Thursday, November 14, 2013

Cherries and Prunes and Walnuts

Published about 1911
Once upon a time, about a century ago, the country's towns and cities and counties and states were wild for self-promotion, goofy on boosterism. The Pacific Northwest was particularly afflicted. One of the syndrome's manifestations was the impulse to characterize a place in a snappy slogan, and some of these have stuck: Portland, the City of Roses is a prime example, and Grants Pass still says "It's the Climate."

Dallas, 1926
Other characterizations have come and gone. McMinnville in the 1910s was The Walnut City. It has subsequently tried self-puffery with both turkeys and UFOs, and today it boosts and boasts of pinot noir. Dallas once called itself the Prune City, and its booster cookbook boasted 59 prune-inclusive recipes. Salem in 1907 began its career as the Cherry City; the Cherry City Cook Book, however, could only muster 15 recipes featuring cherries. At the same time, The Dalles was chasing the same title. Salem having uprooted most of its nearby cherry orchards for tract housing, The Dalles could keep the claim--if it still wanted it. And did you know that Salem's city transit vehicles are still called Cherriots?

“Blend’s Mah Friend”

Recipe leaflet, ca. 1894
There’s a lengthy history of food-related imagery depicting African Americans. The legacy of black American women and men as good cooks is evident in Uncle Ben’s rice and Aunt Jemima’s syrup.

The Pacific Northwest’s history of discouraging black residency is brightly reflected in its historically small black population. But by the 1890s, the new transcontinental railroads had hired black porters and waiters to staff their dining and sleeping cars. This established a small nucleus of African American residents in Portland, Tacoma, and Seattle. The Portland Hotel—begun by the Northern Pacific Railroad—had a black waitstaff.
Portland, ca. 1915

Throughout the region, blacks were seldom visible. Despite the association of blacks with good service (and proper servility) on railroads and in big-city hotels, some establishments explicitly noted their absence as a positive point.

A. Curtis photo, 1915. UW Libraries
The Fisher Flouring Mills of Seattle (with mills also in Tacoma and Portland at times) offers one of the few instances of a regional black figure in Northwest food history. From about 1912 to 1920, Newton Colman (pictured at left) personified Fisher’s Blend flour in local advertising. Until about 1950, a line drawing of a black chef and the phrase “Blend’s mah friend” identified the company and carried a message that linked black men with good cooking.

A curious sidebar to this topic is the existence of several regional community cookbooks with a cover drawing of a black woman cook. I have three examples, from Sweet Home, The Dalles, and Amity, all from 1951, and all printed by the Bev-Ron Publishing Company of Kansas City, Missouri. A quick Google search reveals that Bev-Ron is today Cookbook Publishers, Inc., of Lenexa, Kansas, and that, as in 1951, they will organize, design, and print your community cookbook. And as in 1951, you have a selection of cover templates from which to choose.

In 1951, the Wasco County Chapter of American Gold Star Mothers, the Women’s Society of Christian Service of the Sweet Home Community Church, Methodist, and the Women’s Society of Christian Service of Amity Methodist Church, all chose this cover for their cookbooks. Was it a Methodist Thing?
Portland Oregonian, May 18, 1926

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

An Outpost of Castile

We’ve written before on fusion food offerings of the early twentieth century in the Pacific Northwest. Here’s another example, this one a little less chaotic than the Spanish-Mexican-Italian-Chinese-French-Texan-Aztec menu of Cook’s Tamale Grotto.

A postcard from about 1912

The Castillian Grill first appears in the Portland Oregonian in an advertisement on December 27, 1908: “Spanish cooking—for men and women. Regular Spanish dinner, 4 to 8 P.M., 50c. 427 Wash. st.,” between SW 11th and 12th. Restaurateur W. C. McDonnell first shows up in the Polk city directories running another establishment in Portland from 1909, and as the manager of the Castilian in 1912 and 1913. The Polk directory also notes, “Spanish and Mexican cooking, chicken tamales and Spanish pot pies a specialty.”

Misfortune seems to have struck under McDonnell’s auspices, as the restaurant underwent a bankruptcy sale on August 15, 1912; the receiver was an agent of Weinhard’s Brewery. At the time, the Castillian had two locations, the one on Washington and another on SW 6th Avenue near Stark Street.

The Castillian Grill apparently weathered its bankruptcy, although its location changed again, to SW Morrison near 11th in 1913. Later it was adjacent to the Perkins Hotel, which was at SW 5th and Washington. The Oregonian describes a minor fire in the Perkins Hotel basement on the evening of May 1, 1917, when smoke drove both hotel guests and “waitresses, cooks and diners” from the Castillian into the street; it’s the last mention of the restaurant to be found in the newspaper.

From a postcard
The brief menu on the postcard suggests an emphasis on Mexican dishes, with at least a few eponymous nods to native Aztec roots and some references to Spain—and let’s not forget the spaghetti. Probably there was Weinhard’s beer to wash it down.

Who were the customers of the Castillian? Where did they source their ingredients? And their cooks? Was this an exotic destination, or a watering hole with novel food on the side? It’s worth noting that the 50-cent dinner of 1908 is roughly equivalent to $13.00 today, which suggests it wasn’t a cheap dive, nor was it a swanky place. In any case, it certainly was an unusual eatery for its time and place.