Fall classics, Mankiller, and Loudon & Leo

by Chris Aaland

There are two great autumn rituals in my life: chile cook-offs and apple pressing. Both happened last week.The Fort Lewis College Employee Council hosts its employee chile cook-off each October. Usually, it lands on homecoming week, rendering me useless. As alumni director for many of yours’ alma mater, I’m simply too busy to cook. This year, the chile cook-off fell a week-and-a-half later. So, for the fourth time in eight years, I suckered enough palates into voting for my loco wild game green chile - which features elk, pheasant and pork – and staved off 12 other competitors to win a share of the people’s choice grand prize. Another certificate to hang in the kitchen!

Cooking chile is more an art than a science. No two batches turn out the same. Each individual pepper has its own unique flavor and heat. Ever try four jalapeños from your garden? Three might be mild, but the fourth kicks your ass. As a cook, you’re at the mercy of your produce. All you can do is season it consistently from one batch to the next. My secrets? Typical spices: crushed red pepper, red chile powder, cumin, oregano, cilantro, cayenne, black pepper, white pepper and salt. Atypical: tequila, beer, white vinegar, brown sugar and bay leaves. And, of course, there are pureed vegetables: green chiles, tomatoes, onion and garlic. The key: the whole process takes eight hours. Pace yourself to a beer every 30 minutes and that’s nearly an 18-pack for the whole process. Factor in the odd shot or two, and you’ll be hammered.

There’s no real secret to apple pressing. My good friend Patty Hall owns an orchard of more than 100 apple trees in Hermosa. By my count, there are nearly a dozen varieties of apples on her property. Good apple juice means a mix of delicious and nondelicious apples. Equal parts sweet and tart equates to tasty nectar that’s good straight or with your favorite liquor.

Apple pressing is back-breaking work. First, you must pick. Apples either lie on the ground or hide high in the upper branches: reach high, bend over and then repeat the process. Carrying 40-lb. boxes of apples to the washing station tests your legs and back. Cranking the antique press strains your shoulders and chest. By mid-day, someone will bust out a bottle of whiskey. Beam and apple juice, in heavy quantities, twists your gut, liver and brain. I’ll leave its effects on Monday morning to your imagination.

Another rite of autumn is FLC’s Presidential Native American Lecture Series, which has presented M. Scott Mommaday and Sherman Alexie in past years. Wilma Mankiller, the first woman to be elected deputy and later principal chief of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, speaks for free at 7 p.m. tonight (Thursday) at the Community Concert Hall. Truly a pioneer among her people, Mankiller championed health care, children’s issues and women’s rights. Today she is an advocate for free speech and free press as a trustee for the nonpartisan Freedom Forum in Washington, D.C. She also serves on the board of directors for Newseum, a $400 million museum dedicated to the media, and advises Merrill Lynch on external diversity issues.

Folk fans delight! Loudon Wainwright III and Leo Kottke play a twin bill at the Community Concert Hall at 7 p.m. Saturday. Nearly a decade ago, I wrote a review of Kottke’s first CCH performance, which was delayed two hours due to a wrong turn driving up from Albuquerque. When Kottke arrived in Wagon Mound, N.M., he realized his goof. He may not be able to read a road map, but Kottke’s percussive attack and sense of melody mesmerized the 500 or so who remained. If you own a guitar, you’ve likely bought a ticket already. Wainwright, an A-list folkie in his own right, has recorded more than 20 albums of wry humor and piercing insight. As an actor, he’s appeared in “M*A*S*H” as a singing surgeon and in “Knocked Up” as an obstetrician.

The (Pagosa) Hot Strings, a bluegrass band that has won major regional contests and recorded numerous albums – including one with New Grass Revival guitarist Pat Flynn at the controls – plays the Summit on Friday.

On the One, a super-funk outfit featuring drummer John Staten of Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe, takes the Summit stage on Saturday.

A new local group, The Assortment, appears at Durango Brewing from 6-9 p.m. tonight, Nov. 6. The trio, which plays everything from folk-rock to R&B, features Jeff Thies on guitar, Jeff Haspel on bass and guitar, and Kim Heikens on percussion.

The Four Corners Gay and Lesbian Alliance for Diversity hosts the 12th annual Durango AIDS Benefit at 6 p.m. at the Durango Arts Center on Saturday. This year’s black-tie event benefits Planned Parenthood of the Rocky Mountains and the Western Colorado AIDS Project, two locally active organizations known for their determined AIDS advocacy and HIV awareness. Festivities include a silent auction from 6-7:15 p.m., dinner catered by Mutu’s at 7:30 p.m. and a dance at 9 p.m. featuring DJ Aiko Aiko. Pianist Scott Hagler and bellydancing troupe Benet El Noor will perform during dinner. For more information or to make a donation, call 385-7202.

Snowdown activities kick-off this Friday with Carvers’ beard growing contest. If you want to show off your fuzzy-facial-hair-growing abilities, show up clean shaven to Carvers this Friday to allow beard officials to take your mug shot. Then don’t shave until Thurs., Jan. 29, for the 7:30 p.m. judging. Those not present at Friday’s shave-off will still be eligible in other categories, including “Best Egyptian Pharaoh Goatee.” The event is free and door prizes will be given away. This year’s Snowdown theme is “Snowdown in Da Nile.”

This week’s Top Shelf list pays homage to other fall classics:

• The great college football debate: Watching Texas Tech upset Texas last Saturday makes you think how fun a college football playoff would be.

• College soccer playoffs: The Skyhawks are ranked No. 3 in the country and host conference playoff games at 2:30 p.m. Friday and (pending a victory over CSU-Pueblo) at 1 p.m. Sunday.

• Autumn ales.

• Kokanee salmon snagging opens above Lemon and Vallecito on Nov. 15.

• Cutting, splitting and stacking firewood.

You don’t put beans in chili, you never water good whiskey down? E-mail me at chrisa@gobrainstorm.net.