Saturday, July 12, 2014

Henry Theophilus Finck, Epicure of Aurora

New York Public Library
Though he was born in Missouri and died in Maine, he was an Oregonian. Though he achieved fame as a music critic and a popular writer about the likes of Wagner and Chopin, he also wrote about food (Food and Flavor, 1913) and love (Primitive Love and Love Stories, 1899) and gardening (Gardening With Brains: Fifty Years' Experience of a Horticultural Epicure, 1922) and travel (The Pacific Coast Scenic Tour, 1891). An unusual man was Henry Theophilus Finck (1854-1926).

Henry T. Finck was born in Bethel, Missouri in 1854, into a family that was part of a German religious farming commune headed by Dr. William Keil. The nucleus of that group soon moved west, and founded the community of Aurora, south of Portland. Finck grew up in that environment, and through diligent study he managed to go to Harvard, graduating in 1876. After a European jaunt, he began writing for the New York Evening Post; for four decades, he was a regular contributor to the magazine The Nation, and he authored more than a dozen books.

Among his writings are reminiscences of his childhood in Aurora, and about the delicious bounty of the Willamette Valley. Here are some tidbits.



 From The Pacific Coast Scenic Tour
“Concerning Oregon fruit I can speak from personal experience, as I was brought up near an orchard numbering two thousand apples, pear, and plum trees. For peaches and grapes the climate of Northern Oregon is hardly warm enough, and the apples and pears, too, are perhaps a little smaller than they are in California, but in flavor they are vastly superior. Indeed, neither in the East nor in any part of Europe have I ever tasted apples to compare with those in Oregon. … In most parts of the East an apple is an apple, and few people know or care about the names of the different kinds; but an Oregonian would no more eat certain kinds of apples than he would eat a raw pumpkin. An epicure is no more particular in regard to his brands of wine than an Oregonian is in the choice of his favorite variety of apples; and there are half-a-dozen kinds which I have never seen at the East, and the systematic introduction of which in the New York market would make any dealer’s fortune.”

“… I must acknowledge that I have never tasted any French chateau wine with a more agreeable bouquet than that of Oregon cider made exclusively of the finest apple that grows—white winter pearmain—and kept in bottles, unfermented.”

“In the matter of berries, Oregon is greatly ahead of California. The delicious wild strawberries on long stems are so abundant in May and June that they perfume the air along country roads like clover-fields. Blackberries are even more numerous, and a single county of Oregon would supply enough for all our Eastern cities.”
Sketch from Food and Flavor, by Charles S. Chapman

From Food and Flavor
“The Aurora hotel soon became far-famed; and when the first railway was built from San Francisco to Portland, the astute makers of the time-table somehow managed it so that most of the trains stopped at Aurora, though it is but twenty-eight miles from the terminal, Portland.
“It was plain German bourgeois cooking; but the sausages were made of honest pork and the hams had the appetizing flavor which the old-fashioned smokehouse gives them; the bread was soft yet baked thoroughly, the butter was fresh and fragrant and the pancakes melted in the mouth. As for the supreme effort of Aurora cookery—noodle soup made with the boiled chicken (not cold-storage chicken) served in the plate—the mere memory of it makes my mouth water, four decades after eating it.
“In justice to Portland, which in those days was in a benighted condition fully warranting the action of the railway men in making Aurora their culinary terminus, let me hasten to add that at present, with its Chinook salmon and Columbia River smelt, its hardshell crabs and razor clams, its delicious Willamette crawfish—rivaling the best French écrivisses—its fragrant mammoth strawberries, its juicy cherries, and its world-famed Hood River apples, it is hardly second to San Francisco as a gastronomic center. In Oregon, as in Washington and California, the epicure fares particularly well because the luxuries of life as are cheap as the staples and quite as abundant, if not more so.”

Henry Finck perceived the manifest culinary advantages of the Pacific Slope a century ago.


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