You won't want to visit the Institute of Texan Cultures
(ITC) for the food history and politics themselves. Dispersed throughout the 182,000-square-foot complex, are but brief mentions of food heritage; the immigrant struggle and the subsequent assimilation in the United States is what really takes center stage here. Nonetheless, the sparse displays, interactive instruction, recreations, photographs, and artifacts still make for some fascinating tidbits that depict just how important a role food traditions played in Texas for the Czechs, Austrians, Jews, Poles, Wends, Japanese, Italians, Swiss, Germans, and other groups.
Located in downtown San Antonio in the HemisFair Park Campus, the Institute of Texan Cultures is a component of The University of Texas at San Antonio and highlights the diverse populations that have settled throughout the state (because, of course, there are many more than one may assume). Adult tickets are just $8 each, and ITC aims to prove that the cultural diversity of the state can go head-to-head with any other port of entry in the U.S. The Institute's interior is set-up as a roundabout, starting with prehistoric indigenous peoples, and gradually working the user around the exhibit circle, from group to group. Food makes appearances every now and then and reminds us how people used to cook and prepare ingredients, as well as which foods were valued, how small family grocers operated, which peoples grew which foods, how most everything was handmade, and the labor and work that went into each.
Native Indians prized corn and a dish called atole -- a gruel-like drink, which gets mention in the first enclave in the ITC. Moving right, the Czech display (pictured below) houses a replica old-fashioned kitchen, complete with home-canned produce, cooking utensils our modern eye would never recognize (no plastic or Teflon in sight), and even a fermenter crock with audio instructions -- an elderly Czech woman with a bad accent tells the user just how to prepare the cabbage dish (shred, place in crock, mash down, weigh with a dish, leave alone for a few weeks until it's ready). Other interesting and ironic mentions include a quote (pictured below) from San Angelo resident Barbara Rosenberg who says, "Finding foods which fit the kosher Passover restrictions wasn't always easy in West Texas. But guacamole fit -- and it became just as traditional as chopped liver for my family." And near the end of the roundabout progression of exhibits is an entire wall dedicated to the struggle of Japanese immigrants (pictured below) who, either willingly or forcibly, worked rice, citrus, and other crops once arriving in Texas. All of these groups clung tightly to the sacred foods of their homeland, while embracing the popular eats of Texas.
Visit the Institute of Texan Cultures for the political and cultural history of the peoples, learn about Texas, be intrigued by the food mentions when they appear, and above all -- enjoy the industrial-style air conditioning inside the ITC when summer temps climb towards 100 degrees.
Liz Schau is a Certified Holistic Health Counselor who specializes in nutritional changes for women with thyroid disease, food allergies, autoimmunity, and digestive health concerns. You can find her at LizSchau.com.