From Coonskin Cap to Barrel of Wine

Fess Parker as Davy Crockett (Los Angeles Times)

(Los Angeles Times)

 
Fess Parker died yesterday at the age of 85. As a memorial tribute, I thought I’d share this article I wrote for the Boston Globe in 1995 about the former actor’s winery. (I’m a firm believer in recycling!)
 
I haven’t tried the recipe, which came from Parker’s wife Marcella. I think I’ll make it later this week in his memory, however.
 
After the article came out Parker sent me a couple of bottles of wine. Better yet, he included a black-and-white beefcake poster of himself in his heyday lounging in a bathtub as Davy Crockett.
 
Unfortunately, my cat Lorelei Lee destroyed the poster by licking it. I guess the handsome Parker was catnip to females of all sorts.
 
Reading the interview today, I’m impressed with what a convincing actor he was even as a businessman—the presentation of his business as natural, the aw-shucks modesty of his comments about Walt Disney (with whom he had serious disagreements because Disney controlled his contract), the general aura of Americana in which he cloaked himself.
 
And I recall the charm that moved easily along 3000 miles of telephone lines…… 
 
Fess Parker in 1995 (Los Angeles Times)

Fess Parker in 1995 (Los Angeles Times)

 

I’LL FESS UP…. I’ve got a crush on a California vintner who is old enough to be my father, married, and my political opposite. 

Fess Parker, who’s in his late 60s, looks darn good. He occasionally dons a coonskin cap like the ones he inspired millions of children to buy when he played television’s Davy Crockett (1954-1955) and Daniel Boone (1964-1970). And his voice retains the Southwestern twang that laced those portrayals with sincerity.
 
He still waxes homespun like Boone or Crockett. The first thing I said to him was that I knew absolutely nothing about wine. My hero replied, “You know what, Tinky, I love that, because 90 percent of our brothers and sisters in this great nation do not know anything about it, and so your questions will be right on the mark.”
 
Despite the corniness of the line my cynical heart went pitter-patter.
 
Parker now serves as spokesman for the Fess Parker Winery and Vineyard in the Santa Ynes Valley in Santa Barbara, California. The winery’s first vintage appeared in 1992, and its products have attracted favorable reviews in wine periodicals. Bottles of Fess Parker chardonnay, Riesling, pinot noir, merlot, and syrah—with tiny coonskin caps on their labels—are now available in the Boston area.
 
Parker is proud of the fact that his is a family enterprise. His son Eli manages the vineyard and serves as winemaker. His daughter Ashley supervises tastings and organizes a popular Fess Parker wine club. And his wife Marcy helps him operate the winery and creates recipes to accompany different wines.
 
In fact, Parker credits his food-oriented wife with inspiring his interest in wine through an early investment in good French vintages in the 1960s. “We had quite a large wine cellar in our home,” he recalls. “And so she put an awful lot of that wine away. I complained, actually. I said, ‘You’re spending too much.’ I didn’t know that I was going to enjoy fine wine for the next 15 years or so. And so that sort of whetted my taste.”
 
The Parker spread runs to 714 acres. “In Texas, where I’m from, we’d call that a horse pasture,” laughs Parker. “But here in Southern California to have that many acres and most of them level is quite unique.” He expects to produce about 20,000 cases of wine this year.
 
Parker’s main job nowadays is selling his wine. He makes numerous public appearances, often wearing his signature fur cap. He would be the first to admit that the coonskins on his head and his label are a marketing ploy, confessing that “the fact that there’s continuing interest in an event that took place 40 years ago is very helpful.”
(Fess Parker Winery)

(Fess Parker Winery)

 
Nevertheless, at a certain level the politically conservative Parker seems to feel a genuine identification with the pre-industrial heroes he portrayed in film and on television. “I grew up on a farm and ranch part of my life—every summer from the time I was 6 until I was 16, in Texas,” he explains. “You know, we’re not all that far from the agricultural nation that we were.
 
“When my son and I started the winery in 1989, he didn’t have a clue about farming. But when we started to put the vineyards in, he got right into it. He climbed on the tractor, and he took to farming like he was born to it.”
 
Parker wears coonskin partly in homage to Walt Disney, who chose the then unknown actor to portray Crockett on Disney’s pioneering television show Disneyland.
 
“In certain respects,” say Parker, “I would say I was very similar to Mickey Mouse. The difference was, he drew Mickey Mouse. But he personally selected me for Davy Crockett on a hunch. It takes a lot of courage to go with someone who essentially is unknown. A lot of people wouldn’t have given me the opportunity.”
 
Since his film and TV heyday in the 1950s and 1960s, Parker has continued to take advantage of opportunities offered him. He has parlayed his money, intelligence, and undeniable charm first into a real-estate career; then into ownership of a resort hotel in Santa Barbara (a second waterfront hotel is in the works); and now into the wine business, which he relishes.
 
“I’m having a great time,” he reports. “I don’t know what my next career is going to be, but for now this one is a dandy.”
 
Parker, whom I interviewed over the telephone, told me he’d just LOVE to meet me in person. He didn’t offer me a plane ticket, however, so for the moment I’ll content myself with trying his wine—accompanied by one of his wife’s recipes.
 
fplogo
 
Marcy Parker’s Onion Tart
 
The Parkers use this savory pie as a main dish for a luncheon or a side dish for dinner. It is to be accompanied by the vineyard’s Riesling.
 
For the filling:
 
Ingredients:
 
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
2 teaspoons sugar
9 to 11 sweet (Maui or Vidalia) onions (about 2-1/2 pounds), peeled
1/2 cup Johannesburg Riesling (or other white wine)
1 leek, white part only
1 tablespoon thyme, fresh or dried (more for garnish)
salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
1-1/2 cups chicken stock (homemade or low-salt canned)
1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
 
Instructions:
 
Melt the butter in a heavy 10-inch nonstick ovenproof skillet. Sprinkle with sugar and remove from heat. Cut six of the onions in half, fit them snugly into the pan, cut side down, and pour the wine over them. Use more onions if necessary to cover the bottom of the pan.
 
Cut the leek to the same thickness as the onion, and fit the slices into the spaces in the pan. Sprinkle with half of the thyme, the salt, and the pepper.
 
Slice the remaining onions 1/4 inch thick and arrange them over the onion mixture in the skillet. Sprinkle with the balance of the thyme, salt, and pepper. Cook over medium-high heat for 5 minutes.
 
Reduce the heat to medium, and cook for another 5 minutes, until golden brown. Shake the pan from time to time. Pour the stock and vinegar over the onions and bring the mixture to a simmer. Cover and cook for 20 to 25 minutes over low heat until tender. Remove the lid and raise the heat; cook until the liquid is syrupy and almost completely reduced. Remove from heat and cool in pan. The mixture will hold together.
 
For the pastry:
 
Ingredients:
 
1-1/2 cups flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup (1 stick) cold, unsalted butter, cut into small pieces
1 tablespoon thyme, fresh or dried
1 small shallot, peeled and minced
3 tablespoons ice water
 
Instructions:
 
Blend the flour, salt, and butter in a food processor until the mixture resembles coarse meal. Add the thyme and shallot. Process, adding water, until the dough just holds together.
 
Form the dough into a flat disc; wrap and chill until firm, 30 minutes or more.
 
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Roll out the pastry 3/8 inch thick, making sure it is slightly wider in diameter than the skillet in which the onions were cooked.
 
Place the rolled pastry on top of the mixture in the skillet and tuck any excess dough into the pan.
 
Transfer the skillet to the preheated oven, and bake for 30 to 35 minutes, until golden brown and bubbly. Take the pan out of the oven, cool it for 10 minutes, and invert onto a serving plate. Garnish with more thyme. Serve with a salad and steamed, chilled asparagus.
 
Serves 6 as a side dish, 4 as an entrée.
 
 
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12 Responses to “From Coonskin Cap to Barrel of Wine”

  1. Teri Tynes says:

    Thanks so much for writing about Fess, Tinky! You two would have made a great pair. I met him years ago in Austin at the Central Market grocery. He was there to make a pitch for his wines. My friends affectionately called them Boone’s Farm wines, though his good varietals bore no relationship to the cheap stuff by that name.

  2. Mattenylou says:

    I, too, had a mad crush on Davy Crockett. I wore my coonskin hat for a very long while until my dog chewed it up. I was brokenhearted, of course…

    I didn’t know he had a winery, and enjoyed reading your interview.

    Remember his song? – Davy, Davy Crockett, king of the wild frontier….

  3. flaneur says:

    This is a lovely tribute and a reminder to us all, or certainly to those of us for whom broadcast television was one of the many stupendous miracles of a 1950’s childhood. Fess Parker was, for little boys at least, the Uber Guy, the model of manliness, clean living, self-reliance and what every red-blooded American kid should aspire to become. Maybe not a one of us has quite fulfilled that role but, and perhaps even better, we have surely adopted (or at least remembered) many of the qualities of Davy Crockett, of Daniel Boone, of Fess Parker.

    Thank you for the nourishing recipe: propelling ourselves back to our four-, five-, -six- and seven-year old selves, it would have been a dream of Super Bowl proportions to imagine sharing dinner with a coonskin-capped hero. I can still recall the theme songs to each of the Parker programs, and I’ll bet there are millions of baby boomers out there who can sing along. So… Tinky, why don’t you lead us in homage:

    “Da-vy, Daaaa-vy Crockett… king of the wild frontier. Born on a mountaintop in Tennessee, greenest state in the land of the free…”

    or “Daniel Boone was a man. Yes a big man. With an eye like an eagle and as tall as a mountain was he. Daniel Boone was a man. Yes a big man. He was brave, he was fearless and as tough as a mighty oak tree.”

    Never underestimate the power of a woman, or a little boy under the spell of Fess Parker.

  4. Kathleen says:

    Yeah, I was crazy bout him, too. He was just everything I admired back then — and still. Thanks.

  5. Sue Haas says:

    I liked the lead-in for your article–”I’ll fess up.” Got me wondering where his name “Fess” came from. Hmm. The onion tart recipe tooks lovely!

  6. tinkyweisblat says:

    Thanks, Flaneur, for sharing the lyrics (I was tempted to when I read Mattenylou’s comment). Teri, I’m jealous of you, and Kathleen, you’re right: completely admirable.

    Sue, I don’t know whether the “Old English” bit is true, but here’s what Fess told columnist Sheilah Graham in 1968: “My father was named after Sen. Simeon Fess. I’m a junior. Fess is Old English. It means proud in old English, derriere in French, and lunkhead in Italian.”

  7. Jean says:

    Thanks Tinky for pointing me here. Lovely tribute. He’s smiling I’m sure. I really do feel like an old friend is gone. The song I remember in addition to Davy Crocket, was one he sang with Buddy Ebson. They were in the Alamo, and all was pretty much lost and he sang of the home he left. Always been a tearjerker to me. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6wuOhxyYAP8 is the youtube link.

  8. tinkyweisblat says:

    Sweet, Jean. And here’s the Ballad as well, for anyone who’s looking……….
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kweL_RUXXU4&feature=related

  9. Ann says:

    Very nice tribute. I too was sad to hear that Da-vy, Daaaa-vy Crockett… king of the wild frontier is gone. I did not try his wine, how was it?

  10. tinkyweisblat says:

    Ann–I’m not a wine drinker (I just cook with the darn stuff), but my family (and Teri in the comment above) reported that it was pretty good!

  11. TL says:

    Great stuff. You took us there and thanks for sharing the story.

    Small caveat: I will bet a bottle of wine that picture is of Mr. Parker as Daniel Boone, a show I grew up on and still watch most days, thanks to cable.

  12. tinkyweisblat says:

    TL–You may be right about Daniel Boone, but according to the Los Angeles Times (the source of the photo) it’s Parker in 1956, which would be too early for Boone but just after he finished being Crockett. He does look a little older on the photo, but I’m using their date until I get other information.

    What cable channel is Daniel Boone on? I haven’t seen it in years………

    Thanks!

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