Sunday, October 30, 2011

Settling In

If Elizabeth and Barend had looked a block and a half north when they stepped out onto Broadway as they left Albany’s Union Station, they would have seen an old Dutch-style house called coincidentally the Vandenburgh (with a “u”) House.[1] Demolished in the 1940’s, it was one of the last remaining physical reminders of Albany’s Dutch colonial origins. 

Albany received its city charter in 1686, but settlement by Europeans in this riverside port area goes back to the early 17th century, when the Dutch West India Company began trading for furs with the rival Mohican and Mohawk peoples who inhabited the nearby islands and forests. If our grandparents had looked a block or two west from the train station, they may have been able to glimpse the First Church of Albany, whose pulpit, carved of Flemish oak and adorned with an hourglass to time the Dominee’s sermons, was brought from Amsterdam in 1656, purchased for the grand sum of twenty-five beaver pelts.[2] The church's current building dates from 1797.

According to census records, when Barend and Elizabeth arrived in Albany, the city's population  was just over 100,000; it would grow to 135,000 in the next forty years, when it began to decline due to migration to the suburbs.   

New York State Capitol - Roof renovation 2011

Albany’s Capitol building was undergoing major renovations in the spring of 1911, in the aftermath of a devastating fire earlier that year that had collapsed a large portion of the building, decimated the museum collections, and virtually destroyed the State Library that the building had housed. (Coincidentally, a project to restore and renovate a different section of the building's roof is taking place as I write this.) Also damaged in the tragic fire were priceless archives that documented Albany’s early Dutch history.[3] In mid-1911, the State Education Department, which was to be the new home of the library, archives, and museum, was nearing completion across the street from the Capitol.

New York State Education Building

Barend and Elizabeth settled in Albany’s South End, a warren of two-story homes inhabited by immigrants from the Netherlands, Germany, Ireland, Poland, and Italy. Family lore has them living, appropriately enough, on Elizabeth Street. But the 1920 census record shows their address as 75 Third Avenue, which is just around the corner from Elizabeth Street. Barend is mistakenly listed as “John VandenBerg”; his occupation is shown as carpenter. Elizabeth kept house and looked after the couple’s five children born by that time: Jacob, Elizabeth, Louisa, Jasper, and Grace (my mother, who is listed as a six-month-old in the census report). Stepping out on the “stoop” to look for playmates, the children must have heard a polyglot stew of languages and inhaled the rich aromas of spaghetti sauce, kielbasa, and corned beef and cabbage, as well as their mother’s traditional stamppot.

Church on Jay Street

On Sundays the family walked a mile or so to the Fourth Reformed Church on Jay Street. Coincidentally, one of the couple’s great-grandchildren now lives on that block, almost directly across from the now-abandoned church. Jay Street is one of the last streets in Albany to still have the old cobblestones, probably placed in the 1920’s, now picturesque although showing their age.

Jay Street, Fall 2011

Grandma Elizabeth’s cookbook, Eenvoudige Berekende Recepten (“Simple Hearty Recipes”) contains the following recipe, which she may have cooked for her growing family on Third Avenue. It is as tasty today as it was a hundred years ago.

 Stamppot with Apples and Bacon

-        1 kg. (2 pounds) sour apples
-        1 ½ kg. (3 lbs.) potatoes
-        400 grams (about 1 lb.) lean bacon
-        10 gr. (2 teaspoons) salt

- Wash the bacon with warm water and cook it for about half an hour in ½ liter (2 cups) boiling water.

- Peel and rinse the potatoes, and set them to cook in the same pot with the bacon, adding the salt.

- Peel and quarter the apples, removing also the cores, and place the apple quarters in the pot.

- Let all boil for about 30 minutes, taking care that the water doesn’t boil away. Add a bit more water if necessary.

- Remove the bacon from the pan and mash the apples and potatoes together. Crumble half of the bacon and stir it into the potato mixture.

- Serve with the rest of the bacon alongside or on top of the potatoes.

Stamppot with Apples and Bacon

(I used only half the amounts called for, and it turned out to be plenty for the two of us now at home.)


[1] Rittner, Don. Images of America: Albany. Arcadia Publishing, Charleston, S.C. 2000.
[2] Alexander, Robert S. Albany’s First Church. Newsgraphics Printers, Delmar, NY. 1998.
[3] Restoration and translation of these 17th century documents continues to this day under the aegis of the New Netherland Institute, funded in part by a grant from the Dutch government.

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