Snoop to Nuts
I believed right from the beginning that it was the prize-winning hog scooting down the crowded midway at the annual Riverville, Texas, Agriculture Fair, that started it all. With so much uproar and carnival noise and screaming and running, everybody was drawn to the doors of the tents and echoing metal Ag buildings to watch the two-hundred-fifty-pounder with a blue ribbon attached to his collar as he zigzagged through tall legs in skinny jeans, leaping legs in wide-cut jeans, bowed legs in ancient jeans, and bare legs in jeans shorts, on his way to his familiar sty back at the ranch where he was born.
I figured, much later, that it was all that hollering and laughing and betting, while a calliope ground out tinny music and ladies on the Ferris wheel squealed and teenagers kept thumping each other in the Dodge-em Cars, that covered somebody (probably the person who let the pig loose in the first place) creeping into the Culinary Arts building to add something deadly to my grandmother, Miss Amelia’s, Heavenly Texas Pecan Caviar.
Not that the hog wasn’t the hit of the day, with a lot of money being made as bets were placed on how long it would take Deputy Hunter Austen of the Riverville Sheriff’s Department to capture him. My childhood friend, Hunter, stood tall in his well-pressed uniform practicing a couple of twirls with a rope someone from the rodeo, down near the Colorado River, tossed to him. I watched from the crowd as Hunter twirled a last time and sent the rope cutting precisely around his body and over the head of the frightened hog. He held on tight and lost some of his cool as the hog kept right on going, dragging Hunter behind him with his heels dug into the red dirt until finally the poor creature ran out of steam and stopped. Hunter took only a minute to sit on the ground and get his breath before jumping up, brushing dirt from his sharp-pleated pants and taking a few, over-enthusiastic bows as bystanders clapped and whistled, with me whistling the loudest for my old friend.
The hog was led back to his pen in the hog building which still left me with almost an hour before the judging of the Most Original Pecan Treat, the last and most important of the culinary arts contests at the fair. New this year, the Most Original Pecan Treat was thought, by the cooks of Riverville, to be the highest honor of all the honors handed out. The best of the best. “The Crème de la Crème, Lindy,” Cecil Darling, an Englishman and owner of The Squirrel Diner, told me as if in secret. Cecil loved to rub Rivervillians’ noses in our lack of ‘continental couth.’ I had smirked at him, nastily thinking how he’d better not plan on winning with his ‘Spotted Dick’ or whatever he called it, since nobody had a chance to win with my grandmother’s Heavenly Texas Pecan Caviar in the running.
The whole Most Original Pecan Treat contest was setting up to be the biggest event the fair had ever put on. There’d been whispers around town that Miss Amelia was the one to beat and local chefs were ganging up to bring her down and end her years of dominating the culinary arts of Riverville. Didn’t matter. My meemaw had a leg up on the others with her cooking and baking the best of everything day after day at the Nut House, the family pecan store in town.
Ethelred Tomroy, one of Miss Amelia’s oldest and crankiest friends, even came into the Nut House one day to brag about her surprise entry and warn all who would listen to watch out. “Got me a winner,” she said and leaned back in her run down oxfords and nodded her gray head so the bun at the back was bouncing.
I hung around to congratulate Hunter on his hog-tying skills and maybe get him to take me on the Ferris wheel, as he’d promised. I couldn’t be late for the judging though. Miss Amelia was nervous as it was, with the whole world seeming to be lined up against her. I wanted to get there early to calm her down. I’d never seen my grandmother so twitchy and ill at ease over one more blue ribbon.
At home that morning Miss Amelia had me check and recheck the ice packs in her cooler, making sure the temperature was right for her special dishes. Since she’d already taken more ribbons than she could shake a stick at, she was mostly worried about the two bowls of her Heavenly Texas Pecan Caviar. One was for the judging and one for the Winners’ Supper afterward.
“Gotta be just right,” she muttered over and over as she bustled around the ranch’s large kitchen, making the caviar, then choosing the perfect bowls—finally settling on bowls with the Blanchard crest on them: three pecans nested in three green leaves above three wavy lines representing the Colorado River.
She’d checked the labels on the bowls again and again, muttering that things had to be just right. All of us around the breakfast table assured her there was nothing to worry about. Of course she was going to win the last, and most important, culinary event of the year.
My mama, Emma, dressed for the fair in her green Rancho en el Colorado shirt and jeans that were maybe a little too snug, hugged Miss Amelia and held her away to give her the order to “Calm down now, ya hear? You’re jumpy as spit on a hot skillet.”
“You’ll be there for the judging?” Miss Amelia had looked around and smiled nervously at all of us except Justin’s friend, Jeffrey Coulter. Justin and Jeffrey were roommates during their undergrad years at Oklahoma University. Jeffrey, who’d been visiting a week now, was busily reading the financial section of the Riverville Courier and sniffing from time to time at how little news he could get of the New York Stock Exchange. Jeffrey, one of those people perpetually wrapped up in his own concerns, ignored Miss Amelia, as he usually did, not having much patience with the worries of elderly relatives.
“We’re gonna be there to celebrate with you,” my younger sister, Bethany, said. At twenty-three, Bethany was still young enough to be lost in her own world, but even she looked up from the bride magazine she was engrossed in, nodding and promising she would be there real soon to help set up, since she was the decorator in the family and the person running our new event pavilion where she was planning big weddings and political events and all kinds of celebrations. Bethany spent a lot of time thinking about free-flying doves and billows of white tulle, and cakes built up to look like the Alamo.
On the midway, I moved under the canvas overhang of a taco stand to get away from the hot sun and see if I could pick out Hunter in the crowd. People pushed everywhere around me. I waved and shared happy smiles with women from Miss Amelia’s church, old school buddies, and other ranchers. Texans do know how to have a good time and Ag Fair was a time for a big celebration in our community of many pecan ranches.
No Hunter. Either some police business had come up or he was still laughing about his hog-tying adventure with friends and forgot about taking me on the Ferris wheel which made me a little mad because Hunter and I were old friends, maybe even a little more than friends and I didn’t like being stood up.
I checked my watch. If he didn’t show up soon there wouldn’t be time to do anything. Bethany was probably there already, tending to what she called “staging” Meemaw’s entry, fussing over whether the green and white bowl looked better against a backdrop of green plastic pecan leaves or whether the cut-out family crests should be sprinkled indiscriminately or made to form a border around the bowl of caviar—all things that bored me to tears.
Maybe, I thought, as I spotted Freda Cromwell, Riverville’s worst gossip, and looked around for the fastest escape route, I should have been paying more attention to Miss Amelia lately. She’d been looking concerned about something, not smiling as much as usual. Summer days in this part of Texas could be long and hot. Meemaw did a lot of baking and cooking, what with the tourist buses coming to town, stopping at the Nut House, and buying up all her baked goods and pecan candies and barbecue sauces. Maybe fatigue was normal for a woman in her seventies. But with Miss Amelia, any crack in that strong façade made me worry.
Anyway, no matter what was causing it, I’d decided to lend a hand in the store whenever I could though my work out in the greenhouses took up most of my time.
Now where was Hunter? He could be maddening. So straight and serious about his job, being one of Riverville’s three deputies, and so goofy and kid-like when off duty and ready to have fun.
But this was the last day of the fair. The Ferris wheel would be grinding to a halt soon and the roadies would begin to tear it down.
Feeling a little disappointed, I turned to walk back down the midway. I was thinking that maybe I’d stop in the Pecan Culture Building to take a last look at my own pecan cultivars, each with a blue ribbon attached. First in every horticulture category. First in new varietals. Best of Show for my strain of pecan tree that was a cross between the Carya illinoinensis and carya ovata—the first drought resistant and the second an early budder. Of course I’m a trained botanist but other ranchers hired botanists too, and nobody, as yet, had come up with a strain of pecan trees that came close to what I was producing.
I decided to treat myself to a deep fried ice cream, then stood licking fast and watching the crowd. Many walking by yelled out support for Meemaw in the contest. They waved and punched thumbs in the air. Others congratulated me on sweeping the new varietal judging.
I licked my ice cream as I settled in the shade of the overhead canvas and took in the sounds and sights and people all around me. I thought about how me and Meemaw sure made a pair. Meemaw with blue ribbons for her Very Special Pecan Pie, her Classy Tassies, Pecan Round-em-up Grilling Glaze and, still to come, for her Heavenly Texas Pecan Caviar.
I envied her pure Texas charm in the face of beating out all the other cooks in town. Never a wicked gleam in her eye and not once did she lord it over Ethelred Tomroy, her cranky friend, who took second place in just about everything year after year after year. And she graciously put up with Ethelred’s grousing over the bad judging, the need for new contest rules, and her complaining that the contests were “Nothing but popularity contests anyway. They just like you better than they like me.” Which was true since Ethelred Tomroy rarely had a good word for anybody. Still, the contest judges were usually drawn from the clergy or were officers in the Pecan Co-op or members of the Agricultural Fair committee and therefore above reproach.
I straightened my jeans and pulled my ranch tee shirt away from my sticky skin. I took a moment, stepping out into the straight-up boiling sunshine, to pull my hair out of the ponytail I usually wore and brush it out around my face with my fingers. I figured, at twenty-nine, I still had a responsibility to look as good as I could look. Maybe I wasn’t in the marriage market—too busy working with my pecan trees to have time for flirting and dating, but still there was no reason I had to look like I’d just stepped out of a greenhouse, with dirt under my fingernails, hair slicked back out of my eyes, and streaks of honest Texas sweat running down my face.
I made my way past the pink, blue, and white umbrellas shielding fair food booths. I stopped to talk to kids I knew from high school, who were no longer kids and now pushed baby strollers. That took time since I had to bend over each baby and coo and carry on, and sometimes remark on the lovely hands because the baby was so . . . well, not ugly but . . . ‘different looking.’
Soon all that was left were a few minutes to maybe visit a game booth, win myself a giant panda or a Texas flag. But there was Ethelred Tomroy steaming toward me with a fixed look on her face. With only a few seconds before impact, I took evasive action, ducking behind a couple of old cowboys wearing white hats wide enough to shade a barrel of beer.
I skirted the big hats and lolling cowboys then stepped behind a Coke Cola stand. I thought I’d outsmarted her until she came barreling around the front of the stand to corner me.
“Well, Lindy Blanchard, just the girl I was lookin’ for.” Ethelred, sturdy and solid in a flowered housedress with perfect sweat circles under her arms, blocked my escape. She held her clasped hands in front of her, stopped to pant a little and leaned back on her oxfords. “You coming over for the judging? Think I got your grandmother beat this time. You gotta have some of my Pecan Surprise Tomato Puff. Never taste the beat of it.”
“Good luck to you, Miss Ethelred.” I pasted on my best phony smile. “I’m sure all you ladies have an equal chance to take the prize.”
“Well, maybe this time the judging will be fair. We got that new pastor from Rushing to Calvary leading the judging. I’ve been waiting for somebody with a little more sophistication than the usual around here.”
“Didn’t he come from Tupelo?”
“Sure did.” She nodded hard, sending stray steel gray hairs waving around her head. “Elvis Presley’s home town. Mississippi people know good food when they taste it. None of that business about flavors having to go together and things like that. Nope, I’m sure today will be a new day in Riverville, Texas. You just wait and see.”
She smirked but looked pale behind the sweat beads on her face “Saw you took Best of Show with those tiny pecan trees of yours. All I can say about that is you better not go messing with Texas nuts. Fancy education or no fancy education, we’re happy with the nuts we got and don’t cotton to change.”
I checked my watch. “I think the judging’s about to begin, Ethelred.” I held the watch up for the woman to see. “Shouldn’t you be getting on over there?”
Ethelred’s protruding eyes bulged. “Goodness, don’t want to be late for this one. No sir, don’t want to be late.”
And she was off as I watched her bent back move away from me. I was fuming and running things I should have said through my head when an arm slid around my waist and a familiar voice was at my ear.
“You see me get that hog, Lindy?” Hunter, red-faced and still extremely proud of himself, stood beside me. “Rope landed just where I sent it. Couldn’t have been a better throw, don’t you think?”
His straight and firm mouth bowed up into a huge grin. He still wore his uniform because he was supposed to be on duty, walking around, nodding to people, representing the Sheriff’s Department and Sheriff Higsby, who had an election coming up in the fall.
“My favorite part was when you fell on your behind.” I brushed off his arm.
“Kind of felt like rodeoing there for awhile.” He laughed at himself the way he often did.
“Where’ve you been?” I pushed at his chest. “Now there’s no time for the Ferris wheel.”
“Sure there is. They didn’t pull it down. Won’t for a couple of hours.”
“I’ve gotta be over to the Culinary Arts Building for Meemaw’s last contest.”
“Oh, that’s right.” He struck his forehead with his hand. “Forgot.”
He grinned again. “So, how about I buy you some fried butter instead? Hear that’s going over real good this year.” He pointed to a stand with cutouts of sticks of butter flying around the selling window.
“Yeah, and a Roto-Rooter man to clear out my arteries.”
“You’re no fun. How about Kool-Aid Pickles, or fried cheesecake.”
“I’ve got to go.”
He smiled the kind of smile I’d warned him about. The kind that made me loose in the stomach. We’d agreed not to get serious or anything ‘yucky,’ way back when we were twelve and fourteen. The agreement still held, though once in a while wide open cracks threatened to tear down all old agreements. Like now. With that smile of his.
“I’ll see you for the judging,” he said. “I gotta walk around the beer tent one more time. Just to let the boys know I’m still on duty.” He gave me a wave and was gone, lost in the throng of happy Texans.