June 2, 2019 • No Comments
Nothing quite says modern hustle like burger joints, food trucks, and grabbing junk food for that night’s Netflix binge. Fast food answers the problem of our hectic lives, where there’s places to be and work to be done and absolutely no time to spend crafting artisan eats in the kitchen. Plus, many so-called kitchen nooks in new apartments are barely big enough to comfortably butter toast, much less mess around with stock pots and canning jars. Picking up something to go is the obvious answer.
This need isn’t new. As long as there have been hungry people, there’s been food for sale in easy-to-eat forms. Ancient Roman thermopolia provided affordable take-out. Street vendors have been around as long as hungry urbanites have existed. Pretty much every culture has the “stuff wrapped in bread product,” whether that’s samosas, Cornish pasties, or the Czech klobasnek/kolaches. In the old days, if you were out harvesting in the fields or heading down a mine shaft, you wanted food that can be stuffed in a pocket to eat later. We might have better health regulations, but the principles behind fast food remain the same.
The pedigree of some current favorites is fun to look at. Hamburgers and hot dogs immediately come to mind, since they follow the meat-in-bread pattern. Speculation has it the essential ground meat that makes up the hamburger patty was introduced to Europe by invading hordes in the thirteenth century. Tartar horseman stashed raw meat beneath their saddles to tenderize it, a practice that was happily abandoned by later chefs. In the seventh century, Russians brought their version of the dish, steak tartare, to Hamburg, Germany, where it morphed into the cooked version we know now. In the early 1800s, the “Hamburg steak” was well-enough established to be included in the Oxford English Dictionary. The dish emigrated to America in the mid-1900s and eventually appeared with a bun at the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair. The first burger chains appeared in the 1920s and the cheeseburger debuted a decade later.
Hot dogs followed a similar path. Sausages have been around since the ancient world, ultimately establishing themselves in the German cuisine that came to America in the mid-1800s. Around 1870, a German immigrant named Charles Feltman set up a food cart on Coney Island and did a brisk business selling sausages in a bun. From there they were introduced at ball parks as a snack to go with beer.
What about sides? The history of French fries is contested, with origin stories dating back to the seventeenth century. Belgium is petitioning UNESCO to endorse the fry as an icon of Belgian heritage. The story goes that in 1680 the River Meuse froze over, preventing citizens of Namur from catching and frying the small fish they were used to, so they fried potatoes instead. American soldiers, evidently confusing French-speaking Belgians with their neighbors, encountered the fried treat during WWI, taking so-called French fries back to the US.
There are other contenders for title of fry inventor. Spain has a claim. After all, they introduced the potato to Europe in the late 1500s after learning about it in the New World. France maintains an eighteenth-century street peddler on Paris’s Pont-Neuf bridge introduced French fries to the world. Canada has a special affinity since fries are an integral ingredient in poutine (invented in Quebec the 1950s). Without argument, America eats the most per capita.
The first recipe for onion rings is more certain. It’s generally agreed to have been published in John Mollard’s 1802 cookbook, “The Art of Cookery Made Easy and Refined.” Mollard was a cook and proprietor of the Freemasons’ Tavern at Lincoln Inn Fields in London. However, the dish did not become popular until it emerged in its full cholesterolific glory in twentieth century America.
Speaking of fried food, the potato chip was invented by the appropriately-named George Crumb in 1853, a chef in Saratoga Springs, New York. Originally called Saratoga Chips, they were eventually made and marketed by a company in Cleveland, Ohio. Herman Lay introduced potato chips to many customers from Atlanta to Nashville by selling them from the trunk of his Ford Model A. He eventually founded H.W. Lay & Company, which merged with the Frito Company in 1961, which eventually merged with Pepsi-Cola.
Naturally, we want something to drink after eating all these salty foods. Mineral waters have been consumed since Roman times, as they were believed to have curative powers. Readers of Regency novels will be familiar with invalids “taking the waters” at various spas. A man-made version of carbonated beverages was first produced in the 1760s by adding chalk and acid to regular drinking water. Initially, wine was added as flavoring, but various sweet syrups followed and by the 1840s, soda fountains began appearing in pharmacies.
In 1876, Philadelphia pharmacist Charles Hires concocted a mixture of herbs, roots and berries and added it carbonated soda water to produce the first root beer. In 1886, another formulation containing coca leaves and the caffeine-rich kola nut became Coca-Cola. Marketed as a tonic, the original formula contained extracts of cocaine, which wasn’t illegal at the time. In 1893, Pepsi-Cola was introduced as a digestive aid. Soon bottling facilities replaced soda fountains and, by the 1920s, soft drinks were available via vending machines. The medicinal claims surrounding such beverages were dropped and as early as 1942, the American Medical Association was specifically mentioning soft drinks as it recommended consumers limit their intake of sugar. As the saying goes, the more things change, the more they stay the same.
The Slow Food movement aims to recover the joys of delicious home cooked cuisine, along with traditional methods of preparation. However, as the hipsters rush to rediscover bone broth and artisan sauerkraut, it’s worth remembering that food is as variable as the people who eat it. Our cuisine has a complex family tree, along with a few crumpled food wrappers tucked in the branches. Fast food—despite the overwhelming corporatization involved—is equally traditional, with a centuries-long story of its own.
June 1, 2019 • 2 Comments
I love illustrated books, especially older ones with hand-drawn and tinted plates. While lots of my favorites are illustrations of novels and children’s stories, I’m fond of old scientific works as well. Botany texts, seed catalogues, and gardening manuals offer a wealth of gorgeous illustrations (as well as information on how to grow things without a boatload of chemicals). Some varieties that show up aren’t that common in modern gardens, so they are great references when looking for heritage specimens.
Recently I brought home a lovely old English (1843) volume because, y’know, book research.
Here’s a sample page of The Floricultural Cabinet and Florist’s Magazine, conducted by Joseph Harrison, editor of the Gardener’s Record, etc.:
I find a quick dose of happiness in the New York Botanical Garden page a day calendar (willowcreekpress.com). It alternates modern photographs of their amazing facility with antique botanical illustrations. I keep this on my desk at the day job so I can take a quick mental vacation to a beautiful green space as required.
Here’s a link to the garden itself: https://www.nybg.org/. The online shop is fun for gardening fans.
January 21, 2018 • No Comments
Serendipity is a wonderful thing. Since the next set of adventures in Corsair’s Cove feature an orchard and cidery, the universe considerately put the Sea Cider Wassail Celebrations in our path. This past weekend, Rachel Goldsworthy and I braved capricious weather to visit. Happily we missed most of the wind & rain and even found a good parking space. Suffice to say the ocean view from the orchard was moody and Gothic.
We missed the last tour, so self-toured our way through the food and drink, a stroll though the orchard itself, and the inevitable shopping experience. There was singing and Morris Dancing as well as a mummer’s play, all nods to the old English tradition.
The really interesting part for me was the Orchard Blessing, which involved soaking dried bread in cider and hanging it on the branches of the apple trees while the Green Man* invited favor for the coming harvest. It’s an old wassail tradition traditionally done in January. Cursory research tells me that the date is associated with Twelfth Night and/or January 17 because we’re somewhere between pruning and the sap rising. Whatever the origins of the ceremony, with all that boozy bread I imagine there will be some crows with significant hangovers in the morning.
The ciders come with names our piratical ghosts would love, such as “Rumrunner,” “Flagship,” and “Kings and Spies.” The titles capture the spirit of the event—filled with tradition but also a healthy sense of fun. It was an afternoon well spent.
* The Green Man was played by an actor, the true pagan deity of the vegetable kingdom being otherwise engaged.
September 25, 2017 • No Comments
So, Kiss in the Dark is about a ghostly pirate, but what about ghostly ships? There are plenty of legends, but here is a story about a real ship that inspired any number of supernatural theories.
A merchant brigantine called the Amazon was built in Nova Scotia in 1861. She took timber to London, sailed the West Indies, and eventually ran aground in Glace Bay in 1867. She was then salvaged, fixed up, and sold to American owners in 1868. They renamed her the Mary Celeste. On November 7, 1872, the ship sailed for Genoa with a cargo of denatured (and undrinkable) alcohol. All indications were that the captain, crew, and the ship itself were in perfect condition. Captain Briggs was accompanied by his wife and baby daughter.
On December 4 a Canadian vessel named the Dei Gratia encountered the Mary Celeste far from land between the Azores and the coast of Portugal. The ship was abandoned, with a single lifeboat missing. There was some slight damage to the ship, but the cargo and ship’s provisions were intact. There was no evidence of damage by foul weather or collision with another vessel.
Theories of what happened to the ship abound—from a giant squid to aliens—but no decisive answer has ever been found.
August 18, 2017 • No Comments
Those who follow me on Instagram (RowanAshArt) will know that I have a great interest in plants and flowers. It’s not just because the botanical world is photogenic enough to overcome my poor photography skills. Somewhere in the distant mists of childhood I decided I wanted to become a herbologist. Why? Maybe it was all the herbal healers that showed up in the fantasy books I read. Anyhow, herbology got laughed right out of the career counsellor’s office and I took an English degree instead because, y’know, we have to be practical.
Fast forward to the present. I’m still interested and have done some learning along the way. I’m in a pitched battle with Things That Munch in the garden, but have had a few victories, including a very healthy bay tree and a rosemary that will eventually take over Vancouver Island. With luck, I may even have tomatoes this year. It’s all about figuring out what plants go in what location and how many plants it takes to yield enough material to be useful once the deer, bugs, and rabbits help themselves.
But beyond all that, I’ve grown interested in the history and literary applications of gardening. There’s the whole murder mystery connection, with Brother Cadfael and his herbarium. There’s also the metaphor of gardening and the mind. I’m in the very early stages of developing a character with an exceptional garden, but it’s as much an expression of her past and her aspirations as of her green thumb. It’s a historical setting, so the extravagant Victorian glass houses and hand-drawn etchings of botanical specimens are part of her world. That Victorian mix of science, superstition, and adventure—not to mention their mania for collecting and codifying everything—are intoxicating to me. It’s great fun to have something in common with a character because we can both enjoy ourselves during the research process.
January 14, 2016 • 1 Comment
I was piling through some photos from my trip to England a few years ago and found some from the fashion museum in Bath. This extremely Downton Abbey dress is certainly beautiful. I’ve seen photos of my grandmother as a young woman wearing this style and the cut, while seemingly loose, is very flattering to feminine curves. The dress dates from the early 1910s, but I think there are vague hints of the flapper
look to come.
The plaque at the museum describes the dress as “cream silk ninon dress with satin ribbon work trim.” For those (like me) who had to look up the term “ninon” it’s the gauzy stuff. I have to say I am besotted with the way the overskirt is gathered up at the back. It looks casual and elegant at the same time and reminds me of Grecian statuary.
October 6, 2015 • No Comments
I recently had a chance to visit the Ross Bay Villa in Victoria. It’s a historic house I’ve driven by a thousand times and finally made time to visit. Both the garden and building are being restored and tours are available. The best part of visiting was the tour guides, who were tolerant of all my questions and willing to go off on a tangent if asked!
Here are a few details about it, mostly borrowed from its excellent website here, where there is also a fundraising campaign to preserve the site:
- Ross Bay Villa was the home of Francis James Roscoe, his wife Anna Letitia, and their five children from 1865 to 1879.
- Roscoe was a Member of Parliament for Victoria from 1874 to 1878.
- A “Villa” in Victorian architectural terms was the country dwelling of a gentleman. This one is built in the gothic revival style.
- It is believed the house was designed by Write and Sanders, Victoria’s first professional architects.
I can’t imagine seven people plus servants living in this small residence, especially as they must have entertained given Roscoe’s political aspirations.
The wallpaper in the photos was replicated from examples found buried beneath other paints and papers. They believe it is the original or close to it. Notice how the pictures are hung from trim placed right under the ceiling during this period.