Make Pens Great Again

Although my mother brought me into the world when she was 18, my Mom first saw me when she was 38.

A generation laid between the two women.

Likewise, 23 years separated my biological father’s age and my 44-year-old Dad.

I had small-town military blood from both biological sides, going back two generations, yet I grew up on New York City’s Madison Avenue, where World War II veterans now faced off in battle over three-martini lunches.

Though I was programmed to go to college and never had a thought of enlisting, I did wrestle in high school, quite successfully so. I suppose that was the way I expressed my combat DNA during the rage of hormones. That said, I was horrible at fisticuffs and routinely got my ass kicked on the streets of 1970s Gotham and a few times in college, when I had decided to settle differences with two-legged takedowns while my opponents found the advantage with upper cuts.

Shortly after 9/11, when I had barely finished taking Hebrew during seminary — having got straight A’s — I figured I could put my expertise toward learning Arabic, another semitic language, and joining one of the U.S. intelligence agencies. The army told me that, at 37, I was too old to join. When the twin towers fell I had wept, my chest heaving uncontrollably. My next reaction was to fight back. Our middle son, celebrating his first birthday, buried his face into a chocolate cupcake, oblivious that the world around him was burning.

They say the pen is mightier than the sword.

These days, I wonder if that’s still true.

During this election cycle, the most violent in my lifetime, the “pen” has become the viral video, the tweet, the stump speech. The venomous Facebook post. (Mine included.) The skewed media analysis, both “right” and “left.” The pen no longer writes in a straight line according to the rules we learned in elementary school. It’s now a mere appendage of our emotions: it zigs and zags and scrapes and tears the page beneath it.

“Dementia” clashes with “Nazi.” Pregnant words miscarry their meaning, and we are left with hollow emojis: Anger face. Vomiting face. Face with skull exploding.

But those words and emojis aren’t pens or even “swords.” They’re daggers, switchblades wielded by thugs whose victims don’t see them coming. Or leaving.

Perhaps we’ll soon return to the patiently forged swords of “I yield my time back to the gentleman from ____” and “To The Editor:”

Perhaps on January 21.


Breathing slowly and steadily

The King Ranch Chicken Casserole was billed as a “mood enhancer” for “cold winter evenings.” I’m always game for a mood enhancer, and while it was a mild October evening, it was after all to be a “mood enhancer.”

And that was enough to cook it.

Growing up in New York City, we didn’t have “casseroles.” I was raised on apricot mousse, sushi, and nameless middle eastern dishes my father cooked after retirement. And of course Entenmann’s. You can get them at Walmart occasionally. Someone recently told me that the Moonies cult owned Entenmann’s. I’ve not verified that, but either way it has no effect on how tasty I remember their cherry cheese danish.


I don’t think I heard the word “casserole” until I went to college and dated a girl from upstate New York whose family had moved to North Carolina when she was 12. She was, by most measures, southern, and her family made casseroles. And, yes, I did have my first tuna casserole there. Her name was Carla, and her family was originally from Fulton, New York. One summer she and her family took me to Fulton, which lies north of Liverpool, New York. Liverpool, of course, is where you’d stop for a bite at Heids of Liverpool.

Coneys at Heids of Liverpool (New York)

You can try one of their “coneys,” which is like an albino sausage. Or you can have an amazing hot dog. But. You have to ask for a “frank,” not a “hot dog,” or it’s possible you won’t be served.

We stayed at her aunt’s home, which was across the street from a cremation service.

Back to the casserole.

I needed a mood enhancer.

I had been called a Nazi or Nazi sympathizer by two friends in the last week, most recently yesterday. One had gone further and said I might as well be marching with Hitler. Both freedom fighters were women, and both had known me for some time. One I’d known since college, and we’d had a brief romantic mood enhancement in the late ’80s. She decided some time later that she was a lesbian, and I’d like to believe there was no correlation. The other was a woman I’d known around 2008-2009, when we both had kids at P.S. 9 elementary school in New York City. We didn’t know each other long, but serving on the PTA together and standing in the schoolyard at 3:00 with other parents does have a way of creating the bond of neighbors at the same stage in life. Many of the parents from that time kept in touch through Facebook. We now know that Mark Zuckerberg puts the kibosh on what some people say but allows others, behind the safety of their keyboards, to launch verbal SCUD missiles at newly discovered targets.

My college friend has cut all ties with me. The other woman, the P.S. 9 one, may well have felt little connection with me to begin with. I had liked her, though, and my friend from college was one of my oldest friendships, excepting my five closest friends from adolescence and my younger brother. That one stung a bit.

With this election, it seems almost any relationship is up for grabs. Possibly even marriages.

“I wonder how ___ and ___ are doing,” I said casually to Karen last night in bed before we turned out the lights and when the two helpings of King Ranch Chicken Casserole had sufficiently enhanced my mood. My remark was more of a musing than a question and referred to a couple I’d known for decades.

“Yeah,” she said, “I wonder how they’re doing during this election.”

“I mean,” I went on, “he’s somewhat conservative and she’s progressive. Perhaps they’re like James Carville and Mary Matalin [the 1992 campaign managers for Bill Clinton and George H.W. Bush, respectively].”

I paused to consider. “Nah. Mary Matalin was more of a Bush-type Republican.”

My mood had by then developed a bit of an edge.

Since it was well past the time when I should go for a third helping of the casserole, I rested my left arm on our 90lb chocolate Labrador retriever, who was curled into a mound between Karen and me.

I moved my hand over his chest and kept it there: feeling his breathing, which was steady and slow.


And out.


And out.


It’s enough

The Ford F-150 is doing just over 55MPH on Bandera Highway heading toward town, and I’m feeling the baritone noise of hot Texas air coming in through the driver’s side window and the angled quarter glass, because sometime after the truck’s purchase in 1988 the AC went out and the rancher who drove it before we got it in 2018 would probably have scoffed at spending hard-earned cash on a luxury like cold air in the summer or hot air in the winter. “What’s that?! Cash for something you can’t even see?” is probably what he’d tell me if I were to muse aloud to him.

The scene — me behind the wheel, right hand gripping at about one o’clock and left hand wrapped around the metal divider of the valence window — makes me think of riding in Poppa’s beige station wagon in Rhode Island in the late ’60s. He’d taught mom to drive, and mom had taught me in Tootsie’s Mercedes Benz. The Mercedes always at least a box or two of chocolate Carnation breakfast bars in the trunk that Tootsie would eat after a round of golf, but my younger brother and I would eat them on the down-low. After all, our grandparents were rich. Weren’t everyone’s?

Poppa drove the three miles from the house on Spencer Avenue in Warwick — the house with a backyard like a waterfall practically down to the bay — to the farm, which was technically in East Greenwich, just over the demarcation line (the thoroughfare appropriately named Division Street). On that brief ride, we’d pass the “ghost house” on the right. The story was that you could still hear the sword of a fallen Revolutionary War officer clank down the long staircase on some blustery winter nights. I could imagine it, with trepidation, and I didn’t have enough doubt about the veracity of this claim to not think that Poppa was pretty badass just to know this. If he’d had his way, Poppa’d be taking out that phantom with his .30-06. He one he used to bring down moose and bear in Canada. No 18th century rebel in threadbare leggings would be his match.

So we’d drive and I’d hear The Beatles, “I Want To Hold Your Hand” come on the radio. We’d listen to that 2-1/2-minute song, and when it was over, I’d still be leaning out of the front passenger window, my six-year-old frame almost half over the side, belting out the chorus:

I wanna hold your ha-aa-aaa-aaaand,
I wanna hold your haaaaaaaand!
I wanna hold your hand

And sometime after the tenth or so time repeating the same chorus into the New England summer wind, Poppa would reach over and gently pat my back.

Filterless Camel cigarette wobbling from his mouth, he’d say, “I think that’s enough.”

Enjoy responsibly

Yes, I created my own salsa.

I’m calling it “Billy Dobbs Rough Stock Salsa,” and the consensus — that would be me, my wife, and my youngest son, a fellow foodie — gives it thumbs up.

Here’s how I got there and how you, too, can make it.

Why a salsa?

Over the years, visiting Texas has given me a true appreciation of salsa, both verde y roja. Pico de gallo…eh, not so much. Queso? Sure, but my stomach tomorrow shows my enjoyment today. Mamacita’s green “salsa”? You bet! But I made that once off a bootleg recipe I found online, and boy does it use a lot of garlic. And sour cream or cream cheese and whatever, so it was like having Zabar’s in my Mexican food.

More recently, I came across McKinney-based Bernard’s Gourmet Foods and its variety of Texas-made salsas, created by Chief Salsa Officer David Bernard, and well marketed by Michele Bernard.

I learned that their salsas don’t contain water or other ingredients (tomato paste) that are fillers. They roast their vegetables to add sweetness. My favorite is their tomatillo, which I made when I first moved to Texas.

So I set out to make my own.

Never figuring it would be difficult, since I kinda knew how things taste when smashed together, I set out to create a sauce to give you a kick in the back of the throat, rebounding into a great big smile on your lips.

What’s in a name?

My salsa is called, “Billy Dobbs Rough Stock Salsa.”

“Salsa” is self evident. I mean, if I called it “Billy Dobbs Rough Stock Shoes,” most people wouldn’t eat it.

“Billy Dobbs” is a family name. In fact, it’s my family. In fact, it was part of my name at birth: “William Dobbs ____.” And “Billy Dobbs” almost sounds Texan. Or least Alabama, which is where my birth mother’s family hails from.


About “rough stock.”

You see, I couldn’t name it “Howard’s Salsa.” We’ve already established that. I could certainly create something like “Howard’s Real New York Bagels” or “Freeman Quick Falafel Mix,” or “Pizza by Howie, Yo.” Yeah. Those don’t really do it for me. (Though before long I’m gonna derive my own bagels, because you can’t get good ones here. Pizza is found at Home Slice in Austin.)

I wanted a name that would yell, “TEXAS!” And since I don’t have any Texas creds, I needed something to represent that for me.

What about something related to rodeos? Yeah! That was it. Rodeos.

So I Googled “rodeo terms.” Seriously. I did. Don’t tell anybody. And among those terms is “rough stock.”

This refers to the rodeo events that involve bucking horses and bulls.


What could be more rodeo than riding a bull or bucking bronco bareback and having to hold on by one hand, never being allowed to touch the animal with the other or face disqualification. (Hence the raised opposite arm.)

And so there you have it: Billy Dobbs Rough Stock Salsa.

I’m unsure about the hyphenation of Billy and Dobbs and whether to put an apostrophe after Dobbs to indicate possession. But as I follow the Chicago Manual of Style (for the most part), I’d also have to add another “s” — Dobbs’s — and then people would all be slurring their words when saying the name. So much so that they’d be embarrassed that others would think they drank too much tequila the night before. See? It would be a total disaster.

That one extra “s.”

How it’s made

You’ve waited long enough.

Let me share the recipe and directions.

First, here is a look at my process: I took several recipes I’ve either used or which looked good and compared them on an Excel spreadhseet. (Yup, I seriously did that.)

My recipe and directions, in an Excel spreadsheet

Second, I removed any obviously non-salsa ingredients (e.g. bell peppers, after momentarily seeing that this was unique and therefore worthy of considering). I coded in yellow those items that I thought would taste good together, including one recipes use of sugar (I used Texas honey). I coded in green those items that appeared in all recipes, so that I would not overlook the basics. There were only three:

  • tomatoes
  • cilantro (not used in many salsa, oddly enough; it’s what gives salsa that “fresh” feel, like you could eat it for the entire Super Bowl)
  • salt
At H-E-B… Somehow the name “Frieda” doesn’t go. I had a landlady named Frieda. A converted Mormon.

Third, I had to put these together and add some things I thought would taste good. I also wanted to add some ingredients that would give this first go-round some real heat. So instead of serrano chiles accompanying the jalapeños, I used habanero chiles. I also left the seeds in both, so the kick was close to knock-out strength yet not overpowering.

H-E-B was selling Carolina Reaper and Ghost Peppers, but I thought I might not get repeat customers if I used those.

Fourth, an important step that I learned — referenced above about Bernard’s — is that I wanted to roast the tomatoes. So I did.

Below are the ingredients and recipe.

Billy Dobbs Rough Stock Salsa. Batch #1.

INGREDIENTS – Yields 8-10 cu.

7 tomatoes, preferably vine-ripened, but Roma are ok, roasted

1 green tomato, roasted

1/2 red onion, diced

3 medium-sized habanero peppers, retain seeds, diced

2 jalapeño peppers, retain seeds, diced

2 garlic cloves, roasted then minced

cilantro, to taste, but no less than 1 cu.

juice and pulp of 2 limes

2 tsp real Texas honey

1 tsp cumin, and to taste

1/2 tsp cayenne, and to taste

3 tsp salt, and to taste

white pepper, to taste


  1. Pre-heat oven to 450.
  2. (wash all vegetables).
  3. Remove garlic cloves from skin.
  4. Place tomatoes (green and red) and garlic on cookie sheet.
  5. Roast tomatoes (green and red) and garlic for 20-25 minutes, until slightly withered.
  6. While tomatoes are roasting, dice peppers and onion.
  7. Remove tomatoes and cool under cold water. Remove garlic.
  8. Remove tomato skins.
  9. Mince garlic.
  10. In blender or food processor on pulse setting, puree 2 tomatoes. (I might change this to a coarser setting next time; tomatoes came out a bit too runny.)
  11. Add peppers and garlic and continue pulse-puree until mixed. DON’T over-blend.
  12. Add remaining 6 tomatoes and 1/2 of your cilantro.
  13. Blend together.
  14. Add 1/2 your onions.
  15. On pulse-stir setting, mix together.
  16. Add remaining onion and cilantro and pulse-stir.
  17. Add spices, salt and pepper, and pulse-stir.
  18. Melt honey slightly to a runny consistency, and add.
  19. Add lime juice with pulp and more salt if needed.
  20. Pulse-stir. MAKE SURE NOT TO OVER-BLEND, or you will get homogenous red soup.
  21. Chill mixture for an hour or more.
  22. Keeping fire extinguisher nearby, enjoy responsibly.