Saturday, April 4, 2015

The Land of Princess Charlotte

Henry Thiele
If ever a king there was of the Realm of Portland Food, it was Henry Thiele. As a celebrity chef, caterer to the social elite of Portland, spokesman for food and wine, purveyor of Princess Charlotte pudding, German pancakes, and bratwurst with sweet-and-sour lentils, Henry reigned as chef supreme from his arrival in town in 1914 until his death in 1952. And his name and fame lived on; Henry Thiele’s restaurant, helmed by his widow Margaret, lasted another four decades, finally closing in 1990.

Henry Thiele was born in Hanover, German, in 1882; his father ran a hotel, but died in 1885. His mother died in 1898, by which time young Henry had already been exposed to winemaking and confectionary creation in Germany and Switzerland. In 1904, Henry emigrated to the United States, where he found work in hotel restaurants in New York City and San Francisco, and cooked in Nome, in Canada, and in Seattle before arriving in Portland in 1914.

Benson Hotel grill, ca. 1915
Here he was hired by the entrepreneurial Simon Benson as chef of his Hotel Benson, and here he thrived. Simon Benson aimed to make his hotel the premier society flashpoint of the city, in which endeavor he had formidable competition from the Portland and Multnomah Hotels. But the genial Thiele soon had a following, and the Benson did much catering for women’s clubs and business gatherings. His European training and experience gave him a cachet, and his dishes achieved local fame. James Beard wrote two pages of praise for Thiele’s masterful cooking in his autobiographical Delights and Prejudices. “This man had a fawning manner and great ambition, but he was a great, creative chef,” said Beard.

Benson Hotel, 1916
The menus that Thiele devised for the Benson were notable for their breadth, their fish and shellfish dishes, their desserts, and the fact that the fancy menu was almost devoid of fancy French terminology: it was in plain English.

In the early and middle 1920s, Thiele left the Benson for several restaurant adventures on his own. He opened a grill in the new Sovereign, a residence hotel; he took on the management of Simon Benson’s new Columbia Gorge Hotel near Hood River; he delivered box lunches on a fleet of motorcycles; he angled to operate the restaurant at the new lodge at Multnomah Falls; he opened a large new restaurant on SW 10th Avenue north of Morrison Street, and a coffee shop on Alder. These did not all pan out, and at one point Thiele faced bankruptcy.
Benson Hotel menu, October 23, 1916

Thiele regrouped (he had many good and wealthy friends in the business community), and in 1932 he opened Henry Thiele’s at the triangle corner of West Burnside and NW Westover Road at NW 23rd Avenue. The restaurant became a Portland institution, a family eating-place for the wealthy of Portland Heights and the elderly widows in Nob Hill apartment buildings.

Noted for its German-influenced dishes (still described in plain English), for  immense German pancakes and huge platters of deep-friend smelt, Henry Thiele’s marched on even after the death of the master chef in 1952. Thiele’s young widow, Margaret, carried on for nearly four more decades, assisted by Henry Jr. (and Henry III); Margaret re-married to August Petti, an Italian-born clothing designer who took on the role of suave and genial host.

Henry Thiele's menu, July 8, 1940

According to Beard, “Thiele’s salmon dishes were his true forte and became the feature of the Columbia Gorge Hotel, which Mr. Benson … built for him. I can remember a whole baked salmon done with cream, and fillets of salmon stuffed with a salmon mousse and then poached in a court bouillon.” Although Beard says that Thiele later “became a mass producer without any of the finesse he had brought to his original kitchens,” he brought to Portland a culinary sophistication and talent that made him an early version of the celebrity chef.
One hot summer day in the early 1970s, when I was working a split shift as a busboy at Rose’s Restaurant nearby, I went over to Henry Thiele’s and I splurged: I got three Princess Charlotte puddings, to go. The three cost me $1.05. Each was a perfect dollop of creamy pudding with toasted almonds capped with a rich red syrup. I wish I could still get one.

“And Thiele’s Princess Charlotte pudding! I have tried for years and years to duplicate it, from the first days of The Benson, but have never achieved the same quality. It was rather like a fine bavaroise, but creamier, with praline in it and a supremely good cassis sauce over it.” –James Beard, Delights and Prejudices

From Dining a la Oregon by J. A. Armstrong, 1959

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Hamburger George Fernand

Yes, that’s the proprietor of the Canyon City Café, proprietor and chef Hamburger George (or Big George) Fernand. This photo postcard, issued about 1950, shows a good representative of a restaurant type: the small-town café that filled all culinary needs. In the 1950s, the hamburger sandwich, in a basket with French fries, was one of those needs; especially among the young, its popularity was growing by leaps and bounds, and leading us toward a nation that is now awash in franchised ground beef emporia.

There were other needs, too, though, beyond that of the high school student hamburger aficionado. The small-town café served breakfast, lunch, and dinner; it served residents who were daily regulars for coffee or lunch, occasional travelers staying at the motel on the edge of town, and recurring day visitors such as truck drivers, ranchers in town to shop, and hunters in elk season. It was part of daily life for some, but was a special treat for many others, for “eating out” was also often both entertainment and a relief from the daily drudgery of meal preparation.

Hamburger George Fernand, also known as Big George, was born about 1905 in either California or Hawaii (accounts vary). The 1940 census shows him a resident of Canyon City along with his wife Carmen and daughter Meredith, aged 2. Canyon City had been born of a gold rush in 1862, and in 1940 it had a population of 312; the adjacent town of John Day held another 708 residents. Three hundred miles from Portland, Canyon City was no metropolis, but it was on the highway, and there were jobs in lumber mills and on cattle ranches. There were plenty of customers for the Canyon City Cafe (also called the Canyon Inn).

Grant County Museum
ca. 1940
Eastern Oregon author and agriculturist E. R. Jackman wrote about Hamburger George in an article for the Oregonian’s Northwest Magazine (March 20, 1966), “A Food Lover’s Adventure in Oregon.” George was stern in his dicta about cooking: meat should always be cooked in its own fat, and eggs must always be cooked in butter; during World War II, with butter rationed, George would not take an order for eggs if he didn’t have the butter. Jackman recounts a case of George’s “imperiousness” in the 1940s, when Oregon governor Earl Snell arrived in town with the state treasurer and the secretary of state, expecting to be able to eat dinner at the Canyon Café. It was closed. Quotes Jackman of Snell:

“But George! You can’t do that to us. I’ve been telling these men clear from Prineville [120 miles west] what a treat they had coming.” Big George told them, “I’ve sent the help home, every dish in the house is dirty, and I can’t serve you unless you want to get back there and wash up every dish.”

And wash they did. “Then Big George served them. I think that is democracy at work,” said Jackman.

In small towns around the Northwest, there were cafes run by men and women who wielded a spatula in similar fashion, serving up similar fare, and often of similar local stature. In the 1950s, when our family took one of its rare let’s-eat-out excursions, it was often just down the road to Pop’s Chicken Dinner at Newton’s Corner, where we usually had the burger baskets. Pop Wells manned the deep fryer and the grill, his wife was a waitress; their daughter Diane was one of my school classmates. Pop Wells of Warrenton was a lot skinnier than George Fernand of Canyon City, but each did a mean burger, and each cut a pretty big figure in town.

Special thanks to Jayne Primrose, Grant County Museum, Canyon City. N.B.: the phrase "'62 MENU" shown above refers to 1862, not 1962. The initial year of the gold rush in Canyon City was in 1862.

Monday, March 2, 2015

Bob’s [Mexican] Chili Parlor

There is something disconcerting about two Chinese restaurants I frequently pass by. I’ve never eaten at Norm’s Garden in Hillsdale, nor at Wally’s Chinese Kitchen in Canby. Why? It’s because of Norm and Wally: I can’t get past the names. (Well, the reviews aren’t exactly stellar, either.)

Postcard, circa 1915
A century ago, Bob’s Chili Parlor in Spokane might have faced similar hesitation from potential customers who thought a fellow named Bob was unlikely to be an expert at concocting chili and tamales. But perhaps not; while there were few Mexicans in the Pacific Northwest at the time, an appetite for certain Mexican-inflected foods is evident from the 1890s. (See earlier blog postings on tamales and on Portland’s Castillian Grille, for example.)

Bob’s advertising postcard boasts that “Bob’s Chili-Con-Carne, has the world stopped for quality, taste and flavor.” The unusual dining space is only 4½ feet wide, but 100 feet in length; it has “a seating capacity of 50, and has 6 private boxes for ladies and gentlemen.”

Another unusual aspect of Bob’s business is noted on his postcard: “Anyone wishing the raw material such as Mexican Chili Peppers, Beans or Seasonings, can secure the same in any quantity from us.” That offer is detailed in this advertisement of December 30, 1916, from the Examiner in Colville, Washington, some 70 miles north of Spokane.

Friday, January 23, 2015

Beaver Falls on Beaver Creek

I recently bought two old albums of postcards, one of which includes a real photo postcard of Lower Beaver Falls on Beaver Creek. There must be a lot of Beaver Falls on a Beaver Creek, but this one is identifiable. How many times have we been down Highway 30 toward Astoria, and passed the townlets of Alston and Delena, and the turnoff to Beaver Falls Road? Many times. This time we took the turnoff.

Here’s that postcard view of Lower Beaver Falls, taken about 1920. Just above it is a primitive plank road crossing, and a splash dam, built to impound the creek. Why? To collect logs, then to pull the dam and send the logs roaring down the creek to a mill somewhere below—probably where Beaver Creek enters the Columbia at the townlet of Inglis.

Here’s Lower Beaver Falls today, reached by a muddy but easy trail from the road—which road, once upon a time, was the main Columbia River Highway to Astoria. Things looked different today.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Pioneer Vegetarians, and a Book Plug

Seth Lewelling (1820-1896) and his family were pioneer immigrants to the Oregon Country, arriving in 1847. He was a nurseryman, and settled near present-day Milwaukie. Among his notable horticultural accomplishments were the development of two delicious cherries, still popular today. The Bing cherry was named for Seth's Chinese foreman, Ah Bing; the name of the Black Republican cherry reflects his abolitionist politics. The family was Quaker, and it would seem that, about the year 1863, they also adopted vegetarianism. Here's an article from 1876 that describes the family's "singular" practice. (While other members of the family retained the spelling Luelling, Seth changed the form to Luelling at some point after this article was written.)

Willamette Farmer, Salem, November 3, 1876, page 1


Last week, in the midst of rain that fully sustains Oregon’s reputation for winter weather, though coming unusually early in the season, we stopped over a day at Milwaukee and took occasion to call on Mr. Seth Luelling, an old subscriber to the FARMER, and on of the most experienced nurserymen in our State. Mr. Luelling lives in the town and quite near the river, while his orchard and nursery extend over a good deal of ground between that and the railroad, half a mile distant. It is quite a treat for a person who enjoys fruit to see such a fruit house as Mr. Luelling has, containing hundreds of bushels of choice apples and pears, and to observe the process of gathering and putting away what still remained in the orchard. The Milwaukee Nursery also has a goodly array of grapes hanging upon the vines, of many different varieties, looking luscious enough to make an epicure’s mouth water.

Mr. L. showed us specimens of dried plums and prunes, raised and preserved by himself, that are excellent evidence of the future value of such productions to our State.

The nursery contains a very great assortment of fruit trees of all kinds, and the proprietors, (the firm is S. Luelling & Son), can fill orders to best advantage. They have made fruit culture a study for so many years, and attend to their business so conscientiously, that the Milwaukee Nursery has earned a valuable reputation.

One feature of the Luelling household strikes a stranger singularly, for the family are strict vegetarians and abjure tea and coffee, meat of all kinds, salt, pepper, spices, butter, grease in any shape and do not use fine flour even. We shall take the liberty of giving the bill of fare at the dinner table, judging from the zeal with which the whole family preach and practice the vegetarian theory that they will not object to a friendly notice. The drink was milk or water, the solids were mashed potatoes, flavored with milk without salt, cabbage nicely cooked with milk, baked squash, delicious baked pears with sugar or syrup, which we used freely, some of the best graham bread we ever ate, and such other articles as were consistent with the vegetarian principle. The only criticism we are disposed to make is that we enjoyed the meal exceedingly, and after eating abundantly, rose from the table well satisfied and conscious that no foundation for ill health had been laid by the gratification of appetite.

In this connection we cannot help but moralize a little over human nature and its weakness. We put entire confidence in the statement made by Mr. Luelling that during the thirteen years they have practiced this system of life, using cold baths also with regularity, the family has been free from disease, while all were more or less ailing previously, and Mrs. Luelling herself was a confirmed invalid. Mr. Luelling assured us that he had more strength now and better health, than when he was thirteen years younger and practiced the former diet. These things being so, we must conclude that the family possesses remarkable will power, or they could not turn appetite out doors and all become philosophers. Speaking of appetite, however, we were assured that appetite when once converted has a better relish for the vegetarian diet than it ever had in the olden times for “chicken fixings.
                                                 # # #
For more background on Seth and his horticultural accomplishments, as well as some most informative writing on vegetarian practices in early Portland (and there was pretty darned little written before now!), I recommend a new book by Heather Arndt Anderson, Portland: A Food Biography (Rowman & Littlefield, 2015). It's a fascinating read!

Thursday, December 25, 2014

The Christmas Goose

The Woman's Favorite Cook Book, 1902
In the mid-1970s our family went through major changes. After years of pain and travail, mom had died of cancer in the summer of 1976, and dad—Bud—continued to live on alone in the old family house on a hill, overlooking the mouth of the Columbia River near Warrenton. My sister Laural had recently graduated from college, and was living and working near Portland. With my partner John, I lived in the tiny town of Jacksonville, Oregon, where I was the librarian with a historical museum.
A Christmas gathering was planned to bring the scattered and tattered family together. A right proper feast was called for to reinforce our connections with one another, including our mother’s older and widowed sister, Dorothy, the dearly beloved aunt.
Bud was quite a decent cook, and he liked to try new things. He decided that this gathering we were to have a roast goose. While he had never cooked one before, he had recently seen a Christmas goose recipe, and this, he determined, would be the centerpiece. But a goose was hard to come by on the northern Oregon coast.
John knew where we could get a fine but frozen goose in Jacksonville, and we volunteered to bring said goose to Warrenton. However, there were complications. We did not own a car, we didn’t have the money to rent one, and neither of us had a driver’s license anyway. To take a plane, encumbered with a frozen goose, was even more improbable and expensive. So we cadged a ride with friends for the five miles to Medford, and then took an overnight Greyhound bus to Portland, 275 miles to the north.
It was an ordeal. Riding the ‘hound was seldom a relaxing journey in the best of circumstances; at night, with the Christmas crowds, with gifts and luggage and a frozen goose, it was hellish. The body heat of forty-odd passengers was unnecessarily supplemented by a fiendishly effective heating system that pumped hot air directly onto the goose that had to be wedged beneath our seat. We had insulated the goose with layers of newspaper, but we had to enhance its wrappings with our winter coats and hope for the best; we kept rotating the goose so it wouldn’t get hot spots. Sleep was fitful.
Our seven-hour trip ended in Portland at an ungodly early hour, and there we waited for Laural to arrive in the Blue Bomb, her much-beloved rattletrap baby-blue Nash Rambler of barely post-World War II vintage. The Blue Bomb carried us all, and the wilting goose, safely if not swiftly to Warrenton, ninety miles to the west, where proper thawing was in the cool garage.
Bud was delighted with our bird, and he had a jolly good time fussing over it. It went into the oven artfully trussed, and properly pricked all over to drain the plentiful goose grease. As it roasted, it sent out the most gratifying aromas. The recipe had warned there would be goose grease spattered wildly about the oven, but no matter.
The goose was a triumph of crackly brown skin and utterly delicious flesh. I have no recollection of anything else we ate at that dinner, the last family meal I remember in Warrenton. Bud, Laural, Dorothy, John, and I had a fine feast. The bird was a triumph: the best goose ever.