Eat local. Farm to Table. Sustainable Food. These are examples of ideals permeating the discussion of food culture in Austin. One aspect of these phrases is that they touch upon the past when the local diet was a matter of necessity and availability rather than choice. This idea forms the basis of a new exhibit, How to Prepare a Possum: 19th Century Cuisine in Austin, opening on May 7, 2013, in the Grand Hallway and Lobby of the the Austin History Center, 810 Guadalupe St.. The exhibit explores all avenues of early Austin food, including what food was indeed local, how food was prepared, how and where people shopped for food, what it cost, and where people went out to eat. The exhibit runs through January 10, 2014.
Food has played an important role in the history and development of Austin. Indeed, its very founding as the capital of the Republic of Texas can be tied to the eating of a meal. Vice President Mirabeau B. Lamar, while on a campaign trip to the area, had his breakfast interrupted for a buffalo hunt, which led him to comment that the Colorado River Valley was the perfect place for a seat of empire. But while it is not know exactly what Lamar ate for breakfast (perhaps corn bread of some kind and possibly bacon or ham), an understanding emerges through this exhibit of how early Austinites fed themselves. Through the writings of the Pease, Orr, Huberich, and other early families whose papers are in the Center’s collections, the exhibit reveals the kinds of foods consumed and what was involved in preparing a 19th century meal.
Food in Austin changed dramatically with the arrival of the railroad in the 1870s. More people were coming here to work and live, greatly affecting local food options. Also, the railroad influenced how quickly food could be distributed, introducing Austinites to a greater range of food options. This shift led to a proliferation of grocery stores, restaurants, saloons, meat markets, ice cream parlors, confectionaries, bakeries, and other food businesses, all richly documented in hundreds of 19th century images of Austin from the Center’s collections. As the 19th century came to a close, the nation’s foodways continued to change. The American diet moved away from locally produced food to more manufactured and processed foods. The exhibit closes with a brief look at some of the early Austin food manufacturing businesses and Austin’s role in this transition. Yet despite these changes, it is clear that good food has been important to Austin from its beginning until now. As this exhibit documents, Austin’s desire to be a foodie town is certainly not a new phenomenon.