From furiously finding ways to stay distracted and entertained at the start of the pandemic to sharing stories about how we’re all coping with the coronavirus, Texas Monthly has covered a lot of ground together with our readers this year.
We read and watched everything under the Texas sun. We cooked and drank—and even started learning about what we were drinking (raise your hand if you did a virtual wine tasting or studied up on Texas wines). Then we moved outside to try our hand at a few new backyard hobbies together, soaking up expert advice along the way. It’s been a personal highlight of mine to share these stories and more with many of you each week in our Staying In With TM newsletter (want to join us?). In case you missed them, here are some of my favorite things we learned in 2020, which will be just as useful in 2021 and beyond.
Mix Up the World’s Easiest Cocktail
“There’s nothing more civilizing than an ice-cold martini,” Houston Eaves, beverage director at San Antonio’s historic Esquire Tavern, says. “And when you’ve been in the same hoodie for a month, you could certainly use some civility.” His recipe for a 50:50 Freezer Martini couldn’t be easier.
750 milliliters navy-strength gin (Eaves likes Hayman’s Royal Dock)
750 milliliters dry vermouth (Eaves likes Dolin Dry Vermouth de Chambéry)
First, wash your hands for twenty seconds. Next, combine the contents of both bottles in a clean pitcher that can accommodate the 1.5 liters of total volume. Stir briefly to combine, then use a funnel to refill the empty bottles with the mixture and put tops back on. Place both full bottles in the freezer, wait a couple hours, and then pour yourself a martini—and another after that, and more for days to come!
To increase civility: Keep your cocktail glasses in the freezer, express the oil of a lemon peel over the drink for enhanced aromatics, and enjoy some Castelvetrano olives on the side. You can even add some olive juice to your mix if you’re really feeling frisky, and are willing to get dirty in this time of quarantine.
Make a Calming Room Spray
At Willow House, a boutique escape outside Big Bend National Park, Lauren Werner freshens the air with this natural, homemade concoction before guests arrive.
Mix all ingredients together in a spray bottle, shake well, and spray it into the air around your house. Werner says that if you perfume the air often enough over time, the scent will linger for longer, too.
As Texans flocked to the hobby in record numbers this year, our staff of seasoned chicken-keepers convened a virtual roundtable to discuss our best tips for newcomers. Here’s what to know before getting started.
“There are a lot of predators. Snakes, raccoons, all kinds. It’s normal to lose hens to them.”
“Don’t half-ass the coop when you’re getting started, because that’ll get them killed, and you’re going to eventually have to build a Fort Knox.”
“Some breeds are good layers, others are good for eating, others are both. If you see them as pets, be prepared to spend way more money than you’re going to get out of them.”
“Sometimes people seem to think you can put them in the garden and they’ll help weed or something—no. They will eat everything in the garden and tear the living hell out of your yard.”
“They don’t love you like a dog does, but they’ll follow you around the yard because they know you bring them food.”
“It’s just fun to go out there with some frozen watermelon or whatever—they love frozen watermelon—and say, ‘Hey, girls, how ya doin’?’”
Stretch Your Barbecue
As meat prices skyrocketed, we shared seven ideas for how diners and restaurants alike can make brisket, ribs, and sausages last longer.
🍞 Put it on a bun, Texas toast, or maybe even a biscuit. Add some onions and pickle slices and you’ve got a meal.
🌮 Put it in a tortilla. As taco editor José Ralat says, a taco is made up of three components: a filling, a tortilla, and salsa.
🥔 Put it on a potato. The barbecue-stuffed potato, a.k.a. the “Bubba Tater,” is the ultimate way to bolster a barbecue meal.
✨ Put it on anything. From Fritos to chili, we’ve got a few more ideas to make brisket, ribs, and sausages last longer.
Cooking the barbecue yourself? Don’t miss these meat smoking tips from some of the state’s best pitmasters.
Pull Together a Reading Nook
According to interior designer Ken Fulk, the mastermind behind Austin’s new Commodore Perry Estate, it’s simple.
“Start with a comfy chair and ottoman, then add in a nice task lamp, a side table for a cup of tea or a glass of wine, and you have your own little slice of heaven,” Fulk says.
Then check out our list of great Texas books to curl up with.
Stargaze Like an Astronomer
You can see most fairly bright stars with the naked eye. Or you can take backyard stargazing to the next level.
🔭 Get sensible gear. Consider binoculars instead of buying a telescope. (The most important type of optics are the ones you’ll actually use: a fancy telescope does nobody any good gathering dust, but binoculars are handy for all sorts of things.)
☄️ Learn about upcoming space events. There’s a wealth of publicly available information on stardate.org, whose offerings include a daily public radio broadcast, and Sky and Telescope magazine shares information for a variety of skill levels.
🤩 Look carefully. Full night vision takes a while to kick in—up to thirty minutes, in some cases—and you can ruin it just by looking at your phone screen for a few seconds.
When scanning the sky for fairly bright objects, such as planets, you can generally pick them out just by looking directly at them. And remember that your peripheral vision is much more sensitive to light than the center of your eye is. “If you’re trying to see something faint, and you’re not sure if you see it, look slightly away from it,” says Stephen Hummel, dark skies specialist at the University of Texas’s McDonald Observatory in Fort Davis.
Chant Like an Auctioneer
Well, this one takes practice. Learn to master this tongue twister, and you’ll have a leg up on day one of auctioneer school.
Betty Botter bought some butter
But she said, “This butter’s bitter
If I put it in my batter
It will make my batter bitter”
So she bought a bit of better butter
Put it in her bitter batter
Made her bitter batter better
So ’tis better Betty Botter bought
A bit of better butter.
Pair Wine With Tacos
It’s time to think beyond beer and margaritas, says Suerte wine director Celia Pellegrini. Here’s how:
Start with proteins. “For red meats, stick with light, bright reds, such as the mouthwatering Touriga Nacional from Adrienne Ballou’s Lightsome Wines in the Texas Hill Country. With chicken and seafood, I love Spanish whites like vinho verde and albariño—anything with high acid and a little bit of salinity, just like you find in a margarita. Southold Farm and Cellar in Fredericksburg makes an albariño called Sing Sweet Things that fits this bill perfectly.”
Skip the tannins. “Tannins make your mouth dry, and the last thing you want when you’re eating spicy foods is to not be able to flush out the spices.”
Go for bubbles, but with caution. “Bubbles do a great job of balancing out fat, but they can also exacerbate spice. If you are going to go with bubbles, go with something with a lot of fruit. The fruit notes will stand up to the bold flavors of the chiles and spice. William Chris Vineyards’ pétillant naturel rosé is the perfect balance of bubbles and fruit.”
Wash Your Hair
Unable to make her weekly salon appointment because of social distancing, an 89-year-old Houston woman washed her own hair for the first time in decades this spring. Whether you’re similarly struggling and need advice on how to take matters into your own hands or you’re simply curious about Carlene’s experience (oh, it’s so good), it’s probably best if you read this story for yourself.
Get a Great Night’s Sleep
“Sleep is essential for health and wellness because it is when our body has the chance to repair and heal,” explains Lake Austin Spa’s inspiration and wellness specialist, Julie Haber. Here’s what she says can help improve your sleep health:
Sneak in Siestas “Naps are a wonderful way to rejuvenate your body and mind. Take a ten- to fifteen-minute nap daily. Do not fight your body’s urge to nap.”
Exercise Often “Nothing feels better than sleeping after a day of exercise, and in fact, it is hard to sleep if we have not moved our bodies enough during the day.”
Cut Out Screen Time “Limit or turn off the technology completely after sundown.”
Rise (and Fall) Like Clockwork “A consistent rhythmic schedule is important and comforting to the body and mind.”
Adjust the Thermostat “There is research that the ideal temperature for sleeping is 60 to 67 degrees Fahrenheit.”
Keep a Notepad on the Nightstand “Write down any ‘to do’s’ or worries before bed, and make a commitment to release them until the following day.”
Unwind, From Head to Toe “Massage some lavender and/or magnesium oil on your feet for a pleasantly relaxing evening ritual before bed.”
Grow a Garden
By June of this year, thousands of Texans had found much-needed stress relief by digging in the dirt. If you’re looking to sow some seeds in the spring, here are four tips for novice gardeners.
Lower your expectations. “You’re going to kill more than you keep alive, so don’t feel like you have a black thumb,” says artist Sam Jacobson, an Austin backyard gardener.
Sun and shade are key. Choose a sunny spot for your garden bed, since most vegetables need at least six hours of sunlight per day. If your yard gets less light, leafy greens and some root veggies, such as beets, can still do well. Container gardens are a mobile, low-maintenance option, ideal for troubleshooting sun exposure throughout the year.
Prepare for guests. Hungry visitors to your garden will likely include mites, beetles, squirrels, birds, and—if you’re in a suburban or rural area—deer. Not all bugs are pests, so while organic pesticides, fences, and netting can be good defenses, Trisha Sutton also suggests handpicking as an alternative. Aphids are an especially common threat with a fun solution: you can unleash an army of ladybugs to eat them.
Get local. Plants that flourish in hot, swampy Houston are unlikely to thrive in the cooler, rocky Hill Country. Ask staff at your local nursery what’s best for your area, or plug in your zip code on the National Gardening Association website for regional tips and planting calendars.
And then bookmark these tips to have handy come fall and winter:
Adopt a Yoga Practice
Many of us took to the mat to find some peace (and a bit of indoors exercise). And Adriene Mishler, of the uber-popular YouTube channel “Yoga With Adriene,” tells us that the path to becoming a yogi is easier than you think.
“My advice, instead of giving specific suggestions on what to do on a yoga mat, is usually instead to simply just be kind to yourself,” she says. “Instead of prioritizing a specific something—whatever you think you need—prioritize listening instead.”
If you’re craving more didactic direction, her annual 30 Day Yoga Journey—free online classes throughout the month of January—begins soon. Mishler’s theme for the upcoming 2021 series is “Breath.” (The theme she chose for 2020 was “Home.” Little did she know.)
Meet Your Neighbors (From a Distance)
Early in the pandemic, a 63-year-old Austinite put a sign in his yard that read, “If the Curtain’s Open, Give Us a Wave, Eh?” Passersby obliged.
“There’s an older couple who comes by a couple of times a week and we’ve had a couple conversations through the window about the barbecue I have sitting out front,” Sam Waring says. “I moved the smoker to where it is so that when I’m going to cook barbecue, I can set up a card table with my personal laptop on it on a Saturday. I’ll sit out there and tend the fire and surf on my laptop, and then when people walk by I say, ‘Good morning,’ ‘Good afternoon,’ ‘How are you.’ If it’s somebody I do happen to know, then we might talk about whatever’s going on and how their lives are going.
If you’re feeling similarly open to connecting with the strangers on your street, a friendly sign might be a good place to start.
Embroider Your Denim
Whether you want to emblazon a chambray shirt with “Bless your heart!” like our very own craftswoman Emily McCullar did, or stitch your own favorite Texas saying (or your name or any other motif) onto any other kind of garment, here’s what you’ll need:
And here’s how to do it.
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