What can Aransas County Cookbooks tell us about the culinary history of Aransas County?
By Friends of the History Center for Aransas County
Dedicated volunteers in Aransas County have compiled dozens of community cookbooks since 1927 to raise funds for a variety of causes, including our schools and churches, the cemetery, medical services, clubs, museums, and the art center. If something needed to be done, the “church ladies” pitched in, producing many informative and well-crafted cookbooks, often illustrated by local artists. Individual cooks and families, such as the Pictons, have also written books with recipes, photographs and reminiscences. These books provide a historical account of everyday cooking and community life, detailing what residents cooked for their families and friends, for holidays and celebrations, to serve at baby or wedding showers, or for the next Bridge or Womens’ Club gathering.
The first local cookbook is considered to be the 1927 “Queens in the Kitchen – Tested Recipes from Rockport Housekeepers compiled by the Parent Teacher Association.” The motto on the cover was “Let me cook the dinners of a nation, and I shall not care who makes the laws.” The book was dedicated to Mrs. S. F. Jackson, the organizer and first President of the P.T.A. in Rockport. Contributors to the book included the names of many well-known families, including Adolphus, Bracht, Brundrett, Casterline, Clingman, Close, Jackson, Little, Norvell, Mills, and Sorensen.
The recipes are in old-style, narrative form, with very simple lists of ingredients, often without exact measurements, and with limited instructions, and included ingredients like sweet milk, lard and canned English peas. Here are a few examples:
“Salmon croquettes: Take crackers and moisten with milk, then crumble up and add a can of salmon and mix well together, then form in balls and fry in deep fat.”
“Fried Shrimp. Beat two eggs, add salt and pepper; into this dip raw shrimp, then roll in meal. Drop them in boiling grease and fry until a nice brown.”
The book noted that the “recipes are not only peculiarly suited to our climate, but come from each household thoroughly tested.” There are many recipes for sweets, such as vinegar pie, queen of lemon pie, Edna’s prize fruit cake, Sallie’s white cake, Minnehaha cake, sweet pickle figs, and carrot marmalade. Numerous Mexican recipes are included, including tamale loaf, hot tamale pie, Spanish rice, chili-con-carne, chili and eggs, and Mexican Candy. Other multi-cultural offerings included Brunswick Stew, Goulash, Spaghetti for a Spaghetti Supper, New Orleans crab gumbo and Louisiana shrimp gumbo. Recipes for entertaining are also included, such as delicate tea sandwiches with olives, dates and nuts and fruit punches.
The ads in the book are often as interesting as the recipes, as businesses helped underwrite the book, as they do today with many worthwhile non-profit projects. The Rockport Mercantile Company, Telephone 19, touted it was “as near you as your telephone.” The Vaux Tea Room advertised home cooked goodies and delicatessen foods. H.T. Bailey sold fresh meats and “never met a stranger.” Jackson Seafood Company advertised as shippers of fish, shrimp, oysters and crab meat. S. B. Sorenson, Sr. & Sons marketed groceries, hardware and grain. And the Community Theatre said that it had the “very best Pictures, including Westerns; Show every night except Sunday; Admission 10c and 25c.” Rockport Public Service Co. offered ice, light and power. Dr. H. A. Dow, expert optometrist and watch-maker, noted that “all prices in keeping with the time.” “Quality Counts” and “Get your milk and cream from Spark’s Diary,” are in the ad for a fondly-remembered business. Hooper Brothers were dealers in fancy and staple groceries, feed, ammunition, tinware and queensware. Mrs. E. H. Norvell advertised lessons in piano and voice.
This rare book was reprinted in 2011 by the Aransas County Historical Society with photographs by many of the women who contributed. Copies can sometimes be found at garage sales or in resale shops such as Castaways.
Many other groups have used cookbooks to raise funds since 1927. In 1964, the Paws and Taws Square Dance Club produced “Square Dancers and Friends Cookbook” to help build the original Paws and Taws Square Dance Building in Fulton. The Aransas County Medical Services (ACMSI) wrote several versions of “A Taste of the Coast” to fund the County’s first ambulances. The Rockport Art Association produced the “Rockport Collection” in 1986, illustrated by artists including Al Barnes, Herb Booth and Jack Cowan. The out-of-print book contains seafood and game recipes. The Docents and Friends of the Fulton Mansion wrote “Harriet’s Kitchen” in 1999 with historical information about George Fulton’s wife and recipes of the time.
In 2003 the Texas Maritime Museum created “Marithyme Treasures” with local artwork and is still available at the Museum. Other cookbooks have been written by the Rockport Rotary Club, St. Peter’s Episcopal Church, the Order of the Eastern Star, the Piecemakers by the Bay Quilt Guild, the Palm Harbor RV Park Winter Visitors, the Circle W RV Ranch, the First United Methodist Youth Fellowship, the Woman’s Club of Aransas County, St. Peter’s Episcopal Church, Rockport Elementary, the Rockport Yacht Club, the Business and Professional Womens’ Club, Live Oak Elementary, and numerous others.
Aransas County cooks have always liked to cook and entertain; the Appetizer sections in many of the books are large, full of mousses with seafood, seafood-stuffed mushrooms, crab dips with cream cheese, and filled Pepperidge Farm patty shells. Often more exotic selections like dove breast hors d’oeuvres with jalapeno, water chestnuts and bacon slices pop up next to cereal snacks.
Many books have game sections replete with selections like pickled alligator gar, shark fillets, duck pate, venison salami, squirrels, woodcock, grouse, and rabbit. There are many recipes for chicken fried proteins — turtle, duck breast, blue or snow goose, and venison backstrap as well as for beef.
Our cookbooks also track the trends and fads in cuisine over the years. Lard and bacon grease change to Oleo and Crisco and then margarine, next butter, more recently olive and other oils. Miracle Whip gave way to mayonnaise and then aioli. Different substances coat fried seafood: over the years cracker meal, crumbled saltine crackers, and cornmeal give way to Italian bread crumbs and panko. Short-cuts like using canned mushroom soup, onion soup mix, and other quick additions appear, particularly in the ubiquitous King Ranch Casserole with Velveeta, Cheez Whiz, jarred process cheddar cheese spread, and American cheese being replaced by gruyere and parmesan.
Residents often had lived in larger, more sophisticated cities like Houston and San Antonio, brought to their part-time or retirement lifestyles influences from big city restaurants. Some had also lived around the world and traveled to famous gastronomic cities such as New Orleans. Recipes in our cookbooks reflect this with recipes like Sakowitz Shrimp Salad with Remoulade sauce, Crab Bisque from Newick’s in Portland, Maine, Maryland Eastern Shore Crab Cakes from Longfellow’s Restaurant, Spinach Pudding from the Menger Hotel in San Antonio, Corn Bread A La Waldorf Astoria, Hush Puppies from the Old Stage Coach Inn, Salado, and Driskill Hotel’s Cheese Soup.
A unique part of Aransas County cookbooks is the inclusion of art from local members of the art colony. For example, St. Peter’s ‘Cooking with Love and Joy” has images by Joan and Lynn Lee, Mary Frazier, Kay Barnebey, Lisa Baer, and Bonnie Prouty. Live Oak’s “Teachers’ Treasures” is illustrated by students’ artwork. Local history was also sometimes included in the cookbooks. “Gifts of Love” from St. Peter’s, for example, included the story of Sea Captain C. L. Deane, a dedicated Episcopalian, who brought the lumber from Galveston to build many of the homes and businesses of Rockport. He donated the materials to build the first altar and altar rail for St. Peter’s.
This book also notes other food history:
“In the early days of Rockport, there were no game limits. Thousands of hunters and fishermen came and stayed at the four large hotels. They would hire guides to take them hunting and fishing. These people would often have their catch shipped home by rail. Live crabs were shipped in fresh seaweed sprinkled with cornmeal so that the crabs would have food on the trip to the table far away. Oysters were shipped in large wooden barrels already packed in ice and prepaid or the railroad would not ice them, and the ice was imperative. Wild game, such as deer and javelin, were shipped whole. They were killed and bled and taken to the local ice house to be kept until ready for shipping. At shipping time, they would be stuffed with hay and wrapped in gunny sacks so that they could be shipped safely for several days. Hotels and restaurants in Chicago and New York used the service of the rails for the largesse from Rockport.”
Often you will find humorous additions in the cookbooks:
Aunt Frankie’s Corn Bread (”This is just the way she told me to do it.”); “I stir gumbo with long spatula and I wear an oven glove on my hand while making roux – that stuff can get HOT!”; or this recipe for Chicken and Rice Soup. “Open can. Put soup in pan. Heat it. Eat it.”
Local resident Annette Hagen wrote several cookbooks through the Sea Grant program at Texas A & M University to promote Texas seafood. Many people still remember her seafood recipe cards distributed by numerous seafood markets and grocery chains. You often see these and other recipes torn from the backs of packages in recipe boxes in local kitchens, along with recipes jotted down by friends or family or pulled from popular magazines such as “Southern Living” or “Better Homes and Gardens.”
Look through some of these cookbooks and learn more about local foodways and cuisine at the re-opening of the History Center’s Exhibit, Foodways: Culinary Traditions of Aransas County” cut short by Hurricane Harvey. The exhibit’s opening will be from 10 am-4pm on Saturday, July 14, 2018. Come by anytime for a sampling of light refreshments.
At the exhibit, Foodways: Culinary Traditions of Aransas County, view photographs, artifacts such as menus and compelling stories about local cafes, drive-ins and other food establishments.
The History Center for Aransas County, a venue of Aransas Pathways, is located at 801 E. Cedar Street in Rockport. The Center is open on Saturdays from 10 am-4pm and Sundays from1-4 pm. See our Facebook page for information on upcoming programming this summer.