July 3, 2012
Nathan Handwerker ran a nickel hot dog business at the corner of Stillwell and Surf that became as much a part of Coney Island as Dreamland, Steeplechase and the Wonder Wheel. In the summer of 1916, according to one of the more apocryphal tales about the workingman’s lunch, Nathan’s held the first in what would become its annual Fourth of July hot-dog eating contest, a competition that pitted four immigrants against each other. The winner scarfed the most hot dogs as a demonstration of his American-ness. The contest still endures but it wasn’t the stand’s only stunt that brought in hungry visitors, nor was it the most convincing.
Handwerker, a Polish immigrant, got his start in New York as a dishwasher at Max’s Busy Bee. On weekends, he moonlighted at Feltman’s in Coney Island, an ocean pavilion home to Tyrolean singers, Swiss wrestlers, carousels and, according to one writer, its hideous noise. (The owner of the place, Charles Feltman, may have, in 1867 or 1874, commissioned a wheelwright to make him a wagon with a burner unit, thereby inventing the practice of serving sausages plonked inside a sliced “milk” bun, although Feltman railed against these mobile vendors in 1886, telling the Brooklyn Eagle, “Sausages must go.”) “A swank place, Feltman’s charged 10 cents for its hot dogs,” The New York Times wrote in 1966. “Jimmy Durante and Eddie Cantor, then singing waiters at Coney Island, complained that a dime was a lot of money for a frankfurter.”
So, in 1916, Nathan opened his eponymous hot dog stand and sold frankfurters for five cents each. The crowds, he later recalled, were initially stand-offish and a cut-rate frank remained a suspect food. This was 1916, remember, only a couple decades after the birth of the term “hot dog” and inexpensive meat came with questions. “Hot” was code for dodgy, and, as Barry Popnik, the co-author of a 300- page book called Origin of the Term “Hot Dog” writes, the phrase probably originated a kind of joke. Take, for instance, this popular 1860 song:
Oh! Where, oh! Where ish mine little dog gone?
Oh! where, oh! Where can he be?
His ear’s cut short, and his tail cut long:
Oh! Where, oh! where ish he?
Tra, la la….
Und sausage is goot: Baloney, of course,
Oh! where, oh! where can he be?
Dey makes ‘em mit dog, und dey makes ‘em mit horse:
I guess dey makes ‘em mit he.
Customers in Coney Island had good reason to suspect Nathan’s original five-cent dogs would be of lower quality, maybe even the sign of an unscrupulous horse- or dog-killer—taboos that would become more un-American as the 20th century progressed. The Times had also reported that the “rottenest of all” the offal from New York’s hotel ended up in Coney Island’s frankfurters. “So Mr. Handwerker hired whi[t]e-jacketed young men to stand in front of his stand munching hot dogs. This brought in the ‘class’ visitors. They had decided that Nathan’s franks ‘must really be good because all the doctors are eating them.’”
The stunt with the “doctored” hot dogs apparently worked, immortalized as recipes for success in books like Selling: Powerful New Strategies for Sales Success. Medical marketing claims still sells food (“nitrate-free” hot dogs, anyone?), although the American carnival in Coney Island only, on rare occasion, includes any scientific, made-for-TV gastrointestinal scrutiny.
Moreover, the early gimmicks proved to be neither the first nor the last on the boardwalk. In 1954, Handwerker went to Miami Beach and left his son, Murray, in charge of the store. A man named Leif Saegaard approached him with a proposal to include a 75-foot long, 70-ton embalmed finback whale. Soon, Nathan’s Famous had a cetecean display, but thanks to an unexpected heat wave, the whale soon became a stench and was towed out to sea.
June 29, 2012
Two friends on a remote Maine island set out to clear a piece of land, felling white pines by axes and handsaws, and build a home entirely by hand. In the fall of 2007, there was nothing but a hole in the ground, a mess of timbers and only one man, Dennis Carter, left to finish the job. Today, the Garrison front, saltbox-style house, based on the 17th-century homes of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, is a hostel. I stayed here while reporting a story on Ted Ames, a Stonington fisherman turned scientist, best known for his receipt of the MacArthur genius grant award. The hand-built hostel feels like a wooden ship of a place, lost in another time—only when the weather turns and it starts blowing, nothing sways; you are firmly moored to Deer Isle.
It was here that I had my first taste of surströmming. The cans were swollen, surreptitiously imported from one of the host’s family in Sweden. (The canneries in Maine are gone so any herring caught here tends to end up as lobster bait). We all held hands and said what we were thankful for (I remember saying something about fish) and then we ate together from the can of whole, fermented Baltic herring. Madjes might be the traditional midsommar meal, but, to me, surströmming is the taste of mid-summer. The entrails, inside their little silver bodies, are optional for eating, we’re instructed, although the host says she would save those for her father as a specialty. We eat the fermented fish with mashed potatoes and onions and sour cream on rye crackers.
The salty herring ferment inside the sealed can thanks to a salt-loving, anaerobic bacteria that produces two distinctive volatile organic acids—propionic acid, commonly found in Swiss cheese and sweat, and butyric acid, probably most familiar as the characteristic odor of rotting butter. According to one study, the anaerobes contribute to the intense ﬂavor and appear in about 10 times the concentration of those found in the fermented fish sauces of Southeast Asia. Pungent stuff, indeed.
But I don’t remember thinking about the smell that night and it wasn’t like I had to choke the fish down. What I remember most was the next day; the kitchen smelled so incredibly rotten and I thought, how did I possible eat that night without holding my nose? Yet, we had feasted on fermented fish from a can and they were, I must say, delicious.
June 28, 2012
Midway up the Maine coast, a tidal estuary known as the Damariscotta River has long been the epicenter of oyster shucking. Shell heaps rise on both its banks—towering middens of flaky, bleached white shells discarded between 2,200 and 1,000 years ago when American oysters (Crassostrea virginica) flourished in the warm, brackish waters.
The early abundance didn’t last, probably due to predatory snails brought on by a rise in sea level, rather than overharvesting, and neither has the subsequent introduction, in 1949, of European flat oysters (Ostrea edulis, or Belons). Today, though, hundreds of thousands of native oysters are once again being cultivated by oyster farmers like Dave Cheney, who recently took me on a tour aboard his boat, the Juliza.
Below the Great Salt Bay, where the river bisects two shell middens, the western bank looks like a white sand beach below a white cliff. Upon closer inspection, the Glidden Midden is an impressive pile of oysters—a large accumulation of small things, hundreds of years’ worth of kitchen waste.
Early 19th century estimates put the sum total of Damariscotta’s middens at somewhere between 1 and 45 million cubic feet, according to David Sanger’s “Boom and Bust on the River,” and the size inspired considerable speculation. In 1886, the Damariscotta Shell and Fertilizer Company began barreling up and selling the shells in Boston for chicken “scratch.” (Eating oyster shells hardens up the birds’ calcium carbonate-rich egg shell.) Two hundred tons sold for 30 cents a pound. After questioning the practice, a reporter for the Lincoln County News observed in “civilized countries, archaeological remains are protected by civil governments and reserved for scientific purposes.”
The sole scientific observer, Abram Tarr Gamage, a local antiquary, watched the mining operation every day for ten hours a day at a day rate of two dollars per day. He too filled barrels with skulls, shells, and antlers once used as oyster knives, and sent them to Harvard’s Peabody Museum in Cambridge. By the year’s end, Gamage reported that he had little to do; the midden had nearly dwindled away. The miners never made it across the river.
Today, horseshoe crabs gather at the river’s edge. Airholes pocket the softshell clam beds and that crumbling white western bank still holds a heap of shells—their age and size at least double those cocktail oysters anyone slurps in Grand Central Terminal. Across the river, the former Whaleback Midden, now a state park, looks much like an overgrown field. While it’s hardly surprising that the Damirascotta remains an epicenter for East Coast oysters, I found it remarkable that, given the demands of poultry farmers, that any of its middens still exist at all.
Top photo: Whaleback Midden/Damariscotta River Association collection. Author photo.
June 18, 2012
Soak grain in water and a seed begins to sprout. Dry out that tiny protoplant, or acrospire, roast it, and you’ve got malt—the basis for fermenting beer (and distilling whiskey too). The process can be crude; soaking can take place in a puddle, drying on the roof of a house. I wrote about the small-scale revival of the malting process, of the more modern variety, in The New York Times last week and it’s curious just how far the process predates the current garage-scale renaissance, the flourishing of regional malthouses in the 19th century, or even the English maltsters who first set up shop on American soil four hundred years ago.
The late historian Peter Damerow, of the Max Planck Institute in Germany, published an examination of 4,000-year-old cuneiform writings found near present day Turkey, including a mythic text from ancient Sumerian tablet known as the “Hymn to Ninkasi.” Ninkasi was the goddess of brewing. In the paper, published earlier this year, he explains that the hymn accompanied “a kind of drinking song” dedicated to a female tavern-keeper. It’s the first recipe, of sorts, for beer:
Ninkasi, you are the one who handles dough (and) … with a big shovel,
Mixing, in a pit, the bappir with sweet aromatics.
Ninkasi, you are the one who bakes the bappir in the big oven,
Puts in order the piles of hulled grain.
Ninkasi, you are the one who waters the earth-covered malt (“munu”),
The noble dogs guard (it even) from the potentates.
Ninkasi, you are the one who soaks the malt (“sun”) in a jar,
The waves rise, the waves fall.
Ninkasi, you are the one who spreads the cooked mash (“ti-tab”) on large reed mats,
Coolness overcomes …
Ninkasi, you are the one who holds with both hands the great sweetwort (“dida”),
Brewing (it) with honey (and) wine.
[You ...] the sweetwort (“dida”) to the vessel.
The fermenting vat, which makes a pleasant sound,
You place appropriately on (top of) a large collector vat (“laÌtan”).
Ninkasi, you are the one who pours out the filtered beer of the collector vat,
It is (like) the onrush of the Tigris and the Euphrates.
As archeologist Patrick McGovern has written in Uncorking the Past, the domestication of barley in the Fertile Crescent led to the emergence of a forebear to modern beer some 6,000 year ago, providing a possible motive for a decisive step in the development of human culture and the so-called Neolithic Revolution. Beer may have come before bread. Still, these cuniform tablets are notoriously difficult to translate and leave only a rough outline of the process—so, despite the best efforts to replicate the Tigris-like rush of ancient Sumerian beer today, unanswerable questions about the beer’s exact composition remain. When, for example, did they interrupt the germination of the “earth-covered” malt, a crucial step enabling a grain to undergo alcoholic fermentation?
Damerow suggests there’s reason to doubt whether these brews even proved to be much of an intoxicant 4,000 years ago: “Given our limited knowledge about the Sumerian brewing processes, we cannot say for sure whether their end product even contained alcohol.” Then again, would we really have kept the ancient process alive for so long if it just gave us better nutrition and didn’t also make us feel good?
Image: Woolley 1934, pl. 200, no. 102/Cuneiform Digital Library Journal, 2012
June 13, 2012
The Dixie Cup, the Kleenex of paper cups, the ubiquitous, single-serving, individual drinking vessel, was never meant to be shared. The paper cups were not built to last. Drink. Toss. Repeat.
Their story starts with a Boston inventor named Lawrence Luellen, who crafted a two-piece cup made out of a blank of paper. He joined the American Water Supply Company, the brainchild of a Kansas-born Harvard dropout named Hugh Moore. The two began dispensing individual servings of water for a penny—one cent for a five-ounce cup from a tall, clumsy porcelain water cooler.
Soon they were the Individual Drinking Cup Company of New York and had renamed their sole product the Health Kup, a life-saving drinking technology that could help prevent the transmission of communicable disease and aid the campaign to do away with free water offered at communal cups, “tin dippers,” found in public buildings and railway stations. Make no mistake, because of this scourge, one biologist reported in a 1908 article, there was “Death in School Drinking Cups.”
Yet it wasn’t health that ultimately paved the way for the disposable paper cup’s ubiquity and commercial immortality. One day, Moore stopped in at the Dixie Doll Company and asked the dollmaker if he could borrow their name for his cup, because, apparently, the vessels were now as reliable as old ten-dollar bills (dixies, from the French dix) issued by Louisiana prior to the Civil War, according to Anne Cooper Funderburg’s account in Sundae Best. The cup’s reputation was further cemented when soda fountains introduced an automatic machine to that could fill a cup with two flavors of ice cream at the same time, ushering in paper-wrapped wooden scoops and disposable cups known as Ice Cream Dixies.
Dixie cups offer something at once refreshing and profoundly sobering, a pioneering product that ushered in the wave of single-use items—razors, aerosolized cans, pens, bottles of water and the paper cups you can find at doctor’s offices, backyard barbecues and, of course, the office water cooler.