Posted in Boston, Food, History, Home, Massachusetts, Recipes

Something Old, Something New

coal stove
I think we’re out of coal, dear

Well, here we are at 2015. I’m ready for it to be a fine 12 months. I started the year by going back in time. I had to order a new version of The Fannie Farmer Cookbook. Mine falls to pieces the minute you open it. I didn’t get the requested item for Christmas, so I ordered it online. While I was browsing around I came across another book, intriguingly entitled: “Fannie’s Last Supper.” The author is Chris Kimball, the host of America’s Test Kitchen. He wanted to recreate a meal from the original, 1896 edition. I’m a sucker for stuff like that, so I ponied up and got myself an ebook copy, which I’m reading on my iPad (talk about juxtapositions!).

The book got some bad reviews on Amazon, mostly because the author found most of the recipes in the cookbook to be absolutely terrible. I think he’s being a bit hard on the old girl. That was then and this is now. If you can’t deal with soggy, overcooked vegetables and heavy cream sauce over everything, then do something else. Still, it’s an interesting read with lots of social and culinary history thrown in among the revised recipes and admonitions.

I have a few historical versions of this cookbook: a reproduction of the original, a reprinting from 1918 (with wartime recipes and suggested substitutions, another version from 1951 and another from 1965. The menus change pretty radically along the way, so I guess jellied salad and fish boiled for an hour didn’t withstand the test of time. At some point they swapped out coal stoves and added baking temperatures, thank God. Really, I don’t need to learn how to light and maintain a stove. Checking oven temperature is an absolute necessity, particularly in my crappy old stove. See? If I had the cast iron coal stove, I could have switched it over to gas and it would outlast me by 100 years. So, there, Chris Kimball!

Fannie's Last Supper
Nice cover

I have to say, I like the book, although he’s very snooty towards Miss Farmer. He did acknowledge her marketing and business sense, since the book is a classic and has been for over a century. It sold like hotcakes the minute it came out. It had precise weights and measures, suggested menus (holy cow!), information about cooking classes at the Boston Cooking School and even a section on cooking for the sick. Toast water, anyone? And how about this for brekkies:

Shredded wheat biscuits
Dried smoked beef in cream
Hash browned potatoes
Baking powder biscuit

Burp. I’ll get a cramp in my hand if I copy down her suggested dinners. Would I make anything from the original cookbook? Probably not. Some of them really do sound kind of gross and the method of preparation would cook every bit of nutrition right out. Boil that sucker for an hour! Get the deep frier ready and pass the cream sauce.

Posted in A Bit of This, A Bit of That, History, Travel With Margy!

Just Dust Me Off And Put Me on Display

I’m a history buff, totally in love with the Erie Canal. We spent part of our vacation visiting excavated sites and/or checking out the waterways that are still in use.

I thought the Canal was a bust after it was first built between 1817 and 1825. I was given to understand that trains did it in. Guess I was wrong. The Erie Canal opened the American west and created boom towns along its path: Buffalo, Rochester, Syracuse, Albany, etc. It made New York City what it is today (for good or bad!).

The canal was re-dug three times. After the initial dig, it was expanded in the 1850s or 1860s (I don’t remember which). We saw excavations of that, too. The final expansion/re-digging came in the early 20th century, I think in 1911.

The canal was finally superseded by the St. Lawrence Seaway in the late 1950s. Today the 20th century version of the Erie Canal is used for educational and recreational purposes.

The hubby and I visited excavations in Newark, New York and in Buffalo. In fact – and here I go about Buffalo again – there’s a push on to completely renovate the original canal harbor. There are extensive remains of buildings and the tow path there, all extremely well preserved and accessible to the public. Check out some photos of the site, which opened in 2008:

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Stepping Back and Seeing The World

The world, by the way, as it looked in 1901. I recently found an interesting video of the Pan-American Exposition which was held in Buffalo, New York. It was a gigantic event, or so I hear. Some of the buildings (made of marble!) are still standing and currently house the city's historical and science museums.

I find this video interesting in its depiction of electricity. In 1901, electricity was pretty new. We take it so much for granted these days: just go into a room and click on a lamp. Light up a building with the flick of a switch, to take its place among all the other lit-up buildings in the city.

But 109 years ago, that wasn't the case. Our house, built between 1895 and 1900, was originally piped for gas. We have a lot of the original tubing. Electricity didn't enter the house until later. We still have a disconnected power panel from 1913, with old knob-and-tube wiring setups.

Imagine being at this fair when the sun went down and all of the buildings were suddenly lit – by electricity! It would have been an awe-inspiring site. In fact, I think it would even wow us today.

Enjoy the video. I added the soundtrack: the Marine Corps Band planing a Souza march. Perfect! You can just imagine the band playing in a gazebo somewhere as you meander the broad paths and grand buildings of the Exposition.

By the way – the Exhibition took place in my home town of Buffalo. That's where I'm originally from, although I've lived in Boston since 1979.

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Working The Charles River

Once upon a time, long ago, the lazy Charles River that divides Boston from Cambridge was a hard worker. Eastern Massachusetts was home to some of the first mills and factories in the US and the river is what originally powered those early wheels. There are still a number of old mills along the banks of the Charles and most of them have been converted to shops and condos. There are also a few museums in the old "works," one of them being the Charles River Museum of Industry in Waltham, MA.

My husband and I visited there last Saturday. Both of us – me especially – were going stir-crazy and needed to get out after months of harsh weather and indoor living. It was a brilliant, sunny day and a relatively warm one at that. We headed out and lucked out. Not only was the museum open, but a small show of home-made engine enthusiasts was also there. We saw tables and tables of tiny little pistons, engines, Rube Goldberg gadgets and more.

There was a watch museum on the mezzanine of the small building. At one time in its history, Waltham was a center for watch and clock-making. A lot of the old tools and watch/clock faces are still around. It was really fascinating.

Then there was a rumbling from downstairs on the main floor. Both my husband and I went downstairs to see what was going on. A bunch of old pulley mechanisms had been started up and they were powering an old drill press from about 1913. That was incredibly cool. It shook the entire building. I tried to imagine what it would have been like when the entire factory was powered that way. At first, the water itself would have powered the wheel-belt mechanisms, which is why the early mills were located near water. The power of water was gradually replaced by steam engines, which would have made quite a racket as well.

I fell in love with the place and took a bunch of photos. Have a look and enjoy the good old days from a safe, clean and historic perspective. Just be glad you didn't have to work in one of these mills when they were open for business!

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Bicycles From The Olden Days

My husband and I decided to get out of the house and visit the Charles River Museum of Industry this afternoon. We had a wonderful time going over old engines, watch-works, boilers, machinery and – a real treat! – an historic bicycle exhibit. Apparently Massachusetts was home to several bicycling clubs at the turn of the last century and much of that historic stock has been preserved. It was fascinating to watch and even more fun to make this slide show movie!

Thank goodness for public domain music. It really wouldn't have been the same.

I'll have more photos and stories a bit later. We had a grand old time – really!

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A Wonder of the Modern World

I saw this article on Yahoo, then traced it back to its source at the LA TImes. This is incredible. The Livermore, CA fire station has a 107 year old light bulb that's still working! It's on night and day, all 4 watts of it. The fire fighters guard it and make sure it doesn't get damaged. Cool! This is living history:

Caption:Tom Bramell, a former Livermore fire chief, gazes reverently at the longest burning lightbulb in the world. The bulb uses four watts of power, and its carbon filament is protected by an airtight seal.

At 107, Livermore centennial lightbulb is still a real live wire

awe and respect, even among the boosters of a Texas rival.

By John M. Glionna, Los Angeles Times Staff Writer
May 5, 2008
LIVERMORE, CALIF. — Five years after his retirement, ex-firefighter Tom Bramell still likes to visit Station No. 6 for old times' sake, whistling in amazement at all the changes — the strange faces and slick high-tech engines.

But one thing remains exactly the same, and it's what Bramell misses the most about his firefighting days. The sturdy little object hangs from the ceiling in the firehouse's engine bay, emitting its familiar faint orange glow.

He calls it the long-lived lightbulb of Livermore.

That's actually something of an understatement.

At 107 years and counting, the low-watt wonder with the curlicue carbon filament has been named the planet's longest continuously burning bulb by both Guinness World Records and Ripley's Believe It Or Not.

As objet d'art and enduring symbol of American reliability and ingenuity, it's been lauded by senators and presidents.

It boasts a, drawing a million hits a year — a historical society and even a webcam that allows curious fans to check on it 24 hours a day.

The Livermore lightbulb, you see, never gets turned off, which many suspect is the secret to its longevity.

Hanging 18 feet above the floor at the end of a black cloth-covered cord, the little light with the filament the width of a No. 2 pencil lead is unprotected by any lampshade.

Firefighters won't even dust it. Touch it, jokes one captain, and "you get your fingers chopped off."

They guard their light with a surge protector and have a diesel generator and a battery as backups. To them, the bulb is the embodiment of their always-on-duty ethic.

For years, Bramell was known around the Livermore-Pleasanton Fire Department as the keeper of the bulb, the unofficial curator and caretaker who fielded queries from the public and visits from tourists. Over time, he developed a boyish wonder at its craftsmanship and spunk. From a vantage point directly beneath the bulb, Bramell says, its filament even spells the word "on."

Livermore's bulb has burned for nearly a million hours. Even now, in its old age, Bramell will stack it against any New Age fluorescent, halogen or high-pressure sodium bulb out there.

"That bulb predates the atomic bomb and the birth of the automobile," said the onetime deputy chief. "I thought that for sure it was going to go out 35 years ago, but it fooled me. It fooled everyone."

Bramell said there are numerous theories on the bulb's longevity. "Most people just consider it a freak of engineering," he said. "But I believe the bulb has stayed alive so many years because the makers gave it a perfect seal, so no air gets inside the bulb to help disintegrate the carbon filament. This bulb operates in a vacuum and it doesn't burn hot. That's the secret."

In 1901, when the tiny bulb was first screwed into place inside a so-called hose cart house, it cast its light on a simpler era.

Back then, horse-pulled carts carried water to fires. The bulb burned day and night, hanging at eye level from a 20-foot cord. Its job: to break the darkness so firefighters responding to calls wouldn't have to fumble to light the wicks of their kerosene lanterns. Manufactured by the Shelby Electric Co. of Shelby, Ohio, the bulb soon outlived its maker, which closed in 1914.

Later, in the main firehouse, it illuminated more modern rigs as horses were replaced by gas-fed engines.

It didn't always receive kid-glove treatment.

Climbing atop their engines, firefighters returning from World War II and Korea often would give the bulb a playful swat for good luck. The next generation — the Vietnam veterans and the younger kids — used it as a target for Nerf basketball practice.

Then, in 1972, a local reporter checked records and interviewed old-timers to trace its history. Firefighters suddenly realized they had a treasure.

"The good-luck slaps and target practice stopped," Bramell recalls. "We figured, 'Wow, maybe we should take care of this bulb.' "

The bulb was soon featured in the book "On the Road with Charles Kuralt." "In a time when gadgets are forever falling apart or burning out or breaking up, it was kind of nice spending a day watching a dusty, 71-year-old lightbulb just go on and on," the newsman wrote. "If you're ever in Livermore and need reassurance, we recommend it."

Thousands took his advice, traveling to the East Bay community of 80,000 to see the bulb and sign its guest book. "Beats Vegas!" wrote one. And another: "How many firemen does it take to change a lightbulb in Livermore? None, it never needs changing."

Bramell has heard from ministers who sermonized about the bulb's enduring reliability and residents who say they use it as a litmus test for new friends: Those who "get" the light's significance show the wisdom and good judgment for lasting ties.

"This fragile thing that wasn't meant to last has outlived the company that made it, people who first screwed it in, people who have written about it and who have kept watch over it," said Edward Meyer, vice president of exhibits and archives for Ripley Entertainment. "They made this bulb right."

Several times, the last a few years ago, Ripley's offered to buy the bulb. The city's answer is a no-brainer: "Fat chance."

In July 1976, Livermore held its collective breath when it moved the bulb a short two miles from the old Fire Department headquarters to Station No. 6. There was a police escort — sirens blaring, lights flashing.

Most nervous was the city electrician, faced with the delicate task of actually handling the bulb. For the trip, he built a wooden bulb box lined with cotton, Bramell said.

They moved the bulb, socket and all, cutting the cord to 4 feet. At the new site, as dozens looked on, the electrician made the connection and said a prayer.

Nothing happened.

"There was a gasp," Bramell said. "Folks said, 'What on earth have we done?' Then the electrician jiggled a switch and the bulb came on. And it's stayed on ever since."

In all, the bulb was out for 22 minutes — a short period, the Ripley's folks say, that does not mar its continuous-use record.

There are doubters who question its pedigree, competitors who wait patiently for the light to flicker and die. There's Bud Kennedy, for example, a columnist for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. Before Livermore's light was documented, the Texas bulb known as the Palace Theater Light was considered the world's oldest. It even received annual birthday wishes from radio host Paul Harvey.

Then Livermore and a "smart-aleck" reporter went and ruined things, Kennedy wrote in a 2001 column. So Fort Worth residents watched and waited — ready, as one resident said, to yell "yee-hah!" when Livermore's light went dark.

"As far as I'm concerned, those bulb brains in Livermore can take their Centennial Light and go straight to . . . " Kennedy wrote. "Wait. They're already in California."

Kennedy visited the bulb last year, planning "to kick the wall and see if I could jiggle it out of its socket."

But being in its presence softened him. "The guys there consider the bulb a point of pride, as a symbol of firefighters everywhere," he said. "Who can argue with that?"

When the bulb turned 100 in 2001, Livermore officials threw a birthday party that drew 600 celebrators, many in turn-of-the-century attire.

Now they look forward to a 200th birthday bash.

"You want that light on," said Deputy Fire Chief Jeff Zolfarelli, the new bulb keeper. "As long as it doesn't go out on your watch. Nobody wants to be onboard when that happens."

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