Thanksgiving in Texas
by H. Bradford
This Thanksgiving, I visited my brother in San Antonio, Texas. I love visiting my brother since I feel that we can sometimes have interesting discussions. I also like that my brother likes to be active, so he usually is up for going for a hike. The trip to Texas was an opportunity to spend time with my brother and my nephews Layton and Orrin. My mother also went to Texas for Thanksgiving, so it was an opportunity to be together as a family. I have never been a huge fan of the holidays, but I always like to travel. This makes the holidays less constricting for me, as it offers the opportunity to explore and try out new traditions.
My brother lives on a base, which makes visiting there unusual. The base is a little like a college campus in that it is an enclosed community with housing, recreational centers, shopping, food, a service station, a museum, etc. all located in one area. A person could probably live quite well without a vehicle, as most needs can be met within walking distance of base housing. The housing is somewhat similar, with some variation in the style of homes used for various ranks of officers. A base is a planned economy, so as a socialist, I can appreciate the logic, planning, and uniformity. Of course, it is planned within the context of capitalism and in the interest of capitalism. As such, the market shapes what appears on the base. For instance, there is a Subway and Chic Filet (I believe). Which fast food places appear on the base are less about the needs of the soldiers and the military than about contracts and prices. Still, since many Americans have experience living in college dormitories or bases, these living situations make socialist living seem less far fetched. In any event, the base is a planned community of America’s working class, poor, and people of color.
On my first day in San Antonio, my brother brought me to the commissary to buy some food for our Thanksgiving meal the following day. The store appeared like a grocery store like any other. In my imagination, I thought it would be like a Sam’s Club or a giant warehouse of supplies. I enjoyed observing what foods the people were buying. For instance, corn bread and collard greens were among the Thanksgiving foods on sale. I noticed several carts with these items in them. These are not typical Thanksgiving foods in Minnesota. I also noticed that people purchased small sized marshmallows to put on their sweet potatoes. In Minnesota, I have observed that large sized or medium sized marshmallows are more common. Finally, I purchased a turnip. The clerk had to look it up in his produce book, even though I told him it was a turnip. The clerk insisted it was a rutabaga and it was actually listed as such in his produce book. This is not correct, as turnips and rutabagas are two different vegetables. A turnip is an ancient vegetable named Brassica Rapa. A rutabaga is a new vegetable that is a cross between a turnip and a Brassica Oleracea (broccoli, cauliflower, kale, etc.) which is usually larger, yellowish inside, and less bitter. In any event, it was fun to go to the grocery store to explore the differences in Texan Thanksgiving v. Minnesotan.
On Thanksgiving day itself, I visited Government Canyon. Earlier this spring, I visited Government Canyon recreation area. At the time, the park was flooded in areas. This made seeing the park’s dinosaur tracks difficult. I wanted to return to the park, since I felt that a hike on Thanksgiving Day would be a constructive start to the holiday. Visiting the dinosaur foot prints was a Thanksgiving pilgrimage to the ancestors of the modern turkey. After all, turkeys and chickens are believed to be more closely related to dinosaurs than other modern birds! In fact, one of the earliest galliform fossils (from 85 million years ago) was discovered in the Austin Chalk near Austin, Texas. Government Canyon contains the footprints of Acrocanthosaurus and Sauroposeidon, which are believed to be from 110 million years ago. At the time, Government Canyon was a beach along an ocean. The tracks themselves were only discovered in 2014 when a drought uncovered them and scientists excavated them from the muddy riverbed.
We thought that we would find the park deserted on Thanksgiving Day, but we saw several groups of hikers during our four hour hike. The terrain can be rocky and inclined, so both times I have hiked there I found it challenging enough to feel worn out by the end of the endeavor. I kept my eye out for birds, as another homage to the turkey was an appreciation of other birds. However, the bird life was absent. I did see hundreds of butterflies though! It made me wish that I had brought a butterfly guide. It also inspired me to try to take up the hobby of butterflying. I don’t think I have ever seen so many butterflies as I had in Texas.
After the hike, I got to work making Thanksgiving dinner. I prepared sweet potatoes (sans marshmallows), buns, and wild rice, mushroom, and cranberry stuffing. I also wanted to introduce some new traditions to Thanksgiving, so I made quinoa and the “mash of nine sorts.” The mash of nine sorts is a Cornish recipe which uses nine ingredients, including turnip, potato, leek, parsnip, rutabaga, cream, salt, pepper, and carrot. I have made it before, but this time, it did not turn out that great since it had a much stronger turnip flavor than usual. In the past, I used a turnip from my garden, which was smaller and resulted in less dominant turnip flavor. I like the recipe since it is associated with fall and Samhain. My brother purchased a small turkey breast probably because of the symbolic attachment to meat at Thanksgiving. Tiffany made mashed potatoes and green bean casserole. As a whole, the meal was not dominated by meat, as 90% of the offerings were vegetarian. I wanted to follow my theme of bird appreciation through a vegetarian thanksgiving, but oh well!
Before we began eating, we each put on a turkey hat (which my nephew Layton made in pre-school). Whomever wore the hat had to say something they were thankful for. We did two rounds of this, which made for a silly time (as a group of adults donned a paper turkey hat and gave thanks). I also discussed a book I was reading about the history of Thanksgiving (including the social construction of the First Thanksgiving, Native American critique of the holiday, and the historical imagination regarding pilgrims).
The Journey to South Padre Island:
On Black Friday, our family set out for South Padre Island. I was excited to see more of Texas, but I quickly learned that the route between San Antonio and South Padre Island was pretty empty. San Antonio does not extend into endless suburbs. It simply ends. Once it ends, the landscape becomes expansive with farms. There were few towns along the way. There wasn’t much for trees or wildlife to look at. Just cattle and farms.
Things became a little more interesting a few hours into the drive with the appearance of thicker patches of palm trees and the growing use of Spanish language. It struck me that southern Texas reminded me a lot of southern Africa. This is because there were various thorny acacia trees (though nowhere near the amount in southern Africa where it was the dominant type of tree). This is also because there was a lot of impoverished people of color with speckles of nicer homes and farms owned by white people. As we went further south, I also saw more birds. I jotted them down in my notebook.
My great grandparents spent their winters in Harlingen, Texas. We aren’t sure where they lived, but we stopped there to get a late lunch. My mom wanted to go to the Cracker Barrel, despite some protests. I tried to be open minded about it as I don’t have much experience with the chain. I thought it might be a fun southern experience.
I found that the menu wasn’t very vegetarian friendly, but that a person could patch together sides into a “Vegetable Combo Platter”. Vegetable is used loosely, since most of the sides were not vegetables. I settled on some southern sounding sides like grits, corn bread, and fried okra, with some actual vegetables to balance it off (steamed broccoli and another item that I forget). I felt pleased with my patchwork of sides. My mom seemed to like the place, but it was sensory overload for most of us. The place was loud with music and a crowd of diners. The entrance was a maze of Christmas trees, toys, and decorations. To reach the reservation desk, a person has to thread their way through narrow passages, accosted by Christmas music and overpowering holiday scents. Yep, that is Cracker Barrel.
We arrived on South Padre Island about an hour later. By then, the air was muggy and the landscape appeared fully tropical (though it is subtropical). South Padre had a ghost town feel. It felt like a mall at closing time or a concert after clean up. It was the off season after all. There were no college students. No flocks of families. Just a few lonely souls shivering in the breezy 70-80 degree weather. We stayed at Schlitterbahn, a German themed water park. We had a massive room with three beds and two pull out couches, a kitchenette, and a view of the Gulf. The park itself featured a water slide, some kiddie pools, a bar inside of a pool, and a tubing course. I am not a water park person. In fact, I have never been to a water park before. But the room was nice! While the rest of the family went to check out the waterpark, I went for a walk along the beach. I ended up drenched by a sudden rain and then attacked by swarms of mosquitoes. Throughout the weekend, I avoided the waterpark. However, on the last day I did go down the water slide twice and spent some time on the tubing course. That was an adequate amount of time for me. A highlight of my stay at the waterpark was the long walks that I took along the beach at night. On one of the nights, we found dozens of moon jellyfish and man-of-wars washed up on the beach. That was interesting.
South Padre Birding and Nature Center:
My favorite part of the weekend was visiting the birding center. Of course, this was not quite as interesting to the three year old and five year old in tow. The rest of my family returned to the waterpark, but I stayed behind at the birding center. I circled the wooden walkway a few times, recording all of the birds that I saw. I wrote about this experience in my year of birding blog post, so I won’t add too much detail. Only, it was great! It was also neat because many of the people there were from other countries. It seems that they were there specifically for the opportunity to see the migratory birds!
Dolphin Watch and Shrimp Haus:
In the evening, we went on a dolphin watching tour. There were dozens of dolphins, but it does not take many dolphins to become desensitized to their existence. I suppose it is the law of diminishing returns. The last bites of a cake are less wonderful than the first. The first dolphin is more exciting than the last. The first fifteen minutes of a boat tour is more fun than two hours in… Oh well, we did see a lot of dolphins and it seems that it relaxed my nephews, who both took naps during the boat ride.
This was followed by a culinary adventure at Shrimp Haus, a German themed shrimp restaurant. The entire menu was seafood! Seafood is my very least favorite food. Looking and thinking about it disgusts me. I ordered the salad bar. But, my salad tasted suspiciously like shrimp. I thought that perhaps it was just my imagination. I had a few more bites. I poked around. There was no sign of sea food. Maybe the smell in the air was tricking my taste buds? NO. To my horror, there was shrimp in the salad dressing. The humanity of it. I was disgusted by this. I felt angry. I entirely lost my appetite. This sounds over dramatic, but for some reason I just really really really hate seafood. It isn’t a vegetarian thing, as I am not ideologically committed enough to vegetarianism to have such a visceral reaction.
Zoo Lights and the San Antonio Botanical Garden:
Our drive back towards San Antonio took us on a more interesting alternative route. I was surprised to find a border crossing 100 miles from the Mexican border. For a moment, I thought that we had accidentally crossed into Mexico. Nope. I guess that the U.S. has secondary border posts to snag undocumented people who might have gotten through the first border post. That is pretty terrible! It creates a corral for undocumented people living between border posts.
On Monday, we went to the Botanical Garden and Zoo Lights. The San Antonio Botanical Garden is wonderful. It is expansive and diverse. There is a pond with ducks that is lined with Texan trees. There are various areas that represent different ecological zones. Near an area filled with cacti, acacias, and aloes, there is a birding station, where we watched various birds. There is also a vegetable garden, Japanese garden, orangerie, buildings for ferns and palms, etc. A person could spend an entire day wandering around the botanical garden. We spent several hours. Orrin, the 3 year old, seemed to enjoy it well enough, even if it is a pretty sedate place with not a whole lot to offer children.
In the evening, we all went to Zoo Lights, which is an event wherein the San Antonio Zoo is decorated with x-mas lights. Layton and Orrin love the zoo, but it was past their bedtime, so both were a little cranky. Zoo Lights was interesting, since it sought to create the illusion of winter. There was a snow machine which produced a thin cloud of snowflakes. There were “warming stations” with fires and s’mores, even though the temperature was in the 70s. Workers dressed in fake velvet with fake fur trim, wearing mittens and hats. Granted, it probably felt cooler to people who were not used to the “real” cold of winter. There were looming inflatable Christmas characters, a boisterous light and sound show, and all sorts of things which probably tormented the animals to some degree. The parents looked equally tortured, as they pushed and carried their tired children through the gauntlet of lights and “holiday fun.” Still, the zoo created a fun atmosphere, even if unlike Bentleyville, the cocoa, cookies, and s’mores weren’t free.
One Last Day…
My last day involved returning to Cracker Barrel with my mother (since Tiffany had to return a defective Christmas decoration that she had purchased). My mother had an earlier flight, so she headed off after our final farewell to the Cracker Barrel Colossus.
The departure of my mother left Tiffany, Orrin, and I to spend some time together. We went to the Japanese Tea Garden. Then, we went on the kiddie train near the zoo. Orrin loves the kiddie train. I am not sure if I have ever been on one. It was fun to see Orrin enjoy himself so much, even though he admitted that the kiddie train made him feel sleepy.
My brother finished work in the early afternoon, so we went on a final hike together. On the ride to the airport, we briefly debated workplace democracy, which he quickly dismissed as a stupid idea. Then, it was time to leave! So, my time was cut short from defending the idea that workers might be able to control their own work places. There is never enough time…
In the end, the trip had a good mixture of many things. I enjoyed some hikes, plants, and birds. I tried out a water slide and the Cracker Barrel. There were debates over Donald Trump and work place democracy. There was a landscape of dead jelly fish. There was a lot of culinary compromise (I’m looking at you Shrimp Haus…my haus of pain). There was a surprise border crossing, palm trees, x-mas lights, a turkey hat, and a family Thanksgiving dinner. I am thankful that I had the opportunity to see my family and that we had so much fun during my time off for Thanksgiving.