Sunday, October 24, 2010

What is There To do In Mt. Pleasant, Texas

Surrounded by lakes and woods in the heart of Northeast Texas, Mount Pleasant lives up to its name as a pleasing place to visit.  Four major lakes within 30 minutes of the town limits make this the Bass fishing capital of Texas.  A Blue Bird Trail and the Sleepy Hollow Daffodil Garden beckon in the springtime.  Its restaurant selections support Texas classics such as chicken fried steak, BBQ, and Tex-Mex but for the more adventuresome palate, there’s a nice variety.  Here are some suggestions for the day or overnight visitor as well as those with a more leisurely stay.

(1) Jo’s Antiques on the Square.  This 26 year old, quality antique store has been discovered by many Dallas and Houston clients and owner Jo Campbell knows their names and interests.  Her pieces all have stories and she has a large selection of R. S. Prussian porcelain. As an added bonus, her building dates from 1894, making it the oldest in Mt. Pleasant.  Jo also has an interest in the adjoining Old World Interiors, a gift shop with jewelry and home accents.
102 North Jefferson Avenue. 903.572.3173

(2) Rodeo with a Capital R.  There’s more than one opportunity to experience rodeo here.  The Mt. Pleasant Rodeo in May draws a large crowd of participants and fans. A local company, Priefert Ranch Equipment, manufactures the widely used bucking chute, a pen that allows riders to safely mount a bull before the gate opens.  If you miss the May event, the rodeo team at Northeast Texas Community College competes with 11 other colleges and their event is in October. And children can compete in an academic rodeo held during the Titus County Fair in October.

(3) Meson del Bajio.  This is truly a hidden gem.  If a friend had not recommended it, I would never have stopped at the wonderful real Mexican restaurant tucked behind mirrored doors in a tumble down strip center. The interior is filled with authentic Mexican furniture, including some antiques and a church door now used as a table.  Owner Gabriel Lopez hails from the lovely city of Guanajuato, Mexico and is proud of his authentic fare.  My chicken enchiladas with green chile sauce were not only delicious but were presented with fresh lettuce, tomato, crema, and avocado strips.
201 E. 1st Street. 903.575.0315 or 903.201.5604

(4)  For the sweet tooth visitors, Mt. Pleasant is a treasure and will satisfy any craving.

The Sweet Shop USA  is a transplant from Ft. Worth that sells wholesale high-end gourmet chocolate. But the good news is it has a gift shop that allows all to taste and purchase their products.  For the hard corps chocoholics, a tour can be arranged if notice is given in advance.
Call 1-800-222-2269 for tour information
1316 Industrial Road
The Sweet Shop USA

Golden Gals Candy sells freshly made pecan pralines in three flavors.  Other sweets are offered but the pralines rule.
210 W. 2nd Street.  903.577.3434
Golden Gal's Candy Company

Laura’s Cheesecake and Bakery. This very popular bakery offers a nice selection of sandwiches and salads which can be topped off with a slice of one of Laura’s Cheesecakes. I was surprised to find grilled vegetables with my turkey sandwich on foccacio  bread - nice.  Their cheesecakes are well-known, having been featured in Southern Living magazine, and are shipped around the country.
Located on downtown Square, 109 N. Madison. 903.577.8177.
Laura's Cheesecake

(5)  A VERY small historical museum is located down the circular stairway in the Mt. Pleasant Public Library.  Caddo Indians lived in the area as late as 1845 and a selection of their pottery is displayed.  With its beginnings underground,  the local lignite mining industry is over 100 years old.  Monies from the Republic of Texas and the Confederacy tie this old county into Texas’ history.  And my favorite was a 1870 Teacher’s contract that paid $800 for 32 weeks of instruction.
213 N. Madison.  903.575.4180
Mt. Pleasant Public Library

(6) Dellwood Park, at the east edge of town, has long, concrete sidewalks for running or strolling, tennis courts, open areas for soccer, painted bridges and fountains - a nice place to unwind after a day of visiting.
726 E. Ferguson Ave.

(7) Super Plaza Mercado.  Thanks to the large Hispanic population in Mt. Pleasant, this well stocked grocery store features many products used for traditional Mexican cooking. Fresh and dried chiles, queso fresco, masa and Mexican pastries add authenticity to any Mexican meal.  But it is also a great place to buy fresh meat and seafood, including options such as octopus!
1210 W. Ferguson.  903.575.9449

(8) Herschel’s Family Restaurant.  From the outside, this restaurant appears to be a Dairy Queen knock off.  But inside,  sports memorabilia decorates the front room and a surprising array of animal trophies fill the large party room in back.  Locals hang out here.  The #1 combo is the most popular breakfast selection while chicken fried steak or a baked potato dominate at lunch.
1612 S. Jefferson.  903.572.7801

(9) Delia’s Salvadorian Cuisine.  What a nice addition to the food scene in Mt. Pleasant.  The family’s grandmother, Delia, began the family restaurant tradition in El Salvador.  Her grandchildren have opened one here, introducing the local population to the papusa - hand made stuffed tortilla with cheese, beans, squash or meat. Try the black bean dip or the drink, ensalada de fruta.  The family even brings back moro and marnon from El Salvador for authentic flavoring.
1406 N. Jefferson.  903.577.1882

(10) The Agriculture Building at Northeast Texas Community College.  Ok, this is just outside of town but it’s worth the lovely ten minute drive to see a building of the future.  Equipped with green screens on the windows, a pond to collect and recycle rain water, and a solar-powered electrical system, the building has earned a platinum rating on LEED, the green building certification system.  We should all take notes.
Northeast Texas Community College

Other good restaurant choices are Mardi Gras, a locally owned Cajun restaurant, Luigi’s Italian Restaurant with its famous pink sauce, and Bodacious BARBQ, a regional favorite.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Tracking a Carrot for Campbell's Vegetable Soup

The year was 1964.  My father was a farmer in Plainview, Hale County, Texas and one of the first in the area to grow carrots, potatoes, and onions. He and his brother owned a produce shed that cleaned and bagged  vegetables before shipping.  Campbell Soup Company, the world’s largest maker and marketer of soup,  had just opened a new plant in Paris, Texas.  The company’s buyers came calling and soon Walker Brothers Produce had a contract to sell potatoes and carrots to Campbell Soup (CS).  It was an exciting time in our household.  For these reasons, I was curious how a carrot needed for a can of Campbell’s Vegetable Soup traveled today and what had changed since 1964.

The ingredients for the standard Campbell Soup Vegetable Soup have not varied much since its original production in1899.  Nor surprisingly, carrots, potatoes, corn, onion, and garlic still dominate the recipe.  A gradual lowering of the sodium content has been one nod to the push for a healthier life style. None of the ingredients for this soup come from abroad - a true “Made in America” product.  Carrots from California, Texas and Ohio, potatoes from Colorado, Texas and Kansas and onions from Idaho are examples of the nation wide scope needed to maintain the raw ingredients.

In my father’s time, individual field agents kept track of the progress of a crop.  It was important to them whether it rained on Charlie Walker’s carrots 400 miles away.   Today, buying is more centralized, uses computer quotes and is often completed with larger purchases from huge farmers who can grow, clean, cool, and send the produce.  Frozen and dried vegetables have also become a part of the process.

But there are still some individual carrot growers such as Tommy Jendrusch and Rick Harbison in McAllen, Texas who use their 1400 acres to sell vegetables  to Campbell Soup and Gerber’s. Over the last 20 years, hybrid varieties of carrots have at least doubled the yield and increased the carotene and color.  Their fields now have GPS coordinates and are numbered so that each load of vegetables can be traced to a specific block of land.  The Paris plant likes buying from these Texas farmers as the transportation cost is less and minimizes their carbon footprint.

The contracted carrots from the Rio Grande Valley farm are loaded in bulk onto a refrigerated truck maintained at 35 degrees and shut with a bolt seal to protect the integrity of the load.  The load is shipped to Paris and then quickly unloaded at the plant.  A devise called the “sputnik” crawls into the truck with a conveyor belt that gently pulls in vegetables from the lower part of the truck opening and delivers them to a second conveyor belt to be washed, sorted, and diced.

A giant vat is used to mix the ingredients according to a traditional recipe with modern technology directing the amounts needed.   Computers also monitor quality control as the soup progresses.  Soup is poured into individual cans and cooked.  The cans are made on site by the Silgan Container Company which also reduces transportation costs.  The classic labels made famous by the painter, Andy Warhol,  are last to be added.

The amount of soup made each year is determined by the customer and is called historic numbers.  Campbell’s, obviously, prefers cold winters and as an employee noted, “we’re not fans of global warming”.

A significant change from years past has been the packaging.  The standard pallet contains 170 cases but customers such as Sam’s, Costco’s and other club stores,  ask for and get different numbers of cans under the shrink wrap.

After canning, cooking, and packaging, the soup is ready to ship.  Campbell Soup allows its customers to use their own trucks or trucking companies to transport the soup. Many other manufacturing companies will limit access to  two or three trucking companies.  CS does not sell directly to the grocery stores.  Trucks deliver the pallets to distribution centers.  Our carrots could end up in any of the eleven near-by states served by the Paris plant.  We’re almost exactly in the middle of this territory which minimizes transportation costs for the customers.

In the end, our carrots were well traveled - by truck  from the farm field to produce sheds, the CS plant, distribution centers and grocery stores and by car to your home.  The price of gas has to affect the cost of the soup.  CS plants then must  use technology and efficiency to keep the cost of their soup lower.  This translates into more business and eventually, more jobs.

The basic process of making and transporting soup and its ingredients hasn’t changed that much over the last 46 years.  The trucks are now refrigerated,  bigger, and more efficient.  Technology directs the process today.  Produce is no longer raised on the Texas Panhandle but it still comes from American farms.  I can’t pretend that the carrots in the soup are from our farm but I’m happy to know some American farm children can still  make that claim.

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