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Texas Cooking Main > Texana > Texana Book Reviews

Boardin' in the Thicket:
Recipes and Reminiscences of Early Big Thicket Boarding Houses

Boardin in the Thicket book cover
by Wanda A. Landrey, University of North Texas Press

Original Book Review by

Like many books these days, Boardin' in the Thicket caught my eye while I was browsing around in Amazon.com. As a Fort Worth native, I am at my greatest ease in the comparatively wide open spaces of the North Central Texas prairies. However, I went to college in East Texas and, during that impressionable time of my life, I acquired an appreciation for the beauty, wildness and natural peculiarities of the deep woods, not to mention a real affection for East Texas people, many of whom possessed those same qualities.

Carol Rust, Food Editor at the Houston Chronicle, commented in her review of Boardin' in the Thicket that:

It's either a cookbook with a lot of history or a history book with a lot of recipes. Either way, Boardin' in the Thicket is a fascinating collection of characters, customs, historical tidbits and recipes for down-home country cooking.

We'll discuss the history, first. The Big Thicket is that part of Texas whose existence has been denied by Hollywood and most other media seeking to portray our great state. Green and verdant with lush vegetation and dense hardwood and pine forests, the Big Thicket was almost impenetrable when it first began being settled in the early 1800's but, by the time capitalists took an interest in its abundant natural resources -- first timber, then oil -- many small towns and a network of railroads had evolved. Enterprise created the jobs, the jobs brought workers, and the workers required bed and board.

The Big Thicket didn't exactly invent the boarding house, but it provided a setting in which it flourished. For a period of about 50 years, falling fairly equally in the 19th and 20th centuries, Big Thicket boarding houses and so-called hotels attracted patrons by providing the best available accommodations and, especially, by serving up good food.

The author, Wanda A. Landrey, is a historian and a descendant of Big Thicket boarding house keepers. Over a period of years, she traveled many miles along the roads of East Texas visiting old sites, conducting many interviews, and collecting photographs and recipes. The resulting book, Boardin' in the Thicket: Recipes and Reminiscences of Early Big Thicket Boarding Houses, is her attempt to conserve this overlooked part of our culture and heritage.

Ms. Landrey gives each of her featured boarding houses its own chapter filled with lively narrative concerning the town, its denizens, what was fashionable, and the meat from the interviews she conducted, often with people who lived at the boarding houses as children. Each chapter concludes with several recipes from the boarding house in question.

And what recipes! I like to think I can spot a good recipe, and I was impressed with the selections and their variety. With a few exceptions, the author tested the recipes herself while writing the book. From Pecan Torte at the Harvey Houses to Hog Killin' Day at the Vines Hotel in Saratoga, Ms. Landrey has included many excellent recipes, some of which are antiques. One reason I can attest personally to the quality of many of the recipes, without having made them myself, is that they are identical to many recipes handed down to me by my mother -- recipes that I use today.

There are the budget-stretchers one would expect a boarding house to serve, Chicken & Dumplings and Meat Loaf, for example. The Springs Hotel in Sour Lake, however, was a fashionable spa of the day, and its menu included local game, from pan-fried and dried venison, venison roast and chili, squirrel stew, squirrel and dumplings, to Bear Meat Roasts. (The Springs Hotel began operating in the mid-1800's when black bears in the Big Thicket were still much in evidence.)

Boarding house kitchens in the Big Thicket produced all manner of pan-fried steak (forerunner of today's Chicken Fried), and the Okra & Tomatoes from the Scott Hotel in Trinity is a classic dish that I would welcome at my supper table any night. Biscuits, fruit preserves, Sassafras Tea (taken in the Spring to thin the blood), even a recipe and procedure for making Lye Soap.

And I wasn't kidding about the Hog Killin' Day at the Vines Hotel. We are led through the process, from the squeal to preserving the fresh meat to all those recipes that utilize the whole animal. Boardin' in the Thicket might be handy to have just in case Y2K really does cast us all back a hundred years.

Boardin' in the Thicket is a special book, and one that I heartily recommend. The author's down-to-earth style makes for a pleasant, quick read. The book contains many photographs that are interesting and directly related to the book's subject matter. Boardin' in the Thicket is an excellent gift choice for someone interested in Texas history or food, or both. But it is not merely a period piece. Boarding house cooks a hundred years ago and today's cooks have a common goal: To turn out good food that people enjoy and keep coming back for. Boardin' in the Thicket will assist you ably with that goal.

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