A new exhibit at the Austin History Center is especially close to local hearts – and stomachs.
“How to Prepare a Possum” is an exhibit that explores 19th century cuisine, and how early Austinites brought Texas heat to the kitchen. But before I could explore any further, I had to ask: What’s with name?
Exhibit Coordinator Steve Schwolert doesn’t disappoint. It came from a letter: “In the letter,” he says, “she’s telling her daughter how the men are going out to hunt possum, and if they bring a possum back, they’ll have possum and taters.”
Back then, food wasn’t made to please the pallet, Schwolert says; it was born of necessity. And the exhibit was designed to explain that. “It’s about some early impressions of Austin and its cuisine, which was not very good,” he says. “You kinda ate what you could get.”
Many of the pieces are the earliest food records available. Among them is what is believed to be Texas’ first cookbook, written right here in Austin. There’s also a widely popular registry book with hundreds brands belonging to Texas ranchers, and a diary from a nineteenth century farmer outlining in detail the kind of activities he performed daily – very uncommon for farmers of that time. All of these artifacts trace Austin’s earliest cuisine – rancid butters and farinaceous pastes, to name a few treats – to the establishment of Austin’s first restaurant.
“Food at the time went from having to literally go grab a critter, like a possum, and figure out how you were going to cook it outdoors, to very fancy foods,” says photographer Grace McEvoy. This is the kind of evolution that the exhibit is trying to portray. Food culture in the present is intrinsically linked to food culture from the past.
That was the inspiration for the exhibit.
“The current interest in sustainable food and locally grown food was the inspiration for the idea for the exhibit,” McEvoy says, “because food initially – not just in Austin but all over the country and even the world – was local and sustainable. It wasn’t a trend, it was just the way life was.”
But Austin – and its food –is dramatically different today. And that’s one of the things that sets Austin apart from other cities, Schwolert says – and what led to the development of the Possum exhibit.
‘“I think Austin in general is a very lively place in terms of the diversity of its food culture, the number of restaurants per person,” he says. “All of that went into our thinking about how we were going to shape this, and what kind of things we would talk about.”
“How to Prepare a Possum” will run through the end of the year, but on June 1, you’ll be able to sample 19th century-inspired appetizers at the History Center from 4 to 6 p.m.