Deep In the Heart…of Marfa

Giant Soundtrack Suite by Dimitri Tiomkin.  Dimitri was a Russian-born and trained classical musician (his father was a pathologist, his mother a musician).  He had a successful career as a solo performer across Europe and eventually NYC.  The Great Depression and a broken arm persuaded Dimitri and his wife (a professional ballerina) to relocate to Hollywood, where he began composing film scores (and she choreographed dancers in musicals).  His prolific career yielded more than 143 film and TV credits.  He acquired 22 Academy Award nominations and Oscar wins for Best Score with High Noon (1952), The High and the Mighty (1954), The Old Man and the Sea (1958), and a Best Song Oscar for The Ballad of High Noon (better known by it’s pop title Do Not Forsake Me, Oh My Darling).  He was most recognized for his Western scores.

Tiomkin was actively involved on the set of Giant (a unique circumstance for composers).  In a TV interview with Gig Young, Dimitri said that his aim in creating the score for Giant was to capture the “feelings of the great land and great state of Texas.”  This score received an Academy nomination.


James Dean as Jett Rink in Giant.

James Dean’s third and final iconic film Giant, put Marfa, Texas on the map.

Many of it’s elderly, lifelong residents have cherished memories of the hot summer months of 1955, when Hollywood took over their tiny town.  This is the story of that summer and of The Old Borunda Cafe’s Enchiladas Montadas…a recipe that James Dean went back for again and again, and a flavor of history that you can savor at your own table.  The warm melty cheese, the nutty taste of fresh corn tortillas, and sweet, smoky flavors of Texas chiles will spice up your end-of-winter menu.

Easy to prepare and loaded with flavor, I suggest you hit the “play” button on Dimitri Tiomkin’s soundtrack (above) and read on… (Those of you only interested in the recipe can scroll to the bottom of this blog.  The recipe is accompanied by my step-by-step cook-along.)  Reminder: you can click on any of the photos within this blog to see them full sized.

A LITTLE TOWN CALLED MARFA

The old and new meld in Marfa.

The old and new meld in Marfa.

Marfa is part of the West Texas region called the Trans-Pecos (made famous as the jurisdiction of the lawman who ruled from a saloon, Judge Roy Bean-“Law, West of the Pecos”).  In 1883 the railroad chose this spot as a water stop (due to it’s proximity to a river and what is now called the Big Bend National Park).  The wife of a railroad executive named the town after a character in the Dostoevsky novel she was reading, The Brothers Karamazov.

A second growth spurt to the town is credited to Pancho Villa (real name, Doroteo Arango), who used it as a base for his operations after he switched from being a cattle thief/bandito to revolutionary.

The dustbowl town has gone through several changes throughout the years.  Since the late 1800s, mysterious, unexplained lights periodically appear in the night sky and continue to draw curious sightseers.

"Prada-Marfa" a permanant art installation in Marfa.

“Prada-Marfa” a permanant art installation in Marfa.

Marfa reinvented itself as an arts community with a population of contemporary/installation artists and musicians taking up residence there.  Fine restaurants, an active nightlife, and alternative hospitality options (like El Cosmico…a grouping of permanently parked, shabby-chic vintage caravans that can be rented for sleeping accommodations) have made Marfa a tourist destination.

THE STARS FALL ON MARFA

On the last day of May 1955, the cast and crew of George Stevens epic western Giant started streaming into Marfa by plane, train, and automobile.  This wasn’t the first film that Marfa had served as a location for…in 1950 High Lonesome was shot there (also starring Chill Wills, with John Barrymore Jr), but it was certainly the biggest.  Most of the crew were housed at the El Paisano Hotel (118 filled it’s tiny rooms).  James Dean, who was still wrapping up work on Rebel Without a Cause, caught the last train out of LA on the evening of June 3rd.  For the last month, Jim had spent every break and all his free moments (from the set of Rebel), running to the soundstages of Giant for rehearsals, wardrobe, photo, and make-up tests.

From a 1960s postcard, the El Paisano hotel visible on the right.

From a 1960s postcard, the El Paisano hotel visible on the right.

Although he really wanted (and needed) a break, the shooting schedules didn’t allow.  He spent his first days in Marfa at the El Paisano (Room 223) and was then moved to one of the private residences that the production had rented from the local townspeople for it’s stars.  He shared the house (the Jackson family house) with Rock Hudson and Chill Wills.

Dean and Hudson had a turbulent relationship…their disdain for each other was partly due to a lack of respect.  Dean was striving to be a great actor…Hudson strived to become a great star.  Chill Wills was left to play “peace-keeper” in the house.

The heat and working conditions put everyone on edge.  Co-star Mercedes McCambridge wrote in her autobiography, “It is located somewhere south and west of El Paso in a region of the damned.  The Marfans or Marfites or whatever they call themselves may be terrific individuals, but if they are, why don’t they move?  It was a hot, lifeless, boring place.  The sweltering heat of the days was compounded by director George Stevens. who insisted on shooting and re-shooting every scene, while keeping the cast waiting.”

Dean in room 223 of the El Paisano Hotel in Marfa.

Dean in room 223 of the El Paisano Hotel in Marfa.

Carol Baker confirms this in her autobiography, “Despite the stifling Texas heat, Stevens expected the entire cast, stars included, to stand by on set in full makeup and costume at all times.”  Liz Taylor commented, “The heat, humidity, and dust were thoroughly oppressive.  We had to bolster our spirits in any way we could.”

This didn’t sit well with Dean, who was already tired from his back-to-back work schedule and irritated by studio restrictions that had been written into his contract about a ban of auto racing and limitations on his driving.  “Maybe Liz Taylor and Rock Hudson can be chatting on the set all day and then go right into a scene, but I can’t,” said Dean.  “I have to concentrate.”  This led to a protest by Dean when the production moved back to Hollywood.  He started showing up late (often accompanied by Liz) or not at all…eventually an agreement was made that they would phone his Sunset Plaza house (which was less than 15 minutes away from the studio) when he was required on-set.

“An actor should thoroughly understand the character he is portraying and there is no better way than trying to be that person in the hours away from the camera. I developed a program of understanding Jett (Rink) and of doing the things he’d be likely to do. I didn’t want any jarring notes in my characterization.”

James Dean, speaking about his role in Giant

Director George Stevens with cast members James Dean, Elizabeth Taylor and Rock Hudson on location in Marfa.

Director George Stevens with cast members James Dean, Elizabeth Taylor and Rock Hudson on location in Marfa.

Stevens and Dean would lock in perpetual battle throughout the shooting.  Stevens said, “He’s the kind that can be late, even if he is right there on set.  He gets himself all wound up before going into a scene.  But his work is wonderful.”  They were regularly seen walking together (just out of ear shot from cast and crew) intensely engaged in conversation, but gesticulating wildly.

In a rare “positive” comment to the press, Stevens bragged that Dean “could mold psychological impediments into his speech and into his movements.  This was his finest art.  Instinctively he seemed to understand all the impediments people have which they try to communicate.”

1000 locals and residents from nearby towns would congregate each day to watch the filming.  Many were lucky enough to be cast as extras.  The production was highly profitable for businesses within close proximity.   Tourists flocked in hopes of seeing one of it’s stars around town or with high aspirations of getting an autograph.

“He has caught the Texas accent to nasal perfection and has mastered the lock-hipped, high-heeled stagger of the wrangler, and the wry little jerks and smirks, tics and twitches, grunts and giggles that make up most of the language of a man who talks to himself a good deal more than he does to anyone else…(he) shows for the first and fatefully the last time what his admirers already said he had; a streak of genius.”

TIME Magazine review of James Dean's performance in Giant, 1956

The setting for Reata and the grandiose Benedict mansion was constructed 20 miles west of town at the Worth Evans Ranch.  Jett Rink’s Little Reata with it’s windmill and oil derrick were constructed 7 miles west at the Ben Avant Ranch.

Dimitri Tiomkin, Giant‘s soundtrack composer was a regular visitor on set.  He embedded several regional and folk songs within his score to provide an authentic flavor…Yellow Rose of Texas, The Eyes of Texas Are Upon You, South of the Border (Down Mexico Way), and Besame Mucho to mention a few.

Edna Ferber, Giant‘s author was also a frequent visitor.  She and Dean grew fond of each other.  After finishing with the production and back in LA, he started work on a clay sculpture of her…using photos he had taken in Marfa as his references.  The bust was never finished.

Reata’s facade was intentionally temporary, and only the barest skeletal remains survive today for dedicated Dean fans who make the pilgrimage.  The El Paisano Hotel has closed and opened, gone condo, and finally reopened for guests.  Landmarks (like the 2 theaters where the “daily rushes” were held…The Palace Theater where the stars watched and The Texas Theater across the street where George Stevens watched), still dot the town for sharp-eyed fans to scout.

5 weeks later on July 10th, the cast and crew started pulling out of Marfa and heading back to LA.  James Dean wrapped up shooting the oil sequences and caught a plane back on July 12th.  The comfort of returning home did little to relieve his frustrations.  The makeup sessions for the aging the 19 year old Jett Rink to a mature 45 would consume 2 1/2 hours each morning (even though it had been simplified to shaving his gray-dyed hairline and aging his skin tone.  James made a stand, exclaiming, “Look, a man of 45 shows his age in thoughts and actions, not in wrinkles.”

Click any image to watch this slideshow–a glimpse of Marfa, then and now…

MUNCHING IN MARFA

Marfa after dark was painfully prosaic to many of it’s Tinseltown captives.  “BORING” was the word most often heard around.  Liz and Rock, when they got a rare day off, would fly by private jet back to LA.  Jane Withers had come prepared with a stockpile of board games.  She hosted alcohol-free parties at her residence.  Dean took a few chauffeured trips to Mexico (he contractually was restricted on his driving), or went hunting at night with his dialog coach Bob Hinkle.  He brought his own .22 rifle and over the next 5 weeks bagged a mountain lion, a coyote, and 105 jack rabbits.  He learned to play country western guitar and studied German (in hopes of impressing his then girlfriend, Ursula Andress).

James Dean grocery shopping in Marfa

James Dean grocery shopping in Marfa

Dining choices were greatly limited as well.  The El Paisano Hotel catered most of the cast and crew’s meals.  The local grocery store was well stocked in all of Dean’s favorite junk foods…he and Mercedes McCambridge could make a meal from a jar of peanut butter, a box of crackers, Milky Way bars, and Coca-Cola.

The Old Borunda Cafe at Dean and Texas Streets

The favorite dining spot for Dean was the Old Borunda Cafe.  It was spotlessly clean with freshly painted white walls, white chairs and matching tables, a white tile floor flecked with multi-colored splotches…the decor was limited to a few amateur oil paintings of local scenes.  It was run by the charming but strict Carolina.  They only served one dish…Enchiladas Montadas.  It came with a side of beans (in a separate bowl…Carolina didn’t like the plates to look messy) and tamales.  On the tables were a bowl of Fritos Corn Chips (Carolina’s favorite) and sliced white bread (because the finest restaurants of the time only served white bread).  The clientele were strictly Anglo (since Mexicans in the area ate this food at home for free).  The Old Borunda Cafe was only open from 5-9:30…the food was prepared daily, and Carolina wanted everything “nice and fresh.”  They didn’t sell alcohol…customers were allowed to bring their own beer (but no more than 2).  “It’s not a honky-tonk!” she would warn them.  Customers that got unruly, often had a pitcher of ice water dumped on them or whacked with her heavy bean masher.

Carolina's bean masher and enforcer...

Carolina’s bean masher and enforcer…

Rock Hudson and Elizabeth Taylor dined there once.  Carolina made sure none of the other customers bothered them for autographs while they were in the restaurant.  After their meal, Liz and Rock went to the kitchen to thank Carolina for the excellent meal and proclaimed it was “the first undisturbed meal” they had had.

“People are people,” Carolina stated simply, “I’m just glad they enjoyed eating in my place.”  James Dean was a regular patron.

HISTORY ON A PLATE

Tulia’s Restaurant, circa 1900

In the late 1800s Tulia Gutierrez Borunda and her brother Cipriano emigrated from Mexico.  They started a small “ranchito” where he grew chiles, produce, fruit, chickens, turkeys, and a few cattle.  Tulia opened a restaurant (known by everyone only as “Tulia’s”) where she served the products grown on the ranch.  Her menu consisted mainly of steak and eggs, beans, potatoes, and coffee.  It had 3 tables and a dirt floor kitchen open in the rear.  Her Brother married Carolina, who took over the restaurant in 1910 and dubbed it the Old Borunda Cafe.  Carolina and Cipriani had a daughter (also named Carolina) who began working the restaurant at age 13.  In 1935 she took over operations and relocated it to the corner of Dean and Texas Streets, about a block off of Hwy 90 (the location where it remained under her direction until it’s closing, 55 years later).  The new location boasted a counter, several tables and 10 booths.  In 1958 they would expand again with more tables and chairs.

The Old Borunda Cafe on the corner of Dean and Texas streets.

The Old Borunda Cafe on the corner of Dean and Texas streets.

The kitchen had a wood burning stove, where Carolina used exclusively Mesquite wood.  She did all the cooking.  Her niece, Stephanie Spitzer came on to work as a waitress (never writing down orders, and never making a mistake…she worked there until the restaurants closed and now in her 80s, still lives in Marfa).  The first gas stove came in 1955 (and in 1962, the Health Department banned the use of wood stoves).  The menu expanded, but in 1965 the most expensive item was still only $1.65.

The enchiladas served by Carolina (and most of West Texas) are flat.  Corn tortillas, dipped in enchilada sauce, topped with cheese and chopped onion and fried (totally unlike the rolled-up version the rest of us are familiar with).  Carolina stacked her tortillas 3 high and topped it all with a fried egg.  In August and September when the chiles have matured on the plant but haven’t yet turned red, a special green sauce would be prepared.  Carolina called it “Chile Macho” and served it over Frito Corn Chips (a gourmet Frito Pie).  A pork-laced version of her red sauce was also a popular item (the Chile Colorado con Puerco recipe appears in my Recipes for Rebels cookbook).

Carolina ran the Old Borunda until it’s centennial anniversary in 1987 and the restaurant was closed.  The building has since become a gift shop and jewelry store.  Several years later her grandson Pancho Borunda (whom she taught to cook) opened  the Borunda Bar and Grill (in a new and larger location) where you can still order dishes cooked to Carolina’s original recipes (even served on her original china).

CLICK ON ANY IMAGE TO SEE THIS SLIDESHOW OF THE OLD BORUNDA CAFE THROUGHOUT THE YEARS…

THE FRITO REVOLUTION (a food history side note)

Carolina Borunda preferred Fritos Corn Chips over traditional tortilla chips.  Fritos were developed by Charles Elmer Doolin in 1938 in San Antonio, TX.  Doolin was looking to make a snack food out of corn that wouldn’t go stale.  A Mexican man caught his eye at a gas station, where he was frying extruded masa in a large kettle of oil and selling them in small paper bags to customers.  This was a common “beach food” in Mexico where the man was from.

Doolin bought the recipe and a dozen customers from the man.  He perfected the recipe in his mother’s kitchen and soon started manufacturing and distributing.  He employed Henry Ford’s assembly line philosophy to his production.  Fritos (which means little fried things in Spanish) were a hit.  He later invented Cheetos (originally Chee-tos) but didn’t have the capital to achieve nationwide distribution.  He teamed up with the Lays Potato Chip Company and the Frito-Lay brand was born (Frito-Lay was later bought by Pepsico).

Ironically, C.E. Doolin and his family never ate Fritos, they were strict vegetarians and disciplined health food advocates.  Mr. Doolin’s children took things like figs and yogurt to school for lunch.

OLD BORUNDA CAFE’S ENCHILADA MONTADAS

In Spanish, the word “enchilada” is an adjective meaning, in a chile sauce.  The full proper name of the dish is “enchiladas tortillas.”  Classically the tortilla is dipped in a vat of chile sauce, then fried and sprinkled with chopped onion and cheese.  Carolina (who made her tortillas fresh every day) stacks 3 tortillas, layered with sauce, cheese and onion, bakes them until bubbly, and then tops it all with a fried sunny-side-up egg.  The golden yolk  mixes with the flavor of sweet, smoky chiles and warm gooey cheese to create a perfect comfort food (and one that had James Dean coming back for more).  She served the dish with a side of refried beans (the mashed potatoes of Tex-Mex cuisine…served with every meal) and tamales.

The preparation is easy (the sauce can be made the day ahead or even done in a larger batch and frozen for future meals).  It will have your friends and family coming back for more.

The only secret to this recipe is selecting the right dried chiles for the sauce.  I suggest choosing something in the mild to medium heat category.  The chiles grown on the Borunda Ranchito were likely Pasillas (the dried version of an Anaheim chile).  This is a perfect choice.  Other good varieties might be the New Mexico, Ancho, Guajillo, or Mulato chiles.  As my high school friend Beth who now lives in New Mexico pointed out to me, a single variety can be hotter or milder depending upon the weather of the growing season.  The wetter the climate (or soil if you’re growing your own in pots) the milder the heat, the dryer the season, the hotter the chile.  If you’re not buying them from someone who’s tried them, err on the side of milder.  You can always spice it up after.  She also recommended wearing gloves while working with them and avoid touching your eyes, face, and mouth.  Wash all equipment well in soap and hot water after.  The capsicum oils contained in the chiles will burn badly. (Any guy chefs be especially careful using the restroom afterwards…I know this from long ago experiences!)

INGREDIENTS:

For the red chile sauce:

12 red chiles, seeded and stemmed

1/2 onion

3 cloves of garlic, minced

2 T vegetable oil

2 T flour

1 t salt

1/2 t Mexican oregano

1/2 t ground black pepper

 

For the enchiladas:

3 T hot vegetable oil for dipping the tortillas

12 corn tortillas

2 c Monterey Jack or Cheddar cheese

1 c chopped onions

4 eggs

DIRECTIONS:

-Preheat oven to 450F.  Fill a large pot with water. Bring to a boil over high heat and add the chiles.  Reduce heat, simmer covered for 15-20 minutes until softened.  Remove from heat and allow to cool.

-Place the chiles, onion, garlic and 3c of water in a blender and blend until well pureed, approximately 5 minutes on high.  Strain the puree, extracting as much of the pulp as possible.  Discard the remaining skin.

-In a large skillet over medium-high heat, brown the flour with the oil to make a blond roux.  Reduce heat to medium-low and add the strained puree, salt, pepper and oregano to the roux, stirring constantly until the mixture thickens.  Set aside.

-To make the enchiladas, heat the oil in a small skillet over high heat for 3 minutes.  Use tongs, place a tortilla in hot oil for 30 seconds or until soft and lightly browned.  Place on absorbent paper towel and allow to cool before handling.

-Ladle a thin layer of sauce into a baking dish large enough to hold 4 tortilla stacks (or 4 individual stacks each in it’s own pie plate).  Place 4 tortillas in the dish and ladle some more sauce over each.  Sprinkle with cheese and chopped onions, add another tortilla and repeat.  Top with a 3rd tortilla and sprinkle with the rest of the cheese and onions.  Bake for 10 minutes or until the sauce bubbles and the cheese melts.  While the enchiladas are baking, fry the eggs “sunny side up.”  Place each stack on a plate and divide the remaining sauce among the plates.  Serve immediately with a “sunny side up” egg on top.

HERE’S HOW IT LOOKED WHEN I MADE IT…

(Click on any of the photos to see them larger…)

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I hope you enjoyed this “taste of James Dean history.”  Leave a comment below.  This recipe and more than 200 others are explored in my book, Recipes for Rebels: In the kitchen with James Dean which is available from Amazon.com or directly from this list of fine independent retailers


I love reading your thoughts and comments…leave me a note below, subscribe to receive emails about future postings, and freely use the social media sharing buttons to share this story with your friends and family…

 

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