Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Kerr County Thanksgiving in 1856

Real Family in Kerr County
Hunters returning to the Real family cabin after a successful hunt, around 1900
For many folks a portion of this week will be spent planning and preparing for a Thanksgiving meal.  Index cards will be pulled from old recipe boxes, to check the ingredients needed for dishes made once each year, food that reminds of us of a departed aunt or provides hints at a great-grandmother we never knew.
I noticed an article in the New York Times this week which told how two of their food writers "cooked a whole Thanksgiving dinner on one stove in one day with one temperature setting."  The writers set their oven to 400, and used four burners on their stovetop.  "You don't have to cook Thanksgiving in one day, on four burners and in one oven," the article stated.  "But you can."
I suppose that's quite a feat for a pair of New York food writers, yet my wife and I, for our entire married life, have only ever had a four-burner stove and a single oven. Even with these 'limited' resources we've manage to pull together quite a string of Thanksgiving meals.
I suppose it's the same at your house, too.  An oven and a stove make the work easy.
Consider what such a feast would have required when Kerr County was founded, back in 1856.
First, the fare.
In its earliest days Kerrville lacked a grocery store, certainly never dreaming of the variety of foods available today at H-E-B.
Early stores offered bulk items hauled here by wagon: coffee, flour, cornmeal, and perhaps salt.  The choices were few and they were plain.  Schreiner started his store in 1869; there were others before him, including John Ochse, who had a store at the intersection of Main and Washington, where the old Notre Dame Church sanctuary stands today.  These early stores would also buy locally grown produce to sell to their customers.
Any other food would have to be grown in your own garden, livestock you raised, or food harvested from the hills around your home.
Rosalie Dietert
Rosalie Dietert, who with her husband Christian settled in Kerrville in 1856, described the wild food available nearby:
"Meat there was always plenty, venison, wild turkey, fish, occasionally bear, and later beef." she says in a 1941 issue of the Frontier Times magazine. "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.'"
I've always been surprised how many of those early settlers mentioned bear meat as a staple.
J. J. Denton, an early settler of the Center Point area actually preferred bear meat to other wild game, according to another article in the Frontier Times magazine.
"The [Denton] family was never short of meat or honey. Though hogs and deer were plentiful, Denton preferred bear meat. "You can eat bear meat every day in the year and never tire of it, and, when cured, you can eat it raw as well as cooked. Everybody used bear oil as a substitute for lard; it made the best shortening in the world. My uncle, John Lowrance, was a mighty bear hunter and often had 1,000 pounds of bear meat in his smokehouse. He considered it the most wholesome of meats and believed that a diet of it would cure any sort of stomach trouble."
Consider, too, the kitchens in which these meals were prepared.
Cooking in those days was much more difficult than now. 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, according to the magazine article.
The last bear killed in Kerr County, around 1901
"In about 1870 some cook stoves were brought west as far as San Antonio, one of which [Rosalie Dietert] became the proud possessor. No more out-door cooking in all sorts of weather -- a stove and a real oven to bake bread and cakes!  Her recipes were gotten out, and all sorts of good things were made for holidays and birthdays. The favorites were stollen (loaf cake), pfeffer-nusse (spice cookies), and schnecken (a sweet dough rolled out flat and covered with brown sugar, cinnamon, raisins, currants and pecan meats. This was all rolled up, cut into slices, and baked.)"
The recipe became very popular in early Kerrville, and many early local families enjoyed making schnecken, though among many early families it went by a different name: "Dietert Cookies."
I am thankful for our modern kitchens.  Ms. Carolyn and I will rough it at our house with a single oven and a four-burner stove top.
I hope you have a happy and safe Thanksgiving holiday.
Until next week, all the best.

Joe Herring Jr. is a Kerrville native who will be in the kitchen with Ms. Carolyn this week, attempting to be her able assistant.  This column originally appeared in the Kerrville Daily Times November 18, 2017.

There are still a few copies of Joe's second book available.  Click HERE for more information.

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