Inspired by the writings of Katharine Sergeant Angell White, there’s a new series coming to the blog called The Greenhouse Diaries. A week-by-week account of growing flowers, food and ornamentals in a 4′ x 6′ greenhouse in New England, it’s a work-in-progress series that chronicles our adventures as we build the gardens of 1750 House and grow ingredients for our vintage recipe posts.
If you are unfamiliar with Katharine, she was a longtime editor of The New Yorker magazine, working there from its infancy to the mid-20th century. She was also the wife of E.B. White, who wrote Charlotte’s Web, Stuart Little and other fantastic works that delighted the imaginations of both kids and adults.
In the 1950s, when Katharine and E.B. left their New York City apartment to take up permanent residence in their vacation house in Maine, Katharine embarked on a writing career. After decades of working around some of the best literary talents of her generation including her own husband, you might suppose she would turn to writing things she was accustomed to reading at the magazine – fiction or poetry or short stories or perhaps some reminiscences about life in the publishing world that she had known so well for so long. Not so. Instead, Katharine was inspired by the thing that grew around her in Maine – her garden and all that it entailed. From planning and plotting to cultivating and researching, she fell in love with horticulture from all angles. On index cards, in diary pages, and in letters to friends, for two decades she enthusiastically documented her successes and failures, her insights and observations, the learned histories, and the passed-along advice relating to gardening as hobby, art, and food source.
Katharine’s expertise grew by trial and error, by curiosity, and by a passion that captured her attention year-round despite the cold winds that blew off the Atlantic, the snow that inevitably piled up in winter, and the wild, rugged landscape that made growing anything in Maine both a challenge and a reward. Her published pieces eventually led to a book of collected works on gardening compiled by E.B. after Katharine’s death in 1977. Lauded for her fresh perspective and interesting subject matters (like one essay that reviewed the writers of garden catalogs), she had a unique voice that resonated with other gardening enthusiasts around the country. Even E.B. was surprised at his wife’s candor and affection for her subject matter.
As you might recall from previous posts, we have big plans for the heirloom gardens that will envelop 1750 House just like they would have done one hundred, two hundred or almost three hundred years earlier. Having spent most of the spring, summer and fall building and establishing garden beds and planning out landscaping details for the front and back yards, we will be ready for Phase Two of our landscape design by next spring, which means putting the greenhouse to full use this winter. Just like Katharine approached gardening in Maine with continual curiosity and enthusiasm, I thought it would be fun to share our progress of winter gardening as it unfolds. Since we are new to gardening in New England and also new to greenhouse gardening in general, this weekly diary will be an adventure in unknown outcomes. Nature is rarely predictable. Surprises can be encountered at every turn. It’s my hope that by discussing both challenges and successes, this series will help attract and connect fellow greenhouse gardeners so that we can all learn together by sharing tips and techniques discovered along the way.
So let’s get going and growing. The Greenhouse Diaries await…
First and foremost, a formal introduction to our workspace.
Our greenhouse measures 4’x6′. It has a steel base, aluminum framing, a pea gravel floor, a door with a secure handle, an adjustable roof vent, and clear polycarbonate walls. Inside, there is room enough for two metal shelving units, a wooden stool, 33 pots of varying sizes, one galvanized bucket, two water jugs, a hand soap station, and a portable heater. Tucked in between all that, is a little extra space for standing and potting.
We assembled the greenhouse in the late spring in the sunniest spot in the backyard. During the warm months, it held trays of seed starts and some plants that preferred to be out of the direct path of slugs and cutworms. But once autumn came and the threat of the first frost hovered, we turned it into an experiment station. Curious to see what we could keep alive from the summer garden, we potted our most successful growers and crossed our fingers. So far so good. Everything but the oregano and one pot of marigolds have taken well to the location change.
The nasturtiums in particular really like their new spot. Blooming at a rate of three to four new flowers a day, they keep the greenhouse bright with color and the air sweetly scented like honeyed perfume.
Currently, the greenhouse is uninsulated, an issue that will need to be addressed as the daytime temperatures fall into the 20s and 30s. But for now, we have found success in creating a summer climate using a portable electric heater that was put into service as soon as the outdoor temperatures began to repeatedly fall below 50 degrees.
With just the help of the heater and the sun, the greenhouse right now averages temperatures that are 20-35 degrees above the outdoor temperature. Once we get our insulation plan in place, it should become even warmer. For now though, all the plants seem happy with this cozy climate.
I read once that a single geranium plant can live up to 50 years if properly cared for season by season. That’s my goal for the four pots that are overwintering now.
Accidently overlooked, two of the four geranium pots experienced the first frost in mid-November before they made it into the greenhouse. Wilted and weepy-looking, I cut off all the affected leaves and stalks and brought them into the greenhouse, hoping that the warmth might help them recover and encourage new growth. Yesterday, they started sprouting new leaves…
The other companions that make up this house full of green are…
bunny ear cactus
The peppers, tomatoes, and broccoli are all sporting fruit these days. I’m not sure how long they will take to grow and ripen but if we could manage a small harvest in the dead of winter that would be exciting.
The winter crops that we are trying out this year – broccoli, arugula, collard greens and Brussels sprouts – hopefully, will reach maturity and harvest time by late February. We run the chance of running out of room if these guys get really big, but a full house is better than none at all, so we’ll take it one week at a time and see what happens.
In one of her essays, Katharine wrote.. “from December through March, there are for many of us three gardens – the garden outdoors, the garden of pots and bowls in the house, and the garden of the mind’s eye.” Gardening in a greenhouse in winter gives us the ability to experience all three – to create, to grow, and to dream during a time of year that the outside world reserves for dormancy and hibernation. Our small structure set in pea gravel with a portable heater and a steel base, aluminum framing, and metal shelves shelters big, colorful dreams – ones both realized and yet to be imagined. We can’t wait to see what blooms.
Cheers to Katharine for inspiring this new series, to the greenhouse for holding all our hopes and to nature for feeding our brains and our bellies.
Happy Halloween! In today’s post, we are starting off your holiday with a rare treat – a little something sweet from the files of food history.
In 1960, a bit of marketing magic happened to a specific sector of the food industry that no one ever saw coming. It didn’t burst onto the scene with immediate stardom but it was fresh and fun and set the stage for something much bigger down the road. This initial marketing campaign didn’t debut at Halloween, but it did get caught up in the fervor of the holiday and all the potential that trick or treating offered.
In celebration of this sweet treat day, in today’s post, I thought it would be fun to feature a vintage advertising campaign that centers around a very rare piece of Halloween ephemera that was almost lost to history. This one piece of found paper tells the story of a food, an industry, a holiday, and one group of clever individuals who had an unfailing love for one very specific product.
It all starts with the advertising campaign that began rolling out in 1960. This was a campaign that was not promoting a food or a recipe or a meal that was rare or coveted or exotic. It was actually the opposite. It was spotlighting a food that was quite humble and ordinary and pretty unremarkable in the appearance department. It was one of those foods that lies under the radar. Helpful, necessary, enjoyable, but not exactly glamorous, it wasn’t until a certain advisory board formed that this food’s reputation got a total makeover in the likeability department. Through clever ads, product placement, and innovative promotions, this group grabbed attention and shook things up. Eventually, two decades later the food they promoted would become a pop culture icon known by millions of people around the world. By then, it would be forever linked with a catchy theme song and a field of merchandise that stretched way beyond anything to do with kitchens and cooking. The Smithsonian Museum even took note and acquired it for their collection.
So what is it you ask? What is this magical food that went from simple to superstar over the latter half of the 20th century? Here’s a clue… it’s brown and wrinkly. It comes in petite boxes and big canisters. It’s used in baking and cooking. It’s sweet and small, mini and meaty. Can you guess what it might be?
It’s a raisin.
The group of individuals responsible for bringing the raisin into the limelight was the California Raisin Advisory Board, based in Fresno. Founded in the 1950s, the Board was crazy for raisins and wanted to share their joy of this dehydrated fruit with eaters everywhere. Their enthusiasm was backed by noble intent too. They wanted to help draw attention to the local raisin growers who were struggling to make a profit in mid-20th century California.
Typically, when you hear the words “advisory board” you don’t automatically think of whimsy and fun but the California Raisin Advisory Board (also ironically known as C.R.A.B.) proposed a marketing campaign that was full of joy from beginning to end. Their mission was to produce effective advertisements that targeted the heart of the home – the kitchen – and all the ways in which raisins could become a household favorite and a sustainable staple, cherished enough to support the industry that grew them.
Raisins of course had been an ingredient in cooking and baking since the 1600s, so in the 1960s they were not a new food, but the industry was struggling and the Advisory Board wanted to step in to help. They wanted to take the raisin out of the cabinet of yesteryear, dust off its stodgy patina, and give it some zing. With centuries worth of material to work with there was no shortage of ideas when it came to inspiration, but the Advisory Board wanted to focus on a fresh approach and universal appeal. So where did they start?
With bread. As in raisin bread. A sweet, studded cinnamon-laced loaf often enjoyed at breakfast, this baker’s delight was centuries old too, just like the fruit it featured. But in the 1920s, raisin bread received some new interest when it was deemed a “health food” by dieticians and nutritionists. Sugar aside, raisins hold a lot of vitamins and minerals in their puckered little shape including magnesium, potassium, and fiber. Added to the protein found in bread, the combination formed a magical collaboration of a seemingly decadent eating experience paired with a hearty dose of healthy goodness. That gave the Advisory Board a lot of angles to play with when it came to promotion. Raisin bread was nutritious. It was affordable. It could be store-bought or home-baked. It smelled like heaven when toasted. And it appealed to both kids and adults. Paired with some clever writing and marketing during National Raisin Bread Month (November), the Advisory Board launched a raisin campaign full of plucky personality…
A cookie campaign followed suit…
The Advisory Board was off and running. Throughout the 1960s, the Advisory Board launched a flurry of seasonal promotions that included National Raisin Week in April, summer picnic season in July, back-to-school snack packs in September, and the Raisins for Happy Holidays campaign in December. In-store grocery taste tests, advertisements, sweepstakes and giveaways encouraged repeat buyers and kept the noble raisin front of mind.
When Halloween time rolled around each year, the holiday provided an additional opportunity to remind parents and kids how sweet a treat, a raisin was. Just like traditional Halloween candy, albeit healthier, during the month of October, the Advisory Board promoted the fact that raisins came in small boxes – a handy size for trick-or-treaters. Posters made for grocery stores and food shops hinted at Halloween excitement. This is an example of a very rare original grocery store poster featuring the California Raisins Advisory Board…
Measuring 25″ inches x 14.25″ inches it is a true survivor of history and a real-life example of the Advisory Board’s cute and colorful messaging. Most food store advertising was discarded in the trash promptly after a promotion ended to make way for new advertising in its place. Printed on thin, inexpensive paper these eye-catching advertisements were not made to last more than 60 days let alone six decades. Oftentimes, they were hung in store windows exposed to heat, sun,, humidity, and temperature changes which would cause them to crinkle and fade over time. When I found this one, it was in fragile and brittle shape and was held together only by hope and a dehydrated rubber band. Ripped and torn in so many places it was impossible to unravel it without it completely breaking apart. A quick peek down the interior of its rolled-up shape, yielded the image of a pumpkin face smiling back. How fun! Home to the Kitchen it came for further investigation and repair.
Carefully rolling out the paper, rehydrating it with a warm, ever-so-moist-paper towel, and then gluing it to acid-free archival poster board took a couple days of attention. Each time a ripped section was flattened out and smoothed over it was a small victory in revealing the bigger picture. Little by little, inch by inch, the poster’s overall image went from bits and pieces to one whole poster.
Finally put back together, for a year, the poster sat just like that – attached to the thick archival poster board with a big wide border surrounding it. Waiting to see if it would stay secured, retain its bright colors and not disintegrate, it was wonderful to see that 360 days later the poster looked exactly the same. Removing the excess matting by cutting it down to its original size, a wood frame was built for it using antique wood remnants from the 1750 House. Floating the poster inside the wood frame allows for all the imperfections along the top nad bottom edge of the poster to show – a visual record of its fragile history. The poster, although greatly improved from its original found state, still bears its wounds in Frankensteinish patchwork.
But what I love most about this poster now, is how despite all its rough and tumble elements, it still manages to radiate joy and a sense of enthusiasm. That was the power of the Advisory Board’s campaign. Raisins are fun.
The first raisin farms in Fresno were started by a group of female schoolteachers in 1876. They decided to set aside four acres out of one hundred acres that they purchased so that they could grow grapes for a raisin harvest. Two years later, the first batch (30 boxes) was ready for market and a West Coast industry began.
By the 1960s, the US produced 250,000 tons a year, mostly from farms in the Fresno area. Foreign competition was tough though and the raisin growers were struggling to keep afloat. That’s when the Advisory Board stepped in with their breads and their cookies and their sweet, colorful, clever campaigns declaring raisins raisins raisins a wonderful thing.
As cute as the pumpkin goblin face was on the poster, it was not the imagery that launched the raisins to worldwide fame. That would happen in the mid-1980s when the Advisory Board approved an idea from a Foote, Cone, and Belding advertising executive who pitched an idea about raisins and a band and a signature song.
The California Raisins, singing Marvin Gaye’s 1968 Motown hit, Heard It On The Grapevine was born. Indicative of the Advisory Board’s continuous efforts to pitch their product in clever ways, the California Raisins soaked into the fabric of mainstream society like no other fruit campaign had done before. This is the first commercial that started the success…
Making up a whole world of claymation figures and storytelling, the California Raisin band was an immediate hit and could be seen everywhere – on tv, in print ads, and on cross-promotional advertising products across grocery store shelves. This was the kind of big-splash notoriety that the Advisory Board was after in the 1960s. With more and more customers buying raisins in the 1980s and 1990s, thanks to the singing sensations, the Advisory Board was fulfilling its mission.
In 1986, the California Raisin became the most popular Halloween costume of the year. The Raisin band members were reproduced in figurine form and Heard it Through the Grapevine reached the top 100 song charts. When the Smithsonian acquired the original California raisin claymation figures in 1991, it firmly sealed the success of the Raisin Advisory Board. Their singularly beloved product was now beloved by all.
Unfortunately, the sweet taste of success didn’t yield the type of monetary compensation that was hoped for when it came to the raisin growers. The Advisory Board disbanded in 1994 after struggling to balance the costs between promoting the raisins and keeping the growers profitable. Creativity can be harsh that way. Sometimes clever doesn’t equal capitalism. But in this case, it sure did produce some fun art and a new way to look at the world, even if it was discovered decades later than intended.
Cheers to joyful advertising, loving what you love completely, and to our little rescued poster whose celebrating its 60th Halloween this year! Hope it added a little something sweet to your holiday. Happy Halloween!
The leaves are falling, the pumpkins are picked, the last of the summer tomatoes have been plucked. The zinnias were clipped for a final garden bouquet. The okra stalks were added to the compost pile. The herbs moved from the garden to the greenhouse and the rockery raised beds are full of autumn leaves. October is waving goodbye. And that means something exciting is just around the corner… our annual one-day-only 40% off sale.
If you are new to the blog or the shop, you might not know that we always host this sale on All Souls Day, which falls on November 2nd every year. Technically a Catholic holiday, we selected All Souls Day not for its religious connection, nor its aura of spookiness (being so close to Halloween), but for the sheer fact that it is one of the few holidays in the calendar year that pays tribute to deceased ancestors. We wouldn’t have a shop full of wonderful heirlooms had they not traveled through other people’s lives, other people’s hands for generations, collecting stories and memories along the way. To us, all Souls Day seems like the perfect day to celebrate vintage style.
It’s also a lovely time of year to start preparing not only for the holiday season but also for the winter ahead where cooking adventures, gift-giving, and craft time await. Autumn doesn’t officially end this year until December 21st. If you’d like to hang onto the season as long as possible you’ll find many fall-favored pieces in the shop that will carry you all the way through…
If you are ready to start gathering ideas for Thanksgiving, you’ll find an assortment of items ideally suited for Turkey Day 2022 and beyond…
Christmas in the Vintage Kitchen always comes in little details. Red and white restaurant ware, a mini Christmas tree, an antique green striped serving plate or a shimmery candelabra that we are sure has seen some magnificent parties in its day. In the shop, you’ll discover a sampling of festive treasures waiting to add a little sparkle to your celebrations…
The sale begins at 12:00am on Wednesday, November 2nd, and ends at 11:59pm that same day. All items in the shop will automatically receive the 40% discount at checkout, so there is no need to fuss with coupon codes or discount names. We encourage you to use the wishlist feature on our site if you have multiple items that have caught your eye. Just click on the heart under each listing title and it will automatically add the item to your favorites list where you can then add them directly to your cart.
Since it is our only sale of the year, shoppers in the past have been known to set their alarms for the moment the sale starts at midnight. If you have fallen completely in love with something in particular, please keep that in mind. New (old) items continue to be added to the shop daily, so stop by for fresh finds leading all the way up to the sale. One of the items coming to the shop today is this set of six vintage Czechoslovakian luncheon plates full of pink, purple and cranberry-colored flowers.
As always, if you are looking for something that we no longer have in stock or you can’t find in the shop, please send us a message. We’ll be happy to add your name and needs to our waitlist. Having said that, I hope on this year’s sale day you will find something truly magical that makes your heart sing with joy. Cheers to all the old souls. And to all the cherished items that they have left for us to enjoy. Happy shopping!
Rumor has it that one time when Julia Child made this recipe for dinner guests, she overcooked the pumpkin and the whole entire bottom of it fell out onto the floor on its way to the table. I mention this right off the bat, not to illicit alarm as to the perils that might befall cooks who attempt this recipe but to demonstrate the joy of Julia in all her humanness. Isn’t that what was so endearing about her to begin with? As experienced as she became, as attentive a cook as she was, as precise she always endeavored to be, Julia was still fallible just like the rest of us.
Cooking mishaps and all, Julia’s golden rule in the kitchen was to have fun and enjoy the pleasures of preparing food and feeding people. Pour a glass of wine, engage in a little chit-chat, chop some vegetables, create a convivial environment. That was Julia’s way. Cooking is fun. Whatever situations happen along the path to culinary creation is part of the adventure.
That being said, this vintage recipe is one of the most interesting we have made on the blog to date. In part, because it is very fitting with the season which makes it very fun for fall, but also in part because we added a little twist, a bit of experimentation, based on our current kitchen renovation constraints. The recipe that we are making today, the one that hopefully will not end up on your kitchen floor, is Julia’s Soup in A Pumpkin from her 1989 The Way to Cook book…
Julia published this cookbook twenty-eight years after Mastering the Art of French Cooking debuted – the book which set her on the path to international acclaim. By the time The Way to Cook came out, Julia was in her late 70s and was most interested in producing a cookbook that showcased creativity in the kitchen for a younger generation. One that might not have experienced some of her older work. Based on her signature time-honored techniques, Julia featured a looser, more casual style of cooking instead of precise by-the-book formalities. More aware of health-conscious choices, she slimmed down butter usage and altered heavier recipes turning them into lighter, leaner, but still equally delicious offerings. She encouraged independent variety by suggesting alternative ways to serve dishes and was cognisant of budget and time-saving methods that would appeal to busy cooks who didn’t want to sacrifice quality meals for lack of adequate funds or hectic schedules. At the turn of every chapter, she championed experimentation and creativity.
In true spirit of the cookbook and Julia’s encouragement to amend, invent, and explore new ways of approaching meal preparation, we took her lead and added our own twist to her recipe by grilling the pumpkin outdoors instead of baking it in the oven indoors as Julia did.
While we have the ceiling in, the pantry framed out, and the exterior walls sealed up for the winter ahead, we are still hard at work on our kitchen renovations in the 1750 House. Photos of our work will be coming soon! In the meantime, currently, our fridge is in the living room, our sink is in the basement and we are without a stove, so the choice to grill the pumpkin came out of necessity but also curiosity. Can you even grill a pumpkin? We weren’t sure but we had Julia’s confidence and joie de vivre on our side, so we were ready to experiment with our trusty grill that has yet to disappoint us.
Rest assured, despite our change in cooking method and Julia’s tipple, this is not a difficult recipe to make and you don’t need to be nervous about executing it. It actually is quite a fun cooking adventure.
Full of autumn color and flavor from start to finish, the seasonal joy of this vintage meal starts with picking out your pumpkin. We are very lucky here in Connecticut to have this really gorgeous nursery just a few minutes from the house that has a dazzling display of just about every plant and homegrown pumpkin you could ever want in a New England garden. Right now there are mums for miles…
And rows of squash and gourds and pumpkins in all different shapes and shades…
Since Julia didn’t specify what type of pumpkin to use, we had our choice of over a dozen varieties to pick from at the nursery. While all pumpkins are edible, even the little minis, for this recipe, we chose the sugar variety which is the preferred pumpkin for baking.
Also known as pie pumpkins, they come in smaller sizes – an ideal factor for this recipe since we had to make sure it would fit on the grill. When you are selecting your pumpkins, look for ones that are of equal size and shape and that sit flat and balanced on the counter.
It is important to note that sugar pumpkins have thicker skin, and less stringy fibers, making them a good choice for roasting whole. A part of the American diet since the 1800s, they are ideally suited for baking and pie-making thanks to their slightly sweeter flesh. Larger carving pumpkins, on the other hand, have thinner skin, which makes them best for Halloween carvings but less stable in the oven or on the grill due to their more fragile composition. Instead of one 7-pound pumpkin that would serve 8-10 people as Julia recommended, we picked two 2 lb. sugar pumpkins that would serve two to four people and then cut Julia’s recipe in half.
When Julia was preparing The Way To Cook, she was living in Cambridge, Massachusetts. She noted that this recipe was a delightful start to any fall dinner but also that it held its weight as a main course. “A real rib sticker,” she called it. I couldn’t agree more. It’s a meal just calling out for cold, blustery days and hearty appetites. Filling and full of flavor, while it is cooked in a pumpkin, this is not a typical pumpkin soup that has been pureed in a pot and accented with aromatic seasonal spices. This soup is chunky and layered. More like onion meets squash, it’s a veritable hot pot that contains all the delicate, deconstructed elements of French Onion soup with bites of pumpkin that you scrape from the inner walls while you eat. Swiss cheese and heavy cream add a bit of rich flavor. Toasted bread crumbs, garden herbs, and chicken broth add depth, and the pumpkin itself adds color and dimension when presented at table.
I love the fact that the pumpkin is an individual-sized serving bowl and that it really keeps the soup hot and insulated for quite a length of time. Since it cooks on the grill in a simmering bath of butter, broth, and the onion, cheese and herb mixture, the pumpkin soaks up all the savory flavor components making it taste bright and vibrant, instead of what sometimes can be a bland vegetable when eaten on its own. Grilling the soup outdoors made for a real sensory experience between the cool weather, the falling leaves, and the excitement of trying something new.
The recipe below is adapted for the grill but continue reading all the way to the end and you’ll also learn how to easily return the recipe to Julia’s original design.
Soup In A Pumpkin On A Grill
1 1/4 cups fresh country-style white bread, cubed for crouton-style bread crumbs
1 cup sweet Vidalia onion, minced
2 oz. butter (1/2 stick) plus 1 tbsp soft butter
2 two-pound sugar pumpkins
3/4 cup coarsely grated Swiss Cheese
2 cups chicken stock
Freshly ground pepper
8-10 fresh sage leaves, finely chopped
1/2 cup heavy cream
1/4 cup fresh parsley for garnish
Heat the grill to 400 degrees. Preheat a medium cast iron pan. Cut the bread into crouton-style cubes, about 1/2 inch in size. Spread crumbs in one single layer in the pan and toast for two minutes with the grill lid open. Remove from heat and set crumbs to cool in a single layer on a plate. Cover the grill to keep warm and maintain the 400-degree internal temperature.
In a pan on the stovetop (or in our case an electric hot plate!), melt the 1/2 stick of butter. Add the minced onion and cook over medium-low heat until the onions are translucent and tender (about 15 minutes). Add the toasted bread crumbs to the onion mixture, toss them completely, and cook for an additional three minutes. Remove from heat.
Rinse the outside of your pumpkins with warm water to remove dirt and dust and towel dry. Cut a lid out of the top of each pumpkin in the same way you would carve a hat for a jack-o-lantern. Remove all the seeds from the interior of each pumpkin and scrape the inner walls to remove the pumpkin strings. Rub the interior of each pumpkin with the remaining tablespoon of butter. Place the prepared pumpkins on a large flat cast iron pan or tray.
Add the onion/breadcrumb mixture to the inside of each pumpkin, making sure the mixture is evenly distributed between the pumpkins. Repeat with the grated cheese.
In a separate pan, bring the chicken broth to a boil. Once it is hot remove from heat and fill each pumpkin cavity with the broth. Make sure to leave at least two inches of space from the broth line to the top rim of the pumpkin so that the soup does not boil over onto the grill while cooking. Season each pumpkin with salt, pepper, and sage. I used about 1/2 teaspoon of freshly ground sea salt and about 1/4 teaspoon of freshly ground pepper per pumpkin. Depending on your taste and the saltiness of your broth you may want to add more or less according to your preference. Place the pumpkin top lids back on the pumpkins.
Making sure the grill is still holding an even 400-degree internal temperature, elevate the cooking pan or tray holding the pumpkins so that it is not sitting directly on the grill rack. We did this using a brick wrapped in tin foil and then placing the pumpkin pan on top of that, but whatever system you can manage to achieve indirect heat for the pumpkin pan is fine just as long as the pumpkin pan is not sitting directly on the grill rack.
Cover the grill and cook the pumpkins for 30 minutes. It is important not to overcook the pumpkins or you will wind up with weak bottoms and your soup might fall out like Julia’s did all over the floor. At the 30-minute mark, check the pumpkins to see if the outer skin has softened to the touch. Instinct will definitely guide you here. When you press the outer skin you want it to give but not collapse. You are looking for a similar firmness to a semi-deflated basketball or a just-about-ripe avocado. If the pumpkins are not quite soft enough, lower the grill lid and keep checking them every five minutes. As a reference guide, one of our pumpkins wound up taking 35 minutes to cook and the other 40 minutes.
When they are ready, remove the pumpkins from the heat to small plates (bread and butter size) and serve immediately. If one of your pumpkins is ready before the other, you can remove it from the grill to a plate and cover it in tin foil until the other pumpkin is ready. But do not let the pumpkins sit on their own for an extended amount of time before serving. As they cool, the pumpkins will eventually start to sink into the plate. Rest assured though, there is plenty of time to enjoy your soup before the pumpkin begins slumping so if you are worried about table presentation, don’t fret, you should be able to get through all of your meal before the pumpkins start to droop.
Cheesy, warm, and brothy, all you need is a soup spoon in the flatware department for this meal. The inner walls of the pumpkins will be soft enough to scrape with just the edge of the spoon. No forks or knives required for this dish!
Since presentation is a big part of the fun of this recipe, it is best enjoyed on the day of, hot off the grill. If you have leftovers, the soup is still delicious the next day but the breadcrumbs will continue to soak up the broth, so you will need to add more broth and a dash of cream if you choose to reheat it. Also, the pumpkin bowl will not keep its shape well overnight, so it is recommended to scoop out any leftovers, discard the pumpkins and store the soup in a separate container in the fridge.
If you choose to make this recipe using Julia Child’s oven method. Follow the instructions exactly but set your oven to 350 degrees to toast the bread crumbs and then to 400 degrees to roast the pumpkins. And if you choose to use one big pumpkin like Julia’s below, then double the number of ingredients for a 6-7 lb pumpkin which will serve 8-10 people.
Either way you cook it… oven vs grill… big pumpkin vs. small pumpkins… I hope you love this recipe just as much as we did. As we enjoy the autumn weather, this pumpkin soup is lovely outdoor party food and also tailgate fare for all you sports enthusiasts who like to gather around a grill while cheering on your team. Celebrate beforehand with an autumn-themed cocktail or serve a glass of wine with your soup and you’ll be warm and full of autumn joy by meal’s end. This soup pairs especially well with red or white wine. I recommend Cabernet Sauvignon or Chardonnay depending on your preference. Add some fall leaves to your table for decoration and you’ll have an easily put-together autumnal feast accented by Mother Nature. Come winter, this soup will fuel you through the holidays and snow shoveling season with aplomb. It might even inspire you to plant a few pumpkin seeds next spring, so that you can continue this creative cooking endeavor year-round and grow your own serving bowls for next fall.
Cheers to a happy Autumn and to loveable Julia who always paves the way to wonderfully delicious dining experiences.
The first cooking school in America opened its doors to students in 1879. That was the Boston Cooking School, founded by the Women’s Education Association. The school’s chairman was Sarah E. Hooper, who after traveling abroad during the 1850s, was so impressed with the vocational training provided at industrial schools for domestic workers in England and Scotland, that she opened her own school in Australia where she was living at the time. There, a much-needed type of education, Sarah’s school became a big success giving her the confidence and expertise to try such an endeavor when she moved back to America. Since then, cooking and education have gone hand in hand. In today’s post, you’ll find 26 vintage photographs that highlight the relationship between food and teaching as seen in classrooms around the globe. It’s a fun look at history via the kitchen lens. Each of these photos tells its own unique story, from the equipment used to the clothing worn to the expressions on the faces of the teachers and students themselves. Let’s take a look…
As we welcome this studious month of September, we wanted to say a special cheers to all the teachers out there who have kept our minds fed and our bellies full throughout history. Hope you have enjoyed this unique glimpse into the past. Happy Labor Day!
F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote about the feel of the air (Life starts all over again when it gets crisp in the fall). Albert Camus describes beauty in the leaves (Autumn is a second spring when every leaf is a flower) and Jane Austen describes the sentimental atmosphere that envelops September through December (Autumn.. that season of peculiar and inexhaustible influence on the mind of taste and tenderness). Isn’t it wonderful how one season can inspire so much?
Over the past couple of weeks, we have been slowly transitioning from August to autumn over in the Vintage Kitchen shop. Excited to celebrate the cool, cozy cooking season ahead, we have been collecting vintage and antique heirlooms for the shop all summer that highlight the beauty of a season spent with food, friends, and festivity.
Above, is just a glimpse of a few fall-themed items that have recently been added to the shop. Below is a sneak peek of more cozy comforts that will be added shortly…
As summer winds down, and we gear up for our busiest months of the year, we just wanted to send out a quick reminder to let you know that the Vintage Kitchen shop sends out a weekly email highlighting new arrivals, seasonal inspiration, vintage recipes, and ITVK updates.
We send one email a week, and each week it’s a different theme or topic, so if you haven’t signed up yet please head to the shop and click on the weekly update button on the home page here. If you prefer to receive the weekly update via your mobile device, please text +1 (833) 244-2272 and include the keyword: JOIN to be automatically signed up. Mobile updates tend to be delivered faster, so if you are a “hot off the press” kind of reader you might prefer mobile vs. email.
For those of you who are new to the blog and the shop, you might not know yet how crazy we are for history. Just like the blog posts, a lot of research (hours, days, sometimes weeks) goes into telling the story of each item in the shop, which basically turns each listing into a little mini blog post in and of itself. That means if you are a fan of the longer-form storytelling found here on the blog, then chances are you might enjoy perusing the shop and the weekly email for quick bursts of interesting historical insights as well.
We never want anyone to miss out on all the fun we have around here. We hope you’ll join us for a festive and fascinating time this fall over in the shop.
Hope your last few days of summer are magical ones. Cheers to new beginnings and happy endings.
I wish there was a way to tally friendship in the kitchen. How many recipes were inspired throughout history by friends or for friends? How many meals were shared in convivial collaboration between one cook and another? How many dishes were dissected? Techniques taught? Secrets traded? How many hours were spent by friends, with friends, for friends tasting, touching, and talking about food?
I bet the number is in the billions. A billion hours. A billion recipes. A billion friends. I bet it is a safe assumption to say that friendship in the kitchen has been a major influence on the culinary world since the caveman days when everybody cooked, and then subsequently ate, together, around an open fire. Aside from health, friendship must surely be the foundation of food. The building block of life.
This weekend we are featuring a recipe that is friend friendly. It was created by two best pals – James Beard and Helen Evans Brown in 1955 and highlights the diverse possibilities of the outdoor grill. On the menu today, it’s Savoy Potatoes, a tipple topple stack of thinly sliced potatoes tucked between layers of cheese and dotted with herbs and butter. The recipe was part of the Frills for the Grill chapter from Helen and James’ Complete Book of Outdoor Cookery.
Frills for the grill indeed. The fun of this recipe, aside from its delectable composition and fancy presentation, is that it can be made entirely out of doors from start to finish. All you need is a prep table, a cutting board, a cast iron pan, a cheese grater, a bowl and a sharp knife. Grab a friend or two to help prepare everything, and the joy begins.
Of all the vegetables to be cooked on the grill, the noble potato oftentimes gets left behind. Understandably so. They are dense and big and take a long time to cook if left whole. If they do make it to the wire racks, most recipes are not that imaginative. There’s the baked potato wrapped in tin foil, the quartered potato steamed in paper, and the mini oval-shaped potatoes par-boiled and skewered for kebabs. But this recipe presents a whole new way to look at serving potatoes hot off the grill with an elegant twist.
Presentation-wise Savoy Potatoes is lovely, with thin layers of stacked slices browned by butter and melted cheese. Caramelization leaves the potatoes on the bottom layer crispy and golden while the top layer is tender like a casserole. Most similar to Scalloped Potatoes (a.k.a. Potatoes Gratin) minus the cream, it has a hearty consistency and flavorful yet subtle depth thanks to the two cheeses and the herbs. This recipe can be made in one large round cast iron pan or many mini cast irons, depending on your preference and your available pan options. Either way, it will be delicious.
When James and Helen finally got together to create a cookbook, it was a long-time dream come true. Both were busy, well-respected cooks and authors in their own right. Helen on the West Coast, and James on the East Coast.
Supportive and encouraging of each other’s work, they each had their own unique way with food and writing, which meant there was no room for competition between them, just a sense of mutual respect, camaraderie and curiosity regarding the culinary industry they both loved.
Enamored with each other as most best friends are, their relationship was strictly platonic (Helen was married and James was gay) but they showered each other with affection and attention every chance they got. For years, they maintained an epistolary relationship where letters flew between coasts at a rapid-fire pace. In these letters, Helen and James exchanged recipes, cooking questions, industry gossip, travel adventures, menus, food samples, diets, and stories surrounding what they ate and with whom. A consistent topic of the letters were ideas bounced around about projects they could collaborate on together… a restaurant in the Hamptons, a snack shop in New York City, a kitchen store filled with books and antiques, a magazine for gourmands, a cooking school, a newspaper column. Time, distance, and scheduling made many of these ideas difficult to undertake when it came to reality, but of all the possibilities they dreamed up, a cookbook turned out to be the one idea that took shape. To their mutual excitement, in May of 1955, The Complete Book of Outdoor Cookery was published by Doubleday & Company.
Helen and James’ mission for the book was to cover recipes that included all methods of outdoor cooking equipment in one place. Grills, campfires, hibachis, spit-roasts, cooking on a boat, cooking from a trailer, cooking at the beach, along with defined roles for men and women in the art of creating a jovial outdoor dining experience. Helen and James suggested that women be in charge of menu planning, market shopping, and presentation, while the guys were in charge of the actual cooking. Helen called it a night off for the ladies (grab a cocktail and a lounge chair, she suggested) while James referred to the actual task of grilling as a man’s sport and the ultimate culinary proving ground. Both viewpoints may seem a bit boxed in today, but in the 1950s when almost every homecooked family meal in households across the country was made indoors by women, this idea of getting guys involved in the meal-making process was both novel and exciting. Cookbooks began springing up on shelves across the country about this adventurous way to prepare a meal.
Gender roles aside, Savoy Potatoes is best prepared by two people, if not more. There are herbs to gather from the garden, potatoes to chop, cheese to grate, and the grill to tend to, so multiple hands are encouraged not only for practicality but for fun too.
Note: We used a charcoal grill for this recipe. Cooking times and temps may vary if you are using a gas grill.
1/4 cup butter
6 medium potatoes
1 1/2 cups grated Gruyere cheese
1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese
Salt & Pepper to taste
1 handful of fresh thyme, chopped (optional)
Butter cast iron skillet(s) generously to prevent the potatoes from sticking during the cooking process. Combine the two cheeses together into a medium-sized bowl. Leaving the skins on, thinly slice the potatoes into rounds. Arrange a layer of potatoes inside the bottom of the buttered pan, then add a layer of cheese. Season with salt and pepper and a dab of butter. Repeat the layers of potatoes, cheese, butter, and salt and pepper again. Top with a sprinkle of fresh thyme.
Cover skillet with foil and cook on the grill over medium heat (between 280-300 degrees) until the potatoes are tender when pierced with a fork and the cheese is thoroughly melted (about 25-30 minutes).
Remove from the grill, let cool for a few minutes and then flip the potatoes over onto a plate and serve.
At this point, the potatoes should come out of the pan in one solid piece. You don’t have to flip the potatoes over before serving them. They look appetizing on both ends, but the bottom has such a nice golden brown color and a crispy texture, it makes for a delicious first-bite introduction to this vintage recipe. The slightly smoky flavor from the grill mingles with the nuttiness of the cheese and the soft potatoes in the most tasty and aromatic of ways.
Helen and James recommended that Savoy Potatoes be served with roast beef, grilled fish, or poultry. During the hot days of summer, we liked it best as a vegetarian dinner served alongside a simple garden salad and a glass of chilled sauvignon blanc. In the cooler months when you crave something heartier, in addition to James and Helen’s suggestions we would recommend adding a fried egg on top and a sprinkle of chopped bacon, ham, or pancetta. A drizzle of maple syrup would add another level of interesting flavor.
Like good friends, this is a relaxed recipe. Not hard to make, it’s very accommodating when it comes to your own cooking creativity. Play around with different cheeses, and different toppings, or make it the foundation of a build-your-own-food bar and invite your friends to add their own custom toppings. Sour cream, chives, dill, smoked salmon, a variety of spices, sauteed spinach and onions, diced peppers and tomatoes, hot sauce… there are so many options that would pair equally as well with this dish.
When I asked my sister, who is one of James Beard’s biggest fans and one of my favorite people to exchange recipes with, what she liked most about his style of cooking, she shared that it was all about his universal love of food and friendship. “He felt that people could be unified through the experience of a meal no matter their country or culture.” In other words, he recognized food as the foundation of friendship. Cheers to that! Hope this recipe instigates an impromptu dinner party with your friends and family and that you love the whole experience of making it just as much as we did.
Cheers to James and Helen for this gorgeous recipe and the friendship that made it. I hope it inspires many more. If you’d like to learn more about these two culinary icons and their impact on American cooking, stop by the shop and peruse the cookbook shelf.
We are getting closer. Little by little, snippet by snippet, the history of the 1750 house is slowly unfolding. Between three trips to City Hall, one trip to the local historical society, one email to a state senator, and two emails to a special collections archivist, headway is being made in figuring out the timeline of previous owners and past events. So far we have learned that the 1750 House was once owned by a US Senator and also by a university. It once housed a woman-owned sewing business called The Cotton Company, and we’ve learned that the time period between the 1920s and the 1940s played a pivotal role in both the maintenance and the modernization of our Early American colonial.
At this point, tracing the history of the house has only led us back to the mid-20th century – a mere sliver of time in its 272-year-old life. Next week, I’m hoping an appointment with the university archivist will yield some new details and preferably get us over our current research roadblock so that we can dive into stories of life spent here in the 1800s and then the 1700s. Fingers crossed.
In the meantime, the house itself is still our most obliging storyteller.
This post features our latest batch of historical finds found in the backyard. It also features our first construction project and the story of how Canada plays a part, literally, in the longstanding history of both the house and the garage.
Let’s start with the found objects. Each of these pieces helps us date things that occurred on, in, or around the property a little more accurately and provides a better understanding of who might have lived here and when. Some of these objects have been found while digging up stones for our rock wall garden beds. Other times, they just magically appeared as we went about our daily activities. On rainy days especially, the earth, when it is soft and soggy has a tendency to reveal a token or two. Poking out of the dirt like presents, they are the ultimate gift of history from the ground up.
Half of an Antique Griswold Stove Damper (circa 1910)
When I pulled this out of the soon-to-be sunflower patch, I thought it was a fragment of some sort of religious garden art because of the cross. As it turns out, it’s half of an antique stove pipe damper that was made around 1910. Patented in 1889 by Matthew Griswold of the Griswold Manufacturing Company, it was used in regulating airflow for a wood-burning stove and was imperative in keeping coals hot and a room warm. Even though the house still retains its original, working fireplace, this damper might be a clue as to how it was heated in the winter months. Incidentally, Griswold manufactured many products for the domestic market, not just stoves. One of their most popular items were cast iron skillets for cooking. Imagine if we found one of those underground!
This find was one of those that just appeared plain as day, the morning after a thunderstorm night. Measuring just 1.75″ inches tall, it’s a miniature glass bottle that once held sample sizes of Vicks medicine intended to relieve colds and congestion. Available at local pharmacies in the 1920s/1930s, this was like the travel-size version of toiletries that we are accustomed to today. On the bottle, it says Vicks on one side and Drops on the other.
This blue bottle joins another 1930s-era find from the yard – a metal bakery truck toy that we found in the dirt at the base of a tree just off the patio the day after we moved in.
Given the next youthful find below, I suspect that some kids made the backyard a playground paradise during the 1930s/1940s. When we lived in a very old, historic town in Georgia, half a decade ago, we learned all about treasures that can be found around the base of trees. Kids’ toys, teacups, jewelry, and other charms were sometimes forgotten about left-behinds after a leisurely day spent under the shade trees. Left untouched, these objects were overtaken by nature, eventually becoming buried deep in the ground. Decades or even a century or two later they can resurface due to soil erosion, flooding or heavy rains, bringing with them intimate glimpses of the past. So while it is not unusual to find old items near the base of a tree in a yard, what is discovered is very unique and personal to each location.
Marbles (exact age unknown)
Between two very tall cedar trees, these two marbles were found in the mud on two different days. Marbles were no stranger to kids’ play throughout the 20th century but they were most popular between the 1870s and the 1930s. The largest manufacturer of marbles in the world was Akro Agates founded in 1911 in Akron, Ohio.
In trying to date the two that we found, I never realized what an artistic world marble-making was and how varied the types and patterns actually are. Arko specialized in a wide range of beautiful designs, but research any type of marble and you’ll see they all have unique characteristics. Some have thin veins of color, others fat ribbons. They come in crystal clear and also milky opaque shades. Some catch the light like crystal, radiating a rainbow of colors while others are dense and made of solid hues.
The ones we found in the garden are of the variegated-stream variety with a milky base. These two showcase ribbons of one singular color (red and yellow in this case) around the entire marble.
It’s tricky to date these two since they are of a pretty classic design. They could have been made as early as the 1900s or as late as the 1960s. I’m hoping we will find some others to give us a better idea of when they may have been played with here in the yard.
Our next find was a breeze to date, as it belonged to one of the most popular items of the 20th century…
Ignition Key for a Ford Model T (circa 1918-1927)
We found this Ford Model T key, stuck in the dirt at the far edge of our property which borders 32 acres of wild woodlands. Made between 1908-1927, the Model T transformed transportation in the 20th century.
As America’s first car, over 15 million were made in its 19-year run and in that time period, only 18 different styles of Ford ignition keys emerged. The two styles of ignition keys that date from 1908-1918 look more like a cross between a skeleton key and a padlock key…
After 1918, Ford Model T keys were made of brass and each key contained a two-digit number on the backside ranging from #51-#74. The key we found is imprinted with the number 68…
That means it was made sometime between 1918-1927. If the key was fully intact instead of just partially it would have looked like this (minus the “b” underneath the Ford logo) …
In that same area at the edge of the woods, we also found a bumper jack stand and a big swatch of rusty metal seat spring webbing…
We aren’t quite sure if this is all connected to the Model-T key, but we plan on building a fire pit in that area so there will be more excavating to do over there later this summer. Perhaps one day we might discover a whole car!
Pottery Pieces (antique to modern)
Pottery pieces are pretty much an hourly find these days. I think we have pulled enough glass and ceramic shards out of the soil to practically make an entire kitchen full of dish and drinkware. They all range in age from antique patterns to brightly colored midcentury solids. One day we even found a dollhouse-sized mug with the name Sarah printed on it. Although the mug itself is not old (you can find them online here) it might offer a clue as to the name of a little girl who once lived here.
On the kitchen front, the building inspector was delayed by many weeks in getting all of his permit inspections done. So we had to wait patiently for him to catch up before he could come to look at our plans and issue our permits. Luckily, once on-site, he approved all of our already executed electrical work and gave us the green light to officially start framing in the kitchen. In starting that project, we found another architectural marvel – an original peg – from when the house was built in 1750.
This round peg is just one of many that have continued to hold up the framework of our house for over three centuries. It was only when the 1800s-era addition was added in back that nails were used anywhere in the house, otherwise, it was the peg plan from day one. If you remember from our last kitchen update, we saw a few of these during the insulation clean-up project poking through some of the beams in the kitchen. This one was a part of a section of wood that had to be removed so we got to see it up close and free from its wooden surrounds. Measuring in at 2.5″ inches long with a diameter of 1″ inch around, it is lightweight (only 0.5 oz), rough to the touch, contains absolutely no odor, and is super strong when pinched between two fingers.
While we waited for the permit appointment, a new project emerged. In need of more storage space, we added a small shed on the side of the garage to hold all the garden equipment. It is petite in size, but big enough to double as a potting place as well. It also adds some nice dimension to the yard.
In keeping with the house and the garage, we are siding it with the original leftover red cedar shakes and painting the trim a creamy white for now to match the color scheme already in place. Eventually, the whole house, garage and shed will get repainted (a different historical color) but that won’t be until sometime next year.
While framing up the new shed, we found another clue to the house’s history on the backside of one of the shingles…
Bloedel Stewart & Welch Cedar Shingles (circa 1931-1951)
There was just enough legible info on the paper label to do a little research on where these shingles came from. Based in Seattle, Bloedel Stewart & Welch owned and operated a handful of tree farms in Canada during the early to mid- 20th century. This is a photo of one of their mills in British Columbia…
The shakes for their Red Band series were harvested from enormous cedar trees at their mill in Vancouver between 1933 and 1951. Below is a photograph from the Bloedel Stewart & Welch archives at the University of British Columbia featuring one of their photographers posing with a giant red cedar in 1942. Giant indeed.
The company was active between 1911 and 1951, but the Red Band series was in circulation from the early 1930s to 1951. This is a photo of the label completely intact…
From what we can tell, the shingles have far exceeded their lifetime expectation of 40 years, as the ones on the house are still so strong and sturdy. Product reviews aside, finding this hidden paper label was really exciting. Now it tells us that the house and garage were clad in shingles sometime between 1933-1951. We always suspected that shingles were not the original siding but until this discovery, we had no way of knowing when they were added. Right after we found the Bloedel Stewart & Welch label on the garage shingle we found another exciting surprise underneath a series of shingles on the house…
Clapboard siding! That means that back in the 1750s, this clapboard was most likely the original siding. And by the looks of it, the house was painted white. So now we know its original color. Not all houses were painted in the 1750s. Some were left natural. For the ones that were painted, there was only a handful of colors to choose from including (but not pictured here) white, red and burnt red (which is the color of our house).
The garage on the other hand was originally sided in rough-cut timber underneath the shake shingles, which now makes us wonder if it was even a garage to begin with. Perhaps it was a small barn for animals or an outbuilding for storage or maybe it was where the Model-T was housed.
All this proposes new siding conversations for future deliberation. When we paint the house we may decide to go back to the original clapboard style to keep it as architecturally authentic as possible. And we’d like to keep it inside the historically accurate color palette. So there is a lot to think about between now and then.
Almost finished, the shed just needs the cedar siding attached, the trim along the vintage windows and a back door which will either be a sliding barn door or a set of antique french doors that open out into the yard. Whichever we can source, in that department will make the doorways fate.
More photos to come, once the shed is completely finished. Hopefully, by that point, we will have learned some new history about this old house during our special archives fact-finding appointment. Until next time, cheers to cooler weather, happy gardens and stories from the dirt.
From gooey butter cakes to doughnuts, from deep-dish pie to frozen custard, Missouri has quite a few signature sweets that are the pride of the state. If you do a quick Google search for the best-loved bakeries in St Louis today, you’ll find a list that pretty much all of the internet agrees with… Nathaniel Reid, Whisk, La Patisserie Chouquette, Piccione Pastry,Pint-Size Bakery and The Missouri Baking Company to name just a few. But 140 years ago, there was another St. Louis bakery that topped the list. A confectionary, that specialized in beautiful cakes (of the wedding kind) and handmade European chocolates, and 25 different flavors of homemade ice cream. It might still be a fan favorite today had a tragic turn of events not occurred.
Last week, an inquiry came into the Vintage Kitchen via email regarding an antique metal box. Included with the inquiry were a few photos and a hope that the Vintage Kitchen might be able to provide more information on what exactly this strange little box was. As long-time readers of the blog will know, this is just the type of sleuthing escapade we love to explore, not only for the adventures in research but also for the stories they may reveal. Not all inquiries turn out to be exciting, but this one unveiled such a unique glimpse into the lives of one American family that I couldn’t wait to share it here on the blog. These are photographs of the antique metal box provided by the inquirer that start the story…
With its table-top size, hand crank on one side, a removable lid, and an interior metal grate-style paddle, the subject of the inquiry was indeed an interesting curiosity.
The mark stamped on the front made it even more so…
As stated, there in the football-shaped gold medallion a purpose is revealed. A sponge and egg machine. Followed by L. Mohr. PAT March 13 -1894. St Louis. MO. USA
A sponge and egg machine. Sponges and eggs. What an unusual combination of words. At first literally, I thought of sponges (the cleaning kind) and then eggs (of the chicken-laying kind) and wondered if this was some sort of agricultural tool for breeding poultry. An egg cleaning machine, perhaps? Or some sort of incubator? But those ideas didn’t really make much sense considering the hand crank and the interior paddle.
After a bit of research, a few word associations, and several wormhole travels of similar (but not exact) examples, I came to realize that this box had nothing to do with live chickens or cleaning sponges. It had to do with cake.
As it turned out, this grey metal box with its outer hand crank and inner flipper flapper paddle was an antique egg whipping machine made for mixing sponge cakes. Such a specific machine for such a specific type of cake. It’s not altogether surprising though. The Victorians loved specificity. There were so many single-purpose items in their kitchens and on their dining tables (mustard jars, fish forks, baking cabinets, oyster plates, bone dishes, salt boxes, potato bins, butter pats, etc.) that having a specific machine to whip up a specific cake wasn’t so odd given the time period. But how much cake could one household be consuming in 1800s America to warrant such a convenience? There had to be more to the story. Another deep dive into commercial baking equipment of the Victorian era eventually led me to this guy who made sense of the whole situation…
Meet Leopold Mohr of St. Louis, MO. As the city’s preeminent baker, caterer, and confectionary shop owner during the late 19th century, Leopold was a German immigrant, a Jewish baker and a successful entrepreneur, all in that order. Around St. Louis, he was beloved for his cakes, and was consistently sought after for weddings and special social events.
Born in Germany in 1848, Leopold immigrated to the United States sometime before the late 1860s. Standing 5′ 3″ inches tall with brown curly hair and brown eyes, he was described as having a kind face and a friendly demeanor, two characteristics that would help win the favor of future customers. Once he arrived on American soil, Leopold went straight to work making cakes, puddings, ice cream and candies that he hoped would turn out to be the best sweets St. Louis had ever known. With a city population of 351,000 residents and a plethora of bakeries, this was not a small dream. Competition among ” the bread men,” as bakers were referred to in those days, was fierce.
Undaunted, Leopold set out to make his mark. During the 1870s, he built up his career and established a solid reputation. News zipping around the city of his baking style and offerings produced jubilant accolades. “A delicious treat,” announced one newspaper. “The best confection that we’ve ever had,” said another.
Like his business, his personal life bloomed in America too. In the summer of 1877, he married Clara, a fellow St. Louisan who shared his German heritage. A year later they welcomed a baby girl named Blanche.
The decade following his marriage, the 1880s, was filled with highs and lows. On the homefront, family raising and babymaking proved to be difficult reminders of how fragile life was. After Blanche was born, Clara became pregnant again but the baby died at birth. Right away, a son followed. Relieved that he was born healthy, Clara and Leopold named him Irwin and then tried again for another baby. But further attempts to grow their family beyond Blanche and Irwin proved futile. Twice more, Clara delivered stillborn babies. After that they stopped trying. It was decided. The Mohrs of St. Louis would be a family of four.
Despite the tragedies at home, Leopold’s bakery business grew bigger and better with each passing year. Eventually owning and operating a baking facility, two retail storefronts, and a multiple-story building that included commercial spaces for lease above, Leopold and the L. Mohr Confectionary Company had hit their stride.
Not only offering desserts, Leopold also made homemade bread, sandwiches, salads and coffee. Delivering freshly prepared food for parties around town, he was a catering hit with the ladies’ luncheon crowd, the newly engaged, the socialites, and the city club members, ultimately earning the reputation of preferred caterer for events big and small. By adding free drop-offs, free packing, party games, and decorating supplies Leopold made it easy and fun to organize an event.
In his retail storefronts, Leopold stocked the shelves with freshly made cakes and desserts alongside imported European delicacies, baking supplies and equipment. During the holiday season, he was the only confectionary shop in all of St. Louis to offer imported Fruit Glace from Europe as well as a collection of French caramels and German fruitcakes.
The sponge and egg machine made its debut in 1894 as a co-invention by Leopold and the H. Perk Manufacturing Company of St. Louis. A time-saving device, Leopold most likely invented this machine for use in his busy bakery. But the overall intention for both Leopold and H. Perk was to patent their design. Then they would manufacture replicas for retail sale for anyone who needed quick whip-ups, whether it be for professional or personal cake baking needs.
In the 1890s, Leopold enjoyed the rewards of his hard work and indulged both whimsies and practicalities. He took Blanche and Irwin on a three-week trip to Chicago to see the World’s Fair. He purchased a grand house in the upscale West End side of town. He hosted parties at his home, entertaining friends and relatives. And he generously gave back to the community by becoming a financial supporter of area organizations and charities including the Home for the Aged and Infirm Israelites of St. Louis.
But for all the joy Leopold’s confectionary career brought, there were many disappointments to contend with too. Throughout the 1870s, 1880s, and 1890s, he weathered the highs and lows of running a commercial enterprise that others in the St. Louis business community were envious of. He was once assaulted in the face, by a fellow bakery competitor. Another time, a commercial tenant in Leopold’s building tried to sue him for $25,000 (an equivalent of $716,000 today) for claims of lost work due to an inefficient elevator and pungent bakery odors. Another year, a train hit one of his bakery delivery wagons smashing it to pieces. The Sponge and Egg Machine even got caught up in a legal battle when Leopold was forced to sue H. Perk over royalties due.
Throughout all these trials and tribulations, Leopold remained courteous and professional, handling each public outcry with the decorum and grace he had become known for. St Louis was expanding so quickly in those final decades of the 1800s, that the city became the 4th largest in the country practically overnight. Reading through the old newspapers published during that time period, there was a sense of the Wild West when it came to conducting business and every man was in it for himself. For someone like Leopold, who built his business from the ground up, his success combined with his good nature made him a target for others to take advantage of. Fortunately for Leopold though, his customers remained loyal and the nefarious encounters didn’t harm his good reputation…
But there was one tragedy that Leopold could never recover from. And, sadly it ultimately became the downfall of the L. Mohr Confectionary Company. In January 1899, Leopold came down with a bout of influenza which then progressed into pneumonia. A week later on a cold winter morning, to the shock of everyone, Leopold died. He was just 51 years old. He left behind his wife Clara, to whom he’d been married for 22 years, his 17-year-old daughter Blanche and his 15-year-old son Irwin. The funeral was held at his West End home for all who wanted to attend. On January 27th, 1899, the Jewish Voice reported on the crowd present at the sad event… “an immense concourse of friends, both Jews and non-Jews, among whom a very large number of representative citizens, testified to the high esteem in which the deceased was held by them.”
Strangely enough, as if the spark had extinguished more than just Leopold’s life, that of his family’s continued to dim from that point on as well. A year after his death, his daughter Blanche married Max Schulz, the founder of St. Louis’ first department store. It was a quiet wedding. The society section remarked on the absence of Leopold.
Eight years into their marriage, Max died at the age of 44, and eight years after that Blanche died, from an unspecified illness at the age of 37. The year following the death of Blanche, Leopold’s wife, Clara died at the age of 63. Irwin, who had inherited his father’s entrepreneurial spirit, started his own skirt manufacturing company in St. Louis, but unlike Leopold, Irwin wasn’t granted a decades-long career. Irwin died in a hotel room in St. Louis in 1934 from natural causes. He was just 48.
If you were to visit St. Louis today, you’d see no signs of Leopold or his bakery on the downtown city streets. You wouldn’t see the presence of the Mohr name on Broadway, on Chestnut Street, on Chouteau Avenue. You wouldn’t see any catering and cake advertisements for the L. Mohr Confectionary Company in the Jewish newspapers or the city dailies. And no one would be talking about the most delicious cake they’d ever eaten from this bakery that had been around since the 1860s. The only thing left of Leopold in St Louis now is his grand house in the West End district. Even that has been changed over time though. Currently, the house is broken up into multiple apartment units…
Just when it seemed that all the world had forgotten about the life and times of Leopold Mohr, Victorian baker, and he’d sunk far into the depths of obscure history, his invention The Sponge & Egg Machine resurfaced. 129 years later. The antique metal box with the outer hand-crank and interior paddle. The mixer used to whip up eggs for cakes. The object that just a week ago seemed so foreign, so unusual, so unknown has now turned into an intimate artifact – a storybook- detailing the unique life of a 5’3″ German-American Jewish baker with brown hair and brown eyes and a friendly, kind demeanor.
I’m so grateful for all the inquiries that come into the shop with questions that spurn curiosity and stories like this. It’s interesting that Leopold’s family never carried on with the business that Leopold built. Blanche married a merchant, and Irwin was a merchant himself, so it seemed like between the three it would have been a natural fit to carry on the bustling business of the L. Mohr Confectionary brand. Perhaps though, that was the immigrant’s dream and his alone. If I met Leopold today, I’d have a dozen questions to ask him about what it was like to build a successful business in a foreign country, about his baking heritage, about his favorite recipes and his curious machine, and about how he managed to balance the energetic joys and tragic sorrows of his work and home life. And most definitely I’d ask him to share his sponge cake recipe – the one he made for the weddings and the machine.
When the initial inquiry about the Sponge & Egg Machine came into the shop, the owner of it asked about a ballpark value for this rare piece of American baking history. I offered details of pricing, specifically what we might list it for in the shop, but I also offered recommendations for donating it to a museum that might be interested in acquiring it for their permanent collection. One was the new Capital Jewish Museum coming to Washington DC which details the Jewish experience in America and the other was the State Historical Society of Missouri which specializes in local history.
As of this writing, I’m not sure what the owner of the Sponge & Egg machine plans to do with it. Will it be sold in the antique marketplace or will it become part of a permanent collection in a public institution that might inspire the next generation of our country’s great bakers or inventors or biographers? Since there are no other L. Mohr machines available on the market today, my fingers are crossed for the museums, where Leopold’s life and his invention would be connected to a bigger narrative and reach a larger audience. As I explained to the lovely owner of the machine, it may take some determination, dedication, and a little bit of extra work to place the Sponge & Egg in a permanent collection, but I think it would be worth it. From the perspectives of his Jewish faith, his German immigration, his inventive mind and his successful Victorian-era small business, this seems like the best time to tell good stories about good people who made good impacts on their communities. St. Louis has been known for their baked goods for over a hundred years. Who knows how many other bakeries or businesses Leopold’s Confectionary might have unknowingly inspired in the past century. Hopefully, with a little bit of luck, his story will continue to be told.
Cheers to curious minds, to the lovely inquirer who shared the photos of the Sponge & Egg Machine, and to Leopold for offering us a fascinating new glimpse on an old life.
Time, nostalgia, and then necessity. In that order. Those were the key factors that determined how gardens in America were grown in the mid-1700s. By that point, the pilgrims had long landed, settlers were four generations into life in the New World, and creating an independent society was on everyone’s minds.
Despite the idea of pastoral food plots, of self-sufficiency, of larders full of carefully tended, joyfully grown vegetables, the reality, surprisingly was that many working-class 18th-century families did not have time to waste cultivating the land into mounds of gorgeous gardens.
Even though garden pests were much fewer in those days than they are today, gardening was still a risky endeavor in the mid-18th century. One bug or one beetle or one dry spell could wipe out an entire season or two of manual labor. Time lost during a century when almost everything was handmade and hand-touched could result in cataclysmic results not only for individuals but also for families, communities, and even the burgeoning nation.
In the centuries before Miracle-Gro and sprinkler systems and lawn mowers, before electric clippers and garden hoses, soil amendments, and genetically modified seeds that were practically guaranteed to grow, gardening was a risky business. And not all were willing to gamble. Since the colonial mindset valued efficiencies and effectiveness, one’s time was much better spent building a building, or a family, or the constitution instead of raising food gardens that may or may not result in something edible. And that really wasn’t the point of gardening back then anyway.
The mid-18th century diet, most accurately studied by researchers at Colonial Williamsburg, was almost entirely made up of animal proteins. Surprisingly, just 10% of the foods they consumed came from vegetables. When colonists abandoned the idea of growing their own food because of time, space, or temerity, they turned to local farms to purchase what little plant roughage they consumed.
Those farms, with the ability, the space, the manpower, and the elite lifestyle to afford a garden in all its splendors and failures were generally ones of upper-class wealth. For this affluent sector, gardening was a matter of refinement and intellectual interest. They could absorb the costs of failed planting endeavors or reap the financial rewards of a fruitful season either way. They also had access to education for leisurely study and experimentation, something not often afforded to the working class.
One of the best examples of early American gardening on a large-scale level is Thomas Jefferson’s Virginian home, Monticello. With an avid interest in horticulture, 5,000 acres to play with and a net worth equal to $284 million dollars today, Jefferson was able to explore the world of gardening from all angles. He made copious amounts of notes and drawings regarding what, where, why and how his gardens were growing…
While it’s fascinating to go through Thomas Jefferson’s notes in order to understand his thought process, methodology, and relationship to innovations we take for granted today, one of the facts that I found most fascinating while researching colonial gardens is not something that can be linked to a specific concept or a system or even a person. It’s much more individualistic. What I learned is that stylistically, all gardens in America from the very beginning were driven by and inspired by nostalgia. And many people’s nostalgia at that.
As new settlers immigrated from other countries and other continents throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, they brought with them memories of their parent’s garden, their grandparent’s garden, and perhaps even their own garden that they left behind. A desire to replicate this specific sense of familiarity meant that gardens were not created in America but in fact, recreated, from replicas of what these settlers once knew before in their home countries. Memories of ancestral orchards, ancient hedgerows, favorite flowers, fruiting vines, and heritage foods all acted as springboards for the first wave of garden preferences when it came to shapes, designs, content, color palettes, and layouts for gardeners in the New World. Those longings for other familiar places and spaces were what founded the very ideas of what a garden should and could look like here in America.
Since maintaining a garden was both a status symbol and a sign of wealth, gardens of the 18th century came in two basic styles… cottage gardens and farm gardens. Cottage gardens were small patches of land grown specifically for vegetables, herbs, and flowers with a purpose. Ornamental flowers were not often grown in these petite patches as they were considered frivolous time wasters.
Farm gardens, on the other hand, were the ones cultivated on bigger stretches of land adorned with numerous outbuildings, an ample number of workers, and dedicated areas for kitchen work, pleasure gardening, dairy operations, and large-scale croplands. Organized, efficient, and tidy, farm gardens leaned towards formal decorative designs inspired by European gardening techniques and aesthetics. Most often they were dotted with topiary tree, ornamental flowers, exotic plants, manicured bushes, and lined with brick or crushed sea shell pathways. Attractive garden structures in all shapes and sizes added the finishing touch to ensure picturesque vantage points. Even in the new days of the New World, history bloomed in the garden from other centuries, other places, other pasts. And from those two garden styles forward we never really varied in what we decided constituted an American garden.
The colonial garden that is beginning to emerge in the front and back yard of our 1750s-era house is one of both history and purpose. In an effort to be as self-sustainable as possible we are growing fruit, vegetables, and herbs for cooking, and flowers for fun. While we are not following the formality of hedged colonial gardens, but instead opting for a more cottage garden approach, I am intent on only growing heirloom varieties for an old-fashioned aesthetic and a pretty dose of historic storytelling from the ground up. Here are a few ways we are incorporating history from three centuries into the garden of our 272-year old house…
With the exception of one newly invented pepper plant developed by the Chile Pepper Institute in New Mexico, and two flats of marigolds and nasturtiums purchased from our local nursery, in this year’s garden, we are growing everything from seed, using only heirloom varietals of fruit, flowers, and vegetables.
We were a bit late in seed starting since we didn’t move into our house until April, but so far we have tomatoes, zucchini, peas, beans, carrots, herbs, okra and lettuce growing up in the garden. As of today, the showiest plantings so far are the nasturtiums from the local nursery…
Nasturtiums made a regular appearance in American colonial gardens too by way of seeds carried from England and Holland. Prized then and still now, they were eaten like salad greens… leaves stalks, flowers, and all thanks to their sweet but peppery taste. If you like arugula mixed in with your lettuce, you’ll like nasturtiums too. They also happen to be fantastic pest repellants for squash bugs, aphids, beetles and our daily invader – the pesky slug.
Colonial gardens in the 18th century were laid out in symmetrical grid styles using raised beds and walkways of crushed seashells in between. Based on the layout of our yard, the lush tree canopy, and the pattern of the sun throughout the day, we also are doing raised beds but not in the same traditional colonial grid format since we have fewer pockets of consistent, direct sunlight throughout the day. Instead, we have built one long raised garden bed that measures 25′ feet (length) x 5.5′ feet (width) x 2.5″ feet (height) in the front yard using rocks gathered from around the property. The rockery aesthetic matches the stone walkway and steps of the front porch.
In the backyard, just off the porch, we built a smaller raised bed out of wood that measures 10′ feet (length) x 5.5′ feet by 3′ feet (height). Instead of using just plain untreated boards, my husband experimented wth the Yakisugi method and charred the wood with a propane torch. Yakisugi is an ancient Japanese art form that naturally preserves the wood and gives it a pretty, dark walnut-hued finish.
To add a little softness to the rectangular shape, we built another curved rock wall garden bed on one end where the okra, zinnias, coreopsis, Brussels sprouts, and marigolds are happily growing away.
Rock walls have been a part of the natural historic landscape of New England since the 1800s, and were used as land dividers and fencing following the split rail style fencing that was popular during colonial days. In Connecticut in the 1700s, most of the landscape was covered in trees so everything in that century was made out of wood since it was the most abundant building material. We haven’t yet decided on what kind of fencing we will add to the front yard. It’s a big decision with many possibilities ranging between a picket fence, a rock wall, a split rail fence, or a series of decorative shrubs and grasses.
The first greenhouses were built in Europe and the UK in the 1600s, so they’ve been an important garden feature for quite some time. Our greenhouse was found locally on craigslist, just a couple of weeks after we moved in. Still in its original box, it just needed one day of assembly and then it was ready to start growing things.
So far we are off to a good start. This has been the birthplace of our tomatoes, basil, broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, cilantro, parsley, dill, lettuces, French marigolds, and okra.
It’s also the permanent new home of our three-year-old Southern papaya tree, Pappy, who did not love our move to the Northeast as much as we did and responded to the 9-degree temperatures experienced during our temporary stay in Pennsylvania this past winter by promptly losing all his leaves. Every day from November to April, no matter how much coddling I gave him, Pappy threatened to shrivel up and call it quits. Luckily, the warmth of the greenhouse has him happy once again and back on the road to recovery.
It’s our plan to keep the greenhouse in constant use all year long. With the help of a heater and some neighboring cold frames, I look forward to growing kale, chard, cabbages, and other cool-weather vegetables there this winter.
To complete the start of our self-sufficiency model we added a colonial-style rainwater collection barrel to the side of the garage. So far we’ve pumped an entire barrel full of water into the garden as well as accidentally grown a vat of sulfur-smelling bacteria. As it turns out, there’s an art (and a science!) to storing rainwater in a barrel, and there is still so much for us to learn. In an upcoming post, I’ll share the system my husband custom-built to pump the water from the barrel to the garden, which I hope might be helpful for anyone else learning the ropes of the rain barrel watering system.
Future plans for the garden include bee boxes, landscaped garden beds, lighting, and a fire pit, but for now, this is the start of our new yet old colonial-inspired garden. More photos will come as the garden grows up!
In the meantime, while the kitchen is under renovation and we wait for the vegetables to flower and fruit, the grill has been a beehive of action and adventure as we discover and explore some vintage recipes meant for the barbecue days of summer. One of my favorites so far is this grilled potato recipe from 1955. Coming next to the blog, this recipe will add an extra delicious dose of fancy food to your summer soirees. Can’t wait to share it!
Cheers to summer foods, sentimental gardening, and horticultural history! Hope this season is your most beautiful one yet.