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.

New York City’s Lunch Counter Dance Halls

Lunch among the tombstones would seem a melancholy repast. But not so for the well-dressed girls of Manhattan. In The Personality of American Cities (1913), Edward Hungerford writes that “part of the lunch hour is always a stroll – unless there be a downpour.” With “little packages” of food in tow, the gay ladies head for the churchyards, where they plop down amid the graves to gossip and eat lunch. “No one molests them,” Hungerford reports, “and the church authorities, although a little flustered when this first began, have seen that there is no harm in it.” They let the girls rest in peace.

The less affluent office girls are loth to share the lunch hour with the dearly departed. Eschewing the humous charms of St. Paul’s or Trinity, they head for the more lively atmopshere of a most unique eating establishment: the lunch counter cum dance hall. He was a clever lunch-man indeed, Hungerford writes, who “placed a row of chairs along one edge of his dancing-hall” and over them a sign that read “Smoking Permitted at This End of the Room.” Office girls cramped from hours at a desk could drink malts and revive their limbs with twenty minutes or so of rug-cutting.

These lunch counter dance halls thrived despite moral censure directed at them from certain quarters. Some folks felt they compromised the morality of their patrons. The author of The Social Evil in New York (1910) opines that, though dance halls offer “the most popular form of recreation to young people,” they will no doubt prove “the open door to an immoral life.”

Whether those office girls stood on the precipice of something dark and sinful have gone unrecorded, as have the kind of victuals that fueled these lunch-time balls. The refreshment was likely something innocuous, such as vanilla egg creams prepared much along the lines of the recipe below, which appears in The Laurel Health Cookery (1911).

Vanilla Egg Cream
Beat the white of an egg with 1-2 teaspns. of sugar, reserving a little for the top; chop in the yolk with 1 tablespn. of cream and a delicate flavoring of vanilla; serve in a glass, with white on top of yolk mixture.
Or, for a change, beat the white and yolk separately, add half the sugar and cream to each, flavor yolk with vanilla, pile white in a dainty glass dish and pour yolk mixture over it. A little of the white may be chopped with the yolk.

Birch Bark for Bowel Remedies and Other Boons

At eighty feet high and close to two feet thick, the black birch dwarfs its fellow trees. It’s solitary, preferring to make its home on craggy, mountain precipices, where its branches can reach over deep chasms and it roots can burrow between rocks into moist, rich soil. But it’s also handsome, having large oval leaves laced with fine veins that turn yellow in autumn and bark that in youth is a seamless near-black and in maturity becomes cracked and furrowed.

The astute observer of nature knows that this cracking is a most auspicious development. At such a stage the bark, grown redolent of wintergreen and imbued with a spicy flavor, separates easily from the trunk, and can be harvested for a number of products, such as tea, chaw, a nostrum to ease bowel complaints or a salve to cure cankers.

The birch tree’s youngest twigs make the best – and most ecologically sensitive – tea; the thick inner bark, though tasty, leaves the trunk scarred and disfigured when removed. Drying the bark does nothing to diminish the tea’s flavor, which is best enjoyed with sugar, cream and cookies of the sort featured in this recipe from the San Rafael Cook Book (1906).

Economical Cookies

1 cup sugar, 1/2 cup butter, 1/2 cup sour milk, 1 egg, 1/2 teaspoon soda. Flour to make soft dough and flavor to taste.

Holidays at the Antarctic Hotel

The mariners stranded in the icy wastes of Antarctica, where, as an 1850 edition of Household Words reports, “crashing mountains of ice, heaped up together, have made a chaos round their ships”; the mariners icily bearded, enjoying no company besides animals and birds white as though “they too were born of the desolate snow and frost” – how did they observe the year-end holidays? With merriment and good cheer, as it turns out.

The 1841 South Pole expedition was the very picture of high spirits on the high seas. The crew celebrated Christmas in grand English style, unfriendly environs notwithstanding. Such animal life as existed there paid no heed to them. Seals basked sleepily on floating chunks of ice. The black curve of a whale’s back peeked through a fissure and disappeared again. Two ships, the “Terror” and the “Erebus,” occupied a small opening in ice pack seven hundred miles wide. Ice covered the decks; a dense, gray fog, the ships. Except for flocks of shrieking terns that sometimes passed by, all was still and silent.

A giant formation brooded over the ships, and this the sailors christened the “Christmas Berg.” In its shadow they feasted on roast beef, roast goose and the “homely never-to-be-forgotten plum pudding.” And though the beasts had drawn “their first breath on the fern-clad plateau of the Waimate, near the Bay Islands of New Zealand,” and not in the dales of England, they were nevertheless tasty. The sailors followed their sumptuous dinner with a Divine service.

New Year occasioned more elaborate amusement. By then the ships had dipped south of the Antarctic circle and had become frozen fast, more so than they were at Christmas. Such imprisonment did little to dampen the sailors’ mirth, however. With “ice anchors and hawsers” they lashed their ships to a large floe. On it they fashioned “a quadrangle space … for a dance.” This fantastic dance floor at the foot of a descending staircase of ice was christened “Antarctic Hotel” and “bore on a sign-board, fixed to a pale, the words ‘Pilgrims of the Ocean’ and on the reverse ‘Pioneers of Science.’” “An elevated chair … of the same substance” stood in its center. Adjacent to the ballroom the sailors carved a refreshment room, in which bottles of grog and wine covered a table chiseled from the surrounding ice. More substantial refreshments were available as well. Two young seamen acting as waiters handed out “genuine Antarctic ices” on a tray.

These festivities lacked neither music nor female companionship. Cheerful song was provided by a group of sailors blowing horns and singing. A few innovative souls brought up pigs from the ships’ hold and, seizing them by the ears, “pinched them until the hapless grunts united their cries in concert with the horns.” Though she could not heed these dulcet tones, “Haidee,” a snow-woman and the belle of the ball with her head full of ice ringlets, presided over the goings-on from the gangway of the “Terror,” looking on in mute approval. As on Christmas Day, the sailors feasted lavishly on “roast goose and roast beef,”
but mince pies took the place of Yuletide plum pudding.

If winter’s chill should have you stuck in place for the holidays, a tasty plum pudding ought to cheer you at least as much as it did any ice-bound English sailor. The recipe below, which appears in Practical Recipes (1909), will have the “Haidee” in your life melting with anticipation. And if you’d like to serve something restorative to your snowy friend, you can throw in a frozen pudding for good measure.

Very Rich Plum Pudding

(Virginia recipe) 10 eggs, 1 pound each of chopped suet, chopped to a powder, raisins (stoned), currants (washed and dried). Candied orange and lemon peel and citron mixed one-half pound. 1 nutmeg, a little salt, a teaspoon of mixed spices, cloves, cinnamon and mace. 1 common glass of sherry wine (best). 1 common glass of brandy (best). 1 pound of stale bread crumbs, 2 or 3 tablespoons of flour. Boil 4 hours and burn brandy over it. Light the brandy just as it goes on the table. Eat with cold sauce.

Frozen Pudding

1 pint of rich milk; 2 cups of sugar (powdered); 1 cup of boiled rice; 2 tablespoons of gelatine; 1 quart of rich cream; 1 pound of candied cherries; 4 tablespoons of best sherry wine.

Boil the milk and thicken with the rice, stirring constantly for 15 minutes. Add gelatine while hot and permit it to get cool before adding cream and sherry. Freeze 10 minutes before adding wine, then add wine and stir in thoroughly and freeze altogether, and turn out the same as ice cream. If not frozen carefully, it will not be so delicate, as you do not want it stiff and hard.