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Roots and Road Foods: Deep South Texas and Beyond

Route of Cabeza de Vaca through South Texas, Mexico, and Trans Pecos Texas. At right, native women cook meat in a gourd vessel using hot rocks as a heating element. Painting adapted from mural by Nola Davis, courtesy Texas Parks and Wildlife Department.

As the Old World travelers moved farther inland they encountered the Avavares with whom they spent their last eight months in Texas before setting out on the first leg of sustained travel in a generally westward direction across south-central North America. It was from the Mariames and Yguazes to the Avavares that the castaways fled when they were at the tuna grounds that Krieger located 30 or 40 miles south of San Antonio and that Campbell argued were more on the order of 100 miles south of San Antonio. The Avavares spoke a different language and may have been at odds with the Mariames. Their homeland, which encompassed productive tuna grounds, was in the vicinity of the south-most bend of the Nueces River, only a few days walk from the Rio Grande. Cabeza described this portion of the South Texas brush country as follows:

The land is so rough and over grown that many time we would gather in the brush forests [montes], and when we finished taking it our blood would be running in many places, from the thorns and bushes…. At times it happened that I gathered wood where after it had cost me much blood I could not take it out, neither on my back, nor by dragging it. – Cabeza de Vaca (Krieger 2002:204).

Of their stay with the Avavares, Cabeza de Vaca wrote:

Among these we were always well treated, although we dug up whatever we were to eat, and carried own loads of water and wood. Their dwelling and food supplies are like those of the previous ones, although they go hungry more often… We went about always naked [en cueros] like them and at night we covered ourselves with deer skins. Of the eight months we were with them we suffered great hunger during six, for they do not have fish either. And at the end of this time the tunas were already beginning to ripen and without their perceiving us we went away to others that were farther on, called the Maliacones. – Cabeza de Vaca (Krieger 2002:204).

Oviedo’s version of the joint report made it clear that life in the South Texas brush country was markedly tougher than it was for people whose homeland encompassed the better watered tuna grounds to the north and certainly in comparison to those who occupied the outer Gulf Coastal Plain in general. In other words, the Avavares and their inland neighbors were poor folks compared to the Mariames, Yguazes, and Charrucos whose homelands were more productive, especially in terms of game, fish, shellfish, and nuts.

During the time they were with these Indians they suffered much hunger, and not less, but even greater than during the past seven years. The cause [of the hunger] was that these Indians were not near water, where they could kill fish, and thus they did not eat there [anything] but roots. There they [the Indians] have greater trouble [keeping alive] than all of the others who [do] obtain fish. Thus, during the whole year they did not see themselves satisfied [in their hunger]. And there, the boys are so thin and swollen that they resemble toads. But at least, among these Indians those Christians were well treated, and they permitted them to live in freedom and do everything they wanted. -Oviedo (Krieger 2002:275).

By the time Cabeza de Vaca and his fellow trekkers arrived in the Avavares’ homeland, they had already developed reputations as traders and healers. It was there, however, that their reputations as healers grew considerably and paved the way for their westward march and freed them of the drudgery of root-digging. As with native healers, these foreigner-healers cured by blowing and chanting, and sometimes by performing surgery. From Cabeza de Vaca’s perspective, however, it was their use of the sign of the Christian cross and their faith in the Christian God that led to their success as healers. They were usually paid for their cures in food, often tunas and pieces of venison, which they relished.

The trekkers often ate the venison they received raw. As Cabeza de Vaca noted, they feared that “if we had put it to roast, the first Indian that came up would take it and eat it. It seemed to us that it was not good to put it such risk. And also we were not such that we would take the trouble to eat it roasted or could not swallow it raw. This is the life that we had there and that little sustenance we gained with the trifles that made with our hands.” The type of roasting to which Cabeza de Vaca referred was probably accomplished on/over an open-air hearth. If the meat had been cooked in an earth oven, it could not be snatched away so easily. In any case, cooking on and in the coals, without any rocks, as well as cooking on open air hearths with stone heating elements are common techniques among hunters and gatherers worldwide.

A short time after departing from the Avavares and while they were waiting for the tunas to ripen, Cabeza de Vaca and his companions along with native hosts subsisted on “a small fruit from certain trees.” Most of the fruit was still green, however, such that “two handfuls” was about all they could stand to eat each day. “It had so much milk that it burned our mouths, and while we lacked water it made everyone who ate it very thirsty” (Cabeza de Vaca in Krieger 2002:204-205). It is not clear just what this fruit was, but given the time of the year, it may have been Texas/Mexican persimmon (Diospyros texana). When ripe, the sweet, albeit tart, fruit is mainstay for many of South Texas’ mammals, including deer, coyotes, and raccoons, and one I have enjoyed during forays into the brush country. At that time of the year, however, the small green fruit was not deemed reliable as a road food so Cabeza de Vaca and his cohorts bought and ate two dogs, presumably after cooking them by one means or another.

Wild olives (Cordia boissieri, aka Mexican olive or anacahuita) are another prime contender.  They are small in size, about the size of a domesticated Mediterranean olive, and they are edible, albeit not very tasty regardless of the stage of maturation.  According to archaeobotanist Dr. Phil Dering, “it will make you pretty dizzy if you gorge on it.”  Wild olive trees are widespread in the Texas counties that border the lower Rio Grande in the vicinity of Falcon Reservoir.  In 2008, wild olives were immature in mid June and a few prickly pear tunas were beginning to ripen in that part of the world.  Of course, we do not know the degree to which today’s fruit-ripening pattern matches that of 1535.

While they were on their way to the Rio Grande and temporally without Indian companions, Cabeza de Vaca reported: “We gathered many tuna leaves and roasted them in an oven [horno] we had made, and we gave them so much fire that in the morning [the tuna leaves] were ready to eat.” Farther along their trek, but still in deep South Texas, they were again rewarded with food for blessing and healing people they encountered in a temporary village (i.e., rancheria) with 50 mat-lodge dwellings. In this case they were given “tuna leaves and roasted green tunas”.

It was in the brush country between the Nueces River and the Rio Grande, at the rancheria with 50 dwellings, that the trekkers first encountered mesquite (Prosopis glandulosa) bean flour and described the process of mixing the flour with “earth.”

painting of gathering tunas by Ted DeGrazia
Picking fruits at the tuna grounds. It was during a large gathering at cactus fields that the trekkers made their departure from the Mariames and Yguazes. According to Krieger's calculations, these fields likely were located south of San Antonio near the south-most bend of the Nueces River. Painting by Ted DeGrazia, courtesy of the DeGrazia Foundation.
painting by Ted DeGrazia
Cabeza de Vaca and his companions encountered more acute hunger as they moved westward into more arid terrains. Painting by Ted DeGrazia, courtesy of the DeGrazia Foundation.
photo of deer
Deer meat, or venison, was provided to the Spaniards in payment for their “cures” among the native peoples. Fearful of losing the prized food, the men ate the meat raw. Photo courtesy Texas Parks and Wildlife Department.
photo of persimmon fruits
Green fruit of the Texas/Mexican persimmon (Diospyros texana). These fruits may have been the ones described by Cabeza de Vaca as full of a “milk” that burned their mouths.
photo of mesquite beans
Beans of the Honey mesquite (Prosopis glanduloso) were ground into flour and mixed with earth, according to the trekkers’ accounts. The reportedly sweet-tasting mixture was eaten raw or baked into bread. Photo by Phil Dering.
photo of a wild olive tree (Cordia boissieri)
A wild olive tree (Cordia boissieri), or anacahuita, growing near San Ygnacio in Zapata County. These small olives may have been the little green fruits eaten by Cabeza de Vaca and his party as he neared the Rio Grande. Photo by Alston Thoms.

At the point where they crossed the Rio Grande, which likely was in the vicinity of today’s Falcon Reservoir, the trekkers stayed a short while in a village, what Oviedo called a “town” with 100 dwellings. A few miles to the south and up the San Juan valley, they visited another town, this one with 70-80 dwellings. According to Oviedo's account, the people in this region also relied heavily on tunas and deer as well as mesquite beans. In exchange for their curing endeavors there, the trekkers received 28 loaves of mesquite “flower.” Nothing was written about how any of these foods were cooked.

From the Rio Grande south and west all the way to near the confluence of the Rios Conchos and Grande, tunas continued to be a mainstay. Also growing in abundance in northeast Mexico and throughout much of the Edwards Plateau were lechuguilla and sotol, Agavaceae family plants with edible “crowns.” Archaeological records from this region reveal that the sweet tasting crowns had long been staples. Ethnohistoric accounts from the 17 th and 18 th centuries attest to the crowns being baked for two days or so in earth ovens. Oddly, accounts by the trekkers did not mention these plants as an important food source anywhere in Mexico’s northern tier. Had they eaten them, they surely would have commented on their sweet taste. Moreover, it does not seem likely that they would have confused the often dense patches of agave and sotol with what they reported as sparsely-occurring, bitter-tasting roots.

When they traversed northeast Mexico, especially when they were south of the Trans-Pecos and Big Bend country, the bison-hide trade was in full swing but they did not report eating bison. It was the “Cow people” and their neighbors along the Rio Grande and its tributaries who hunted the bison and introduced the hides into the trade networks of what is today northeastern Mexico. Presumably their hunting grounds encompassed the dry grasslands of the southern Edwards Plateau and Trans-Pecos basin and range country.

South of the Rio Grande, the trekkers encountered Indian people who also relied heavily on rabbits and hunted deer in the nearby mountains. Rabbit and deer meat was cooked in earth ovens. It can be inferred from Cabeza de Vaca’s comments that cooking time was no more than 10 hours. Some of the groups they encountered in what Krieger believed to be the San Juan River basin south of Falcon Reservoir used bottle gourds “that floated to them on the river.” To the west of there, along the southern tributaries to the Rio Grande, the trekkers encountered farming peoples who lived in permanent houses and ate beans and melons. This was the first time, since leaving the forested land of La Florida, that they encountered farmers.

Among the groups who lived in permanent houses and relied heavily on cultivated beans and squash were those who left their villages seasonally to hunt bison. Cabeza de Vaca referred to these people as “those of the cows” because they killed so many bison and it was among them that, for the first time, he observed an exotic cooking technique, stone boiling.

photo of the Rio Grande
The Rio Grande north of the Falcon Reservoir. Along the river’s fertile terraces, the trekkers first encountered native groups practicing farming.
photo of a prickly pear patch
Prickly pear growing among mesquite trees, a common sight today, as in the past, in south Texas. For the native peoples, as well as the Spaniards, these plants were an important source of food in the arid brush country.

When Cabeza de Vaca and those accompanying him continued on their way across north-central Mexico, they encountered many farming communities, and on one occasion they were given “a great amount” of corn products, squash, beans, and cotton blankets. In this region, there was also an abundance of deer, and deer hides were important as trade items. As they neared the Pacific coast, Cabeza de Vaca reported that native agricultural practices had been curtailed severely insofar as the Indians had deserted their villages, which had been burned by Spanish slave hunters. The people there, along with Cabeza de Vaca and those traveling with him, found themselves in the midst of the initial conquest of this region of the New World, displaced and hungry but temporarily safe and satiated by wild roots.

It was a thing that we held in great pity to see the land very fertile and very beautiful and very full of waters and rivers and to see those places deserted and burned and the [remaining] people so weak and sick, all fleeing and hiding away. And because they were not planting, with such hunger they subsisted on the bark of trees and [on] roots. This hunger in part reached us all along this trail, because they could ill provide for us being so miserable that it seemed they wanted to die. They brought us robes [mantas] that they had hidden because of the Christians and gave them to us and even told us how at other times the Christians had entered that land and had destroyed and burned the towns and carried away half of the men and all of the women and children and that those who managed to escape from their hands were going about in flight. -Cabeza de Vaca (Krieger 2002:228)

The Indians on the road with Cabeza de Vaca when news of the Spanish slave hunters arrived undoubtedly expected Cabeza de Vaca to protect them from the wrath of the slavers. He endeavored to do so but, as the below quote illustrates, both he and the Indians knew how different the Old World trekkers had become from the conquistadores bent on subjugating, enslaving, and Christianizing the people of those lands.

map of the Transcontinental route of Cabeza de Vaca
Transcontinental route of Cabeza de Vaca and his companions across south and west Texas and Mexico, as charted by Alex Krieger. Map adapted from Krieger (2004), courtesy of University of Texas Press.

In deciding that Naked and Barefoot, extracted from the above quote, would be the working title for his forthcoming book Alex Krieger marked the tone of the New World into which the castaways had returned. In its final form, We Came Naked and Barefoot: The Journey of Cabeza de Vaca across North America revealed the fruit of Krieger’s painstaking analysis of the route(s) across the continent and, for me, beckoned assessments of the roots of native South Texas cookery.

In Retrospect: “we in turn gave to others”

Given the widespread states of military conquest and internecine conflict in the early 1500s, it is not at all surprising that shipwrecked soldiers of fortune along the Texas coast, noblemen and slaves alike, were seen and treated as prisoners-of-war. They were captured, arms and war booty in hand, by well-armed, numerically superior, better-provisioned, seemingly gigantic, militiamen who aimed to protect their village from would-be conquistadores. Some of the starving castaways were summarily executed by their captors; others were “brought back to life,” rehabilitated, and sold or traded to neighboring bands; several avoided captivity only to perish from exhaustion or starvation. The longest surviving POWs, our four trekkers and perhaps a few others who unceremoniously “disappeared” among the Indians, arguably accepted the state of affairs, with its requisite forced labor, and, for years, they planned their escape.

Cabeza de Vaca and his fellow trekkers survived their ordeals as POWs and became successful healers and traders and effective, albeit not necessarily efficient, hunters and gatherers. Over the course of almost seven years, they came to know vast tracts of North America, root by root, fruit by fruit, and animal by animal, terrestrial and aquatic alike. During their cultural metamorphoses, the survivors had ample opportunity to learn enough about the landscapes and cooking technologies in greater South Texas to eke out a living along their routes to freedom. They made their escape when they entered the South Texas heartland for the last time and fled south to would-be enemies who welcomed the soon-to-be trekkers. In doing so, they availed themselves to the powers of Old World healers whose fame was spreading fast across South Texas.

There may well be other perspectives from which to envision the success of this particular great escape. Might not it have been that, after years of service, the POWs unceremoniously became adopted members of their respective bands? They carried their own weight, shared their curing powers, and likely engaged in a bit of family-building of their own, although there is little to hint of that in the written accounts. In any event, their abrupt departure from custody may have been more akin to a difficult parting than a desperate escape from seasoned fighters and trackers who knew the regional landscape like the back of their hands.

Drawing of Cabeza de Vaca by Jose Cisneros
Cabeza de Vaca and his companions passing through the Big Bend country of Texas. During their long journey in Texas, the Spaniards had become successful healers and traders and effective hunters and gatherers. Drawing By Jose Cisneros. Image courtesy of the artist.