Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Southern Lady, Northern Food

Edges are the most fruitful places to look for information about what is and what used to be historically. An edge is a point of time when things are changing and people experiencing change comment on what went before. An edge is a stressful situation, like war, deprivation, or new settlement. An edge can also be a traveler in a new place commenting on differences between the familiar and the unfamiliar.

A good example is this little bit of insight I dug out of the Southern Historical Collection at Wilson Library, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. I love this little passage from a letter written by Mary McNeill McEachern, a young woman raised in Fayetteville, North Carolina, who went to spend a bit of time with friends in Fishkill on Hudson, New York, in 1876. She spoke quite a bit about food and living arrangements, even household apparatus like furnaces and cisterns which impressed her very much for the comfort that they provided. She even commented on the manner of dressing in the North writing, “the people don’t dress much – they seem to go for comfort more than looks, and in their actions and dress are much more regardless of what the world will say than we are at the South.” As I reckon we still are. (I always take my make-up when I go South.)

Here are Mary's observations of food:

"Now I must tell you what I get to eat. In the way of fruits we have quantities of currants growing in the garden; it is beautiful fruit - I wish you could see it growing, We have also two or three kinds of raspberries and also quantities of cherries of different kinds, gooseberries --- after a while they will have quinces and pears and grapes. I see and hear but little of apples and peaches and think that these fruits that I have mentioned are the only ones that are much cultivated. We never sit down to table without those kind of fruits on it - always raspberries and currants and often pineapples and oranges."

If there are currants, she is writing in summer, and apples and pears will come later.

"In the fish line we have salmon for supper every night - for breakfast we have mackerel and for dinner we have "holbert" [halibut] - I reckon that is the way to spell it; it is beautiful white fish and is cut in slices and fried - no bones in what we have had; the fish they say is very large, sometimes a yard or more long. One day we had clam fritters for dinner and they were nice, tasted like oysters. Mrs. Van A let me see her open the clams and she roasted one for me to eat."

"We have beef but I never would have recognized either the dish or the appearances-it is much whiter meat than our beef and does not taste so strong. Mrs. Van A says the difference is in the feed. I have seen corn bread once, but the meal was so yellow it looked like sponge cake made of brown sugar; they never get white corn meal. That cornbread was the only hot bread I've tasted - light bread all the time and it is delicious."

Mary McNeill McEachern Papers, 1871- 1876 (Coll. 5094 SHC)

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Two or Three Slices in Your Club Sandwich?

Sandwiches as we know them have been around quite a while and though humans have been eating food on bread for centuries, the Earl of Sandwich made the idea of two pieces of bread the standard. Nowadays we think of the club sandwich as a three-slice affair but some of the earlier recipes for Club Sandwiches, by name, don't necessarily call for more than two.

What does seem to distinguish club sandwiches from contemporaneous sandwiches is a filling featuring more than one sort of meat: bacon, lettuce, tomato and sliced turkey or chicken, sometimes tongue or ham. From the later 1800s into the twentieth century most sandwich fillings presented in cook books seem to have been mixtures: cheese blended with another ingredient, or a salad of chicken, or tuna fish, or eggs. Lettuce was often laid on the salad filling, too, and the bread was sliced thinly. These sandwiches seem to have often been dainty fare for tea but heartier sandwiches had been offered for a couple of decades before in bars. A club sandwich, with its robust filling, however, seems masculine. The name certainly implies that the sandwich was to be found at gentleman's clubs. One 1909 recipe in The Good Housekeeping Woman's Home Cook Book, Chicago, by Isabel Gordon Curtis says "complete this delicious 'whole-meal' sandwich with the remaining slice of toast." A whole meal in a sandwich was a far cry from little tea sandwiches beloved of ladies.

In the first decade or two of the twentieth century, there probably were overlapping practices in club sandwich construction, as a quick look shows sandwiches called club with only two slices of bread. Lowney's Cook Book, 1907, Boston, page 199, has a two-slice club containing tongue, lettuce, and tomato with mayonnaise. Lily Haxworth Wallace's Rumford's Complete Cookbook, 1908, basically calls for a BLT with sliced chicken and two slices of bread.

An example from The Neighborhood Cook Book compiled by the Portland Section Council Of Jewish Women. Portland, OR. published in 1914, is named "Li Hung Chang Sandwiches," and goes like this: "One slice of white bread, one slice of rye bread; butter each slice, place on the white bread the sliced white meat of either chicken or turkey, on top of this two slices of smoked beef tongue; if desired one or two pieces of bacon may be placed between the white meat and the tongue; cover with the rye bread, trim away the crust and cut through diagonally." (pg 282.) Li Hung Chang was a famous Chinese general and statesman who had died in 1901, though since I don't know the context for this reference, his connection to any sandwich at all puzzles me.

From the same cook book comes this three-slice sandwich called "Club House Sandwiches." "Toast thin slices of white bread, butter lightly and place on them thin slices of crisp fried bacon. Lay on another slice of buttered toast, then slices of chicken well seasoned, another slice of toast and then cucumbers, pickles sliced crosswise and another slice of toast. A third one from Portland called "club" called for only two slices of bread.

I'd love to see Mrs. Rorer's 1894 sandwich cookbook, to see if three-slice clubs appear there or if they are all two-slicers. From my own reference collection I can't detect when the tipping point is to a three-slice club. Not until after the 1920s, I am going to guess. It would not surprise me one little bit if something like Howard Johnson's restaurants or a similar phenomenon codified the three-slice club sandwich. It bears more research.