Cooking Through History in San Antonio

Getting ready to cook the onions for Ensalada de Cebollas onion salad during historic cooking class at Casa Navarro State Historic Site in San Antonio TX (photo by Sheila Scarborough)

With a copy of the recipe nearby, getting ready to cook the onions for Ensalada de Cebollas during an historic cooking class at Casa Navarro State Historic Site in San Antonio TX (photo by Sheila Scarborough)

 

“You’re going to drive all the way to San Antonio to make a salad?!”

My daughter knows that I’m not into cooking at all, so this was a logical question.

There was method to the madness, though. I needed an excuse to get out of the house and away from work for at least part of the day, the Casa Navarro State Historic Site in San Antonio is only about two hours south of me – for Texas drivers, that is a piddly distance – and how hard could it be to participate in a low-key historic cooking class making ensalada de cebollas (onion salad?)

Off I went….

Casa Navarro is the restored 1850s adobe and limestone home of José Antonio Navarro, a giant figure in early Texas history and one of only two Tejanos to sign the 1836 Texas Declaration of Independence from Mexico. His former home is located right in downtown San Antonio, surrounded by tall buildings and parking lots; it is all that’s left of the Laredito westside barrio where Navarro lived. Site buildings are beautifully preserved, with gleaming exteriors that are whitewashed annually using a traditional mix of water, lime, and prickly pear cactus (nopalitos) pad juice.

My onion experience was part of Casa Navarro’s “Flashback Foodways” series of heritage cooking classes on the first Tuesday of the month, using recipes from historic Mexican cookbooks. A small donation of US$3 is suggested, but I’d say give them a little more if you can.

Site staff member Lester Velazquez-Po translated the recipe you see below, which came from the 1913 “pocket cookbook” La Cocina en el Bolsillo by Antonio Vanegas Arroyo, from the historic Mexican cookbook special collection at UTSA (University of Texas San Antonio.)

Ensalada de Cebollas recipe from 1913 Mexican cookbook La Cocina en el Bolsillo used at Casa Navarro State Historic Site San Antonio (photo by Sheila Scarborough)

Ensalada de Cebollas (onion salad) recipe from 1913 Mexican cookbook La Cocina en el Bolsillo used at Casa Navarro State Historic Site in San Antonio TX (photo by Sheila Scarborough)

The Casa Navarro kitchen is open-air, but even in the heat of a Texas summer, the thick adobe and giant courtyard live oak trees keep temperatures tolerable.

There are samples of traditional cooking equipment on display, although we did our particular class out on the patio with a portable propane stove.

Kitchen area at Casa Navarro State Historic Site San Antonio (photo by Sheila Scarborough)

Kitchen area at Casa Navarro State Historic Site in San Antonio TX (photo by Sheila Scarborough)

I loved that the onions we used in the recipe came from a special project….gardens that are tended at Mission San Juan Capistrano, part of the San Antonio Missions National Historical Park which is a new UNESCO World Heritage site and the first one in Texas.

The Mission San Juan gardens also grow food for the San Antonio Food Bank.

We prepped the onions for boiling down, tossing chopped remnants into a nearby kitchen garden where the heat would turn them into compost in short order.

Historic cooking class with Texas Historical Commission staff Emiliano Calderon in the courtyard at Casa Navarro State Historic Site San Antonio TX (photo by Sheila Scarborough)

Historic cooking class with Texas Historical Commission site staff Emiliano Calderon in the courtyard at Casa Navarro State Historic Site in San Antonio TX (photo by Sheila Scarborough)

While things were cooking, there was a little time to wander through the historic site’s buildings and exhibits, and learn more about José Antonio Navarro, how he lived, and how he helped to build the state and the city into what they are today.

Learning the geography of New Spain and the Republic of Texas at Casa Navarro State Historic Site (photo by Sheila Scarborough)

Learning the geography of New Spain and the Republic of Texas through interactive exhibits at Casa Navarro State Historic Site (photo by Sheila Scarborough)

Navarro had quite an adventurous early life, and his direct involvement in founding Texas is impressive, including helping to write the Constitutions for both the Republic and the State of Texas.

Perhaps most importantly, he convinced his fellow 1845 convention attendees to remove the word “white” from the definition of voting requirements when Texas joined the United States, so that he and his fellow Tejano men could vote.

He also served as a land commissioner, state Senator, San Antonio City Council member, city attorney, merchant, and investor.

Given current U.S. political activity, I was struck by an exhibit about Navarro’s fight against the Know-Nothings American nativist anti-immigrant party that surged in strength in the 1850s, threatening to undo Tejano rights.

Nativism from Know-Nothings banner at Casa Navarro State Historic Site via LatinAmericanStudies.org (photo by Sheila Scarborough)

Nativism from a Know-Nothings anti-immigrant political banner at Casa Navarro State Historic Site, via LatinAmericanStudies.org (photo by Sheila Scarborough)

Guess some things never end….

By that time, the onions were boiled down and falling apart, so we mixed them up in a bowl with vinegar, oil, grated cheese, olives, chili peppers, salt, and some sliced avocado.

I’d say history looks pretty tasty, wouldn’t you?

Finished product Ensalada de Cebollas onion salad made in historic cooking class at Casa Navarro State Historic Site in San Antonio (photo by Sheila Scarborough)

Finished product with more than just onions, and yes it was deeeelish – Ensalada de Cebollas made in historic cooking class at Casa Navarro State Historic Site in San Antonio TX (photo by Sheila Scarborough)

 

Upcoming Flashback Foodways classes include one to make nopalitos (yes, the same cactus used to whitewash the Casa Navarro buildings) and mole, but I may have to try this recipe for corn smut from the site’s blog, just for the name.

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