The World's Food Fair. Boston. October 1896. Admission: 25 cents. Huge crowds throng the Mechanics Hall convention center. Women queue up for free samples from 200 different vendors: cereals, gelatins, extracts, candy, and custards. Table displays include "Edible Flowers" and "A Mermaid's Dinner." Luncheons are offered-a Dietetic Luncheon, a Hygienic Lunch-and teas as well, including Tennis Tea and Japanese Ceremonial Tea. Booths are constructed in the shape of buildings: a log cabin to sell pancake flour, a castle to sell all-purpose flour, and a Dutch cottage to promote Dutched cocoa. Other exhibits include a miniature margarine factory, a cereal machine that produces shredded wheat, an electrically operated dairy that churns out 3,000 pounds of butter each day, and a life-sized wax woman that promotes Pearline soap. Just like today, food and cooking were at the convergence of popular entertainment and capitalism.
Newspapers were raucous, loudmouthed, commercial, and utterly working class, and Boston's private clubs were much the same. Yes, in 1906 H.G. Wells accused the members of the Club of Odd Volumes of too much preoccupation with the past, but another private club of the period presented an evening entitled the Dime Museum, one of the features of which was the Bearded Lady, who was described by a reporter as an "exquisite picture of ravishing loveliness, whose heaving and sensitive bosom is concealed from view by her depending beard." Yet another bizarre dining establishment of the period featured a member who ate only with his toes and housed a live bear as a mascot.
The world was getting rapidly smaller. Three innovations-steamships, refrigeration, and railroads-meant that perishable goods could be transported across the country or across the Atlantic, both in and out of Boston. The S. S. Pierce supermarket offered more than 4,000 items for sale, including mushrooms grown in old quarries near Paris, the highest-quality Spanish olives, and isinglass, a precursor to modern gelatin (originally made from the bladders of Russian sturgeon, but a cheaper substitute was later made from cod). Quincy Market was a hotbed of local vendors, the original farmers' market, if you will, and Boston was also full of smaller establishments, many of which specialized in poultry (chicken, partridge, quail, woodcock, snipe, etc.), fruit, confectionary products (cream cakes, Washington pie, vanilla jumbles, charlotte russe, etc.), seafood (scallops, smelt, clams, whitefish, salt cod, shad roe, mackerel, etc.), or household dry goods.
The Boston Globe contained two food columns: one entitled "The Housekeeper's Department" and the other penned by the Boston Cooking School. Recipes included Dewey's Fried Shortcakes (a recipe that was rediscovered in Pennsylvania almost 100 years later by Marion Cunningham, the author of the revised Fannie Farmer Cookbook), Stuffed Baked Tomatoes, Welsh Rarebit, Oatmeal Drink, Eggs Nest on Toast, Corn Bread, Salmon Croquettes, Chicken Paté, both Puff and Plain Paste, Brown Bread, Leap Year Cake, Pressed Cake, New Brides Cake, Pear and Rice Pudding, and Cinnamon Tea, to name a few. Staid? Repressed? Hardly. It was a mongrel mix of classic French (puff pastry and paté), Southern (corn bread), English (pudding), health food (oatmeal drink), pioneer (brown bread), and classic American (layer cakes). And what about taking a Victorian cooking class? Look no further than Fannie Farmer to learn about five types of acids (acetic, tartaric, malic, citric, and oxalic), four types of starch (cornstarch, arrowroot, tapioca, and sago), and three types of fermentation (alcoholic, acetic, and lactic). Readers of this publication will find those lists familiar. In addition, you would learn how to cook a live terrapin, including drawing out the head and removing the skin, and how to boil a calf's head for mock turtle soup.
You might ask about cooking technique. Sure, they were cooking on coal stoves, but they were thoroughly modern in their approach. Farmer suggested that when using only one set of measuring cups, start with dry, then liquid, and finally fat/shortening; to make coffee, steep 2 tablespoons grounds in 1 cup cold water overnight and then bring the mixture to a boil the next morning to serve; birds should be dredged in flour before roasting to create a better crust; and when baking bread, reduce the oven temperature for the last 15 minutes to cook the interior after the crust has been set. Not bad for 1896-or 2008, for that matter.
Many of you have, like me, a long reach back through history. I grew up on a small mountain farm, learned to simmer and bake over a wood stove, and extracted water from the well under the side porch using a loosely bolted green metal pump handle located in the pantry sink. I remember poor milk the color of an early morning sky-faint, powdery, and tinged with blue-hot baked potatoes opened with the swat of a fist, and baking powder biscuits stored in mistletoed Christmas tins separated by ragged, hoary rounds of waxed paper. A recently unearthed snapshot of my father standing arms stretched back, hat high, on an airfield in Egypt during the Second World War looks historical, but hoecakes, wine jelly, Irish moss, and chocolate cream do not. Good food lives on. If it pleases the palate, it's as timeless as an open-eyed kiss taken in the back of a school bus.
The history of food has sailed oceans to shipwreck on America's shores. Where this half-remembered flotsam has fetched up is sometimes hard to say, but the recipes are still there, buried perhaps, but not so far beneath our footsteps. We claim cooking as something new, yet another form of modern art, while the feasts of the ancients still echo through flickers of candlelight.
That is why so many of us stand at the stove to remember-to recall the wood smoke, the perfume of warm molasses, the fecund aroma of yeast. One lost recipe remembered is like love rediscovered, as fresh and unexpected as that first kiss.