Since modern photography only came into being around 1816, when Nicéphore Niépc combined camera obscura techniques and paper with photosensitive qualities, the faces of so many people will never be known to us. Those of the rich, the powerful, and the occasional peasant – thanks to artists such as Pieter Bruegel the Elder – we their faces see as we traipse through dusky museums and stand at the feet of sculpted marble tombs in the cold, damp churches that dot European countryside and cities.
It was a rainy spring morning on the day I first saw her face as I rummaged through a pile of vintage photographs in a Virginia antique shop, just miles from William Preston’s Smithfield Plantation, one of the first frontier settlement on the far-away Virginia frontier. Tossing aside most of the photos, most of which were of youngish people, I stopped when I picked up hers. The gray hair and the wrinkles around her eyes told me that she’d put on a few miles, as they say. And her plump cheeks told me another story: she ate well and no doubt loved food. Maybe she took joy in cooking. On the stiff cardboard backing, the photographer’s logo told me something, that his subject that day had somehow found herself in Pottstown, Pennsylvania, sitting for her portrait.
Who was she? At that moment, I knew I wanted to tell a story about her, even if I knew nothing about her real story. Nor would I ever. But I decided that she could represent all those nameless, faceless people. She would be a cook, and she’d own a boarding house, an institution now defunct, but crucial to the building of America’s rich culinary culture.
Walt Whitman wrote in the March 18, 1842 Aurora: “Married men and single men, old men and pretty girls; milliners and masons; cobblers, colonels, and counter-jumpers; tailors and teachers; lieutenants, loafers, ladies, lackbrains, and lawyers; printers and parsons—‘black spirits and white, blue spirits and gay’—all ‘go out to board.’ ”
And he was right. America was forged in the pots and kettles and ovens of boarding houses.
Here’s one short tale, of Josephine Evans* and her Pottstown, Pennsylvania boarding house.
To be continued …
Beef Escallops with Mustard Sauce:
Make the escallops the same as beefsteaks made from chopped meat. When they are served make a sauce of 1 spoonful of mustard, 1 spoonful of sour cream and a little cold water, and pour it over the escallops. Instead of the water it is better to take meat remnants and make a meat broth and use it in preparing the sauce. (From page 105, Henriette Davidis, Practical Cookbook, 1879)
*Josephine Evans is a composite character and the portrait I’ve included as an illustration provides no clue as to who this lady was. In an ideal world, someone just might recognize her and tell her real story.
© 2016 C. Bertelsen