Regional History and Influence on Cuisine

Major Influences On the State's Culture

In 1519, Spain was the first European nation to claim what is now Texas. The Spanish came to Texas in search of a shorter route to the Far East and with hopes of finding treasure while they “civilized” and Christianized the natives. They built their first settlement in Texas: Ysleta Mission in present El Paso, established in 1681. Gradually expanding from Mexico, the Spanish built other missions, forts, and civil settlements for nearly 150 years, until Mexico threw off European rule and became independent in 1821. During that time, those who came to this land survived on game that included buffalo, venison, hogs, and the native wild cattle. They learned to raise gourds, squash, sweet potatoes, and corn. Other small grains such as oats and rye had been imported, while the settlers grew most of the other foods that they consumed.

Planning to expand its base from French Louisiana, France planted its flag in eastern Texas near the Gulf Coast. But the first colony, called Fort St. Louis, was not successful owing to natural and political disasters that included disease, famine, and hostile Indians.

For more than a decade after Mexico became independent, hardy pioneers from the Hispanic south and the Anglo north flowed into Texas, a frontier for both groups. But conflicting social and political attitudes alienated the two cultures. Texans revolted, and they won their independence on April 21, 1836. Those who had come and survived continued to depend on wild game and corn, though many brought familiar breeds of cattle, hogs, sheep, and poultry with them.

During nearly ten years of independence, the Texas republic endured epidemics, financial crises, and continued volatile clashes with Mexico. But it was during this period that unique aspects of the Texas heritage developed. Texas became the birthplace of the American cowboy; the Texas Rangers were the first to use Sam Colt's remarkable six- shooters; and Sam Houston became an American ideal of rugged individualism. In contrast to the Wild West, the eastern coast of Texas had become highly settled, with seaports and plantations. The leading port of Galveston reflected European and Southern influences in its culture and cuisine, and staples such as salt, coffee, sugar, and wheat flour were brought from New Orleans to Galveston.

In 1845, Texas became the 28th state to join the United States of America. But 16 years after Texas joined the Union, the American Civil War erupted. Ignoring the advice of Governor Sam Houston to establish a neutral republic, Texas cast its lot with the doomed Southerners, reaping devastation and economic collapse as did all Confederate states. But two events fixed Texas and Texans as somehow different in the nation's eyes. First, Texas troops on Texas soil won the final battle of the Civil War, not knowing the South had surrendered a month earlier. Second, returning Texans found a population explosion of wild Longhorns, sparking the great trail drives that became one of America's legends.

Pushing aside the defeat and bitter reconstruction after the Civil War, the offspring of Texas pioneers marshaled their strengths to secure a future based on determined self-reliance. One of the first successes was the famous Texas Longhorn, providing beef for a growing nation. Newly turned topsoil on vast farm acreage yielded bountiful crops. The 20th century dawned with the discovery of fabulous sources—gushers roaring at a place called Spindletop near Beaumont in East Texas. By the mid-20th century, modern Texas industries were developing in a climate of advanced technology. Today, Texas horizons continue to expand, reaching up to the limitless reaches of outer space.

The People…Texans by Choice


Two distinct economic classes settled in the piney woods of what is known as Deep East Texas. People from Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi, and Louisiana included plantation owners, who brought the tradition of fine foods and Southern hospitality to their Texas plantations. They also brought Cajun and Creole cookery from nearby Louisiana. Shrimp, oysters, crabs, and fish from the Gulf of Mexico were widely available and used in spicy seafood Creoles, gumbos, and jambalayas. Rice crops were grown in the low marshy coastal plains near the Gulf of Mexico. But those who worked on the plantations and in the rice fields were less fortunate, and their meals continued to be limited to wild berries, fruits, edible weeds, wild duck, dove, quail, and other game. While the inland pines continue to supply a giant lumbering industry and almost all of the state's huge rice crop comes from East Texas, today the real wealth of East Texas is from its immense, rich oil fields and the heavy industry that crowds the Gulf Coast.


Stephen F. Austin settled in central Texas with more than 300 of his loyal followers. Large land grants were available, and Germans wrote home of the opportunities that made Texas seem like an earthly paradise. A steady stream of immigrants left northwestern Germany and established what is known as the “German Belt,” which stretched in broad but fragmented clusters across the south-central part of the state. Large numbers of Czechs and Poles joined this immigration as well. These people brought their skills at preparing the foods of their homeland, but they adapted them to the ingredients they found available. Their specialties included sausage making and meat smoking. Indeed, the German method of meat smoking is considered a major force in the origin of Texas barbecue, which comes from this region, and some feel the German treatment of veal à la Wiener schnitzel is the predecessor of the Texas favorite—chicken-fried steak.


Texas ranches were established to raise beef cattle on land granted to Mexican families by the king of Spain. The well-known Texas Longhorns, descendants of the wild cattle left by the Spanish in the 16th century, were popular because they could withstand the extreme weather of the deserts of West Texas. Until the discovery of oil in West Texas, cattle production was the biggest industry in the state. Although the Longhorns were well suited to the region, their meat was not considered the most tender or flavorful. Today, beef is still the primary meat of the region; however, the ranchers prefer to raise Hereford, Brahma, and Angus cattle. Other meats are now being raised in West Texas, including bison, ostrich, emu, axis venison, and antelope.


The Gulf's coastal areas were first settled by Native Americans and fiercely protected by the Karankawas (rumors that they practiced cannibalism slowed ventures into this region). Galveston was where Cabeza de Vaca, the first European to set foot on Texas soil, landed in 1528, and where pirate chieftan Jean Laffite ruled. Many of the immigrants who settled the rest of Texas and the Southwest entered through this port. Today, on the Gulf Coast, seafood is as much a part of Texas cuisine as are chili and chicken-fried steak. More than 100 million pounds of shrimp, oysters, blue crabs, and finfish, including redfish, red snapper, pompano, flounder, and speckled trout, are harvested annually from the Gulf of Mexico. Natural and manmade oyster reefs are found along the Texas coastline. The American commercial oyster thrives in the bays and estuaries behind barrier islands separating the Texas mainland from the Gulf of Mexico. Here, fresh water and saltwater combine to create the environment oysters need to flourish. Several types of shrimp are caught along the coastline, each named for its color, which is determined by its diet. The two most popular are white shrimp and brown shrimp.


South Texas was originally cleared by farmers from the Midwest who were attracted by the subtropical climate and long growing season, allowing them to produce two crops in one year on the same land. They planted vegetables, reaping the first agricultural bonanza from valley soil. The Rio Grande Valley produces more than 40 crops—primarily cotton, grain sorghum, sugarcane, fruits, and vegetables. Today, the major food crops grown include cabbage, onions, carrots, peppers, broccoli, citrus fruits, and cantaloupes and honeydew melons. The onion is Texas's top produce crop, one of more than 45 types of produce grown in Texas, the nation's third largest producer of fruits and vegetables. The famous 1015 onion, developed at Texas A&M University specifically for Rio Grande Valley growing conditions, is so sweet and mild it has been voted the sweetest tasting onion in a national competition, and it is tearless. It is named 1015 for the day it is planted—October 15.

The food of the settlers in this South Texas region was based primarily on the cuisine of Mexico and Spain. Tacos, guacamole, enchiladas, burritos, and tortillas became staples. Those, along with fajitas with spicy salsas and fresh flour tortillas, were the start of the first true American regional cuisine.
(American Regional Cuisine. John Wiley & Sons 7.2.5).