Stephen F. Austin State University

Eating in Chambers County: A little Culinary History (May 2013)

Eating in Chambers County:
A Little Culinary History
by Kevin Ladd

Almost everyone now a day looks forward to dining at a local café or restaurant, or taking a trip to Kemah, Baytown, Beaumont or Houston for an outstanding meal. But the early residents of Chambers County rarely visited fine restaurants or dining establishments unless they journeyed to Galveston or New Orleans. Eating out in the 1800s really meant going outside to eat. And that was about it.

Over the past several years as director of the Wallisville Heritage Park at Wallisville, I have been working at compiling recipes from the cities, towns and hamlets of Chambers County. Although a culinary history of this place sounds like a great idea, it would also be a great deal of research. This short article, however, will touch on several important and interesting aspects of how our ancestors lived and ate in Chambers County.

The Europeans

The earliest Europeans to inhabit this region were French traders, who were soon followed by Spanish soldiers and priests. Historical records indicate that French traders entered the Lower Trinity in the 1820s. Their visits were short and cursory affairs. Not much thought was given to cuisine. Eventually, Joseph Blanpain tried to establish a permanent trading post at present-day Wallisville in 1754, but he and his party were captured by the Spanish.

Two years later, in 1756, the Spanish were back to establish an outpost called "El; Orcoquisac," which consisted of Presidio San Agustin de Ahumada and Mission Nuestra Senora de la Luz. Keeping two priests, some thirty soldiers and their commanding officers fed became a main concern for the Spanish colonial government. The small Spanish outpost, located just north of what is today the Wallisville Heritage Park, was never a good place for farming purposes. The hard gumbo type soil was difficult to till, and the water was somewhat brackish in taste. Like many other Spanish outposts, El Orcoquisac relied upon food stuffs transported overland, and in such a manner beans and corn became a staple.

In 1768, the French traveler, Pierre Marie François de Pagès, traveled to a similar outpost called Los Adaes [near what is today Robeline, Louisiana]. He noted that the main food at Los Adaes was corn: "The soil is almost entirely destitute of water; which unhappy circumstance, joined to the natural indolence of the people, frequently reduces them to the way of the most common necessaries of life. The chief means of their subsistence is Indian corn, which they boil, mixed with quick lime, whereby the husk is dissolved into a kind of powder, and the grain considerably softened. Having washed and bruised it on a chocolate-stone, it is formed into a lump of paste, which they knead between their hands. Of this dough they made a sort of cake, which is toasted on a plate of iron laid over the fire. This bread is the native food of the people of New Spain; and indeed, when these thin cakes, or rather wafers, named by the Spaniards tortillas, are well baked, they are far from unpleasant" .

Historians of the Spanish Colonial Era suggest that the soldiers and priests at El Orcoquisac relied heavily on beans. Something fairly close to the lowly pinto, were commonplace. Beans and tortillas, plus the occasional meat from cattle, was the standard menu. Archeological tests conducted at this site also indicate the soldiers enjoyed drinking hot chocolate. This was the type usually referred to as Mexican chocolate,
The Spanish eventually decided to abandon their presidio and mission near Wallisville in the year 1771. It remains, however, a fascinating chapter of Chambers County history.

The Anglos

Residents from the United States of American began entering into what is now Chambers County in the early 1820s. James Miller, his wife Ruth, and their children settled near Wallisville in 1821. Shadrack Burney, a lifelong bachelor, settled on the north side of old Turtle Bay [now Lake Anahuac]. The Wallis, Barrow, Winfree, Lawrence, Hanney and Wilburn families all came around 1824. The Winfree and Dunman families came in 1827. James Taylor White, one of the most significant cattle ranchers in Southeast Texas, settled on Turtle Bayou in 1828.

The early written record for this time period in history is rather scant, but there are some fascinating exceptions to this rule. An anonymous writer published a book in 1834 called A Visit to Texas: Being the Journal of a Traveller Through Those Parts Most Interesting to American Settlers.

Although a shorter title would have sufficed, the anonymous traveler in March 1831 made his way into what was then Liberty County and eventually met up with the aforementioned rancher Taylor White. The cattleman lived in a comfortable log dwelling house located some five miles from Anahuac.

His thoughts on food are brief but interesting: "The outhouses belonging to this dwelling were such as to show the owner had a number of laborers, and carried on a very extensive business as a cattle raiser. His dairy, as usual, was comparatively small and ill-furnished, being chiefly in the open air. The farmers of Texas commonly made some butter and cheese, at least enough for their own families, and have abundance of milk; but these things engross few of their thoughts. They churn daily and therefore are always supplied with butter milk. They often regret it if they have no 'sour milk' to offer a visitor." The traveler made no mention of having dined with Taylor White's family or of what foods might have been served at their table.

William Fairfax Gray traveled through this same region in April 1836, and his food fare was nothing spectacular. This was owed primarily to the fact that local residents were either engaged in the "Runaway Scrape" or else overwhelmed by the sudden influx of colonists fleeing the Mexican Army.

The diarist found himself near Lynchburg on the morning of Sunday, April 17, 1836, where he ate breakfast with "the fugitives." From that point, he and his party traveled on to the home of Jacob Winfree in what is now Western Chambers County. "Mrs. Winfree treated us to some fine buttermilk and three bowls of fine, ripe blackberries." That served as their noonday meal, and they made it across Old River and the Trinity later that day, settling for the evening at the home of E.H.R. and Sarah (Barrow) Wallis.

Leaving the Wallis home, near present-day Wallisville, Gray and his party found a breakfast meal at Anahuac on the morning of April 18. As they left for the Neches River, local residents offered Gray and his fellow travelers "bacon, sugar, coffee and biscuit." Gray said he took some biscuits and a tin cup to accommodate his drinking. "Before night," he wrote, "we passed the place of Taylor White, which he had left in charge of an old negro, who gave us dinner of milk and bread and corn for our horses; 62 ½ cents."

During the remainder of his journey to the Louisiana state line in the Runaway Scrape, Gray seems to have survived largely on cornbread, coffee, water and some occasional veal. There was no salt or pepper for seasoning or sugar for the coffee.