“Texas is the obsession, the proper study, and the passionate possession of all Texans.”
Travels with Charley: In Search of America by John Steinbeck
The city of Austin was chartered in 1839, named for the “father of Texas,” Stephen F. Austin. In 1842, another state father, Sam Houston removed the capital to his city, but Austin, its capital and university, its early cotton plantations and later military base, persevered to create a unique food culture.
Haupt connects this history to the city’s restaurants and their regional character from blue plate dining, ranch suppers, and Tex-Mex breakfasts, to cosmic cowboy vegetarianism and food trucks. She also reveals a bit of her process in an interview with Mike Miller, archivist at the Austin History Center, who describes the detective work of connecting the dots of information from photos, personal letters, and newspaper ads.
Austin dining began with boardinghouse food serving peripatetic campus and capital populations and reached a Southern apogee at Green Pastures, a Victorian home that still serves pecan balls and milk punch to Austinites, including, at one time, visitors at the LBJ Ranch.
But Austin was not always so refined. In 1900, the city had 98 saloons and 37 restaurants. The city’s first restaurant, The Austin City Restaurant, opened in 1839 to serve the newly established capital with turkey, chicken, venison, and buffalo. By 1871, the railroad would bring European and Mexican immigrants, and new foods—including oysters.
German immigrants were sponsored by the Adelsverein, seeking to settle a German community in Texas. Settlers established beer gardens, like Scholz Garten, offering musical entertainment for families and operating as private clubs depending on the moment’s feelings for temperance.
The most visible Czech influence was brought by immigrants escaping Hapsburg persecution. The kolache yeast bun has “taken on a life of its own in the hands of Texans” and beyond the traditional poppy seed, prune, or apricot filling, contemporary versions feature jalapeno sausage, pecans with Mexican vanilla caramel, or BBQ pulled pork.
Both groups, as well as African-Americans would contribute to iconic Texas barbecue, with smoked sausage in the German and Czech traditions, and pit-smoked meats that Haupt notes are “inextricably linked to the practice of slavery.”
A university population will always guarantee a range of well-loved and well-worn dives, and while some Depression-era burger joints and chili parlors have survived with a patina, others have succumbed to real estate pressure and changing tastes.
World War 2 investments helped establish Austin’s current high-tech industries and the increased population and incomes again shifted the city’s character. It was in this era that Tex-Mex took hold but so did more creative dining, with New American cuisine a la Alice Waters and more authentic Mexican restaurants catering to oil money and the creative class fostered by the university.
Haupt does an admirable job tracing the tides of community change and their influence on local food culture, recording the constant tension between quirky success and redevelopment that replaces local icons with chains. She recalls that restaurants are often the scene of social change, from segregation—barbecue in one part of town, tacos in another—to integration, such as the integrated staff and service at Night Hawks and Green Pastures well before it was required by federal law.
Austin’s combination of creativity and casualness puts it at the forefront of food truck culture, many of which got their start serving at music festivals and developed as proving grounds for chefs—including Paul Qui and Franklin Barbecue, both of which get national press and long lines. With the “mother ship” of Whole Foods headquarters, Austin style food is cutting edge.