July 8, 2013
In the realm of the popular mythology of the American West, food rarely comes to the fore. At most, we generally see a token saloon and the barkeep who keeps whistles wet but otherwise amounts to little more than set dressing. But the truth is, people who boarded a westward-bound train were able to eat pretty darn well. This was thanks to entrepreneur Fred Harvey, who launched a successful chain of restaurants (called Harvey House) along the Santa Fe railway and provided fortune seekers access to fine dining on the frontier. And at each location, patrons were served in the dining rooms by an elite force of waitresses known as Harvey Girls, a corps of women who helped settle the West and advance the stature of women in the workforce.
While the American West of the 19th century was a place for great opportunity, it lacked creature comforts, namely access to quality dining. Here, English-born entrepreneur Fred Harvey saw a chance to launch a business. Working with the nascent Santa Fe railway, he opened a lunchroom at the Florence, Kansas, train depot in 1878. The first location was so successful that additional locations were opened up along the line and by the late 1880s, there was a Fred Harvey restaurant every hundred miles—America’s first chain dining establishment. Strict standards ensured that a Fred Harvey meal was consistent at each location. Bread was baked on-site and sliced three-eights of an inch thick; orange juice was squeezed fresh only after it was ordered; alkali levels of the water were tested to ensure high-quality brewed coffee; menus were carefully planned out so that passengers would have a variety of foods to select from along their travels. Harvey took advantage of ice cars to transport highly perishable items—fruit, cheeses, ice cream, fresh fish—to the harsh environs of the southwest. For railroad towns eking by on fried meat, canned beans and stale coffee, the Harvey House chain was nothing short of a godsend.
Then there was the factor of the service. After the team of waiters in the Raton, New Mexico, location were involved in a brawl, Harvey fired the lot and replace them with young women. It was a radical idea. As far as respectable society in the late 1800s was concerned, a woman working as a waitress was considered to be as reputable as a prostitute. What else were the high-moraled society to think of single girls working in places that served alcohol, soliciting orders from male patrons? But this facet of Harvey’s venture could possibly succeed if the same structure and standardization used in the kitchen was applied to the serving staff. Placing newspaper ads calling for intelligent girls of strong character between the ages of 18 and 30, Harvey put applicants through a 30-day boot camp. By the time their training was over, they had the skills to serve a four-course meal within the thirty-minute meal stop a train would take at each station. The trial run at Raton was so successful that women replaced the male wait staff at all Fred Harvey establishments.
When working the dining room, Harvey Girls were forbidden to wear jewelry and makeup. They wore a conservative uniform: black ankle-length dresses with Elsie collars, white bib aprons. Waitresses lived in a dormitory supervised by a matron who strictly enforced a ten o’clock curfew. Working 12-hour-shifts six and seven day weeks, when a waitress wasn’t serving a customer, she was busy keeping the dining room spotless. In this way, the Harvey House functioned as a corporate chaperone that was able to provide the waitressing profession considerable social respectability.
Although being a Harvey Girl was hard work, there were considerable benefits. In terms of pay, they were at the top of their profession: $17.50 a month plus tips, meals, rooming, laundry and travel expenses. (By comparison, waiters made, on average, $48 a month, but have to pay for room and board. Men in manufacturing made about $54 a month, but all living expenses came out of pocket.) Not only were these women able to live and work independently, but they were able to save money, either to send home to family or to build a nest egg for themselves. And given that the West had a higher male-to-female ratio, they had improved odds of finding a husband. ”The move west in the late 1800s and early 1900s was, for men, a change to break with the past, look at the world beyone the family porch, and being a new life,” Lesley Polling-Kempes writes in her exhaustive study on the Harvey Girls. “Fred Harvey gave young women a similar opportunity. A sociologist could not have invented a better method by which the West could become inhabited by so many young women anxious to take part in the building of a new region.”
Women of loose morals and rough-and-tumble, pistol-packing mamas are among the stereotypical images of women that abound in the literature and movies. And so too did the Harvey Girls attain their own mythic status, fabled to have married business magnates and to have inspired the ire of the local dance hall girls. The waitresses even inspired poetry, such as the fllowing by Leiger Mitchell Hodges, published in 1905:
I have viewed the noblest shrines in Italy,
And gazed upon the richest mosques of Turkey—
But the fairest of all sights, it seems to me,
Was the Harvey Girl I saw in Albuquerque.
The idea of the Fred Harvey’s waitresses as a force of womanhood that civilized the West saw its fullest expression in the 1946 musical The Harvey Girls. With music by Johnny Mercer, it’s a perfectly hummable treatment of the wild west, although rife with its share of historical inaccuracies. And the musical/comedy treatment detracts from the fact that these women worked a long, hard day. But for the sight of synchronized table setting alone, it’s well worth a watch.
As airplane and automobile travel gained in popularity, business declined in the years following World War II. By the late 1960s, Fred Harvey restaurants were no more and the waitresses who kept the train passengers fed were the image of a bygone America. And while they were simply hard working women, their role as community builders is not to be underestimated. “Harvey Girls became women well educated in the needs, moods, affectations and habits of people from all over the United States,” Poling-Kempes writes. “Harvey Girls were among the most upwardly mobile women of the American West, crossing social boundaries in their daily routines, playing the role of mother and sister to travelers rich and poor, famous and infamous.”
Fried, Stephen. Appetite for America: Fred Harvey and the Business of Civilizing the Wild West. New York: Random House, 2010.
Henderson, James. Meals by Fred Harvey. Hawthorne: Omni Publications, 1985.
Poling-Kempes, Lesley. The Harvey Girls: Women Who Opened the West. New York: Paragon House, 1989.
January 15, 2013
Several food critics recently predicted barrel-aged hot sauce would be this year’s breakout condiment. The process originated nearly 145 years ago, when pepper seeds from Mexico and Central America took root in Avery Island, a salt dome in Louisiana. There, Edmund McIlhenny watched the red peppers grow, starting out green in infancy, then turning yellow, orange and finally deep red and ready for picking. He mashed them and mixed in salt from the island’s underground mines. Then, he dumped the mixture into white oak barrels, where it aged for three years, slowly fermenting.
Tabasco red pepper sauce was born.
When whiskey is freshly distilled, it is colorless and only tastes and smells like the grain and the alcohol. It gets its color and richness in flavor from aging in charred oak barrels. Hot sauce, like Tabasco, works much the same way—it soaks in flavor and grows deeper in color in the barrel.
In 2009, a former chef at Vesta Dipping Grill in Denver purchased an eight-gallon charred whiskey oak barrel to add some smoky flavor to the restaurant’s house-made sauces. Last year, Vesta’s executive chef, Brandon Foster, purchased two more barrels, and they sit in the restaurant’s basement, allowing the chiles to age and absorb wood tannins and hints of whiskey.
The first iteration, dubbed Hudson Barrel Hot Sauce, became a Louisiana-style sauce made with red Fresno chilies and habaneros, onion, garlic, salt and vinegar. After the chilies are pickled for two weeks in cans, the barrel is rinsed with a bottle of whiskey, and the mixture ages for a minimum of four weeks. Around week six or eight
, the whiskey flavor really seeps in, says Foster, and the resulting flavor is smoky with an acidic punch and some background heat.
Vinegar and salt pull moisture from the barrels into the hot sauce, bringing flavor with them, Foster says.
“The barrel has sauce aged in it, it’s had whiskey aged in it,” Foster says. “It’s going to have excess moisture in it and I think that’s the salt and the vinegar, the macerated chilies, that are really just reacting with that wood and pulling out as much flavor as possible.”
The first barrel, which cost $130, produced eight batches of hot sauce before Foster noticed signs of wear and tear and feared leaking or mold. His two new barrels have gone through ten to 12 batches of hot sauce, and recently welcomed a new concoction—this time, using tequila.
The new recipe, created by one of Vesta’s kitchen managers, calls for Serrano peppers, roasted jalapenos, habaneros, onions, garlic and red wine vinegar mashed together and poured into a tequila-rinsed barrel. The green, Latin America-style sauce, which will be hotter and sweeter than Hudson Barrel Hot Sauce, will debut at the restaurant in a few weeks.
What sort of volume goes through one eight-gallon barrel during its lifetime? A lot: 250 to 300 pounds of chilies, 60 to 70 pounds of onions, 20 to 25 pounds of garlic and generous helpings of salt and vinegar. Foster uses chiles from California for the current batch, as Colorado’s winter weather isn’t easy on pepper crops.
Once the sauces have matured, the mixture is pureed, but it’s not smooth by any means, Foster says. He drains the barrel by setting it on a counter above a bucket and shaking it back and forth, then tosses the mash into a high-powered Vitamix blender, after which it’s pureed further through a cap strainer. Some pulp remains to add viscosity to the sauce, which is seasoned, bottled and served at Vesta’s sister restaurant Steuben’s, alongside 20 to 30 other hot sauces. And since the barrels are replenished regularly, some of the flavor customers taste has been building for two years.
For Ronnie New, executive chef at Magnolia Pub and Brewery in San Francisco, barrel aging hot sauce is a new venture. He’s been making his own hot sauce, similar to Sriracha, for a year and a half, adding it to the restaurant’s wings and fried chicken. Magnolia has no shortage of barrels—its bar buys bourbon and whiskey by the barrel for its house cocktails—so tossing hot sauce into one of them seemed like a logical move.
By June, he’ll fill a 53-gallon Evan Williams bourbon whiskey white oak barrel with 200 pounds of locally sourced chilies, age the mash for six months, and bottle it by 2014. As the vinegar in the mash starts to denature the chilies, New says some natural sugar will be released, causing the mixture to ferment. When natural proteins are exposed to salt and changes in pH, their coils unwind, and they tend to bond together to create solid clumps, losing some of their capacity to hold water.
“Hot sauces tend to develop more and more flavor the longer they sit,” says New, who will monitor the flavor as the mash ages. “Every single environment is different, so there’s not an exact formula. The end product might be slightly different each time we do it.”
On the opposite coast, Sam Barbieri, owner of Waterfront Alehouse in Brooklyn, recently emptied a 31-gallon barrel whiskey full of hot sauce and added it to his restaurant’s wings and buffalo-style calamari.
“If you’re aging whiskey in a barrel and dump it out, there’s still about eight to ten percent retention in the wood from the whiskey,” Barbieri says. “I put the sauce in there, and all those beautiful vanilla and oak tones will come into my hot sauce.”
The sauce, made from chocolate habaneros, Bishop’s Crown peppers and Serranos, ages for two years. The end result is extremely hot, so Barbieri adds pureed carrot or apple cider vinegar to balance the flavor and arrive at his desired pH level, roughly 3.5, a number he says those in the canning industry aim for to create a stable product. Then, he heats the sauce at 192 degrees Fahrenheit for five minutes before bottling it.
Unlike Foster, Barbieri doesn’t reuse his barrels. Instead, he throws its staves into his barbecue pit to infuse pepper flavor into roasted hogs, adding hickory and apple. He’s in talks with local distilleries about acquiring his next barrel.
“As soon as you age your whiskey, I will come pick up your barrel,” he says.
October 15, 2012
At about this time every year, Michelin begins releasing their vaunted series of international restaurant guides that highlight the best—and worst—places to sit down for a meal. While one of the best-selling dining guides on the market, they are not without detractors—notably British critic A.A. Gill who, in a Vanity Fair editorial, dubbed it an “assassin of the greatest international food” and finds the books to be limited in scope and guilty of food snobbery. Now, when I think Michelin, I think about cars and that charming little man made out of pneumatic tires. Their association with haute cuisine was something I just accepted and returned to my local newspaper/word of mouth/urbanspoon app for dining ideas. But why do we look to on automotive company to highlight the best in international cuisine?
The answer does indeed begin with cars. In late 19th century France, brothers André and Édouard Michelin were leading the pneumatic tire industry with their greatest innovation—tires that did not have to be glued to a wheel rim, but rather, easily removed and replaced—were outfitting bicycles and automobiles. Motor tourism was on the rise in and at the same time, there was also an increasing interest regional gastronomy, which was believed to contribute to the nation’s culinary richness. The Michelin grew out of this point of national pride, and when the guide first appeared in 1900, it provided information on how to change a tire, where to find Michelin dealers and a list of acceptable places to eat and sleep when on the go. But once car culture became more established, and repair places became easier to find, editions printed after World War I focused more on food and lodging, with it’s now-famous starred rating system introduced in 1931. In his book, Marketing Michelin, author Stephen Harp points out the following statistic: “In 1912, the guide had over 600 pages, 62 of which concerned tires. By 1927, however, the first section of the guide devoted to changing tires included only 5 pages, out of 990 total.” The flagship product took a back seat to people’s stomachs and with over a million copies of the guide sold between 1926 and 1940, it was clear that the tire company was defining quality French cuisine.
Both the restaurant guides and their tire industry has endured, the former being a wonderfully ironic piece of marketing that works keep the Michelin brand in the public eye. Plug food to sell tires—who’d have thought? But, as with any curated list, the question always arises as to whether said list is worth its salt. Personally, I find guides to be helpful, but only when I find one that seems to sync up well with my own personality. (For instance, when I took a trip to New York, I used the Not For Tourists Guide to the city and was able to find great food where the locals actually ate. It was a great way to feel like I fit in with new environs, and most of the places they recommended were spot-on with the cuisine.)
Do you think that the Michelin guide is a solid means to finding good food or do your sentiments fall with those of Mr. Gill and feel that it does more harm than good? Share your thoughts—or any experiences you’ve had dining in a starred establishment—in the comments section below.
January 31, 2012
From guest blogger Jeanne Maglaty
Earlier this month, Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery unveiled a new portrait of Alice Waters, the legendary owner of Chez Panisse restaurant in Berkeley, California, and pioneer of the farm-to-table movement.
In the photographic portrait, a mulberry tree looms over Waters, looking chic in black in the Edible Schoolyard, her organic teaching garden and kitchen project in Berkeley that connects kids to “real” food and encourages healthy eating.
“The thing that I love most is that I’m very small and nature is very big,” said Waters as she stood beside the portrait, teary-eyed.
Waters’ acolytes gathered around her as she spoke in the museum’s Kogod Courtyard, some as teary-eyed as she. But hundreds of other hungry guests dared not move closer and risk losing their place in line for the food at the event.
Washington, D.C, culinary celebrities had prepared edible innovations for a glittery reception. Here’s who and what you missed if you weren’t there:
Chef Cathal Armstrong of Restaurant Eve: Rappahannock River oysters with coriander migonette and green goddess vinaigrette
Chef Haidar Karoum of Proof and Estadio: Roasted winter vegetables with wheat berries and garlic and anchovy dressing
Chef-owner José Andrés of ThinkFoodGroup: Jamón Ibérico de Bellota Fermin—Acorn-fed, free-range Ibérico ham; Selecciónes de Embutidos Fermin—Selection of cured Spanish sausages
Chef-owner Mike Isabella of Graffiato: Crudo of wild striped bass with kumquats, cranberries and arugula
Chef-owner Nora Pouillon, Restaurant Nora: Winter root vegetable & Mushroom gratin with Ecopia Farms microlettuces
Chef-founder Todd Gray of Equinox Restaurant: Lightly smoked duck breast with savory fig chutney and French baguette crostinis
Owners Sue Conley and Peggy Smith of Cowgirl Creamery: Mount Tam cheese—bloomy, rinded triple crème, mushroomy, buttery; Red Hawk cheese—washed rind, triple crème, unctuous, aromatic; Wagon Wheel cheese—pressed and aged cow’s milk cheese, medium strength, semi-firm
Bar manager Adam Bernbach of Proof and Estadio: Catoctin Creek Gin with Tarragon-Pear Soda
Who could resist a single morsel? My daughter and I went back for seconds.
Waters has espoused her culinary philosophy based on using fresh, local products for 40 years. I asked cheesemonger Adam Smith of Cowgirl Creamery if it was difficult to decide what to serve at a reception for such a prominent person in his field.
Not at all, he answered. He selected three cheeses that the Petaluma, California, creamery made from organic milk purchased from a neighboring dairy.
Nearby, Bernbach mixed cocktails using gin that was distilled (from organic rye grain) only 50 miles away from the nation’s capital in Purcellville, Virginia.
Dave Woody’s selection as the portrait’s artist came with his first-prize win in the gallery’s Outwin Boochever competition in 2009. You can see the new portrait of Waters on the museum’s first floor near the G Street NW entrance.
December 21, 2011
The custom of Jewish families dining out at Chinese restaurants, especially on Christmas Day, has long been a joking matter. “According to the Jewish calendar, the year is 5749,” one quip goes. “According to the Chinese calendar, the year is 4687. That means for 1,062 years, the Jews went without Chinese food.” Even Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan made light of the tradition during her Senate Judiciary Committee hearings. Granted, Chinese restaurants are typically among the few businesses open on December 25th, but it turns out that there are historical and sociological reasons why these two cultures have paired so well.
In a 1992 study, sociologists Gaye Tuchman and Harry G. Levine focused their attentions on New York City, where there are substantial Jewish and Chinese immigrant populations. No matter how different the cultures may be, they both enjoy similar foods: lots of chicken dishes, tea and slightly overcooked vegetables. For Jewish newcomers, Chinese cooking offered a new twist on familiar tastes. Then there’s the matter of how food is handled, a matter of great importance to observant Jews. Chinese food can be prepared so that it abides by kosher law, and it avoids the taboo mixing of meat and milk, a combination commonly found in other ethnic cuisines. In one of their more tongue-in-cheek arguments, Tuchman and Levine wrote that because forbidden foods like pork and shellfish are chopped and minced beyond recognition in egg rolls and other dishes, less-observant Jews can take an “ignorance is bliss” philosophy and pretend those things aren’t even in the dish.
Chinese restaurants were also safe havens, the sociologists observed. Jews living predominantly Christian parts of the city might have to contend with the longstanding tensions between those groups. Furthermore, an Italian restaurant, which might bear religious imagery ranging from crucifixes to portraits of the Virgin Mary, could make for an uncomfortable dining experience. A Chinese eatery was more likely to have secular decor.
There was also the sense among some Jewish participants in the study that Chinese dining, with exotic interiors and the strange-sounding menu items, was a delightfully non-Jewish experience. Furthermore, like visiting museums and attending the theater, Chinese restaurants were seen as a means of broadening one’s cultural horizons. “I felt about Chinese restaurants the same way I did about the Metropolitan Museum of Art,” one of the study’s unnamed interview subjects remarked. “They were the two most strange and fascinating places my parents took me to, and I loved them both.”
For a fuller explanation on how this dining trend came about, you can read Tuchman and Levine’s study online [PDF]. And if you have memories of a Chinese restaurant experience, share them in the comments section below.