• Posted by Masha Gutkin on May 26th, 2008, 12:17 PM
    On the top floor of the stately-on-the-outside, state-of-the-art on the inside San Francisco Main Library, rests one of the last bastions of the card catalogue: the San Francisco History Center. It has long gleaming wooden tables, a hushed, rarefied atmosphere, patrons to match, and long, narrow boxes of typewritten and handwritten cards.

    Glass cases exhibit an assortment of San Franciscan artifacts and relics. To the left of the blue velvet box displaying the emeralds Mrs. Strybing, widow of a San Francisco merchant, bequeathed to the city (they turned out to be faceted glass) are pretty cans of old San Francisco treats—Blum’s mixed nuts illustrated with a playful squirrel; Hills Bros. Red Can Brand Coffee, “The Original Vacuum Pack,” picturing a demure housewife; and Ghirardelli’s Ground Chocolate and Cocoa Made Instantly. The Ghirardelli’s container sports a fierce spread-winged eagle accompanied by this anticlimactic credo: “Through our process the mineral constituents are increased about 1% improving the digestibility and developing the flavor.” Also on display is a temporary exhibit about the legendary Pisco Punch, a post-gold-rush San Francisco potion concocted of brandy from Pisco, Peru, lime, pineapple, and a purported secret (now lost?) ingredient that Rudyard Kipling declared to be “shavings of cherub’s wings.” Kipling probably saw cherubs after a couple rounds of this reportedly extra-strength elixir, which has also been described as a beverage that “would make a gnat want to fight an elephant.”

    It’s no surprise that booze would take center stage in an exhibit about San Francisco’s history, with cameo roles for coffee, cocoa, sourdough, and a bit part for a box of rice and noodles self-styled as “the San Francisco treat.” These mementos of early industrialized food make one wonder: what did San Franciscan tourists and settlers—sailors on shore leave with pay burning holes in their salty pockets, or miners, ravenous and rich from prospecting—really eat in the city’s heady gold rush days, and where, and how?

    The Center’s archive has a rich and desultory collection of restaurant menus. The oldest dates to 1849, the landmark year of Gold Fever, from an establishment called Ward House. A single page, its typeface and format bring to mind a decree or political pamphlet of yore. “BILL OF FARE,” it reads at top, in squat declamatory font that could just as easily say “WANTED.” Then, thick and bold, “Ward House, Russel & Myers, Proprietors” and “Thursday, December 27, 1849.” Between those two lines an unknown party neatly hand-printed “South-West-Cor. Of-Clay-And-Kearney.” And then, centered on the page in the same stern type, the headings: Soup, Fish, Roast, Boiled, Entrees, Extras, Game, Vegetables, Pastry, and Wines.

    “Wines,” the longest section, is plump with port, champagne, claret, madeira, ale, brandy, sherry, cider, and porter. In contrast to the variety of drinks, fare is mainly solid Anglo–mutton and sausage and beef, mince pie and “Irish Potatoes, mashed”–at sky-high prices. Under “Extras,” a single offering: “Fresh California Eggs, each…$1.00.” Suddenly the expression “What’s that got to do with the price of eggs?” makes sense. A dollar an egg! In Jack London’s Alaskan tale of the era, “A Thousand Dozen,” hens were a rare commodity. They were in California, too. Ward House’s Fresh California Eggs may well have been the bounty not of the familiar domestic chicken, but of local sea birds, such as the murres of the Farallons, whose population is recovering to this day from being overrun by nineteenth century egg gatherers.

    “Game,” too, heads up a single and curious item on the menu: “Curlew, roast, or boiled, to order…$3.00.” This plover-like large wader’s preferred haunt is the San Francisco Bay. Ground-nesters, curlews (and their eggs) were likely easy prey. (With our fowl options being usually limited to chicken, duck, goose, and the occasional quail or such, it may come as a surprise that even the 1997 edition of the Joy of Cooking mentions small game birds such as woodcock, ortolans, coots, mudhens, curlews, figpeckers, and gallinules, to name just a few.) Knowing the real provenance of even a couple of menu items is more than many of us can claim for a meal these days. But the image of a roasted long-billed Bay bird doesn’t much help trying to picture the Ward House scene. Were its patrons wild-bearded miner millionaires dressed up and smoothed down for a night on the town? Did robber-barons-to-be and their demure better halves dine there on ox-tail soup? One can only guess and try to imagine the proprietors, surroundings, cooks, conversation, waiters, busboys…

    For the modern reader, this Bill of Fare, a single sheet of paper, does not tell a story the way a menu of the here and now might. “Apple Flirtini,” “Cold sake sampler,” “Beths’ Garden: Sapphire gin, muddled cucumber, and a whisper of Lillet, served up”; “Filet: the most tender cut of Midwestern beef,” “Housemade grilled lamb sausage with roasted fingerling potatoes, grilled asparagus & cherry mustard compote,” or “Pho Tai Lan Ha Noi: Loi’s special beef noodle soup.” These are stage instructions, sketches of a set and a cast of characters. Each item plays a scene in a restaurant-phile’s mind. But Ward House’s menu gives few clues without a context. Instead of a dynamic scene, it conjures up a second-rate still life of a bird and eggs.

    The card catalogue offers no other mention of Ward House. Either this eatery was nothing to write home about or it folded fast, or both. And the card catalogue is a terrain, like any, that entails a certain set of skills to navigate if you want to get somewhere in particular. But, in looking to make scenes of San Francisco’s restaurants of days past come alive, the card catalogue does offer up one gem: Bohemian San Francisco: Its Restaurants and Their Most Famous Recipes; The Elegant Art of Dining, Clarence E. Edwords, 1914. The cloth cover’s roguish illustration of a fat chef advancing with oversized knife and fork on a gigantic escargot happily belies the ponderous title. The frontispiece, a striking photograph of the back of a bar arrayed with animal tusks and teeth and presided over by a top-hatted man holding a liquor glass, captioned “The Old Cobweb Palace at Meigg’s Wharf,” is an illustrated invitation to an elsewhere.

    Reading Bohemian San Francisco is like having a hand reach out and pull one through the pages into a tour of 1914 San Francisco, guided by an enthusiastically wide-eyed gourmand. More than guided, it feels lived. The author’s use of the second person adds to the avataresque experience of his vivid world. From the chapter Around Little Italy: “[Y]ou peep timidly in the door and then walk in from sheer amazement. You now find yourself surrounded with sausages, from floor to ceiling, and from side wall to side wall on both ceiling and floor, and such sausage it is! From strings so thin as to appear about the size of a lady’s little finger, to individual sausages as large as the thigh of a giant, they hang in festoons, crawl over beams, lie along shelves….One can well imagine being in a cave of flesh…”

    Perhaps the liveliest scene is a pre-dawn excursion to the wharfs, as the fishing boats come in, not least for the nostalgic and vicarious thrill of a long-gone plenty: “Shrimps, alive and active, crayfish, clams, squid and similar sea food was in profusion….[W]e came to the Broadway docks where Paladini, the head of the fish trust, unloads his tugs of their tons and tons of fish…[f]rom down the coast as far as Monterey Bay where fish are in such abundance that it is said they have to give a signal when they want to turn around…” These days, many a fish probably has to echolocate to find any of its fellows.

    The pleasures and paths of inquiry of Mr. Edwords’ guidebook/discourse on Bohemianism/culinary and civic history/cookbook are too numerous and varied to list. It’s hard to imagine anyone of a gastronomic inclination who wouldn’t get caught up in some aspect of it, whether or not you give a fig about Edwords’ “Good Gray City.”

    The Ward House gets no mention in Bohemian San Francisco’s lengthy index of “Old Time Restaurants,” which goes from “Bab’s” to “Viticultural” to “Zinkand’s.” But the Iron House, a restaurant of the Ward House era, might be have been a similar establishment. Edwords describes it as “the rendez-vous of pioneers,” “the most fashionable restaurant of early days,” and the first to serve Chicken in the Shell: a once-famous but now unknown delicacy of young chicken cooked with truffle and mushrooms, flavored with mace, bay leaf, cloves and sherry, and served in cockle shells.

    And for dessert? For that, Edwords take us to Little Italy and a recipe from “an Italian girl whose soft lisping accent pronounced her a Genoese…”: “You take macaroons and strawberries. Put a layer of macaroons in a dish and then a layer of strawberries, cover these with sugar, and then another layer of macaroons and strawberries and sugar until you have all you want. Over these pour some rum and set fire to it. After it is burned out you have a fine dessert…[W]e advise you to try it, for it is simple and leaves a most delicious memory.”

    Masha Gutkin eats and writes in the land of Pisco Punch.

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