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How to Prepare a Possum: 19th Century Cuisine in Austin

Austin History Center exhibits local food history

By MM Pack, 10:45AM, Thu. May. 16, 2013

Grist Mill at Barton Springs, 1860
Grist Mill at Barton Springs, 1860
photo courtesy of Austin History Center

In the view of Michael Miller, archivist at the Austin History Center, the beginning of our city was rooted in a meal.

One morning in 1838, Mirabeau B. Lamar interrupted his breakfast to hunt buffalo in the area, leading him to observe that the Colorado River Valley was the perfect "seat of empire" for the new Republic of Texas, of which he was then vice-president. A year later, the newly elected President Lamar oversaw the founding of his new capital, and food has played an important role here ever since.

The Lamar breakfast/buffalo hunt anecdote serves as the starting point for the Austin History Center's new exhibit How to Prepare a Possum: 19th Century Cuisine in Austin. The exhibit explores various aspects of food in early Austin, including what was locally available, how supplies arrived, how and where food was prepared, what it cost, and how shopping and eating habits evolved through the 19th century as new technologies (think stoves, ice, and kitchen gadgets) were introduced.

The writings of early Austin families such as the Pease, Orr, and Huberich families (whose papers are in the AHC collections) reveal what people ate and attitudes concerning foods. The exhibit's title comes from an early Austinite's letter to relatives back East describing how possum could indeed be a tasty dish.

But residents were hardly limited to local marsupials. Food options in Austin changed dramatically when the railroad arrived in the 1870s; wide varieties of comestibles became more available and more affordable. In 1884, Robinson's Grocery advertised "olives from Spain, sardines from France, caviar from Russia, cheeses from England, France, and Germany." Restaurants and saloons served oysters; ice cream parlors proliferated.

The exhibit is rich in wonderfully detailed food-related photos from the AHC collections, some of them blown up to poster size for maximum effect. Among the shots of gardeners, grocery stores, hunters, meat markets, and delivery wagons, one of the most charming and enigmatic is a photo of a little girl perched on an ice cream parlor stool. On the adjacent stool, a chicken stands calmly looking at the camera.

Since Austin is such the food mecca of late, it seems only fitting that we understand more about the city's culinary habits and practices in former times. Go see this exhibit; it'll be open through January 10, 2014. And it's free.

Some related special events include:

June 1, 4:00pm: Grand Opening Reception, including presentations and 19th century-inspired tastings prepared by Chef Gregory Dishman and Escoffier Culinary School students

July 31: Beer Garden Social: A 19th Century Family Experience at Scholz Garden. A recreation (with liberties) of a typical outing to the beer garden. Includes a talk on the history of Austin brewing and beer gardens by Austin History Center archivist Michael Miller, and 19th century Texas fiddle music by Howard Raines

September 10: Author and food historian Toni Tipton-Martin presents Black Enterprise: Remembering Austin's Pioneering Entrepreneurs, with emphasis on African American food businesses on East 6th Street

October 22: Dr. Elizabeth Engelhardt, American Studies Department, University of Texas, author of A Mess of Greens: Southern Gender and Southern Food

How to Prepare a Possum: 19th Century Cuisine in Austin
Austin History Center, 810 Guadalupe Street
May 7, 2013-January 10, 2014
For more information, visit www.austinhistorycenter.org or call 512 974 7480

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