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.