Monday, April 18, 2016

A country lit only by fire

I've been watching a television series from the BBC, and wondered if the same idea could be applied to our part of Texas. Could a similar series be produced about the settlers of the Texas Hill Country?
Please don't judge me, but the name of the series is "Tudor Monastery Farm," which originally aired in 2013, and is available on YouTube.
Yes, you can begin the jokes now. Yes, I understand I'm likely the only one in our community who would find this series interesting.
However, watching the series, which shows farming practices as they were in Tudor England, around the time of Henry VII, about 1500 AD, it soon became obvious that many of the farming and cooking methods shown would not have been so foreign to the practice of Kerr County's earliest settlers.
The earliest settlers arrived here around 1846; the first permanent settlement came about 2 years later, in 1848. Although the hills and river would have been recognizable to a modern time traveler, almost nothing else would have been like what Kerr County is today.
Of course, there would many fewer structures, and no roads. As late as 1857, a year after Kerr County was organized, and a year after Kerrville was named its county seat, there were only "five small log huts, of one or two rooms, a wilderness of trees, and grass as high as a man, with Indians skulking through," according to Rosalie Dietert. She and her husband, Christian Dietert, built the sixth house in Kerrville.
In 1931, Ms. Dietert helped a grandchild with a school history report, and her memories were published in a booklet, along with the stories of other early settlers.
"Your grandfather built the sixth house," Mrs. Dietert said. "It had three rooms and was built of cypress timbers cut on the saw mill he set up at the place where the ice plant now stands." The remains of that ice plant still stand, at One Schreiner Center, along the bluff by the river at the end of Washington Street.
Rosalie Dietert started housekeeping with a skillet and a small dutch oven, "which was a small round iron pot with three legs and a dented-in lid to hold live coals." She also had a brass kettle holding about one gallon, for cooking utensils.
"Meat there was always plenty, venison, wild turkey, fish, occasionally bear, and later beef. In the beginning there were practically no vegetables. They made a salad of wild parsley and tea from a variety of the small prairie sage, and greens from the 'lamb's quarters' or 'land squatters.'"
J. Marvin Hunter, who was a roving newspaperman and established Frontier Times museum in Bandera, wrote about the fare found in typical hill country homes:
“Near us lived an old couple, Grandpa and Grandma Murray, early settlers on the frontier. They lived in a very small house, and Grandma Murray cooked on the open fireplace, as she did not have a cooking stove.”
Grandpa Murray was a freighter, hauling goods to Menardsville from Austin, a distance of about 160 miles. The round trip would take about three weeks. While he was gone, Grandma Murray often invited young Hunter to stay with her.
“At meal time she would prepare the best she had, which was usually bread, coffee, bacon and [black] sorghum molasses…. She had a large Dutch oven in which she cooked her bread, and a smaller skillet in which she fried the bacon. She would rake the coals of the fire out on the hearth and place the Dutch oven on these coals. Then she would slice strips of bacon and place them in the skillet, which she placed on the fire, and as soon as the grease had been fried out of the bacon she lifted the skillet and placed it on the hearth. She made up the dough for her bread, sometimes it was of cornmeal and sometimes it was of flour. After kneading the dough well, she would make it into one big patty, or pone, and after greasing the inside of the Dutch oven, she would place the patty in it, then taking a long iron rod which was crooked at one end she would lift the oven lid from the fire where it had been heating and place it on top of the oven. Then taking a shovel of live coals she heaped them up on the oven’s lid, taking care to get just the right heat… During this the big coffee pot was simmering on the coals at the left side of the hearth.”
A hunk of the ‘pone’ was served with coffee and fried bacon; ‘grease gravy,’ made from the drippings of the bacon without flour, just grease, really; and the molasses.
“Bub,” Grandma Murray would say, “do you want some sorghum?” and I would say “Yessum, Grandma,” and she would pour out a great quantity of the blackstrap molasses onto my plate, and add to it a generous portion of the ‘grease gravy,’ and I would set to, with a man’s appetite, and when my plate was emptied clean she would fill it again.”
From watching the series, the only real difference might be the dutch oven and some of the ingredients used in meals.
Until next week, all the best.

Joe Herring Jr. is a Kerrville native who watches documentaries few others would care to see. This column originally appeared in the Kerrville Daily Times April 16, 2016.

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