Sunday, January 27, 2013

National Food Day: Pie on the Table

Great Northern Railroad, 1930s

I hosted the board meeting for our historians’ organization on January 23. Did you know that January 23 was National Pie Day? One of our board members knew that, and she suggested we each bring a pie, sweet or savory, to fuel the meeting. And so we did, with contributions ranging from onion and provolone pie to pear pie in a graham crust. A delicious meeting. We did some work, too.

There’s a long history of proclaiming a day, week, or month to mark—and hence advertise—particular foods and food products, in the same way that we mark off some time to raise awareness of a certain disease or honor a notable volunteer or throw a festival about roses or the borax industry or steam traction engines. The national ones may be announced by presidential proclamation, others by a governor or mayor or council. Many are self-proclaimed by a trade group.

January is Prune Breakfast Month! You may well be aware that prunes have long held a reputation for keeping one’s tract moving along, and that prunes for breakfast were considered most helpful in giving the day a proper start. This breakfast menu from the 1930s, from a dining car of the Great Northern Railroad, features not only Pacific Northwest steamed prunes, but also the similarly laxative offerings of prune juice, fresh plums, and preserved figs!

A crowd of protein seekers in Pittsburgh, 1916
National Dried Fruit Week has passed from the calendar, and so has Salmon Day. This photo postcard was mailed to the Columbia River Packers Association (CRPA) in Astoria by J. Eleonfield, Pittsburgh general agent for the Union Pacific System, “The Salmon Route.” The typed message: “Crowd looking at Window Display, Union Pacific Railroad Office, Pittsburgh, Pa., account National Canned Salmon Day, March 10, 1916.” One of the CRPA brands was Bumble Bee; by the 1950s, Bumble Bee was better known for its tuna than its salmon.

Few of us eat prunes for breakfast today, despite Prune Breakfast Month. There is no national day of celebration for canned salmon or tuna, which successively for nearly a century led the list of cheap protein foods in America. But we do still call out pie. And pie for breakfast was just as acceptable a century ago as it is today. 

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Billy Winters Loses Jewels

This was the headline of an Oregonian article on October 17, 1904, reporting the theft of a diamond, some rings, and a $1,200 wad of cash from the safe of the Log Cabin Saloon, Billy Winter, proprietor. (Although Winters appears now and again, Winter was probably his name.) The alleged culprit was his head bartender, one William Thompson, "who is well known among a certain class of Portlanders."Thompson had closed up the bar early that night, "saying that he was feeling too ill to work"; "he appeared to be nervous."
It is unlikely that this is William Thompson behind the ... fish bar?

It was deduced that Thompson had probably scarfed the goods and hopped "the 11:45 o'clock Northern Pacific train for Seattle. Not the slightest trace of him can be found."

Very often it is only the chance happenstance of crime or disaster that brings a name into the newspaper, and in so doing enables us to get a bit more of a line on ordinary people and their activities. Had Billy Winter not been robbed, it's very likely there would be little information remaining today to give some context to this rather unusual postal card view.

As it happens, Billy got a reprise two decades after the big heist: on April 12, 1925, the Oregonian did a full-page spread on a retired Portland police detective, Joe Day. Joe had a hand (or two) in many a notorious local crime since the late 1870s, and one of them had been the capture of William (though his real name, apparently, was John F.) Thompson. Joe Day had managed to track Thompson to San Antonio, Mexico City, New Orleans, Montreal, Edinburgh, and, finally, Liverpool, where Thompson was arrested in the summer of 1907. At the personal behest of Billy Winter, Day made the trip to England to bring back Thompson, and in the course of things, courtesy of a colleague at Scotland Yard, he met King Edward VII. The trip back to Portland with the fugitive was fraught with more drama, as Thompson jumped from a moving transcontinental train near Cheyenne. Recaptured, he was penitent; he averred that "A finer man than 'Billy' Winter, with the exception of Mr. Day, does not live. He paid me well, trusted me implicitly, and I did him dirt." Thompson was sentenced to four years in the state penitentiary.

Did the Log Cabin serve more than drinks? Fish, perhaps? And why was there a diamond in the safe?