Bilberries: A Late-Autumn Treat

Variously monikered “the blood month” for the many animals slaughtered during it, the “wind month” for the icy gusts that swept the land, and “the month of blue devils and suicides” for reasons unstated, November was to those who lived before T.S. Eliot the cruelest page of the calendar. Occult influences of the sun’s moving into the house of the constellation Sagittarius were blamed for the merciless turn taken by the weather, which beset London with endless days of leaden skies, torrential rain, and stifling fog. So sharp, in fact, were November’s winds that farmers believed them to suspend “the vegetable powers of nature,” which would resume only with the arrival of spring.

Yet this suspension proved less than total. In 1864 Scottish publisher and geologist Robert Chambers advanced the idea that, rather than arresting the vegetable powers of the year’s final crop of berries, sleet and frost ripened it to perfection. Brambleberries, blueberries, dewberries, cloudberries – all reached maturity in November’s chill embrace.

The fact of this late development proved a real boon for the rural poor, who could brighten the otherwise blear approach of winter with a selection of pies. A particular favorite among them was the bilberry; its smallness and perishability ill-suited it for market, and it grew only in the wild, which meant that anyone who wished could pick them. Austria, Finland, Norway, Sweden and Switzerland had (and still have) on their law books provisions for the free gathering of this fruit irrespective of land title, private gardens and nature reserves excepted. The bilberry was, then, truly a common fruit. This democratic character perhaps inspired Abraham Holroyd’s long forgotten poem, “The Bilberry Moors” (1873).

As we march to the bilberry moors.
The wealthy man’s wall bounded not what we call
The common, and bilberry ground;
His broad-acred lot—nay, we covet it not—

Ye wealthy keep all that ye bound!
But the bilberry blue oweth nothing to you—

It groweth for the rich and poor;
Oh! mean were the might that would question the right
To roam on the bilberry moors.

If mean might should happen to question your right to gather bilberries close to home, you can always range the wild, arid places where they like to grow. Your efforts will be amply rewarded; the fruit’s light, tart flavor makes for delicious puddings, jams, and syrups of the sort presented in the recipes below.

Bilberry Pudding, Jam, and Syrup

70. Bilberry Pudding.—Make a suet crust, grease and line basin, half fill it with fresh bilberries, strew 2 tablespoonsful of sugar over them, and continue to fill the basin till it is heaped up. Put the top crust on and flour a cloth, tie it over, and boil for 2 hours. Bilberries in any form, either uncooked, made into pies, puddings, jam, or syrup, are particularly good for people suffering from scrofula, whether of the lungs or however it may be developed.

71. Bilberry Jam.—Gather the berries on a fine dry day, and after the sun has had time to dry the dew or moisture off the berries; weigh the fruit, put into a preserving pan with 1 pint of water, let it boil half an hour, and then add 6 pounds of sugar to every 7 pounds of fruit. Boil for three quarters of an hour; test it at the end of that time by putting a little in a saucer; put it out of doors to cool, and if it sets, it will be found to be sufficiently cooked. If not boiled enough it will not set firmly. Fill dry jam pots in the usual way, and cover down when cold with brown paper.

72. Bilberry Syrup.—Put 2 lbs. of loaf sugar into a saucepan with 1 pint of water; let it boil for a quarter of an hour, stirring all the time. Put on the fire, in a saucepan, 3 lbs. of bilberries; let them boil for half an hour, pass them through a jelly bag, and add the juice to the syrup. Clear with the white and shell of one egg, lightly whipped, and put into the syrup. Put it on the fire again, let it boil well up for three minutes; lift it carefully to one side, skim all the froth off as gently as possible, then pour into bottles and cork for future use. 1 tablespoonful in a tumbler of water before breakfast is considered quite a heal-all by some of the people in the midland counties. It certainly contains some valuable acids, and is a refreshing beverage on a hot summer’s day.

The Napoleon of Preserved Food

Rarely does ingenuity find just reward. The enterprising Nicolas Appert learned this unhappy fact when, in 1795, he hit upon the means by which to preserve meat, fish and vegetables in glass bottles. This découverte came only after a serious of professional failures. Appert began his career as a champagne salesman, and then tried his hand at confections before ending up in a grubby little atelier in the rue de la Folie-Méricourt, immersing in a piping hot bain-marie wide-mouthed glass bottles stuffed with everything from peas to pot roast. Finding that the bath rendered the jars airtight, Appert hit upon an idea that, for a few years at least, would bring him fame and welcome fortune.

Appert’s discovery came at a most opportune moment. Traditional methods of preserving – drying, smoking, salting – yielded unpredictable, often unsatisfactory results. Appert’s method, on the other hand, proved so effective that the Frenchman soon found himself crowned “the Napoleon of preserved food.” It wasn’t long, however, before the Napoleon of world conquest  learned of his culinary counterpart. Looking for a way to feed vast numbers of soldiers, the emperor summarily appointed Appert “official purveyor of the Grand Armée” whose theater of operations was a food bottling factory at Massey. Supervising more than fifty employees, the official purveyor discharged his duty to the Empire with élan, seeing to it that troops marched off well supplied with bottled rations.

Appert’s luck changed in 1814. A pair of English technicians infiltrated the factory and stole his trade secret. Shortly thereafter, the first English canned foods (the clever Britons improved upon Appert’s design by substituting metal for glass) came rolling out of the factories of Donkins-Hall.

Unlike their American cousins, who also learned food preserving, the English failed to credit Appert with his discovery, and this oversight proved fatal. He never recovered from this bit of industrial espionage; his fortunes declined as the popularity of his invention increased. Not even a gift of 12,000 livres and the title of Benefactor of Humanity managed to stave off the mortification of poverty. In 1841 Appert was found dead, half-starved and penniless.

Should you wish to rectify a historical wrong, this recipe for canned apples from the 1906 Book of Choice Recipes will help you to preserve the memory of Appert and his signature innovation.

Canned Apples

Choose ripe, finely flavored apples, only slightly tart. Pare, core, cut into eighths, throw into cold water and after draining, weigh, and put into the preserving kettle with boiling water enough to cover. As soon as the water begins to boil up, place over a slow fire to simmer until tender, but not soft. Into another kettle put one pound of sugar, one quart of boiling water, the juice of one lemon and half its rind, grated, for every five pounds of apples. Stir, and simmer five minutes. Drain the water from the apples carefully, let them slip slowly into the syrup, and simmer until the fruit looks clear and may be pierced with a straw. Lift with a perforated spoon, one or two pieces at a time, slip into jars and cover to overflowing with the boiling syrup. If you have sweet apples canned with pineapples, they are very nice.

Marmalade and Eggs for Cycling Legs

A “girdle around the earth” Thomas Gaskell Allen and William Sachtleben set out to describe the day after they graduated from Washington University. For three years they peddled their bicycles from “Normandy to Paris,” across “the lowlands of western France to Bordeaux,” straining over the Lesser Alps to Marseilles and “along the Riviera into Italy.” Even the seductive climes of the Mediterranean could not waylay them on their journey; after wintering in Athens, they stowed their bikes aboard a sailboat headed for Constantinople.

Some 2,500 photographs bear witness to Allen and Sachtleben’s odyssey. Yet boys weren’t the only ones peddling for glory. In 1896 Elizabeth Robins Pennell became the first woman to bike the Alps, a feat which she subsequently downplayed. “I did not think I was very original, when I set out deliberately to make a record,” she writes in Over the Alps on a Bicycle, her account of her efforts. Indeed, men and women had been riding to strange places for at least a decade before Pennell. In 1887 the 10,000 miles Lyman Hotchkiss Bagg logged on his bicycle he distilled into an 800-page memoir entitled, appropriately enough, Ten Thousand Miles on a Bicycle, which he dedicated to Curl, his beloved bulldog. Like Pennell, Bagg did not have record breaking in mind when he commenced his trek. His chronicle in published form exists “avowedly for no other reason than that [the reader’s] coin may help fill the yawning chasm” of his bank account.

The bicycle owes its existence to an inquisitive German baron, who invented a vehicle he dubbed a Laufmaschine (“running machine”), a contraption by no means easy to operate. Astride a wooden frame supported by two large in-line wheels, the rider pushed his Laufmaschine with his feet and steered it with his hands. Subsequent improvements on the German baron’s design were made by a Scottish blacksmith, who himself made bicycle history by committing the first bicycle-related traffic offense when he knocked over a little girl while riding his “velocipede … of ingenious design” around Glasgow. A fine of five shillings set things to rights.

It wasn’t until 1888, however, that the bicycle came into its own. Another Scotsman added to the design the pneumatic tire. And that same year also added was the rear freewheel, which allowed the rider to coast. These innovations vaulted bicycling into the first rank of weekend pastimes. Clubs devoted to the sport sprang up on both sides of the Atlantic.

These intrepid cyclists’ tales of treks from the Alps to Asia Minor, from Cannes to Constantinople, contain few details as to provisions. Perhaps their sustenance came in the form of  marmalade sandwiches and stuffed eggs, a recipe for which appears in a 1911 edition of Suburban Life.

Stuffed Eggs for a Picnic

Stuffed eggs should be wrapped separately in paraffin paper, and then packed in a box. A delicious manner of fixing the stuffed eggs is to mash the yolks of hardboiled eggs, add mustard, salt and pepper to taste, with enough vinegar to make the mixture moist and, lastly, a little chopped meat. Roll this into balls, and return to the cavity in the whites of the eggs. To vary this, add grated cheese instead of meat, and mayonnaise instead of vinegar.

Lobster à la Robinson

Kinsmen shipwrecked in the East Indies become means by which to impart the virtues of proper husbandry, self-reliance and thorough knowledge of the natural world – such is the conceit of the pastor Johann David Wyss’s 1812 novel The Swiss Family Robinson. As much a child of the Enlightenment as a man of the cloth, Wyss presents his subjects’ exploits as a series of lessons in morality, natural history and the physical sciences. An ostrich tamed is transformed into transport, soil into earthen vessels. The heteroclite character of the island – elephants cavort with kangaroos, tapirs with giraffes; coconut palms grow side-by-side with fir trees – perplexes not the resourceful Swiss family; they draw from it nourishment, entertainment and comfort, as well as valuable insight.

Even a contretemps with a cantankerous crustacean proves instructive. While wading in a pool, the third eldest Robinson son Jack, a spirited boy, steps on a lobster, who retaliates in the only way available to it. Caught in its “terrible powerful claws,” Jack suffers a “terrible fright.” The ensuing commotion draws to the scene Jack’s father, who frees his son from the lobster’s grip and brings the offending creature to shore. Jack angrily grips the creature, who, by now exasperated, again retaliates with a sharp blow with its tail. Its reward is to be flung down and crushed with a stone.

Robinson père looks on with anything but approval. “You are acting in a very childish way,” he tells Jack, adding that to “strike an enemy in a revengeful spirit” is unwise policy. His reproof falls on deaf ears, however. Too caught up with his triumph, Jack rushes his shattered adversary home to his mother, who in a spirit of strict domestic economy tosses it into a soup kettle simmering nearby.

The absence of an enemy to vanquish need not mean an empty stock pot. In her delightful volume, The Storybook Cookbook (1967), Carol MacGregor assures her readers that you “don’t need to catch your own lobster, but you can make this delicious seaside soup” using the eminently sensible canned kind.

Lobster Soup

1 1/2 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
A dash of pepper
1 1/2 cups light cream
1/2 cup milk
10 oz. of canned lobster
Red coloring (optional)

1. Put a medium-sized saucepan on the stove and turn the heat on low. Melt the butter in the pan, but do not let it burn.

2. Add the flour, salt, and pepper to the butter. Stir over low heat until you have a paste.

3. Gradually add the cream and milk, stirring constantly until the mixture thickens. You may have to turn up the heat a little to thicken the sauce.

4. Open the can of lobster meat and drain off all the liquid. Break the lobster into pieces, and be sure there are no little scales in it. Add it to the cream sauce and cook for 10 minutes.

5. Place a sieve over a medium-sized bowl and pour the lobster bisque into the sieve. With a spoon, press as much of the sauce and lobster meat as you can through the sieve. Discard the remaining lobster meat or feed it to your cat.

6. If you want to, add 2 drops of red coloring to give the soup a nice pink color.

7. Pour the bisque back into the saucepan and reheat it, as it will have cooled off. Serve it hot. Makes 4 servings.

Automats: Giving Lunch the Impersonal Touch

A machine that could serve milk steaming hot or ice-cold, that never spilled a drop and never needed cleaning – such was the dream of German school administrators who were after an innovative way of meeting their pupils’ nutritional needs. In 1903 that dream became reality with the introduction into schools throughout Berlin of the Milch-Automat, a technological wonder that, as revealed in an issue of The Modern Review, subtracted the human element from the dairy-delivery equation. A coin dropped into the machine sent “a waterproof paper cup … down in an opening” to catch a jet of the “very finest quality milk” with ease and exactness. And, true to its promise, the Milch-Automat proved an exceedingly clean machine, flushing itself every so often by “a mechanical process” that kept it “scientifically sanitary.”

These ingenious machines belonged to three classes – hot-food, cold-food, liquid – each indicating certain differences in operation. Customers worked a hot-food machine, for instance, by dropping a coin into it, in exchange for which they received a metal token. Meanwhile, the coin journeyed down a tube that denoted a particular dish. In some subterranean kitchen, a cook took notice of this coin and prepared the appropriate entree, which he then sent up a dumb waiter and down a conveyor to a glass receptacle. This dish the customer freed by inserting his token into a nearby slot.

Cold-food automats, on the other hand, were decidedly simpler affairs. Prepared in advance and adequately refrigerated, a cold dish could spend all day attracting the attention of some peckish passer-by. Similarly self-sufficient were the liquid machines, which featured the addition of a self-measuring contrivance that ensured each thirsty customer’s cup was filled exactly with the advertised quantity.

Automat fever soon spread beyond central Europe. A passion for these machines came to infect New York and, in fact, touched off a vogue for so-called “Automat parties.”A typical fête of this sort involved the late-night rental of an automatic restaurant. Theater-goers, club-hoppers and other assorted  night owls would make merry in these hired hot-spots, enjoying their mechanized bounty by pumping cocktails and winching up salads with the drop of a coin.

Automats are a rarity nowadays. But you can still recreate an automat meal. An American visitor to one such establishment in Berlin reported enjoying a lunch of “mutton, potatoes, string beans, Swiss cheese sandwich, sardine sandwich and vanilla ice” – all for 20 cents! These inflationary times make it hard to replicate such a meal at such a price. But a few bucks still allows you to enjoy a Swiss cheese sandwich like those featured in The Up-To-Date Sandwich Book (1909).

Swiss Cheese Sandwich

Cut rye bread very thin. Spread lightly with butter. Between the pieces place thin slices of Swiss cheese. Spread with mustard. Garnish with a dill pickle sliced thin.

Swiss Cheese Sandwich No. 2

Butter thin slices of pumpernickel bread. Between slices put a thin layer of Swiss cheese and leaves of watercress. Cut in long narrow strips. Garnish with an olive.

New York Luncheonettes: No-Frills Dining in the Gilded Age

One problem confronting early twentieth-century New Yorkers was where to find a flea dip to go with a proper dish of ground beef. The Canine Luncheonette, one of the Gilded Age’s more charming innovations, supplied the remedy. To those four-legged companions of women who would disappear into the shops on Fifth Avenue the establishment offered comfort and refection. There pooches could dine in grand style and could even steal a nap. (Longer reposes, however, had to take place down the street at the doggie hotel, whose appurtenances naturally included a savory bone for gnawing.)

Of course, the dog-eat-dog spirit of the times meant that opulence often existed side-by-side with the most extreme privation. The Walther League Messenger reminds its readers that even as the Canine Luncheonette cossetted its clients, “human beings in Hungarian ‘Siberia’ are eating dog flesh in their despair.” In such a condition “the meat and biscuits which are fed to those pampered pets of New York society” these poor unfortunates would no doubt regard as “a rare delicacy.”

For luncheonette customers of the two-legged variety, delicacy took a back seat to expedience. Quick, simple fare was the order of business, and it proved popular among students, shoppers, transients, and others on the go. Initially adjuncts to soda fountains, luncheonettes featured vanilla milkshakes, toasted English muffins and hamburgers – all items that could sate pangs that surfaced between ordinary meal times. As an 1915 issue of The Dispenser’s Formulary reports, many a Manhattanite was delivered comfortably to the dinner hour thanks to the timely intervention of “a well-made bowl of soup, an individual service of chicken pie, a sandwich, and a strawberry dessert.”

The hustle and bustle of luncheonettes attested to their convenience. Customers perched above Formica counters gave their orders directly to the line cooks. Those seated in booths dealt with waitresses who translated their meal requests into an exotic idiom. “Doughnuts and coffee” became “sinks and suds.” “Make it high and dry” meant “Hold the mayonnaise and mustard.”

Indeed, bread, meat and cheese never admitted of as much combinatorial variety as they did at luncheonettes, where sandwiches dominated the menu. Bread “spread thinly with butter” The Dispenser’s Formulary considers best for sandwiches, provided the accompanying meat isn’t “dragged from its covers as the consumer bites through it.” To avoid such a mishap it’s better to swap cold cuts for fruit. The Dispenser’s Formulary thus presents this recipe for a tutti frutti sandwich, which you can be sure makes for quick, easy, orderly eating.

Tutti Frutti Sandwich

One pound stoned and chopped dates, two ounces of shredded ginger, one pound ground roasted and salted peanuts, one pound of seeded and chopped raisins, one half pound strained honey and the juice of two lemons. Pack in a jar and keep in refrigerator. Use as needed.