Putting on the Ritz

Thanksgiving is supposed to be a time of family coming together in peace and thankfulness as they dine, watch football, and sleep off large amounts of consumed turkey. But in November of 1978, Shirley Tedesco has bitten off a bit more than she can chew when she decides that her family should spend the day with her wacky sister, Theresa.

Theresa almost ruins Thanksgiving dinner when she screws up Shirley’s instructions regarding the turkey. To keep Joe from noticing the shenanigans taking place in the kitchen, Shirley sets Joe up with snacks in front of the TV. One of those snacks is the well-known cracker, Ritz.

Ritz crackers have a humble history that began in 1801. John Bent, a retired sea captain, improved a recipe for hardtack biscuits (an English term used at that time) with the addition of leavening agents which produced a flat, crisp biscuit. The Bent family managed baking the new recipe while Bent traveled the countryside selling crackers from a wagon. The Kennedy Biscuit Works further refined the recipe by using sponge dough thus producing a lighter consistency.

In 1898, Bent, Kennedy Biscuit Works, and many other bakeries united to form the National Biscuit Company. In 1934, the recipe was perfected which resulted in a smooth, flaky cracker with a light, buttery flavor. Unlike the pale, square crackers widely sold at the time, this new cracker was round, golden, and had serrated edges.

The cracker received the name Ritz as a result of a company-wide naming contest. A legend exists that claims Ritzville, WA supplied the name of the cracker because the flour used in making them at the National Biscuit Company plant in Portland, OR came from Ritzville. This is pure fiction.

Mass production of Ritz crackers began in Nabisco’s North Philadelphia bakery, and the new product was introduced to the market in Philadelphia and Baltimore on November 21, 1934. Thanks to brilliant marketing that promised a taste of luxury during the Depression years, Ritz sold in the five-billion volume area during its first year of nationwide distribution in 1935. Also adding to the popularity of the mass-produced cracker was the low price of nineteen cents a box, a marketing practice made possible since Nabisco was the only baking manufacture with facilities capable of nationwide distribution at the time.

Sydney S. Stern, a Hungarian immigrant who turned personal tragedy into a prolific commercial art career, is responsible for the easily recognizable box of the world’s most famous cracker. Stern established himself as an independent commercial artist, but in 1928, after losing his wife to childbirth complications, Stern accepted a nine-to-four job with Nabisco to support his family. In one weekend, Stern, inspired by a circular label inside his hat, designed the blue circle with the word Ritz in yellow lettering. Although worried that Ritz crackers would rub Depression-era customers the wrong way, the tasty cracker and brilliant marketing had the opposite, positive effect.

Flash forward to the 1970s and the Ritz commercials where Andy Griffith quips, “Everything tastes great when it sits on a Ritz.” Griffith’s affable nature, reinforced by his television persona Sheriff Taylor, made the perfect accompaniment for a posh-tasting cracker meant to satisfy common folk. The catchy tunes sung by the handsome actor were memorable enough to keep housewives reaching for the delicious crackers when choosing hors d’oeuvres ingredients.

Unfortunately, Andy’s crooning wasn’t enough to keep Nabisco from adding high fructose corn syrup to the cracker recipe. I am unable to discover exactly when this happened, but when added to the fact that there is absolutely no fiber in a Ritz, I’m afraid the beloved cracker has been reduced to yet another processed food that has been eliminated from the Gibson family cupboards.

Plum Lucky

By spring of 1920, twelve year-old Johnny Welles had made up his mind to leave the only home he’d ever known.  As hard as it was to say goodbye to his beloved stepmother, Collie, Johnny was determined to escape the tragedies that marred his childhood.

His three older siblings, Stanley, James, and Eunice, supported Johnny in his decision even though it broke their hearts to see him go.  His Aunt Prudence, who would take over Johnny’s care, was thrilled by his choice to reside with her in Baltimore and even more so with his pronouncement that he wanted to become a doctor.

In the months after his youthful declaration, Johnny spent all of his free time with Doctor and Mrs. Hager.  The Hagers, German immigrants with no children of their own, welcomed Johnny when they discovered his passion for all things medical.  The Hagers, aware of and sensitive to Johnny’s heartbreaks, couldn’t resist the opportunity to share their medical knowledge with the young boy.

Whenever possible, Doc and Mrs. Hager included Johnny in consultations and examinations.  Between patients, the three would pore over medical journals and Mrs. Hager’s pflaumenkuchen (plum cake).  The following recipe is the one I had in mind when I wrote the scene above.  This rich, delicious cake is quick and easy to make.  The beauty of this recipe is that you can substitute any stone fruit for the plums.  Consider peaches, nectarines, or cherries as an alternative.

Little Italian plums are my favorite when making pflaumenkuchen with black plums as a close second.  Italian plums aren’t available in my area until July, so I’ve presented this cake with black plums which are also quite appealing.  If using Italian plums, cut them in half and pit them.  The same goes for cherries.  For large stone fruits, cut them in half, pit them, and cut into slices.

The Gibson household enjoys this cake still slightly warm and served with vanilla ice cream or whipped cream.

Pflaumenkuchen

1 c sugar (I used raw)

½ unsalted butter

2 eggs

1 t vanilla

1 c flour

1 t baking powder

Plums, pitted and halved

2 T sugar (I used raw)

1 t cinnamon

Powdered sugar (optional)

Preheat your oven to 350°.  Grease an 8 X 8 glass baking dish.

Cream the sugar and butter.  Add the eggs and vanilla, and beat well.  Add the flour and baking powder, and mix thoroughly.  The batter with be thick like soft cookie dough.

Spread the batter into the baking dish and level it with a knife or spatula.  Place the halved plums (if using Italian) cut side down in even rows across the surface.  The same applies to cherries.  All other stone fruits should be placed in single-layer rows across the surface.

Combine the two tablespoons of sugar and cinnamon.  Sprinkle the mixture across the top of the cake and plums.  Bake for 50 minutes or until a knife inserted comes out clean.

When cooled, sift powdered sugar over the cake if desired.

Enjoy!

A Streetcar Named Opportunity

a-streetcar-named-opportunity-2John Welles began his pre-med studies at the University of Maryland in October 1925. As excitement and anxiety competed for supremacy in the young man’s mind, his Aunt Prudence came to the rescue with a country-style breakfast guaranteed to calm her nephew’s fears. Yet John could not dismiss the troubling events of the past summer that marred his first day of school. Further adding to John’s frustration was Prudence’s insistence that her chauffeur drive him to school, an offer he declined in favor of taking the streetcar.

A fortuitous meeting during the ride brightened John’s day considerably. Seated next to him was an elderly gentleman who discerned John’s apprehensions and encouraged the young man to speak openly about them by quickly earning his trust. Little did John know that the chance encounter would positively influence the rest of his life.

a-streetcar-named-opportunityI’ll direct you to the Baltimore Streetcar Museum website as the source of information I used when preparing the scene above. Also useful is the post, A Brief History of Baltimore’s Electric Streetcars, on the Monument City Blog. In addition to the pictures I found for streetcars from this era, both sites were helpful in creating the location for one of the most important meetings of John’s life.

 

Comfort Food

comfort-foodThe spring of 1920 sees the end of a turbulent time in the life of Johnny Welles. Three tragedies for which he feels responsible plague him until he seeks to escape the only life he’s ever known. Nothing his stepmother, Collie, or his three older siblings do helps to put Johnny’s mind at ease. Prudence Welles Mayfield, the aunt Johnny has never met, provides the solution to her nephew’s grief.

Prudence visits the Welles farm when Johnny is twelve with the express purpose of taking him to live with her in Baltimore. She has an agenda that will not only please her nephew, but will also satisfy her own hidden desires. Without waiting for an invitation to lunch, Prudence seats herself at the kitchen table to eat the simple, delicious food Collie prepared and reveal her plan.

I had fried okra in mind as a side dish when I wrote the scene above. It’s amazingly simple to make, but tastes incredible. The great thing about okra is that it can be canned for frying and enjoyed in the middle of winter or any other time the vegetable is out of season.  Simply open a jar, don’t rinse it, and proceed with the following recipe.

Collie’s Fried Okra

1 lb. fresh okra (choose small, bright green pods free of rust or black spots)

1 egg

Tabasco

1 c cornmeal

3 T flour

1 ½ t sea salt

½ t black pepper

⅛ t cayenne

Dash of garlic powder, optional

Peanut and/or canola oil for frying

Bring about one inch of oil up to 400° in an electric skillet or in a cast iron skillet with a thermometer to gauge the temperature.

Wash the okra and pat dry. Trim both ends and cut into ½ inch pieces. Mix the cornmeal, flour, salt, pepper, and cayenne. Add garlic powder to this step if using. Toss the dry ingredients with a fork to blend.

Break the egg into a bowl and add several hearty dashes of Tabasco. Beat the egg thoroughly. Dip one-third of the okra in the beaten egg and toss to coat. Transfer the okra to the dry mixture and stir to ensure the pieces are thoroughly covered.

Carefully float the coated okra in the heated oil in small batches. Allow them to cook on one side then turn them to finish cooking on the other. When the coating is golden brown, transfer the okra to a paper towel-lined plate to drain. Repeat with the remaining okra.

Season with more sea salt if desired. Keep the okra warm in a baking dish in the oven while cooking in batches. Serve warm.

Enjoy!

comfort-food-4

When Life Gives You Lemons

When Life Gives You Lemons 3In June of 1920, Prudence Welles Mayfield picked up her nephew, John, to take him to Baltimore to live with her.   The event proved to be a difficult time for her and her sister-in-law, Collie Mercer Welles.

Collie, the midwife who delivered John, raised him from the day he was born when his mother died due to complications from childbirth. She knew the opportunity to live and attend school in Baltimore would be one she could never provide for her youngest child, but the thought of letting him go broke her heart. For Prudence, anxiety came from her insecurities about parenting her nephew when she had absolutely no experience. A dose of guilt also plagued her because she alone knew her intentions weren’t as altruistic as they appeared on the surface.

When Life Gives You Lemons 1The two women were never close and barely tolerated each other at best. The only thing they had in common was their deep, abiding love for John. They would never let him see them quarrel over his upbringing. And yet, a gentle tug of war went on just below the surface as they vied for John’s affections. Collie’s last ditch effort to lure her young son back to his family and life on the farm was the simple picnic she sent with Prudence and John for the trip to Baltimore. She hoped her good cooking, the favorite dishes John grew up eating, would produce a change of heart in the boy. Included with the meal was a Mason jar of lemonade, sweet and chilled, the perfect taste memory that would hopefully send John fleeing from his rich aunt and back into Collie’s waiting hug.

My own memories of lemonade began with that made by my Aunt Ann for family picnics. I remember she served it in a large brown crock; such an unusual container for a kid who grew up with Country Time Lemonade drink mix and Tupperware pitchers. I’ll never forget the first time I tasted Aunt Ann’s lemonade, lightly sweet and refreshing, as delicious as any food item on the picnic table at our family gathering.

The following recipe is the one that I had in mind when I wrote the above-mentioned scene. It’s every bit as wonderful as what my Aunt Ann made, and I hope you and your family will enjoy it.

Homemade Lemonade

6 – 8 large lemons, enough for 1 c of juice

1 c sugar, I use raw

1 c water

8 c water

Squeeze enough lemons for one cup of juice and set aside. Cut remaining lemons into slices to float on the lemonade. Mix the sugar and one cup of water in a saucepan over medium heat. Stir until the sugar is dissolved and the mixture is heated through. Do not boil or scorch. Allow the sugar syrup to cool completely.  Raw sugar will produce a darker syrup and a deeper yellow lemonade, but it absolutely will not alter the flavor.

To prepare the lemonade, pour the lemon juice in a large glass bowl or crock, stir in the cooled sugar syrup and the 8 c of water. Float lemon slices on the surface. Stir thoroughly, cover with plastic wrap, and chill for at least an hour in the refrigerator.

For individual servings, fill glasses with ice and a slice of lemon. Ladle the lemonade over this and serve.  For a pitcher or beverage dispenser, fill the container with ice layered with lemon slices, pour the lemonade over this, and serve.  The ice will melt into the lemonade and dilute the tangy/sweet mixture to the perfect flavor.

When Life Gives You Lemons 2

A Matter of Classes

A Matter of ClassesOne of the jewels in the crown of the research for my novel, The Secrets of Dr. John Welles, is a class schedule from the University of Maryland for 1922. I could not have been more pleased with the delivery of this item into my possession than if I had asked what the Queen of England ate for dinner on May 28, 1997, and been told not only what she consumed but how well she like it.

Let this exaggeration serve to convey exactly how pleased I am. When I began my research, I had absolutely no idea how I was going to discover what classes and labs doctors in the 1920s were required to pursue or for how long. I only had my knowledge of modern day medicine to fall back on, and that simply wouldn’t do.

Douglas Skeen, who at the time of my research was employed at the Maryland Department of the Enoch Pratt Free Library in Baltimore, Maryland, and hopefully still is, is responsible for locating the bulletin and sending it to me as a PDF. I sincerely thank Mr. Skeen yet again for performing his role as a Reference Librarian above and beyond my expectations.

I created the Research Road portion of my blog with the express purpose of sharing what I discovered with other writers. I don’t know how many others may need similar information, but I will allow you to stand on my shoulders as you search for it, and I’ll hold your ankles to balance you as you do. With that being said, please enjoy the attached PDF of the Bulletin of the University of Maryland School of Medicine and College of Physicians and Surgeons, Vol. VII, from July 1922. At the very least, I hope you enjoy the walk through history.

UM Bulletin Vol 7 July 1922

All-American Goodbye

Granny Smith ApplesWithout a doubt, apple pie ranks among the top choices of best comfort food. Like the other recipes I’ve shared here (biscuits, cornbread), every family has their own version, compliments of mom or grandma, and their own opinion of exactly how authentic apple pie should taste. This humble, all-American classic, often the cornerstone of Sunday dinners, picnics, and church-hosted bake sales, is also the dessert of choice that Collie Mercer sends with her youngest child, John, as he leaves the family farm to go live with his Aunt Prudence in Baltimore.

Collie’s decision to send the pie with John is probably based on the fact that apples are a readily available fruit, and her hands could make the pie from memory. Or perhaps her choice is slightly more self-serving as she silently prays the taste of the pie that John grew up with will prompt a change of heart and return her youngest child to her.

Whatever Collie’s motivation, the following recipe is the one I had in mind for her to bake during that melancholy June in 1920. I hope you enjoy it as much as my family does and as much as John did on the day he began a new chapter in his life.

Collie Mercer’s Apple Pie

5–6 Granny Smith apples

2 c flour plus 2 T for thickening

1 t salt

1 c cold, unsalted butter, cut into dices

¼ – ½ c ice water

½ c sugar, I use raw

1 t vanilla

1 ½ t cinnamon

Allspice

4 T butter for dotting

Cinnamon or sugar for dusting

Preheat your over to 425 degrees.

Mix the two cups of flour with the salt. Toss in the cold butter and cut it into the flour/salt mixture with a pastry blender or two knives until it resembles coarse meal. Slowly work enough ice water into the dry ingredients until you can form a ball of dough, making sure it’s not too wet or too dry. Work quickly by hand to ensure that all the dry ingredients are mixed in thoroughly. Be careful not to overwork the dough or the butter will become warm and the dough will be tough. Wrap the ball of dough in plastic and place in the refrigerator for twenty minutes.

Peel and slice the Granny Smith apples to approximately ¼ inch slices. (They are an extremely firm apple and any thicker will require sautéing prior to being placed in the crust or they may not cook well during the baking process.) Toss the apples with the sugar, cinnamon, a couple of hearty dashes of allspice, vanilla, and the two tablespoons of flour. Stir to coat the apples thoroughly and set aside.

Remove the dough from the refrigerator and cut into two pieces. One piece should be slightly bigger than the other to serve as a top crust. Working on a lightly floured surface, use a rolling pin to roll out the dough enough to cover the bottom and up the sides of an eight-inch pie plate. The bottom crust can hang over the edge of the pie plate just a little. Fill the bottom crust with the seasoned apple mixture and place four tablespoon slices of butter on top of the apples. Roll the top crust larger than the diameter of the pie plate and place over the apples. Tuck the edges of the top crust beneath the edges of the bottom crust and crimp to seal. I prefer pressing with the floured tines of a fork to create an old-fashioned look.

Cut several vents in the top crust with a small, sharp paring knife to allow steam to escape. Brush the top crust with your choice of wash. I prefer a milk wash, but egg white thinned with water is also a good choice. Sprinkle liberally with cinnamon or sugar. Bake for 30 minutes. Check on the brownness of the crust and bake in five minute increments until a golden color has been achieved but no more than 45 minutes total.

Remove the pie from the oven and let stand for fifteen minutes. Serve warm with ice cream or whipped cream.

Nothing Minor About These Birds

Minor League Logo for Baltimore Orioles

Minor League Logo for Baltimore Orioles

You can’t live in Baltimore, Maryland, and not be an Orioles fan, right? My protagonist, John Welles, and his two best friends, Sam Feldman and Claude Willoughby, certainly didn’t think so. Of course, in 1928, the Baltimore Orioles were in the International League, one of the top minor leagues of the time, but that fact didn’t deter John, Sam, and Claude from cheering on their favorite players.

Researching the Baltimore Orioles for my novel, The Secrets of Dr. John Welles, proved to be interesting for a woman who never followed baseball in her life. I admit I took the easy road out when I chose a team located in the same city where my boys lived. The Orioles had been on my mind ever since I decided to set my story in Maryland, but I wasn’t sure how to work them in. The solution presented itself after writing a scene where the three friends had a major falling out.

During the first year of medical school, the situation between Claude and his father, J.D., truly began to unravel. Two years of pre-med bonded the boys, but their friendship was pushed to the limits by the stress at school as well as Claude’s unwillingness to admit what was happening at home. John and Sam were helpless as they watched Claude drift away.

While neither John nor Sam was aware of the truth, Sam assumed John knew more than he was letting on. The accusation was born of Sam’s frustration at not knowing how to help Claude. Strong words turned into a shoving match and then a full blown fist fight.

Without giving away the interesting details, I will tell you that the three friends eventually worked out their differences. Taking in an Orioles game was their first post-fight activity. Unfortunately, it was a small patch on a bigger problem that had yet to be resolved.

Thank you to Mr. Bill Stetka, Director, Orioles Alumni, for providing the names of players for my characters to follow. Mr. Stetka’s information led me to shortstop, Joe Boley, who became John’s favorite player. Sam followed the career of third baseman, Frederic ‘Fritz’ Maisel, and Claude’s favorite player was pitcher George Earnshaw. In addition to player information, Mr. Stetka supplied a brief but interesting history on the Orioles.

Thank you, also, to Bruce Markusen, senior researcher of the National Baseball Hall of Fame, for supplying information on the Orioles compiled from author James H. Bready’s book, The Home Team, as well as research conducted by the Orioles Public Relations Department.

Before CK One, There Was Tabac Blond

Vintage Tabac Blond

Vintage Tabac Blond

The year is 1927. John Welles and his two best friends, Sam Feldman and Claude Willoughby, are planning a clandestine night on the town. Their destination is a speakeasy hidden on the outskirts of Baltimore, Maryland. For the young medical students, the night will be both thrilling and disastrous.

Before John slips out for the night, he sneaks a dab of his Aunt Prudence’s perfume. This might seem like an extremely feminine thing to do until you become familiar with the scent he chooses to borrow.

One of my favorite subjects researched for my novel, The Secrets of Dr. John Welles, was perfume from the early 1900s. It is how I discovered Tabac Blond. The perfume was perfect for Prudence, a rebel-before-her-time class of woman who smokes, and John, by the simple fact that he’s male. Let me explain.

Ernest Daltroff

Ernest Daltroff

Tabac Blond was created in 1919 by perfumer and founder of the house of Caron, Ernest Daltroff. The fragrance was intended for women who smoke cigarettes, the symbol of women’s liberation and Parisian chic. What made Tabac Blond appealing were the leathery top notes, usually found in men’s fragrances, blended with a feminine floral bouquet. The added scents of undried (blond) tobacco leaves and vanilla made it desirable to both men and women.

Many reviewers insist upon a decanting of vintage Tabac Blond complaining that the new version doesn’t present as well. I’ll have to take their word for it as I do not own either and have yet to experience them in real life. It is, however, my goal to do both.

Artwork inspired by Tabac Blond

Artwork inspired by Tabac Blond

If you’re a lover of rich, exotic, glamorous perfume, Tabac Blond may be for you. Don’t let the price tag deter you from your passion. Whether you purchase the new version or a vintage decanting, there will be a small investment. I believe this is testimony to the allure of the fragrance. Be warned, however: wearing Tabac Blond may encourage behavior such as wild dancing, excessive drinking, and dressing like a flapper or F. Scott himself.

Yesterday’s Perfume

Perfume Projects

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