Origins: San Antonio - #121

Every place in the world has a series of things that give that spot a special character... and make it different from every other place.  When you look at the ORIGINS of these things, you often end up with a better appreciation of the territory -- and that makes it a lot more interesting to visit.  And sometimes, these ORIGINS help us understand why we live the way we do.

On March 6, 1836, three thousand troops under the command of the Mexican dictator Santa Ana overwhelmed a hundred and eighty-nine Texans at the Battle of the Alamo.  Six weeks later the army of Texas under the command of General Sam Houston defeated Santa Ana, and Texas became an independent nation.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  The battle cry of the army of Texas was “Remember the Alamo.”  And the people of Texas have been doing that ever since, especially here in San Antonio, which is the home of The Alamo.  I like San Antonio a lot, particularly because it doesn’t forget.  It remembers its past and does everything it can to preserve it.  At a time when many cities are becoming standardized and it’s getting harder to tell one from the other, San Antonio stands out as different -- and in the nicest way.

The first thing that sets it apart is the San Antonio River, which runs smack dab through the center of town.  Richard Hurd is the Superintendent of River Operations.

RICHARD HURD:  The San Antonio River as it stretches through the downtown area of San Antonio, has the River Walk, which is a linear park area along the banks of the river.  And the River Walk history really goes back 75 or 80 years, and this development you see today is an evolution of what’s occurred over that time.  Habitation along the river goes back several thousands of years when Indians first settled along the river and really it was a source of water.  The water in the San Antonio River emerges from springs about three miles north of downtown.  We’re the largest city in the United States who gets their source of water from an underground source exclusively.  And the downtown area really grew up around that river.  What you have today is a very beautiful park area along the banks of the San Antonio River, and adjacent to that park area you have some very nice commercial development that is grown up over the years, and I think one of our real success points is it did occur a long period -- it really evolved.

BURT WOLF:  But it really is a river, and it runs through it.

RICHARD HURD:  Oh yeah.  Yeah.  It’s a river.  But it’s fairly slowly sometimes.  And fairly rapidly sometimes.  It has its own free-thinking, free spirit.  I mean, it’s just subject to the elements just like any other river.

And we’ll be moving into the Arneson River Theater, here.  Which is an amphitheater which was part of the original WPA construction.  Arneson was the engineer on the project during the WPA construction; he died during the project and they named the theater in his memory.  But, on the one side you have grass steps, seating, on the one side of the river, and on the other side you have a stage.  During performances you’ll have barges passing along the front of the theater.  And a beautiful wooden stage for flamenco-type dancing and performances.  During the summer months there’s an event there every night of the week.  From Memorial Day through Labor Day, there’s something there every night.  It’s great for viewing, makes it a little tough on keeping the grass on the steps, but we adjust.

The waterfall we’re coming up against, this was donated by an anonymous donor during Hemisfair ‘68, and it’s recirculated river water.  We have pumps located behind the fountain that draw water out of the river and circulate it through the features.  And it’s really a beautiful feature.  One of the comments that I’ve heard in ‘68 was this area had too much concrete, too much stone.  Twenty-five years later we can see that with the growth of the landscape, that it’s really softened it tremendously.  It’s still very attractive in here.

Spain’s colonization of North America started in Mexico and moved north into what is now Texas.  France’s colonization of North America started in Canada and moved south into Louisiana.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  Eventually the French and Spanish began to bump into each other, and not in the friendliest of ways.  The Spanish wanted to keep the French from moving west and they thought one way they could do that would be by colonizing Texas with missions.  So they set missions up along the east coast of Texas.  You can get a pretty good idea of what an early Spanish mission looked like by visiting the Mission San Jose right here in San Antonio.

LEE WILDER: The mission was not a church.  A mission was an entire community.  It was run by the Indians.  They were self-governing.  And then as they built the walls, they built their homes into it.  And you can see that they would have two-room apartments throughout the compound.  Here at Mission San Jose they had eighty-four two-room apartments built into the protective walls.

BURT WOLF:  Were they condos or you rented them?

LEE WILDER:  They were sort of like condos; they did own them.

Within the missions, of course, they learned about Catholicism.  They learned the religion, and they learned the way of life.  This is a very interesting part of the mission.  While this is a reconstruction, this is what the entire front of the church would have been in.  They frescoed the entire front, and in the 1920s they were able to determine the pattern and the colors well enough to reconstruct this particular section to show people what the entire front of the church looked like -- in highly decorative geometric designs of red, blues, and yellows.

The church here at Mission San Jose was built in the 1780s.  It was not the first church, but it became the most elaborate and was known as the Queen of the Missions.  Now, every part of the church instructed the neophytes in some manner.  The shape, the configuration, and most specifically the fine artistic statuary on the front of the church.  And keep in mind that the entire front was frescoed with those bright geometric designs.  Must’ve been a startling sight to anyone coming in.

And on Sunday mornings there’s a perfect example of cultural blending and preservation -- a Mariachi Mass.

LEE WILDER:  Even today, the church is an active parish.  The community still uses these grounds for festivals, and carnivals, and special uses.  The government, in the form of the National Parks Service, has come in and again we’re collaborating with the church in the preservation of these magnificent missions for future generations.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  For hundreds of years the Spanish and the French were in direct competition -- and that was even true when it came to the cooking of their friars in the colonial missions.  Throughout most of North America, the Spanish friars took second place to the French friars.  But that was only because the French friars had earned their reputation frying potatoes, and in actuality it was the Spanish friars who brought the potatoes to North America.  It’s a very confusing situation.  But there’s nothing confusing about the food in San Antonio.  It’s good, and much of the history of the community is reflected in the recipes.

There are at least twenty restaurants in San Antonio that are worth a visit and they’re not hard to find.  We went to a spot called El Mirador.  We had Chilaquiles, which are scrambled eggs that are made with tortilla chips, onions, tomatoes, and jalapeño chilies.  They came with refried beans, fresh tortillas and coffee that had a hit of chocolate in it.  It’s a real down home place with good food at breakfast, lunch and dinner.

This is the restaurant Mi Tierra, which has a number of things going for it.  In terms of free publicity (which may be good or bad, depending on your politics), President Clinton likes to jog and apparently be photographed in his Mi Tierra T-shirt.  The assumption is that he is trying to jog off the calories that he picked up in the restaurant.

EUSEBIO TRUJILLO:  This is our traditional coconut candy.  We use a little bit of food coloring to give it the pinkish presentation..

BURT WOLF:  A little bit...!

EUSEBIO TRUJILLO:  It really is attractive, it’s appealing to the people, it makes it look very tasteful.  And here we also present our traditional coconut square candy.  It’s a solid square of coconut, it’s sweetened, and we present the traditional colors of the Mexican flag -- the red, white, and green.  Here we have our candied oranges.  And what we do here is we serve a freshly squeezed orange juice for breakfast every morning, and where we used to throw away the orange peel, now we send it to our candy man, and he does the same process, the candy process, and instead of having to pay a higher cost for waste management, here our customers assist us in paying us to carry it away.

BURT WOLF:  Recycle!  I like that.

EUSEBIO TRUJILLO:  Recycle!  Zero waste concept is what we call it.

Another specialty that’s very nutritious is our candied pumpkins.

BURT WOLF:  Ah ha.  What makes it nutritious?

EUSEBIO TRUJILLO:  Oh, ‘cause it’s a pumpkin, and so it’s one of the major, what’s that?  The major food...?

BURT WOLF:  Major food groups.  Candy is one of the major food groups.

EUSEBIO TRUJILLO:  Yes.  What we do here is we also use the pumpkin to its fullest.  The seeds from the pumpkin we set out to dry, and we grind them up and use them in another recipe in our kitchen.

BURT WOLF:  I love that.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  Now, this is my favorite cookie, it gets the national award for recycling.  It’s called “la piedra” -- the stone.  When anything crumbles or breaks or falls apart up here in the bakery, they don’t throw it out, they put it into a big bin.  Then they take it back by the ovens, mix it with a little moisture, shape it like this, rebake it, and sell it to you.  The stone!

We also had a fine meal at Boudro’s.  It’s in a building that was put up in the late 1800s and it’s right on the River Walk.  The food is American Southwest.  Guacamole made fresh at tableside.  Cheese and black bean soup.  Crab tostados.  And sweet potato cake.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  Texas also has some rather unusual packaged foods that make reference to the state in one way or another.  Texas is big -- 265,000 square miles of land.  So when Texas makes a jelly bean -- that’s what you get.  One jellybean to a mouth full.  And let us not forget to remember the Alamo Crackers.  It says on the box, “We will never surrender when it comes to good taste.”  I think they meant “good flavor,” I’m not sure there’s anything in “good taste” about this.  But if we’re moving in that direction, could I put ice cream on this and end up with PIE ALAMO?  You’re right, you’re right -- I never ever should have said that.

Please allow me to redeem myself by introducing you to Sally Buchanan.  She is the President of the San Antonio Conservation Society, which was organized in 1924 and has been working since then to preserve the best of this city.

SALLY BUCHANAN:  The women who formed it were interested in far more than just buildings.  They wanted, also, the natural resources -- the old historic parks to be protected, too.  Because they were as much a part of the character of San Antonio as the old buildings, the streets, and anything else we have around here.  And they lobbied for years to keep those bits and pieces of our old heritage, whether it was street names, whether it was the character of the river and to make it more beautiful, or whether it was the missions which we went at hammer and tong, tooth and nail, and bought up property around it in order to put the mission, particularly San Jose Mission, back together.

The Wulff House, which was built by Anton Wulff in 1870, was bought by the Conservation Society as its headquarters in 1974.  And it is a house that has the service areas down below grade a bit so it’s cooler.  You know, we are at the level of Cairo and Delhi on the latitude -- about that -- so our sun is high overhead.  So you want to do whatever you can to defend yourself from the sun.  You look and notice that it has very tall windows, and inside very high ceilings which gives it a wonderful cross-ventilation.

BURT WOLF:  It’s a natural air-conditioner.

SALLY BUCHANAN:  It’s as natural air-conditioning as you can get.  Anton Wulff was our first Parks’ Commissioner here, and he built this glorious building that is at the beginning of the King William Historic District.

We are at the Edward Steves Homestead which is owned by the Conservation Society and one of the two places in King William’s Street in the district where you’re able to go in one of these grand houses and see how people lived.  When you go in the house you will see stenciled ceilings, incredible innovations for that time, mercury switches, lamps that are fitted with electricity and gas, and a wonderful marketry table in the back room, which the employees of Edward Steves made for him in the shop.

Another landmark in San Antonio is San Fernando Cathedral.  The first foundation stone was laid in 1735 by the Canary Islanders.  Santa Ana hung his red flag from the church and used the tower as an observation post during the Battle of the Alamo.

This is the Governor’s Palace.  No governor actually lived there; it was a residence for the local military officers.

In front of it is the Military Plaza.  This was the earliest permanently settled spot by European immigrants.  After the revolution it was the commercial center of San Antonio, and home of the “Chili Queens.”

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  Starting in the 1880s and continuing through the 1940s, food stands were set up every night in the plazas of the city.  They were staffed by young ladies who were chaperoned and assisted by their families.  They served very spicy chili to customers who were accustomed to much blander recipes.

The women eventually became known as “The Chili Queens.”  Stephen Crane, author of The Red Badge of Courage, visited the Chili Queens in 1895 and described the food as tasting “like pounded firebrick from Hades.”  Chili received its first exposure to the international public when a San Antonio Chili Stand was set up at the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  That fair was known as the Columbian Exposition of 1893.  It was there to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Columbus’s arrival in the New World in 1492.  They wanted to open in ‘92, but the construction ran so late that they didn’t get open until ‘93.  Sound familiar?  The Chili Queens disappeared in the 1940s, but they arrive every year once again on Memorial Day Weekend in a celebration of their memory.

Situated directly on the banks of the San Antonio River is a building that has been designated a historic treasure.  The planning for the main structure got started sixteen years after the fall of the Alamo by four brothers of the Society of Mary who arrived in San Antonio to build a school.  In the 1930s it became the home of St. Mary’s University School of Law.

When the law school moved to a larger campus in 1966, the property was purchased by a graduate of the school named Patrick Kennedy.  Pat’s intention was to renovate the site and turn it into an elegant hotel.  But this was his old law school and he loved the place.  As he walked through the structure he remembered his experiences and made sure that the design of the new building would conserve the old building.

Today, the library where Pat spent his time preparing to pass the bar is the hotel bar, which he tries never to pass.

The restored structure is known as La Mansion del Rio.  It’s a member of the Preferred Hotels & Resorts, and it can restore your belief that luxury hotels are still around.

The main restaurant is called Las Canarias.  The name pays tribute to a group of settlers that came to San Antonio from the Canary Islands in 1723.  And their namesake restaurant makes a significant contribution to the local gastronomy.

Ralph Herrmann is the chef at La Mansion and he’s going to do a little cooking for us.  His first recipe is for Blackened Red Snapper on a bed of Grilled Pineapple Rice.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  Rice first came to Texas hundreds of years ago with the Spanish.  As a commercial product, it showed up in Texas right after the War Between The States.  And the same things that made rice important then are the things that make rice important today.

White rice has an almost unlimited shelf life.  And brown rice will hold for about six months.  All rice is easy to cook.  It’s high in complex carbohydrates, which makes it one of the healthiest fuels for your body.  It has a neutral flavor which allows it to blend with other foods.  And it is inexpensive.  On a more modern note -- it has no fat, no cholesterol and no sodium.

RALPH HERRMANN:  Okay, we’re going to add clarified butter to the pan.

Ralph starts his recipe for Pineapple Rice by pouring two tablespoons of clarified butter into a sauté pan, or you could use a vegetable oil and the results would be pretty much the same.  Then in go two cloves of minced garlic and two tablespoons of minced shallot or onion and four tablespoons of chopped green onion.  That sautés for a minute, after which the grilled pineapple is added.

That’s a whole pineapple that has been cut, cored, sliced, grilled and chopped.  Then a red bell pepper that has been roasted, seeded, and chopped.  A little salt and pepper.  And finally, two ounces of pineapple juice.  All that cooks together for about two minutes, at which point it is mixed into the four cups of precooked rice.  The rice is then molded with the aid of a cup and placed onto a serving plate.  A fillet of blackened red snapper goes on... a bit of grilled baby squash... and a sauce of avocado vinaigrette.

Ralph’s next recipe is for a Honey and Avocado Pico de Gallo, which could be served with fish or poultry.  And finally, for dessert, he’ll make a Honey Flan.

There are more than three hundred varieties of honey in the U.S., and the flavor of a particular honey depends on where the bees buzzed.  The flower that the bee tapped will determine both the flavor and the color of the honey that the bee will be making.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  In general, the lighter the honey the milder the flavor.  But darker honeys have interesting flavors and that’s why I use them.  Honey can add nice flavor notes to seasonings and sauces and dressings.  And while I’m in Texas, I should point out that one of the most common uses for honey is in barbecue sauce.  You know, if you come to Texas and you don’t say “barbecue” at least once, you’re in big trouble.

Ralph’s recipe for Honey Pico de Gallo begins with an onion being sliced in half, peeled, and chopped.  A half cup’s worth goes into a mixing bowl.  The ends are removed from six Roman tomatoes.  Then they are quartered, the cores are removed, and the remaining portion of the tomato is sliced into strips, cubed and placed in the bowl.  An avocado is quartered, peeled, diced and added.  The ends are cut from two Serrano peppers.  Then they are diced and mixed in.  Two cloves of crushed garlic are sliced, minced and added.  The juice of two limes goes in, plus a pinch of salt -- and finally the key ingredient: four tablespoons of honey.  A little mixing.  Two tablespoons of chopped cilantro.  A little more mixing and it’s ready.  Ralph uses the sauce for a dish of grilled chicken breasts.

Next up is the Honey Flan, but while we’re on the subject of honey, here are a few tips.  Don’t store honey in the refrigerator.  Just keep it in the jar at room temperature.  If it gets cloudy, which is part of the natural process of crystallization, heat it gently and it will return to its original liquid state.  You can use a warm water bath or after you make sure there’s no metal on the container you can put it in a microwave.  A little stirring and the crystals will dissolve.

And now -- a honey of a dessert.  Five whole eggs are whisked together in a mixing bowl.  Two cups of half and half are added.  Then three ounces of orange blossom honey.  A little mixing.

A vanilla bean is sliced.  The seeds and the meat are removed and added to the mixture.  If a vanilla bean is not easily available then a tablespoon of vanilla extract will do the job.  At this point the mixture is put aside for a few moments while two ounces of honey are heated and caramelized in a sauté pan.

As soon as the honey starts to turn brown it’s divided into eight ramekins.  Ralph is only using two, but you get the point.  The ramekins are tilted and turned so the caramelized honey coats the inside.  Then the ramekins go into a water bath and the water bath goes into a pre-heated 350-degree Fahrenheit oven for fifteen minutes.

When they come out, the flan is unmolded onto a serving plate and garnished with a sauce made from chopped Granny Smith apples, red apples and strawberries that have been diced and sautéed in a little honey.  Finally: a touch of mint.

The single largest group of European immigrants to arrive in San Antonio came from Germany.  In many cases they lived next to the native Mexican population, with each community exposing their cultural traditions to the other.  They influenced each others’ approach to business, art, architecture, food and particularly music.

At some point in the late 1800s the Mexican population in southern Texas adopted the accordion from the German settlers.  By the 1920s, the German polka and the waltz joined with the Mexican mariachi and produced a type of music called conjunto.  The Mexican 12-string bass guitar partnered with the German accordion.

Later a standup bass and drums were added.  The early lyrics dealt with experiences that were shared by both groups -- economic hardship, racial prejudice, tough times -- stories that gave conjunto its standing as true folk music.

Every May the Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center sponsors a five-day festival of conjunto music, and people come from all over the world to celebrate this sound.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  Well -- those are some of the things I’m going to remember about San Antonio, and I hope that you will remember to join us next time as we travel around the world looking at the ORIGINS of some of the things that surround us. I’m Burt Wolf.