of the most important people from American history that most people
have never heard of was Frederick Law Olmsted, who was a very good
writer but was much more famous as a landscape architect. He designed
New York City’s Central Park and also the campus of the University
of California at Berkeley, the Boston Commons and dozens if not hundreds
of others parks and public places.
he tried his hand at writing he spent time as a farmer. He took a
scientific approach and combined his interest in farming with interests
in travel and writing in his book “Walks and Talks of an American
Farmer in England.” By the time he was through he determined that
he preferred traveling and writing to farming. That decision eventually
led him to Texas, where he compiled the
material for his classic account of the state in 1850: “A Journey
Through Texas.” Published in 1857, the book is a solid and mostly
objective look at Texas society in the middle part of the 19th Century.
The New York Daily Times published his accounts under the byline Yeoman.
pseudonym was useful, especially in a previous book that covered the
Deep South and its slave economy. Dead set against slavery, Olmsted
was remarkably clear-eyed and fair in his assessments of the people
and conditions he met on his journey. His arguments against slavery
rested partly on moral grounds but he focused more in his books on
the economics of slavery. Did slavery make sense from an economic
standpoint? Olmsted’s conclusion based on his observations coupled
with his knowledge of agriculture: No, it did not.
In Olmsted’s view, an economic system based on the backs of highly
unmotivated workers who are kept in a perpetual state of ignorance
degrades both the slave and the master, depending as it does on threats
and actual violence. The slaves were costly to obtain and costly to
maintain, which prevented money from being spent on public improvements,
and since no wages were paid, money did not circulate and further
improve the economy.
In an irony for today’s times, the porous border with Mexico was also
an issue but the opposite of the hot-button political issue of today.
Slavery had been abolished in Mexico, and slaves who ran away, especially
in Texas, usually headed for Mexico.
Olmsted looked for an economic reason to support slavery not related
to the moral objections, but he found the opposite.
also found food along the way, some of it to his liking and some of
it not so much. Olmsted, who was from comfortable circumstances back
east, emerges today as something akin to Texas’
first food critic. Despite the generally gentle and non-judgmental
tone of his books, it’s startling the way he often barges in on people,
regardless of their circumstances or condition, and expects not only
to be fed but to be fed well.
At an East Texas cabin,
Olmsted was served cold salt fat pork, cornbread that he found to
be “micaceous,” (I think it means he didn’t much like it) molasses
and milk. Olmsted drank the milk and refused the rest, which reminds
me of a story that might be based on truth and could have applied
to Olmsted at certain points on his journey. In the story, a hungry
traveler from the East accepts humble hospitality at a remote cabin
but takes a look at the salt pork on his plate and declares, “I can’t
eat this meat.”
The host replies “Help yourself to the mustard.” The same story along
with the same retort is also told in relation to, uh, Son-of-A-Gun
Stew served at a chuck wagon.
In Austin, Olmsted sat down
to a restaurant meal deemed worse than the one he couldn’t bring himself
to eat. He described the meal as being comprised of “burnt flesh of
bulls and swine, decaying vegetables sour and mouldy like farinaceous
glue, drowned in rancid butter.” Translation: He didn’t like it.
Fortunately for him and his stomach, in New
Braunfels, he had a German meal that transported him back to the
Rhine Valley. In South
Texas he delighted in tortillas, tamales and refried beans. He
found the meal “wholesome, nourishing and extremely cheap.” Olmsted
made it sound like he discovered Taco Bell in the wilderness.
his book on Texas is a work to be valued
rather than derided. His descriptions of the Texas
landscape and the natural world are sometimes fanciful but also insightful
and reverent, which matches the overall tone of the book.
Olmsted comes across today as someone we would love to have a conversation
with, but maybe not over a plate of bacon, beans and cornbread.