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Sunday, December 18, 2011

Culinary Ephemera - The Book

I walked into Borders just before they closed to purchase some shelving, and of course I had a look at the remaining books. It was sad, sad, sad to see such a bright and capacious bookstore closing, and little of interest was left on the shelves. But by some kind of serendipity, there was one copy left of William Woys Weaver’s book, Culinary Ephemera: An Illustrated History.

To be honest, I hadn’t heard of it even though it was published in 2010. Naturally I swept it off the shelf (the word “ephemera” is magical to me, of course.) With a pause at the cash register it became mine, and I’m very pleased with it.

This is not a price guide, and unlike other books on cooking materials it is not primarily about cookbooks and booklets. In fact, it leaves cookbooks out altogether and instead focuses on what is truly ephemera – booklets to be sure, but also almanacs, menus, handbills, labels, sheet music, trade cards – even postcards, match book covers, valentines and more. This brought categories to my attention that I hadn’t even thought of.

This Kilpatrick's Bread booklet from 1922 attempts to glamorize bread with recipes for sandwiches, various toast treatments, breaded meats, and "mock duck."

The best part of the book, however, is the way in which Weaver uses the ephemera to describe the attitudes, prejudices, and social and economic values and changes in American culture over the decades. And he not only includes cooking, but just about anything relating to food, culinary advertising, and kitchen appliances and processes.

This billhead is from True & Blandchard: Hardware, Tinware, Stoves, Cuttlery and Notions (Newport, Vermont) and is dated 1894.


The above cancelled checks are from (1) the O.A. Harlan & Co. Packer of Dried Fruits (San Jose CA) dated 1922 in the amount of 22.00; and  John Batto & Sons: Wholesale Produce Shippers (San Francisco, CA) dated 1907 in the amount of $100.00. Both are illustrated with images of company facilities. 

Much cooking ephemera is bright, colorful, and appealing, since most of it is advertising that attempts to draw attention to itself and the products it promotes. Canned asparagus could, in fact, only look appealing on paper! White or not.

Cooking ephmera has long been a prized collectible for its visual and graphic appeal, but this book lays out some more profound reasons for collecting these oddments of everyday life. Even if your only interest is in the history of American food culture, it is well worth reading. And after looking at the lively images reproduced in the book, it is difficult not to add culinary ephemera to your collecting interests.

A label for Mountain Brand Cherries, Salem Oregon. The "modern" maraschino cherry was, in fact, developed at Oregon State Agricultural College (now Oregon State University) in nearby Corvallis. In a bid against imported Italian cherries - and with an abundant cherry production in need of a market - one Prof. Ernest Wiegand worked for several years to perfect the product. A building on the OSU campus bears the name Weigand hall, and they are so proud of this bit of history that there is a class offered (Maraschino Cherry 102) which examines the "historical, technological and scientific aspects of maraschino cherry production." Well....yes.

The only thing that saves me is being an ephemera dealer – I can take pleasure in enhancing the collections of others rather than trying to archive and maintain a collection of my own.

Even sheet music, plays, and other images can be related to food - this is a program for the opening night performance of "The Chocolate Soldier" - which also promises some "spice."

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Christmas Images 1 – The Comforts of Home

The other evening we lit a fire in the fireplace for the first time this year. Baby, it was cold outside. Well, we didn’t really need the fire for warmth but somehow it seems very comforting during the dark cold months of the year. There must be something in our more primitive biological memory that responds to the crackle and pop of the wood and the dancing flames.

“It’s comforting,” I said. “Cozy. Reassuring. Homey.”

That’s a theme that is frequently conveyed by Christmas cards that feature snug cottages in the snow, smoke rising from the chimneys or windows that suggest light and warmth inside.

A review of the book American Christmas Cards 1900-1960, by Kenneth L. Ames, a professor of American decorative arts at the Bard Graduate Center in New York City where an exhibit is currently on display, mentions this and other interpretations of Christmas cards over the first six decades of the 20th Century. (I have ordered but not yet received the book.)

I usually describe my ephemera business as “cultural history,” adding that I try to find things that reveal the everyday life (rather than sociological studies) of our past. The history books do not convey all of the nuances of our social attitudes and priorities as they changed over time.

A group of carolers – smoke rising from the cozy homes behind them – convey a feeling of cheer and goodwill, of friendship and sharing.
Drawing together in the warmth of the fire is, again, a basic human need in times past, and an image to which we respond in the present. It used to mean survival of individuals and the species. Now it can encourage survival of our spirits and our sense of ease and comfort.

The cards featured here are from c. 1930s. I have never found a particular name for this graphic style – Moderne is sometimes used, although it gets confused with Streamline Moderne of the 1950s. And yet it is a big step away from the Art Deco era that preceded it. Since it so often features these stylized little bungalows, I usually refer to it as “Cottage Moderne,” but that’s a personal designation. If anyone knows a better term, please speak up. Perhaps the book will have a suggestion.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Ephemeral Word for the Day: Esculent

Ephemera does require some research, and sometimes it takes one down strange and esoteric roads. Sometimes it just contains a pebble that one feels obliged to pick up and turn over speculatively…then attempt to identify.

In this case, I picked up an old advertising leaflet from Prince’s Nurseries, Flushing, New York, dated October 1, 1856 and titled “Chinese Potato: Dioscorea Batatas, Imperial Rice-White Variety.” I wasn’t too sure what a “Chinese potato” might be and so I started to read this advertisement with its somewhat extravagant claims.

Right off the bat it describes the product as an “inestimable esculent.” Okay, two things to find out. What is a Chinese potato, and what is an esculent?

The claims for the inestimable esculent contain some superlatives, including “…this combination of every useful property renders it the greatest vegetable boon ever granted by God to man, and that its introduction to our country is even more important than that of Cotton, and that in twenty years our National statistics will report the value of the annual crop as greater than the Cotton crop.” This nurseryman, identified as Wm. R. Prince, goes on to state, “…I assert that this plant alone has served to solve the enigma as to the alimentary basis of the Chinese empire, and that a statistical investigation will prove, that if that country were deprived of this one vertical root, and received in lieu every other known vegetable, more than one half of its enormous population would perish from famine.” Well, note that he said a statistical investigation WILL prove, not that there had been one.

Prince does not mince words. Further on he supports his claims by asserting, “The statements pretending to emanate from the Farmers’ Club of the American Institute, last Spring, unfavorable to this plant, were barefaced forgeries, made from malicious motives.”

What a lot of fuss, even for an inestimable esculent.

Other statements in the ad led me to believe that this vegetable must be some kind of yam, which indeed it is- although I can’t say that anyone has become wealthy from growing it, nor has it attained the popularity suggested by Prince. It seems to be on the order of the sweet potato, with light-colored flesh. (And some forms of which classified as weeds.)

As for esculent, it turns out to be a somewhat archaic – although certainly useful – word meaning “fit to be eaten” or “edible.” It could be a nice distinction, especially when differentiating between two species of a plant, one of which is edible and one poisonous, as with the camas. In fact, in the Journals of Lewis and Clark Meriwether Lewis writes, “Many of those plants produce those esculent roots which form a principal part of the subsistence of the natives.”

I’ll admit a decided fondness for garnet yams (those with the deep orange color). They don’t require much to make them truly estimable esculents. (Can you see that on a menu? “Estimable esculents in butter sauce with sea salt.” Yum.