By Chris Lane
By Jeff Balke
By Aaron Reiss
By Angelica Leicht
By Dianna Wray
By Aaron Reiss
By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
You're not officially a Houstonian until you've done a couple of things: given the finger to an SUV that cut you off on the Southwest Freeway; tried to mentally calculate just how old Marvin Zindler is; and, finally, gone to the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo.
The rodeo is a rite of passage that's cornier than Dallas's State Fair, nuttier than San Antonio's Fiesta and way more chaotically fun than Galveston's Mardi Gras. For a few weeks near the end of every winter, Houston chooses to revel in being a cowtown instead of fanatically trying to disabuse that notion.
There are good things and bad things about all this. The bad things: Trail riders tie up traffic. You may cringe in horror if you bring an out-of-town guest to a downtown lunch on Go Texan Day ("I've never seen anyone wearing a bolo tie here before!! Really!!"). Going on the rides, or watching as your kids go, now requires a financial outlay roughly equal to one month of the Iraq War. You may get to smell a lot of animal shit.
On the other hand, you get to see some amazing athletes do some wild things -- and a top musical act -- for a little over twenty bucks, and that's not bad these days. You get to see the banal parking lot of Reliant Arena transformed into a classic midway of rides, strange food and games where you realize you're getting ripped off but you play anyway. You get to see farm-fresh kids lovingly tend to the animals that they've spent a year getting ready for this big moment in the big city. And at least some of the money you're spending goes to charity.
The rodeo -- celebrating its 75th year -- is a strange mix of sights, sounds and smells. There's no way to sum it up, but here are some bits and pieces.
You Gonna Eat That?
Food is one of the main draws of the rodeo. And one of the weirdest.
Things are offered for sale at the food booths that should never be ingested by man, beast or child. If a substance can be deep-fried and put on a stick, it's available here. And like the old song says, grease is the word.
We talked to Marilyn Swanson, a nutritionist at the Baylor College of Medicine. A transcript perhaps can't best convey the horrified intake of breath that was her reaction to some of these examples, but it will have to do.
Houston Press: Let's go through a list. Sausage on a stick?
Swanson: Hmm, pretty high in fat. It would be better if it were on whole-wheat bread, but we know that's not going to be the case. High in sodium.
HP: Giant turkey leg.
Swanson: That probably could be better than a lot of choices because turkey provides some protein, some essential B vitamins, as long as you watch your portions.
HP: Well, it probably weighs about five pounds.
Swanson: Maybe you don't have to eat it all, maybe you could share it with your sweetie...One of the things that can be healthy, as long as they don't drench it in that artificial butter, is corn on a stick.
HP: It's safe to say they pretty much drench it in artificial butter.
Swanson: Sometimes, though, they dip it, so if you can get it without them dipping it it's okay.
HP: What about fried Oreos?
Swanson: I find it hard to find a real saving grace on those. I have had sausage on a stick, I have had a turkey leg, but I have never had a fried Oreo.
HP: There's gotta be something in it -- maybe some good dairy freshness in the white cream?
Swanson: I can't think of a real saving grace.
HP: Let me give you some options. If you had to choose between these, which would you take: sausage on a stick, pizza on a stick, fried Oreos or deep-fried cookie dough?
Swanson: Oh, pizza on a stick.
HP: Really? Pizza's healthy?
Swanson: Pizza's a lot more healthy than anything else on that list. Pizza's not bad -- it's got cheese in it, that's good; it has some protein. You can get a really healthy pizza. Of course, you have to do that at a fancy upscale restaurant, probably. It's got the tomato paste, that's got lycopene; vitamin A, vitamin C in that tomato, yeah.
HP: Wow. You're validating my whole diet here. Now all you've got to do is tell me beer's great for you.
Swanson: Well, you know, everything in moderation. I'm sort of a wine-o as opposed to a beer-o, but my boyfriend's a beer-o.
HP: Great, you got rid of all my guilt here.
Swanson: Portion size, portion size, portion size!!
HP: Never mind.
NIGHT OF THE DIVA
For most Houstonians, rodeo season begins with the annual breathless announcement of which entertainment acts will be taking to the revolving stage amidst the dirt and dust of the arena floor. Through the years the acts have included everyone from Elvis Presley to Bob Dylan, from Lynyrd Skynyrd to Natalie Cole, from Dolly Parton to Cheap Trick.