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FEBRUARY, 2008

El Paso has always been called a Gateway- originally it was El Paso del Rio del Norte, the Pass to the North from Mexico. Because it is on the furthermost western tip of Texas, it is also a Gateway into Texas from Southern New Mexico.

A short distance after one crosses the state line, there is a little place called Armah Dilla's Texas Tourist Trap, a comfy nook for weary travelers, where you can get an early taste of our famous state.

The owner, a friendly woman named Armah Dilla, her arms full of posters, welcomes me. "Howdy, hon, come on in."

As I spy my first armadillo, a cute little fellow made of clay, she says, " An intriguing creature, wouldn't you say?"

"I find them very interesting," I confessed, "but you sure don't see many out here west of the Pecos; real ones, that is."

"No, they like water," she agreed. "But since they are the State Mammal, and, well, with a name like mine, I do tend to collect them ...."

"Take a load off your feet, hon," the owner says. "That's what I have that chair there for."

And as I move aside a little Indian doll, it feels good to sink back in the worn comfortable chair and take a look around.

 

A visitor sees bluebonnets, the state flower of Texas, as soon as he or she enters this room.

The bluebonnet doesn't grow everywhere, especially in the West Texas oil field country where I spent most of my childhood. The Big Bend area, where it grows much larger and taller, is about as far west as you normally see them in any quantity, if at all.

"I notice you have bluebonnets on various items around the store," I said.

"Well, people expect to see them," she says, "Even though one doesn't see many bluebonnets around El Paso, of course, unless you visit a local nursery which has developed a startling acclimatized variety that thrives in our desert environment."

Where the bluebonnet grows easily, it's only plentiful in the spring, however. Before we retired we rarely traveled except during summer vacations and the Christmas  holidays, so, except for an occasional few here and there, basically I have had a bluebonnet-deprived life.

Until you've seen those vast swaths of bluebonnets in the eastern regions of the state, you can't fully appreciate why it was chosen as the state flower.

Even though I have spent most of my life in Texas I had never seen them in abundance until May 2005. On our way home from a funeral in Groesbeck, from East Texas all the way west of the Hill Country, we saw miles of wildflowers in fields stretching to the horizon and along the roads on either side.

And interspersed with Indian Blanket,  daisies, fireweed, buttercups, Queen-Anne's lace, Indian Paintbrush, heaven  knows what else, there they were, spires of brilliant blue fading to white at the top!  Like a child, I practically jumped up and down in the car seat, going, Wow!  Bluebonnets! 


And then it was just bluebonnets; they were everywhere!  Scattered in blue swaths through the occasional trees and rocky outcroppings, mile after mile, field after field of what looked like a miniature faint blue fog just above the ground. My cup was filled, finally, that I got to see bluebonnets that day.

"I had always wondered why painters showed fields of bluebonnets as a blue haze," I said to Armah.  "Well, that's what they look like in the millions!"

She smiled at me. "And we have Former First Lady, Lady Bird Johnson, and her wildflower projects to thank for so much beauty along the roads of Texas."

She pointed to the back of a cupboard. "That painting depicts an area not far from the Johnson Ranch. It's not easy to see, but there is a faint blur of many bluebonnets at the bottom of the painting."

"Yes," she said, as I looked atop the cupboard, "I also painted that lamp myself."

"Those are silk wildflowers," Armah Dilla pointed out.

"I believe God meant for us not to really pick them, so that everyone could see them, and that's why he made them wither so quickly.

"I sell wildflower seed packets, if you're interested, " she went on. "There are individual flowers and the mixed packets, as well. The best way to do it is to just throw the seeds out onto the ground and see what happens."

"You mean you don't prepare the ground or anything?"

"Nope. I like to be surprised. And that's their nature, too, to grow wherever the winds blow them if the conditions are right."

 

Next we visited an area crammed with food items. "This I call A Taste of Texas," she said.

"Well, not everything in here is food, of course," she acknowledged, pointing to a shelf.

"You can't think Texas without thinking of steer heads. And stars, of course, because it is called The Lone Star State. I make those grapevine stars myself," she added.

The colorful display of the various foods she has for sale made my mouth water.

"My husband's grandfather was a beekeeper," I told her. "He always said the best honey in Texas was from the flower of that terrible sticker-thorn called the goathead."

"Well, I think people in each area of the state have their favorites, don't you?"

Miz Dilla said, as she straightened a bottle that had gotten tipped over, "A lot of people don't know it, but the Margarita was invented by a bartender in Juarez, Mexico, in either the 50s or 60s."

"Well, I've heard that," I admitted. "I don't know what he would think about this brand, though," I added, laughing.

Better get a bag or two of that coffee before we leave.

Omigosh, the size of those onions! And that ham!

She has citrus from the Lower Rio Grande Valley and the best cantaloupes in the world, which are from Pecos.

"This is a basic line of hot seasonings," she said. "Everything from Taco Sauce Mix to Barbecue Rubs. I know the man who makes these. His granddaddy was a famous trail cook."

"I doubt that my friend Alice Zinn will buy any of these when she comes through," I said. "She's not much of a pepper person."

"Well, when most people come to Texas, they either learn to eat peppers or die trying," she smiled.

These luscious tomatoes are grown just east of El Paso on the old farm near Clint that belonged to my friend Pat's family.

 

And watermelons are plentiful in the Lower Valley, too.


Beans are basic to so many cultures, and one can't live on the border without beans.

"I collected recipes for a long time for this self-published cookbook," Armah said. "These are today's specials from the cookbook; mini sweet rolls, Heart O' Texas cake, and Mexican pastry.

"This table was handmade by an old cowboy friend," she said. "And I keep that iron skillet and sausage grinder for sentiment. They both belonged to my mother," she said, "along with the old bean pot with the flowers in it."

"These excellent chilies come from Hatch, New Mexico, just a little ways from here," she said. She looked around, "I see my order of tortillas hasn't come in yet; better give those guys a call. Can't call it a Taste of Texas without tortillas."

"Or barbecue," I said. "Is that what that wonderful smell is?"

"Absolutely. That's my old friend Joe out back right now, opening up today's batch, made with his own secret recipe and smoked with mesquite wood coals. He grew up in East Texas where his daddy made barbecue, and when Joe retired from the Army he decided to stay in El Paso. Joe had his own business for a while, several restaurants, but it got to be too much work to be fun any more, so he just makes barbecue for me and a few close friends now."

"Feel free to take that salsa recipe. It's an easy prep."

Hey, there's another armadillo by the old beanpot!

And speaking of armadillos ....

Well, my eyes are definitely on them in this room.

That arrangement is in a leather star.

Well, howdy, ya'll.

And howdy back!

Can't have Texas without cowboys and cattle.

"You darn tootin'," this little guy agrees.

Well, any one of these things would make a good souvenir, ...

... including those giant sunflowers in the boot. Or another small armadillo.

 

And how about a great cowboy shirt to wear home?

Looks like more stars and armadillos!

And aren't they cute?

"So glad you stopped by, Wanna," Armah tells me. "And I hope you'll come back another day for a tour of the other rooms."

"Oh, of course," I said. "I plan to tell my friends about your place, too."

"Well, come back soon, y'hear?"

Oh, and I picked up three pounds of that barbecue before I left.

And on my way out I saw Armah heading off to do something with all those posters. I particularly liked the one that says, "I wasn't born in Texas, but I got here as quick as I could."

 

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NOTES ON THE CREATION OF ARMAH DILLA'S:

(You can read about the making of Armah herself by going to the link at the bottom of this page.)

I had accumulated odds and ends of Texas-related items, including little armadillos, for a long time, but it wasn't until I found a wall cupboard, probably intended for CDs, that it all came together.

It was in the Clearance aisle at Hobby Lobby, and just called out Texas! as I walked by.

And the great thing about it was that I didn't have to do a thing to it but to fill it up!

 

I started with another Raine Take-A-Seat chair.

The painting was done by Lela Dudley, who was a member of the El Paso miniature club when I first joined in 1984. I have several of her Southwest paintings; beautiful work. The little doll is made with toothpicks and a tiny Fimo head. She's prettier in real life than she looks here.

My daughter surprised me recently with some dollar store furniture that she had bought for me. These smallish pieces worked perfectly for display because they lift up items that I want to be visible, and since the drawers don't actually open, anything placed in front doesn't obscure what I want people to see.

I removed the doors of this little hutch and used a picture of a Texas painting to line the interior. Normally I would have used sandpaper to remove some of the shine, but in this case since this is in the back of a deepish dark blue box, it didn't seem to matter so much.

I also used another piece of that dollar store furniture to hold the desserts and cookbook in the Taste of Texas section, and for that one I did sand the end a bit because its shine was just too much.

That is a Michaels hutch in the back. I stained it and removed its doors for more viewing room of the Cowboy displays.

The background in the top shelf was cut from a postcard that said Don't Mess With Texas at the top. I had a deputy's star to go with the handcuffs, but couldn't find it, so I added a pistol and another star later.

I had collected metal pieces, charms, earrings and buttons. That brown half round is hard leather, part of a pair of large leather star earrings. (Anybody who would've worn those huge earrings would've had ear lobes stretching down to their shoulders!) I used one star to make a mirror to go on the chest above, although it doesn't show up well in my pictures, and the second to make a wall flower arrangement in the bottom room.

The revolver was also earrings. I couldn't find the deputy's star I wanted to use, and that one on the left, part of some Christmas ornaments, was too clunky.

I used a metal earring back to make the button boots stand up, and used the gold earring piece on the right to serve as the base for a cloisonne steer head. The wooden steer head was part of a small set of Christmas ornaments. The plastic box lid became a shelf to hold steer heads.

Notice that label for Biscuit Mix? I went to a lot of trouble on that, then wound up not using it after all.

Here I have used that leather thing as the base for this bucking cowboy. The bow and arrow are a charm; I didn't have a place for them in this setting, but no doubt they will appear somewhere else. If anyone asks, I just say that all the Hispanic, Native American and other ethnic groups who settled Texas are represented in the rooms we don't see.

The bolo tie and bandana are by Alice Zinn, as is this wonderful cowboy shirt.

Here I am draping the shirt so that it hangs more naturally from the coat hanger on my wall. After pinning some folds in place, I sprayed with hair spray. (I see I really need to change the wax paper over the graph paper on this pinning board!)

I also somewhat reshaped the bandana and bolo tie in the bottom of the Michaels hutch.

The giant sunflower arrangement needed more height to be visible in the corner, so I glued it atop an upside down bucket. The tall boot is actually a candle.

The rustic box is made from leftover roof shingles. I made the packets of wildflower seeds and the sign. Not sure where I got the red stars....

I've had this little display piece for a long time and always felt it would work well somewhere.

I made the signs, labels and packets for the food items. The hanging onions are a Cheap Thrills item. Scroll down to see how I used a berry spray.

I am REALLY proud of those cantaloupes and that ham, which I made a long time ago, since I don't really consider myself a clay person. (A little secret: I have made similar hams using a picture glued to the end!)

I collected a lot of honey-colored beads and bee items when I was working on my Bear With Me bears and honey shop. I used some here. The watermelon is a painted pecan.

I used some swap items here and there, but have had them so long I don't know now for sure who made them. I think the citrus crate was made by Hellie Hannon and I know the tomatoes were from Diann Shull.

I have had this intriguing wood table for many years; I purchased it from an old man at a craft show who told me he had made it himself.

The chilies bean pot is from Karen Stull. The clay dish is from Mexico; I made the peppers and the chile recipe holder. I grunged up a plastic skillet to make it look like old iron. The old-fashioned grinder is metal; I have several of them; don't recall where I got them.

I added the wee armadillo - it may be a button - to the rustic bowl.

This armadillo was a Christmas ornament that I turned into a table with the addition of a piece of oval glass from a pair of small picture frames.

This table base with another oval glass top was made from a piece of cholla that I purchased in Northern New Mexico. We went to the tiny village where Young Guns was filmed and I found it on a table in a long rambling adobe place where the guy was selling mostly tool junk and rock polishing stuff. I think it may have been intended to hold a crystal or a polished rock of some sort.

I used a black felt marker on the edges of the glass, a tip I learned from Pat and Noel Thomas a long time ago.

The horse statue was made with a model railroad horse, a small pebble, and two pieces of stained wood. I gave it a bronze finish with that stuff you rub on with your finger; forget what it's called.

The grapevine basket was made with florist wire, then painted.

The hassock was my prototype for a swap. It was made from a napkin ring (well, I guess it's a napkin square lol); you can see how it was made here.

I really enjoyed making the books, food labels and signs, wildflower poster and seed packets for this setting. They are available for sale if you are interested. Contact me at Jayceenep@aol.com for further information.

NOTE 2:

After I announced this addition to my website, I had a nice letter from Klara in The Netherlands, whose daughter lives in Brazil, asking me if people in Texas eat armadillos. It is common there to eat them, she says her daughter reports.

I personally don't know anyone who does, but then I live out here in the desert. Perhaps where they are plentiful, people do, along with frog legs, squirrels, turtles and other wild game. I Googled and found some interesting recipes, including one where the armadillo was cooked in white wine.

I just find it hard to think about eating them, personally, but who am I to judge? I would guess about anything there is has been food for somebody, in some place, at some time, depending on cultural mores and hunger.

Me, I just like to think of them as cute little collectible oddities.

Thanks for stopping by Armah Dilla's Texas Tourist Trap. She and I hope you will return for another visit in the future! I'd like you to meet Armah personally one of these days ...

You can read about the making of Armah Dilla herself here.

 

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