Friday, September 21, 2012

The Sage of Brooklyn


I have an essay on The New Inquiry's main site on mushrooming in Providence, Rhode Island, wilding in Brooklyn and the work of now largely forgotten (but once beloved) illustrator William Hamilton Gibson.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Slow Food




Of the various impressions made on the English man of letters Joseph Addison during a 1702 visit to a Freiburg monastery, one that lingered longest was the delight its inmates took in eating snails. A thick ragout they would prepare into which they would toss these creatures by the dozen. A great wooden box called an escargotiere ensured a reliable supply, its interior lined with greens in which nestled snails often as large as a child’s fist. “I do not remember to have met with any thing of the same in other countries,” Addison wrote in reference to this ingenious contrivance. In these boxes the snails reposed and ate, ate and reposed, until such time as the cook came and shook out a hundred or two of them for supper.

On the supposed uniqueness of the Freiburg monks’escargotieres Addison proves an unreliable source; one could find versions in Brunswick, Silesia, Copenhagen and other locales. Their design varied by region. The people of Barrois used staved in casks covered with netting. The snails of Lorraine endured a somewhat more picturesque imprisonment: a quiet garden corner stuffed with leafy matter and encased in fine trellis-work. The earthier escargotieres of Dijon consisted of trenches dug by vine growers. Into these they dumped leaves, then snails, and then more leaves before topping everything off with few spadefuls of earth. Voralbergers, who combined gastronomy with good husbandry, preferred their snails free-range. Children made a game of searching farmers’ fields for the tasty pests, which they plucked from lettuce leaves and cornstalks in a bid to see how many they could contribute to the town escargotiere, usually a large plot of land encircled by a moat. These summer games yielded a great harvest: The enclosures contained often some 30,000 snails fattened on cabbage leaves and kept damp by twigs of mountain pine and small clumps of moss.

How snail aficionados, or heliciculturists, cooked their snails varied as much as how they kept them. Some stuffed them with forcemeat, while others steamed them with rice or boiled them in the shell before slathering them with drawn butter and sprinkling them with parsley. Whatever the method, simplicity ruled; snails were typically eaten during Lent. Indeed, a dish of these shelled savories traditionally marked the end of Carnival in Canderan, a town near Bordeaux. What the snail growers didn’t sell they shipped off to convents and monasteries. What the monasteries didn’t eat, they gave to the poor. The “hero who carries his house on his back,” as Hesiod called the snail, could expect life to describe an odyssey that, no matter the length, arrived at the same destination — the plate of some hungry soul.

Should you like to dish up some mollusks of your own then try this recipe from The Edible Mollusks of Great Britain and Ireland (1867).


Ragoût of Snails — Guisado de Caracoles.–Soak the snails in salt water, then wash them in two or three waters; take thyme, marjoram, bay-leaves, and salt, and fry them with chopped onions in butter or oil; boil the snails, and take them out of their shells, or, if you prefer it, put them, shells and all, into the butter, and fry them. Let them be served as follows: — Soak a piece of bread in vinegar and water, and pound it in a mortar with a clove of garlic, a little pepper, salt, parsley, and mint, chopped very find; add oil drop by drop, turning the pestle all the time till it is quite a smooth paste, and place it round the dish, putting the snails in the centre.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Bundle Theory


Love rooted in frustration bears the sweetest fruit: This the old wives of New England knew. When on long winter nights a suitor called on an eligible daughter, her parents served him pie, bound both his legs in a large woolen sock, and bundled him into bed with his sweetheart.

Under eiderdown the lovebirds canoodled until sunrise, when limbs again swung free to carry the swain on his way. If the night passed well, marriage banns would appear soon after. If it did not, the whole ritual repeated with another young man, should one happen by.

Many thought bundling strange. One prominent New York physician called it a “ridiculous and pernicious custom.” Others blamed it for the precipitous decline in Yankee morals. But its defenders deemed it an economical and humane prelude to marriage. A couple bundled burnt no candles, they insisted, and other household members could rest easy knowing they had spared their visitor a tramp home in the winter night.


A visitor didn’t need to have romance in mind to gain a berth. Lovers and strangers alike could count on the same reception. Passing peddlers, wandering huntsmen, itinerant poets, and even enemy soldiers all found a place to lay their head. During the Revolutionary War, one British officer faced the prospect of bundling one night in autumn. Lieutenant Anbury had marched all day. The sun had long since set, the moon yet to rise. He trudged along a road outside Williamstown, Massachusetts. Great ruts scored the roadbed, which had softened with rain, and his servant and the mare carrying his bedding had fallen behind.

Though Anbury yearned for sleep, he stopped to wait for his small retinue. They did not come. The cold and the dark urged him on. Soon he came to a modest cabin. He knocked at the door. A knobby old man, his wife and their young daughter answered. They bade him stay the night. Anbury had a quick eye, and saw only two beds in the one-room cabin. “Where am I to sleep?,” he asked the mother. “Mr. Ensign, our Jonathan and I will sleep in this, and our Jemima and you shall sleep in that,” she answered, pointing to the smaller of the two beds. “Our Jemima” was a buxom brunette of sixteen. The lieutenant blushed. “Oh la! Mr. Ensign," the father laughed, “you won’t be the first man our Jemima has bundled with, will it Jemima?” The girl smiled, and winked at the reddening man. “No, father, not by many, but it will be with the first Britainer.”


Memory of the event lingered with Anbury. “In this dilemma what could I do?,” he later wrote. “The smiling invitation of pretty Jemima — the eye, the lip, the — Lord ha’ mercy, where am I going to!” But the spirit proved stronger than the flesh; Anbury declined the invitation. How a man native to those parts could sleep chastely near such a toothsome creature as young Jemima this red-blooded Englishman could not fathom. He chalked it off to the “cold ... American constitution”; it alone, he surmised, could sustain this “unaccountable custom ... in hospitable repute, and perpetual practice.”

Yet cold constitutions ensured the availability of warm beds. Suspicious of bundling to the end, the good doctor from New York insisted that the improbable chastity of the practice remained more perceived than real. Something managed to wriggle free of those straitjacketing body-socks, something from which sprang a “long-sided, raw-boned, hardy race of whoreson whalers, wood-cutters, fishermen, and peddlers” who in a great and hearty multitude populated windswept Nantucket, Piscataway and Cape Cod.

Those who have lovers sewn up and who look forward to impending nuptials can use this recipe for wedding cake taken from The Young Housekeeper's Friend (1846).


Wedding Cake


Five pounds of flour, five of sugar, five of butter, six of raisins, twelve of currants, two of citron, fifty eggs, half a pint of wine, three ounces of nutmegs, three of cinnamon, one and a half of mace. Mix it like pound cake, only rub the fruit into the flour.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Not Content with Crumbs


In nineteenth-century New York, nothing went better with radical politics than coffee cake. Manhattan's Lower East Side boasted some three hundred “coffee and cake saloons,” where anarchists and socialists tucked into crullers as they debated everything from the theories of Marx and Bakunin to the literary merits of Tolstoy and Ibsen, and the success of the latest performance at the Metropolitan Opera House. Late into the night they talked and between outbursts of indignation or sympathy sipped strong cups of tea à la russe adorned with thin slices of lemon.

Most saloons hosted regular customers, but almost anyone would find himself welcome. Quiet, frowning “chess cranks”; gaunt, earnest critics; doleful actors; sloe-eyed cocottes -- all crowded round the saloons’ tables from ten o’clock at night until one in the morning. But they did not crowd indiscriminately; each had their favorite haunt. The city’s letter carriers, for instance, favored Dolan’s Coffee and Cake Saloon, which operated under the management of the cheerful, mustachioed John Meehan.

Meehan considered himself a friend of the postal workers, an affection he cultivated in childhood. At thirteen his uncle had hired him to help around the saloon, and he did so with enthusiasm. While about his tasks he often overheard the postal workers muttering into their coffee cups. Their interminable shifts vexed them, and they saw no relief short of quitting altogether. “No limit to a day’s work,” they complained.


The letter carriers plight moved young Meehan, who resolved one day to help them. So vital to the saloon’s success did he prove that after a few years his uncle promoted him to manager. Meehan soon garnered a fifty-percent stake in the business (an interest which belied the fact that almost one hundred percent of the responsibility fell to him alone). Finding himself comfortably situated, Meehan deemed it high time he made good his vow. Suggesting that the postmen organize, he offered his advice, his financial backing, and his establishment for their union headquarters. Thus the New York Letter Carrier’s Association leapt into existence. “Well, boys, you have started, and now don't let this thing fail,” Meehan proclaimed to those whose cause he championed. “While I have a tongue or a dollar I will help you get what you want.”

Meehan did indeed keep his promise. When reporters stopped by the saloon for a bite, he buttonholed them and, plying them with strudel and steaming java, extracted promises of articles and notices favorable to the letter carriers’ cause. One such convert, William Dougherty of The Evening Telegram, published many pieces in support of the eight-hour work day. Soon hundreds of influential New Yorkers rallied to support the letter carriers. They circulated petitions, which thousands signed. Placards and posters they pasted all over the city. Before the letter carriers knew it, they had triumphed, winning equitable working conditions.

The postal workers continued for years to frequent Dolan's Coffee and Cake Saloon. Indeed, all New York saw it as a haven for working stiffs -- and rightly so. An enlightened employer, Meehan heaped on his employees benefits for which other laborers would agitate for decades to come. To work at Dolan’s meant a job for life; only death and illness altered the payroll. Those too old or sick to work received pensions at their full salaries. Such largess did nothing to dampen the eatery’s profits. The smashing success of the first location made necessary opening a second, which likewise flourished, and put paid to the notion that you cannot have your cake and eat it, too.

Those looking for a sweet way to shake up the status quo can try serving New York Butter Cake, the recipe for which appears in Paul Richard’s Baker’s Bread (1918).


New York Butter Cake

Take one quart of milk; one pound of flour; eight ounces of butter, and eight ounces of sugar. Put the milk, sugar and butter in a vessel on the fire and let it come to a boil; when it is boiling add the sifted flour, stirring it in well with an egg beater; take it off the fire and put in a wooden bowl; let cool till you can hold your hand in it, then mix into it by degrees five whole eggs and five yolks. Add to this mixture two and one-half pounds of white bread sponge, or milk sponge, and sufficient flour to make it like a tea biscuit dough. Let this dough rest, and prove on for half an hour; roll into a sheet and cut into large biscuits; eggwash and lay in granulated sugar; set on pans single; let it prove, and bake to a nice color.

Friday, February 3, 2012

In the End There Was No End



Beginning Monday, February 6, The Austerity Kitchen will appear as a column at The New Inquiry. This site will serve as an archive and will continue to present recipes and historical vignettes from time to time. The new Kitchen will feature essays on various topics culinary and cultural, anecdotes, recipes, book reviews, vintage illustrations and photographs.