If you've never wandered around Wurstfest in New Braunfels dipping your Kartoffelpuffers in apple sauce you're definitely missing out.
New Braunfels, like many Texas cities with a strong German heritage, celebrates with a festival honoring its founders' rich traditions. New Braunfels is unique in calling it Wurstfest rather than Oktoberfest, but the general idea is the same. Unfortunately in 2020 many of these celebrations have been canceled or are being held online due to COVID-19. And yes, we'll miss the music, the color, the fanfare. But we'll also miss the food.
German immigrants brought with them an array of native recipes, and as it turns out their hearty meat and potatoes diet was a perfect match for Texas. Most of their staples could be grown or raised here as they were on German soil. In fact, two of the foods we think of today as quintessentially Texan likely owe their very existence to German immigrants.
Chicken-fried steak bears more than a passing resemblance to Schnitzel — a tenderized slab of meat, breaded and fried. Germany has a number of specific Schnitzel dishes, as the word itself simply means meat cutlet. But chicken-fried steak seems most like a Jägerschnitzel, commonly served with a mushroom sauce, or Rahmschnitzel, which is served with a cream sauce. Either way, it's clear that the much beloved CFS has its roots firmly in a German tradition.
And of course we can't talk about the German-Texas food connection without discussing smoked meats. We tend to think of Germany + smoked meats = sausage. Move that equation to Texas and you get German Texans + smoked meats = brisket. That's right. Texans owe that smoky, salty, fatty, bark encrusted beefy goodness to German American butchers who decided to pop a brisket in the smoker, instead of in a dutch oven.
Clearly we owe a lot to German food.
Which brings us back to Kartoffelpuffer. They're a kind of potato pancake or fritter. More substantial than a hashbrown, but not precisely an entrée either. While some like there's topped with sour cream, I prefer mine with a tart applesauce. Yum!
The word rodent generally has a negative connotation. We've been conditioned to associate it with vermin that carry disease and infest domestic and commercial buildings. But the order Rodentia is a massive one, with members that fill practically every habitat on earth. And despite an irrational antipathy towards rats and mice, people can't help but be captivated by the social nature, curiosity and interesting behaviors of the wide variety of rodents found in nature.
Case in point — the Prairie Dog.
Even if you've never seen a colony of Black-tailed Prairie Dogs in person, you've likely seen them featured in documentaries or on a much smaller scale in zoo exhibits. The thing you'll notice immediately is that they never seem to be alone. Prairie Dogs are extraordinarily social animals, with an amazingly structured society. Their "towns" are complex undergrown burrow systems that span hundreds of acres of Panhandle and West Texas soil. Each town is made up of wards (think suburban subdivisions) and within the wards are multiple coteries — extended families made up of an adult male, a group of females and young offspring.
Territory within the burrow complex is based on these coteries and wards. Specific burrows are for their own use and recognition is an important aspect of all social interaction.
Two individuals coming upon one another will bare their teeth and touch them. If one isn't a member of the coterie it's a swift goodbye! If the two are from the same coterie the teeth touching becomes more extended, likened to kissing, and then play generally ensues. It is their playful antics that make Black-tailed Prairie Dogs so engaging to watch. They nuzzle, wrestle and groom each other, reinforcing the bonds of their coterie.
Of course, one of the behaviors that makes them so endearing isn't a play behavior at all but rather an alarm. Prairie dogs foraging outside their burrows are constantly in communication with one another, alert to the dangers presented by their many predators. At least one sentry will remain on duty ready to cry out an alarm at the first sign of danger. The others then run back to burrow openings and take up the warning call, dashing into burrows if the danger is extreme.
The Black-tailed Prairie Dog is relatively common in the areas of Texas where they are still found. But the numbers today represent less than 1% of their historic populations. This is due primarily to habitat loss to ranching and farming. They remain, however, a keystone species. Other animals depend on them for shelter — burrowing owls, endangered black-footed ferrets, and a various fox species all co-opt their burrows. And of course they are an important prey item for rattlesnakes, hawks and coyotes.