Thursday, April 1, 2010

Nearly to the Jumping Off Place

El Paso, 1883

J. T. Stevens, having just arrived in El Paso, Texas from his home in Connecticut, wrote to his parents on October 9, 1883: “I will enclose a bill of fare which I had the first day, that you may see that I am not entirely of this world if I have got nearly to the jumping off place.” Menus were often enclosed in letters, such as the one below, when the writer wanted to reassure the folks back home that he or she was all right.

What made this daily menu from the Pierson Hotel reassuring was its adherence to a certain standard. In addition to the seafood shipped in by rail, there are the usual meat dishes like corned beef, lamb pie, and pork and beans, along with the perfunctory list of roasts. Typical of the era, there are few regional influences on this menu, such as the stewed veal with chili, and perhaps the venison, indicating that game was still abundant in the area. Also few in number, the vegetable dishes are simply described in terms of having been mashed, stewed, or baked. Overall, this menu reflected what other hotels of a similar class were serving that day, or any other day, in other parts of the country. Such menus in the nineteenth century did not vary much by region or by the season. Instead, they were reassuringly predictable, and even comforting for someone like Stevens who suddenly found himself living at the edge of civilization.

Below is the transcript of his letter describing his first impressions of El Paso, including his reaction to people from another culture who settled down on the floor of his store to eat their lunch.

October 9th, 1883

Mr. Ezra Stevens

Brookfield, Conn.

Dear Father & Mother,

As I telegraphed you yesterday, I arrived safe and found things much pleasanter than I anticipated. The store is a very large one with a very high ceiling, one hundred feet deep by twenty-five wide. Any two Danbury stores, or any rate the stock of any two of them could be put in it and not make anything like as heavy a stock as this man carries. There are four in the store besides myself and so far as I can judge are very pleasant. It seems to be quite healthy here. I have not put up a single preparation for coughs in the two days I have been here which would be very unusual in New York. I am boarding at the hotel whose paper I am using a cut of which appears above. I will enclose a bill of fare which I had the first day, that you may see that I am not entirely out of the world if I have got nearly to the jumping off place. I had a long tiresome ride coming across Texas and although I saw many things which interested me I was ready to stop when I reached this place. Cotton was the most interesting thing I saw in the vegetable kingdom although Chapparal (sic), Mesquite, Cactus, Yucca, and Cottonwood all were interesting. As for animals I saw Coyotes, Antelopes, and Donkeys. Among the birds were Hawks, Buzzards and any quantity of Quail & Duck.

I wish you could see some of the curious sights here. For instance a man (Mexican) and five women came in the store this noon, bought something and then the women all sat on the floor near the door, took out a lunch out of their pockets and proceeded to make a meal, much to my amusement. Now as it grows late I must close. Give my love to Elias Huldok and to you. Your aff son—JT Stevens

1 comment:

jeanne said...

one of my favorites from your collection...