Sunday, June 26, 2011


Canal Scene near Loosdrecht

Canals figure prominently in the childhoods of both my grandmothers. Grandma Minnie grew up along New York State's Erie Canal. And Grandma VandenBergh, of course, spent her childhood and teen years in Loosdrecht in the Netherlands, a country well-known for its network of interconnected waterways.

Why canals? Every New York State schoolchild knows about "Clinton's Ditch"  --  or they should. The Erie Canal was the brainchild of Governor DeWitt Clinton. DeWitt is an old Dutch name in Albany, the first DeWitt, Dirk Claessen, having settled in the colony of New Netherland in 1656.

DeWitt Clinton became Governor of New York State in 1817, and had a vision of the State living up to its nickname of the Empire State. A canal connecting New York City's international port with the hinterland would allow raw materials from the frontier and finished goods from Europe and New York State's infant industries to move in both directions.

Lock Along Erie Canal

 The Governor's vision was ridiculed as "Clinton's Ditch"  --  until the canal became a reality, a 350-mile waterway linking New York's capital city Albany with Buffalo at the western end of the State, and effectively connecting the frontier area of the Great Lakes with New York City via the Hudson River, and thus with European ports.

Minnie - Late 1890's
Grandma Minnie watched the sun set over the turgid water of the canal in Central New York in the waning years of the 19th century. Perhaps she heard in her sleep the horns of the boats informing her father of the imminent arrival of yet another boatload of customers at the Lock Grocery. To learn more about her childhood along the canal, go back to The Lock Grocery in Fort Plain.

Hendrina and Elizabeth circa 1900

Thirty-six hundred miles (5700 kilometers) away, another young girl watched the sun rise over another canal in the province of North Holland in the Netherlands. Around the turn of the twentieth century, Elizabeth Daams and her sister Hendrina worked as domestic servants in the home of the local pastor. It was not an easy job, and perhaps it was during her teen years as a maid that Elizabeth began to daydream about moving to America.

The canals near Loosdrecht connected the village to the neighboring town of s'Graveland, the hometown of Elizabeth's fiance Barend VandenBergh.

Canal Scene s'Graveland

Dutch canals were of course a means of transporting goods from inland areas to the seaports, but they were originally dug as a means of water management  --  to drain the land so that homes and farms could be established where there was once only marshland. Today they are also used for boating recreation.

This week I will have an opportunity to visit the homeland of Grandma and Grandpa VandenBergh, and see for myself where they grew up, and perhaps even tour the canals of Amsterdam. Stay tuned for updates from the other side of the pond. . .

Tot de volgende keer!

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Silhouettes -- From Corseted to Carefree

Hendrina and Elizabeth Daams 1905

Elizabeth (r.) and her sister Hendrina (l.) hold themselves erect in this photograph taken in Hilversum in 1905. Their stiff poses were undoubtedly helped by "stays" or corsets made of whalebone or steel.

According to A History of Costume by Carl Kohler, the female corset was of Spanish origin, dating back to the first half of the 16th century. It was designed to compress and constrict the waist, and was made of a number of whalebone (or baleen) rods placed close together, covered on both sides by material, and sewn in.

The design of the corset varied from century to century, sometimes being laced up in back, sometimes in front, sometimes longer, sometimes shorter.

This photo was taken in 1905, at the midpoint of the Edwardian Era (1901 to 1910), when Elizabeth was about twenty years old and her sister eighteen. During this era, which was probably the last time that women wore corsets regularly in everyday life, a young woman would probably have begun to wear a corset midway through her teens. The undergarment may have looked something like this version patented in 1890.

It was probably a high, straight-front corset, tightly laced in back, making the waist as small as possible, "a tortuous framework," according to R. Turner Wilcox in Five Centuries of American Costume.

The girls' attire reflects the practical dress of the working class in small-town Netherlands during the first decade of the 20th century. Meanwhile, in the centers of fashion of Paris, London, and New York, upper-class women followed the fashion trends depicted by Charles Dana Gibson, among others  --  remember the Gibson Girl with her tiny waist, high pompadour hairdo and low decolletage?

A generation later and a continent away, we see a very different female silhouette:

Aunt Marg 1931

This is Margaret, the eldest daughter of my other grandmother, Grandma Minnie; it shows the "Sweet Girl Graduate" upon her graduation from Fort Plain High School in 1931. Marg would attend the New York State College for Teachers the following fall. Her billowing skirt and loosely tied belt are evidence that she is not wearing a corset. What happened in the intervening years?

First of all, the development of rubberized elastic material, which picked up where the whaling industry left off. More importantly, during World War I, it was suggested that women stop buying corsets that utilized steel stays, as the war industry needed the metal for building warships.

World War I brought other changes in society, in particular for young women, who were more likely to seek an education rather than marry in their late teens. American women also got the vote in these years, after a long and arduous struggle; although Congress passed the 19th amendment in 1918, it wasn't ratified by a sufficient number of states until 1920. This broadening of women's roles in society was reflected in less constrictive clothing.

And at the same time, hemlines for everyday attire began rising, never to fall again, except for elegant evening wear. We see the higher hem and straighter silhouette of the mid 1930's in this next photograph of Marg's younger sister Glenadore, as she proudly prepares to go off to secretarial school in New York State's capital city:

Aunt Glenadore 1935

I feel as though Glenadore's smile is evidence not only of her pride upon graduating from high school and going off to begin the next stage in her life, but also her comfortable attire and sensible shoes!

We end with a recipe from Grandma Elizabeth's cookbook that will help us all keep our youthful figures:

Cucumber Salad

- 1/2 large or 1 small cucumber
- 2 eggs, hard-cooked
- 1/2 tablespoon lemon juice
- 1 tablespoon vegetable oil
- salt, parsley

Make the sauce by adding the salt, oil, lemon juice and snipped parsley to one finely chopped egg.

Peel the cucumber and slice into thin rounds.

Mix the sauce and cucumber.

Garnish with the remaining egg, sliced.

This makes a nice summer salad to serve alongside potato or macaroni salad and grilled chicken:

Cucumber and Egg Salad

Enjoy your meal; no need for a corset as long as you eat sensibly!

Sunday, June 12, 2011

The Lock Grocery in Fort Plain, New York

What little girl doesn’t love a dollhouse? Especially a miniature treasure modeled after the house her grandmother grew up in along the Erie Canal. There is such a dollhouse, or more accurately a replica, on display at the Fort Plain Museum 50 miles west of Albany.

Lock Grocery Replica
On a scale of 1 inch to 1 foot, the model of the Fort Plain Lock Grocery and Feed Store took two years to construct, and includes 23 rooms, 4500 miniature roof shingles, 500 yellow clapboards and 3 stairways. The layout and furnishings are based on my grandmother’s memories of her childhood home. Grandma Minnie Fineour, who was born on Christmas Eve in 1890, vividly remembered her years spent along the Erie Canal, and enjoyed reminiscing well into her nineties. Her descriptions of the grocery store and living space assisted retired ship-builder Myron Saltzman in designing and constructing the replica in 1980-1982. Minnie’s daughter, Doris, who commissioned the model, painstakingly furnished it with miniature furniture also based on Minnie’s recollections.

Grocery Store
If you peer inside one of the replica’s 29 tiny windows, you get a glimpse of life along the canal in the 1890’s. In the grocery store on the ground floor, a miniature coffee grinder stands on the counter. The shelves behind the counter are lined with tiny cans of foodstuffs and other dry goods. Barrels of sugar, cider and crackers stand near the counter. Minnie remembered in particular the sugar and cracker barrels. The family’s horse Maude had a sweet tooth, and Minnie recalled that when her father asked, “Maude, would you like some sugar?” the white horse would come right into the store and step up to the sugar barrel.

In the parlor of the model, tiny Victorian glass lamps light up a welcoming room furnished with an overstuffed sofa. An organ in the corner stands ready for Minnie to play the latest hits of the era, perhaps “Napoleon’s Last Charge,” or “The Midnight Fire Alarm,” arranged by composer E.T. Paull.

The real Lock Grocery was located on the north side of the canal at the eastern edge of Fort Plain. A wide veranda faced the canal; one step down from this porch and you stood directly on the towpath.

 The store was operated by my great-grandparents, Fred and Kittie Fineour, between 1891 and about 1902. The family’s living quarters were above the store, and there were two additional apartments in the rear of the building, where the hired hand and other relatives lived. Actually, the “grocery store” was much more than that; as well as foodstuffs, it supplied the canal boats with grain for the horses and mules that towed the boats along the canal at about 4 miles per hour. 

Lock Grocery Circa 1894

Like some of our modern supermarkets, the Lock Grocery was open for business 24/7, as one never knew when a boat would dock and need supplies. My great-grandfather and the hired hand would take turns sleeping on the store’s counter at night in case a boat came by. Later, when steamboats began to replace the mule teams, Fred came to recognize the whistles of the various boats that plied the canal, and he would begin to assemble the favorite items of that particular canaller before the boat docked.

Some boats would send a runner on ahead by horseback with their order, so their supplies would be ready by the time the boat caught up -- the 19th century equivalent of ordering ahead by phone.

Fred Fineour and Maude

The canal, which linked the Hudson River to Lake Erie at the western end of the state, was open from mid-April to mid-November. The canal locks, such as the one previously operated at Fort Plain, allowed the boats to be lifted or lowered according to changes in the level of the terrain in the 350 miles between Albany and Buffalo. It took 30 to 60 minutes for the boat to go through the lock; that was the time allotted to load up with supplies – wood for repairing the boats, tack and harness supplies for the horse or mule teams; hay, oats and straw for the livestock, as well as food staples, cooking utensils, lamps and oil for the canallers and their passengers – oh, and don’t forget the colorful penny candy for the children!

Today we imagine idyllic scenes of horses pulling the boats along the tree-lined towpath, the blue of the water reflecting the countryside’s greenery, but in reality it was an arduous life for the canallers and their families. A stop at a store alongside the lock was a welcome change from the monotony of the long voyage. At any store along the canal, there might be an organ grinder ready to entertain with his music and pet monkey, or a visiting peddler with a case of linens, colorful ribbons, and beautiful lace from Europe. Or perhaps an umbrella man with parasols for the ladies.

My great-grandparents gave up the store shortly after the turn of the 20th century. Traffic on the canal was declining, and business was not as lucrative as it had once been.  As a “second career,” Fred Fineour became the first rural mail carrier in the area surrounding Fort Plain, with his faithful horse Maude pulling the mail wagon up hill and down dale in the towns and farms along the Mohawk River.

 Minnie lived in Fort Plain all her life. Although she passed away in 1990 a few months short of her 100th birthday, my family is fortunate to have a tape of her reminiscences recorded in 1976. The recording also includes her piano rendition of several tunes including those mentioned above, which she could still pound out at the age of 85.

A car wash now stands on Route 5S on the approximate spot where the Lock Grocery faced the canal. The building was dismantled in the late 1980’s, and its pieces are now stored in the New York State Museum’s warehouse. Who knows, perhaps some day they may be reassembled to give us a life-size glimpse of Erie Canal history. But for now, we must be content to peek inside its diminutive replica to imagine the bygone days of the canal’s glory.

Note: This essay is was first published in The Altamont Enterprise on April 29, 2010; reprinted with permission. The Lock Grocery replica is on display at the Fort Plain Museum, located on Canal Street (Route 5S) at the western end of the village of Fort Plain. 

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Taking Stock: Kitchen Equipment Then and Now

When it’s time to go to my kitchen and “rattle the pots and pans” to get a meal ready, I have pretty much all the equipment I need: pots, pans, electric stove, mixing and chopping tools, bowls, platters, and cutlery. Recently I discovered a kitchen inventory list in Grandma VandenBergh's cookbook, which details the most up-to-date equipment available to the Dutch housewife of the early 20th century  --  a sort of “frugal gourmet” of the not-so-roaring Twenties.

Family lore recalled by my one of my cousins says that back in the Netherlands around the turn of the 20th century, my grandmother’s family was apparently so poor that they would pass a sugar cube around the table and each take a turn dipping it in their teacup. But by the early ‘20’s, when my grandparents had been in the United States for ten years, they were prosperous enough to purchase most of the kitchen supplies they needed. 

Simple Hearty Fare Cookbook
The inventory in the cookbook by Martine Wittop Koning, whose title can be translated as “Simple Hearty Fare” is an exhaustive list of 70 items ranging in size from stove to paring knife. The list reflects the resourcefulness and frugality of a different time and place; for example, the 1-liter ceramic pudding mold it includes can be replaced by a few teacups. In comparing the inventory with my own kitchen equipment, I found it interesting to categorize the items in terms of those that are pretty much the same in our day and age, those that may be similar but in a more modern form, those that are not found in a modern kitchen anymore, and things that we have that were not yet imagined in the 1920’s. 

Pretty much the same

The largest item on the list, a coal or gas stove would now likely be electric or gas. Pots and colander are described as enamel or aluminum; I believe you can still get something pretty similar at any household equipment store. My modern pots and pans are copper-clad stainless steel Revere Ware, and my colander is a bright blue plastic.

Small utensils haven’t changed much. Those listed by Martine Koning include tea strainer (I don’t think they had tea bags back in the ‘20’s), skimmer, potato peeler, large knife, paring knife, meat fork and serving utensils. She also lists an iron frying pan; I love mine, from my mother’s kitchen! I prefer it to the non-stick frying pans whose coating flecks away after scraping off too many pancakes with the wrong utensil.

The inventory also includes a trashcan with lid, which would be metal, not plastic in those days, an oven-proof baking dish or casserole, platters and serving dishes, and various sizes of basins and bowls.

A more modern form

In lieu of our modern kitchen fire extinguisher, Grandma’s book cites a sand bin with a scuttle, “which should always be kept near the gas stove.”

“A [hand-operated] meat grinder with various blades” would now be a food processor with a plethora of accessories and attachments. A tin or ceramic pudding mold would likely now be made of non-stick metal or a rubbery synthetic material.

Not used anymore

I have a vague childhood memory of Grandma’s coal-burning stove, but I’m not even sure if it’s a real or imagined mental picture. If she did have a coal stove, she would also have needed a coal bin, scuttle, pair of tongs, and poker, as listed in the inventory. And a “hay chest with a 1 ½ liter capacity,” which I suppose was used for kindling.

A grinding stone would have been used for sharpening knives and other tools; a galvanized iron wash basin would now more likely be plastic. An egg beater  --  can you even buy those anymore? I remember my mother’s hand-operated egg beater with Bakelite handle, but now I use a wire whisk or an electric mixer, depending on the recipe I’m preparing.

We don’t need a “fly cover” anymore, except maybe for potato salad at picnics. We have screens on our windows instead. But I remember that one relative visiting from Holland several years ago told my Mom that in the days before window screens, Dutch window frames and doorways were traditionally painted blue, because people believed that this prevented flies from entering the house. I thought that was an interesting theory.

We rarely see a kitchen scale or postal meter in a modern American kitchen, unless the cook is fanatic about counting calories. But this was and still is standard equipment in a modern European home, since European cookbooks give most measurements in metric weight, rather than volume. However, the inventory also includes a dL. (deciliter) measuring cup for liquids.

One last item that is a vestige of the past is an enamel soap baker, apparently a receptacle for molding homemade soap. These days the only people I know who make their own soap are crafters who make beautifully scented soaps to sell at craft fairs.

Modern inventions and other “missing” items

Modern Small Appliances
Although Bakelite was invented in the first decade of the 20th century, it apparently didn’t come into common use in household utensils until later. There are no plastic items listed in Grandma’s kitchen inventory. Another obvious category of missing things are electric appliances; such gadgets as my electric toaster, mixer, blender, coffee grinder, coffee maker, sandwich griller, and crock pot wouldn’t make their appearance in the kitchen until much later.

Obviously, there isn’t any microwave mentioned either. And no can opener, either hand-operated or electric (unless that was one of the two or three items I was unable to translate). It seems that Martine Koning believed in using only fresh ingredients, or in canning or preserving your own foodstuffs. That is also a do-it-yourself project that seems to have come back into vogue recently.

There is a hairnet listed, but no apron or dish towels. Perhaps these last would be considered household linens rather than kitchen equipment.

Surprisingly, the inventory makes no mention of refrigerator or icebox. This omission made me curious to research when this item came into common use. The history of the refrigerator turned out to be a long and confused story. Depending on which source I consulted, I learned that it was invented in different times and places; the differences were various types of coolants that were attempted and improved on by assorted researchers working in a number of different countries. According to , the first practical home refrigerator was invented by Marcel Audiffen, a French physics teacher, and was produced by General Electric around 1911. This early version cost $1,000  --  twice the price of a car at the time  --  which may explain why it was not yet considered an essential home appliance.

Speaking of cost, a unique element of Martine Koning’s approach is that not only is the cost of each item in the kitchen inventory listed, but the price of each ingredient of every recipe, so that the cook may prepare a grocery budget. Prices are listed in guilders (abbreviated f. for florin), which amount to pennies when compared to today’s costs. As you may guess, the most expensive item in the inventory is the stove (70 guilders), and next the steamer (20 guilders), down to the two iron forks, which cost a mere ten cents each.

Today a modern gas or electric range might cost as little as $300 up to well over a thousand dollars for a fancy version with a convection oven. A steamer might range from $20 to over $60, depending on the store and the model.  And if you search on the Internet you might find an economy stainless steel serving fork for a dollar and a half.

Nowadays we also have the added convenience of purchasing our kitchen equipment on credit and over the Internet. Thus when your best friend’s daughter in California is getting married, all you need to do is a few clicks online, and your gift of Mikasa dinnerware or George Foreman grill is off to the other side of the country.

                                                         * * * * * * * *

The kitchen inventory does not mention any type of meat tenderizer (unless that is another of the Dutch terms I was unable to translate). But I found a recipe in the cookbook that calls for such a utensil:

Beef Top Round Steak
- 1 pound top round steak
- 1/4 cup butter or margarine (a half stick)
- 1 tsp. salt
- 1/4 cup milk

Tenderize the meat by pounding it with a meat tenderizer. Do not use a tenderizer with points or blades, which may puncture the meat, allowing the meat juices to ooze out. Simply striking the meat will loosen the fibers. You can use a wooden spoon or the flat side of the meat tenderizer.

Wash the meat and dry with paper towels. (The original recipe says with a clean towel or brown paper. In our day and age, we have paper towels for such a task.)

Heat half of the margarine in a frying pan until it becomes light brown. Place the meat in the pan and cook for 6-8 minutes. 

Do not prick or puncture the meat; that would allow the juices to run out. Turn it over several times, and push it around in the pan so as to brown it.

Place the meat on a warm platter and set aside.

Make the gravy by adding the rest of the margarine to the pan, letting it brown, and adding the milk little by little, stirring constantly. Simmer for about 3 minutes until the gravy thickens slightly. 

Top Round Steak

I don't have a meat tenderizer, so I used a wooden spoon  --  the most low-tech kitchen utensil you could think of. But it worked! Usually when I cook this cut of meat, it is tough and chewy, but this time it really was more tender. 

I recall my mother cooking beef steak in butter or margarine, and found that a bit surprising at the time, since beef can already be quite fatty. However, the margarine does help the meat brown nicely, and gives it a nice flavor. But I would not recommend this recipe to anyone who needs to watch their cholesterol level.

I did not use any salt in the recipe, since the margarine was salted, and I suspect that the butter or margarine in the Netherlands in the 1920's was not. Without added salt, the gravy contained a lot less sodium than the instant packets of gravy which are so convenient, but so salty. I would also use only about half the quantity of margarine called for the next time I try this recipe, to cut down on the fat.

I also found it unusual to make a gravy with milk, but it seemed to be a successful experiment. If you try it, be very careful when pouring the milk into the hot pan with the melted margarine, as it can splatter quite a bit. I served the meat with potatoes and green beans, which made it a balanced meal.

Note: The first section of this essay was first published in The Altamont Enterprise on April 28, 2011. Reprinted with permission.