Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Supersized Spuds

Potato postcard
"Look at your computer mouse. That's how big a baked potato should be," proclaims a syndicated story in today's Seattle Times. "The supersizing of American portions has been going on for years."

... the Old Oaken Bucket. Sheet music
Just how many years? Well, it's easy to go back more than a century: in 1909, the dining car service of the Northern Pacific Railroad introduced its "Great Big Baked Potato," weighing in at two pounds! According to William A. McKenzie, author of Dining Car Line to the Pacific, this promotional gambit was instituted by dining car superintendent Hazen J. Titus after he saw some huge Yakima Valley netted gem potatoes that ranged up to five pounds in weight. The lumpy aberrants were difficult to market as foodstuffs, but Titus found they baked up very nicely, and that a 2-pounder slathered in butter caught his customers' attention.

1933 menu, special tour group
This Washington State product (later Montana supplied them, too) was only the first in a succession of regional food promotions by Northern Pacific. The advertising boosted agricultural shipments for the company's freight and express services as well as its passenger business. In 1909, NP began its own 52-acre farm near Kent, Washington, and in 1914 their new Seattle commissary boasted a rooftop delight: an electric-lighted, 40-foot-long faux potato whose eyes, "through the electric mechanism, are made to wink constantly." Inedible, but the ultimate in supersizing.

Menu, about 1925
A supersized potato might be a nutritional and dietetic paragon. Unless, of course, it should be slathered in butter (the Northern Pacific churned its own butter each day aboard the dining car). In the 1920s, Northern Pacific heavily promoted big Washington State apples, in particular big apples baked in heavy cream, oh, yes. It's not just the size, it's the condiments.

So is this a new story, or an extension of a story that's been playing out, in variations, for many an eon? In Portland, Sayler's restaurant, opened in 1946, has been pushing its 72-ounce slab of top sirloin beef since 1948. At least it has not gotten any larger.

And of course you do know Dr. Harvey Washington Wiley (1844-1930), don't you? We're talking about the right kind of food
Ad in Better Fruit magazine, 1913

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Grape Nip in Davenport

Last fall we whizzed through the northern edge of Davenport, Washington, the county seat of Lincoln County since 1896 (though only after more than a decade of squabbling about it). I need to go back for a better look at this isolated wheat country town. And I need to find out more about grape nip.

The 1950 edition of the WPA guide The New Washington: a Guide to the Evergreen State says of Davenport that it “is now a trade and shopping center for the Cedar Canyon mining district and has several huge grain elevators, mills, and a soda water factory.” Paula Becker’s HistoryLink article on Davenport tells the story of the Pioneer Soda Bottling Works, which was founded in 1904 and continued as a family enterprise until 1982. The company produced more than two dozen flavors of beverages, including raspberry and loganberry and pineapple soda, lemon sour, creme beer, chocolate fiz and lemon fiz and kola fiz, ginger ale, and cherry nip and grape nip. Oh, and Howdy's orange soda.

I’d especially like to know more about those nips. The grape nip ingredient list fails to specify grape juice, but says only that it contains “harmless color and flavor.” In that there is a suggestion that grape nip may not be a suitable base for home wine making. Rats. I'll have to have a bottle of creme beer instead.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Streetcars Rediviva

In 1969, I turned in my BA thesis at Reed College: "' ... and so made town and country one': the Streetcar and the Building of Portland, Oregon, 1872-1920." A few years later (1973?), Steve Dotterer and I did a streetcar photo exhibit, "Along the Car Lines,"  for the local chapter of the American Institute of Architects. In 1986, I did a photo essay on Seattle streetcars in Pacific Northwest Quarterly. And in the summer of 2010 I was interviewed about Portland streetcars by Kami Horton for an Oregon Public Broadcasting episode of The Oregon Experience.

That production, "Streetcar City," first aired February 28, and it is now available both online and as a CD. Steve Dotterrer and I are among the talking heads, as is Richard Thompson, author of several regional pictorial histories of streetcar and railroad lines. There are lots of good film clips and historic photos in the show.

I have to say that in 1969 I hadn't the faintest hope that Portland would ever see a streetcar again. The main point of my thesis was that streetcars had once made an impact on the city's physical layout and its workings. The OPB production's chief point is that today the streetcar is back again. And it once again is having an impact on the city's physiography and its workings. Whaddya know; "What is old is new again."