Sunday, March 23, 2014

Hot Tamales in the Gay Nineties

Mid-Winter Fair, 1894
There's a connection between what Oregonians once ate and what Californians ate. Throughout the nineteenth century, Oregon’s closest commercial connections were with California, and it was common for wealthier Oregonians to go shopping in San Francisco, and to winter in Santa Barbara or Pasadena.

IXL canned tamales
The Dalles, 1899
So despite a lack in Oregon of the overt Mexican/Spanishesque touches found in California’s architecture and place names, one will sometimes find such touches in the foods we ate, brought north intact. Tamales, for example. Helen Brown, in her West Coast Cook Book, comments on the “tamale man”* who peddled them on San Francisco streets in the 1870s. A recent piece by Gustavo Arellano in SF Weekly outlines that city’s tamale appetite, tracing it from the 1880s to the 1892 founding of the California Chicken Tamale Company by Robert H. Putnam, who soon promoted tamales in Chicago and New York. In 1894 San Francisco’s Midwinter Fair had a Tamale Village, and Good Housekeeping published a tamale recipe. A patent for canned tamales was issued in 1897 to Julius Bunzl of IXL Canning in San Francisco. 

Oregon City, 1895
So it's no surprise that there are tamales in Oregon in the 1890s. The Dalles Weekly Chronicle (May 29, 1895) makes mention of one “Frank Hunter, a tamale maker of Portland,” and tamales and oysters are hot stuff in Oregon City the same year. In the spring of 1896, Ferd Levy proposed to sell peanuts and hot tamales at Seaside during the summer, but was dissuaded by the high cost of peanuts (The Daily Morning Astorian, May 26 and 31, 1896). In 1897, an itinerant tamale man made a sensation in The Dalles when he knocked down a highwayman who tried to rob him, and then “picked up his outfit and came down the street calling “Red hot! All hot! Hot Tamales!” (The Dalles Daily Chronicle, November 18, 1897) Tamales were good for office workers:  “Just right for the pen-pushers” said the advertisement for Zack’s oysters and tamales in Astoria (Daily Morning Astorian, July 9, 1899).

By the early 1900s, tamale recipes turned up in Oregon newspaper columns and community cookbooks, along with other Mexican-inspired dishes, often described as “Spanish.”

Old Fashioned Cook Book, Containing “Mother’s Favorite Recipes,” Ladies’ Aid Society, Forbes Presbyterian Church, Portland, Albina district, 1905 or 1906:

Chicken Tamales
Mix 2 pints of finely-ground cooked chicken meat with 1 pint finely-ground fresh boiled ham. Cut 2 large red peppers in half, remove seeds, place peppers in saucepan with boiling water, cook five minutes, remove and chop fine. Add them to the meat, season with ½ teaspoon salt, same of pepper. Place a saucepan with 3 cupfuls chicken broth over the fire, mix 2 tablespoons yellow Indian meal, same of white Indian meal; add it slowly to the boiling chicken broth, add ½ tablespoon of butter, stir and cook til thick, season with salt to taste. Put some dried corn husks in warm water, and soak for half an hour; remove, cut of even size, spread each out on a dish, cover with a thin layer of the meal paste, put a tablespoonful of the meat in the center lengthwise, fold the husk around it, twist the ends and tie them. Place in a steamer and steam for 1½ hours, or cover with chicken broth and cook 1 hour.—B.

* Cf. Portland’s “Tamale Boy” food cart of 2012, and the opening in 2014 of a full restaurant of that name.

Can label, ca. 1930

Monday, March 3, 2014

Springtime Mirrored in Waldport

Rare enough to find a view of a small town restaurant; rarer yet to find one depicting staff and customers. This photograph was taken about 1914 in Waldport, Oregon, by Frederick F. Sasman of Newport. Fred was an inexperienced photographer, hence the shot directly at the mirror, the profusion of reflected images in other mirrors, and the rather peculiar composition. But he caught a sprightly view of two of the staff in aprons, and two tables are graced with springtime sprays of coastal rhododendron; the calendar shows 31 days, so I'm guessing it's the month of May. Also on the tables: napery, flatware, salt and pepper, cruets of vinegar, and bottles of … catsup! The small central stove looks like a hazard. The woman in the center may be a customer; the bespectacled man lurking seated in the corner may also be one, but he has no food and is holding a slip of paper. What is the story here?

Mr. Sasman shows up as a barber in North Bend, Oregon, from 1907 to 1910. The Waldport postcard is stamped on the back, “Photo by F. F. Sasman, Newport, Oregon.” In 1914, there was an ad in the Portland Oregonian: “2-CHAIR barber shop for sale at Newport, Oregon. Fred F. Sasman, North Pacific Dental College, Portland.” In 1915 Sasman is credited as the photographer of the North Pacific Dental College basketball team, and in 1916, he gradated from that school. Subsequently Dr. Fred Sasman and his wife, Dena, appeared in occasional Portland social news items into the 1920s. An interesting transition from barber to photographer to dentist.
See Springtime in Waldport, Redux for the continuation of this story!

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Sam Kee and the State Cafe

’Way back in 2010, I wrote about the State Café in the railroad town of Huntington, Oregon, in a posting called Oysters on the Snake. There I promised to write more later about oysters. And, some time soon, I will do that.

Meanwhile, I want to say a bit more about the State Café, which my menu showed was operating in Huntington about 1917-1918. I recently asked the Huntington Historical Society if they had any information on the café. Here’s their response:

"The café was run by Sam Kee and was a Chinese Cafe, it wasn't in business very long, there was a story that the Chinese would cook squab, baby pigeons. Not sure where the State Café was but the Chinese café next to the Smoke House, one of the Chinese cooks brother died and people got scared to eat there. Lot of prejudices, the reason for the sign at the end of Grady's "All white Help" was because of the fear of Chinese, no one else."
Huntington, ca. 1915. Baker County Library, Baker City, OR 2006.2.99

So, now armed with a name, and with more resources available in online digital format, I went looking for Sam Kee. I first found him in Wallula, Washington, a railroad town that, like Huntington, was on the Union Pacific (UP) system. The Pendleton East Oregonian (January 21, 1907) picked up a report from the the Wallula Gateway that “Sam Kee, the well-known restaurant keeper, while eating chicken, got a bone fastened in his throat.” He was taken by train to Pendleton where a doctor “removed the bone by making an incision in Sam’s windpipe.”

Three years later, Sam Kee was running a restaurant in Umatilla, Oregon, also on the UP line. The East Oregonian (October 18, 1910 et seq.) ran several articles following the events there when an inebriated former UP employee, S. Lovelace, apparently tried to force Sam Kee to provide food to a destitute man; after Sam declined to do so, Lovelace left the restaurant and returned with a gun, and proceeded to shoot. Sam grabbed a gun and returned the fire. Sam lost a finger, but Lovelace later died from a shot in the groin. The coroner’s jury found that Sam had acted in self defense.

On March 20, 1911, fire destroyed three businesses on Umatilla’s Railway Avenue, including “Sam Kee’s restaurant.” He recovered quickly; on May 13, the East Oregonian reported that Sam Kee had leased a building on Main Street and was fitting it up for a restaurant.

Sam Kee next shows up in another railroad town, Klamath Falls, on the Southern Pacific lines; an ad for Sam Kee, restaurant, serving chop suey and noodles, appeared in the Klamath Falls Evening Herald of September 13, 1912, and for some time thereafter. The geography and context make me fairly certain that the Wallula and Umatilla Sam Kees are one and the same, but since few newspapers are yet available for searching, and since the name Sam Kee is not uncommon and is also easily misspelled, Sam Kee in Klamath Falls may, or may not, be the same man.

Finally, Sam Kee shows up in several items in the Oregonian in the 1920s, charged with narcotics possession and gambling violations in Portland. Is this the same Sam Kee? Again, it’s hard to say; I don't think it’s the same fellow, though I may be wrong. But here’s an item from Baker County, published in the Oregonian on July 1, 1924, about our fellow in Huntington:
BAKER, Or., June 30.—(Special.) Sam Kee, Chinaman, owner of the State café at Huntington, was arrested yesterday charged with the possession and sale of opium. Kee was placed in the county jail. He waived preliminary hearing before United States Commissioner Patter[s]on and was bound over under $2500 bail.”
Union Pacific System railroad bridge, ca. 1920

What can we deduce from this scattered pile of ostensibly newsworthy miscellany? I conclude that Sam Kee was a reasonably successful restaurant operator who catered to laborers, especially railroaders. The  Facebook page of the Huntington Historical Society shows a booklet of meal tickets issued in the 1920s for the State Café, providing $5.50 worth of eating for $5.00; meal tickets were just the thing for the working man. Although Sam Kee may have served chop suey and noodles in Klamath Falls and elsewhere, in Huntington his menu is firmly focused on hearty all-American fare. A close reading shows no chop suey, and four noodle dishes. While the plain noodles and chicken noodles might betray a Chinese cast, listings for noodles and coffee, and noodles and catsup, both read like they are just plain carbs for hungry Joe Railroader, not exotic dishes from Asia. It looks like Sam Kee spent nearly two decades feeding the working men of the railroad West. He also smoked opium, and he probably gambled. The State Cafe offered 22 different oyster dishes. More oyster lore soon, I promise.

Thanks to the Huntington Historical Society and to Marylou Colver!

Saturday, March 1, 2014

No Worries in Yachats

Harvey Kurtzman first spotted the image on a postcard pinned to the office bulletin board of Ballantine Books editor Bernard Shir-Cliff. "It was a face that didn't have a care in the world, except mischief," recalled Kurtzman. --Wikipedia entry for Alfred E. Neuman

The postcard shown here was produced by the Western Stationery Company, which appears to have been headquartered in Yachats, Oregon, in the late 1940s and early 1950s. The image of the round-faced, big-eared, gap-toothed boy has been around a while, at least from the 1890s. Western Stationery distributed cartoon postcards, and it may be one of their cards that was the inspiration for Mad magazine’s Alfred E. Neuman. Or maybe not.


The coastal town of Yachats, famously pronounced YAH-hots, is a resort locale today, smack on Highway 101, three hours’ driving time from Portland. But a century ago, getting to Yachats took an all-day trip on two trains, then a steam launch, an overnight stay, a jaunt by stage and two ferries, and finally either a hired hack or your feet for the last nine miles from Waldport.

Still, some people summered there. And there was railroad fever in the air. A railroad had recently been completed from Portland to the Tillamook beaches; there was talk of a railroad to the Coos Bay country from Drain or Eugene or Roseburg; there was murmuring about a railroad along the Oregon coast clear to Eureka and San Francisco.

One of those who was doing the talking and the murmuring was one William J. Wilsey, described in a later Oregonian (August 25, 1957) article  as a “pint-sized promoting dynamo.” He also dealt in real estate (what a surprise!). This postcard view depicts Yahutes-by-the-Sea, a real estate venture at Yachats that was platted in 1913. The same view was included in a promotional pamphlet written by that promoting dynamo, William J. Wilsey.

The back of the postcard touts Charles L. Murphy of nearby Waldport as the sales agent for those summer cottage lots. He was not successful in his efforts. Yachats remained isolated: no Oregon Coast railroad was ever built, the Coos Bay line of 1916 missed Yachats by about thirty miles, and the Oregon Coast highway was almost two decades in the future. By 1917, the owning West Coast Construction Company was delinquent on its taxes, and the Lincoln County commissions vacated the townsite plat.

N.B.: Yahutes is one of a rather large number of variant spellings of the town name; Yachats has been the front runner since at least the 1880s.