Our Philadelphia/Chapter 16
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Philadelphia at Table
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CHAPTER XVI: PHILADELPHIA AT TABLE
IF interest in the art of eating called for justification, I could show that I come by mine legitimately. My family took care of that when the sensible ancestor who made me an American settled in Accomac, where most things worth eating were to be had for the fishing or the shooting or the digging, so that Accomac feasted while the rest of Virginia still starved, and when my Grandfather, in his day, moved to Philadelphia which is as well provided as Accomac and more conscientious in cultivating its possibilities. It would be sheer disloyalty to the family inheritance if I did not like to eat well, just as it would be rank hypocrisy to see in my loyalty a virtue.
Accomac's reputation for good eating has barely got beyond the local history book, Accomac, I find, being a place you must have belonged to at one time or another, to know anything about. But Philadelphia made a reputation for its high living as soon as the Philadelphian emerged from his original cave, or sooner—read Watson and every other authority and you will find that before he was out of it, even the family cat occupied itself in hunting delicacies for the family feast. And right off the Philadelphian understood the truth the scientist has been centuries in groping after: that if people's food is to do them good, they must take pleasure in it. The material was his the minute he landed on the spot, not the least recommendations of which were its fish and game and its convenience as a port where all the country did not produce could be brought from countries that did—a spot that, half-way between the North and the South, assured to Philadelphia one of the best-stocked markets in the world, ever the wonder and admiration of every visitor to the town. Pleasure in the material, if history can be trusted, dates as far back. A wise man once suggested the agreeable journeys that could be planned on a gastronomical map of France—from the Tripe of Caen to the Bouillabaisse of Marseilles, from the Château Margaux of Bordeaux to the Champagne of Rheims, from the Ducks of Rouen to the Truffles of Périgord, and so, from one end to the other of that Land of Plenty. I would suggest that an agreeable record of Philadelphia might be based upon the dinners it has eaten, from the historic dinner foraged for by the cat over a couple of centuries ago, to the banquet of yesterday in Spruce Street or Walnut, at the Bellevue or the Ritz.I should like some day to write this history myself, when I have more space and time at my disposal. I have always been blessed with a healthy appetite, a decent sense of discrimination in satisfying it, and also a deep interest in the Philosophy of Food ever since I began to collect cookery books. The more profoundly I go into the subject, the readier I am to believe with Brillat-Savarin
THE PHILADELPHIA DISPENSARY FROM INDEPENDENCE SQUARE
that what a man is depends a good deal on what he eats. This is why I think that if the Phihidelphian is to be understood, the study of him must not stop with his politics and his literature and his art, but must include his marketing and his bill of fare. He has had the wit never to doubt the importance of both, and the pride never to make light of his genius for living well.The early Friends in Philadelphia knew better than to pull a long face, burrowing for the snares of the flesh and the devil in every necessity of life, like the unfortunate Puritans up in New England. It was not to lead a hermit's existence William Penn invited them to settle on the banks of the Delaware, and he and they realized that pioneer's work could not be done on hermit's fare. They entertained no fanatical disdain for the pleasures of the table, no ascetic abhorrence to good food, daintily prepared. Brawn and chocolate and venison were Penn's tender offering as lover to Hannah Callowhill, olives and wine his loving gift as friend to Isaac Norris. For equally "acceptable presents" that admirable citizen had to thank many besides Penn. James Logan knew that the best way to manage your official is to dine him, and in his day, and after it, straight on, no public commissioner, and indeed no private traveller, could visit Philadelphia and not be fed with its banquets and comforted with its Madeira and Punch, while few could refrain from saying so with an eloquence and gratitude that did them honour. Benjamin Franklin, keeping up the tradition, was known to feast more excellently than a philosopher ought, and his philosophy of food is explained by his admission in a letter that he would rather discover a recipe for making Parmesan cheese in an Italian town than any ancient inscription. The American Philosophical Society could not conduct its investigations without the aid of dinners and breakfasts, nor could any other Philadelphia Society or Club study, or read, or hunt, or fish, or legislate, or pursue its appointed ends, without fine cooking and hard drinking—though I hope they were not the inspiration of Thomas Jefferson's severe criticism of his fellow Americans who, he said, were unable to terminate the most sociable meals without transforming themselves into brutes. It was impossible for young ladies and grave elders to keep descriptions of public banquets and family feasts and friendly tea-drinkings out of their letters and diaries: one reason of the fascination their letters and diaries have for Philadelphians who read them to-day. And altogether, by the Revolution, to judge from John Adams' account of his "sinful feasts" in Philadelphia, and General Greene's description of the luxury of Boston as "an infant babe" to the luxury of Philadelphia, and the rest of America's opinion of Philadelphia as a place of "crucifying expenses," and many more signs of the times, the dinners of Philadelphia had become so inseparable from any meeting, function, or business, that I am tempted to question whether, had they not been eaten, the Declaration of Independence could have been signed.
MORRIS HOUSE, GERMANTOWN
But it was signed and who can say, in face of the fact, that Philadelphia was any the worse for its feasting? And what if it proved a dead weight to John Adams, did Boston, did any other town do more in the cause of patriotism and independence?
One inevitable feature of the "sinful feasts" was the Madeira John Adams drank at a great rate, but suffered no inconvenience from. I could not dispense with it in these old records, such a sober place does it hold in my own memories of Philadelphia. The decanter of Madeira on my Grandfather's dinner table marked the state occasion, and I would not have recognized Philadelphia on my return had the same decanter not been produced in welcome. It was an assurance that Philadelphia was still Philadelphia, though sky-scrapers might break the once pleasant monotony of low, red brick houses and motor horns resound through the once peaceful streets.
From the beginning Madeira was one of the things no good Philadelphia household could be without—just the sound, dignified, old-fashioned wine the Philadelphian would be expected to patronize, respectable and upright as himself. Orders for it lighten those interminably long letters in the Penn-Logan correspondence, so long that all the time I was reading them, I kept wondering which of the three I ought to pity the most: Penn for what he had to endure from his people; Logan for having to keep him posted in his intolerable wrongs; or myself for wading through all they both had to say on the subject. As time went on, I do not believe there was an official function at which Madeira did not figure. There I always find it—the wine of ceremony, the sacrificial wine, without which no compact could be sealed, no event solemnized, no pleasure enjoyed. It seems to punctuate every step in the career of Philadelphians and of Philadelphia, and I thought nothing could be more characteristic, when I read the Autobiography of Franklin, than that it should have been over the Philadelphia Madeira one Governor of Pennsylvania planned a future for him, and another Governor of Pennsylvania later on discoursed provincial affairs with him, "most profuse of his solicitations and promises" under its pleasant influence. Throughout the old annals I am conscious of that decanter of Madeira always at hand, the Philadelphian "as free of it as an Apple Tree of its Fruit on a Windy Day in the month of July," one old visitor to the town records with a pretty fancy for which, as like as not, it was responsible.
And throughout the more modern records, there it is again. Even in the old-fashioned Philadelphia boarding-house less than a century ago, the men after dinner sat over their Madeira. New generations of visitors, like the old, drank it and approved, the Madeira that supported John Adams at Philadelphia's sinful feasts helping to steer Thackeray and an endless succession of strangers at the gate through Philadelphia's course of suppers and dinners. It amuses me to recall, as an instance of all it represented to Philadelpliia, that for a couple of years at the Convent, though a healthier child than I never lived, I was made by the orders of my Father, obeyed by no means unwillingly on my part, to drink a glass of Madeira, with a biscuit, every morning at eleven. And so deep-rooted was its use in the best traditions of Philadelpliia respectability, that the irreproachable Philadelphia ladies who wrote cookery books never omitted the glass of Madeira from the Terrapin, and went so far as to quote Scripture and to recommend a little of it for the stomach's sake.
One of these Philadelphia ladies wrote the most famous cookery book to this day published in America; a fact which pleases me, partly because, with Edward Fitzgerald, I cannot help liking a cookery book, and still more because it flatters my pride as a Philadelphian that so famous a book should come from Philadelphia. It seems superfluous to add that I mean Miss Leslie's Complete Cookery. What else could I mean?
There had been cookery books in America before Miss Leslie's. America, with Philadelphia to set the standard, could not get on very far without them. If in the hurry and flurry of Colonial life, the American did not have the leisure to write them, he borrowed them, the speediest way to manufacture any kind of literature. There is an American edition of Mrs. Glasse, with Mrs. Glasse left out—the American pirate was nothing if not thorough. There is an American edition of Richard Briggs who was not deprived of the credit of his book, though robbed of his title. There are American editions I have no doubt of many besides which I have only to haunt the old bookstalls and second-hand book stores of Philadelphia assiduously enough to find. But of American cookery books, either borrowed or original, before the time of Miss Leslie, I own but the stolen Mrs. Glasse and an insignificant little manual issued in New York in 1813, an American adaptation probably of an English model to which I have not yet succeeded in tracing it.Nor do I know of any I do not own, and I know as much of American cookery books as any of the authorities, and I do not mind saying so, as I can without the shadow of conceit. Vicaire includes only two or three in his Bibliographie; Hazlitt, to save trouble, confined himself to English books; Dr. Oxford's interest is frankly in the publications of his own country, though, in his first bibliography, he mentions a few foreign volumes, and in his second he refers to one American piracy, and these are the three chief bibliographers of the Kitchen in Europe. American authorities do not exist, when I except myself. It is true that G. H. Ellwanger made a list of cookery books, but he threw them together anyhow, with no attempt at classification, and his list scarcely merits the name of bibliography. The history of the American cookery book is a virgin field, and as such I present it to the innumerable American students who are turned out from the
THE STATE HOUSE COLONNADE
Universities, year after year, for the research work that is frequently of as little use to themselves as to anybody else.
But many as may be the discoveries in the future, Miss Leslie cannot be dethroned nor deprived of her distinction as the Mrs. Glasse of America. Other writers, if there were any, were allowed to disappear; should they be dragged out of their obscurity now, it would be as bibliographical curiosities, bibliographical specimens. Miss Leslie was never forgotten, she survives to-day, her name honoured, her book cherished. She leapt into fame on its publication, and with such ardour was the First Edition bought up, with such ardour either reverently preserved or diligently consulted that I, the proud possessor of Mrs. Glasse in her First Edition "pot folio," of Apicius Cœlius, Gervase Markham, Scappi, Grimod de la Reynière, and no end of others in their first Editions, cannot as yet boast a First Edition of Miss Leslie. I have tried, my friends have tried; the most important book-sellers in the country have tried; and in vain, until I begin to think I might as well hope for the Elzevir Patissier Français as the 1837 Complete Cookery. It may be hidden on some unexplored Philadelphia book shelf, for it was as indispensable in the Philadelphia household as the decanter of Madeira. I ask myself if its appreciation in the kitchen, for which it was written, is the reason why I have no recollection of it in the Eleventh and Spruce Street house, well as I remember Lippincott's on the back parlour table, nor in my Father's library, well as I recall his editions of Scott and Dickens, Voltaire and Rousseau, a combination expressive of a liberal taste in literature. But never anywhere have I seen that elusive First Edition, never anywhere succeeded in obtaining an earlier edition than the Fifty-Eighth. The date is 1858—think of it! fifty-eight editions in twenty-one years! Can our "Best Sellers" surpass that as a record? Or can any American writer on cookery after Miss Leslie, from Mrs. Sarah Joseph Hale and Jenny June to Marion Harland and the Philadelphia Mrs. Rorer, rank with her as a rival to Mrs. Glasse, as the author of a cookery book that has become the rare prize of the collector?
It is so proud an eminence for a quiet Philadelphia maiden lady in the Eighteen-Thirties and Forties to have reached that I cannot but wish I knew more of Miss Leslie personally. From her contemporaries I have learned nothing save that she went to tea parties like any ordinary Philadelphian, that she was interested in the legends and traditions of her town, which wasn't like any ordinary Philadelphian, and that she condescended to journalism, editing The Casket. There is a portrait of her at the Academy, Philadelphia decorum so stamped upon her face and dress that it makes me more curious than ever to know why she was not the mother of children instead of a writer of books. These books explain that she had a literary conscience. In her preface to her Domestic Economy, which is not an unworthy companion to her Complete Cookery, slie reveals an unfeminine respect for style. "In this as in her Cookery Book," she writes, a dignity expressed in her use of the third person, "she has not scrupled when necessary, to sacrifice the sound to the sense; repeating the same words when no others could be found to express the purport so clearly, and being always more anxious to convey the meaning in such terms as could not be mistaken than to risk obscuring it by attempts at refined phraseology or well-rounded periods." Now and then the temptation was too strong and she fell into alliteration, writing of "ponderous puddings and curdled custards." But this is exceptional. As a rule, in her dry, business-like sentences, it would be impossible to suspect her of philandering with sound, or concerning herself with the pleasure of her readers.Her subject is one, happily, that can survive the sacrifice. The book is a monument to Philadelphia cookery. She was not so emancipated as to neglect all other kitchens. Recipes for Soup à la Julienne and Mulligatawny, for Bath Buns and Gooseberry Fools, for Pilaus and Curries, are concessions to foreign conventions. Recipes for Oysters and Shad, for Gumbo and Buckwheat Cakes, for Mint Juleps and Sweet Potatoes, for Pumpkins and Mush, show her deference to ideals cultivated by Americans from one State or another. But concessions and deference do not prevent her book—her two books—from being unmistakably Philadelphian:—an undefinable something in the quality and quantity, a definable something in the dishes and ingredients. I know that in my exile, thousands of miles from home, when I open her Complete Cookery, certain passages transport me straight back to Philadelphia, to my childhood and my youth, to the second-story back-building dining-room and the kitchen with the lilacs at the back-yard door. I read of Dried Beef, chipped or frizzled in butter and eggs, and, as of old in the Eleventh and Spruce Street house, a delicious fragrance, characteristic of Philadelphia as the sickly smell of the ailanthus, fills my nostrils and my appetite is keen again for the eight o'clock tea, long since given way to the eight o'clock dinner. I turn the pages and come to Reed Birds, roasted or baked, and at once I feel the cool of the radiant fall evening, and I am at Belmont or Strawberry Mansion after the long walk through the park, one of the gay party for whom the cloth is laid. Or the mere mention of Chicken Salad sets back the clock of the years and drops me into the chattering midst of the Philadelphia five o'clock reception, in time for the spread that, for sentiment's sake, is dear to me in memory, but that, for digestion's sake, I hope never to see revived. Or a thrill is in the dressing for the salad alone, in the mere dash of mustard that Philadelphia has the independence to give to its Mayonnaise. I am conservative in matters of art. I would not often recommend a deviation from French precedent which is the most reliable and the finest. But Philadelphia may be trusted to deviate, when it permits itself the liberty, with discretion and distinction.
THE SMITH MEMORIAL, WEST FAIRMOUNT PARK