17 June 2011

Sumptuous Dining in Gaslight San Francisco

San Francisco has always had its share of fine dining and debauched behavior. This is by no means a recent phenomenon. If fact, much of the high jinks of the past 50 years seems downright timid compared to the era ending the nineteenth and beginning the twentieth century.

Saloons, restaurants and houses of ill repute were rampant until 1921 when the Clubwomen’s Vigilance Committee foisted a respectability, coinciding with Prohibition, on the city.

Sumptuous Dining in Gaslight San Francisco by Frances de Talavera Berger and John Parke Custis is a glorious reliving of gaslight San Francisco in its heyday. The book is a biography, cookbook, culinary history, architectural history, cultural history and plain old entertaining history of San Francisco’s eateries and the people who made them from 1875-1915.

They are a colorful lot. There is “Irish” Dan O’Connell who confounded the Bohemian Club. He was brash, charismatic a bit of a poet:

Fill me a brimming goblet,
I said to my winsome wife,
Let me read in its bubbles reflected,
The story of its life.

Much to our sadness, “Irish” Dan failed to leave behind a recipe book, but a few of his recipes exist with some help from his friends.

Fricassee of Veal Bohemian

2 pounds of veal, cut into 2-inch chunks
3 tablespoons arrowroot
1/2 teaspoon dried basil
Cracked black pepper to taste
1/2 teaspoon dried oregano, crushed
1/2-teaspoon garlic powder
3 tablespoons bacon fat
3 tablespoons chopped fresh celery leaves
1/2 boiling water as needed

Dredge the chunks of veal in a mixture of arrowroot and dried seasonings. Brown the dredged meat in the hot bacon fat, and add the celery leaves. Cover the skillet and cook the meat slowly, in the same skillet, just until tender. Do not overcook it. If the skillet becomes dry during the cooking, add as much as 1/2 cup of boiling water.

A San Francisco chef who did leave behind his recipes was victor Hirtzel. The chef at the famed St. Francis Hotel, Hirtzel collected recipes and menus into the appropriately titled Hotel St Francis Book of Recipes and Menus, first published in 1910. With numerous printings, copies of his book are still prized among chefs and cookbook collectors alike.

San Francisco boasts inventing Peach Melba for the singer Nellie Melba,

Nellie Melba

Chicken Tetrazzini for the singer Luisa Tetrazzini,

Luisa Tetrazzini

and Pisco Punch for everyone else. Duncan Nichol of the Bank Exchange Saloon invented the Pisco Punch and it soon became the most popular and most copied drink in San Francisco. Nichol died with his recipe and with another of his Pisco punches, the Button punch. Pisco is an Italian brandy made from a grape known as the Rose of Peru. It is colorless, fragrant, and strong. It has been described as tasting like a fruity Scotch.

Pisco Punch

1 tablespoon Pernod
1 1/4 ounces Pisco Peruvian or other brandy
1-ounce Meyer’s Catawba or any grape juice
Shaved ice
6 ounces chilled pineapple juice

Coat the inside of an ample fizz glass with Pernod by swirling the liquor around the glass. Discard any of the liquid that does not cling. Pour the brandy into the glass and add the grape juice. Fill the glass with shaved ice and pour chilled pineapple juice to the brim.

Of a similar Pisco punch, the writer Rudyard Kipling said:

“It is the highest and noblest product of the age. I have a theory it is compounded of cherub’s wings, the glory of the tropical dawn, the red clouds of sunset and the fragments of lost epics by dead masters.”

The tales are tall and they continue throughout this book. It is thoroughly delightful. There is however one hugely egregious, if not fatal flaw in this book – there is no bibliography. How can that be? Who cold possibly gather such a delightful band of stories and recipes and fail to provide a list of further reading. I am shocked.

Still, it makes me want to pack my bags and go to San Francisco.

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