Thursday, August 28, 2008

My Kind of Vigilantes

I edit my friends' e-mails in my head as I read. Sometimes I correct mistakes in my response, discreetly or not so discreetly. That's why Jeff Deck and Benjamin Herson are my heroes. Not to say that I sweepingly condone defacing public property, because I don't. I think that when a benefit is derived from an addition to a structure or surface, as in the case of artistic and/or meaningful graffiti, it's not defacement. On the converse, people who tag inanities like "I rock" onto an otherwise immaculate building should be drawn and quartered.

Grammarians, unite!

In Favor (for once) of Conglomeration

As our global economy radically evolves, a balance must be struck between conglomeration and differentiation of services within both technological and general market realms. Facebook serves as a prime example of the former approach. The proliferation of third-party applications on its social-networking platform has allowed user interaction to advance beyond the mere water cooler exchange of “friending” people, sending messages and sharing photos into a concentration of social operations managed on a dashboard of centralized, personal organization. However, services directed toward individual use have also seen wide success. Google News, an application within Facebook, integrates the RSS service provided by Google in its Reader and Homepage features; weRead on Facebook similarly internalizes the services provided by the juggernauts Goodreads and LibraryThing, again allowing the user to conduct all business in one place. In the same way that smartphones have assimilated voice exchange, Internet access, banking, audio, still and video photography, and GPS mapping into one device, so has Facebook begun to conglomerate myriad Internet-based services into a one-stop-shop on its site. Media-maven Tim O’Reilly asserts, “[T]he future opportunity is less in Facebook applications per se, and more in the development of applications that use the social graph embodied in Facebook for entirely new purposes.” As developers continue to generate breathtakingly diverse applications, an individual’s habitual-use Internet traffic will center itself increasingly within Facebook to accomplish rote tasks.

What society stands to gain from such conglomeration is obvious. So, if one views streamlining as ultimately good (ignoring, for the sake of simplicity and brevity, such threats as monopolization and quality decrease), companies that rebel against such conglomeration by taking a broad need and differentiating between categories within that need to focus on a specific category become a concept of note, if not quizzical interest. In this context, the success of a service like PenguinDating remains questionable. Though powered by, PenguinDating, “where book lovers meet,” appears redundant when examined independently of its partnering site and services. The long-tail approach, though often astronomically successful in niche markets, doesn’t seem to be particularly relevant in the case of PenguinDating, namely because its singular service is accessible already via previously established sites like Goodreads and LibraryThing. Now, these sites do not provide dating services per se; however, as both social-networking sites aim to connect readers with similar interests and literary preferences, romantic connections arising from initial relationship development are imminent and likely quite common. Thus, though PenguinDating smartly customizes a service to a niche client base, the company misses the mark in that they differentiate between related activities – reading, socializing, relationship building, and dating – rather than conglomerate them, instead.

In other words, neither conglomeration nor differentiation supercedes the other in terms of overall superiority; but, differentiation does require that the customized services rendered be highly impenetrable to conglomerative forces. Because if people can combine as many functions as possible into one device or platform, they will.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Valuing Cognitive Surplus

Clay Shirky, NYU professor and author of Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations, elucidates the idea of “cognitive surplus” and designates the efficient and responsible harnessing of this resource an undeniable necessity for the advancement of society. The implications of effectively applying cognitive surplus are enormous both within international and localized arenas. In the contemporary context of globalized labor markets, crowdsourcing, and the democratization of fields such as journalism and music distribution, cognitive surplus certainly emerges as the most desirable of resources. However, the quality of such a resource is called consistently into question – notably in the example of Wikipedia – and cognitive surplus, as a fairly recent phenomenon, still presents myriad dilemmas.

Some of the questions regarding cognitive surplus that must be answered are: How can individuals currently not contributing to the cognitive pool be encouraged to participate in a meaningful way? What defines meaningful? How can we assure the quality of the material produced by this surplus? How can we efficiently integrate this surplus? How will we regulate the application of this surplus, if at all, and who will be responsible for such regulation? How can we effectively study the output of this surplus and the corresponding qualitative and quantitative results? The solutions to these problems clearly are far beyond the scope of this essay; regardless, it is interesting to contemplate the shift in paradigm the very discussion of this issue necessitates and to examine entities already employing this cognitive surplus as demonstrative examples of successes and failures.

reCAPTCHA presents a particularly brilliant example of utilizing the quantitative power of cognitive surplus to complete a rote task that nevertheless requires human interaction. A CAPTCHA, or Completely Automated Public Turing test to tell Computers and Humans Apart, ensures that responses given to computing queries (e.g., completing a user registration form) are not generated by computers and thus are not SPAM. Depending on Internet usage, the average individual probably completes between one to ten CAPTCHAs a day. Carnegie Mellon University developed reCAPTCHA to net the energy of this mindless and cursory task in order to facilitate the process of digitizing books, combining the efforts of millions of users to produce approximately 3,000 man-hours per day of free labor. And in this instance, output quality is verified quite simply by cross-referencing the results generated.

The gain generated by such programs is unquestionable. The effectiveness of other applications of cognitive surplus, though, remains uncertain. Shirky, referencing seemingly inane Internet pastimes such as World of Warcraft and the lolcat phenomenon, maintains, “It's better to do something than to do nothing” in the context of remote social participation. While it does seem clear that engagement and the establishment of a social network, to whatever purpose, is in general a boon, the fact remains that it is better to do something worthwhile than to do just something. The question being, of course, what defines worthwhile. As more platforms reliant upon cognitive surplus emerge and are refined, this question surely will begin to answer itself to some degree. In the meantime, society should encourage any and all attempts to engage individuals to work collaboratively toward some end, allowing for the present “just somethings” to evolve into consequential and relevant “somethings.”

Reading Lolita in High Resolution

Field-Tested Books is a fascinating and relevant experiment designed to "identify how our perception of a book is affected by the place where we read it." Following is my account of one such personal experience (included on the Field-Tested Books site).
Even being the bibliophile that I am, even having majored in literatures of two languages, and even having taken a Russian Literature course in college, I had yet to read Nabokov’s Lolita upon graduating. So, when I moved to Telluride, Colorado after finishing school I was very much looking forward to reading it along with whatever else I wanted, on my schedule and according to my whims.

Telluride’s inestimable beauty would evolve the drab experience of reading even the most soulless work into one of wonder and transcendence, so great is the region’s effect on even the most rote tasks. Thus with great anticipation and elevated mindset, I finally began Lolita. Nabokov’s ability to generate empathy for the antihero despite the character’s immoral proclivities is remarkable in and of itself. As I read, though, I also found it uncannily easy to slip into the work’s setting. I particularly remember the scene in which Nabokov describes the sound of school children drifting up the mountain from the valley below to Humbert Humbert’s trained ears. As I had perceived the very same sensation myself on the mountain pass behind and above town, placing myself within the action and visualizing the scene required no stretch of the imagination. This congruence proved true again and again as I continued to follow Humbert and Lolita on their journey; with each turn of the page, it was as though I was living the novel in some parallel universe.

Reading Lolita was a sumptuous and evocative undertaking unlike any encounter with literature I have had, even more so than reading Ulysses on June 16th, 2004 in Dublin. I thought perhaps the novel’s success in vividness of setting could be attributed to Nabokov’s consummate way with words. Having finished the novel and remaining perplexed, I turned to the afterword and discovered the actual explanation for my intense sensory identification with the novel: Nabokov lived in Telluride while writing it. Dolores, nicknamed Lolita, was named after a town just an hour away, a town through which I had driven many times on my way into the Southwest. This discovery in no way diminished my high regard for Nabokov’s talent, though; rather, it generated a profound awe of how the coincidental conspiration of time, place, and circumstance engendered such a heightened literary experience, one I am unlikely to have the good fortune of knowing again.

Paradise Found

I became a NAUI SCUBA Divemaster at 18, the earliest age at which such certification is attainable. Fortunately, this certification gave me the knowledge and skills to dive safely in more challenging conditions. Unfortunately, all my training, from Open Water (the initial certification) to Divemaster, transpired in Lake Travis. And although Lake Travis is quite beautiful, and one of the clearest bodies of water in Texas, it is no diver’s mecca. Thus, I tend to jump on any and every chance to dive in more exotic locales. The two-and-a-half months I recently spent traveling in Southeast Asia with two close friends, Emily and Monika, offered just such a chance.

As with my trip to India, this Asiatic adventure evolved quite unexpectedly. I had mentioned offhandedly to Emily that I might come visit while she was living in Japan. One afternoon, she laid her ultimatum bluntly on the table and demanded, “Well, are you coming, or not?” Emily and I had been trying to travel together for years, and the publishing company for which I had been working had just been sold. My future employment was not at all certain, and so I quit and was on a plane to Bangkok about a month later, with Monika joining us just days later. Last things first: over the next four issues, I will be relating various adventures of our travels in reverse chronological order, starting with the four-day liveaboard dive trip Emily and I took departing from Khao Lak, Thailand. The name of this somewhat sleepy little hamlet just north of Phuket might strike a familiar chord, as it was the Thai locality worst hit during the Boxing Day Tsunami of 2004. You wouldn’t know it lately, though, wandering down the main tourist stretches and through the newly built luxury hotels. You have to drive to the outskirts of Khao Lak to see the navy ship that was beached a mile inland and now serves as the de facto tsunami memorial, or to see the once-stately inland trees that were snapped off like matchsticks at 30 feet where the colossal wave crested.

But I digress: this story is about paradise found, not paradise lost and regained. And I can think of few greater intimations of paradise than the four days I spent aboard the Sea Dragon Dive Center’s M/V Andaman, purposefully drifting from one turquoise inlet to the next, with nothing more to do than eat, dive and be merry. And dive we did. Of the 28 people on board, 14 of us were paying divers, and the rest were divemasters, crew, or Sea Dragon employees that were accompanying us for (their own) leisure. With four dives the first and second days; three dives the third day; just two the last day; a few group jaunts to pristine, private beaches in between dives; and three delectable Thai meals a day prepared for us, it was all Emily and I could do to relax properly. Do you feel sorry for us yet?

Well, you might be sympathetic to our plight if you knew that the Similan Islands, the Surin Islands, and Richelieu Rock (the locales at which we dove) comprise some of the best diving in the world, based both on underwater visibility and biological fecundity. Because our trip departed toward the end of the diving season, which generally concludes in late April just before the monsoon season starts, visibility was not at its best. However, we still had visibilities ranging from 40 feet at worst to over 100 feet at best, not bad by any standards. The abundant and diverse flora and fauna we encountered on each dive, day and night alike, easily compensated for whatever was lacking in water clarity.

Marco and Remo, young brothers from Switzerland, Emily, and Ching, our Thai divemaster, were the other members of my dive group. Of all the groups, ours seemed to have the most luck encountering beautiful, and sometimes rare, marine species. Each dive entry in my logbook is replete with various types of nudibranches, clownfish, barracuda, seahorses, napoleon fish, moray eels, mantis shrimp, angelfish, lobster, mating cuttlefish, and giant grouper, to name just a trifling few. Most spectacularly, we saw two enormous manta rays on two separate occasions, the second occurring on our last dive. A few minutes before we were to ascend for our safety stop, a manta ray appeared out of the deep and began to circle gracefully around us. As we hung suspended and breathless in awe, the manta ray made a swooping turn and headed directly toward me. Instead of panicking and swimming out of the way, I waited for it to climb instinctively up and over me. At the moment the manta ray passed overhead, I stuck my hand up, coming within a few inches of its underbelly (having no intention of actually touching it), and I rolled back into a flip to follow its movements and to keep the majestic animal in my field of vision. Not that it quite mattered: I was already a bit dizzy and barely able to breathe from the sheer beauty of the experience, and my goggles were foggy from excess condensation (read: tears).

Unfortunately, as the cliché goes, all good things must come to an end: Emily and I returned back to the United States—and to the harsh reality of finding jobs—just days after the liveaboard returned to harbor. But what a way to end such an extended series of adventures. Merely experiencing Southeast Asia, gawking from one architectural, cultural, and culinary marvel to the next would have been enough. Nevertheless, Emily, Monika and I still managed to pack in an absurd number of excursions on top of the general travel schedule. Par for the course for us, though.

In the next issue, look forward to tales of mostly deserted islands, just-caught crab, and all things lost (and learned) in translation.

Wide Awake and Dreaming in India

So, do you want to go to India?” Naturally, I was a bit taken aback when I first heard these words come out of my friend Karissa’s mouth, but the travelphile in me quickly recovered and managed to stammer out, “Um, yeah. Yeah, I do want to go to India.” You see, I had already known Karissa was planning an international adventure. She had informed me of this on a weeklong road trip we took through the southern U.S. a few months before. The kicker, though, is that the trip was to be a gift from her parents in celebration of her recent graduation from Skidmore College, a liberal arts school in upstate New York. They effectively said, “Pick a country, and pick a friend.” She picked India. And to my great surprise, she picked me. A rather nonchalant beginning to a particularly epic journey, I’d say.

The trip was to be a unique one for me. Although I have traveled extensively for my tender age, I have never taken a trip that was: 1) that far East; 2) entirely planned by someone else, without any input or expenditure on my part; and 3) such a seamless integration of cultural immersion and pure luxury, seemingly mutually exclusive approaches to a trip. When I travel of my own account, I always compose the itinerary myself, basing it both on extensive research into the region and the (substantial) limitations of my budget. But because the planning process was entirely in the hands of Karissa’s parents and the India-based travel agency they used, I decided it would be best to completely limit my interaction with anything involving the trip, allowing for every aspect to be a total surprise. In fact, I didn’t read up on the history of India or the places we were to visit, I didn’t mine friends who had been there for information and insight, I didn’t even permit myself to think about the trip. Preventing myself from conjecturing and fantasizing about the experience to come also prevented me from having any Wordsworthian expectations, and allowed my virgin senses to partake of India that much more profoundly and purely upon my actual arrival.

And partake my senses did. One ever-present element is consistent in all descriptions of India: sensory overload. The cacophony of life in all its manifestations was truly inimitable and wonderful. Brilliant shades of saffron, ivory, and every other color on the spectrum pleasantly assaulting the eyes as far as the eyes can see; every sound imaginable fighting to be heard above the rest, from honking car horns to scissors snipping away at a roadside barbershop; teases of cardamom and ginger wafting from open-air markets and mouthwateringly spicy street food at every corner to tempt even the most timid taste buds; urban smells that might offend the delicate nose and euphoric scents that would delight the most particular perfumier; and that electric tingle felt ever so lightly on the skin, generated by the vibrant charge of fast and furious life reacting all around.

The constant sensory frenzy was certainly one of the main highlights of the trip, but it was also the most exhausting aspect. This, however, is where the luxury part of our trip came into play. No sooner did we set foot inside our hotel each night than the tumult and tyranny melted away into an entirely different kind of sensory overload. Recreating paradise and rendering the outside world entirely irrelevant is what each of the hotels we stayed in does best. The magazine TRAVEL + LEISURE seems to agree, ranking each of our hotels in the top 500 hotels in the world. (Yes, Karissa and I made sure to jump on the beds. We also made liberal use of the spas, which match the hotel to which each belongs in splendor and luxury.) We stayed at The Imperial in Delhi, a time warp back to the days of British colonialism; the Oberoi Amarvilas in Agra, which had amazing views of the Taj Mahal; Rambagh Palace in Jaipur, at which Karissa and I stayed in the Maharani’s suite; and the Oberoi Udaivilas in Udaipur, which T + L ranked as the best hotel in India. We did actually stay at one place that was not a five star hotel, but was rather, by my count, a five star heritage estate and guesthouse that sits on 30 acres and is run by members of the (now defunct) royal family. At Shahpura Bagh, we ate each delectable meal with the family, and were taken through their village and to their plantation, city palace ruins, and fortress ruins to watch a gorgeous sunset over the landscape below.

Considering the luxury with which we were surrounded, one might think we would never have wanted to leave the hotel. Not the case. Though we did thoroughly enjoy the many pleasures of each hotel, we were also quite dedicated to seeing as much of India as possible in the week and a half we were there. Our driver, his co-pilot, and the extremely congenial and knowledgeable tour guides that accompanied us in each city greatly facilitated this ambition. Consider that at any given time you might see people walking, people on bicycles, an entire family on one motorbike, a rickshaw, a car, a truck, a bus, a cow, a camel (being ridden), and an elephant (being ridden) all sharing the same road. This ever-present chaos, accompanied by the fact that the only traffic law in effect is “survival of the fittest,” made us particularly happy to have a professional driver who delivered us safe and sound to each destination. Some of these destinations, many of which are World Heritage Sites, included Humayun’s Tomb, Agra Fort, Fatehpur Sikri, Qutb Minar and its monuments, an 18th century astronomical observatory, Udaipur City Palace, and of course, the famed Taj Mahal. Having some expectations as to what my impression of the Taj Mahal would be was unavoidable, and I was slightly concerned that I might be let down. Ridiculous. Seeing the changing colors of the sunrise reflected upon the luminous white marble walls of the Taj could never be anything less than transcendent; nor could any appreciation of the infinite artistic elaboration upon every last millimeter of the structure ever fall short of overwhelming awe. To be honest, I was in a state of near-transcendence for the duration of the trip, stumbling wide-eyed and even a little teary-eyed from one glorious marvel to the next. Stumbling, and counting every last one of my lucky stars.

Live at the Lake: Bob Schneider

Bob Schneider. The man. The legend. Well, maybe not legendary like, say, Mick Jagger or Mozart. But an Austin legend, nonetheless. And considering that music is a large part of what Austin is about, one could say that Bob is doing pretty well for himself.

Although he perhaps first gained fame as the front man for The Scabs, Bob has played in numerous other bands in Austin, including Braniac, Joe Rockhead, and Ugly Americans. Now largely playing independently of The Scabs, Bob continues to garner eager support from Austinites, young and old alike. He has even generated a national (dare one say international?) fanbase, and frequently tours around the country. With Ugly Americans, he opened for Dave Matthews Band, certainly no small feat, and some of his songs have appeared in movies and in television shows. He has even appeared on the Tonight Show with Jay Leno. Fortunately for Austin, though, Bob continues playing a regular gig at the Saxon Pub on Monday nights, and frequently performs at other venues and events around the city such as Antones and the Keep Austin Weird Festival.

On a warm Sunday night this past August, one of these “other venues” at which Bob performs happened to be the Lakeway Resort & Spa, for the KGSR Live at the Lake concert series. With all deference to Bob, it’s hard to say which part of the experience was better: hearing Bob play, as he does so well, or enjoying the superb sensory experience that the locale itself provided. Seeing Bob play is always great. But seeing Bob play while sitting in one of the five gorgeous pools (one of which has a swim-up bar), fraternizing with friends, enjoying a beverage of choice, and watching a glorious sunset unfold behind the stage over Lake Travis and the surrounding hill country, well. . . that’s pretty much unbeatable. Apparently a significant number of others thought such an ingenious combination was too good to miss as well, because the turnout was absolutely spectacular. Just enough people to get friendly with the neighbors, not so many people that all the water in the pools was displaced.

All in all, Bob’s performance out at the Lakeway Resort & Spa turned out to be one legendary concert in a series of many more legendary concerts to come next summer. Stay tuned.

Live at the Lake: Grupo Fantasma

Grupo Fantasma: |groopo| |fantazmə|. Translates directly from the Spanish to mean “Phantom Group.” Also refers to an Austin-native musical powerhouse that has succeeded in amassing a sizeable band of devotees including, but not limited to, The Artist Formerly (and once again) Known As Prince.

Returning to the name of the band, let’s delve a little further into the latter half of the group’s moniker. One interpretation defines fantasma as “supposed spirits or disembodied souls that manifest themselves among the living in a perceptible form (for example, taking on a visible appearance, producing sounds or scents, or moving objects). The belief in phantoms . . . can be found throughout the world.” An apt definition indeed. The souls of the members of Grupo Fantasma are certainly detached from their bodies mid performance, every available ounce of energy and spirit flowing into their music. And the manifestation of the group is nothing if not perceptible: the sounds emanating from the stage are always rump-shaking rhythms that move anyone with a pulse. Is the belief in these “phantoms” found throughout the world? Just ask the 20,000 fans in London who were fortunate enough to see the band open for Prince; or the Premios de Musica Latina (Latin Music Awards) committee that awarded Grupo Fantasma the “Best Latin Rock,” “Best Band,” and “Best Latin Rock” awards in 2005, 2006, and 2007, respectively; or the Austinites who have voted them “Best Latin Band” or “Best Horns” eight times over at the Austin Music Awards in the past six years or so.

But enough with the credentials. As anyone who came out to this past summer’s phantasmagoric final concert at the Lakeway Resort & Spa for the KGSR Live at the Lake concert series knows, these guys rock. Plain and simple. Unfortunately, even Grupo Fantasma’s stellar reputation wasn’t enough to prevent some people from foregoing the concert due to some very threatening rain clouds. And rain it did. But only a little, and it was pretty difficult to avoid getting wet when the concert seats were in a pool. Strangely enough, though, Grupo Fantasma took the stage, the clouds got a little less threatening, and the party got started. Chalk it up to their fantastical and phantasmical powers.

Peaches and Berries and Squash, Oh My!

Except for folks living under a rock for the past few years, it’s hard to ignore the buzz generated by the weekly farmers’ markets that sell local produce, handcrafted goods and mouthwatering meals. A trip to one of these markets offers a wonderful way to spend an afternoon: lots of happy people milling about, buckets and tables bursting with delicious fresh produce and prepared foods, and the light of a sunny summer day casting a golden glow on everything. Shopping locally has a profound social, economic, and environmental impact on the world as well. Here are some of the basic facts about this relatively new trend in Austin.

One: Local farmers staff farmers’ markets. By default, it’s realistic only for those that live in the surrounding area to travel into town to sell their goods, and Austin Farmers’ Market actually restricts participating farms to within a 150-mile radius of the city (the exception being citrus farms). Two: Most farmers use sustainable farming methods. Sustainable farming is the ability of a farm to produce food indefinitely, while maintaining ecosystem health. Major concerns are the long-term effects of various farming practices on soil properties and processes essential for crop productivity and the long-term ability of farmers to manage resources such as labor. Three: Sustainable implies organic, whether or not the farm is actually USDA Organic certified. Since the certification process can be long, arduous and expensive, many farmers rely upon a general understanding that they employ environmentally conscious farming methods to bring delicious produce to the table responsibly. Four: Sustainable farming practices help reduce the “carbon footprint” people have on the environment. Everyone knows about global warming, but most people associate the problem primarily with “all those SUVs.” However, the amount of energy required to transport large quantities of produce across great distances (quickly enough so that it is fresh when it arrives) is enormous. Buying locally dramatically reduces this energy cost. And a greater sense of community is fostered because people naturally have a deeper feeling of responsibility toward and attachment to those that live in the same place as they do. Love thy neighbor, after all.

Beyond all this, the food and the atmosphere provide the real reasons for shopping the farmers’ markets. Imagine the hustle and bustle of a crowded market in Marrakesh, one bursting with exotic smells and the passionate cries of vendors hawking their wares. Austin’s farmers’ markets may be replete with sumptuous scents, but there is no need for much hawking: the goods at these markets sell themselves. Compare the crowded, tiled aisles at the supermarket with grassy lanes of goods in an open-air market. On Wednesday afternoons at the Austin Farmers’ Market at the Triangle downtown, children frolic in the fountain, keeping cool and keeping busy! Or, if a family has a baseball or softball game on Saturday at the Field of Dreams, they can pop across Highway 71 to the Bee Cave Farmers’ Market and walk away with a veritable cornucopia of delights.

There are two specific markets to keep in mind; the first is the Austin Farmers’ Market. Austin Farmers’ Market sets up shop two days a week. The Saturday market runs from 9 am – 1 pm and is located downtown in Republic Square (4th and Guadalupe); the Wednesday market runs from 4 pm – 8 pm and is located inside the Triangle (the new development up north where Guadalupe and Lamar merge). The Austin Farmers’ Market, run by the Sustainable Food Center, has been around for five years now, the Wednesday market being added only a few months ago. And in those five years, the market has grown to accommodate approximately 50 vendors, with further expansion in the future projected as both community interest and awareness increase. Vendors at the Austin Farmers’ Market include farms, ranches, dairies, nurseries, restaurants, food booths and artisans and offer fresh fruits and veggies, handmade crafts, meat practically straight from the cow, and cheese from a goat that probably has a name and his own room in the vendor’s barn. And, to top it off, there is always live music at each market to make the shopping experience that much more pleasurable, providing yet another reason to visit the farmers’ market instead of the supermarket: local, live performances rather than elevator music!

Not convinced that our Hill Country offers the best produce available? Well, there are more than a few restaurants in Austin that disagree. Eastside Café serves as a prime example of how to reduce one’s carbon footprint when dining out and does so in style. A vendor at the Austin Farmers’ Market, Eastside Café uses as much local product as possible. In fact, the restaurant has its own garden in back of the restaurant from which much of the food on the menu is harvested. It doesn’t get fresher than that. At an Edible Austin meet-and-greet, showcasing Austin-area restaurants that use local products, a few powerhouses such as The Driskill, Aquarelle and Cibo were present and provided delicious samples. Their chefs seem to think local goods are the way to go, and they probably know what they’re talking about. Even some of the more casual food providers, like Chomp, Boomerangs, ChowBaby, and Deli Bento agree. Local is in.

The Bee Cave Farmers’ Market, open Saturdays 9 am–2 pm and located on Highway 71 about a mile west of the RR 620 intersection, is also an excellent option. Started just over a year ago with only ten vendors, this little “engine that could” has had up to 60 participating vendors and has 20 or so consistently in attendance. South Austin Jug Band played their Fourth of July market in 2006; there was an Oktoberfest market last year, and the market also hosts charity events. Keeping the kids entertained is a common theme between these two markets: at the Bee Cave Farmers’ Market, there is an inflatable moonwalk and face painting.

Not to be bested by the Austin Farmers’ Market, the Bee Cave Farmers’ Market plays with the big boys too. Restaurants such as Moonshine, Bee Cave Bistro, and the Clubhouse Grille at the Spanish Oaks Country Club have all bought items from this market and incorporated their purchases into exceptionally delectable dishes. Some are convinced that a personal rapport with the grower actually improves the flavor of dishes prepared. Imagine eating a tomato and shaking the hand that plucked it off the vine! And, most markets encourage sampling. Chef Vincent makes some mean salsa and has won numerous awards that prove it. The Vegan Kitchen sells some superb vegan food made with local produce. There’s a smoothie stand. If nothing else, it is a farmers’ market. Go ahead… bite into that amazingly juicy peach.

Here are some of the tasty treats to throw on a grocery list before the first trip: tomatoes and garlic from outside of Marfa; blackberries from Pittsburg (Texas, of course); peaches! squash and zucchini from Fredericksburg; blueberries, strawberries, and okra from somewhere nearby; carrots, radishes, and scallions from Cat Spring (outside of Houston); onions and garlic from Blackland Prairies; and spectacular Fig Balsamic Vinaigrette, made by Bistro Blends out of Spicewood.

Grab a basket and give it a try.