Pre-Spanish Cuisine in South Texas
It’s a Tough Life
The San Antonio missions were populated primarily by a group of indigenous people who modern scholars call “Coahuiltecans.” This name refers to a language family (meaning they spoke closely related languages) that included a number of distinct small bands of nomadic hunter-gatherers who populated South Texas and Northern Mexico.
A lot of what we know about the Coahuiltecans comes from the account written by Cabeza de Vaca, a Spanish explorer who spent time in their company after he and several of his crewmates survived a shipwreck. He marveled that they were able to scrape together a subsistence living in a truly marginal landscape. There was some game, such as javalinas and deer, but these were scarce and moved seasonally. During parts of the year, prickly pear cactus (nopal) and its fruits (tuna) were a good source of nutrition. At other times, harvesting mesquite beans provided excellent sustenance. The Coahuiltecan bands moved frequently to follow these resources, but when these foodstuffs were unavailable due to the time of year or drought, they ate grubs, insects, and other items that we would consider unpalatable in our culture. De Vaca indicates that these people often suffered hunger and frequently went to war with rival bands over scarce resources.
One of the main appeals of joining the mission community, then, was that the Franciscan padres introduced subsistence agriculture to the nomadic Coahuiltecans. The padres brought technology such as acequias (irrigation canals) that transported water from the San Antonio River to the fields. They also began large-scale animal husbandry, with ranchos that often had herds of over one thousand cattle and several hundred horses. Farming and ranching provided more reliable, year-round access to nutritional staples. Compared to the uncertainty of following the game and the seasons, these developments changed life for natives in South Texas.