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A Brief History of Texas: Geography, Culture, and Cuisine

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Many years ago, when I was living in France, I happened to come across a political satire cartoon that was titled, “The United States of America According to Europe”. It was a simple tracing of the shape of the 48 continuous states, and the entire West Coast was partitioned under “California” while “New York” stretched from Maine to Pennsylvania. My eyes then shifted to the rest of the country, which was all enveloped within a border and labeled “Texas” in blocky letters that were so large that there wasn’t any room for any geographical features or cities. After taking a second to comprehend exactly what I was looking at, I chuckled out of amusement and bewilderment.

I could understand how California and New York may be thought of their own separate political entities, especially given their significant presence in global business, technology, and innovation. Yet, Texas? I knew it exported a great deal of its products and that it had gained some notoriety for being the cultural home of the recently-retired George W. Bush; but beyond that, what was it about the geography, demographics, and culinary history of Texas that made it so prominent in the world’s consciousness?

Long before it was a prize to be claimed by the Spanish, French, and then eventually Mexico and the U.S., the region that would become known as Texas was home to indigenous tribes such as the Karankawa, Caddo, Apache, Comanche, Wichita, Coahuiltecan, Neches, and the Tonkawa. The sheer expanse of the land allowed for diverse ecologies and food systems. All of these tribes fed off of what fruit, vegetables, and game were available in their respective territories. These included beans, pumpkins, squash, and sunflower seeds in the west; agave cactus bulbs, prickly pear cactus, and mesquite beans in the south; a mix of everything plus fish in the Gulf Coast; and large game, like buffalo, in the north.

The arrival and settlement of the Europeans⁠—specifically, the French and the Spanish⁠— beginning in the 16th century actually further perpetuated the reputation that Texas was a wonder in itself. Tales of vast stretches of lush grasslands, dynamic hills, and opulent river valleys captured the intrigue of everyone from the Old World. Here it was, a land that wasn’t bounded by dense and unmanageable mountain ranges, like the Appalachia, nor the swamps of the Deep South or rough, stony terrain of New England.

Its vast space and fertile lands allowed for the raising of livestock and growing of fruit and vegetables on a scale that seemed limitless to the rest of the world. The Spanish empire and risen and fallen, and by the time of Texas’s admission into the new Republic of Mexico by 1821, it was distinct from the rest of the continent for being famously among the largest producer of agricultural products in the world⁠—especially in the product of primary textile materials, like cotton. By the time that Texas had become its own independent republic in 1836, its economic size rivaled that of the U.S., Mexico, and even many European sovereignties in just in the sheer value of products from there alone. In short, Texas’s economy was a global force even before it was annexed into the American Union.

American settlers had been crossing into and settling in Texas⁠ long before it became a U.S. state in 1845. Along with their families and livestock, these Americans, also known as empresarios, also brought along their slaves even though slavery had been abolished throughout the region when it was still a Spanish territory.

By 1846, Texas had a population of approximately 135,356, of whom 42,455 were slaves. It is indubious that this was a dark era in the history of the U.S., yet it did introduce African American cuisine into the region and thereby made its culinary culture even more diverse. Since the arrival of the Spanish, the cuisine had become integrated with recipes from the Old World, and then later Mexican fare.

“Sopapilla is among the earliest pastries made in Texas as far back to 1682 in Ysleta, near El Paso. Tigua Pueblo Indians planted, harvested and ground wheat for use in meals prepared for Franciscan friars. Known by the Tigua as “Indian fry bread,” the pastry, made of (fried) wheat dough, evolved into what we know as Sopapilla.” (“The History of Texas Cuisine,” Stewart, Darla).

Europeans introduced wheat, biscuits, and gravy, while African Americans introduced collard greens and beans. Consequently, the mixing of all of these cuisines has led to the creation of one of the world’s most popular food genres: Tex-Mex. You have all of these cultural groups to thank anytime you order, nachos, chili con carne, fajitas, or any burrito with a flour tortilla. So, Texas is also renowned for being the melting pot of the most diverse cuisine cultures in the world.

Today, thinking back to that satirical map in France I saw just over a decade ago, it seemed far-fetched how Texas could be infamous enough to be the subject of a geo-political joke in a rural town that’s unknown to most Americans. Today, though, I can now see just how Texas’s dynamic cultural, economic, and culinary histories have captured the world’s attention for over four centuries, as it has surely captured ours.

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