Saturday, December 26, 2015

The Eating-Houses

George G. Foster (1814?–1856)
From American Food Writing: An Anthology With Classic Recipes

Detail from Politics in an Oyster House, 1848, oil on fabric by American artist Richard Caton Woodville (1825–1855). Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Earlier this year various news sources reported that—for the first time ever—Americans are spending more in restaurants than in grocery stores. Although these statistics were soon followed by skepticism (the numbers compiled in the original report didn’t take into account the trend of buying groceries in big-box stores), there is little argument that restaurant receipts have increased: “Especially now that the recession has ended for the most part, consumers are looking to splurge a little bit,” remarks the president of the Food Institute.

The idea of sitting among strangers for the sole purpose of eating a meal was regarded as a rare and awkward experience—usually confined to the inn or the tavern—until the appearance of the American restaurant in the middle of the nineteenth century, particularly in New York City. Putnam’s Monthly in 1853 disapprovingly observed (with some exaggeration) that “the male members of the family are eating their little dinners at Delmonico’s, Frederick’s or Sweeney’s, as the case may be, [and] the female members are solacing themselves with fricandeaus, meringues, and ices at Thompson’s, Taylor’s, or Welter’s; so that it may be said that nearly half of the people of New-York dine out every day in the week but Sunday.” By the end of the century, the novelist Edgar Fawcett would look back in wonder: “Few New Yorkers ever pause to consider what mighty changes the past thirty years have wrought in all our modes of eating.” For the most part, he recalled, “eating houses predominated whose atmosphere would now be defined as vulgarity itself.”

New York Tribune journalist George G. Foster was an early chronicler of these new establishments. Between 1848 and 1854, he published four books (and an instantly forgettable novel) detailing the everyday lives of New Yorkers, ranging from lurid portraits of outcasts to humorous sketches of the upper crust. Several chapters described the new trend for eating in public and, on the whole, Foster was appalled. In a short piece on the various oyster houses that were cropping up around the city, he wrote:
The oyster-cellars, with their bright lamps casting broad gleams of red light across the street, are now in full tide, and every instant sees them swallow up at one entrance a party of rowdy and half-drunken young men on their way to the theater, the gambling-house, the bowling-saloon, or the brothel—or most likely to all in turn—while another is vomited up the other stairway, having already swilled their reeking mouths each with an atrocious cigar, which the bar-keeper recommended as “full-flavored.”
Foster’s attitude towards the new “eating-houses” was hardly more appreciative, but his colorful and harsh judgments are supported by other surviving reports. He divided the new public eateries into three categories: six-penny houses that dispensed quick and cheap midday meals to workers in the financial district; the more expensive chophouses, usually little more than glorified taverns offering slabs of meat with side dishes; and, still in a class by itself, the European-inspired Delmonico’s, which had been established during the 1830s.

Although Foster made his name with sensational accounts of the seedier elements in New York, his preference for high-society haunts like Delmonico’s ultimately caused his downfall. (He delighted in satirizing society swells, but Foster “does seem to have been a bit of a dandy himself,” remarks his biographer Stuart M. Blumin.) Assuming the identity of a New York theater owner, Foster was caught forging a check for upscale clothing in Philadelphia. He spent the better part of 1855 in jail, awaiting trial for phony payments of several hundred dollars—although, according to his victims, the forgeries totaled in the thousands. Rufus Griswold, Foster’s childhood friend (and the late Edgar Allan Poe’s literary nemesis) reluctantly helped bail him out and the case was eventually dropped, but Foster died the following year of a flu-like illness.

Notes: For nearly two centuries the Croton River has supplied Manhattan with its water supply via the Croton Aqueduct. Foster’s joking reference to Taylor at Bueva Vista evokes the military skills exhibited by General Zachary Taylor, who led 5,000 troops to turn back a Mexican army force three times the size at the Battle of Buena Vista, February 23, 1847. “Above Bleecker” was a common phrase for New York’s residential neighborhood north of Bleecker Street. In the eighteenth century, Carl Linnaeus established the system for classifying organisms. The Astor refers to the Astor House Hotel, which opened in 1836 in lower Manhattan and which featured fine dining in an elaborate courtyard surrounded by alcoves.

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“Beefsteakandtatersveget√°besnumbertwenty—Injinhardandsparrowgrassnumb√©r-sixteen!” “Waiter! Waiter! WA-Y-TER!” . . . If you don't see the full selection below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!

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Friday, December 18, 2015

Kate’s Choice

Louisa May Alcott (1832–1888)
From Louisa May Alcott: Work, Eight Cousins, Rose in Bloom, Stories & Other Writings

The Christmas Party, circa 1850. Oil on canvas attributed to American painter Robert David Wilkie (1827–1903). Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
When Louisa May Alcott was twenty-three, she finished a story collection with the title “Christmas Elves.” Her father helped her prepare it for publication, and her sister May provided the illustrations. They were unable to find a publisher, however, and the book never saw the light of day. (The manuscript was presumably lost or destroyed.) This early failure certainly didn’t discourage Alcott; she continued to write holiday stories and poems throughout her career and, as readers of all ages know, her most celebrated novel opens with Jo March’s utterance, “Christmas won’t be Christmas without any presents.”

During the years following the publication of Little Women (1868–69), hoping to make the most of her newfound success, Alcott published six holiday books for young girls under the series title Aunt Jo’s Scrap-Bag, for which the author adopted the guise of her most famous character. Each collection included new items and reprints of pieces published in magazines, including a number of holiday stories. The first volume, My Boys, appeared in 1872, and was followed by Shawl-Straps (which gathered travel pieces written during Alcott’s trip through Europe), Cupid and Chow-Chow, My Girls, Jimmy’s Cruise in the Pinafore, and An Old-Fashioned Thanksgiving.

When the third volume, Cupid and Chow-Chow, appeared in December 1874, the notices were almost universally positive on both sides of the Atlantic. The reviewer for The Independent in London deferred to the judgment of the “only critics of whom we stand in awe—the children into whose hands the volume will fall,” yet pointedly advised “grown-up people not to remand the enjoyment of the book to children alone, but unostentatiously to read it for themselves, after the little ones have been put to bed.”

One of the stories in the third Scrap-Bag volume will be of particular interest to fans of Alcott’s novels. In many ways an unassuming, old-fashioned Christmas story, “Kate’s Choice” features a heroine whose situation might remind readers of the plight of Rose Campbell, the central character of Eight Cousins and Rose in Bloom. Both characters inherit financial windfalls when they are unexpectedly orphaned at an early age and are then forced to live among their extended families. Kate, however, enjoys an unusual level of independence and chooses her own destiny. Her story serves as an intriguing contrast to Eight Cousins, which appeared three years later and in which the shy and uncertain Rose regards her various aunts and other adults as role models. Yet, like many of the characters in Alcott’s fiction, both Kate and Rose are “young women at social and emotional crossroads” who ultimately succeed on the own terms.

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“Well, what do you think of her?”
      “I think she’s a perfect dear, and not a bit stuck up with all her money.”
      “A real little lady, and ever so pretty.” . . . If you don't see the full selection below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!

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Friday, December 11, 2015

How to Cure a Cold

Mark Twain (1835–1910)
Reprinted in Mark Twain: Collected Tales, Sketches, Speeches, & Essays 1852–1890

Metamorphic trade card for Hayner's Pine Tar Cough King, lithograph, circa 1880. Troy, Ohio. Image posted on eBay.
While the Civil War was raging back East, Samuel Clemens (who had recently begun using the pseudonym Mark Twain) lived in Virginia City, Nevada, where he came down with a serious cold and bronchitis that plagued him for the much of the summer in 1863. His ailments didn’t keep him from traveling, first to the home of his friend Adair Wilson near Lake Bigler (now Lake Tahoe) and then to Steamboat Springs. In a series of letters and reports to newspaper editors in Virginia City and San Francisco, Clemens detailed his adventures and the spirited (if half-hearted) attempts to attack his illness with various remedies. “Lake Bigler is a paradise to a healthy person, but there is too much sailing, and fishing, and other dissipation of a similar nature going on there to allow a man with a cold time to nurse it properly,” he admitted.

Finally, in early September, Clemens headed for San Francisco, where he hoped to get some rest. During the first week or so after his arrival, he wrote “How to Cure a Cold,” embellishing anecdotes and digressions he had included in various newspaper pieces. The University of California Press editors of Mark Twain’s writings note that the remedies described by the author, although they seem ludicrous today, “were standard prescriptions of folk medicine: unexamined rituals and superstitions inflicted on the sufferer and only occasionally—as with the gin and whisky—enjoyed by him.” In fact, Twain’s illness seems to have taken on the aura of a local legend. A blind item in a newspaper published in another San Francisco newspaper at the end of September noted his attendance at a ball in Washoe County, Nevada, the previous month: “He’s such a favorite—stops here for his health—hoping to find out how to cure a cold.”

Five years later, in a letter to his friend and occasional editor Mary Mason Fairbanks, Twain added an item to his list of ineffective cold remedies:
One should not bring sympathy to a sick man. It is always kindly meant, & of course it has to be taken—but it isn’t much of an improvement on castor oil. One who has a sick man’s true interest at heart will forbear spoken sympathy, & bring him, surreptitiously soup, & fried oysters & other trifles that the doctor has tabooed. That is much better than saying, “O, I am so sorry you are so ill; you look meaner & meaner all the time, poor man; your eyes are turning yellow & your nose looks like a wen; O, if you were to be taken away from us in your present state, how sad it would be; I will make you some weak gruel & send you up some tracts.”
“How to Cure a Cold” would be one of the few pieces from his early years that Twain would republish—and he revised and polished it a number of times, including it under the title “Curing a Cold” in his first book, The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County (1867), and in an 1875 collection of his sketches.

Notes: Earlier in the year during which he wrote this piece, Mark Twain lived in the White House, a recently completed boardinghouse in Virginia City. A fire on July 26, 1863, consumed most of his belongings. Gould and Curry was a mining company headquartered in Virginia City; the stock certificates Twain claims to have lost in the fire would have been extremely valuable. A Columbiad (page 40) is a large cannon developed for coastal defense.

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It is a good thing, perhaps, to write for the amusement of the public, but it is a far higher and nobler thing to write for their instruction—their profit—their actual and tangible benefit. . . . If you don't see the full selection below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!

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