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Texas Cooking: The Way It Was

by John Raven, Ph.B.

Texas was not and is not all cowboys and rodeo. That part of our heritage is the most glamorous and, therefore, gets the most attention.

The majority of the people I knew at the end of the Great Depression were farmers. The principal crop was cotton. On any given farm, there would be land not suited for growing cotton, so it was pasture where cattle were raised.

There were always chickens around a farm to provide Sunday dinner and eggs. Chickens were not a lot of trouble. They roamed the farm feeding on insects and grains. In hard times for the chickens, the farmers could get grain to supplement their diets. One of our neighbors had a lot of little hard-shell pecans. The pecans would be cracked for the chickens.

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Most of the farms had a pen of hogs. The hogs would eat about anything you put in the pen for them. They would also eat slow chickens that wandered into the pen. Sheep, when you saw them, were used as the farm lawnmowers. You could put a couple of sheep in a pasture, and they would have it looking like a park in a short time. The sheep provided some wool for a cash crop and, occasionally, there would be a mutton barbecue.

If you had a farm pond, there would be a few ducks and a couple of geese. Geese make great watchdogs. Anything unusual happens, and the geese set up a great clatter.

In the house, meals were simple and easy to prepare. Mama did not spend a lot of time with the cooking as there was washing, ironing, cleaning house, sewing and tending to the thousand and one other things that needed doing. Washing was not just throwing clothes in the washer and setting it on "cotton". Washing was an all-day job that involved boiling water in wash pots outside, two tubs (one for soaping and scrubbing, another for rinsing) and other assorted containers for bluing and starch. The clothes were dried on clotheslines strung around the yard.

The floors did not get a quick once-over with the vacuum. All the floors were either wood or linoleum. They required a broom, a large bucket of soapy water and a mop.

We lived on a dairy farm. My daddy, when not on the golf course, would get up at two o′clock in the morning so up to fifty cows could be milked in time to get to the other chores. After the morning milking was wound up about seven in the morning, Daddy would have breakfast and then do all the other farm stuff. Daddy would come in at noon for dinner. He then had the luxury of an hour nap before it was time for the evening milking. Usually that was completed by six or seven in the evening. Supper and bed. This routine took place seven days a week.

Our menu was simple. It consisted mainly of meat and potatoes -- the meat fried and the potatoes creamed with butter and milk. Usually there was a side dish, mostly canned green beans or cream-style corn.

The meat of choice was beef cut as either seven-steak, round steak or the occasional hamburger, which was called ground meat. At times, there was a roast for Sunday dinner. There was a lot of chicken served. Chicken was as close as the back yard. Chicken was fried, baked or the base for chicken and dumplings or chicken and rice. The baked chicken was most often accompanied by dressing or stuffin′, as some people call it.

When hog killing became more trouble than it was worth, a lot of pork disappeared from our tables. Pork came in the occasional pork chop, sausage or a ham for special occasions. There was always some bacon in the house for use as meat course or seasoning in various boiled dishes.

Vegetables, other than canned, were rather sparse. Our farm did not come with a garden plot. Over the years several small plots were made, but the drought of the Fifties cut production to a minimum. Mostly cool-weather crops were raised. Onions and cabbage and turnips were most common. If there was enough rain, there would be tomatoes and okra in the summer.

With the ending of WWII, there came a change in the food. The chain markets started appearing in small towns. In my hometown of Taylor, we had a Red & White for a while. After the war, a Big Bear and, I think, Piggly Wiggly came to town. The big boys had the business edge of a larger inventory and lower prices through selling more merchandise.

One of the first things I remember coming from one of the big stores was Kraft macaroni and cheese in the blue box. It was inexpensive and easy to prepare. We ate a lot of it.

The bread from the big stores was priced such that you couldn′t turn it down. Not only that, but you did not have to spend half a day up to your elbows in flour making it yourself.

There were oranges and apples the year round, not just at Christmas time.

It wasn′t long before prepackaged meats started showing up in the meat section. You didn′t have to point at what you wanted in the case and wait for the butcher to weigh and wrap it for you. This is about the time the cold-storage lockers showed up. It would be a big building divided up into rooms like a regular storage place, only the temperature inside stayed about zero degrees the year around. For the first time a family could buy meat in bulk and keep it safe for a year or so.

I think the first frozen foods that showed up in the supermarkets were Bird′s Eye brand. As I remember, the first was green beans and corn. That led to today′s presentment of anything you can think of in frozen form except maybe hot coffee, chocolate and tea.

Producing your own food now has become a hobby rather than a matter of survival. We have come a long way from the days when all you bought at the store was coffee, salt, bacon and flour and cornmeal. And no one forgot rock candy for the young′uns.

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