Senior editor Anne Dingus sweet-talks about sugar, Elsie the Cow, and peanut patties.
texasmonthly.com: How did the idea for this story come about?
Anne Dingus: I first started thinking about doing this story more than a year ago, when the Imperial Pure Cane Sugar factory in Sugar Land started laying off workers. It has now closed its refinery there, although the building still houses the company’s headquarters. I was shocked to think that the state would lose such a longtime brand. Imperial first started in Texas in 1917, but there had been a sugar mill on that site ever since 1843, when pioneers set up a horse-drawn cane press. So, arguably, that refinery was, until last December, the oldest continuously operating business in Texas—it kept going for 159 years. My maternal grandmother, Annabel Robbins—I called her “Mimi”—lived in Bay City, not too far from Sugar Land, and she always used Imperial because it was Texas sugar, made from Texas cane. She had nine brothers and sisters, and one of them, my Uncle Travis Dodd, was a cane grower. (He also raised Cain—har, har.) I can remember watching Mimi mix up a batch of cookies or a pan of cobbler and hearing her tell me to always buy Imperial and support Texas farmers. So I always have. My mother always has too. I’ll stick with the brand, even though it will now be processed and packaged in Louisiana or Georgia. Besides, sugar from cane sounds so much more appealing than sugar from beets.
texasmonthly.com: How did you go about researching Texas food brands?
AD: Easy—I just went grocery shopping! There are scores of Texas-made products on the shelves (and in the dairy case and freezers). I’ve bought Texas products ever since I’ve been living on my own—a good thirty years of learning about Texas brands. If I buy ice cream—oh, who am I kidding, when I buy ice cream—I always buy Blue Bell. My older son justifies his fondness for drinking Dr Pepper by saying, “I’m being a good Texan, Mom.” (The drink was invented in 1885 in Waco.) With some foods, I have inherited preferences—my parents always bought Pace Picante Sauce, for example, so on occasion I do too. I say “on occasion” because a person would have to have immense self-control (or a boring palate) not to want to sample the many newer Texas hot sauces; there are probably hundreds of labels (including a great variety of green sauces, which Pace does not make at all). I often try locally produced honeys too because of the folk belief that local pollen helps ward off allergies. I usually pick Burleson’s out of nostalgia because it’s a brand I recall from my childhood, but Lone Star and Fain’s are two other reliable Texas honeys. (As opposed to Texas honeys like Miss Amarillo, that is!) Anyway, the actual research for this column meant spending several hours in different grocery stores and supermarkets, moseying down the aisles, examining labels, loading up the cart, and taking notes. I’m sure the employees thought that I was the slowest, most persnickety shopper they’d ever seen.
texasmonthly.com: Is there a product that can rightfully claim to be the first Texas brand?
AD: Oh, good question. The absolutely accurate answer (and easiest one) is probably “no” because most early brands were just the last name of a small-town miller or baker or whomever made a living selling his wares to his neighbors, and few of them lasted. In other words, early “brands” weren’t really brands in the modern business sense of the word. But I can hazard a guess as to the oldest company in Texas that’s still operating: Pioneer Flour Mills in San Antonio, which makes Pioneer corn meal, White Wings flour, and more. The company was founded by the Guenther family in 1851, an era when most Texans were still furry and four-legged. The oldest specific Texas brand is probably Dr Pepper, which, as I said above, dates back to 1885. The drink wasn’t trademarked until 1891, but that’s still five years ahead of Gebhardt Eagle Brand Chili Powder, another nineteenth-century brand name. Now, the folks at Wolf Brand Chili might disagree with that statement; company lore says that its founder started selling his chili in 1895, a year earlier than Gebhardt debuted. But the chili had a different name then, and it wasn’t mass-produced at the time but sold hot out of a big cauldron. (Both Gebhardt and Wolf Brand are, sad to say, two of many brands that have been bought by megacorporations headquartered outside Texas.)
texasmonthly.com: You must have come across tons of interesting factoids about Texas products. Would you share some of your favorites that didn’t make it into the column?
AD: One of my favorite discoveries was that Borden, the famous dairy-products company that’s an American standby, has an interesting Texas connection. Long before Gail Borden, Jr., became a milk magnate, he was a young adventurer who headed down to Texas before it was even a Republic. He helped found Texas’ first serious newspaper, the Telegraph and Texas Register, at San Felipe de Austin west of Houston, and worked in various official capacities for Stephen F. Austin, Mirabeau B. Lamar, and Sam Houston. He went on to become an inventor, and he came up with a then-revolutionary method of condensing milk for longtime storage or travel. By the time Borden got a patent for his milk-condensing idea in 1856, he had moved to New York, but obviously his years in the uncivilized territory of Texas had showed him how many people could benefit from having a source of milk that was, to use a modern term, shelf-stable. Maybe if it weren’t for his time in Texas, we wouldn’t have the Borden name today. (Much less that adorable huckster Elsie the Cow.)
On a different subject, candy, I learned that Chick-O-Stick, a peanut-butter-and-coconut confection made by the Atkinson Candy Company of Lufkin, was based on another sweet treat called (rather off-puttingly) Chicken Bones. That food dates back to the early part of the twentieth century and is long gone, but Chick-O-Stick lives on. Atkinson’s sister company, Judson-Atkinson of San Antonio, makes dozens of different candies, including the giant-size Hot-N-Spicy Big Tex jelly beans, which are obviously intended to compete for customers of the better-known Hot Tamales. Loyal Texans, consider switching. My sixteen-year-old son has sampled them and pantingly pronounced them, “H-h-h-h-hot! But really good!”
Here’s a factoid I didn’t find, though I sure wasted a lot of time trying to: Why are peanut patties pink? Adding a few drops of red food color is a traditional part of the recipe, but I can’t find out the reason the tradition started. Maybe the uncolored version was blandly beige? Maybe a mother was indulging a little girl who liked pink? My own mother has made the best guess so far: If the peanuts added to the candy had reddish skins, the natural color in the skins might have tinted the candy a pale pink to begin with, so adding a little more food coloring to up the wattage was a natural progression. Anybody out there have a better idea?
texasmonthly.com: Is there something about Texans that make us more or less brand-loyal than residents of other states?
AD: I think we’re definitely more brand-loyal, and the reason for that is because we’re also more state-loyal. Texans are notorious for being devoted to their homeland, and so plenty of us support local and regional businesses and brand names. It’s the Texas way! And the very word “Texas” conjures up a sense of greatness, wildness, importance—think of all the movie titles with “Texas” in them. I tell you what’s funny, though: I found several food companies that exploited the name “Texas” even though they aren’t Texas companies. For example, East Texas Fair Brand field peas are canned in Arkansas. And something called Texas Brand Hot Dog Sauce is manufactured in Buffalo, New York; according to the label, it’s for “Chili Dogs” and “Coney Hots,” but the scariest part is the words “instant mix.” Aaaiiieee!
texasmonthly.com: Do you have as much fun writing your columns as you appear to have?
AD: Does it show that much? No wonder I never get a raise!