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Tuesday, January 8, 2013
Churros and Tequila With My Friend Huell Howser, October 18, 1945 – January 6, 2013--Vaya Con Dios
Having a fried piece of California Gold, churros with Huell Howser at the Mercadito
There will never be another man like Huell--he was instantly your friend the moment he met you--he meant it. I was first called by the show to talk about nopales--I forgot the angle--but I remember telling them what they were looking for wouldn't be worth their while, then this donut thing came up. We talked about Latin American donuts--of course the churro came up--and then we decided on a date. I picked the Mercadito in East L.A. because of the excellent churros, but really I just wanted to see Huell trip out on the market--to do his thing.
I loved watching Huell work the segment--from the moment he arrived to the time he left he was that guy you see on T.V.--a little more edgy off camera--but pure CA Gold.
"Well, Bill, are churros donuts?" he said in that famous melodic, crescendoing voice, "why yes they are--it's fried dough--it's a donut", I replied.
After the shoot I had a chance to talk with this legend--talking to Huell was like being on an amusement park ride that kept you grinning--on the verge of laughter.
I'll never forget what he said next. "You know, Bill, at my age, I've done just about everything a GUY can DO, but I have one last request, one last trip to make--I want to try tequila and pulque in Jalisco."
"Are you serious?"
" I want to ride that train.."
"You mean the tequila express?"
"Yeah, that's the one!" "Now, I can't be getting all liquored up on camera, BUT, in the name of HIGHER research, I will have to put many shots of tequila up to my mouth over the course of this show."
"Yeah, I'll have to just keep on researching!" he laughed. "Do they have pulque over there--what is that stuff anyway?--I've been hearing a lot about that pulque."
"It's the fermented sap of the agave."
"Well, that sounds like we'll have a lot of research to do, Bill." "Why don't you arrange it and give us a call."
Are you fucking kidding me I thought? I'm taking Huell Howser to the motherland, to go drink tequila? This was a pilgrim asking to be taken to Mecca.
I went on a tour that summer with Chef Patricia Quintana and 90 other journalists, photographers, chefs, and publishers through 6 states in Mexico on a gastronomic tour. When I returned there was a voice mail from Huell, " Hello, Bill, I've been trying to reach you--you're harder to get a hold of than the president of the UNITED States--I've already talked to OBAMA twice, and I still can't reach you. Well, when you get this message, I'd sure appreciate you calling back--bye, bye."
I called his producer shortly after my return and was informed that Huell wasn't doing well, health wise, and would be taking some time off--Jalisco would have to wait. I checked back from time to time, but things were still on hold. I tried to track him down at the KCRW Pie Contest, but had just missed him by minutes, after Evan Kleiman walked me backstage to look for him. Moments before I arrived, he had just looked at everyone and said, "well, I'm just about PIED out", and then he walked out and went straight home.
I've driven through the lowlands and highlands of Jalisco, and had already planned our distillery stops, of course the Tequila Express, and even found a roadside pulque vendor that had a lid covered with drunk hornets. I wanted that to happen for Huell--I wanted to have him sipping tequila and talking to folks on the train--and the pulque, drunk hornet, and Huell? I think that might of been something Huell had never seen, and just maybe a magical moment would be caught on film. Huell loved nature, he loved culture, and he was a huge fan of Mexico.
I'm so sorry that you didn't make it to Jalisco my friend, but I'm glad to have worked with you on one of your last shoots, and saw you in all your brilliance. You'll be missed by many, but I'll personally miss your wit, humanity, and charm. Vaya con dios, caballero!
R.I.P. Huell Howser, 1945-2013