had in mind though. First and foremost, we were in need of a ladies room. Our Sonic cherry limeades were making themselves known to us. Emergencies of the bladder aside, I thought it would be delightful to stop in at the bakery that my Grandmother used to rave about and share the tradition with my children.

I have very few memories of actually going to Collin Street Bakery. I can recall maybe two occasions when I physically entered their shop, but I do remember my Grandmother having baked goods from there at her house with some regularity. If it was summertime, she'd have an Angel Food Cake for my brother's birthday. If it was Christmas, she'd have a fruitcake. During other times of the year we might have cookies from the bakery. She was very proud of the fact that the little bakery from her newly adopted hometown was world famous.

Not exactly a fruitcake fan, I thought the kids and I might grab some cookies for the road. We pulled into the Bakery parking lot and made our way inside. My attention was peaked by the sign out the front that promised gourmet sandwiches as well as coffee. I don't remember those items being on offer when I was a kid. It seemed as if some things had changed at Collin Street Bakery since I was last there.

As we walked through the glass doors into the bakery, I noticed a nicely arranged cafe style seating area on the right with a self serve coffee bar and to the left were baked goods of all shapes and sizes. The children were excited at the sight of all the different cookie varieties on display. I saw a basket with pre-made gourmet sandwiches which looked delicious. Hmm...this place looked like it had some taste bud pleasing potential.

We waited patiently while a mix of locals and tourists were served by the friendly bakery staff. Things seemed to move quite slowly inside the bakery, but we didn't mind, these cookies looked like they were worth the wait. Finally, it was our turn and we each selected a cookie--the little fellow chose one with M&Ms in it, my daughter chose a chocolate cookie with white chocolate chips and I chose a traditional chocolate chip cookie. As we made our way to the cash register I told the man at the counter I'd like to pay for our cookies. He said, "How many do you have there?" "Three," I replied. "Oh, don't worry about it. Consider them free samples," he said cheerfully. "Really?" I questioned. "Really," he said. So we promptly thanked him and made our way to their cafe seating area and sat down to enjoy our "free samples".

One bite into this cookie and I was in heaven. I'm a baker. I make lots of cookies and cakes at home all the time. I don't usually like to get cookies or cakes from a commercial bakery because they are never quite as good as what we make at home. These cookies were an exception. They were delicious. There was a distinct nuttiness to them. I think they had some ground pecan nuts mixed through them. It just so happens I love pecans. I loved these cookies. Wow. They were so much better than anything I remember eating as a kid. My little people loved them too.

As we sat enjoying our cookies, I took a moment to read the various news articles that lined the walls. Stories that had been written over the years telling the world about this little bakery in the heart of Texas; this little bakery in my Grandmother's adopted hometown. It was as if we were enjoying not just a cookie, but a piece of history; a tradition handed down over generations. It was lovely.

The loveliness didn't end there. We finally made our way into their ladies room and it was the nicest ladies room! There were granite vanities with lovely taps. A nice floral couch welcomed you as you entered. The little people took a moment to relax on it. My five year old said, "Gee Mom, this is like the nicest bathroom I've ever been in." Not too bad for a little pit stop three hours into our last road trip I thought quietly patting myself on the back all the while still thinking about the cookie I just consumed.

Once we'd finished in the ladies room, it was time to bid goodbye to the famous little bakery. We had one foot out the door when I said, "You know, we should really get some more of those cookies." Amazingly, there were no arguments from the little people. So we turned around and got back in line.

Ten minutes later we left the bakery with four dozen assorted cookies carefully packed away in a box to be enjoyed at a family wedding on the weekend. Taking the cookies to the wedding was my daughter's idea and I loved it. I felt like I was taking a little piece of history with us. It would be unexpected, but welcome and it made me feel as though my Grandparents would be amongst us in spirit. I felt them both smile at me as I carefully packed these cookies into our car and we drove slowly out of town, out of their town, and back onto the interstate.

Not sure when I'll be back in Corsicana again, but when I do return you better believe I'll be stopping at Collin Street Bakery.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Deep in the Heart of Texas

Last week we had occasion to drive from Houston to Dallas. The last of our Texas road trips for the 2009 Tour de Texas. The children were beside themselves at the thought of more time in the car, but I had big plans for them.

Somewhere along I-45 between Houston and Dallas lies the sleepy town of Corsicana, Texas. It was there, deep in the heart of Texas, that I spent many a Christmas holiday and summer vacation in my youth. My Grandparents owned a very regal, historic home on a stately street right there in the middle of Texas.

My Grandmother, an Interior Decorator by trade, happened upon the house one day in her 70s when she and my Grandfather were looking to buy a small rental property in this little town southeast of their Dallas home. As she told it, she saw the house first from the street, told the agent she was interested and waited quite awhile on the porch in the heat while the agent went to pick up the keys so they could have a look inside. She declared she wouldn't return to Dallas until she'd seen the house.

The house had been empty for a long time and was in a bit of disrepair, but my Grandmother saw the possibilities there. She knew instantly that this was the house she'd always dreamed of owning. She told the agent they'd take it--pretty much on the spot. Before we knew it, they packed up their place in Dallas and moved out to Corsicana--a town that was completely unfamiliar to the rest of the family.

The renovations of the house began soon after the move. It was a labour of love and a process that was very interesting to watch. In hindsight, my Grandparents had incredible amounts of energy for their age. They were climbing ridiculously high ladders and painting the ornate ceilings. They did a lot of the work themselves. Slowly, the house was transformed as we watched a lifetime of skill, my Grandmother's impeccable taste and the intelligence of my Grandfather to simply nod and say, "Yes dear" come together to produce a warm, inviting and very dignified home--both inside and out.

I loved that house and its history. I loved its character. I loved its ghosts (my Grandmother was convinced there were several). I loved all the amazing things she'd done with it. Most of all I loved going there and wandering from room to room noticing something new and truly unique with each visit.

Over the years we had many large family gatherings inside the magical walls of their home. We played ball on the massive lawns. We helped hang Christmas lights. We laughed and shared many a meal. It was the perfect family gathering place and my Grandmother, ever the Matriarch, knew that. It's as if she planned it that way.

Eventually at the age of 88, my Grandmother lost her battle with ovarian cancer. My Grandfather lived in their house for another year before he passed away and then the family was left with the task of sorting out their estate. It was decided at the time that the house would be put on the market as no one in the family lived in Corsicana nor did any one have any plans to live there. Once the decision had been made to sell the house, it wasn't long before a potential buyer came along. The story was very similar, the buyer had little ties with the small town of Corsicana, but had fallen in love with the house. It seemed the perfect fit--the house would be sold to someone who was just as passionate about it as my Grandmother had been the day she first saw it.

Now here I was 8 years down the track driving through Corsicana with my two young children in tow. I was excited to show them the house that had meant so much to my Grandmother and my family. I hoped that it would look the same and I'd hoped that the new owners had looked after it.

On the way to their street, I began telling my children stories about the things we used to do at my Grandparent's house. When we exited the freeway my daughter was clearly uninterested in this little side trip, but as we got closer to the house she became more and more intrigued. I swear to you, the house has that power over people. When we turned on to the street, I told my daughter stories about each of the neighbour's houses that I remembered visiting with my Grandmother. She said, "Wow Mom. This is a really special street isn't it?"

Finally, we reached the corner where my Grandparent's house sits on a slight hill. It was stunning. Just as I remembered, but even better. The new owner had done lots of work to the house (which admittedly had fallen into a bit of disrepair as my Grandparents had aged) and he'd even made a few additions. There was a gorgeous glassed in sun room that had been added to the side of the house and a lovely covered parking area that extended from the house to the guest house that sits beside it. Several fountains had been installed in the ample gardens and there was even a gazebo of sorts set off to one side. Flowers were blooming and the grass was a very shiny green. My heart swelled as I thought of my Grandparents, particularly my Grandmother, and what she'd think of these changes to her home. I think she'd have liked them, but I know she'd be thrilled to know that someone who has such obvious passion for the house was now living in it.

We sat parked across the road for several minutes as I surveyed all the changes and relived some of the memories of my youth. I so wanted to take a photo, but my camera was in the boot of the car and I didn't want to look like some kind of stalker. I'm kicking myself to this moment for not getting out and snapping a few photos. What was I thinking?

As we drove away slowly, my daughter asked me, "Mom, if your Grandma was still alive, would she like us to come into her house and visit her?" Tears welled in my eyes as I did a u-turn to take one last look and replied, "Oh darling you have no idea. She would have LOVED for us to visit her and she would have thought the world of both you and your brother."

"Mom, thanks for showing us your Grandma's house. I really liked it and this special little town." were the words I heard as we turned off my Grandmother's street and back onto the main road. "I'm glad," I replied, "It truly is special, and I've got one more thing to show you before we go..."

To be continued

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

A Taste of Texas

Texas tastes really good y'all! When our family first hit Texas nearly two months ago now, we were on a mission: Consume as much Tex-Mex as possible. Mission Accomplished! Just ask my thighs, stomach and backside. The proof is certainly there. We've had tacos, flautas, enchiladas, chile rellenos, tamales, and my personal favourite...the humble gordita. There have been beans and rice, and of course a margarita...or three or perhaps more than that. Margaritas aren't conducive to counting. Oh did I forget to mention all the glorious salsa we've consumed and the yummy tostada chips?? OMG how much do we love this food?

So here are a few photos from our Tex-Mex adventures. How will we be able to say goodbye to all this?

Shredded pork tamale with red chile. These were delicious.

That's love on a plate. can you understand the state of my thighs?

Let's not forget the Tex-Mex standard...the Taco!

I love the hole in the wall taco stands. We got this delicious bag of tacos for $7
The taco stands alone

Our oldest gives these tasty Tex-Mex treats the thumbs up!

This is only a small representation of what we've consumed. I didn't want to torture anyone. (To be honest, I was too busy eating to photograph each meal.)Now I must return to Australia where I can return to a normal body weight and live without temptation. I'll never find anything this good there. =(

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Tour de Texas

During 2009's Tour de Texas, we've done a lot of driving. As Texas is an enormous state, we generally opt to fly. This time I had plenty of internal flights booked with only a few short driving segments. When swine flu first hit the USA, there was a media frenzy and heaps of hype. As a result, I opted to cancel a few of our internal flights and make the same trips in a car instead. This seemed a sensible precautionary measure at the time. As more became known about the flu and the hype died down (and you could finally purchase antibacterial hand gel in the stores again) my choice to drive rather than fly seemed extreme. Some might say, stupid (especially given the long distances and the two small children factor) but in the end I'm glad it worked out the way it did.

By taking to the roads, my kids saw more of Texas than they ever would have from a plane. If you ask them, they probably saw more of Texas than they ever cared to or would ever care to see again. I, however, take comfort in the fact that one day when they are sitting around and complaining about what a lame job I've done as a parent, they'll recall with particular disdain the time, "Mom dragged us across Texas in Pop's car and we saw nothing but tumbleweeds for five hundred miles." It was really only 300 miles, but they'll exaggerate for effect. Teenagers do that. "Yeah" the younger one will reply, "That was so BORING!! What was she thinking?"

Maybe I'm giving their little 2 and 5 year old memories too much credit. Perhaps they'll never remember it at all. I guess that just means we'll have to repeat the exercise annually until they reach an age of awareness. Guess that sorts our holiday plans for the next five years.

Seriously, I think we all enjoyed our drive even though the scenery was at times, repetitive. You know, for like 300 miles. Personally, I grew up making the long drives across Texas to visit relatives, although it's probably been a good 10 years since I've done such a long road trip across Texas myself. I'd forgotten the vastness of this state I so fondly called home for most of my life B.A. (Before Australia). I'd forgotten how the landscapes are so varied and extreme from one side of the state to the other. I'd forgotten the names of the little towns that dot the long highways between the metroplexes. Gems like, "Van Horn", "Welfare", "Ozona". I'd forgotten how I could rely on these towns for their Dairy Queens. I'd forgotten all about the blizzard and the Hunger Buster.

In 10 years, not a whole lot had changed along a stretch of road I traveled with great frequency during my younger days. Same gas stations, same arid landscapes--although I was pleased to see a new massive wind farm perched on the mesas that give some texture to the barren far West of the state. Finally, I thought, something useful in this sandy, wind prone bit of desert. The giant windmills were a welcome distraction for the little people in the back seat as well. It's truly a pity the Handsome Australian wasn't with us to witness them too--he LOVES a good wind farm. Even took me on a tour of one in Australia once. Yes, I'll tell you all about it one day or perhaps you could just have a root canal--it might be just as interesting.

I don't know if it's my age or simply the time I've spent away from Texas, but I really soaked in so much during these drives. I took note of things I'd never noticed previously. I wondered things I would never have thought about in my youth. I appreciated the simple beauty of the landscape--I stopped to smell the flowers. Okay, so maybe I didn't stop for the flowers, but it's been my experience that cactus isn't particularly fragrant--that and can you imagine the first aid disaster that would be two little people covered in cactus prickles?

I did stop for a coffee at the McDonald's in Van Horn, Texas. I ordered a latte from their new coffee menu. As we drove away and I sipped on my latte from Macca's (as we call them in Oz) I thought to myself, "Wow. This is a good coffee." After which I immediately thought, "Wow. I've been away from Melbourne for far too long."

I guess time away from "home"--wherever that may be--makes you appreciate it all the more when you return and sometimes, you might even see things in a different light.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Easter in Texas

I realise Easter was a month ago, but this is the first chance since we've been on the road that I've had a chance to sit down and put some thoughts together.

One of the holidays I miss the most living in Australia is most certainly Easter. It's not that the Aussies don't celebrate Easter, because they do. It's also a pretty big deal in Australia and in some ways bigger than Christmas with the shops closing and people having public holidays on Good Friday and Easter Monday. It's just the way that Australians celebrate Easter that strikes me as uninspired. Well, hang on a minute, I love the idea of a public holiday and will gladly take those, but after that, the Aussies have a lot of chocolate and that's pretty much it.

I've never seen Easter Egg colouring kits in Australia and I've never known any of my Anglo Aussie friends to actually colour Easter eggs since I've lived there. We've had friends and family who are part of the Orthodox church share their tradition of colouring eggs and then playing this game where you try and crack each other's eggs. Whoever has the last egg that isn't cracked wins the game. It's fun and light hearted, but in my experience their eggs are only one colour--red or maybe blue. They used regular food colouring to colour them and don't have any fancy swirls or glitter or anything remotely fun like that.

We've had the fortune of spending the last three Easters in Texas with my family. All of these occasions have been filled with heaps of fun and my children will have many lovely memories of sharing this special holiday with their American cousins.

What makes our Easter so special each year? A little something called, cascarones. Historically a Mexican tradition, our proximity to Mexico has seen this endearing ritual spill over the border and into our hearts and minds. Like anything worth doing, cascarones take a lot of time, love and care.

Here's how we do it...during the year, my Mom will start saving eggs for us to colour. Each time she uses eggs for cooking, she cracks them a special way (using a knife to break off one end) and drains the egg out keeping the shell mostly in tact, except for a hole on one end. She then rinses the egg shell out and puts it aside to dry. My sister -in-law does the same at her house.

When Easter weekend rolls around, we pull out all the egg shells that have been put aside. Then on Good Friday, we have an Easter Egg colouring session. We get out several long tables and set the kids up outside with aprons on and colours galore. They spend the next several hours colouring the egg shells beautiful colours. Because the shells are empty, they are a bit more delicate--there are always a few casualties, but with 18 dozen or so to work with we can afford a few mistakes. The kids are surprisingly gentle with the eggs and have a great time creating lots of different colours with them. We put the eggs back in the cartons to dry.

They dry overnight and then sometime on Saturday afternoon, we have another egg preparation session. This time we give each kid their own bowl of confetti and they begin to fill each egg with a small handful of confetti. The holes at the top of the eggs are pretty big so it's not too hard for little hands to accomplish this task. We usually direct them to hold the egg over their confetti bowl so that any confetti that doesn't make it in the hole just falls back in the bowl ready for the next egg.Once the eggs are filled with confetti, they are placed back in the carton to await the next step.

I don' t know about you, but I can already see the fun brewing in these eggs!

While the kids are busy with the confetti, the adults generally sit around and start the sealing process. This involves small squares of tissue paper, some glue, a toothpick and a bit of patience. First, we take the glue (your Elmer's variety is fine) and spread it around the opening of the egg with a toothpick.
Then we carefully place a piece of tissue paper over the hole and smooth it down over the glue. This acts as a seal to keep the confetti on the inside of the egg.

Here is a carton of eggs with their seals waiting for the glue to dry. We leave them overnight.

On Easter Sunday, the Easter Bunny comes along and hides all these gorgeous eggs in the garden. This is when the fun really begins...

Monday, May 4, 2009

One down, one to go

We've now been in the USA for a month. Well, I say the USA, but I really mean Texas. Texas, as we say here in Texas, is like a whole other country. I can honestly say that this saying rings true for me now more than ever before, because when we come to visit Texas we do feel like we are in a whole other country.

It feels as if we've been all over the state, but we really haven't. We've crisscrossed it once now and will repeat this insane behaviour two more times. We've spent time in the wilds of West Texas in the dusty but charming town of El Paso. We've been to the concrete jungle that is Houston and we've spent a week in the absolutely stunning Texas Hill Country (a beautiful area just outside of San Antonio). We've seen family and friends and have gotten up to all sorts. The Handsome Australian was here with us for the first three weeks but has since returned to Australia and the daily grind. We miss him terribly, but there is more fun to be had here and our flight back to Australia doesn't leave for another month. What's a girl to do? Seek out more tacos perhaps? I'm down with that.

I'm attempting to put together a few stories/observations from the trip so far so stay tuned for those in coming days.

If you are reading this in Australia, run out and drink a latte for me will ya? Have some vegemite for my oldest and someone go and ride my son's fire engine at his Australian Grandma's house--he's been banging on about that thing since we arrived here. Who knew a kid could miss a fire engine so much?