Front Street Market, Rochester, New York, 1916.
If we live in cities, we are usually not farmers. But if we live in cities we do have to eat. I often find myself thinking about food and the next city, and food and the last city. Maybe I should stop writing at dinner time. Anyway, let’s explore a bit.
Nowadays (I just love saying that: nowadays) we don’t have to fret much about what to eat in December or January or any snowy, cold month. We can simply repair to the nearest supermarket – in our case our local Wegmans – and feast on any of 50,000 plus items on the shelf. From all over the world. If it’s cold and we’re buried in snow (and we are) we can still enjoy fresh everything from somewhere else. After all, it’s always summer somewhere….
Never mind that the industrialized food industry is eating us alive. Rising food prices are everywhere around us – fuel costs rising, droughts all over the place. And now we know that most of the stuff, wherever it may come from, isn’t really what we should be eating. We’ve all read Michael Pollan, or if we haven’t we should immediately, and most of us have seen “Food, Inc.”
All of this got me to wondering. Was the city of 100 years ago self-sufficient food-wise? Can a city be self-sufficient in feeding itself? What did we do about food 100 years ago? In Rochester 100 years ago there were two really amazing food markets. But before we visit them – and you’ll enjoy the tour – let’s put this question into some kind of context.
In about 1910, the average family annual income was $750. And in those times, most families spent just under 50 percent of their income on food (easy when there’s no roaming charges, satellite fees, costs for apps, or car insurance and gas for two or three vehicles in the drive). By my math, the average American family spent $322.50 on food in 1910. Today we spend something like 15 percent of our annual income, averaging $50k a year, (hint: $7,500). In 1910, 40 percent of Americans were farmers. In 1910, there were virtually no heart attacks. In 1913, Elmer McCollum and Marquerite Davis discovered vitamin A, and a nutrition craze was ignited. By 1920 food processing of one kind or another was the largest industry in the nation. In the 1920s electric refrigeration began to emerge. The first refrigerators cost twice as much as a Model T.
So a hundred years ago, we had no artificial way to keep anything over a long duration. If we were lucky we had a root cellar. That was about it. So the first thing I felt I had to understand was: what did we eat a century ago? I read through dozens and dozens of books from the period, and I can now offer a terrific snapshot of an answer to that question.
The writer and cook is Mary Janvrin. The place is Detroit. The time is 1901. Here is Mary’s recommended December weekly menu.
Breakfast: Graham bread (whole wheat bread); griddle cakes; breakfast stew; fried potatoes. Dinner: Soup; boiled corn beef with turnips, potatoes and cabbage; baked apple dumplings with sauce. Supper: Biscuit; cold beef; canned cherries; cake.
Breakfast: Buttered toast; fried apples; cold turkey, broiled. Dinner: Roast turkey; cranberry sauce; potatoes; canned corn; canned fruit and cream. Supper: Cold turkey, mush and milk; buns; jam.
Breakfast: Corn muffins; breaded veal cutlets, Saratoga potatoes (potato chips). Dinner: Stewed oysters; roast mutton with potatoes, tomatoes, celery; pineapple ice cream; jelly; cake. Supper: Toasted muffins; cold mutton sliced; apple croutes.
Breakfast: Hot rolls; scrambled eggs; breakfast stew. Dinner: Roast quail or fowl; baked potatoes, lima beans; celery; pumpkin pie. Supper: Cold rolls; cold tongue sliced; baked apples; tea cakes.
Breakfast: Buckwheat cakes; smoked sausage broiled; hominy croquettes. Dinner: Baked or broiled fish; mashed potatoes; cabbage salad; hot peach pie with cream. Supper: Light biscuit; steamed oysters; canned fruit with cake.
Breakfast: Buckwheat cakes; rabbit stew; potato cakes. Dinner: Chicken fricassee; baked potatoes; baked turnips; cottage pudding with sauce. Supper: French rolls; Welsh rarebit; cake; jam.
Breakfast: Muffins; broiled spare ribs; fried potatoes. Dinner: Soup; roast turkey garnished with fried oysters; mashed potatoes; turnips; cranberry sauce; celery; pudding. Supper: Biscuit sandwiches; cold turkey; jelly; cake.
From “Queen of the Household: a carefully classified and alphabetically arranged repository of useful information on subjects that constantly arise in the daily life of a housekeeper.” Mary Janvrin. Copyright 1901. Detroit
Interesting, yes? Getting fresh meat wasn’t too much of a problem in Detroit, or here in Rochester. Pork, beef, fowl, even oysters wouldn’t have been hard to find at the market.
Eggs and chickens are easy. Apples are easy – root cellar. Same with root vegetables, and wheats for breads, muffins and rolls. Only a few things on the menu seem like a bit of a stretch – celery, though it does store for quite a while, tomatoes, and the canned stuff (which could include the tomatoes).
Of course it’s worth noting that in 1910 a single canning machine could do 35,000 cans a day. By 1910, the canned food folks were producing something over 3 billion cans of food a year in the U.S.
So the menu was stuff you could find easily, stuff you could store for long periods, and stuff you could find that was new – the canned stuff.
True, there is no Caesar Salad on her menu, or broccolini (we’re having broccolini tonight). Lots of meats, breads, potatoes, apples and vegetables that store. And a few surprises – pineapple ice cream?
So now we can go to the markets, and look at how the city of 1910 got its sustenance.
First was the Front Street market, down by the river and near the canal. This market was a bit rough, as you will see, but it was the place where you could find a side a beef, or a whole pig, or a crate full of live chickens. Lets take a look.
Buyers and sellers in the snow.
Lots of chickens.
Even more chickens.
And finally, Front Street market in a view from 1923.
Rattlesnake Pete’s bar and snake museum was right around the corner, and you could certainly find lots more for sale on Front Street than just food. A rowdy, boisterous, busy place, all year round. Here’s Pete’s place, in 1919.
On to the second market worth visiting. Originally, Front Street was the market place for the city – the Public Market was here too. But in 1905 the Public Market – voted in 2010 as the best Public Market in the nation – moved to its present location. Now in the center of the city, and adjacent to the rail lines, the Market was big, and always well attended. Farmers came to the Market to sell their goods, and the place always was filled with a wide range of edibles – and other goods as well.
Here’s the Market, taken by Mr. Stone in 1905, just as it opened.
And here are some views of the place in full swing. Most of these views were taken in the fall of 1911.
If you look closely, you can see many of the items included in Mary Janvrin’s menu.
Just as a frame of reference, here’s a view of the Market recently, from nearly the same spot. Hmm – pineapples?
Crowds today, and crowded then as well.
Here you can get a good idea of the correlation between Mary Janvrin’s weekly bill of fare, and what you could find in the backs of the farmer’s wagons.
And finally (I have stored many more of these images, but I think you get the idea) two panoramic views to give you a sense of the scale of the Public Market’s operation in 1911.
So the city fed itself much more by itself a hundred years ago. Yes, food came to the city by train and lorry. But the largest percentage of foodstuff came to the city by wagon, from local sources.
As we try to imagine cities that can survive on their own resources, we only need to look back in order to see our way forward.
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