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Early Texas Cuisine

by John Raven, Ph.B.

As best as we can determine, folks have been eating in Texas for about thirteen thousand years. Accepted theory at this time is that the first Texans walked here from Asia via a land bridge across the Straits of Alaska. Way back then dinner, or supper, consisted of whatever you could find or catch that day. Simple fare consisted of now-extinct mammals and reptiles, and whatever vegetables, roots, berries or nuts that could be found.

Europeans came to Texas in the early Sixteenth Century. Some Spanish explorers were shipwrecked and lived with the Native Texans for a while, probably sharing the native diet. The Natives ate mostly what they could hunt and gather. There was some farming going on in the piney woods of East Texas. Native game of the time was American Bison, Whitetail Deer, Antelope and small critters. Wild fruit and nuts rounded out the fare.

It was only when the Spaniards started putting missions in Texas that European-style food began to be imported. The Spaniards had cattle, hogs and sheep. They probably imported corn and other small grains. This was pretty much the menu for about three hundred years.

When the Anglo-Celts started settling in Texas in the early eighteen hundreds, they brought their cattle, hogs, sheep and poultry. There was some wild cattle left over from the Spanish missions, and most of those could be found in deep South Texas. The settlers had to grow most of everything they consumed. Nearly every family had a kitchen garden that provided corn, white potatoes and sweet potatoes. There were a lot more sweet potatoes than white potatoes. Oats was about the only small grain that did well in the Texas climate. Some rye was also raised. Wheat came later.

Things like salt, coffee, sugar and wheat flour had to be imported. A lot of it was brought in from New Orleans and Galveston.

The early Texans ate a lot of corn -- fresh corn in season, dried corn in the winter, cornmeal the year around after milling was available.

Lacking any other method of preserving food, drying and salting was used a lot. Salt pork is made by packing fresh pork in salt for several weeks, and then smoking it to impart some flavor. Beef was dried into jerky. Wild game supplemented the diet, mostly deer, turkey, squirrels, rabbits, raccoon, opossum and fowl. Buffalo probably did not figure into the Anglo diet until the middle eighteen hundreds when the frontier moved out to the Llano Estacado.

Corn Cookery:

The simplest method of eating corn is just to pull back the husk and take a bite, that is providing it's early in the season and the corn is still tender. Dried corn could be boiled and eaten that way, or it could be ground into meal and made into corn mush or corn cakes or corn bread.

Corn mush is simple food. Just stir some cornmeal into boiling water and cook it down until it thickens, add some butter, sugar or honey and a little milk, and you have a delicious hot breakfast. Omit the butter, sugar and milk and cut back on the water enough to make a thick batter, and you can fry it into Johnny cakes or bake it on a clean garden implement for hoe cakes.

For corn bread, you have to have a leavening agent, like baking powder or baking soda and buttermilk, to make it rise.

The Native Texans learned to soak dried corn in lime water to make hominy which can be ground into masa, a type of corn flour, a staple of Tex-Mex cooking.

Cornmeal comes in white or yellow. Either is acceptable. You can find some blue cornmeal in New Mexico and Arizona, and it's really blue. No matter the color, if you can find cornmeal that's been stone ground, it just seems to be better.

The recipes that follow go back quite a few years. As with many old recipes, it is assumed that the cook knows his or her way around a kitchen of the day. They don't exactly waste words with step-by-step directions.

Texas Nostalgia Food:
Cornmeal Mush (from 1830)*

½ cup Cornmeal
2-3/4 cups Water
¾ teaspoon Salt

Sprinkle cornmeal into boiling water, stirring constantly. Add salt and cook for about half an hour. Serve with sugar and cream.

Indian Cornmeal Cake (from 1830)*

1-½ cups Yellow cornmeal
1 teaspoon Salt
½ cup Flour
3 teaspoons Rosewater (Vanilla)
1-2/3 cups Sugar
1 teaspoon Cinnamon
1 cup Butter
8 Eggs

Mix the sugar, butter and eggs. Mix the cornmeal and salt together, and combine with the sugar, butter and egg mixture. Add vanilla and cinnamon and mix well. Pour into a floured cake pan and bake in a moderate oven.

Fried Squirrel (from 1818)*

Rinse skinned squirrel in cold water and pat dry. Dip in buttermilk and then in seasoned flour, and fry in hot fat. If the squirrel is young, steaming is not necessary. Otherwise, drain off excess fat and add a cup of water and steam covered. Make gravy in the frying pan by adding leftover seasoned flour and milk or water. Serve with biscuits and wild plum jelly.

Salt Pork and Gravy

Salt pork is seldom used for anything other than seasoning now, but it was a staple of the early Texans. It was boiled to remove the excess salt and then prepared.

Slice one pound of salt pork thin. Freshen it by putting the slices in cold water and bringing to a boil. Then dry the slices, slit the edges and fry to a crisp. Make cream gravy with the drippings.

* Recipes from A Pinch of This and A Handful of That, by the Daughters of the Republic of Texas, District VIII, published by Eakin Press.
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