A New Digitized Menu Collection Lets You Revisit the Cuisine from the “Golden Age of Railroad Dining”

The coming of the railroad in the U.S. of the 19th century meant unprecedented opportunity for millions—a triumph of transportation and commerce that changed the country forever. For many more—including millions of American bison—it meant catastrophe and near extinction. This complicated history has provided a rich field of study for scholars of the period—who can tie the railroad to nearly every major historical development, from the Civil War to presidential campaigns to the spread of the Sears merchandising empire from coast to coast.

But as time wore on, passenger trains became both more commonplace and more luxurious, as they competed with air and auto travel in the early 20th century. It is this period of railroad history that most attracted Ira Silverman as a graduate student at Northwestern University in the 1960s. While enrolled at Northwestern’s Transportation Center in Evanston, Illinois, Silverman and his classmates found endless “opportunities for research, adventure, and unparalleled feasting,” writes Claire Voon at Atlas Obscura.




Silverman especially took to the dining cars—and more to the point, to the menus, which he collected by the dozens, “eventually amassing an archive of 238 menus and related pamphlets. After a long career in transit, he donated the collection to his alma mater’s Transportation Library, which recently digitized it in its entirety.” Silverman’s collection represents “35 United States and Canadian railroads,” points out Northwestern, and its contents mostly date from the early 60s to the 1980s—from his most active years riding the rails in style, that is.

But Silverman was also able to acquire earlier examples, such as a 1939 menu “once perused by passengers aboard the famed 20th Century Limited train,” Voon writes, “which traveled between New York City and Chicago.” Twenty years after this menu’s appearance, Cary Grant, “playing an adman in Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest, orders a brook trout with his Gibson” while riding the same line. The Art Deco menu for the "new streamlined" line features such delicacies as “genuine Russian caviar on toast and grilled French sardines.”

Even kids' menus—now reliably dominated by chicken fingers, pizza, PB&Js, and mac & cheese—offered far more sophisticated dining than we might expect to find, with “items such as grilled lamb chops, roast beef, and seasonal fish" on the North Coast Limited menu below. “The mid-20th century seems to have been a golden age of railroad dining,” remarks Northwestern Transportation Librarian Rachel Cole. “It was never something that railroads profited on, but they used it to compete against each other and attract passengers,” taking pride in “selections that would be rivaled in restaurants.”

The fine dining-car experience might also include novelty items passengers would be unlikely to find anywhere else, such as Northwestern Pacific’s Great Baked Potato, “a monstrous spud,” Voon explains, “that could weigh anywhere between two to five pounds” and came served with “an appropriately sized butter pat.” One can see the appeal for a food and travel enthusiast like Silverman, who had the privilege of trying dishes on most of these menus for himself.

The rest of us will have to rely on our gustatory imaginations to conjure what it might have been like to eat prime rib on the Western Star in the Pacific Northwest in the early 60s, or braised smoked pork loin on an Amtrak train in 1972. If your memories of dining on a train mostly consist of pulling soggy, microwaved “food” from steaming hot plastic bags, or munching on packaged, processed salty snacks, expand your sense of what railroad dining could be at the Ira Silverman Railroad Menu Collection here.

via Atlas Obscura

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

The First High-Resolution Map of America’s Food Supply Chain: How It All Really Gets from Farm to Table

The phrase "farm to table" has enjoyed vogue status in American dining long enough to be facing displacement by an even trendier successor, "farm to fork." These labels reflect a new awareness — or an aspiration to awareness — of where, exactly, the food Americans eat comes from. A vast and fertile land, the United States produces a great deal of its own food, but given the distance of most of its population centers from most of its agricultural centers, it also has to move nearly as great a deal of food over long domestic distances. Here we have the very first high-resolution map of that food supply chain, created by researchers at the University of Illinois studying "food flows between counties in the United States."

"Our map is a comprehensive snapshot of all food flows between counties in the U.S. – grains, fruits and vegetables, animal feed, and processed food items," writes Assistant Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering Megan Konar in an explanatory post at The Conversation. (The top version shows the total tons of food moved, and the bottom one is broken down to the county scale.)




"All Americans, from urban to rural are connected through the food system. Consumers all rely on distant producers; agricultural processing plants; food storage like grain silos and grocery stores; and food transportation systems." The map visualizes such journeys as that of a shipment of corn, which "starts at a farm in Illinois, travels to a grain elevator in Iowa before heading to a feedlot in Kansas, and then travels in animal products being sent to grocery stores in Chicago."

Konar and her collaborators' research arrives at a few surprising conclusions, such as that Los Angeles county is both the largest shipper and receiver of food in the U.S. Not only that, but almost all of the nine counties "most central to the overall structure of the food supply network" are in California. This may surprise anyone who has laid eyes on the sublimely huge agricultural landscapes of the Midwest "Cornbelt." But as Konar notes, "Our estimates are for 2012, an extreme drought year in the Cornbelt. So, in another year, the network may look different." And of the grain produced in the Midwest, much "is transported to the Port of New Orleans for export. This primarily occurs via the waterways of the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers."

Konar also warns of troubling frailties: "The infrastructure along these waterways—such as locks 52 and 53—are critical, but have not been overhauled since their construction in 1929," and if they were to fail, "commodity transport and supply chains would be completely disrupted." The analytical minds at Hacker News have been discussing the implications of the research shown on this map, including whether the U.S. food supply chain is really, as one commenter put it, "very brittle and contains many weak points." The American Society of Civil Engineers, as Konar tells Food & Wine, has given the country's civil engineering infrastructure a grade of D+, which at least implies considerable room for improvement. But against what from some angles look like long odds, food keeps getting from American farms to American tables — and American forks, American mouths, American stomachs, and so on.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

A Map of How the Word “Tea” Spread Across the World

When I order a cup of tea in Korea, where I live, I ask for cha (차); when traveling in Japan, I ask for the honorific-affixed ocha (お茶). In Spanish-speaking places I order , which I try to pronounce as distinctly as possible from the thé I order in French-speaking ones. And on my trips back to United States, where I'm from, I just ask for tea. Not that tea, despite its awe-inspiring venerability, has ever quite matched the popularity of coffee in America, but you can still find it most everywhere you go. And for decades now, no less an American corporate coffee juggernaut than Starbucks has labeled certain of its teas chai, which has popularized that alternative term but also created a degree of public confusion: what's the difference, if any, between chai and tea?

Both words refer, ultimately, to the same beverage invented in China more than three millennia ago. Tea may now be drunk all over the world, but people in different places prefer different kinds: flavors vary from region to region within China, and Chinese teas taste different from, say, Indian teas. Starbucks presumably brands its Indian-style tea with the word chai because it sounds like the words used to refer to tea in India.




It also sounds like the words used to refer to tea in Farsi, Turkish, and even Russian, all of them similar to chay. But other countries' words for tea sound different: the Maylay teh, the Finnish tee, the Dutch thee. "The words that sound like 'cha' spread across land, along the Silk Road," writes Quartz's Nikhil Sonnad. "The 'tea'-like phrasings spread over water, by Dutch traders bringing the novel leaves back to Europe."

"The term cha (茶) is 'Sinitic,' meaning it is common to many varieties of Chinese," writes Sonnad. "It began in China and made its way through central Asia, eventually becoming 'chay' (چای) in Persian. That is no doubt due to the trade routes of the Silk Road, along which, according to a recent discovery, tea was traded over 2,000 years ago." The te form "used in coastal-Chinese languages spread to Europe via the Dutch, who became the primary traders of tea between Europe and Asia in the 17th century, as explained in the World Atlas of Language Structures. The main Dutch ports in east Asia were in Fujian and Taiwan, both places where people used the te pronunciation. The Dutch East India Company’s expansive tea importation into Europe gave us the French thé, the German Tee, and the English tea."

And we mustn't leave out the Portuguese, who in the 1500s "travelled to the Far East hoping to gain a monopoly on the spice trade," as Culture Trip's Rachel Deason writes, but "decided to focus on exporting tea instead. The Portuguese called the drink cha, just like the people of southern China did," and under that name shipped its leaves "down through Indonesia, under the southern tip of Africa, and back up to western Europe." You can see the global spread of tea, tee, thé, chai, chay, cha, or whatever you call it in the map above, recently tweeted out by East Asia historian Nick Kapur. (You may remember the fantastical Japanese history of America he sent into circulation last year.) Study it carefully, and you'll be able to order tea in the lands of both te and cha. But should you find yourself in Burma, it won't help you: just remember that the word there is lakphak.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall, on Facebook, or on Instagram.

An Animated Introduction to Medieval Taverns: Learn the History of These Rough-and-Tumble Ancestors of the Modern Pub

When I think of the medieval tavern, I see grim footage from Bergman’s The Seventh Seal and grimy drinking scenes from Game of Thrones and Lord of the Rings. While only the first of these uses an ostensibly historical setting, the imagery of them all is what we think of when we think of taverns. Huge casks in the corners, great, indestructible wooden tables and wooden mugs, signs with pictures instead of words; drunken singing and the occasional axe fight.

The crudely animated Simple History video above confirms these impressions, describing the taverns, inns, and ale houses that were ancestors of the modern pub as “places of drinking, gambling, violence, and criminal activity.” Art history and scholarship further confirm our impression of taverns as rough-hewn, rowdy houses where brawls frequently broke out and all sorts of shady business transacted.




Ale houses had an “ale stake or ale pole” that could be raised to show they had a brew ready to serve. Taverns had a pole with leaves, called a “bush,” for the same purpose. Wine might be pricey, but beer was cheap, as “taxing it would not have been well-received.” Barmaids poured drinks from pitchers of leather into mugs of wood. Food was… well, not so good…. Maybe we can visualize tavern life by extrapolating backwards from our local dive bars.

However, we might find it hard to imagine living in a time before beer. Milan Pajic, junior research fellow at the University of Cambridge, found that beer made a relatively late entry in the history of English drink, arriving only in the latter half of the 14th century when introduced by Dutch immigrants and demanded by soldiers returning from the 100 Years War.

Between around 1350 and around 1400, Pajic claims, all of the beer drunk in English taverns was imported from the Netherlands. “The first evidence of someone brewing beer” in England, Pajic writes in an article published in the Journal of Medieval History, “comes from 1398-9.” The brewer, a “Ducheman,” was “fined for buying ‘wheat in the market in order to produce beer, to the great damage of the same market.”

Such persecution could not last. In a hundred year's time, a few hundred brewers could be found around the country, most of them immigrants from the Low Countries. But in part because the English distrusted the Dutch, “it took almost a century from the moment it was introduced as an imported commodity and consumed largely by immigrants before it came to be produced on English soil and accepted by the natives.”

Tavern, inn, and ale house designs would have conformed to local joinery trends, but the medieval English tavern’s chief draw—cheap, freshly-brewed beer, and lots of it—was a suspicious continental import before it became a national treasure.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

A Collection of Vintage Fruit Crate Labels Offers a Voluptuous Vision of the Sunshine State

Ah, Florida… The Sunshine State.

Tourists began flocking to it in earnest once the railroads expanded in the late 19th century, drawn by visions of sunset beaches, graceful palms, and plump citrus fruit in a warm weather setting.

The fantasy gathered steam in the 1920s when citrus growers began affixing colorful labels to the fruit crates that shipped out over those same railroad lines, seeking to distinguish themselves from the competition with memorable visuals.




These labels offered lovers of grapefruit and oranges who were stuck in colder climes tantalizing glimpses of a dreamy land filled with Spanish Moss and graceful long-legged birds. Words like “golden” and “sunshine” sealed the deal.

(The reality of citrus picking, then and now, is one of hard labor, usually performed by underpaid, unskilled migrants.)

The State Library of Florida’s Florida Crate Label Collection has amassed more than 600 examples from the 1920s through the 1950s, many of which have been digitized and added to a searchable database.

While the majority of the labels peddle the sunshine state mythos, others pay homage to growers’ family members and pets.

Others like Killarney Luck, UmpireSherlock’s Delight, and Watson’s Dream built brand identity by playing on the grove’s name or location, though one does wonder about the models for the deliciously dour Kiss-Me label. Siblings, perhaps? Maybe the Kissimmee Citrus Growers Association disapproved of the PDA their name seems so ripe for.

Native Americans' prominent representation likely owed as much to the public’s fascination with Westerns as to the state’s tribal heritage, evident in the names of so many locations, like Umatilla and Immokalee, where citrus crops took root.

Meanwhile, MammyAunty, and Dixieland brands relied on a stereotypical representation of African-Americans that had a proven track record with consumers of pancakes and Cream of Wheat.

The vibrantly illustrated crate labels were put on hold during World War II, when the bulk of the citrus crop was earmarked for the military.

By the mid-50s, cardboard boxes on which company names and logos could be printed directly had become the industry standard, relegating crate labels to antique stores, swap meets, and flea markets.

Begin your exploration of the Florida Crate Label Collection here, browsing by imageplacecompany, or brand name.

Via Kottke

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Join her in NYC on Monday, November 4 when her monthly book-based variety show, Necromancers of the Public Domain celebrates Louise Jordan Miln’s “Wooings and Weddings in Many Climes (1900). Follow her @AyunHalliday.

 

The Proper Way to Eat Ramen: A Meditation from the Classic Japanese Comedy Tampopo (1985)

There is a right way to eat every dish, as an ever-increasing abundance of internet videos daily informs us. But how did we navigate our first encounters with unfamiliar foods thirty, forty, fifty years ago? With no way to learn online, we had no choice but to learn in real life, assuming we could find a trusted figure well-versed in the ways of eating from whom to learn — a sensei, as they say in Japanese, the kind of wise elder depicted in the film clip above, a scene that takes place in a ramen shop. "Master," asks the young student, "soup first or noodles first?" The ramen master's reply: "First, observe the whole bowl. Appreciate its gestalt. Savor the aromas."

Behold the "jewels of fat glittering on its surface," the "shinachiku roots shining," the "seaweed lowly sinking, the "spring onions floating." The eater's first action must be to "caress the surface with the chopstick tips" in order to "express affection." The second is to "poke the pork" — don't eat it, just touch it — then "pick it up and dip it into the soup on the right of the bowl." The most important part? To "apologize to the pork by saying, 'See you soon.'" Then the eating can commence, "noodles first," but "while slurping the noodles, look at the pork. Eye it affectionately." After then sipping the soup three times, the master picks up a slice of pork "as if making a major decision in life," and taps it on the side of the bowl. Why? "To drain it." To those who know Japanese food culture for the value it places on aesthetic sensitivity and adherence to form, this scene may look perfectly realistic.




But those who know Japanese cinema will have recognized immediately the opening of Tampopo, the beloved 1985 comedy that satirizes through food both Japanese culture and humanity itself. In his review of the film, Roger Ebert describes the ramen-master vignette as depicting "a kind of gastronomic religion, and director Juzo Itami creates a scene that makes noodles in this movie more interesting than sex and violence in many another." Not that Tampopo, for all its cheerfulness (Ebert calls it "a bemused meditation on human nature in which one humorous situation flows into another offhandedly, as if life were a series of smiles") doesn't also contain plenty of sex and violence. Walter Benjamin once said that every great work of art destroys or creates a genre. Tampopo creates the "ramen Western," rolling a couple of cowboyish truckers (seen briefly in the clip above) into booming 1980 Tokyo to get a widow's failing ramen shop into shape.

Through parody and slyer forms of allusion, Tampopo references cinema both Western and Eastern, and its cast includes actors who were or would become iconic: the student of ramen is played by Ken Watanabe, now known to audiences worldwide for his roles in Hollywood pictures like The Last Samurai and Inception. The master is played by Ryûtarô Ôtomo, a mainstay of samurai films from the late 1930s through the 1960s, who chose this as his very last role: the very day after shooting his scene, he committed suicide by jumping from the top of a building. (Itami would die under similar circumstances in 1997, some say with the involvement of the Yakuza.) Now that internet videos and other forms of 21st-century media are disseminating the relevant knowledge, we can all study to become masters of ramen, or for that matter of any dish we please — but can any of us hope to rise to the example of elegance, and hilariousness, laid down by Ôtomo's final act on film?

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

The Restaurant of Mistaken Orders: A Tokyo Restaurant Where All the Servers Are People Living with Dementia

If you've ever been to Japan, you'll know that in Japanese restaurants, mistakes are not made. And on the off chance that a mistake is made, even a trivial one, the lengths that proprietors will go to make things right with their customers must, in the eyes of a Westerner, be seen to be believed. But as its name suggests, the Tokyo pop-up Restaurant of Mistaken Orders does things a bit differently. "You might think it's crazy. A restaurant that can't even get your order right," says its English introduction page. "All of our servers are people living with dementia. They may, or may not, get your order right."

Un-Japanese though that concept may seem at first, it actually reflects realities of Japanese society in the 21st century: Japan has an aging population with an already high proportion of elderly people, and that puts it on track to have the fastest growing number of prevalent cases of Alzheimer's Disease.




Whole towns have already begun to structure their services around a growing number of citizens with dementia. But dementia itself remains "widely misunderstood," says Restaurant of Mistaken Orders producer Shiro Oguni in the "concept movie" at the top of the post. "People believe you can't do anything for yourself, and the condition will often mean isolation from society. We want to change society to become more easy-going so, dementia or no dementia, we can live together in harmony."

You can see more of the Restaurant of Mistaken Orders in last year's "report movie" just above, which shows its team of servers with dementia in action. Some shown are in middle age, some are in their tenth decade of life, but all seem to have a knack for building rapport with their customers — a skill that anyone who has ever worked front-of-the-house in a restaurant will agree is essential, especially when mistakes happen. We see them deliver orders both correct and incorrect, but the diners seem to enjoy the experience either way: "37% of our orders were mistaken," the restaurant reports, "but 99% of our customers said they were happy." This contains another truth about Japanese food culture that anyone who has eaten in Japan will acknowledge: whatever you order, the chance of its being delicious is approximately 100%.

via Kottke

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

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