We have all been brought up on stories from the “Panhandle,” the northern part of Texas that is truly the shape and just as flat as the handle of an old pot iron skillet. Perhaps the most famous tale is the myth that in winter there is nothing between Amarillo and the North Pole but a barbed wire fence–very often the fence gets blown down. – Mary Faulk Koock (The Texas Cookbook)

Texans see themselves as a distillation of the best qualities of America: friendly, confident, hardworking, patriotic, neurosis-free. Outsiders see us as the nation’s id, a place where rambunctious and disavowed impulses run wild. – Lawrence Wright (“America’s Future is Texas“)

Almost everything I know about Texas has come from the small screen. I have vague memories from my childhood of the big hair, extravagant shoulder pads and many scandals of Dallas; I’m not sure I even knew what I was watching, but I do remember the brouhaha over who shot JR, which is funny when you consider that I was born in 1983, and this event took place in the final moments of the season finale in 1980. But such is the beauty of syndication, and these memories, though it feels like I was there for the “real thing,” must stem from watching reruns with my grandma, as she would crochet in the rocking chair, and I would be reading, one eye on the words before me and the other on the screen. Looking back, it’s hardly a surprise that I need glasses.
In my teens, after becoming rather obsessed with Rock Hudson in Pillow Talk, I sought out other movies of his and, though few people can claim this honor, I watched the entire 201-minute Giant, a family saga featuring a young and lovely Liz Taylor who marries a wealthy Texan rancher. Texas, as portrayed in the pop-cultural imagination, was a land of sprawling wealth, as well as familial empire and struggle, not to mention oil. Maybe I didn’t look very hard, or maybe such examples are simply difficult to find, but I encountered no books or films to challenge my rather one-dimensional view of the Lone Star state. By the time the film version of Friday Night Lights came out in 2004, I was not only almost done with college, but thanks to the machinations of George W., my ideas about Texas–largely about its politics–felt firmly fixed: deeply red, disturbingly ignorant, and indifferent to progress.
Flash forward to 2008, the year of the Master’s Exam, when a wise friend suggested that, after I fell victim to one too many colds, I stop spending every waking minute with Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Bakhtin and the like and instead give Friday Night Lights a try. I was skeptical and even more so after the fairy-tale like opening scene (if you’ve seen it, you will know what I am talking about) between Lyla Garrity and Jason Street. If I still had the emails from my UC Berkeley account, I am sure I would find one from me asking this friend if her secret motive was to poison my mind with such saccharine schlock and one from her assuring me just to stick with it since it was worth it. She was, of course, right, so right, and my ideas about Texas again shifted, as I fell in love with Tammy and Coach Taylor, the tragic(ally beautiful) Tim Riggins, and the big skies of (supposedly) rural (but really Austin,) Texas. My own hometown being similarly obsessed with football on Friday nights and, during certain parts of the year, every night, I began to think that, quite possibly, I knew these people. They were, in any case, much more relatable to me than the ranchers, oil barons and limited government-loving politicians of my first encounters with the state. More importantly, I started to realize that maybe there was more than one Texas and that I would like to experience some of these different “Texases” myself.
After a foolish missed opportunity to travel to San Antonio in 2010 passed me by, I finally got another chance on our road trip from California to Delaware. But, as with all trips, choices have to be made and, as the Grand Canyon and Santa Fe were absolute musts for both of us, this meant that, unless we opted to take a serious detour south and spend a few more days driving and traveling around, it was unlikely that we would get to hit any of the big Texan cities. It saddened me that it was ultimately Panhandle or bust–or, more specifically, Amarillo, which according to the Greek’s calculations, put us perfectly en route for a stopover in Fayetteville, AR, or some random city in Oklahoma. I was, however, more willing to put my faith in the Texas Panhandle than in the plains of Oklahoma, so several months before we left California, I set about finding a place for us to stay in Texas. Besides your basic major hotels, I was able to find exactly one bed and breakfast, the Adaberry Inn, which caught my eye not only because of its evocative name (if you are wondering what exactly an adaberry is and if they actually exist, the answer is is no; this is just an evocative name), but also because it was advertised as the place Oprah had stayed in when she was visiting Amarillo for a trial involving bad beef and mad cow disease (if this seems surreal, it, unlikely adaberries, really did happen). Call me crazy, but my reasoning basically went: If it was good enough for Oprah, it was definitely good enough for me.
But when we finally pulled into the parking lot of the inn–one of the only hotels we reached before darkness fully descended–having made a left at the local Walmart and having driven past a series of homes that looked like they had been made with the same cookie cutter, any hope I had for Oprah-esque glamour had already faded away. The house was pretty, clean, and large, quite possibly the biggest home on the block. The decor was tasteful, and everything was as advertised, although, as I had rather nostalgically selected the San Francisco room (each room was named after a major US city) when I made the booking, the room looked no different from what I imagined the New York or Chicago room might: exposed brick, neutral colors, white furniture. It had its charms, but ultimately had as much in common with San Francisco as the island landscape background we stood before in the chapel at the New Castle County Courthouse did with Hawaii.
 
We were hungry, but, as per usual, faced the usual dilemma: when you’re driving a Penske truck across the country and you find yourself in a town where you need to drive to get around, where exactly do you go to eat? How far are you willing to drive, even in a state where the signs dotting the highway promise friendliness rather than danger (“Drive Friendly, the Texan Way”)? Where exactly is your mammoth vehicle going to fit? Whereas, in an ideal world, I think we would have driven to a local barbecue joint to try some of the mesquite-smoked offerings of the Panhandle, we decided not to get back on the highway and, instead, to drive to a local steakhouse (clearly, this is the precise moment when our Amarillo adventure diverged from Oprah’s), Hofbrau Steaks.

Upon being seated, I studied the menu as I would a list of vocabulary words before a test. This was not specific to our being in Texas, as everywhere we went, I wanted to know what exactly made Grand Canyon cuisine unique or the New Mexican offerings of Santa Fe. While I’m not sure I ever came up with a good answer besides a wealth of peppers and chilies (green and red), prickly pear and piñon, in the case of Texas, there were the dishes that books like Lisa Fain’s Homesick Texan teach you to expect from Lone-Star state cuisine: chicken-fried steak, fried okra, black-eyed peas, peach cobbler, and banana pudding. Everything struck me as homey comfort food with few tricks up its sleeve, save for the quality of the ingredients (everything really was fresh, plentiful, and full of flavor) and the ability to emphasize the very Texan-ness of their offerings. For example, the margarita menu, rather unsurprisingly, surpassed the salad options by a mile.

The funny thing about the whole experience was how absolutely aware we were that not only were we in a new state, but that we were in the south. After the waiter came to take our drink order, the Greek asked me if I had seen that. I looked up from the menu to ask him what; lost in my debate between fish and more gluttonous options, I really hadn’t noticed anything. He said, “His name is Braxton!” I must have continued to stare blankly because the next thing out of the Greek’s mouth was, “Braxton like the General in the Civil War! Braxton Bragg!” While I still had no idea what he was talking about because, unlike my husband, I am a) not terribly interested in military history, and b) possess significantly less knowledge about events like the Civil War, I was nevertheless able to marvel at the fact that, by these details alone, we were far from California. And it turned out that Braxton had no patience for my desire to eat as a Texan would. When I ordered my black-eyed pea salad with Gulf-tilapia, he asked which dressing I wanted. I answered his question with a question, wanting to know what he would recommend and which was the most common choice. He told me people usually just ordered what they liked; I again asked what that might be. He got flustered, insisting that anything worked and that he would come back in a minute after I had another minute to think about it. I was a little baffled–how utterly avoidable–but even though I felt his reluctance to take any responsibility for my dining choices (conservatism at its most noble–or cowardly?) was a touch silly given his profession, I also felt that I too must have been acting my fair share of absurd (salad dressing does not equal life and death). When he came back, I confidently told him Ranch, which he said was a good choice. Clearly, in the Great Salad Dressing Kerfuffle of Our Road Trip, it was Yankee: 0, Texan: 0, Civility: 1.
 
The next morning, we got another taste of Texan Civility at breakfast when we discovered that we weren’t, as we had believed, the only guests at the inn. The other guests were born and bred Texans, from Abilene and all y’all and Texas twang, and, as they sat down at the table across from us to chat while the innkeeper made us all crepes, told us that they were there to celebrate their 25th wedding anniversary. The Greek, completely missing my look of warning, was quick to volunteer that we had just gotten engaged, to which the lady asked, “Y’all aren’t married?” I explained that no, we were moving across the country together from Berkeley to Delaware and had just gotten engaged at the Grand Canyon. I watched her face while I did so and, although it’s wrong to do this and probably isn’t even what she was really thinking and thus isn’t fair to your interlocutor, quickly translated the raising of her eyebrows and gestures to mean that she was hearing, “We live, have lived and will continue to live in sin. Probably, we would burn in hell, not least because we are from the evil land of hippies and liberal mores, but give us some credit because we are attempting to fix our wrong.” She then asked if we had family in Delaware, at which point the Greek said he was from Europe and, on her face, I saw us enter an even lower circle of hell based on the fact that we were probably secular socialists to boot. To be fair, I was not immune from the same level of judgment: I heard Abilene and I heard “small-town Texas.” I heard the question about marriage and I assumed extremely religious, if not a pro-life holy roller. Am I proud of these thoughts? No. I also know they represent the worst of America and the reason for all of the division in this country. Did our obvious differences mean we couldn’t put aside our differences, make conversation, and break bread together? No, although I almost completely ruined things when, for a brief moment, my mind had wandered, probably over these exact thoughts, and, whereas I heard, “Would you like the cream for your coffee?”, I was really being asked if I wanted to say grace before breakfast. The horrified look on their faces (and the Greek’s) when I politely declined is something I will never forget and, although I am not the saying grace at breakfast kind, I apologized and joined hands with them. Yankee: 0, Texan(s): 1, Civility: 2. And, you know what, they were nice people, friendly and open. The woman in particular was very chatty and, by the end of the conversation, was wishing us good luck in our marriage. Perhaps we had, through good manners alone, made it out of hell and into purgatory.
I will admit that, before we got there, I had my reservations about Amarillo; it was not the Texas–rolling hills, lakes and the smell of barbecue and breakfast tacos in the air–that I wanted to experience, but it ended up pleasantly surprising me. There were moments when I wondered what in the world we were going to do while there, but the city has a botanical garden, an art museum, and is surrounded by beautiful places where you can hike; however, we decided to go to two of the offerings that we felt could exist only in Texas: Cadillac Ranch, home of ten abandoned Cadillacs that are there, for your pleasure, waiting to be eternally spray painted by the ranch’s visitors, and the RV Museum, which truly was one of the coolest little museums you could ever find and, even better, is free. I really didn’t take part in the graffiti-fueled fun at Cadillac Ranch, but I did thoroughly enjoy seeing the evolution of the RV, the retro fabric and the RV-related evocations of different decades in American life. It may seem hard to believe, but we spent so much time there that we were, as per usual, late getting on the road to Arkansas.
I’ve said this before in the context of my posts about our road trip, but you don’t realize how deceptive maps really are until you’re on the road and you grasp that, despite a place’s seeming proximity, it is actually hours away. Or you forget how incredibly vast America is. Although we had traveled around 1,500 miles to arrive in Texas, we still had another 1,500 more to go.
It’s now funny to think that, several years and thousands of miles later, we might, in the next year, be making Texas our permanent home. There are moments when I wonder if this was somehow inevitable: Was it the love of tortillas and tomatillos that was telling? The excitement with which I received the Homesick Texan Cookbook a long time ago now from a friend and quickly made Tex-Mex dishes a part of our Thanksgiving and post-Thanksgiving traditions? The fact that the Greek and I use Tipsy Texan as our go-to classic and creative cocktail guide and that we celebrate most things with Amaro Milkshakes, the ideal combination of dessert, alcoholic beverage and digestif?
Of course, none of these things mean much in the great scheme of things, save for the Greek’s and my shared affinity for Texan flavors and creations, which should make our transition all the easier. Whether you share our affinity for Texan recipes or not, the Amaro Shake is not only easy to love, but also easy to make, as you are essentially blending together amaro, ice cream and milk (or, in our case, almond milk, which lightens it a little. In response to such blasphemy, Texan state legislators would most likely shout: “Texas is being California-ized and you may not even be noticing it!”). It is like Brandy or Bourbon Milk Punch, but icier, creamier, and with a sophisticated bitter kick. Ultimately, I would argue that the shake may just represent the best of Texas itself: equal parts bitter and sweet, pioneering in spirit, fancy but understated, and constantly surprising given the complexity of amaro (or, in the larger metaphor, its politics). Whatever the combination, I’ll take it, especially on a hot and muggy summer day.

Amaro Milkshakes

Serves 2
Adapted, with few modifications, from Tipsy Texan
 
The recipe, as written, is fairly rich and decadent, since it calls for a whole pint of vanilla ice cream. We usually cut this down to half a pint with maybe an extra scoop, as nobody likes an overly thin milkshake. You may also, as we do, substitute almond milk for cow’s milk, although I wouldn’t recommend anything like coconut milk, since it might overpower the amaro.
 
 
3 ounces Ramazzotti amaro (this brand is good amaro, but isn’t so expensive that you might have qualms about putting it in a milkshake)
3-4 ounces almond milk (or whole or 2% milk)
1/2 pint vanilla ice cream or gelato (or more to taste)
 
 
Place the ingredients in a blender and blend.
 
Pour into two parfait or highball glasses and serve with straws.

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