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Best of Co-op Country 2007

BEST JERKY  
Taylor Meat Company, Taylor

As one of the oldest-known forms of preserved foodstuffs, jerky may be the original road food. It’s even traveled on the space shuttle—now THERE’S a road trip. Smoking, salting or marinating meat, then drying it, makes it much longer lasting, compact and lighter (refrigeration is required with some products, particularly natural or organic jerky containing less salt and fewer preservatives). These days, jerky is made from an assortment of meats: turkey, pork, venison, elk, buffalo, even salmon. Avoid “jerky products” that are actually chopped and formed meat; the good stuff is made from whole muscle.

Though jerky is now widely available in supermarkets, its natural habitat has always been on the roadside, whether it’s a convenience store, a small-town butcher shop or a highway stand. Can any road trip truly be complete without snacking on a chewy chunk of this salty, meaty treat?

The Texas Co-op Power staff gathered samples of basic peppered beef jerky during our travels across the state. While our testing revealed that what makes a good beef jerky can be subjective, there was a clear winner.

That superior stuff comes from Taylor Meat Company, a downtown Taylor butcher shop that opened in 1947. It’s a thick, beefy product, with a higher moisture content than what some might consider traditional jerky. Some of us are fans of all things jerky, but this softer, easier-to-chew version even appealed to those less enamored of jerky in general. It has a nice, meaty texture and is full of smoky, peppery flavor. The shop offers a variety of fresh and smoked meats, also sold in local stores under the Tip Top brand.

For more information, call (512) 352-6357 or visit www.taylormeat.com.

Other Favorites:

For fans of more traditional hard-dried jerky, we liked the stuff from Woody’s Smokehouse in Centerville. It requires a little more chewing effort, but rewards the work with good hickory-smoked flavor. (903) 536-2434, www.woodys-smokehouse.com

• Cooper’s Bar-B-Que, Llano, 1-877-533-5553, www.coopersbbq.com

• Robertson’s Hams, Salado, 1-800-458-4267, www.robertsonshams.com

Andy Doughty, Production Designer

 

BEST PLACE TO TAKE THE KIDS 

Fossil Rim Wildlife Center, Glen Rose

“Uncle Martin, the giraffe just stuck his head in the car, and he’s eating food out of my hand!”

That’s not typically a sentence you’d hear from your 10-year-old nephew, unless, of course, you’re driving through Fossil Rim Wildlife Center outside Glen Rose. In early July, my wife and I loaded up our three children, two of their cousins and their grandmother and drove to the best place to take the kids in Texas.

There, 50 species of animals from all over the world—including endangered ones such as white and black rhinos, cheetahs and Attwater prairie chickens—live in a near-natural environment and interact with smiling sightseers driving 5 miles per hour. The at-risk animals, as well as some of the predators in the park such as wolves, are contained in secured areas, but the self-guided tour allows cars to drive within feet of many of these enclosures to get an up-close look.

We spent more than three hours driving slowly with the windows down among the beasts. The children tempted the animals with feed we bought at the park office. Soon we had gathered an entourage of wildebeest, kudu, bongo and sable antelope, and ostriches.

It was hard to find a face in the car without a grin. By the end of the tour, our smiling muscles were sore. Any time we approached a new herd of wildebeest, a resting zebra or a lone antelope, animal feed flew from five pairs of little hands out the open windows. It was hard to tell who was happier, the hungry animals or the giggly kids.

Fossil Rim is 55 miles southwest of Fort Worth just outside Glen Rose off U.S. Highway 67 on County Road 2008. Call (254) 897-2960 for information or visit www.fossilrim.org.
The park is served by United Cooperative Services.

Martin Bevins, Advertising Director

 

BEST QUILT SHOW

International Quilt Festival, Houston

Every fall, they come from around the world, tens of thousands of quilt fanatics, to the George R. Brown Convention Center in Houston, for the International Quilt Festival. The festival, the largest of its kind in the world, has been around since 1974, and, if such a thing is possible, the buzz and passion just keep growing exponentially every year.

In fact, the 2006 Quilting in America survey reports there were 27 million quilters in the United States. These folks take the craft seriously, spending $3.3 billion annually on everything quilt related. And that doesn’t even take into account the people from other countries—the Japanese, Australians and Britons are especially fond of quilting. They flock to Houston in droves, bringing along an empty suitcase or two to fill with new quilting supplies they cannot resist buying at the event.

Even those who’ve been attending for years can hardly grasp the magnificence of color, creativity and crowds that result when more than 2,000 quilts, dolls and pieces of wearable art are brought together with 1,000-plus vendors selling notions, fabrics, batting, books and more, from the tiniest button to a frame for making a king-size quilt.

It’s a good idea, early on, to go to the second floor of the ship-shaped convention center and look down through one of the porthole windows to take in a bird’s-eye view of the joyful busyness below. This gives a little perspective to the breathless massiveness of all displayed.

Still, no matter how you try to take it in or map it out, even the staunchest must-stick-to-a-plan types can’t help but find themselves wandering as they are pulled from one gorgeous quilt to another. It is simply impossible to set a course of navigation and stick with it in a room packed with so much fabric eye candy.

There are quilts for all tastes and budgets—big quilts, small quilts, hand-sewn, machine-sewn. Tradi­tional quilts abound, as do contemporary quilts, many challenging the notion that a quilt is something Grandmother makes to place horizontally upon a bed for purposes of warmth and comfort.

In fact, all of the quilts, traditional and contemporary, are actually works of art. Some are whole cloth, painted on the front, with the quilting threads adding texture and depth. Some include high-tech embellishments, including photos printed directly onto fabric. Some are humorous, made of pieces you might not necessarily associate with quilting, such as old brassieres.

Of special interest is the collection of journal quilts, presented by artists in series of four mini-quilts, each the size of a sheet of paper and each completed within a month’s time. Some of these series focus on technique—the artist wanted to try something new. Others use the miniature medium to explore life experiences.

Superstars of the quilting world abound, teaching classes ranging from beginning to advanced and spending time in front of their quilts answering questions from eager fans. Ricky Tims, Hollis Chatelain and Inge Mardal and Steen Hougs (a married couple who collaborates) are just some of the many quilting luminaries who show up annually, often collecting many of the numerous awards.

Even if you’ve never picked up a needle and thread, even if you’ve never considered the idea that a quilt might equal art, it is impossible not to be moved, astounded and inspired by the stunning array.

This year’s festival will be November 1–4. The International Quilt Market, a trade show, will be October 27–29. For more information, visit www.quilts.com.

By Spike Gillespie, guest writer. Gillespie’s newest book, Quilty as Charged: Undercover in a Material World, is being published by the University of Texas Press in October.

 

BEST ICE CREAM

Blue Bell Homemade Vanilla, Brenham

When you hear the words, “ice cream,” are you remembering those hot summer afternoons when you were a kid, racing to the curb with a nickel in your sweating hand, waiting for the plunky, melodeon sounds of the ice cream truck to get closer and closer?

Or are you going back to a church side yard, long wooden tables laden with cakes, cookies and homemade ice cream spread under the shade of a live oak tree?

Maybe you’re in a small-town ice cream parlor sharing a banana split with a special friend or a high school sweetheart.

Whatever your reveries, it’s a pretty safe bet that the words “ice cream” tap into the feel-good recesses of your brain. It’s been tagged America’s favorite dessert, and despite a mile-long roster of flavors from bubblegum to triple fudge chipotle mango, we keep going back for more vanilla.

In Texas, it’s practically a given that vanilla means Blue Bell Homemade Vanilla. The little creamery in Brenham is 100 this year. But it wasn’t until more than 60 years into the business that manager Howard Kruse experimented his way into finding just the right recipe for duplicating the distinctive flavor of hand-cranked vanilla ice cream. The initial production of 5,000 cartons disappeared almost immediately from grocery store freezers in Central Texas and Houston. A star was born.

Homemade Vanilla quickly became —and still is—Blue Bell’s best-selling flavor, and its most closely guarded recipe. Cookies ’n’ Cream holds second place, with Dutch Chocolate coming in third. Flavor missteps along the way include Dill Pickle ’n’ Cream (green ice cream with small pickle chips) and Licorice, which turned people’s mouths black.

Before 1989, when the first Blue Bell distribution branch was opened outside Texas, aficionados from other states and ex-pats would have Texan friends or family members ship cartons of the confection to them. These days, Blue Bell has three plants: the original one in Brenham; one in Broken Arrow, Oklahoma; and one in Sylacauga, Alabama. These plants deliver to branches, which in turn serve all or part of 16 states. (If you know someone unlucky enough to live in one of the other 34 states, direct them to Blue Bell’s website, where they can order online.)

Blue Bell has had a number of slogans over the years, like “Blue Bell’s better by a country smile” and “We eat all we can and sell the rest,” but the one that’s stuck is the one we heartily agree with: “Blue Bell’s the best ice cream in the country.” Co-op country, that is.

To order online, visit www.bluebell.com.

Carol Moczygemba, Managing Editor

 

BEST HIKE

Guadalupe Mountains National Park, Near Dell City

Many corners of Texas just beg to be explored on foot. For the avid hiker, nowhere offers more variety and scenic beauty than the remote Guada­lupe Mountains on the Texas-New Mexico border.

Although Guadalupe Mountains National Park is on the edge of the Chihuahuan Desert, the weather isn’t always dry, as my wife, Lisa, and I discovered firsthand during a visit in October.

Weary after a long drive, we pitched our tent in the Pine Springs Campground, which lies in the shadow of Guadalupe Peak, Texas’ highest at 8,749 feet. We decided the next day to explore the nearby McKittrick Canyon trail and visit The Grotto, a shallow cave about 3 1/2 miles from the main trailhead.

We set out into the warm morning air, walking down a scrubby ridge, blissfully alone with one another and our thoughts.

The rocky terrain of the ridge dropped off as the trail paralleled a dry creek bed, and after more than an hour’s hike, we found water, though not for drinking. A small stream flowed through stands of maple, walnut, oak and juniper that were starting to glow with red, orange and yellow fall colors.

Water attracts life, and birdsong filled the air, providing a soundtrack to the antics of rock squirrels. We scanned the canyon walls towering above, up to the edge of the evergreen forest in the bowls of the mountains, hoping we would see a black bear or even a mountain lion, but those fantasies were not fulfilled.

Eventually, we reached the Pratt Cabin, a structure built in 1932 as a vacation retreat for the Wallace Pratt family, who later donated the surrounding land to the National Park Service. The wide porches of the stone and wood structure, which is often open and staffed by park personnel, provided cooling shade. After a short rest and lunch, we resumed our hike, becoming aware of increasing cloud cover and the growing rumble of thunder.

We hiked about a quarter of a mile or so farther before, becoming truly concerned by the increasing frequency and volume of thunderclaps, deciding to turn around—less than a mile short of The Grotto.

The storm grew with typical mountain speed, adding urgency to our pace. Instead of heading back to the Pratt Cabin and possible shelter, we made the tactical mistake of continuing toward the distant trailhead in the hope we could get to the car before the storm hit.

Watching the curtain of rain and hail approach from across the valley was oddly hypnotic. When the storm hit, we sought shelter under a good-sized alligator juniper with a trio of fellow hikers to wait it out. Lisa hunkered down and I bent over her, my backpack absorbing most of the stinging blows from the marble-sized hail. A few hailstones snuck through the limbs of the sheltering tree and bonked off my skull.

As quickly as the storm blew in, it departed, leaving the trail ankle-deep with icy runoff. We sloshed back to the trailhead, skirting the deeper puddles of water and crunching down a few freshly fallen pieces of hail, which decorated the surrounding agave plants.

Although our hike was a washout, it provided scenes of great beauty and some adventure as well.

Call park headquarters at (915) 828-3251 for information or visit the National Park Service website, www.nps.gov/gumo.

Other Favorites:

• Chisos Mountains in Big Bend National Park

Beachcombing on the Gulf seashore

Reaching the top of Enchanted Rock outside Fredericksburg

Clambering through a national forest in East Texas

Visiting the alligators at Brazos Bend State Park south of Houston

Kevin Hargis, Copy Editor

 

BEST OUTDOOR MUSIC FESTIVAL

Kerrville Folk Festival,  Quiet Valley Ranch, 9 miles south of Kerrville

Once a year, beginning the Thursday before Memorial Day, the Quiet Valley Ranch outside Kerrville is, well, not so quiet. The Kerrville Folk Festival settles in for an 18-day stay, during which musicians, fans, vendors and volunteers commune with the Hill Country, music and each other.

Those devoted to the festival go to extremes to make sure they attend at least a few days of it. Michelle Moore and her husband, Richard Floyd, who reside just north of Denton, are two such devotees. They even went when she was seven months’ pregnant, then took 9-month-old Sam with them the next year, and this year the now-almost-2 Sam had a ball.

“It’s so family friendly. It has a lot of great stuff for kids, from roving performers to kids’ activities to the music itself,” says Moore. There’s not another festival that they look forward to like this one. They enjoy revisiting the “tie-dye lady,” shopping at their favorite booths and making new finds, and eating some really great food.

Of course, music is the big draw. There are sundown concerts every weekday, and on the weekends there’s music throughout the afternoon and evening, plus impromptu jams anytime. It’s possible to hear music for almost all of your waking—and, if you camp, possibly some of your sleeping—hours.

Over its 36 years, the festival has hosted some of music’s brightest stars, such as Willie Nelson, Nancy Griffith, Lyle Lovett, Robert Earl Keen, Lucinda Williams and Judy Collins. But festival-goers are also delighted by the up-and-comers who are featured in the emerging songwriters’ competition. This year, the Grassy Hill New Folk Competition featured 32 finalists from 800 entries, many of whom you might be hearing on the radio soon. A few of the names to listen for are Diana Jones, Eric Schwartz, Jonathan Byrd, Jason Spooner, Cosy Sheridan, Colin Brooks and Amy Speace.

The Kerrville Folk Festival is also a real musicians’ festival. From the famous campsite jams to the Song­writers School, musicians come there to learn, share and play together.

“There’s something magical about the atmosphere there,” says Moore. “It’s peaceful, unified, serene.” She plans to keep on taking Sam, so he can grow up being a part of the good feeling, great music and fine company that she finds there year after year. Maybe one day he’ll be a musician.

The 2008 festival will be May 22–June 8. For information, visit www.kerrville-music.com.

Bandera Electric Cooperative serves Quiet Valley Ranch.

Shannon Oelrich, Food Editor

 

BEST SCULPTURE GARDEN

Texas Sculpture Garden, Frisco

Many people make special trips to see the Nasher Sculpture Center in downtown Dallas, but who goes to nearby Frisco for an artistic experience? Well, people should. The Hall Office Park in Frisco has an admirable collection of works from Texas and international sculptors displayed in a park-like setting.

As office environments go, this is idyllic. Space for outdoor sculpture and lush landscaping was set aside in the design phase of the complex. In addition to the outdoor sculptures, art is displayed in several building lobbies, where visitors are welcome. As the office park develops, more art will be added.

Craig Hall, a Texas real estate developer, owns the entire collection, including the Texas Sculpture Garden, which is said to be the largest private collection of contemporary Texas sculpture ever assembled and made available to the public. This may be the only office park in Texas with its own art curator. He hired Patricia B. Meadows specifically to scout and acquire works of 41 well-known Texas artists. The Texans get the prime 4 acres at the entrance of the office park. International works are also represented—a total of 165 works at last count. The Australian and African sculptures seem particularly at home in the Texas environment.

Hall, who is not your conventional developer, says he never even considered making more lucrative use of the area devoted to art. He’d rather share his passion for collecting with the public. So there, at the intersection of Gaylord Parkway and the Dallas North Tollway, adjacent to huge malls, various corporate campuses and the practice center for the Dallas Stars, are lovely and whimsical sculptures.

Visitors can even drive through the office park, gazing at large pieces of art without ever stepping out of their cars. The outdoor sculptures can be viewed daily from dawn to dusk. Stop by the reception desk at 6801 Gaylord Parkway to pick up maps and identifications of the sculptures. The lobby of that building, headquarters for the office park, contains the indoor section of the Texas Sculpture Garden. This reception area and those in several other buildings are open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. weekdays and 9 a.m. until noon on Saturdays.

Call (972) 377-1100 or go to www.texassculpturegarden.org for more information.

CoServ Electric provides power to the Texas Sculpture Garden.

Kaye Northcott, Editor

 

BEST OUT-OF-THE-WAY GOURMET

Rough Creek Lodge, Near Glen Rose

Few people are going to happen upon Rough Creek Lodge and Resort by chance. Two staffers returning from a business trip to Dallas made a westward detour on Highway 67 some 10 miles west of Glen Rose on County Road 2013 to have brunch at this hunting venue, executive center and spa resort. But a surprising number of chefs are being lured to such out-of-the way places with the promise of untrammeled creativity, on-site green­houses for micro vegetables and small-town life.

Executive Chef Gerard Thompson, named a rising star chef of the 21st century by the prestigious James Beard Foundation, traded Santa Barbara, California, for Glen Rose and Rough Creek Lodge in 1988. We loved the restaurant’s affinity for rustic favorites such as grilled quail, pan-roasted Gulf snapper and iron skillet-seared beef. Texas traditionalists will be happy to hear that approximately half the main courses served include beef. More adventuresome eaters can find some surprises on the menu.

The menu changes daily, but there’s always something special. The homemade breads and the fresh fruit sorbet were superb. Our waiter wrapped up a variety of breads for us to take back to Austin.

For the first course we shared roasted poblano soup and a risotto highlighted by fresh pea sprouts and morel mushrooms. For the second course, we had Poached Eggs Angelin with Lump Crab on a toasted English muffin. The ham was from Virginia and the Hollandaise was made with blood oranges. The Crisp Skinned Duck Leg with curly endive and spinach, Foie Gras Roasted Potatoes and Roasted Shallot Vinai­grette were all superb. For dessert, we had Spring Strawberry Soup with Champagne and Sorbet and Angel Food Cake with Mango Sorbet.

We loved the alchemy of extraordinary food served in a beautiful, relaxed rural setting by a cordial, attentive waitstaff. Rough Creek Lodge is worth a special trip either for lunch or dinner when you want to treat yourself to a unique experience.

For more information, call 1-800-864-4705 or go to http://roughcreek.com.

The lodge is served by United Cooperative Services.

Another Favorite

Austin’s, the Restaurant at Rose Hill Manor, Stonewall

You might find Austin’s while searching for a comely bed and breakfast in the Hill Country, but you’ll keep coming back for the combination of fine food, hospitality and first-class lodging. Located in Stonewall, famous for the LBJ Ranch and many a roadside peach stand, this charming B&B offers sweeping views of the Pedernales River Valley from its verandas.

Inside, the white tablecloths, spar­kling glasses, candles and flowers on every table make for a romantic, sophisticated atmosphere. The service is fine, but not stuffy. Our server exuded a refreshing blend of down-home familiarity and gourmet food and wine knowledge.

The food was excellent. Chef Seth Bateman offers a five-course prix fixe dinner, the menu for which changes weekly, every evening the restaurant is open (Wednesday through Sunday, prix fixe seating at 7 p.m.). We can also recommend the Jumbo Lump Crab Cakes with Citrus Risotto, Haricot Vert and Lemon Cream Sauce from the limited a la carte menu. Reservations are required.

For more information, call 1-877-ROSEHIL (767-3445) or visit www.rose-hill.com

Central Texas Electric Cooperative serves Stonewall.

Kaye Northcott, Editor, Shannon Oelrich, Food Editor

 

BEST NURSERIES

Antique Rose Emporium, Brenham, Independence, San Antonio

Native American Seed, Junction

OK, I confess. I am a garden junkie. If I had all the time, energy and money in the world, I would have gardens and garden rooms each with a different purpose. I would have a beautiful vegetable garden. Maybe a mysterious night garden filled with scents and white flowers. A shade garden … you get the idea.

So, I cannot name a single nursery the best. No way!

Instead, I asked gardeners across the state to tell us what nurseries they like and why. Here are some of the favorites. If you get a chance, stop by the ones in your area, or visit these online for more information about what makes each nursery a standout.

THE ANTIQUE ROSE EMPORIUM

This nursery outside Brenham is the source for antique and old garden roses that are fragrant, long-lived and easy to grow. The roses from the Antique Rose Emporium can take the Texas heat. Some even survived for years untended and abandoned before being collected and propagated, once again enjoying popularity among gardeners.

Mail-order these beauties and enjoy roses from 100 or more years ago.

Call 1-800-441-0002 or visit www.antiqueroseemporium.com.

Bluebonnet Electric Cooperative serves the Antique Rose Emporium.

NATIVE AMERICAN SEED

I have a dream: I want to stay at the Native American Seed Cool River Cabin (available for rental) during the hot summer months. Imagine poking around looking at acres and acres of wildflowers, then retreating to a quiet cabin on the Llano River for swimming and fishing.

Tucked away in Junction, Native American Seed offers only native plants and grasses, all available by mail order. In addition, Native American Seed provides large landowners and developers consultation on erosion or invasive species.

Call 1-800-728-4043 or visit www.seedsource.com.

Pedernales Electric Cooperative serves Native American Seed.

Other Favorites:

• Jordan’s Plant Farm, Henderson. Big, extravagant, over the top. Visit at Christmas and enjoy displays of tens of thousands of poinsettias. 1-800-635-1147, www.jordansplantfarm.com

• Yucca Do, Hempstead. Countless varieties of yuccas, agaves, aloes. Cacti and succulents a specialty. (979) 826-4580, www.yuccado.com

• Wildseed Farms, Fredericksburg. The largest working wildflower farm in the United States. Pick your own bouquets straight from the fields. 1-800-848-0078, www.wildseedfarms.com

Suzi Sands, Art Director