Tuesday, September 25, 2012

The Wild Wonders of West Texas

The last few weeks have seen me occupying the fabulous world of air travel in the United States. While enjoying the cattle truck conditions of my flights I found myself reading the germ slathered magazines in the seat back pockets. In these periodicals I was regaled with the world travels of authors "Sailing the Rhine River" and finding the "Best Haunts in Holland". So here for your reading enjoyment I offer up my travel log of somewhere near and dear to me in "The Wild Wonders of West Texas". 
A tasteful centerpiece adds ambiance to any West Texas home.

My husband Buns guns the car up and over the rolling, mesquite covered hills of West Texas. The spring rains have soaked the land in the last few days and a cacophony of blue and pink flowers is just beginning their waving riot towards the burning sun. The Mariah wind that ever-blows in these parts has a silky softness to it from the dewy moisture that hangs in the air. We needn't verify with our cell phones that we are in “no bars” territory and have entered a place that seems to be nostalgically caught in a 1950’s Western.

Buns and I are on a quest that many spiritual adventurers have sought before, to find the creator of armadillo eggs. This voyage will allow us to truly take in the Western essence of rural Texas. It is not a search for the  gastronomically-impaired, pepto-allergetic, heartburn sufferers, but we feel our stomachs are up for the task. It will also require a rugged character, one that will able to decode the fascinating local language and stare toothless cooks directly in the mouth.

The fabled armadillo egg is not exactly what it alleges to be. Specifically it is a jalapeƱo pepper, picked at the exact moment of its brightest green flavor, filled with buttery cream cheese, and then encased in fresh wild pig sausage. This delectable torpedo is then rolled in bread crumbs and seasoned with an out of the ordinary blend of surreptitious herbs and spices. All of this is then baked in a fired oven.

The armadillo egg was a local best kept secret for many years until Paula Dean introduced it to the national stage. The news that a home recipe had made good was not met with the fanfare one would expect. Instead there was a visible backlash that something sacred had been shared prematurely with the outside world who certainly not understand the nuances the down-home treat. West Texans are serious about their cooking and this could possibly be a challenge as we try to find the originator of the treasure.

Our first stop is a restaurant named Ramona’s. Located on the access road to I-20, Romona’s is a quaint turquoise blue trailer in the parking lot of a deserted gas station. The paint makes a tortoise shell pattern of light and shade as it peels from the building. Upon entering the establishment Buns and I immediately notice the 1960’s portraits of flamenco-clad senoritas clinging to the beige wall-paper. They look like the artwork from a Herb Alpert LP. The floor has a definite slant to it and as I place my smart phone on the table it immediately slides into the wall.

The rustic smells of authentic Mexican food  and water damage assail our senses and we are approached by Ramona herself. At 94 years old she is a tiny wrinkled fireball of a woman with a beehive hairdo who still takes all the orders in the restaurant herself. When I ask for a diet coke she laughs and says that only water or tea is served. I opt for the water and she brings it back in a half-gallon jug which is thumped down in front of me with audible wallop. Unexpectedly there are no menus at Ramona’s and so I quickly check the other patrons’ plates and order a chicken enchilada. “Cheese enchilada” Ramona says as she writes the order down. “Chicken” I correct her. “Cheese” she says again. “Ok, cheese is good too” I say as I realize this is an argument I cannot win. 
While we wait for our cheese enchiladas Buns turns to the table next to us and asks a State Trooper we find out is named Bubba “Does Ramona make Armadillo Eggs?” He is told in friendly tones that we have come to the wrong place and that to pick up the trail of the mysterious eggs we need to continue up the freeway. We finish our cheese, wave goodbye to the good folks at Ramona’s and motor on up the road.

Following the advice of the Trooper, several miles later we pull into the Love’s Truck Stop on the Ranger exit of I-20. The place is full of activity as hundreds of big rigs pull in and out of the colossal parking lot. The smoke from their stacks fills the air with thick diesel smell and soot. Buns carefully navigates his way to a spot in front of the convenience store. Signs on the front door advertise a Subway Sandwich joint inside, just the place we were looking for. As we reach the counter the runny-nosed sandwich artist points to a sign that says “the toaster is broke”, wipes his beak on his sleeve and tells us that if we want a toasted sandwich creation we are out of luck. We explain that we are looking for someone who can help us find the birth-place of Armadillo Eggs. The nose replies “well I didn’t know they were born but if you want Armadillo Eggs you need to get on down to the Roaring Ranger Days celebration that is happening in town.”

Gleefully Buns and I jump into the car, speed out of the truck stop at top speed, and down the pot-hole infested roadway towards town. We pass the rust covered hulks of twisted metal in the town junkyard, guarded by a foam mouthed pit bull. We continue down the thoroughfare and pass the manicured lawn of the community college. Flowering trees line the walks of the utilitarian brick buildings there. Further on a side lot full of goats is looked at in awe and we pull over to view the assortment “free toilets for sale” in another yard. The homes of Ranger are spread out in a hodgepodge of well cared for charming southern architecture and the remnants of falling down domiciles left over from the oil boom days.

We reach city center after passing through the one and only stoplight where the parade has just ended and a beat up Winnebago, with the state of Texas shaped in Christmas lights on the side, is receiving the grand prize for best entry. We follow the crowds of welcoming people to the booths in the park where the smells of deep fried everything hangs in the air. My arteries begin to clog just from breathing.

I snapped this from my front yard as the parade went by that year.

We circle the venue filled with little alcoves selling hand-made crocheted hats, quilts and artwork. There is popcorn, corn on the cob, BBQ pork and baked goods. Just as we are about to give up, there behind the dunk tank I spot it. Armadillo eggs are being served up by the dozens to the populace. We frantically race to the front of the line and shake the hand of owner of the little cart. “Are you the genius who first produced the armadillo egg?” we ask breathlessly. The owner wipes the sweat from around his ball cap, spits tobacco juice into an empty water bottle and then says with a thick southern drawl, “well I ustacould say that but not no more. My Mema beat me for steal’n her recipe so now I give her the credit. How many do ya’ll want?”

Once again the bars on our cell phones show no signal as we bounce out of town on the rough brick roads. Then a familiar flashing or red and blue lights in our rear view mirror. Bubba the trooper from Ramona’s is pulling us over. “Did ya’ll find what you were looking for?” he asks as he whips out his citation book. We answer in a self-satisfied affirmative. 

If a life long case of heartburn is the price to pay for spiritual enlightenment and a wonderful experience among friendly and colorful people then we willingly had put our money on the table.



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