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No. 1080:
Food in Early Texas

Today, we wonder, what did our early settlers eat? The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

I recently visited the Star of the Republic Museum in the Texas town of Washington on the Brazos. It's no surprise that early Texas life was nasty, brutish, and short. But there, in the museum, that hard life took on form and texture.

In 1836 Washington on the Brazos was the site of the Constitutional Convention for the Republic of Texas. Fifty-two delegates raced to write a constitution for a country separate from Mexico, while Santa Ana and his army were on their way to stop them.

Texas won the short, bloody war that followed. Now, immigrants from Europe and the United States had to build civilized life in their harsh new republic. Let's look at just one piece of that life -- at food.

Today we typically eat 3000 calories a day. Historian Matilda Houston tells us that early Texans frontiersmen ate more like 4500 calories. No one seemed aware that there's more to food than its energy content.

Pork and corn dominated diets of people hacking out a living in the Texas wilderness. It was too hard to protect chickens from predators, and Texas longhorns were still running wild. They wouldn't be harnessed for food and commerce 'til later. For now, cattle were too valuable to eat. They gave milk and served as beasts of burden. They were even a medium of exchange in a land with no reliable currency. So pork dominated the Texas diet. Outsiders began calling Texas "The Republic of Porkdom."

The rough life of early Texas bred some odd beliefs about food. Fresh meat was regarded as unhealthy. Meat had to be smoked or cured in brine, then eaten later. With pork's susceptibility to parasites, I suppose that made sense.

Little wheat was grown here. It was a luxury to be imported. So Texans ate corn bread, tortillas, hominy -- and they fed corn to their pigs. Pork was really just corn turned into meat.

Texas homesteaders looked askance at vegetables. Vegetable gardens too easily got mixed up with human waste. You could die of typhoid fever. So breakfast might be cornbread and pork, with milk, eggs and coffee. Then cornbread and pork for lunch, and supper made of lunch leftovers. Sometimes they sweetened the meat with honey or molasses.

People weren't interested in roughage. It offered no calories. A food like lettuce had no value as fuel. They ate with a knife and a spoon -- no fork -- and they bolted their food. Meals lasted less than ten minutes. Food meant fuel, not a social event.

In any case, the delegates signed a constitution on March 2nd, 1836. Four days later the Alamo fell. Seven weeks later, Sam Houston defeated Santa Ana at a spot only 18 miles from my office.

As Texas took shape, things changed in odd ways. After the Civil War, Santa Anna was to be found hustling funds in New York City. And Houston, now Texas's largest city with some four million people, at last offers the greatest array of healthy affordable food I've ever found anywhere.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

Murry, E.N., Notes on the Republic. Washington, TX: Star of the Republic Museum, 1991. See especially, Matilda Houstoun's chapter "'The Republic of Porkdom': Food."

Kalman, B. Early Health & Medicine. Crabtree Publishing Company, New York: 1983/1991.

I am grateful to historian Margaret Swett Hensen for additional counsel on this episode.


Painting by Charles and Fanny Normann, collection of the Joe Fultz estate, reproduced with permission.