Deep in the Art of Texas

(Bluebonnets, Robert Julian Onderdonk.  Courtesy Art Museum of South Texas)

(Bluebonnets, Robert Julian Onderdonk. Courtesy Art Museum of South Texas)

These images are from art, and from life:

A Conquistador stares with dark dangerous eyes; the last of the bison cross the rocky divide; a woman kneels next to an oxcart in a dusky field picking vegetables.

An exhibit called “Deep in the Art of Texas” is now on display at the Art Museum of South Texas. It is a hundred years of paintings, from 1850 to 1950, when all the land was a canvas for heroes to paint their dreams upon. The land changed these pioneers, and with their plows and cattle, they changed the land.

The paintings depict the deep blue water of the Gulf with ships sailing upon it; the pink and purple cliffs of the Big Bend; and the ocean-like fields of bluebonnets with dark hills in the distance.

(Cattle and Herdsman Resting in Oak Grove, Thomas Allen. Courtesy Art Museum of South Texas)

(Cattle and Herdsman Resting in Oak Grove, Thomas Allen. Courtesy Art Museum of South Texas)

In one image, a herd of cattle sleeps in the forest, as they do on our farm; and in another, free-born farmers pick cotton in a white sun-drenched field.

Renowned artist Frank Reaugh mixed sand with his paint, so the grit that blew out of the Davis Mountains and choked him as he painted would forever be a part of his picture of the high desert.

A good painting speaks. You can read a dozen pages of history and not learn as much of the people or the place as from one good painting.

In one scene, Iwonski portrays an Indian child, in the year 1859, holding a watermelon. For Indians, a melon was a symbol of friendship, and the child freely offers this gift from his well-tended garden. This child would grow up to witness the utter destruction of his culture, and a later painting, from 1890, shows a melon busted on the ground and covered with yellow jackets.

The paintings also capture the faces of the cowboys, black, white, and Hispanic, before they became legends, when “cow boy” was a term of derision, and the paintings reveal them as they were: pensive, tough, wild, and lonely.

“Deep in the Art of Texas” depicts the grand adventure of our history, the beauty of the land, the skill of the artisans, the freedom to become whoever in this world you dream to be. These images are from art, and from life, and they are hanging on the walls of the museum like portals into the distant past.

(Sunny Landscape, Robert William Wood. Courtesy Art Museum of South Texas)

(Sunny Landscape, Robert William Wood. Courtesy Art Museum of South Texas)

(Harvest Time, S. Seymour Thomas. Courtesy Art Museum of South Texas)

(Harvest Time, S. Seymour Thomas. Courtesy Art Museum of South Texas)

(Cedar Stumps, Everett Spruce. Courtesy Art Museum of South Texas)

(Cedar Stumps, Everett Spruce. Courtesy Art Museum of South Texas)

The Great Hawk Migration

(A Sky View from Hazel Bazemore Park in Corpus Christi)

(A Sky View from Hazel Bazemore Park in Corpus Christi)

This week, there is a phenomenon in the skies over South Texas that will give nightmares to every chicken in Corpus Christi. This event is called the great hawk migration.

More than a million hawks will pass over South Texas this autumn as they head south for the winter. The hawks come from all over North America.  They are funneled into Corpus Christi by the Gulf of Mexico to the east and the river valleys to the west. In fact, one of the best places in the world to observe a hawk migration is Hazel Bazemore Park in Corpus Christi, TX.

The density of birds peaks in the final days of September, and on some days more than a hundred thousand hawks fly over Hazel Bazemore Park.

(The bird watching platform at Hazel Bazemore Park.  It had been raining just before our visit, and hawks don't fly in the rain, so not much current activity.)

(The bird watching platform at Hazel Bazemore Park. It had been raining just before our visit, and hawks don’t fly in the rain, so not much current activity.)

(Hawk Watchers:  Hazel Bazemore Park has excellent facilities for hawk watching)

(Hawk Watchers: Hazel Bazemore Park has excellent facilities for hawk watching)

(Sign updated daily with hawk count)

(Sign updated daily with hawk count)

Ornithologist Karen Benson describes the hawk migration in her book Brush Country Backyard. She says hawks use thermal updrafts to conserve energy. The hawks float on these warm thermals in upward-spiraling circles, called kettles, like the stirring of a great pot.

At the top of one thermal the hawks descend to the bottom of the next and slowly rise again. By riding these thermals, hawks can fly a hundred miles on a single flap of their wings. Sometimes, ten thousand hawks can be seen riding in the same kettle.

Joel Simon, of the Corpus Christi Hawk Watch, says most of these raptors are broad-winged hawks headed to the humid forests of the Yucatan and Central America. The swainson’s hawk, he says, from the Great Plains, will fly all the way to the pampas of Argentina to spend the winter.

Simon has seen more than twenty thousand hawks land for the night in Hazel Bazemore Park, like a feathery blanket covering the trees along the Nueces River, and he has been there in the morning to watch this flock of raptors take flight into the warm, blue sky.

Simon says his favorite part of the migration comes just after the first cold front of the year, when the greatest diversity of hawks can be seen riding in the brisk north wind. The first good cold front comes to South Texas this weekend, so now is a good time to dust off your binoculars and plan a visit.

Luckily, for the chickens, these hawks fast during their long journey south, so the laying hens of Corpus Christi can rest easy in their roosts while dark clouds of raptors pass overhead in slowly circling silence.

(Hawk Watcher with Binoculars)

(Hawk Watcher with Binoculars)

(Tiny Hawk Watcher)

(Tiny Hawk Watcher)

Hawks spotting scope sky 9-29-14

The Favorite Flower of the Indians

Kayla Taking Flowers at end of Season to Seed New Sunflower Hedgerow

Kayla Taking Flowers at end of Season to Seed New Sunflower Hedgerow

The sunflowers are blooming in South Texas. Our native variety of sunflower, the silver leaf, grows tall, up to twenty feet in height, with thick trunk-like stems. Sunflowers, with their vibrant yellow blooms, have a long and colorful history in the garden.

Native American Indians began to cultivate sunflowers 5,000 years ago. They roasted the oil-rich seeds, ate them raw, or pounded them into flour.  Indians used sunflowers as medicine to treat a long list of ailments, and they made a purple dye from the seeds to paint their skin.

Indians also planted sunflowers as living fences to protect their crops. We adopted this method on our farm and planted a hedgerow of sunflowers to shield our crops from the relentless Gulf winds. This living fence now grows so dense that even deer will not try to break though it to sneak into our gardens.

Silver leaf sunflowers are easy to propagate, but you must collect the seeds now, during the fall, from mature flowers. Silver leaf sunflowers are native to South Texas, but they do not grow well outside of our area, and the seeds are difficult to find commercially.

Seed Head from Wild Sunflowers

Seed Head from Wild Sunflowers

But you can easily harvest your own seeds by cutting mature well-seeded flower heads from their stalks. To keep the seeds through the winter, store the flower heads in a zip lock bag in the freezer.

In the spring, plant these frozen flower heads into loosened, well-aerated soil. You don’t need to thin or even water your hardy sunflowers; they will grow perfectly well on their own. You can plant a living fence or a small thicket of flowers, whatever is best-suited to your landscape.

In late fall, when the flowers fade, you can weave the sturdy sunflower stalks into trellises for your winter peas, or burn the stalks to make potassium-rich ash to use as a soil amendment.

Sunflowers attract birds, butterflies, and bees to your landscape. Much of our fall honey in South Texas actually comes from the pollen of sunflowers. And best of all, sunflowers bring their golden blooms in late summer, when there is not much color in the garden.

Silver leaf sunflowers are a useful, beautiful, and age-old companion to your vegetables, and these flowers will happily make themselves at home in your garden.

A Sunflower Hedgerow

A Sunflower Hedgerow

A Beautiful Farm Video

We recently held a photo shoot at our farm for The Bend Magazine.  The photos were for a recipe, and we took the occasion of the picture-taking to have a wonderful dinner with friends and family.

Our friend Michael Diamante, a photographer based in Corpus Christi, made a beautiful video of the night.

Do you know how sometimes a wonderful evening can take on a dream-like effect in your memory? This video seems a little that way, and it is just how I remember the night.

To see the full recipe and Rachel Durrent’s amazing photography from the evening, click on The Bend Magazine and turn to page 64.

Picking Tunas for Dinner Tonight

Kayla Picking Tunas near Port Aransas

Kayla Picking Tunas near Port Aransas

Tonight, we will celebrate the fruit of the prickly pear cactus at a dinner at the Chartroom in Rockport.

Here, Kayla and I are picking ripe red tunas in the wild to deliver to Chef Mike.  This site is just off the windswept bay near Port Aransas.  Thank you Dave Ilfrey of nativedave.com for helping us find this excellent tuna stand!

At the dinner tonight, Chef Mike will feature roast pork, bacon, tomatoes, eggs, and freshly-picked basil from our farm. Chef Mike went shopping at the Downtown Farmers’ Market in Corpus Christi and will also include new potatoes, cushaw squash, and okra from our friend Casey Williams, who has a farm up near Riveria.

Dinner begins tonight at 6:30pm. Call Chartroom at 361-790-2450 for reservations.

Good Tuna Ground with Beautiful Wildflowers

Good Tuna Ground with Beautiful Wildflowers

It helps to have a good reach to get the tunas in the center of the cactus stand

It helps to have a good reach to get the tunas in the center of the cactus stand

Emma helped by being a sweet and good girl, as always

Emma helped by being a sweet and good girl, as always

Come to Dinner at Chartroom on Wed, September 3rd!

The View from Chartroom

The View from Chartroom

Friends, Kayla and I invite you to a very special dinner at the Chartroom in Rockport on Wednesday, September 3rd.  Dinner will begin at 6:30 pm.

We are excited to partner with Mike Lynch, executive chef of the Chartroom, to bring you a unique and completely original meal. We will feature the fruit of the prickly pear cactus, which is called ‘tuna’. Kayla and I will go out and harvest these fruit in the wild and deliver them freshly-picked for the dinner.

Prickly pear cactus fruit is sweet, dark, and delicious.  Chef Mike will prepare the tunas in interesting and creative ways throughout the dinner.  You may even find prickly pear cactus fruit in your desert and in your cocktails!

At this dinner, Chartroom will also feature pork roast, bacon, tomatoes, and other products from our farm, as well as fresh Gulf shrimp and pasta prepared from scratch. Not only that, Chef Mike will go shopping at the Downtown Farmer’s Market in Corpus Christi to add to the dinner with wonderful products from other local farms.

This three-course dinner of wild harvested fruit and farm fresh food is only $45, please make your reservations soon!

For reservations, call 361-790-2450. Chartroom is located at 39 Mazatlan Drive in Rockport, in the Key Allegro Marina.

(Kayla Juicing Tunas through Cheesecloth.  Photo by our friend Rachel Durrent)

(Kayla Juicing Tunas through Cheesecloth. Photo by our friend Rachel Durrent)

The Fruit of the Desert

(Ripe, Red Tunas:  Prickly Pear Cactus Fruit)

(Ripe, Red Tunas: Prickly Pear Cactus Fruit)

In the heat of high summer, when our gardens suffer the most in the scorching sun, all of South Texas itself becomes a glittering garden of sweet and purple fruit.

This fruit is called tuna, the fruit of the prickly pear cactus, and there is a limitless supply now ripe for picking.

(Prickly Pear Cactus:  A Good Tuna Stand)

(Prickly Pear Cactus: A Good Tuna Stand)

The Annual (and ancient) Tuna Festival of South Texas

Prickly pear cactus fruit was a staple food of the Indians of South Texas. Each year at this time, the tribes of our region called a general truce and gathered in the vicinity of modern-day Alice, TX, for the annual tuna harvest.

Many tribes converged on the tuna grounds: the Mariames, the Ygauses, the Anagados, Charrucos, Avavares, and a tribe the Spaniards called the Fig People because of their reliance on the fig-like tuna.

The tuna festival lasted two solid months. The Indians held fairs where they could trade their goods, barter for brides, and play games. It was the best time of the year.

Each tribe would pick its way into the center of an elaborate prickly pear stand to camp, safe from all enemies behind a wall of thorns. They sat lazily around their fires, dancing and singing songs, and eating their continual fill of the sweet scarlet tunas.

They would keep smoky fires burning night and day to prevent mosquitoes. The miserable work of keeping the fires going was left to women or slaves. One of these slaves was the famed Spanish explorer Cabeza de Vaca, who spent two summers in captivity in the tuna grounds. He later wrote in detail about this experience to offer a glimpse into Indian life in South Texas.

Tuna close up

The Thorns of the Tuna

Prickly pear fruit are covered with barbed, hair-like thorns, called glochids, which are difficult to see but are painful to the touch.

When Robert LaSalle was shipwrecked on the coast in 1685, near present-day Port Lavaca, one of his soldiers ate several whole tunas without first removing the glochids. The irritation of the thorns caused his throat to swell shut, and he suffocated to death while his comrades looked on in horror.

But tuna thorns are very easy to remove. Indians used sticks to detach the tuna from the cactus, and then singed the fruit in a fire to remove the thorns.

(Singeing Tunas in Fire.  Photo by Rachel Durrent)

(Singeing Tunas in Fire. Photo by Rachel Durrent)

Indians peeled the purple fruit and ate the pulp raw or baked it in earthen ovens. There was no drinkable water in the tuna grounds, so the Indians dug long trenches and filled them with the juice of the tunas, so they could sip the sticky liquid at their leisure. And they dried tunas in the sun to preserve the fruit for travel back to their winter camps.

The tuna harvest was critical to the nutritional needs, even to the very survival, of South Texas Indians. Tunas are rich in vitamins A and C and they are loaded with anti-oxidants. This fruit provided a sweet and healthy sustenance to the dwellers of a barren land, in the heat of summer, when nothing else would grow.

Gathering Your Own Tuna Harvest

Tuna Picking

(Use Tongs to Pluck Tuna from Cactus)

(Use Tongs to Pluck Tuna from Cactus)

(A Good Container for the Harvest)

(A Good Container for the Harvest)

Tuna Hunters are tough and brave with a taste for adventure!

Tuna Hunters are tough and brave with a taste for adventure!

To save yourself from the heat, harvest your tunas in the red of the morning sun, as the desert clings to the coolness of night. Begin your hunt soon, because tunas are only ripe through the end of September.

Use tongs to pluck the tunas from the prickly pear pads, and choose firm, darkly-colored fruit. This picking goes quickly once you find your rhythm.

Watch for cactus spines as you reach among the prickly pears, and watch also for rattlesnakes. They hide at the feet of the cactus, and they don’t always rattle before they strike.

Once you have your tunas at home, you don’t need to singe the thorns.  Simply hold the tunas on a cutting board with tongs and cut off the very top and bottom of the fruit, then make a slit in the skin down the side.

Peel the skin away with a knife to reveal the scarlet pulp. Tuna is sweet, dark, and delicious. The flavor of the fruit subtly changes as you travel west out of Corpus Christi, to match the changing flavor of the landscape.

(Kayla Juicing Tunas through Cheesecloth.  Photo by our friend Rachel Durrent)

(Kayla Juicing Tunas through Cheesecloth. Photo by our friend Rachel Durrent)

You can eat tuna pulp raw, or juice your tunas to sweeten tea and other beverages, or, best of all, boil down your tunas with sugar to make a one-of-a-kind crimson jelly. We also use tunas to make a sweet and tangy reduction for our pork chops, steaks, and fish.

It is true that tunas are difficult to harvest in a desert of snakes and thorns. But that is all part of the adventure that makes this wild harvest so rare, and so completely original.

Yes, there are thorns in the desert, but there is also fruit, endless amounts of sweet scarlet fruit, and it is just beyond your doorstep, and ripe for the picking.

(Photo by Rachel Durrent)

(Photo by Rachel Durrent)

 

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