I Left My Heart in Shafter Ghost Town

Illustration by Michael Iver Jacobsen

This is the second installment of Off the Map, a column by chef J.D. Fratzke. It appears monthly on growlermag.com and occasionally in print.

It was in the waning years of the Clinton administration that I found myself standing on the roof of an abandoned blacksmith and livery in a southwest Texas ghost town.

The journey had been an odd one. Years previous, a friend’s husband, Dan, had found that there were abandoned homes in Marathon, a nearby town, that could be had for little more than $4,000 and a handshake. Dan jumped at the chance, always having wanted a winter home base for his motorcycle collection, and soon found himself living half the year with his wife, Tracy, in an easygoing artist’s community at the edge of some of the continent’s most majestic canyonlands. My fetching bride-to-be, Lisa, worked with Tracy at a downtown eatery and she had suggested we spend an April weekend with them in Texas to reward ourselves for surviving another brutal North Country winter.

Lisa and I landed in the airport at Midland and were greeted by Tracy and her badass 1984 Toyota Land Cruiser. Our scant heap of luggage was chucked in the back and we headed to a local Mega-Lo-Mart to load up on provisions for the next five days. I had volunteered to preside over a quality feast to repay our friends for their generous invitation to stay with them. We scored wine, vegetables, arborio rice, good cheeses, and a bit of frozen seafood—mostly for myself, as Tracy, Dan, and Lisa were vegetarians (I had learned to live with it).

Rocketing south on the asphalt artery of U.S. Route 385, the pastured greenery and sparse ponds of Midland quickly gave way to larger and larger patches of desert. Tracy lit her third Lucky Strike, adjusted her cat-eyed sunglasses, and began to expound on all things southwest Texas for her North Country class of two, effortlessly dodging scads of jackrabbits, roadrunners, and the occasional armadillo.

The next few days were peppered with hours of Tracy behind the wheel as our over-caffeinated tour guide. Pitch black nighttime highways rounded hairpin turns to reveal cinder block roadhouses in a blaze of neon, Christmas tree lights, and Texas rockabilly swing blaring into the gravel parking lot. I had my first few dozen Lone Star lagers and shot pool with ridiculously hospitable locals who apologized when they wiped the table up with my sorry ass.

My first real Tex-Mex cuisine—tangy, fiery, tiered supernovas of flavor—left me with tortillas that I still dream about. We day-tripped to abandoned mining towns, crawling into and on top of their ruins. Lisa and I sunburned ourselves silly on the deck of the hotel pool while Tracy worked her lunch shift in the dining room. After she cashed out we visited lonesome art galleries and out-of-place pizzerias. One night, as the sun set in a layered blaze behind the teeth of the mountains, Lisa and I were pulled off our path by a Tejano cemetery. Madonna candles and virgin effigies presided over cement shrines littered with sun-bleached ribbons, coins, prayer cards, and, in one lone memorial that made me shudder, a teddy bear sealed in an empty pickle jar. I couldn’t help but recognize it all as a kind of Latino Catholic connection to Japanese Shinto. The sun set as if a switch were flipped and we made our way back by flashlight, with Lisa and I wondering if the dead, who made us, would feel better if we held onto them or let them go…

The morning after I honored my offer and prepared a sort of Northern Italian meat-free smorgasbord (with garlic shrimp on the side) for our hosts, our plans to road trip to Big Bend National Park were postponed by engine trouble with Dan’s beautifully preserved Atomic Age Oldsmobile 88. Dan encouraged us to go ahead with the trip and meet up with a group of their friends at a famous saloon just outside of the park after sundown. He would stay and work on the car. We shook hands and piled into Tracy’s steadfast Land Cruiser.

I wasn’t fully prepared for the country we encountered that afternoon. The rolling hills and arroyos outside Marathon gave way to a quick, high climb through jagged canyons, desert mountain passes, and highway switchbacks with no guardrails—offering the ultimate libertarian experience wherein one can both live free AND die.

Once past the gates of the park and into the backcountry gravel, we would pull over every few miles and hike off the shoulder to gaze on ocotillo cactus and prickly pears, deep crimson and roaring with spring blossoms, rock faces with the look and color of crumpled parchment rose 12 stories high—and water! Finally, real, moving, living water! I kicked off my boots and socks to wade thigh-deep into the surprising chill of the Rio Grande—that steadfast, serpentine beauty celebrated in corny cowboy songs and made a scapegoat by puerile, tiny-minded politicos.

What I found most striking when we left the canyon for the ridge road, more so than the heat, the contours of the mountains, or the vastness, was the deep, dry silence of the land—a much different kind of quiet than the Boundary Waters or the Driftless Region. Unlike the sense one feels that noise in the northern wilderness is swallowed gently by trees, water, and greenery, my boots kicking gravel on the desert floor sounded amplified. Audacious. Unwelcome. Gusts and breezes growled in my ears as if whipping through an uncovered microphone.

We made it to the Starlight Theatre Restaurant and Saloon and sat down with Tracy’s friends at a corner banquette. Rinsing the dust out of our teeth with Tecate, we laughed our way through several rounds of margaritas and a shot or two of whiskey. The painters and writers and photographers at our table were all making a living in the scattered communities outside of Big Bend, exploring and interpreting the landscape and what they felt were their places in it. Mulling over how I had unexpectedly fallen in love with southwest Texas that day, how comfortable I felt in this place with these people, I considered what it would take to start a life here.

I could cook. Lisa could wait tables or bartend, maybe even in a place like this. All of our other time could be spent happily married, letting southwest Texas show us who we were.

When it was my turn to set us up, I sauntered over to the rail and waited patiently for the barkeep, a seen-it-all motherly sort who bore a striking resemblance to Patricia Clarkson with a beehive hairdo. Placing my order, she smiled modestly and pointed out that by my speech it was pretty obvious I was not a local. Lubricated by the previous libations, I launched into where we had been, the things we had seen, and where we were staying, pronouncing Marathon like the foot race.

“Oh, honey,” she replied, shaking her head as she placed the last of the beers on the bar in front of me, ”y’all need to change that.”

“Change what?” I asked.

“It’s pronounced ‘Merruh-THUN’. Say it.”

“Merruh-THUN.”

“Much better.” She nodded, palmed the bills I’d left on the bar and went on to other business.

Likely the only lesson in Texas etiquette that I’ll ever need: If you do it our way everyone gets along just fine.

Lisa and I never did move to southwest Texas. We married two years later, honeymooned in Ireland, and returned to Minnesota where we both dove into the swift-moving river of the hospitality industry. We often talk about going back for all the things we missed when we were there that first time in 1997.

I suppose that is the power and the glory forever and ever amen of a road trip—its transience. Two days later I was back behind the stoves at the Italian restaurant, tossing agnolotti in pistachio cream sauce and searing involtini for the well-heeled Scandinavian-Americans in the dining room. I may have left Texas, but it hadn’t left me. The desert began to spend a lot more time in my head, in my imagination, in the flavors I wanted to taste in the food I cooked.

Paradise is out there. It can be built or it can be found. Most of the time it needs to be both. Though remember, gentle reader, perfection is just as transient as we are. As R.M. Rilke offered us as advice a scant century ago: “Beware, o wanderer, the road is walking too.

Frijoles Borrachos

Serves 4–6

These are the classic frontera pinto beans we’re all used to seeing in steam tables at (insert Mexican fast-food restaurant here) served as a side to a dozen cheap chicken tacos or wrapped in a burrito as big as a baby’s arm. Culturally Mexican in origin, I was first taught how to make them by a stout Ecuadorian sous chef at a nightclub kitchen in Minneapolis. When they were finished and simmering, chef Luis would buzz them up with a few passes of his immersion blender to thicken the broth a bit, giving them a creamy texture that evenly distributed the flavor.

You should, too. If you don’t own an immersion blender or you’re going full cowpoke over a campfire, just stir them often with a wooden spoon or high-temperature spatula as they simmer; that will help attain the same effect.

Keep in mind the beer is easily left out, in which case they are called frijoles charros. A vegetarian rendition is easily made by leaving out the animal parts and substituting vegetable stock or a soy/amino solution.

Soaking the pintos overnight in cold water will reduce the cooking time by about half.

Ingredients

1 pound dried pinto beans, rinsed and picked through for stones
1 cup yellow onion, minced
4 cloves garlic, minced
1 jalapeno chile, seeded (if desired), minced
1 tablespoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon ancho chile powder
1 teaspoon smoked paprika
1 teaspoon dried oregano (Cuban or Mexican is best)
1 cup miscellaneous cured pork (bacon, pork belly, sausage, ham—even hot dogs will work), chopped
2 tablespoon bacon fat or vegetable oil
1 cup Mexican lager beer
3 quarts water or stock of your choice

Directions

Bring a six-quart saucepan or small stock pot to temperature over medium heat and add bacon fat or vegetable oil. When fat begins to shimmer, add onions, garlic, jalapeno, and pork bits. Saute, stirring constantly, until onions are translucent and pork begins to get crispy, about 5 minutes.

Add dry spices and stir briefly until aromatic, then add beer and reduce by half. Add beans and water or stock. Bring to a boil, then reduce to a simmer and cook, stirring often, for 2 to 2½ hours, or until beans are creamy and soft.

Serve hot with rice, limes, tortillas, pico de gallo, and queso fresco.

A Blind Tasting beer festival

Taste & Rate 48 Minnesota Oktoberfests

Sept. 20, 2019 | 5:30–9pm
Upper Landing Park
Tickets: GA $40 | DD $20