Our Philadelphia/Chapter 17

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Our Philadelphia
Philadelphia at Table (Continued)

CHAPTER XVII: PHILADELPHIA AT TABLE—CONTINUED

I

SO much of Philadelphia is in Miss Leslie that her silence on one or two matters essentially Philadelphian is the greater disappointment.

I have said that when I was young it was the business of the man of the house to market and to make the Mayonnaise for the dinner's salad, and I have searched for the reason in vain. His appropriation of the marketing seems to be comparatively modern. If the chronicles are to be trusted, it was the woman's business as late as Mrs. Washington's day. But by mine, the man's going to market had settled solidly into one of those Philadelphia customs taken for granted by Philadelphians simply because they were Philadelphia customs. Never in print have I seen any reference to this division of family labour except in the Philadelphia stories of Thomas A. Janvier who, as a Philadelphian, knew that it became well brought up Philadelphia men to attend to the marketing and that duties becoming to them were above explanation. Janvier knew also that only in Philadelphia, probably, could it occur to the "master of a feast" to dress the salad, and that this was the reason "why a better salad is served at certain dinner tables in Philadelphia than at any other dinner tables in the whole world." Miss Leslie is not without honour in her own town and was there reverenced by no one as truly as by Janvier, but his reverence for the Art of Cookery was more profound and he shared the belief of the initiated that in it man surpasses as hitherto, I regret to say, he has surpassed in all the arts.

Janvier himself was the last "master of the feast" it was my good fortune to watch preparing the Mayonnaise. It was a solemn rite in his hands, and the result not unworthy—his salads were delicious, perfect, original, their originality, however, never pushed to open defiance of the Philadelphia precedents he respected. One of my pleasantest memories of him is of his salad-making at his own dinner table in his London rooms, one or two friends informally gathered about him, and the summer evening so warm that he appeared all in white—a splendid presence, for he was an unusually handsome man, of the rich, flamboyant type that has gone out of fashion almost everywhere except in the South of France. The white added, somehow, to the effect of ceremony, and he lingered over every stage of the preparation and the mixing,—the Philadelphia touch of mustard not omitted,—with due gravity and care. How different the salad created with this ceremony from the usual makeshift mixed nobody knows how or where!

That the Philadelphia man should have accepted this responsibility, explains better than I could how high is the Philadelphia standard. I could not understand Miss

THE BASIN, OLD WATER-WORKS

Leslie's silence on the subject, did I not suspect her of a disapproval as complete as her Cookery. She had no new-fangled notions on the position of woman, no desire to dispute man's long-established superiority. If she was willing to teach women how to become accomplished housewives, it was that they might administer to the comfort and satisfy the appetite of their fathers and brothers and husbands and sons. The end of woman, according to her creed, is to make the home agreeable for man, and it would save us many of to-day's troubles if we agreed with her. No man, since it is to his advantage, will blame her for being more orthodox as a woman than as a Philadelphian, nor is it at very great cost that I forgive her. I prize her book too much from the collector's standpoint, if from no other, to resent its sentiment. And my joy in my copy—in my Fifty-eighth Edition—is none the less because it was presented to me by Janvier who, in a few short stories, gave the spirit of the Philadelphia feast as Miss Leslie, in two substantial volumes, collected and classified its materials.

Another thing I do not find in Miss Leslie is the Oyster Croquette, which she could not have ignored had she once eaten it. Therefore I am led to see in it the product of a generation nearer my own. In my memories of childhood it is inseparable from my Grandmother's eight o'clock tea on evenings when the family were invited in state—in my memories of youth inseparable from every afternoon or evening party at which I feasted fearlessly and well—and it figured at many a Sunday high-tea, that exquisite feast which, by its very name, refuses to let itself be confounded with its coarser counterpart known to the English as a meat-tea. From these facts I conclude, though I have no other data to rely upon, that the Oyster Croquette must have been not simply the masterpiece, but the creation of Augustine, for the Oyster Croquette which the well-brought-up Philadelphian then ate at moments of rejoicing was always of his cooking.


II

Augustine—the explanation is superfluous for Philadelphians of my age—was a coloured man with the genius of his race for cookery and probably a drop or more of the white blood that developed in him also the genius for organization, so that he was a leader among caterers, as well as a master among cooks. It is worth noting that the demand for cooks in Philadelphia being great, the greatest cooks in America never failed to supply it: worth noting also that the Philadelphia housewife, being thus well supplied, had not begun when I was young to amuse herself with the chafing-dish as she does now. For many years, Augustine's name and creations were the chief distinction of every Philadelphia feast. To have entertained without his assistance would have been as serious a crime as to have omitted Terrapin—in season—and Ice-cream from the Philadelphia menu; as daring as to have gone for chocolates anywhere save to Pénas' or for smilax anywhere save to Pennock's, and this sort of daring in Philadelphia would have been deplored not as harmless originality, but as eccentricity in the worst possible taste. Thanks to Augustine, Philadelphia became celebrated in America for its Oyster Croquettes and Terrapin and Broiled Oysters—what a work of genius this, with the sauce of his invention!—as Bresse is in France for its Chickens, or York in England for its Hams.

So much I know about him, and no more—but his name should go down in history with those of Vatel and Carême and Gouffé: an artist if ever there was one! Because he did not commit suicide like Vatel—his oysters were never late—because he did not write encyclopedias of cookery like Carême and Gouffé, his name and fame are in danger of perishing unless every Philadelphian among my contemporaries hastens to lay a laurel leaf upon his grave. I fear nothing as yet has been done to preserve his memory. His name survives on the simple front of a South Fifteenth Street house, where I saw it and rejoiced when I was last at home and, in compliment to him, went inside and ate my lunch in the demure light of a highly respectable dining-room in the society of a dozen or more highly respectable Philadelphians seated at little tables. I could not quarrel with my lunch—it was admirably cooked and served—but it was an everyday lunch, not the occasional feast—the Augustine of old did not cook the ordinary meal and the Fifteenth Street house is too modest to be accepted as the one and only monument to his memory.

The Oyster Croquette could not have sprung up in a day and triumphed were Philadelphia as hide-bound with convention as it is supposed to be. Philadelphia is conservative in matters of cookery when conservatism means clinging to its great traditions; it is liberal when liberality means adapting to its own delightful ends the new idea or the new masterpiece. It never ceased to be sure of its materials nor of their variety, the Philadelphia market half way between North and South continuing to provide what is best in both: the meats of the finest—the fattest mutton he ever saw, Cobbett, though an Englishman, found in Philadelphia—its fruits and vegetables of the most various, its butter, good Darlington butter, famed from one end of the land to the other. And in the preparation of its materials, for the sake of eating better, Philadelphians never have hesitated to take their good where they have found it. Dishes we prize as the most essentially Philadelphian have sometimes the shortest pedigree. Why, the Ice-cream that is now one of Philadelphia's most respected institutions, came so recently that people we, of my generation, knew could remember its coming. On my return to Philadelphia, with the advantage the perspective absence gives, I could appreciate more clearly than if I had stayed at home how well Philadelphia eats and how nobly it has maintained its old ideals, how nobly accepted new ones. It has not wavered in the practice of eating well and taking pleasure in the eating—the reputation of giving good dinners is, as in my youth, the

GIRARD STREET

most highly prized. To quote Janvier: "The person who achieves celebrity of this sort in Philadelphia is not unlike the seraph who attains eminence in the heavenly choir." But I am conscious of a latitude that would not have been allowed before in the choice of a place to eat them in, and amazed at the number of new dishes.


III

The back-building dining-room was the one scene I knew for the feast. If I were a man I could tell a different tale. As a woman I used to hear—all Philadelphia women used to hear—of colossal masculine banquets at the Philadelphia Club and the Union League, of revels at the Clover Club, of fastidious feasts at more esoteric clubs—the State in Schuylkill, the Fish-House Club, and what were the others?—clubs carrying on the great Colonial traditions, perpetuating the old Colonial Punch as zealously as the Vestal Virgins watched their sacred fire, observing mystic practices in the Kitchen, the Philadelphia man himself, it was said, putting on the cook's apron, presiding over grills and saucepans, and serving up dishes of such exquisite quality as it has not entered into the mind of mere woman to conceive or to execute: with the true delicacy of the gourmet choosing rather to consecrate his talents to the one perfect dish than to squander them upon many, shrinking as an artist must from the plebeian "groaning-board" of the gluttonous display. To stories of these marvels I listened again and again, but my only knowledge of them is based on hearsay. I would as soon have expected to be admitted to Mount Athos or to the old Chartreuse as to banquets and feasts and revels so purely masculine; to ask for the vote would have seemed less ambitious than to pray for admission. What folly then it would be for me to pretend to describe them! What presumption to affect a personal acquaintance I have not and could not have! Into what pitfalls of ignorance would I stumble! It is for the Philadelphia man some day to write this particular chapter in the history of Philadelphia at Table.

As to the Philadelphia woman at the period of which I speak, she had no Clubs. It was not supposed to be good form for her to feast outside of the back-building dining-room. She might relieve her hunger with Oysters in Jones's dingy little shop, or a plate of Ice-cream in Sautter's sombre saloon; or, with a boating party in spring or summer, she might go for dinner or supper to one of the restaurants in the Park. But for more serious entertaining, home, or her friends' home, was the place. Not that she was, as the fragile, fainting Angelina type once admired, too ethereal to think of food and drink. She could order and eat a luncheon, or a dinner, with the best, though she did not do the marketing or make the Mayonnaise. But she would rather have gone without food than defy the unwritten Philadelphia law.

Now Philadelphia has changed all that. The wise remain faithful to the back-building dining-room and, within

THE UNION LEAGUE, FROM BROAD AND CHESTNUT STREETS

its grave and tranquil walls, on its substantial leather-covered chairs, Stuart's Washington looking down from his place above the mantelpiece, they continue to feast with a luxury Lucullus might have envied. Fashion, however, drives the less wise to more frivolous scenes. I never thought to see the day when I should, in Philadelphia, lunch at a large, well-appointed, luxurious woman's club, when I should be invited to feast at the Union League—my lunch there was one of the most extraordinary of all my extraordinary experiences on my return to Philadelphia—when the cloth for my dinner would be laid in a big, gay, noisy, crowded Country Club—and yet the miracle had been worked in my absence and I saw not the day, but the many days when these things happened. Not only this. In Clubs and Country Clubs a degree of privacy is still assured. But it is a degree too much, to judge from the way Philadelphia rushes to lunch, and dine, and drink the tea it does not want at five o'clock, in hotels and restaurants: our little secluded oyster saloons exchanged for dazzling lunch counters, the Spruce and Pine and Walnut Street house that could not be except in Philadelphia deserted for the Ritz and the Bellevue that might be in New York or Chicago, Paris or London, Vienna or Rome. The old fashion was to celebrate the feast in cloistered seclusion, to let none intrude who was not bidden to share it. Now the fashion is to cry out and summon the mob and the multitude to gaze upon Philadelphia feasting. I know that this is in a measure the result of a change that is not peculiar to Philadelphia alone. All the world to-day, wherever you go, dines in public—the modern Dives must always dine where his Lazarus cannot possibly mistake the gate. But I could not have believed that Philadelphia would come to it—that Philadelphia would step out from the sanctuary into the market-place and proclaim to the passer-by the luxury he had once so scrupulously kept to himself.


IV

Nor is the feast quite what it was, though this is not because it has lost, but rather because it has gained. I trembled on my return lest the old gods be fallen. My first visit after long years away was one of a few hours only. I ran over from New York to lunch with old friends. There was a horrid moment of bewilderment when I stepped from the Pennsylvania Station into a street where I ought to have been at home and was not, and this made me dread that at the luncheon the change would be more overwhelming. Certain things belong to, are a part of, certain places that can never be the same without them. I met a Frenchman the other day in London, who had not been there for ten years, and who was in despair because at no hotel or restaurant could he find a gooseberry or an apple tart. They were not dishes of which he was warmly enamoured; no Frenchman could be; but a London shorn of gooseberry and apple tarts was not the London he had known. The dread of the same disillusionment was in my heart as I drew near my luncheon, more serious in my case because the things I did not want to lose were too good to lose. But my dread was wasted. Broad Street might have changed, but not the Chicken Salad with the Philadelphia dash of mustard in the Mayonnaise, not the Croquettes though Augustine had gone, not the Ice-cream rising before me in the splendid pyramid of my childhood with the solid base of the Coffee Ice-cream I had never gone to Sautter's without ordering. And I knew that hope need not be abandoned when I was assured that, though Sautter's have opened a big new place on Chestnut Street, where a long menu disputes the honours with their one old masterpiece, it is to the gloomy store in the retirement of Broad and Locust that the Philadelphia woman, who gives a dinner, sends for her Ice-cream.

These things were unaltered—they are unalterable. All the old friends reappeared at the breakfasts, luncheons and dinners that followed in the course of the longer visit when, not the Fatted Calf, but the Fatted Shad, Soft-Shell Crab, Fried Oyster, Squab—how the name mystified my friend, George Steevens, though he had but to open an old English cookery book in my collection to know that in England, before he was born, a Squab was a young Pigeon—Broiled Chicken, Cinnamon Bun, little round Cakes with white icing on top, were prepared for the prodigal. But there were other dishes, other combinations new to me: Grape Fruit had come in during my absence, though long enough ago to have reached England in the meanwhile; also the fashion of serving Shad and Asparagus together, the dernier cri of the Philadelphia epicure, though—may I admit it now as I have not dared to before?—a combination in which I thought two delicate flavours were sacrificed, one to the other. And there were amazing combinations in the Salads, daring, strange, un-Philadelphian, calling for the French Dressing for which my Philadelphia had small use. I so little liked the new sign of the new Sundae at the new popular lunch-counter and druggist's that, with true Philadelphia prejudice, I never sampled it. And there were other innovations I would need to write a cookery book to exhaust—sometimes successful, sometimes not, but with no violation of the canons of the art in which Philadelphia has ever excelled. In every experiment, every novelty, the motive, if not the result, was sound.

For this reason I have no fear for the future of Philadelphia cookery, if only it has the courage not to succumb unreservedly to cold storage. The changes may be many, but Philadelphia knows how to sift them, retaining only those that should be retained, for beneath them all is the changelessness that is the foundation of art.