The Devil’s Clack Dish: A Column
By HAP MANSFIELD
The title of this piece could be a little misleading. I don’t intend to give a plot synopsis of Joseph Conrad’s short story of the same name (although I suppose I could, because it’s an excellent piece of fiction), neither do I wish to expound upon “The Secret” and its two-bit sales pitch for happiness and wealth (Albert Einstein said it best: “Two things are infinite: the universe and human stupidity; and I’m not sure about the universe.”).
No, I’m actually thinking of good stuff that I have selfishly kept secret so as not to despoil them.
When I lived in Minneapolis, we all felt like that about The Replacements. We loved them but we didn’t really want to share them with the world. They were our awesome little secret. It’s silly to be that selfish and/or grandiose but, well, let me refer you to the Einstein quotation once more.
So in the interests of being a little less selfish and grandiose, here is a list of things that are so good I was fearful of sharing them, lest they be over-run with yuppie scum.
1. The food in downtown Buda
At lunchtime, if you go to the grocery store (on Main Street) across from the Buda post office, the folks there will make you one of the best cheeseburgers you will ever have the pleasure of eating.
Helen’s Casa Alde, just up the street, makes a breakfast burrito aptly named the “Fatty” that will make your eyes roll back in pleasure. Helen’s has freshly made salsa Verde, too.
Constantine’s just a bit further up, has the most delectable assortment of food in the area. The pizza is divine, the calzones are superb, and the portabello mushroom cap in garlic and butter (the “Fungus Maximus”) is awe-inspiring. Constantine’s also features homemade ice cream, freshly roasted cinnamon nuts, baked on-site cookies, biscotti and scones and the Rebel Rouser, the very best coffee drink I’ve ever had. They serve wine and beer, some hard liquor and often have live music on Fridays and Saturdays. Constantine’s is the best-kept secret in Buda. After it gets too popular, I will curse the day that I spilled the beans.
2. Necco Wafers
Sure, they are the oldest die-cut product in America. Yes, if you time traveled with a roll of them you could offer them to kids during the Civil War and they’d know what they were.
So they’re an old time candy. I have never lived a day of my adult life without a roll of them somewhere in the house.
They may be an acquired taste for those who expect candy to be creamy or chocolaty or chewy. Necco wafers are a bit like flavored chalk and some of the flavors that I find loveable, you may not (i.e. the lilac-colored clove wafers and the black licorice ones). But I see Neccos as both tasty and portable.
The website (www.necco.com) says that the flavors are chocolate, lemon, lime, orange, clove, wintergreen, cinnamon, licorice and they are kosher. I like to make up my own flavor names like “Furniture Polish,” “ Grandma’s Perfume,” and “Third-grade School Desk Dust.” If you think these flavors sound repulsive, I don’t think you understand the term “candy” very well. Chocolate bars are for wimps. Necco Wafers are the Wild Turkey of candy. You’ve got to have a little backbone to eat them.
But I believe the best thing about them is that you cannot tell whether they are from 1948 or 2008; they are consistent in their sweet, chalky goodness. They are truly timeless in all senses of the word. Put them in your bomb shelter. They’ll keep.
There is something to recommend a candy that has withstood the trends of the last 150 years. You won’t see any Gator-Aid-flavored gummies a hundred years from now in our high-tech, shiny, flibberty-jibbety world. But as long as the New England Candy Company stands, there will always be a Necco wafer, thank goodness.
3. Janie’s Pound Cakes
Janie has been making her pound cakes in Tyler for the last 20 years. Each pound cake is mixed and baked by hand and made with unbleached flour, eggs from Janie’s chickens and real Madagascar vanilla.
The cakes are two pounds of rich, delicious heaven. The bundt-shaped cakes can be bought plain or with a huge dollop of fruit or chocolate in the center. Janie’s chocolate filled cake, the “saucy Jane” has become a Christmas tradition at my house.
Located at the Rockin’ C Ranch, Janie’s cakes are available online at www.janies.cakes.com and they also make terrific gifts for someone you really, really like.
4. They Live!!
In November of 1988, John Carpenter directed and released a film that may be one of the cheesiest science fiction films of all time: They Live.
Featuring the dubious acting talents of professional wrestler, “Rowdy” Roddy Piper, this sci-fi thriller has more than it’s share of Velveeta-clad one-liners. Here are just a few—
“I have come here to kick ass and chew bubblegum – and – I’m all out of bubblegum.”
“The world needs a wake-up call. Gentleman…we’re gonna phone it in.”
“I got news for ya. There’s gonna be hell to pay. ‘Cause I ain’t daddy’s little boy no more!”
“Brother, life’s a bitch…and she’s back in heat!”
There’s no way to exaggerate the amount of truly bad catch phrases in this script penned by Carpenter himself.
Here’s the really screwy part: I love this movie. It’s true, I have a penchant for the forgotten mediocrities of cinema (I loved “Hudson Hawk” with Bruce Willis and I even like the regrettable Cosby vehicle, “Leonard Part 6”).
They Live gets rave reviews from wrestling fanatics and sci-fi fan-boys alike (there’s an odd mix).
I think you need to “put the glasses on!!!” and rent it in honor of its 20th birthday this year. It’s a hoot.
5. Charlie Chesterman (AKA Chaz and the Motorbikes)
Way back when the term “alternative rock” meant there was an alternative to the drivel on the radio, there were some awesome bands you may have missed: The Del Fuegos, the Hoodoo Gurus, Lets Active, the Dead Milkmen, the Dickies, X, the Minutemen, Tiny Lights, The Fleshtones, et.al.
The list is long and somewhat less than celebrated. Some of the bands are still around, fighting the good fight, but many have disappeared into the ether or started doing children’s albums.
Amidst all these bands would be the Boston-based Scruffy the Cat.
Scruffy the Cat is long gone, but Charlie Chesterman, lead vocalist and guitarist, is still at it and all of his solo albums are awesome, glittering, bits of rock and roll. His output has been consistently sterling.
His current band incarnation is Chaz and the Motorbikes. You can hear what they sound like at www.charliechesterman.com, and I think you’ll be pleasantly astonished with their rock solid skills.
6. Katz’s Cheesecake
Perhaps you are already familiar with Katz’s in Austin and its infamous “Katz Never Kloses” neon sign.
Katz’s is a genuine New York style deli with all the delicious things that entails, and it’s not just chopped liver, borsht, Yankee pot roast and fried pickles, although all this is there, too. When you need a blintz or a latke or a knish here in Central Texas, where else can you go?
But the real draw, for me, is the cheesecake, which is, by far, the most delicious piece of baked finery ever made in the history of mankind (I may be exaggerating, but not by much).
A slice of Katz’s cheesecake weighs almost a pound. Be warned; once you have had a slice, you will crave it for the rest of your life. You will never again be able to face your mom’s boxed Jell-O cheesecake with the graham cracker crumbs. Katz’s is the real deal.
If I were planning my last meal it would include the aforementioned portabello mushrooms at Constantine’s and two slices of Katz’s cheesecake (One is more than plenty, but, hey, it’s my last meal, here!).
Katz’s is at 618 W. 6th Street in Downtown Austin.
7. Savage Chickens
For the last 900 days or so, a software company employee, Doug Savage, has been drawing cartoons on yellow Post-It notes. They are charming, incisive and funny. If you register for his e-mail list he will mail you the daily cartoon and you will get to meet his oft flummoxed, office cubicle dwelling chickens as well as characters like Timmy Tofu, Crabbit and a host of stick-wielding robots.
He did a video for Laura Viers’ song “Phantom Mountain,” which features a lot of stop motion work and, of course, a chicken. You can see this all at www.savagechickens.com.
8. The Chick-O-Stick
Speaking of chickens, I wonder how many Texans appreciate the wonder of the Chick-O-Stick, which has been made continuously in Lufkin since 1932?
When I was a kid, I figured they were called Chick-O-Sticks because they are like a chicken bone filled with marrow, although, in the case of the Chick-O-Stick it is filled with some sort of peanut butter something. I’m still not quite sure why they call them that, but I do know they roast their own peanuts and use the shell as well. The shell adds vitamins. Nutrition is not a requirement for good candy, but it couldn’t hurt.
However, I do know I have loved them for years and am always happy to see them on the shelves at drug, grocery and convenience stores. Smaller regional candy companies used to be the norm in this country, but now the big three (Mars, Hershey’s and Nestle’) have run the smaller guys out of the market.
When I first bought a Chick-O-Stick way back when, I could also buy Bonomo’s Turkish Taffy (it came in vanilla, chocolate, banana and strawberry), a Hollywood candy bar, a Butternut candy bar, a Jolly Rancher stick and Guess What? box.
The only one still standing is the Chick-O-Stick. Must be the good bone structure, huh?