Sunday, August 19, 2012

20. Restaurants of the Storied Past: Downing's Oyster Cellar

Nineteenth-century New Yorkers adored oysters.  They slurped them, they gobbled them, they devoured them.  Available in quantity and cheap, oysters could be had from peddlers' stands on the street and eaten raw, or consumed in dingy black-run cellar restaurants on Canal Street offering all you could eat for six cents, or in fashionable upscale restaurants catering to whites, or in the pinnacle of all such eateries, the plushest, the most renowned, the most sought-after, Downing’s Oyster Cellar at No. 3 Broad Street, just off Wall.  There, amid mirrored arcades, damask curtains, fine carpeting, and chandeliers overhead, the wielders of money and power convened on weekdays between twelve and three to feast on glistening bluepoints on crushed ice with a wedge of lemon, or poached turkey stuffed with oysters (a rare delicacy), or plump steamed saddle rocks plucked from the groin of the sea.  The president of the Harlem Railroad went there, as did the collector of the port, the inspector of tobacco, the district attorney, aldermen and lawyers, bankers, auctioneers, and men-about-town; in those mirrored arcades, schemes were hatched, fortunes conceived.  At lunchtime, Downing’s was the place to be.

          Moving among snowy tabletops, Thomas Downing, a tall man with a neatly trimmed, close-cropped beard, looked after every detail of his restaurant, even the minutiae of table settings.  Born free in Virginia, he had come North in search of opportunity and, having opened his restaurant in 1825 and conducted his business with energy and diligence, was now the richest and most successful black man in the city.  Early every morning he would go to the docks and, oyster knife and lantern in hand, leap aboard the incoming boats to pry open oysters, taste them, and bargain for the best of the lot.  Later, in a frock coat and a black silk tie, he put out a sleek hand of greeting to the Tammany men and the bankers, who slapped him on the back and called him Tom, chatted, left word with him for their friends. 
            The office seekers noticed and followed the politicians to Downing’s, convinced that Thomas Downing’s fingers could tug subtle strings and ply the levers of power.  The speculators likewise took note and followed the brokers to Downing’s, hoping from the deeps of his knowledge to rake up pearls and gold.  They crowded round a bar near the entrance, where a trio of white-smocked blacks knifed open mounds of bivalves that the patrons gulped with relish.  Plucking at the owner’s sleeve, these idlers hailed him as the Prince of Saddle Rock, smoothed him, wooed him.  Whatever he thought of these toadies, Thomas Downing admired the real men of power whose bold stride clicked on pavements and whose talk in his restaurant buzzed over bowls of scalloped oysters, but he hovered on the fringe of power and knew little of its mesh and grindings.  He was, after all, a black man in a white city and only a restaurateur.
            Well aware of the limits of black freedom in a city that did a heavy and very profitable business with the slaveholding South, Thomas Downing signed petitions, joined committees,
gave to charities, helped found a high school for black children, and once even boarded a whites-only horsecar and, with the support of the white passengers, kept the conductor from putting him off.  But he could never serve a black man in his restaurant, since doing so would drive away the whites, and his endorsement of the cause of abolition, however sincere, had to be discreet.     
            So as mayors came and went, and markets boomed and bust, Thomas Downing made money, wore fine broadcloth, and tipped his Irish maid at Christmas.  By clipper ship he sent oysters to Queen Victoria, who thanked him with the gift of a gold chronometer watch.  Word got round quickly that the Prince of Saddle Rock had received a fancy watch from the Queen of England.  When he met his patrons on the street, they stopped and chatted, asked to see the watch.  Heads turned: a black man talking to a white politician!  He would have been only human if he savored those moments, stretched them out a bit.
            Just how precarious the status of black citizens was in New York became evident in the draft riots of July 1863, when Irish mobs roamed the streets for three days, battling the outnumbered police, lynching black men whom they blamed for the war and the draft, and burning any home or building remotely connected with the draft or suspected of harboring wounded policemen or soldiers.  Only the return of National Guard regiments from the battle of Gettysburg brought an end to the disorder.  What Thomas Downing did during those harrowing three days has not been reported, but there is no mention of attacks on him or his restaurant.  Many blacks who had fled the city never returned, and those who did had the sobering awareness that neither they nor the white gentry they served were safe, should the "dangerous classes" rise up again.  But Thomas Downing survived.
            When Downing died in 1866, the Chamber of Commerce closed for a day to honor him.  This, for a black citizen, was unprecedented.  But New York was a hard-nosed business town and its merchants admired, even worshiped, success.

A personal note:  I have never tasted, or felt the urge to taste, an oyster.  My first awareness of oysters came in my childhood, when at very special family dinners my father and mother for an appetizer had oysters in tall, thin glasses -- gooey grayish white concoctions stained with red (tomato juice? ketchup?) that my brother and I were glad to forgo.  Which suited our parents, I'm sure, since this was in the Midwest and oysters were a rare delicacy that came from afar and quite expensive.  Since then I've been assured by my partner Bob and others that oysters are absolutely delicious, though they have trouble describing the taste.  So far, I'm still able to forgo them, though I may be missing out on a superlative delight .

A possibly irrelevant aside:  As a followup to the previous remarks, and to prove that I'm not a chauvinist New Yorker, I hereby confess -- no, state proudly -- that I am a son of the Midwest (the "real America," as a friend there likes to put it), born and bred in Evanston, a suburb of Chicago.  So I grew up hearing the legends and lore not of New York but of Chicago, the kind of stories that are passed on from father to son, rather than through the female line, since some of them -- though not all -- are just a mite risqué.  Are there any Chicagoans, or at least any Midwesterners, out there?  If so, see if you can explain the significance of any of these items from Chicago's colorful past:
  1. The barbershop of the Palmer House.
  2. The marriage of the century.
  3. Ganna Walska.
  4. The Everleigh Sisters. 
Brief -- or not so brief -- identifications follow below.

            And now, to get back briefly to oysters:  New Yorkers didn't lose their appetite for bivalves  when Thomas Downing died.  For years to come, the oyster boats went out dredging for oysters in the oyster beds off Staten Island and in Long Island Sound, and eager restaurateurs and chefs met them at the docks to get the pick of the crop, and their patrons continued to dine grandly -- or not so grandly -- in the establishment of their choice.  But that was long ago.  Today those oyster beds are gone and the city is no longer deluged with quantities of cheap, fresh oysters.  What happened?  The answer is simple: pollution.
File:PSM V06 D022 Vessels dredging for oysters.jpg
Oyster boats dredging for oysters.

(The above text is adapted from Book I of Metropolis, my long unpublished novel about nineteenth-century New York.)

Thought for the day:  True believers harbor sticky desires.

Four items of Chicago lore: 
  1. The barbershop of the old Palmer House was famous because silver dollars were embedded in its floor.  A typical brash gesture of the Gilded Age, worthy of the Windy City.
  2. In 1896 Harold McCormick of the reaper family married Edith Rockefeller, the daughter of old John D., thus uniting offspring of two of the greatest fortunes of the Gilded Age.  (Alas, it didn't work out.  She went to Europe to be treated for depression by Carl Jung, and they divorced in 1921.)
  3.  The beautiful Polish-born Mme Walska was an opera singer more renowned for her temperament and flair than for her vocal ability.  At important openings she is said to have arrived in a limousine half a block long.  Harold McCormick, a great patron of Chicago opera, was the fourth of her six wealthy husbands (among the others were a count, a guru, and the inventor of a death ray).  His fervent promotion of her talentless operatic voice (she was pelted with rotten vegetables in Havana) inspired Orson Welles in creating the story of the protagonist's second wife in Citizen Kane.  Ganna was said to have spent not even one night with poor Harold (probably false) and in time obtained a very profitable divorce (definitely true).  A collector of plants as well as men, she spent the last forty-three years of her life in California creating a magnificent botanical garden called Lotusland, which today is open to the public.  They don't make 'em like Ganna any more -- not, at least, since Callas, who had more than looks and flair.
  4. From 1900 to 1911 the Everleigh sisters operated the plushest, most expensive, most exclusive bordello of its time on the near South Side of Chicago.  Patrons were expected to spend at least a hundred dollars a night, back when that amounted to a small fortune.  Young men dreamed of saving up enough to spend just one night there.  Celebrities patronized the establishment, and Marshal Field II was said to have been shot by one of the girls during foreplay, after which, wounded, he returned home and died there a few days later.  (The Everleigh connection may have been pure legend; suicide is suspected.)  In 1911 the mayor finally shut them down, but only after ekeven very profitable years.  Loving theater, the sisters then moved to -- where else? -- New York, changed their name, and lived quietly and respectably for years.  I once thought of doing a book about them, and managed to find their establishment in the 1900 census, but that's another story.
                                                                        © 2012  Clifford Browder

21. Central Park: Playground, Sanctuary, Threat

                                                                                                                                                                     Fritz Geller-Grimm

Central Park is a dazzle of green splashed down in the midst of a wasteland of cement and concrete.  It is a playground, an outdoor theater and gym, a sanctuary for looked-at birds and neglected wildflowers, a feast of statuary, a forager's paradise, a photographer's dream, an Edenic gem, a threat.  (Yes, a threat; I've been attacked there twice, once by a human and once by a monster.)

Central Park, comprising 843 mostly verdant acres, was opened to the public in the winter of 1859.  It has a long history, but since I've recounted its beginnings in -- of all things -- verse, and rhymed verse at that, I'll forgo an account of its origins here.

For the hardy few:  Those eager to hear the story of the Park's origins can go to the post Poesy, no. 2:  "Invitation to Eden." 

File:Hylocichla mustelina -Central Park, New York, USA-8.jpg
Wood thrush in Central Park.
Dendroica cerulea
The Park has a hundred features, a thousand attractions.  This won't be an organized tour but rather a random ramble that may even take us out of the Park and then back in again.  Where to begin?  Maybe birds.  Situated on the Atlantic flyway, an oasis of green in an urban desert, it attracts over a hundred migrating species in the spring and fall, which in turn attract hordes of birdwatchers, binocs in hand, who from an early hour scan the trees and bushes and ground of the wooded Ramble for darting warblers, keen-eyed flycatchers, the scarlet flash of a tanager, or a wood thrush poking about for insects on the ground, or perched on a branch, giving forth its faint, delicate, flutelike notes.  I have often seen the wood thrush's nest, hidden unless you looked close, but a few feet away from a much- traveled path in the Ramble.

I have joined the party on occasion, marveling at the avian wonders of a peak migration day, then brooding and lamenting on a day between waves that offers the sorriest of sights: waddling starlings, pushy jays, fat pigeons, and drab-looking English sparrows, all of them visible every day of the year and therefore to be shrugged off or scorned.  Since warblers and other species have a way of feeding in lofty treetops, the price of these excursions is what's termed "warbler neck," relief from which comes on those rare special days when decaying stumps and logs suddenly become alive with hordes of hatching termites, and the warblers swoop down to devour them, giving euphoric birdwatchers a half-hour eye-level spectacle to be viewed from a mere six feet away.  Such days are glorious, and for them birders from all over the Northeast and even farther away flock to Central Park.

This avian obsession -- so baffling to the profane -- puts initiates at odds with dog walkers (whose canines are too often -- in violation of park rules -- off the leash), but somehow the two groups accommodate.  The Ramble has uses for many visitors of different persuasions, as became apparent once when a lady birder, looking for furtive species in a secluded grove, came back with a look of disgust: "Gay porn -- ugh!"  So it goes.  Birders, dog walkers, joggers, cruising gays, picnicking families, noisy school groups on assignment -- they all use the Park, though mercifully not all at the exact same time.  Amazingly, they manage to coexist.

                          Witch Hazel flowers                  H. Zell
I haven't birdwatched for a number of years, devoting myself instead to wildflowers, which have the distinct advantage of not flying away; when you spot them, they let you look your fill.  For spring wildflowers I have to go elsewhere, but the Park is rich in summer species like the cardinal flower and ironweed and great lobelia, and late summer and autumn species like the many goldenrods and asters, ending with the spindly, spiderlike yellow flowers of the witch hazel, which many would not even take for a flower, and which bloom as late as November, sometimes even when snow is on the ground.  Medicinal witch hazel is an extract from the bark of the tree, and freshly cut forked branches have been used as divining rods to locate the presence of underground water, so a well can be dug.  (Any water witches out there?  If so, please explain how it works.)

No warbler neck results from viewing wildflowers, and there are no crowds either; I'm usually the only one in the Park who is looking at them closely, as opposed to those who walk breezily past them and remark, "Oh, look at the pretty flowers!"  Which gives me a huge feeling of snobbish superiority.  Especially when I crouch or sprawl on the ground in grassy or barren places to study tiny flowers like knotweeds and speedwells and mouse-ear chickweed, flowers invisible to anyone standing and that no one else notices or would want to notice.  And I never pick flowers, except in rare cases where I need to take a specimen home to study it, and those are always the tiny, near-invisible species, not the big showy ones that everybody sees.

Footnote:  As for those showy ones, do people really grasp what they're looking at?  If we humans behaved like flowers, luring others with gaudy colors and then brazenly thrusting our sex organs at them, we'd be arrested and fined.  Which, come to think of it, happens somewhere every day.  Okay, the flowers are luring insects, not us, so they can use them as go-betweens, but it's all still pretty flagrant.

And now for some quick highlights of the Park -- my highlights, of course, if not everyone's.

Bethesda Fountain and Terrace:  Everyone looks at and photographs the angel-topped fountain and the ample terrace around it, adjoining the Rowboat Lake across from the Ramble.  Certainly the site is impressive.  But my eye always goes to the sculpted detail -- birds, fruit, and foliage -- on the sides of the stairway leading from the terrace to the upper level of the Park.  Created by the sculptor Jacob Wrey Mould, they fell into disrepair until restored by the Central Park Conservancy, which has renovated the Park section by section -- a marvelous project undertaken by volunteers that is still under way.  The detail of the bas reliefs is charming and well worth a look.

The Wildflower Meadow:  Situated in the North End near the the wooded Ravine, in August it offers showy species like the three-inch trumpetlike red flowers of trumpet creeper, and the tubed pink flowers of false dragonhead (why false? I wonder), suggesting -- with a lot of imagination -- the gaping jaws of a monster, yet a docile monster since, if pushed to left or right, the flowers remain in that position, thus earning the name "obedient plant."  And there, towering far above you, grow thick stands of cup plant and coreopsis and coneflower, reaching to nine, ten, twelve, or rarely even fifteen feet high.  These wonders I often have to myself, since the Meadow draws few visitors.  Going there for the first time was, for me, a revelation: I had had no idea that wildflowers could grow to such a height.  Thrilling, awesome, humbling.

File:Bow Bridge in Central Park NYC 2 - August 2009 HDR.jpg
Francisco Diez
The Bow Bridge.  It arches gracefully over the Rowboat Lake,  on calm days mirrored perfectly in the Lake's greenish waters.  (Greenish, that is, until cleaned.)  My favorite bridge in the Park.  Crossing it into the Ramble one winter day, I was mugged by a junkie, a story I've told in vignette #15.  Memories of that incident have faded to the point where I can enjoy the tranquil beauty of the bridge without anxiety, but it does remind me that the Park can, on occasion, present a threat.  I have been attacked there twice, the second incident occurring at the Pool, a quiet pond near 103rd Street and Central Park West, when, without provocation, a large dog knocked me to the ground and tore my jacket.  I should have confronted the owner, who belatedly called the dog off, but at that point I wanted only to put space between me and that damnable canine, which I promptly did.  My jacket bears the rip to this day, but at least it was the jacket, not me, that the blatant beast stabbed with his fangs.

Footnote:  These misadventures of mine seem trivial, when compared to the case of the Central Park jogger who in 1989 was raped and beaten in the Park, suffering injuries so severe that she had no memory of the attack or the attacker.  The police arrested five black teenagers who confessed to the crime, then later retracted their confessions; despite discrepancies in their accounts of the attack, and a lack of DNA evidence implicating them, they were convicted and sent to prison.  Years later, after all had completed their sentences, another man confessed to the rape and was confirmed by DNA evidence, causing the convictions of the five to be vacated.  This case not only reminded citizens
of the possible dangers lurking in their beloved Park, but also raised questions about coerced confessions and the procedures of prosecutors -- questions still debated today.

File:Untermeyer fountain1-Walter Schott.jpg
Ralph Hockens
The Three Dancing Maidens:  There are many impressive statues in the Park, as for instance Romeo and Juliet in a rapturous embrace outside the Delacorte Theater and, near Strawberry Fields, Daniel Webster rising majestically on a massive pedestal bearing his famous words LIBERTY AND UNION, NOW AND FOREVER, ONE AND INSEPARABLE.  But, on a less grandiose note, I'm especially fond of Walter Schott's 1910 work Three Dancing Maidens, originally done for a private estate, but now installed at the center of the north section of the Conservatory Garden, New York's only formal garden, at 105th Street and Fifth Avenue.  The sculpture by another artist of a boy and a girl in the garden's south section breathes an aura of innocence, but in the north section sensuality runs riot as the merry trio dance their joyous round even in the ice of winter.  In 1910 Victorian morality still purported to hold sway, so the dancers are clothed, more or less, but the clothing is flimsy and revealing.  Maidens, if you say so, but surely aware of gawking males.  If a Victorian matron had got word of her daughter disporting with the daughter's friends in this fashion, she would have yanked the offender home, lectured her, and launched a boycott of the dressmaker responsible for such immoral attire.  But this, of course, is art, not life, and originally intended for private, not public, display.  Today we think differently; in our more enlightened age some of the mamas might be tempted to join in the frolic.

I will end with a note on trees, well over twenty thousand of which are found in the Park, including 152 different species.  If I love wildflowers, I reverence trees, whose majesty we take too much for granted.  In summer trees give us restful shade and nourish the insects that nourish the birds we enjoy.  They anchor the soil and are a necessary part of our ecosystem. But to truly appreciate their mighty architecture, one must see them in winter with their branches stripped of leaves.

Decades, sometimes centuries, go into the making of these soaring edifices.   When, in August 2009, a freak thunderstorm blasted Great Hill and the Pool, in the northwest corner of the Park -- an area where I have often roamed -- hundreds of trees were damaged or downed.  When I went there a few days later, the whine of power saws and grinders reverberated as workmen cut up fallen trunks and shredded them.  Each splintered stump, each shattered trunk was a friend lost; I mourn them to this day.  Saplings can be planted to replace them, but their growth will take many years; the loss is great.

Maybe it all began in my childhood in Evanston, Illinois, where the streets were lined with arched elms providing a canopy of green.  Across an alley from our house a giant cottonwood towered up in a neighbor's backyard.  In the worst midday heat I would sometimes lie on a flat roof next to our sleeping porch, hoping for a tan (a youthful folly, but a common one), and watch the summer breeze ripple through that vibrant mass of silver-flecked green.  In that luxuriant forest I could see all the monsters and heroes of my childhood.  Pterodactyls soared, stegosaurs and tyrannosaurs moved their scaly flanks, and diplodocus oozed his vast weight in prehistoric seas.  Robin Hood and his men practiced archery, hoping one day to plant their keen shafts in the villainous heart of Sir Guy of Gisborne, and Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson planned to beat the pants off General Hooker, which they would do, though at the cost of a fatal Rebel bullet in valiant Stonewall's chest.    Sometimes I imagined this great tree struck by lightning and falling in just such a way as to shatter the roof where I lay, with dire consequences to our house and especially myself -- a catastrophe that
I anticipated with dread and fascination.  For if great trees are majestic, they are also vulnerable and share that quality with humans.  And so ends, after a long digression, this ramble through the Park.

An irrelevant aside:  My bank, J.P. Morgan Chase (they of the multibillion-dollar loss), continues to outdo itself in cordiality.  When I go to my branch, I am inundated with friendly greetings from people I've never had dealings with.  The information counter still dispenses not only lollipops, as previously reported, but also pens, and a stand with a hand-sanitizing device has also appeared, its presence confirming the fact that Chase, like all banks, deals primarily in filthy lucre.  So what's next?  A cookie jar?  A miniskirted hostess?  A perfumed fountain?  All this to redeem their damaged image and repute.  I wish them well, but they've a long way to go.

Thought for the day:  A rose in full bloom is a raunchy miracle; lilies are obscene.

                                                                         © 2012  Clifford Browder

Thursday, August 9, 2012

22. Restaurants of the Storied Past: Delmonico's

Delmonico's by New York Big Apple Images
                                                                          © Matthew X. Kiernan

Damask draperies framing tall windows, a soft glow from discreet gas lights in chandeliers, deep-pile carpets muffling the footsteps of waiters who never hurried but were always deftly present when needed, immaculate tablecloths with polished silver and sparkling stemware, a vase of fresh flowers on every table, the murmur of polite conversation as course followed course with impeccable logic, balance, and order: everything in this shrine of elegance, this sanctum of decorum, conspired to create a contagion of gentility where loud talk and unseemly behavior were unthinkable.  Such was Delmonico's at Fifth Avenue and Fourteenth Street, New York's most sumptuous restaurant in the 1860s.  There were several Delmonico's at the time, but this was the most elegant, the most sought-after, where lucky speculators and eminent bankers, New and Old Money heirs, visiting statesmen and celebrities, and the belles of the day (always with an escort) -- in short, anyone who wanted to be counted among the moneyed elite of the nation -- came to dine.

Let us imagine that a (figuratively speaking) poor fledgling millionaire -- perhaps a gold or oil speculator, or a railroad promoter, or a recipient of lucrative government contracts to furnish boots or bayonets, or blankets of the best shoddy wool, to the military -- has been ushered in and duly seated with his wife or colleagues.  Of course he would open the menu that a diligent waiter handed him, a menu that, on special occasions, might be printed in gold on silk, and mounted on satin enclosed in a Russian leather folder.  And what did he then encounter?  Here is a Delmonico's menu from 1862:



Crème de volaille à la Rachel

Variés         Hors d’Oeuvres          Variés

Timbales à la Monglas


Truites de Long Island       Filet de boeuf à l’Andalouse


Côtelette de pigeon à la Noaille
Filets de volaille à l’Impériale
Mayonnaise de homard à la ravigotte


Cardinale au vin du Rhin


Canvas-back duck        Bécasses bardées


Asperges          Petits pois


Millefeuilles Pompadour        Croquenbouche d’oranges


What was he to make of these mysterious entries?  He might guess "Truites de Long Island" (Long Island trout), but most of the items would have baffled him, just as they baffle me, a onetime French major.  So he could either order canvas-back duck, the one item in English on the menu (and a giveaway), or point to some dish that seemed enticing, or at least sufferable, to one unschooled in the language and cooking of the French.  Which, in the second case, guaranteed a surprise when the dish was served.  But the absence of prices wouldn't have put him off, since no one on a tight budget dined at Delmonico's.

The Delmonico enterprise began when two brothers, John and Peter, came to New York from the Ticino, an Italian-speaking canton in Switzerland, and in 1827 opened a small pastry shop in William Street whose superb Swiss chocolate soon became the talk of the town.  When this early enterprise was destroyed by the Great Fire of 1835, they opened a "restaurant français" in Broad Street the following year, introducing New Yorkers to the concept and the name "restaurant," both of which had originated in post-revolutionary France.  Before, New Yorkers had known coffee houses, boarding houses, and inns, but the idea of dining out for pleasure was relatively new.  The Delmonico restaurant changed dining in America by seating each party of guests at its own table and providing them with a tablecloth and a printed menu.  Then, in 1837, the brothers acquired another property at
2 South William Street and built a sumptuous new restaurant whose entrance featured marble pillars said to have come from the doorway of a villa in Pompeii.  Located near the financial district, it was patronized by lawyers, bankers, and merchants.

Nineteenth-century New York experienced such dynamic growth that its population doubled every sixteen years.  Inevitably, the city had to expand, and since Manhattan is a narrow cigar-shaped island, it could only expand uptown, or to the north.  When genteel citizens saw the first sign of
decay in their neighborhood -- perhaps a widow hard-pressed for funds taking in tenants whom
she referred to as her "guests," or worse still, the dreaded appearance of a dentist's office -- they abandoned the neighborhood to commerce and the lower orders and fled northward to safer, more exclusive districts until, some years later, the same pressures forced them to continue their flight to the north.  Seeking a refined patronage, the Delmonicos joined this trek uptown, establishing a new restaurant at Broadway and Chambers Street in 1846, and then, in 1862, the lavish restaurant at Fifth Avenue and Fourteenth Street.  In time, the migration northward would resume.

Presiding over these operations was Lorenzo Delmonico, a nephew of the founders, under whose rule the restaurants achieved international renown.  Diligent and energetic, he went daily at 4 a.m. to the Washington and Fulton markets to pick out the best meat, fish, fowl, and produce, returning to the Chambers Street restaurant by 8 a.m. in a cab, followed by other cabs burdened with his purchases.  He would then return home and go to bed, returning in the evening to have supper, chat with friends,  bond with his customers, and smoke his beloved thick black cigars.  The bonding stretched even to warning a customer against a risky speculation; grateful for having avoided a thirty thousand dollar loss, the customer gave Lorenzo a handsomely mounted cane.

Lorenzo's nephew Charles was put in charge of the Fourteenth Street restaurant at the age of twenty-two and proved adept in running it.  Imposing strict rules of decorum, he decreed that no ladies would be served unless accompanied by a male escort, and that any lady and gentleman dining together in an upstairs private room must keep the door open at all times.  Under his tutelage no patron was to be confronted with a bill, since this would be grossly insulting; patrons were expected to ask for it -- a policy that proved remarkably successful.  A guest guilty of untoward behavior or failure to pay an overdue bill was blacklisted; when he came to dine, he would be greeted with the usual smiles and deference, but somehow his order would never manage to reach the kitchen.  In time the offender would realize his situation and depart, but it didn't end there.  Once word got out, his having been banished from those hallowed precincts brought the exile tons of opprobrium.

Flocking to these restaurants were the crème of the crème, though some of them might in time prove  curdled.  Boss Tweed and his crony Judge Barnard dined there -- the first to be later jailed for corruption, and the second impeached.  Lunching there daily was dapper Mayor Oakey Hall, who might appear in an embroidered waistcoat under a green frock coat with pure gold coins for buttons, and a green velvet collar and lapels.  Other patrons included the famous preacher Henry Ward Beecher (later to be accused of adultery), assorted Astors and Vanderbilts, and politicians, generals, and admirals.  During the Civil War President Lincoln himself patronized the Fourteenth Street establishment, staying in one of the bachelor apartments on the top floor when he came for secret consultations with various political and military figures.  And when, in 1868, civic notables wanted to hold a gala dinner to honor Charles Dickens, they of course chose the Fourteenth Street Delmonico's.  But no extravagant dinner of the time could match the 1873 feast that Edward Luckmeyer, a wealthy importer, gave for seventy-five guests.  In the center of a huge oval table was an artificial lake with exotic plants, waterfalls, glades and hillocks, and several swans gliding serenely on the water inside
a mesh of gold wire from Tiffany's.  The grandiose occasion was marred only when a cygnine altercation arose; fortunately, an embankment of flowers shielded the guests from the resulting splashes.  The "Swan Dinner" was long remembered and helps explain why we call that period the Gilded Age.

Rarely, the Delmonico decorum was challenged.  When Victoria Woodhull and her sister Tennessee Claflin, two fervent suffragists who had already shocked the city by becoming the first female brokers on Wall Street, tried to obtain a table without a male escort, they were of course refused.  Flouncing down to the street, they hailed a hackney cab, hired the driver, and returned with their rumpled escort to claim a table and triumphantly order tomato soup for three.  "Talk of women's rights is moonshine," Victoria told the press.  "Women have every right -- all they need do is seize them.  That's what we do daily!"  (A colorful twosome.  Hmm...  Maybe they rate a post of their own.)

Baked Alaska                                             Aaron Gustafson
Eggs Benedict dusted with paprika               The Bitten Word

Presiding for years over the Fourteenth Street kitchen, and then over later Delmonico restaurants, was the famous French chef Charles Ranhofer, who ruled with an iron hand but whose results were memorable.  It was he who, wanting to celebrate the country's purchase of Alaska in 1867, lined ice cream with slices of sponge cake, topped it with meringue, and baked the concoction briefly, thus creating Baked Alaska.

Certainly Chef Ranhofer was endlessly inventive.  When a Mrs. Benedict, a regular patron who was bored with the current fare, urged him to create something new for lunch, he combined toasted English muffins with a thin slice of ham, poached eggs, hollandaise sauce, and a truffle on top, and so created Eggs Benedict, which he named for her.  Other dishes believed to have originated at this or another Delmonico's include Lobster Newburg, Manhattan Clam Chowder, Oysters Rockefeller, and possibly Chicken à la King.

As the city continued to spread north, Delmonico's followed, establishing restaurants at Madison Square and then at Fifth Avenue and 44th Street.  Every president from James Monroe through Franklin D. Roosevelt dined at a Delmonico restaurant, though not necessarily during their presidential term.  Among notable earlier patrons were the Swedish soprano Jenny Lind and Prince Louis Napoleon, the future Emperor Napoleon III of France.  Renowned diners of the Gilded Age included Diamond Jim Brady and Lilian Russell, Sarah Bernhardt (for whom a dish was named), Mark Twain, J.P. Morgan, Theodore Roosevelt, Oscar Wilde, and, while still Prince of Wales, the future Edward VII.  When the last restaurant closed in 1923, the Delmonico dynasty could take pride in having hosted the elite of at least two continents, not to mention creating a host of new dishes and educating generations of Americans in the graces of genteel dining. 

About the photo:  The photo at the beginning of this post shows the corner entrance of today's Delmonico's at the intersection of Beaver and South William Streets, a steakhouse whose owners are in no way related to the Delmonico family but who claim the Delmonico name and heritage, offering certain dishes featured in the earlier restaurants, and proclaiming in their menu and on their website "Since 1837."  But for me, this last is a bit of a stretch.  The steakhouse does indeed occupy the site
of the 1837 restaurant, but the current structure is in essence the reconstructed Delmonico's of 1891, which incorporated several features from the 1837 restaurant: the two "Pompeiian" columns flanking the doorway, and perhaps the marble cornice above the door as well.  When the family closed their last restaurant in 1923, they tried to retain control of the name "Delmonico's," but a subsequent court ruling determined that the name was now in the public domain and so could be used by anyone.  Between then and now various commercial enterprises have occupied the site, including the steakhouse of today.  The very designation "steakhouse" is really too basic, too American, to convey the refined Continental atmosphere of the Delmonico's of yore.  But if that steakhouse relates more to 1891 than 1837, the entrance seen in the photo does convey the formal elegance, both architectural and culinary, that distinguished the Delmonico restaurants, in consequence of which the building now has Landmark status.  And if later restaurateurs covet the name and prestige of Delmonico's, it is a tribute to that family dynasty and its restaurants.

In closing, I want to provide a glimpse of Lorenzo Delmonico's city.  Here, in a print of 1865, is a panoramic bird's-eye view of New York.

The ships of course are not in scale, being much too big, but their presence in numbers reminds us that nineteenth-century New York was the largest port in the hemisphere, where both sailing vessels and smoke-belching steamboats mingled, and even the old Hudson River sloops bringing produce and bricks and dairy products to the city from the nearby counties.  Broadway, the city's main artery, can be seen stretching north from the Battery, a street where all kinds of people -- no matter what their wealth or status or occupation, or the lack of these -- were likely to rub shins, and a thoroughfare so jammed with rushing traffic that you risked your life trying to cross during business hours, unless aided by a patrolman.  (There were, of course, no stop signs or red lights.)  Church spires are the tallest structures in this age before skyscrapers, though by the 1870s visitors would marvel at buildings ten and twelve stories high, made possible by what had first appeared in 1859 as a vertical railroad, and in time came to be known as an elevator.  In the distance one can make out City Hall and its park, and beyond that (with effort) Union Square, and beyond that in the far, far distance (if one squints), the green reaches of the new Central Park.  A bustling, thriving, growing city, and a mecca for hustlers and entrepreneurs, for the bold and the ambitious, and for those with new ideas, especially ideas that might make money: in short, for the Delmonicos.

Thought for the day:  Those whom no pterodactyls haunt are quiet little prunes.

                                                                      © 2012  Clifford Browder