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Savoring history

Experiencing the food of the family tree



Shiner, TX, isn't the most glamorous burg in the world, but neither is it the black-eye blight on the landscape its name might indicate.

Located about halfway between Houston and San Antonio, Shiner is a quiet, hilly town of about 2,000 residents, some of which are my relatives, fond of the same foods -- kolaches (pastries with sweet or savory fillings), freshly made sausages -- their Czech and German forebears ate when they first settled the area back in 1887.

Of course, one cannot sup on sweetmeats and sausages forever without developing a serious thirst; fortunately, Shiner residents can slake it with a beer of their very own.

In 1915, Kosmos Spoetzl (pronounced SPETZ-uhl) started the Spoetzl Brewery, otherwise known as "The Little Brewery in Shiner."

A little background: It used to be that you were lucky to find a Shiner Bock, the brewery's most popular offering, anywhere outside southern Texas -- taking a case back home to North Carolina once after visiting relatives in Shiner, I kept having visions of Burt Reynolds bootlegging black-market Coors in Smokey and the Bandit. But that was before the Gambrinus Company, a San Antonio-based beer importer and distributor, bought the Spoetzl Brewery. Today, Shiner's wares are available in 29 states and the District of Columbia. In fact, not too long ago the brewery even took an order for Shiner Bock as one of the new "adult offerings" on Air Force One.

I knew my backstory on my mother's side of the family: German and Czech immigrants all, they had large families and even larger genealogical family trees. Thanks to frequent vacations to Shiner, I grew up with the food, and was fortunate enough to have grandparents that spoke Czech in the kitchen and often served up some of that country's native dishes. I visited beer gardens and breweries and attended barbecues that began just after church and that didn't end until well after the sun went down. Most of all, I knew the history of good 'ol Shiner Beer, one simple beverage that has long since put an entire town on the pop-culture map.

However, until visiting my parents a few weeks ago for Fathers Day, I had little knowledge of my lineage on my father's side of the family. While I was there, Dad Davis presented me with some genealogical research a distant cousin had recently compiled. Suddenly, my family tree, which to my knowledge had only been explored back about as far as the Civil War, extended back all the way to the mid 1600s, all the way to a little place called Lantwidvoyrde, Glamorgan. Wow! Wales. I had heard I had some Scotch/Irish heritage, but Welsh? On top of Czech and a little German? I was shocked.

And then, after I thought about it for a second or two, enlightened: No wonder I love beer -- and sausage! And cheese and seafood and bacon and ... beer! (Mind you, with all the foods I enjoy, I could have found out that I was, say, Yemenese -- Lamb! Hummus! Khat! -- and been totally fine with my culinary heritage.)

To that end, I've begun doing research (OK, Internet research) into foods from my ancestral cultures. After all, just like people, foods have histories and origins too, and the two are often hopelessly intertwined.

Mind you, this doesn't mean I'm going to be supping on Welsh cockles or laverbread (a heavily-boiled seaweed spread on toast or fried in bacon fat) anytime soon, but it is a great way to reconnect with those ancestors. Obviously, we can't go back in time and experience what they experienced, but we can recreate, to some extent, some of the meals they might have eaten, some of the beverages they slurped and some of the euphoria (or heartburn) they may have suffered afterward.

As such, I'm now reconnecting with my direct Texas relatives and enjoying a cold Shiner Bock. Now knowing my past, I feel doomed to repeat it. At least a couple more times.

Timothy C. Davis is an associate editor with Gravy, the official newsletter of the Southern Foodways Alliance. His food writing has appeared in Gastronomica, Saveur, the Christian Science Monitor, and the food Web site www.egullet.com. He may be contacted at [email protected].

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