Hospitality in Early Houston

Recently spotted on eBay: a vintage cookbook titled Harris County Heritage Society Cook Book published by Houston’s own Gulf Printing Company in 1964. As a former food/wine writer, I was keen to order it immediately.

This little 144-page treasure does not disappoint. The recipes are all from ladies with well-known Houston pedigrees. Here are Baker, Cabaniss, Masterson, Cullinan, Holcombe, Hogg, Neuhaus, Levy, Rice, Vinson and many others.

The book is set up with a page devoted to each of 112 women. Each entry includes a headnote with brief biographical or anecdotal details about the person and is often written with unabashed affection by a daughter or granddaughter. This is followed by one or two recipes to complete the entry.

Most of the matrons included in the book arrived in Houston well before River Oaks was developed; many came in the last quarter of the 19th century. The earliest arrivals settled first downtown on Rusk Avenue, Texas Avenue, Main Street, Louisiana Street and San Jacinto Street. The families later relocated to Lovett Boulevard, West Alabama, Montrose, Westmoreland, Courtlandt Place, Elgin Street and, yes, River Oaks, too.

These women were often the wives or daughters of Confederate veterans or had immigrated from Europe. Several settled first in Galveston before moving to Houston. (I wonder if the Great Galveston Hurricane of 1900 prompted these families to move inland?) Many employed cooks in their homes but were known to personally prepare some dishes themselves. Nearly all the ladies were admired for their warm cordiality.

By the time this book was published in 1964, the era of the men, women and hospitality described in its pages was already faded. But the lifestyle is brought sweetly to life in all-too-brief fragments, something like a frayed sepia photograph. Harris County Heritage Society Cook Book brims with lovely memories. Here are just a few:

Misses Linda and Velena Gieseke “My grandfather, Fred Gieseke, had the first shoe store in Houston. He made shoes for the Confederate Army when he first arrived in Houston from Germany. He gave each new baby his first pair of shoes. Each Minister, Nun, Priest and Rabbi were given shoes free of charge whenever they came in … Each one of the family loved Houston and were so proud of its growth and development. They all lived their lives and died in their beloved city.” – submitted by Frances Gieseke Boone

Lottie Porter aka Mrs. Edwin Dillingham “Charlotte Porter Dillingham was born in Houston in 1872, the daughter of Mr. and Mrs. George Porter. Lottie, as she was always called, was one of three girls and two boys inhabiting the rambling white Porter house on Rusk Avenue. This house contained a large front parlor which the Porters had the good sense not to furnish, except for a grand piano, some music stands and a few chairs. Here amateur musicales and theatricals took place nearly every night. One evening, a young Yale student, recently moved to Houston from New Orleans, attracted, no doubt by the gay doings, joined the group. In 1896, after several courting years, Edwin Dillingham and Lottie Porter were married … Food at the Dillinghams’ was a blend of Yankee and Southern cooking.” – submitted by Barbara Dillingham

Ollie Turner aka Mrs. Joseph Leonard Gross “When we moved to Texas in 1903, my mother, descended from pre-Revolutionary Virginia planters and having been accustomed to family servants in Georgia and Alabama, was a bit dubious as to what she would find in Houston. We arrived on a bitter cold New Year’s Eve and were served hot supper in our new home by some of the ladies of the church to which my father had been called as pastor. All my mother’s misgivings melted away as the hostesses – Mrs. W.T. Carter, Mrs. Frank Andrews and Mrs. D.W. Michaux greeted her with warmest welcome. The menu of smothered chicken, grits, small light biscuits and floating island was most reassuring … All trepidations about the “wild west” and “pioneer” life disappeared in thin air as Mamma became convinced in a few brief moments that Texas was the land of gentlewomen.” – submitted by Fredrica Gross Dudley

Julia Nalle aka Mrs. T.W. Gregory “She was a devotee of Virginia country hams. In her later years, she bought a trailer and attaching it to her Studebaker, departed for Kentucky and Virginia to find those succulent portions of the hog. She made many successful sorties to the ham country and always returned triumphantly with trailer and car overflowing – but this was in the 1930s and country hams sold for 15 cents a pound, if you knew your farmer.” – submitted by Cornelia Gregory Hartman

Bessie Smith aka Mrs. John W. Parker “Their home on Main and Elgin was of white board with pillared galleries typical of Main Street at that time. The ceilings were high and there was a fireplace in every room. The back yard sheltered a cow, chickens, turkeys, dogs and cats. On the side was a garden. This was an unlandscaped area of beauty and fragrance composed of the shrubs, trees and colors that she loved.” – submitted by Dorothy Dunn Davis

Martha Nance aka Mrs. David M. Picton, Jr. “Hours of fun playing “house,” learning to cook, birthday parties, have passed in the playhouse in the side yard of Mrs. David Picton, Jr., at 3374 Chevy Chase. Designed to conform with the New Orleans colonial large home, one of the first homes in River Oaks Addition, the playhouse was in full miniature, even to kitchen sink, Frigidaire, and gas stove. It was built as a surprise gift of Mr. Will Hogg while the five little Picton girls – Martha Ann, Lida, Grace, Alice and Ellen – were away visiting grandmother the summer of 1929. This surprise fairyland room proved most useful as well. For, two years later, when the sixth girl, Julia, was expected, and a new wing was being built on the large house, all of the cooking for the family for six weeks was prepared in the playhouse.” – submitted by Lida Picton Suttles

And one more:

Margaret Houston Morrow aka Mrs. Robert A. John “She was the first grandchild of General and Mrs. Sam Houston … When the family moved to Houston in 1909, they had ten children. With so large a family, food was a major subject. Everything was ordered on the grand scale, by crate, bushel and gallon. Baked red fish was a favorite dish, especially in the summer when the family moved to the Bayshore. In the early days, this trip was made by train, as going by horse and carriage took one whole day. All summer the home overflowed with family, cousins and friends.” – submitted by Elizabeth John Strong

What did these women cook and serve? The book has various recipes for oysters, crab, whole fish and wild game, and there were many fruit and nut desserts. Many things were deviled or gratinéed or made in large servings for regular gatherings among extended families.

Here are recipes for chicken aspic (“a nice entrée for summer days”) and tomato soup salad (“often served to her dear friends before an afternoon or evening of Bridge or Canasta”).

Chicken Aspic
By Josie Burton aka Mrs. W.K. Morrow

1 quart minced chicken
1 cup whipped cream
3 Tbsp. Worcestershire sauce
1 cup stock
2 Tbsp. gelatin

METHOD: Soak gelatin in small amount of cold water and dissolve in hot stock. When cool, add Worcestershire sauce and chicken. Fold in whipped cream, pour into mold and chill until firm. Serve on lettuce leaf with home-made mayonnaise.

Tomato Soup Salad
By Ida Warner aka Mrs. J.W. Lockett
(make the day before serving)

1 clove garlic, peeled. Rub bowl and discard garlic.
2 ¼ cups tomato juice
4 ripe medium-sized tomatoes, finely diced
8 green onions, finely chopped
2 to 3 cucumbers, pared and finely diced
1 cup celery, diced
2 Tbsp. vinegar
2 Tbsp. lemon juice2 tsp. MSG
1 Tbsp.salt
Dash pepper

METHOD: Combine all ingredients. Refrigerate overnight.