Even though it’s now almost commonplace for chefs to buy or even forage locally sourced ingredients and use every part of a pig or a cow, the lowly possum remains a relic of our eating past.
In 2013, the Austin History Center hosted an exhibit about the history of the city’s food culture called "How to Prepare a Possum: 19th Century Cuisine in Austin," where Mike Miller, the history center’s archivist, tried to de-romanticize our notions of how people ate in the past. "People did not relish in the act of putting up their vegetables or slaughtering their own chickens as much as we might think they did," he said then. "Modern convenience is something that we take for granted."
Miller loves walking down the paper trail of history, and for more than a year, he dug up sales receipts, store ledgers, photos, diaries, letters and restaurant menus to discover how the first generation of Austinites shopped, socialized, dined and cooked during the 60 years that followed Mirabeau B. Lamar’s famed buffalo hunt in 1838 near the site where state leaders would later build the state Capitol.
By the turn of the century, Austin had 15 bakeries, five beer gardens — including Scholz Garten, which was started in 1866 and is the longest continuously operated business in Austin — two winemakers, six ice cream parlors, two yeast cake manufacturers, 21 dairies, 37 restaurants, 91 saloons and an astounding 130 grocers.
One of the longest running of the stores was Bremond & Co., which opened in 1860 on East Sixth Street and sold "cheese, chains, clams, clothing, crackers, cranberries, crowbars and cutlery." By the 1890s, Bremond had a full-time buyer in New York City who secured goods for the store, which remained open until 1967. (The building was demolished in 1979 to make way for the Littlefield Mall.)
One grocery building that still stands is J.P. Schneider & Bros, the brick building that now houses Lamberts Downtown Barbecue. Jacob Peter Schneider’s store, which first opened in the late 1860s and moved into the now historic building in 1873, catered to people who lived in the rural areas around Austin and the Mexican-Americans who lived in the neighborhood.
Thanks to the meticulous record-keeping of many of the market owners, we know that at Harrell’s General Store in 1843, for instance, you could buy a pound of bacon for eight cents, a dozen eggs for 12 and a half cents and coffee for 20 cents a pound.
Because food-related businesses could be found on almost every city block along the main corridors downtown, most of the street scene photos from the time include storefronts for the many saloons, beer gardens, ice houses and even ice cream parlors. "We thought we’d be struggling to illustrate this, but it became an editing issue," Miller said. "A lot of images we didn’t use."
But images of what eating was like at home were harder to come by. The best insight into how Austinites fed themselves and their families came from letters and personal correspondence that have been preserved in the center’s archives.
Lucadia Pease, who came to Central Texas from the East Coast in 1850, at first wrote to her sister in Connecticut about how great the food was, especially the steak, but as the years went on, she lamented the lack of certain fresh goods. "I confess I should scarcely have self denial enough to refrain from eating my favorite home dishes if offered me, but here I have nothing to tempt me to any great excess. I have such a desire for fruit, and can get none," she wrote, apparently tired of all the watermelon they were eating and missing the apples and cherries back home.
Sam Houston wasn’t impressed with the food in the early days of Austin, either. "You can, in Houston, obtain to eat some oysters, some fruit, or some bread that is palatiable (sic), but here we are destitute and miserable in mind as well as body," he wrote in 1841.
A turning point in how Austinites lived and ate came in December 1871, when the railroad finally arrived to "City of the Violet Crown," delivering goods to East Fourth Street.
Before train service came all the way to Austin, some food items came in by wagon, mostly from Galveston and Port Aransas, but it was expensive, so most Austinites lived on what they could grow, forage or hunt, including the exhibit’s namesake.
A year before the railroad opened, a resident named Mary Allen wrote to her daughter: "He and the boys have gone possum hunting tonight. Mrs. E. brought some firm potatoes, and if they catch one, I’ll have possum soup and taters."
Another source of information about home cooking at the time is a handful of community cookbooks that were published by various groups and churches throughout the state.
Cookbooks were not common at the time, Miller said, because the everyday recipes were dishes that were memorized and not necessarily written down as "receipts."
"The Texas Cookbook," the state’s first, came out of Houston in 1883 and featured recipes such as Very Nice Chicken Soup, A Very Nice Way to Prepare Canned Salmon and Kiss Pudding. In 1891, the First Cumberland Presbyterian Church raised money for the church with "Our Home Cook Book," which is likely the first Austin cookbook. The copy on display at the history center exhibit belonged to an E. Kreisle, who wrote her own notes throughout the book.