SPINDLETOP MARKED THE DISCOVERY OF OIL IN TEXAS.
Texans still gush about the famous oil field south of Beaumont, where a well blew out on January 10, 1901, shooting crude more than a hundred feet into the air, pumping up Texas’s already-mythic status, and fueling a modern megabiz. But in fact the state’s first successful well had been drilled 35 years earlier near Nacogdoches, and a member of the luckless Hernando De Soto expedition noted oil seepage in Texas—¡qué increíble!—in 1543. So much for the rigmarole about Spindletop.
Q: Why do Texans eat hoppin’ John on New Year’s Day? Where did it get the name?
A: Well, my little collard green, we eat it because we are as much Southern as Western, at least on January 1, when consuming a bowl of hoppin’ John—black-eyed peas cooked with ham or bacon and served with rice—is said to bring good luck for the coming year. Supposedly, rice represents bounty, because of all the grains; peas, wealth (each legume a coin!); and pork, the future, because pigs can’t look backward. The name may be a corruption of bahatta-kachang, a pilaf of North African origin, or—because Creoles have French ancestors— pois à pigeon, or pigeon peas, another name for the black-eyed variety. Regardless, all that cookin’ will keep you hoppin’. And don’t forget the pickled-pepper sauce.
Q: When the space shuttle Columbia exploded over East Texas, newspapers everywhere recalled the Challenger disaster and questioned NASA’s track record on safety. Why do we hear so little about the shuttle program these days?
A: Damage control. This past summer, NASA hailed as “wildly successful” its return-to-flight launch of Discovery, the first shuttle mission since Columbia and its crew of seven were lost on February 1, 2003. But a perusal of agency video showed that the Discovery had lost a chunk of foam insulation during takeoff—the very problem that doomed Columbia, when loose material damaged a wing, allowing gases to seep in and ignite on reentry. Stunned, NASA has grounded all shuttles until the dilemma is solved. The truth is, NASA has never fully recovered from the Challenger catastrophe on January 28, 1986—twenty years ago this month—when seven astronauts died just after takeoff in an explosion witnessed worldwide on live TV, and parallels between the two disasters have made some astro-nuts fear for the agency’s future. But NASA has powerful friends in Texas’ senators: Kay Bailey Hutchison heads up the Senate Subcommittee on Space and Science, and John Cornyn sits on the Senate Committee on the Budget, where he finagled an extra $600 million for NASA last year to help stretch its astronomical budget of almost $16 billion. NASA may not be starry-eyed about its next few years, but it’s not going to crash and burn.
Q: Who was Texas’s biggest baby ever?
A: Tom DeLay? Bill Parcells? Oh—you mean an actual infant. Don’t throw a tantrum yourself, but Texas doesn’t maintain birth records by weight. Would you settle for the biggest baby who became famous? A fourteen-pound bundle of joy arrived screaming (like mother, like son) in De Kalb on December 10, 1928. That was Dan Blocker, who grew up in tiny O’Donnell. He played football (natch), served in Korea, and then headed to Hollywood, where he became a big hit as hefty Hoss Cartwright on Bonanza. He was so popular that when he died unexpectedly after gallbladder surgery, in 1972, the show foundered, ending midway through its fourteenth season.