By the turn of the 19th century, New York-area newspapers were writing about food and albeit sometimes on tenterhooks, drink, in a way familiar to us today. The rudiments of the consumer society were in place, and soon enough its trappings: consumer associations, concerns about food safety, newspaper layouts covering trends and imparting advice. By the 1930s, food and wine clubs and food and wine writers, including columnists, completed a picture essentially the same today allowing for changes in media and the sheer numbers now interested.
New York City was the loadstone for all this. A good example was this article in 1909 in The Sun, an archaeology of pumpkin pie. The piece was written in a plain but forthright style. It disclosed no insecurity about America’s native food traditions, indeed took pride in their homespun, democratic nature but also their appetizing quality when well-executed.
The Sun article is a good contrast to the one I mentioned the other day from the New York Times. It sniffed at Anglo-American culinary arts albeit with a disarming humour. (“It is not safe to go more than three miles from Delmonico in any direction”).
The Sun looked at the history of pumpkin pie, explaining it was a Pilgrim dish and appreciated not least by those in the country for eight generations. Of course today its fame has spread beyond the Mayflower crowd. We all know and love it, and now it flavours latte, beer, pasta, and god knows what.
One of the best parts of the article is an unnamed researcher’s – maybe in fact the journalist’s – notes of a tourney in Manhattan to find the best pie. The search was long and arduous, with numerous disappointments. But finally the quester alighted on a magical pie. The notes are telegraphic but insightful, prefiguring the indispensable Zagat restaurant guides.
This way of looking at a comestible is part of a pattern you see with ale, lager beer, many other drinks and many foods. After a certain time passes, people start to think, how did we get here for something taken for granted for so long? And writers, often, or restaurateurs, start to look at it in a fundamentally different way than the general populace. A sense of distance emerges, today we might call it ironic distance, but it is necessary to the perspective in question. The object might be to illuminate social history, or simply commercial.
Sometimes people resent when something they take for granted becomes appropriated so to speak, not necessarily by a different socio-economic group, but even by their own crowd. A well-known English writer once expressed this feeling when he said, when I am given a plate of food, I want a good meal, not a history lesson.
It’s a point of view, but not mine, obviously, or The Sun’s 108 years ago.
Note re images: the images above were extracted from The Sun’s 1909 article linked in the text, available via the Chronicling America historical newspapers site. Images appear for educational and historical purposes. All intellectual property in the sources resides solely in their lawful owner, as applicable. All feedback welcome.