Century-old cookbook reveals flavors from Marfa’s past

MARFA — After Bob Wright’s late wife Sandy passed away in 2011, Wright — owner and broker at Marfa Realty and a Marfa Rotary Club member — started sorting through her belongings. Among them was a cookbook of local recipes from 1911.

Sandy’s grandmother received the book as a wedding gift, Wright says. He suspects city boosters helped put together the collection over 100 years ago, but isn’t quite sure.

“I don’t really think I’d ever seen it,” he says of the historic cookbook.

Regardless, the collection offers a fascinating look at how locals prepared meals in Marfa’s past. Most of the old-timey recipes are attributed to former residents, including buttermilk pie from Mrs. T. A. Childers and sweet peach pickles from Mrs. W. A. Mimms.

Wright, 73, says he doesn’t have a favorite recipe — noting that he’s more of a barbeque guy.

“Most of the recipes from the old days wouldn’t be on a health list,” he says with a laugh. “They’re not low-calorie.”

After Wright found the book, he donated publishing rights to the Marfa Rotary Club. The organization has reprinted copies of the book ever since, helping to fund college scholarships for local youth and outings for the Rotary Youth Leadership Awards, a mentor program.

Dan Platt, president of the Marfa Rotary Club, confirmed that the cookbook (along with other fundraisers) had helped fund youth initiatives and scholarships — including seven $1000 scholarships for graduating seniors earlier this year.

“The cookbooks are one of our fundraisers,” he said. “Personally, I haven’t cooked anything from it.”

Originally from Georgia, Wright met Sandy in Del Rio in the 1960s and got married in 1968. With Wright serving in the Air Force and in U.S. customs, the couple lived all across the region, and even as far as Cape Romanzof in Alaska, before moving to Marfa, Sandy’s hometown, in 1992.

Wright contrasted Georgia’s classic southern cooking with some of the recipes in the book. He thinks West Texas also stands out from other regional cooking styles, like New Mexico’s.

“They’ll have different types of ground pepper — not necessarily for heat, but just the flavor,” he says, explaining the difference. “In West Texas, you have a lot of seasonings that have to be dry and preserved. Especially if they’re older recipes, there wasn’t that availability for fresh items.”

The reliance on dried, preserved or canned items is part of what sets cooking in Far West Texas apart from food styles across the American Southwest, he says. As one example, he says people made guacamole from canned asparagus when they couldn’t find fresh avocados.

“I’ve never tried that,” he says of that recipe, laughing. He suspects it isn’t very good.

The cookbook is available for purchase at Marfa Realty on 123 Highland Street. Below, see an excerpted recipe from the cookbook: smothered beans by Mrs. J. J. Maurer:

After removing strings from green beans break into pieces. Wash in cold water and drain in towel. Put tablespoonful of lard into sauce pan over fire, and when hot put in the beans with a small pinch of [baking] soda. Stir a few minutes; then add about one-half a can tomatoes (small size). Cook slowly for three hours without seasoning; then season and serve.