Beginning Monday, February 6, The Austerity Kitchen will appear as a column at The New Inquiry. This site will serve as an archive and will continue to present recipes and historical vignettes from time to time. The new Kitchen will feature essays on various topics culinary and cultural, anecdotes, recipes, book reviews, vintage illustrations and photographs.
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).
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).