On a recent early evening, I came across a small scrimmage in Union Square, not an unusual scene for a warm day. But as I got closer, I noticed that at the center of the huddle of bodies was a bank of water fountains. A large pickup truck awaited nearby and some workers were trying to delicately pry the thirsty New Yorkers away from their water source so they could pack up the fountain. As I got closer, I could see large letters on the side of the troth: “Water-on-the-Go” and the familiar logo of the city of New York. Apparently, the city has been providing these portable fountains around town for free each summer since 2010.But water fountains, mostly the non-portable sort, have only been around NYC since the mid-19th century.
Specifically, since the opening of the Croton Aqueduct which finally brought fresh water to the city in 1842 – 90 millions gallons of it per day. Instead of contaminated well-water, the city’s residence now had consistent access to fresh and clean water for the first time. The effects were transformational to the city and to the health of its residents. Wealthier New Yorkers installed running water in their homes and public bath houses and pools were constructed for everyone else . Cockroach trivia of the day: the horrendous critters became known as Croton bugs because they congregated around the water pipes. To celebrate clean water, lavish fountains were erected in Union Square and City Hall Park and over the next few decades, public drinking fountains were built across the city to quench the thirst of “man and beast.”
Today there are 1,970 water fountains in the city with the most in Brooklyn. Their designs are more functional than the ornamental fountains of the last century, but free and clean water is clearly something that New Yorkers still very much appreciate.
The vilification of food is something Americans do all too well. Many food items have swung back and forth between villain and savior (Harvey Levenstien wrote a great book about this: Fear of Food A History of Why We Worry About What We Eat). Caffeine has long been one of the most popular targets and perhaps no one did more to try to destroy the reputation of coffee than the man who brought us Grape Nuts: C.W. Post. If you’ve ever wondered why Grape Nuts has that strange, indiscernible but slightly gravely taste it’s because it originally wasn’t meant to be a cereal at all, but rather a coffee substitute–one of Posts’ many efforts to rip off Kellogg’s creations.
Riding on the wave of the success of Grape Nuts and new health concerns over coffee, which he called a “drug drink,” Post developed another coffee alternative made from roasted grains called Postum. In his book, Uncommon Grounds, Mark Pendergrast argues that Posts’ ability to use bogus health jargon while appealing to people’s fears and snobbery paved the way for modern consumer advertising practices. Post himself was likely influenced by Coke’s ads in the 1880′s promoting the drink as a “brain tonic.” Post promised that drinking Postum would put consumers on the “road to Wellville,” and as this ad contends, would also rebuild one’s nervous system from the effects of “the old poison–caffeine,” and win over one’s husband to boot! In the end, commerce won out over caffeine ideology. C.W. Posts’ daughter took over the company following his death and bought Maxwell House in 1928.
Beer gardens are experiencing a small, but notable renaissance in New York City these days. Sadly they don’t even touch the kinds of massive, throbbing beer gardens that used to be commonplace. Sure, you could grab a beer at any of these German-style beer halls that dotted 19th century New York, but they were so much more than watering holes. The largest and most famous of these was the Atlantic Garden, which was a cavernous multi-storied social space were patrons would spend the better part of the day drinking, playing pool and listening to live music and of course, drinking beer. The largest of these was the Atlantic Garden, opened in 1858 on the Bowery at number 50 extending to Elizabeth Street. At a time when male and female social spheres rarely overlapped, beer halls were frequented by both men and women. The Atlantic Garden was particularly popular with German families who came to enjoy some evening entertainment together. This included an array of diversions such as a shooting gallery, pool tables, bowling allies and live entertainment. Despite the flowing beer, the crowd was relatively tame. On the lower lefthand corner of the postcard you can see a young girl sitting patiently at the end of the table as her parents chat away and another couple walking hand in hand between the tables on the right side.
As the Bowery increasingly became home to some of the most desolate populations in the city, Atlantic Garden managed to maintain its clean reputation and remained popular with locals and tourists. That is, until the locals finally left for less seedy pastures. Atlantic Garden was closed in 1902 because its main clientele, Germans and Irish, had moved away from the Bowery. This particularly vivid passage from the New York Times article announcing the closure describes the ending of an era:
Dwellers of the Bowery paused and rubbed their eyes yesterday when they passed Atlantic Garden, for the front of the famous old resort, which had stood almost unchanged on its site just below Canal Street since before the Civil War, was plastered over with Billboard in Yiddish announcing a Yiddish variety programme.”
(Yes, we still clung to that extra “me” in 1902.)
The article goes on to describe how the hall had hosted vaudeville acts, a new form of entertainment when it first opened, and specialized in novelty acts such as “‘teams’ of negro performers,” and later a “ladies orchestra.”
This past fall, it was discovered that the basement of the tavern that had previously occupied 50 Bowery and which had supposedly been George Washington’s headquarters, was still intact. Almost just as soon, it was demolished to make way for a 22-story, 160-room hotel. Hopefully plans will also include an enormous beer hall.
January 17, 1920: the day Americans were legally prohibited from consuming alcohol for the next 13 years—the day the Eighteenth Amendment went into effect. But teetotalism had been popular in America for nearly a century before the government got involved.
Alcohol had long been the target of American reformers who aimed to restore order to society through publishing diatribes on the harmful effects of excessive drinking, such as this illuminating pamphlet by University of Pennsylvania professor, Dr. Benjamin Rush, An Inquiry Into the Effects of Ardent Spirits Upon the Human Body and Mind (in its 8th edition by 1823).
A note to those considering imbibing tonight: Dr. Rush warns that while small amounts of alcohol “have a friendly influence upon health and life,” overindulgence in anything as innocent as punch leads to idleness, which leads to sickness and eventually to debt. Cordials lead to swindling, while the stronger stuff like gin and brandy will ultimately lead to murder and…the gallows. He suggests sticking to water which brings “health and wealth”—a radical concept at a time when the quality of most water was questionable.
American Teetotalism actually has its origins in Ireland with the Catholic Temperance movement when priest Mathew Theobald established the Cork Total Abstinence Society in 1838. His followers each signed a pledge of total alcohol abstinence and met on Friday and Saturday nights and on Sundays after Mass. In just the first five months, Theobald had conscribed 130,000 members. He began taking his cause on the road and eventually came to the U.S. in 1849 where he enlisted another 500,000. Catherine Cauty was the 4,281,797th to sign the pledge, promising to “abstain from all intoxicating drinks, except used medicinally and by order of a medical man, and to discountenance the cause and practice of intemperance.” The above card illustrates the consequences of alcohol consumption: wife-beating, and the benefits of temperance: a happy family gathering in front of a hearth.
Slimy, briny and amorphous; oysters are an implausible aphrodisiac and an unlikely delicacy. And yet, oysters are part of a cadre of much-valued foods with the fabled powers to generate sexual stimulation, along with chocolate and apparently striped bass. While oysters have long been shrouded in a myth of sensuality, they were not always so rarefied. In the nineteenth century, oysters were one of few foods that both rich and poor could agree were delicious, and they ate them with equal enthusiasm. Mark Kurlansky writes in The Big Oyster: History of the Half Shell that mid-nineteenth century New York oystermania “was one of the few moments in culinary history when a single food, served in more or less the same preparations, was commonplace for all socioeconomic levels.”
New York was synonymous with oysters long before it was known for its hotdogs and bagels. The nineteenth century waterways were so bountiful that oysters were sold as street food for pennies. New Yorkers were so mad for oysters that shuckers would work 10 hour days opening up 1,000 oysters per hour just to keep up with the demand.
Oysters could be found all over town and prepared in all sorts of ways: boiled, stuffed into in pies and stewed. In The House of Mirth, Lily Bart seeks refuge at a white table-clothed restaurant on 59th Street and Park Avenue where she has a rejuvenating snack of tea and stewed oysters. While just a few blocks downtown in Edith Wharton’s New York, oysters were casually consumed for a penny each off carts by the harbor.
When it came to oysters, elites were essentially indulgent gilded age locavores. Delmonico’s, New York’s original fine dining establishment, put oysters, or huîtres as was their francophile predilection, at the very top of their menu and set the trend for serving them raw on the half-shell. Oysters also attracted the attention of visitors to New York, including Charles Dickens who found most of America to be horrendous and did not hesitate to call parts of New York “loathsome, drooping, and decayed.” And yet, he found the New York oyster cellars “pleasant retreats” and seemed to enjoy their “wonderful cookery.”
I certainly cannot think of a single food item, even with the relative democratization of food over the past century and the increased access and exposure to a wider variety of cuisines, that would be equally celebrated at, let’s say Daniel’s and IHOP. I would love to be wrong about this (Cronuts at Dunkin’ Donuts don’t count), and maybe someone will point out that I am. But from what I can tell, I’m not.
A combination of pollution and bitter turf wars between competing fisherman caused the decline of New York’s oyster population. Eventually typhoid fever and cholera outbreaks forced the City Health Commission to close all the oyster beds in 1927, ending New York’s oyster bonanza.
New York is more socioeconomically divided today than it has been in over a century but it has been nearly as long since oysters were consumed with equal gusto by both the haves and have nots. But could it happen again? There are projects to revitalize New York’s oyster population, like efforts by the New York Harbor School and The River Project. But it’s doubtful that their numbers will ever get as high as they once were when oysters were so plentiful that their shells literally paved the streets.
The very first thing I do each morning is not shower, not check my email, not even caffeinate. I open up the fridge, reach for a plastic bottle and pour myself a small glass of orange juice. The citrus and sweetness seem to go through my tastebuds and right to that “on” switch in my brain. You know how courteous hosts ask if there’s anything you’d like them to stock up on when you’re visiting, and this is meant as a gesture rather than an invitation? Well, I actually answer: orange juice.
So when I started researching how orange juice became a staple of the American breakfast, it did not surprise me that its reputation for restoring energy and vitality was a central marketing theme. What I didn’t expect was that its meteoric rise to breakfast classic also involved a scare over a rare blood condition, an obsession with vitamin C and nearly a decade of government research. Oh, and then there’s this: If you value your morning glass of orange juice with its happy bits of pulp and consider it to be as close to the real thing as can be readily available at your local supermarket, do not read on. If, however, you are prepared to be nauseated by your once innocent glass of store-bought orange juice, this one’s for you.
“Most commercial orange juice is so heavily processed that it would be undrinkable if not for the addition of something called flavor packs. This is the latest technological innovation in the industry’s perpetual quest to mimic the simplicity of fresh juice. Oils and essences are extracted from the oranges and then sold to a flavor manufacturer who concocts a carefully composed flavor pack customized to the company’s flavor specifications. The juice, which has been patiently sitting in storage sometimes for more than a year, is then pumped with these packs to restore its aroma and taste, which by this point have been thoroughly annihilated. You’re welcome.”
For more on flavor packs, juice processing and the entire orange juice industry, read Alissa Hamilton’s illuminating book, Squeezed: What You Don’t Know About Orange Juice. I’m not sure what my mornings are going to look like from now on, but thanks to her I’ve drunk my last glass of year-old orange juice. For more on how we got here in the first place, read the rest of my piece on TheAtlantic.com: The Myth of Orange Juice as a Health Drink.
Here are some delightful orange juice commercials that didn’t make it into the piece:
1950′s canned Florida Citrus: “Because I like to get my vitamin C the way nature intended.”
1950′s Florida Citrus Fresh-Frozen: “Quench your thirst with health.”
1954 animated Bing Crosby for Minute Maid: “Healthier teeth, sturdier bones, better growth, rich red blood, and more vitality.”
1980 Florida Orange Growers: “It isn’t just for breakfast anymore.”
1993 Tropicana Pure Premium Grovestand: “The newest orange juice sensation…a taste so fresh, so pure, so real, every sip is like biting into an orange.”
Poor Reverend Sylvester Graham only wanted to save Americans from themselves and their harmful sexual urges, glutinous habits and materialism. His solution: crackers.
This most humble and innocent of American snacks has a strange and unlikely history that spans health and dress reforms, temperance movements, early vegetarianism, a mob of bakers, and the birth of the entire cereal industry. Read my full story on TheAtlantic.com and listen to me talk all about Grahamism on New Hampshire Public Radio’s Word of Mouth.
There is an ever-narrowing window, it seems like mere hours now, between the moment the clock of commerce strikes the end of Thanksgiving and the start of the “holiday season.” Barely have our over-burdened stomachs digested our preternaturally large turkeys than the elves of CVS, Target and Best Buy come crawling into their respective stores to exchange the autumnal colors for whites, reds and greens. I imagine these brave defenders of mercantilism slinking in under the cloak of darkness, staving off tryptophan as the rest of us lay splayed on couches clutching our stomachs while eyeing the last piece of pie, to furtively haul out the pumpkin and apple flavored everything and heave in the bulk bins of Santa hats and stock endless shelves with gift “suggestions.”
“Christmas has been ruined!” We bark. “Its spirit has been sullied by our lust for commercial grade juicers!”
We do like to harp on. But what if there never was a noncommercial American Christmas to ruin? What if the commercialization we love to hate on is the very thing that brought us the “spirit of Christmas” that we lament has been destroyed? So argues Penne Restad in a Bloomberg article from last year. The American tradition of Christmas first took off within the confines of the home where upper class ladies of leisure took to decorating and indulging in cobbling together “the scraps and slivers of various folk traditions blended to serve a religion of domesticity.” Rituals such as tree decorating and stocking stuffing where then picked up by the press, which published Christmas recipes along with etiquette tips, gift ideas and morality tales of the “true meaning of Christmas.” Publications like Harper’s Weekly also began to develop the version of Santa Clause from a marginal character to the jolly gifting supernatural being we recognize today.
As early as the 1830’s poinsettias were being grown in greenhouses and by the 1870’s Christmas trees were living room fixtures. Woolworths played a role by importing cheap ornaments from Germany while department stores around the country stuffed their displays full of glittering merchandise, pushing gifts on American consumers with unbridled zeal. This Richmond Times Dispatch article from 1916 reported on the “Christmas spirit” on display in the “brilliantly decorated windows…within, the stores are temples of plenty, thronged with devotees. Even the shops which have to do only with humdrum articles of constant necessity and ugly drudgery have been infected with the desire for cheer and beauty.”
As the spirit of commerce and Christmas were created in tandem, so have they continued to grow concurrently. As Restad writes:
“These days, it is a commonplace to say that the economy depends on Christmas sales and that marketing strategies, such as Black Friday, threaten the holiday of yore. True enough. But less often noted is that the market revolution of the 19th century, and the consumer economy it created, made possible and continues to sustain what we mean when we talk about the ‘spirit of Christmas.’”
Chickens may be cowards, but turkeys are dumb, straight-talkers, often failures and sometimes winners. At least, that’s what American turkey expressions tell us. Clearly, we have a complicated relationship with turkeys. Despite being America’s holiday bird of choice, the turkey is often maligned in our idioms but sometimes revered too.
Though it’s disputed that any such conversation ever actually happened, there’s an old joke that captures the origins of the phrase “talking turkey,” which Mark Forsyth retells in a New York Times article:
There was a 19th-century American joke about two hunters — an American and a Native American — who go hunting all day but only get an owl and a turkey. So the American turns to his companion and says: “Let’s divide up. You get the owl and I get the turkey.” The Native American says: “No. Let’s do it the other way round.” So the American says, “O.K., I’ll get the turkey and you get the owl.” And the Native American replies, “You don’t talk turkey at all.”
Another theory is that the turkey’s unique gobble gave rise to the expression. Either way, from “talk turkey” came the phrase “cold turkey” beginning in the 1920’s relating to quitting something, usually drugs, outright. One explanation is that cold turkey requires little preparation, like quitting right away. Yet another explanation is that the pale, goose-pimply skin of an addict in withdrawal resembles that of a plucked turkey.
Then there’s “Gobbledygook,” which is an attempt to put into one word the nonsensical sounds that a turkey makes, coined in 1944 by a congressman calling for an end to the use of bureaucratic jargon. So in two expressions turkey talk means both very clear and very garbled language.
The turkey also embodies two other opposing characters: the winner and the looser. A failed movie is a “turkey,” a “turkey shoot” is a term for an easy target, yet “bowling a turkey” happens when a player bowls three strikes in a row. This apparently came out of depression era bowling alley promotions that gave away turkeys to game winners.
We eat turkeys not in lunch meat form only once or twice a year. So it’s no surprise that over time we have come up with a slew of idioms relating to the myth of this celebratory foul. But, it’s certainly curious how many opposite qualities we imbue this bird with. But enough of this gobbledygook, time for some turkey.
My Dearest Brazil Nut,
I write this letter to beg for your forgiveness. I, like so many others, have wronged you, my Brazil nut. You have been looked over, taken for granted, you have endured the apathy of millions and generally been treated as the Ringo of nuts. You, who always seem to find yourself at the bottom of the mixed nuts bag, passed over for pecans and macadamias – those garish nuts with the audacity of taste. You, who have all the subtly of a decent Munster cheese or a day-old wheat germ loaf. You are mediocrity incarnate! And it is time someone appreciated you for those unsung qualities.
Oh, Brazil nut. Has anyone ever told you that your pleasingly amorphous shape is like biting into an Anish Kapoor sculpture? When I hold your nubby form between my fingers and chew your oddly indiscernible texture, it puts me at ease. You ask so little of my taste buds unlike your second cousin, the almond, all crunch and flavor. Oh, but you are so coy! You hide your menacing ways well, but Wikipedia knows your secrets. Your blandness belies a darker side; a penchant for murder! Your solidly built pods are a hazard to the tops of people’s heads. But I like a bit of danger. And I don’t even mind that you masquerade as Brazilian even though you are usually Bolivian. You are mysteriously Latin with a dark past, and that is good enough for me. Though, I am glad that you have dropped your old nickname. That was pretty offensive. And you should know that I’m OK with the fact that you’re not economically viable because your yields are too low and world markets are not positively disposed towards an increase in your production. None of that matters to me. You cost $16.95 on Amazon and that’s not too shabby. You should feel pretty good about that, really.
Oh, Brazil nut. Do you know that I stopped eating almonds entirely after I discovered you? It’s true. Even though you are not as satisfying as they are and you are way heavier to carry around as a snack and I look like I’m eating easers. None of that matters! My love for you may be new, but it runs deep. I wish I could save you, Brazil nut, from yourself and for the world, and also for the Capuchin monkeys who apparently like to crack you open with stones. One day the world will take notice of your multitude of middling virtues. And when that day comes I will raise up a handfull of you proudly in the air, eat several of you in your honor, and immediately forget what you taste like.
A Brazil nut convert