Cooking With Myra: Sweet taste of summer
By Myra Starkey
June 11, 2013 at 1:11 a.m.
Several weeks ago, I entertained some folks from Michigan. They were in Texas to attend a family wedding. Hannah and I hosted a wedding day picnic for family members attending the event and of course our menu included "sweet tea." This is the South after all.
We served pasta with artichokes, homemade focaccia and ice cold watermelon. Our menu was well received, but I had more questions about the sweet tea than any other item. Several of the ladies asked me for the recipe, and I wondered if there was such a thing.
I have been making sweet tea since I was about 10 years old, so it is kind of like knowing how to iron pillowcases. I explained it consists of sugar, water and tea bags and then I gave a step-by-step rundown of the process. I guess they just don't drink sweet tea up north.
I talked to Dad the other day and he was telling tales of the largest crawfish he had ever eaten. A neighbor had guests who owned a crawfish farm and they brought some to have a boil for the weekend. I don't know if Dad could smell them cooking or if he just meandered over thinking they might be eating something delicious, but they invited him to dine with them and he accepted.
He called me right after bragging that the mud bugs were as big as lobsters. I think he was exaggerating. It made me homesick for Louisiana and the bounty of Cajun food that I remember eating when I was a kid.
Taylor and I got up Saturday morning, and it was steamy from the rain the day before. Mosquitoes were buzzing about outside, and I was not brave enough to go beyond the screened porch. I wanted to garden but knew I would have to apply a near toxic dose of mosquito repellant to do so.
I was leafing through a tourist magazine and saw an advertisement about the King Ranch in Kingsville. It wasn't too far away, and it sounded like a good Saturday road trip.
I grew up in Louisiana, so I had never known of the legendary King Ranch until I moved to Texas. Of course, I had heard of King Ranch Chicken and the King Ranch F-150 Ford pickup truck, but I had not known of it as an immense part of Texas history.
It was started in 1854 by Richard King who was a wealthy riverboat captain on the Rio Grande. He bought Spanish land grants from the early settlers in the area and ended up with 1.25 million acres.
He had great herds of longhorns and had huge cattle drives to the northern markets after the Civil War. His heirs have been successful in all sorts of agribusiness and have been able to hold on to the bulk of the land. It didn't hurt that they were substantial amounts of oil and gas below the ranch.
I first became acquainted with the King Ranch through my sister, Cindy. Her husband Charlie grew up in Riviera which is right down the road. Cindy had a purse given to her by her mother-in-law and on the purse were the words, "King Ranch" and so I found out about the ranch.
Cindy told me about this famous restaurant on the bay nearby called the Kings Inn in Riviera where my sister said they have the best tartar sauce known to man. So if the ranch tour was a bust I knew I would at least have a good meal.
We arrived at the ranch by mid-morning. The first thing on our agenda would be a bus tour of the area. We purchased our tickets and had awhile before it departed, so we watched an interesting video about the history of the ranch.
Once on the bus, we were ready to see the place, including the fabulous, 32,000-square-foot ranch house that looked like a castle and the show barns where they raised the horses that won the Kentucky Derby twice. There were promises of lots of wildlife and beautiful herds of Santa Gertrudis cattle.
Most of the folks on the tour were not from around here - and by here, I mean Texas. The parking lot had cars and RVs tagged with plates from New York, Ohio, Iowa and a lot of other distant places. I came to the full realization of how much they weren't from around here when they repeatedly had the bus driver stop so they could take multiple pictures of cows and horses.
I was really trying to be patient, but after the fifth cow photo opportunity, I suppressed a laugh and turned to Taylor and said in a whisper, "Is there a way we could escape from this bus before we see another cow?"
After all, the ranch is more than 800,000 acres, and there are a lot of cattle grazing along the roads. I guess I just take all the wildlife and ranch animals for granted. Sort of like sweet tea.
We see deer every day and in fact I had to put up an electric fence in my front yard just to keep them from eating all my tomatoes and bell peppers. I figured that some of the folks on the tour had never even seen a turkey except on their table and now here were three of them not even 50 yards away in the shade under a mesquite tree.
Our elderly guide threw open the bus door and said he would get their attention and loudly beckoned in plain English, "gobble, gobble, gobble" instead of actually imitating their high pitched gobbling sound.
Some of the other tour participants opened the windows and followed suit only to have the birds amble off into the brush, no doubt confused by this large vehicle from which odd noises were emanating. So I sat back, shut my mouth and tried to enjoy the remaining hour and 10 minutes of the tour.
I wanted to do the tour because I saw pictures of the house online and thought they gave tours of the King mansion. You might imagine my disappointment when the ticket lady said no house tour and that we would not even be able to drive down the driveway because the King heirs were in town for a stockholder meeting.
We later went to the King Ranch Museum and saw a video on the mansion. It was particularly amazing since Mrs. King commissioned the house when she was 80 years old. Her original homestead was destroyed during a fire, and she wanted to build a legacy, and that is exactly what she did.
We completed the King Ranch tour and, despite our inactivity on the bus, had worked up an appetite worthy of a ranch hand. The Kings Inn was established in 1945 and has been serving fresh seafood for more than 64 years. I called my sister, Cindy, to get the scoop on the menu and restaurant.
They are famous for their tartar sauce, which is a secret recipe that supposedly no one knows except the owner. Our waitress told me she had to sign a document saying she would not reveal its ingredients. I watched patrons sitting around us spread it on everything from tomatoes to onion rings to crackers to fried shrimp. The food is served family-style and with only two of us eating, I over ordered.
The salad was called Bombay and is iceberg lettuce covered in about one cup of guacamole with a hint of curry and then dressed with a light vinaigrette of lemon. The waitress would not give me any hints about the ingredients. In fact, the entire time I was there, I did not even see a menu.
The place was packed at 2 p.m. Although the interior is simple, the tables are covered with linen cloths and they use cotton napkins. This sets them one step ahead of your generic seafood restaurant in Texas.
The man sitting next to us did not want to remove his baseball cap and a hostess came over and in the nicest southern manner she could muster told him if he did not take it off he would not be served. She smiled the sweetest smile ever as she said, "rules are rules." He figured he could be forgiven for his hat hair and took it off.
The onion rings are thinly sliced and delicious. The shrimp are plump, and the grilled fish was good with the tartar sauce on top. We ate way too much of everything and still left with a doggy bag with enough food for a good-sized supper.
We almost had to be rolled out of the restaurant, and I decided I would never eat again. I can cross the Kings Inn off my bucket list, but if you are near Kingsville, it is worth the drive.
Another typical southern food is sweet corn. As I mentioned last week, I put up about 70-plus ears that a friend gave me. I decided to make sweet corn ice cream and topped it with Poppycock caramel popcorn.
I admit it is unusual but delicious. My mother loved Poppycock popcorn and used to buy it when we were kids. I thought it would be great with the ice cream. Sit down on your porch with a glass of sweet tea and a bowl of corn ice cream and enjoy summer.
Myra Starkey lives in Victoria. Write her in care of the Advocate, P.O. Box 1518, Victoria, TX 77901, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.