Tag Archives: holidays

Holiday Happenings

Material girl that I am, my Christmas spirit starts to surface with the first parties, at which (I have to admit) I relish the setting and scenery almost as much as the company. While I am always very happy to see all of my friends on festive occasions, I love Christmas decorations, both for their own aesthetic, traditional and seasonal qualities as well as all for all the effort and creativity that goes into their display–and last week was most definitely one of display. I had to get my own house in order for a Christmas tea at the beginning of the week, and at the end came the Christmas Dance at Hamilton Hall, which always kicks my seasonal spirits into high gear. Each year the committee which organizes the Dance chooses a group of patronesses who host dinner parties before the festivities–and these parties are often just as major as the main event; speaking as a former patroness, I would say more so. Hosting 30 or 40 people for dinner while you’re in an evening gown is never easy, and so when we all finally get ushered into the Hall these women deserve the bows and curtseys that we give them! We were fortunate to attend a pre-Dance party at a beautiful c. 1795 gambrel-roofed house on Federal Street, at which our hostess (who had just finished putting up beautiful Waterhouse wallpapers) had enlisted her children to serve us our home-cooked dinner on (50!!!) Friendship dinner plates accompanied by silver and linen. Then off she want to stand in the line of patronesses, leaving us to enjoy her beautiful house until our own departures for the Hall. I don’t have too many pictures of the Dance itself, for two major reasons: 1) I like to dance myself, and 2) I just can’t get the light right–with the only camera small enough to fit into my evening purse. But let me assure you, it was a lovely night.

My Christmas Decorations:  I’m big on bunnies this year, and deer as usual. The tree has a nice shape, but it’s dropping needles like crazy–I hope it makes it to New Year’s.

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On Federal Street: this house has the most amazing details and scale. One of my favorite mantel displays any time of year, and great entry and dining room. Besides the mantel, the living room has a lovely chair rail detail.

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At Hamilton Hall: the dance floor from below and above; my Hamilton Hall ornament next door.

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Pursuing Punch and Mr. Cassell

Now (almost) fully in holiday entertaining mode, having (almost) left the semester behind me, I have been perusing old cookbooks in pursuit of a famous punch traditionally served at Hamilton Hall’s annual Christmas Dance. It’s a particularly potent rum punch, which led to a few horrible hangovers in my youth. Now I know how to handle it and have no fears of this weekend’s dance! I had my own little party a few days ago and hoped to serve it myself, but I didn’t find quite the right recipe, despite consulting the most obvious source, the 1947 Hamilton Hall Cook Book. I like this slim volume for several reasons: the shortness of its recipes, which are limited primarily to ingredients and very few processes, the odd names and ingredients (“Shrimp Wiggle”, “Maggi Essence”, “Veal Bewitched”, “Forced Meat Balls”, “Old Election Cake”), historical information embedded in the recipes, and the various topical features, primarily those on the Hall’s Rumford Roaster (which I wrote about in an earlier post) and one of its most famous resident caterers, Edward P. Cassell. The most amazing image in the little book is a portrait of Cassell in front of the Peirce-Nichols House, basket of “coveted invitations to an Assembly, a debutante ball or a wedding at which he was to be major-domo” in hand, taken by Salem photographer E.G. Merrill in 1907. It’s an iconic image of an iconic man: at this time, the cookbook proclaims, Cassell had been “a Salem institution for nearly half a century and Salem [was] justly proud of him.”

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Edward Cassell 1907 Merrill

I wish I could find the correct rum punch recipe and I wish I knew more about Mr. Cassell. He was the second African-American resident to cater to the crowds at Hamilton Hall, succeeding John Remond, the patriarch of the well-known Abolitionist family and quite the entrepreneur himself. Despite his more recent vintage, Cassell seems much more mysterious than Remond, although I haven’t really taken the time to dig into his life and work. The long history of service provided by African-Americans to the denizens of Salem, in and around Hamilton Hall, needs more attention, I think, along with the cumulative experience of African-Americans in Salem. I do know that at the commemorative exercises held in recognition of the 250th anniversary of John Endecott’s landing in Salem in 1878, the tables were laid by Mr. Edward Cassell, the well-known caterer, and were handsomely decorated with a choice display of flowers, arranged beautifully in large bouquets, and a small one at each plate, with a neatly designed carte de menu, memento of the celebration and that the lunch embraced more than a score of dishes, substantial and elegant”, that he was famous for his ice-cream figures (mostly animals) and savory salads, that his Ropes Street home burned to the ground in the Great Salem Fire of 1914, and that he died in the following year. But that’s about it. As to the punch: no rum variety in the Hamilton Hall Cook Book, but there is an interesting recipe for “1858 Mulled Wine” involving lots of boiled wine thickened with egg yolks and topped with frothy egg whites which looks to me far older than 1858. This is the forerunner of egg nog, called caudell in the medieval era and caudle later. This popular drink, like its cousin posset, was enjoyed at Christmas and all winter long, and inspired the creation of bowls, spoons, and cups for just that purpose–like the charming late 17th century cup made by John Coney, which later came into the possession of Oliver Wendell Holmes and the collection of Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts.

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A Very Gorey Christmas

The juxtaposition of crowded academic and social calendars at this time of year always makes me a bit grumpy. I try to contain (or hide) my scrooge-like sentiments, but I’m generally too tired to make that much of an effort, and consequently they pop out periodically. This year I am taking comfort in a book that I received from a thoughtful friend last year: The Twelve Terrors of Christmas, a 1993 collaboration between iconic illustrator Edward Gorey and John Updike. These terrors (a too heavily-laden Christmas tree, the threat of electrocution from all the electronic games under said tree, fears of not giving enough, not receiving enough, and returning all the stuff you did receive) are not quite my terrors (fatigue, rampant commercialism, over-consumption of food, drink, and stuff) but I like the overall sentiment, or lack thereof. And then there are the illustrations. “Christmas” and “Gorey” are not words that naturally go together, but he had tread that terrain previously–with a series of not-too-macabre Christmas cards for the Albondaconi Press and other publishers from the 1970s on–and the success of Terrors inspired a second holiday book: The Haunted Tea-Cosy. A Dispirited and Distasteful Diversion for Christmas Dispirited (1997), a parody of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. All very merry images, in that distinctly Gorey style.

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First editions of Edward Gorey’s Twelve Terrors and The Haunted Tea-Cosy & Albondacani Press Christmas cards, Swann Auction Galleries; Gorey Christmas Cards, The Gorey Store/ Charitable Trust.


Christmas in Salem 2014

I found this past weekend’s annual Christmas in Salem house tour to be rather eccentric as compared with previous years: centered on Lafayette Street and its side streets, it included both Colonial Revival houses that were built in the decade after the Great Salem Fire of 1914 and Victorian houses located just outside the conflagration zone. The focus on the Fire was more implicit than explicit–except for one house which featured a mantle of Christmas decorations made out of Fire devastation scenes! I did visit the Gove House of my last post, which has been subdivided into condominiums which feature original architectural details: lots of woodwork, beautiful doors and windows, and an amazing coffered ceiling and conservatory in one unit. Every single home on this year’s tour had a distinctive personality, presented as much by its architecture as the collections and creations of its owners, which were featured quite prominently. There were three homes open on Fairfield Street, the most distinguished post-Fire street, including one that was decorated by a group of very tasteful ladies (including, I must unabashedly add, myself), for two very tasteful owners. So of course, from a completely biased perspective, this house was my favorite!

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Six Fairfield Street a few years after it was built in 1915 (from Frank Cousins’ Colonial Architecture of Salem) and yesterday.

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The first floor of the Gove House on Lafayette Street.

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The colorful exterior of Seven Linden Street, built in 1855.

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Nine Linden Street: where the Gove family’s servants lived in the later 19th century. The tile around this fireplace has a subtle Greek key design which you can’t quite make out in the photograph.

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Sparkling Five Fairfield Street, built, solidly, in 1915.


Spotlight on South Salem

This weekend’s (35th) annual Christmas in Salem house tour is centered on South Salem and the neighborhoods along Lafayette Street which were rebuilt after the catastrophic Great Salem Fire of 1914. This seems like a very appropriate architectural focus for this commemorative year, and the tour poster really conjures up the era as well. All the tour information can be found here; it’s too late to buy advance tickets but they will be available on Saturday and Sunday at the tour headquarters, the Saltonstall School on Lafayette Street. Christmas in Salem is the most important annual fundraising event for Historic Salem, Inc., Salem’s venerable preservation organization which was formed in the 1940s to save the 17th century Corwin House (now unfortunately called the “Witch House”) from destruction. Generally the tour focuses on the downtown neighborhoods and Salem’s colonial and federal architecture, but occasionally it ventures out to the more outlying sections of town, including North Salem, the Willows, and now South Salem.

South Salem Tour

I’m looking forward to the tour because it will feature several (predominately Colonial Revival) homes on Fairfield Street, which I’ve featured on this blog several times. Now we get to go inside! Just after the fire, the property owners of this street commissioned the most renown Boston-area architects to rebuild their homes, with pretty impressive results. I have served as a tour guide for Christmas in Salem for many years, and I’m still not sure whether the majority of tour (ists? -goers?) are enchanted more by the architecture or the decorations, but for me it’s definitely the former. I walk to work along Lafayette Street two or three times a week, and there are several houses along my route that I examine in detail as I walk by–one of which is also on the tour. This is the William H. Gove house, an imposing Queen Anne mansion that survived the 1914 conflagration. Built by Salem attorney William H. Gove (who entered his profession through an apprenticeship, then went to Harvard College and Harvard Law School) in 1888, this mansion really dominates the streetscape and has a myriad of details that capture my attention every time I walk by. It was transformed into condominiums several years ago, and a ground-floor unit is on the tour. I know that Gove was a successful and wealthy man, but I can’t help wondering if some of his wife’s family fortune went into the construction of this house, as his mother-in-law was the one and only Lydia Pinkham, whose famous over-the-counter herbal remedy, Lydia E. Pinkham’s Vegetable Compound, made her the most successful female entrepreneur of the nineteenth century. Perhaps Mr. Gove would not be pleased with this suggestion.

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The William H. Gove House (1888) today, in 1984 & 1918; Trade Card for Lydia E. Pinkham’s Vegetable Compound, 1880s, Baker Library, Harvard University; Lafayette Street facades.


Thanksgiving Colors

We spent Thanksgiving up in my hometown of York Harbor, Maine, which is only about an hour north of Salem. When we arrived York looked very different than still-green Salem, coated in icy snow. Many people in the southern counties of Maine and adjacent counties of New Hampshire lost their power due to a Thanksgiving-eve snowstorm, but we were fortunate to have light and heat and lots of food and drink. While waiting to eat on Thanksgiving Day, we took a drive around the grey town: York (encompassing York Harbor, York Village, York Beach and Cape Neddick) is a summer town and it always looks strikingly stark to me in the winter. I’ve also got some pictures of my stepmother’s Thanksgiving table here–before we messed it up. When we returned to Salem, all was icy and white but today is forecasted for the 50s so the terrain is returning to that golden brownish-green hue so characteristic of November.

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This cat o’nine tail exploded before we left; the rest burst while we were away (just one day and night!) Impossible to clean up all this fluff.

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Thanksgiving table: Della Robbia plates and Shaker chairs.

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Fifty shades of grey off Nubble Light.

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White on white: one of my favorite houses in York, and the gargoyle outside my parents’ house.

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My favorite childhood painting.

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Back home; sunny Sunday.


So Many Puddings, so Little Time

I am not cooking this Thanksgiving (fortunately), but that did not stop me from browsing through cookbooks old and new (which is of course much easier than cooking). My recent dip into the history of molasses exposed me to a world of puddings, and I would like to make a least one over the holidays. Puddings of the past seem so interesting and textural, much unlike the smooth packaged puddings we have today. Pudding has become a rather generic word for desert in British English, but in the past, there were clearly variant types of puddings–savory and sweet, boiled, steamed, moulded, drippings, blood, bread, fruit, pastry, custard–with a wealth of amazing names:  “Quaking Pudding”, “Hasty Pudding”, “Spotted Dick”, Cabinet, Bakewell, “Queen of Puddings”, Roly-Roly. By the middle of the nineteenth century, when the popular Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Household Management was first published, the list of puddings had been whittled down some, but was still quite long.

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Before the nineteenth century, puddings were both savory and sweet: the trend line is definitely towards the latter but it takes time. I’m looking through my neat little facsimile edition of The Second part of the Good Hus-wives Jewell (1597) and what puddings do I see? A pudding of “Calves Chaldron”, several recipes for that perennial Scottish favorite, Haggis pudding, a pudding of veal and spices, and a  “pudding in a pot” with mutton or veal. No sweets. I consulted Joseph Cooper’s The art of cookery refin’d and augmented containing an abstract of some rare and rich unpublished receipts of cookery (1654) to gauge pudding developments in the seventeenth century, and found a mix of savory and sweet: rice puddings and bread puddings, “white puddings” and “black (blood) puddings”, oatmeal pudding, French barley pudding, “a hasty pudding in a bagge” and shaking and quaking puddings. Haggis was hanging in there too. For the eighteenth century, I looked at two cookbooks and found a diverse array of pudding recipes. Henry Howard’s England’s Newest way in all sorts of Cookery, Pastry and all Pickles that are fit to be Used (1708) offers up Green Pudding, Calves’ Foot Pudding, Puddings in which to boil chickens and/or pigeons, and cabbage pudding (yuck), along with a “Good Pudding” that looks like a mix of sweet and savory, while A Collection of above Three Hundred Receipts in Cookery, Physick, and Surgery (1734) has recipes for apple, orange and lemon puddings, along with liver pudding (yuck, yuck) and the soon-to-be classic plumb pudding.

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The eighteenth century does seem to be the golden age of puddings, which were so important that they even became political. I found a Salem pudding story in the charming little book written by Marianne Cabot Silsbee, A Half-Century in Salem (1887): apparently the city’s Federalists and Democrats were divided not only in their politics but also their pudding-eating habits, with the former eating their pudding before the main courses, the latter after. Puddings were perfect symbols for satire and caricature across the Atlantic, as the plum(b) pudding came to be both quintessentially British and Christmas in the nineteenth century. It in this century that my favorite pudding (besides “Hasty Pudding”, which is transformed into “Indian Pudding” in America with the substitution of corn meal for oats) emerges:  “Tipsy Pudding”, better known as Trifle. That’s pretty common now, so I want to go for something old/new in my own pudding experiments: I think I might try out the “Amber Pudding” (which is very old) and “Hedgehog Pudding” recipes in the wonder book of Victorian puddings, Puddings and Pastries à La Mode (1893) by a certain Mrs. DeSalis. Because right after Thanksgiving, it’s pudding time.

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Pudding Time Cruikshank

All Cookbook images: British Library; Puddings & Pastry here;  George Cruikshank, “Pudding Time”, Plate 6 from Illustrations of Time (1827), British Museum.


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