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
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
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,
Ana and his army were on their way to stop
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
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
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
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
In any case, the delegates signed a constitution on
March 3rd, 1836. Twelve 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
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
To read the Republic of Texas's Declaration of
see the following website:
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H.
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