Looking Back At The Genuine Texas Handbook, 30 Years Later

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This past weekend I found a copy of Rosemary Kent's 1981 book The Genuine Texas Handbook at a thrift store off Highway 290. The 224-page golden treasury of Texicana hails from a time when 1980's Urban Cowboy and the oil boom was coloring the worldview of the Lone Star State, for better or worse.

The book is only a little bit over 30 years old, making it outdated to say the least, but still amazingly prescient in some passages. It's made up of infographics (which is how everyone gets most of their news now anyway) and cute chapters on things that you must know to be a well-adjusted Texan.

The Handbook tackles everything from food, drinking, clothing, shopping, oil, rich people, and everything in between, with a pinch of Texas history and a whole lot of outrageous generalizations.

The Texas the book describes is not the one we know today. This is a genteel, stereotypical, and prosperously white Texas. There are no mentions of upscale cuisine, gays, codeine, pollution, hip-hop, or any minorities beyond Mama Ninfa, border town shop owners, Charley Pride, or Freddy Fender.

So it's like a time capsule, or hanging out with a grandparent who doesn't know that it's 2012. But for all it's shortcomings you can't but feel some sort of demented state pride while holding the book. What other states besides maybe Louisiana and California warrant a "handbook" -- no matter how sarcastic -- for its citizens?

According to the book, there are really only four kinds of food found in Texas --- barbecue, Tex-Mex, chili, and chicken-fried steak --- for us jeans-wearing, cowboy-boot stompin' drunks to grub on. Okay, that version of Texas doesn't sound like such an awful state to call home. Modern Texas foodies would clutch their proverbial pearls at the usage of the word "cook" in place of "chef."

There is no mention of food trucks, Vietnamese food, sushi, or even Tito's vodka, things that I can't imagine living in Texas without. Not so even a mention of the offensively named "roach coach" is to be seen.

Speaking of drunks, the book lists Lone Star, Shiner, Pearl, Texas Pride, and Gilley's as our state beers, naturally. A few other Mexican beers and the margarita are listed as more exotic options. The land before micro and craft brews my friends was no place for those looking for IPAs and the like.

The money message is pretty heavy-handed, with many chapters covering the rich and powerful in the state, where they live (little spreads, big spreads, River Oaks, Highland Park), what they wear (cowboy boots and belt buckles), and how they got their dough (oil, duh). There is a two-page layout on Western shirts which is pretty educational for a guy like me that has a few dozen of them in the closet at home.

A small passage on cheap pistols, "Saturday Night Specials," shows not much has changed. Except in 2012 you are more likely to get shot with a .380 at a nightclub then receiving a belly full of lead from a .25 revolver at an ice house. On the opposite page, the mechanical bull, El Toro, is hailed as the bar distraction that it remains today. You can still ride on at Rebels Honky Tonk off Washington Avenue, if you feel like braving that sordid street on the weekends.

In a subject for dear to my heart, the music of Texas gets a few pages detailing the genres found and the artists who made them tick, including four kinds of country. They talk about something called "black country" which apparently amounts to little more than the blues and ragtime. Props for mentioning Lightin' Hopkins and Leadbelly though, but a big sad face for ignoring ZZ Top altogether. Willie Nelson rightfully gets a page to himself.

If you wrote this handbook today, this would be a chapter that would mention Roky Erickson, Steve Earle, Jesus Lizard, and Robert Earl Keen. A Top 21 list of must-have albums for "kickers" is included too, which is at once maddening and endearing. Don Williams ahead of Bob Wills? Heresy.

As a life-long Texan, I can't figure out whether or not this was a Texas that is extinct, or one that just evolved with the times. Some people still live by these codes of conduct and customs, but they are slowly dying off. The book was printed two years before I hatched, so by the time I got around appreciating Texas, the simpler Texas in this handbook was fading fast.

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