Monthly Archives: June 2019
It’s June in North America, which means the thermometer’s rising and strawberries are in season. Bring on the ice cream and join us at that most vintage celebration of summer, the ice cream social!
If you prefer to read rather than listen, scroll down to find a transcript.
Home economist Laura MacFarlane worked closely with Mary Brooks Picken at the Woman’s Institute for Domestic Arts and Sciences, which you may remember from Episode 2.
Listen to Episode 16: Time for Tea! for the discussion of curate’s assistants at around 3:40..
Jennifer Lamont Leo’s fiction:
Transcript of Episode 17: An Ice Cream Social
Welcome to A Sparkling Vintage Life, where we talk about all things vintage and celebrate the grace and charm of an earlier era. I’m your host, Jennifer Leo, and this is Episode number seventeen.
Hello, Sparklers. I’m so happy you’ve stopped by to spend a few minutes with me. It’s June 21, 2019, as I record this, which means summer has officially started, although apparently northern Idaho missed the memo and so I’m sitting here wrapped in a sweater. Nevertheless, summer is here, so this episode is the first of a short series on ways to enjoy a Sparkling Vintage summer. Today we’re talking about that classic summertime treat, ice cream.
But first, I wanted to give a heartfelt thank-you to Sparkler Mamamanzke, who left a five-star review. She wrote: “A Sparkling Vintage Life takes me away. When I just want to escape the stresses of today, I enjoy listening to Ms. Leo. It’s refreshing and clean. If only I were born in that era.” That’s how I hope every one of you feels while listening to the podcast. I want it to be a respite from the hustle and bustle of life, a little oasis of calm and a place to think about things that are true, good, and beautiful.
Also, on last week’s episode about tea, I mentioned that multi-tiered tray called a curate’s assistant. I mentioned that I didn’t know where the term “curate’s assistant” came from, but speculated that it had to do with church services, specifically Anglican, where a “curate” is the lowest form of the priesthood–the beginner level, as it were, assisting a priest or vicar. Sparkler Linda wrote in to say she’d recently heard that in the context of food, “to curate” means to put together certain foods for a particular meal or gathering. I guess it’s sort of like curating an exhibit in a museum, or curating a wardrobe, where you carefully choose some items and leave out others to achieve a desired effect. So maybe that’s where the term comes from. Thanks, Linda, for writing in.
And now on to our topic, which is ice cream. Writing in 1926, home economist Laura MacFarlane wrote, “No other variety of food appears to retain its popularity throughout the year with old and young alike as ice cream and its closely related desserts. But there is no time or season when these delicacies are so much appreciated nor so nearly “touch the spot” as when the mercury is creeping perilously near 100 degrees. Reinforced with a heaping dish of fresh-fruit ice cream, you will be prepared to baffle even the cruelest plans that Old Sol will take such delight in perpetrating [during high summer].”
In America, the first time we know of ice cream being served at a gathering was 1744, when Maryland governor Thomas Bladen served strawberry ice cream at a dinner party. Soon it became a favored dessert in the Capitol, with George Washington, Dolley Madison, and Alexander Hamilton’s wife Betsy Hamilton all being particularly avid fans. In 1802, Thomas Jefferson served ice cream at an official White House dinner. He liked it so much that he learned to make it and even imported equipment to do so. At that time, ice cream was molded into shapes. I can’t imagine the effort it took to make and serve ice cream in steamy Washington, D.C., or anywhere in the American South, in the days before refrigeration, But of course it was a treat for the wealthy, as they were the ones with the resources to build ice houses on their estates and plantations.
However, in the early nineteenth century, two African Americans–Mrs. Jeremiah Shedd and Mr. Augustus Jackson,–brought ice cream to the general population. Mrs. Shedd opened a catering business serving “frozen cream, sugar, and fruit” which became a sensation. And about twenty years after that, in 1832, Augustus Jackson, a White House chef, invented an efficient new way to manufacture ice cream using salt mixed in with the cream. Sadly, he never applied for a patent. Often called “The father of ice cream,” Jackson moved to Philadelphia and experimented with more flavors and methods, and he distributed the ice cream in tin cans to places called “ice cream parlors.” Ice cream parlors gained popularity throughout the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries as family-friendly places where young people and ladies could safely gather. Then they got a huge boost during Prohibition, when the liquor business went underground and many saloons switched to serving ice cream rather than close their doors. Drug stores, too, opened ice cream and lunch counters to serve the weary shopper in need of refreshment.
Meanwhile, back in 1843 Nancy Johnson had invented a hand-cranked ice cream freezer, and she did patent it. This contraption meant that anybody with sufficient arm strength and patience could make ice cream at home. Ice-cream-churning was especially popular on farms with their ready access to fruit from the orchards and cream from the cows. The image of children taking turns cranking the ice cream on the back porch has become an iconic symbol of heartland America.
After the Civil War, large cities saw the advent of street vendors, or Hokey Pokey men, as they were called. These vendors, who were often Italian immigrants, were the forerunners of the Good Humor truck some of us may remember from childhood. The origin of the name “hokey-pokey” is a bit of a mystery. Some think it’s a variation of the magic term, “hocus pocus.” More likely, it’s a corruption of the Italian “Oche poco,” or “Oh, how little,” referring to the price of the ice cream, which was cheap, and not the serving size. Lumps of ice cream were served in glass or wrapped in paper under sometimes questionable sanitation.
In 1897 another African American, Alfred L. Cralle, was issued a patent for the ice cream scoop, which allowed the scooper to dispense a uniform serving of ice cream using just one hand. Cralle’s basic design is still widely in use today.
Ice cream as America’s favorite dessert got a big boost at the World’s Fairs in Philadelphia in 1876 and Chicago in 1893, but it was at the Louisiana Purchase Exposition in St. Louis in 1904 where the ice cream cone was introduced to America, although the story of exactly which vendor should get the credit for introducing it is a matter of some debate. If you watch the old Judy Garland musical Meet Me in St. Louis, filmed in 1944, you’ll see the family enjoying ice cream cones as they visit the Fair.
Another twentieth-century innovation is the ice cream sundae. Here, too, the exact birthplace of the sundae is a bit sketchy, with two towns–Ithaca, NY, and Two Rivers, Wisconsin–nearly coming to blows over it with heated debates in the newspapers. A third town, Evanston, Illinois, doesn’t claim to have come up with the sundae, but they do like to take credit for the name. Evanston was home to the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, which opposed alcohol in all forms and championed the sundae as an alternative to alcoholic drinks. The story goes that religious hard-liners objected to the use of Sunday, the Lord’s Day, for such a decadent concoction. So the spelling was changed to s-u-n-d-a-e to differentiate it from the day of the week. Again, much of this may be apocryphal. It may be, as one source reported, a simple matter of a misspelling on a shipment of the trademark tall, fluted glassware that sundaes are served in. No matter how it’s spelled, sundaes and make-it-yourself sundae bars, with ice cream and all the fixin’s, are standard fare at ice cream socials.
For some reason, gatherings around ice cream are called “socials.” I suppose they could be called “ice cream parties” just as well, but “social” is the term that has stuck.
I remember attending ice cream socials at my church when I was a child, but they seem to have gone out of style except in pockets here and there. I understand there’s a quite well-known one held every summer on Prince Edward Island, the home base of author Lucy Maud Montgomery and her beloved heroine, Anne of Green Gables. But, of course, an ice-cream social seems a particularly Anne Shirley-ish thing to do.
In the latter half of the nineteenth and early twentieth century, ice cream socials became a favorite form of entertainment. Churches, schools, and other nonprofit organizations, in particular, latched onto the ice cream social as a way to raise funds for a good cause. I think it’s time to bring it back.
What do you need to put on an ice cream social? Well, ice cream, of course, and a way to keep it cold on a hot day. Bins of ice or portable freezers or access to a kitchen with a freezer is ideal. A variety of flavors would be good, as well as a variety of mix-ins: sprinkles, cut-up fruit, bits of candy, that sort of thing. Some jars of sauce to pour over top. Whipped cream. Maraschino cherries. Baked goods to accompany the ice cream are nice. Shortbread, of course, for strawberry shortcake during berry season. Perhaps brownies, cake, or cookies. Bring plenty of bowls and spoons–you don’t want to run out. For decorating ideas, visit Pinterest and do a search for “ice cream social” or “strawberry social.” You’ll be deluged with decorating ideas.
How about you? Are you fond of ice cream? Have you ever been to an ice cream social, or hosted one yourself? You can let me know in the comments.
Today’s grace note is the movie I mentioned earlier, Meet Me in St. Louis, starring Judy Garland, It came out in 1944, which makes it seventy-five years old this year. If you enjoy dreamy, nostalgic images of early-twentieth-century Americana, this is the movie for you. Set in St. Louis, Missouri, in the year leading up to the 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition, the story centers around one prosperous family as they move through summer, fall, winter, and spring, and particularly one daughter of that family, Esther, as she meets and is courted by the young man who’s just moved in next door. It’s a musical containing several songs you might recognize, like “The Boy Next Door,” “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” and “The Trolley Song. Look for Meet Me in St. Louis when you’ve had it with twenty-first century life and are ready for an idyllic rose-tinted trip down Memory Lane.
Afternoon tea and conversation…the perfect combination! Come sit down, pour yourself a cuppa, and let’s dish about the delight that is afternoon tea. If you’d prefer to read rather than listen, scroll down to find a transcript.
Show Notes: Brambleberry Cottage
Transcript of Episode 16: Time for Tea! This is Episode number sixteen of the podcast, and today we’re talking about tea and tea parties.
But first, a quick update on my writing. I’m closing in on finishing the novel set primarily in 1930s Hollywood. I should have that done in a few weeks. Then it will go to an editor, and then to my agent to see if he likes it and want to represent it to publishers. If he does, I’ll leave it with him and start on my next book. If he chooses not to represent it, which could happen for any number of legitimate reasons, then I’m going to explore other options, like publishing it myself. I’m a little scared of self-publishing a novel, as the process seems daunting. But I did self-publish a short-story collection earlier this year, called Songbird and Other Stories, and that process went smoothly. The agent is already representing a different novel of mine, featuring the rise of a businesswoman from the ashes of the Great Depression, but that one has not found a buyer yet. I’m also still planning on producing large-print and audio editions of Songbird. So I’ve been pretty busy on the writing front.
And now on to today’s topic, which is tea. A few days ago I went to afternoon tea with a dear friend. Our tea date has become a tradition that we try to follow at least once a year. This is not just your typical Starbucks run, although I love those get-togethers, too. Afternoon tea is special. My friend and I use the occasion to get all gussied up in our favorite dresses. We drive to Spokane, Wash., which is about ninety minutes away from where we live. Our preferred spot is called Brambleberry Cottage, which is an old house that’s been turned into a tea cafe. Each room is beautifully decorated, and the staff is warm and friendly. You get to choose your tea from a long menu of types and flavors, and it comes to your table in little individual pots. The tables are decorated with antique linens and fine china, all different patterns and colors, and there’s soft instrumental music playing. The food comes on a tall, multi-level tray.
I recently learned that the name for this three-tiered structure is a “curate’s assistant.” Unable to find a reason for this name, I have to assume it has something to do with church services, possibly the serving of communion.
Anyway, back to our tea, the food includes everything from little cucumber and chicken-salad sandwiches to scones and crumpets to desserts. There’s something for everybody here, and the exact menu varies with the seasons and the cook’s whims. These morsels are dainty in size, but there’s plenty of them, and we always leave the table satisfied. But best of all is the conversation, the unhurried time to catch up one-on-one with my friend, both during tea and on the drives there and back. One time when the weather was too nasty to drive to Spokane, I invited my friend over to my house for tea. I pulled out my prettiest linens and china and made a variety of special things to eat, and of course I brewed tea. It was lovely and fun, but it was also a lot of work. I’m just as happy to travel to the tearoom and let them take care of us for a couple of hours.
I got to thinking about what it is that makes going out for afternoon tea so special. I decided on six reasons, in no particular order.
Reason #1: It’s a time to dress up. In today’s uber-casual world, and even more so I think in a rural area, it’s hard to find reasons to dress up. It’s also increasingly hard to find people who even like to do it. Many take pride in their extremely casual appearance, as though it’s a badge of authenticity or down-to-earthness, or I-don-t-care-what-anyone-thinks-ism, or even mild rebellion. I like to dress up, and to spend time with people who also like to dress up. Afternoon tea gives me that excuse, if I need an excuse, which I don’t always. I should add that I also love the feeling of changing back into casual clothes when I come home, so I get the joy of doing that, too., when I go out for tea.
Reason #2: It’s a time to enjoy being a lady. You don’t see a lot of men at the tearoom. Not that men aren’t welcome there, and you do see the occasional male, but they always look slightly ill-at-ease among the delicate china and frippery. I’m not saying it’s a good thing for men to be ill-at-ease. I’m just saying that it’s nice once in a while to visit a place that’s so over-the-top feminine. I also like that the setting brings out everyone’s best manners. At home I may slouch and slurp my soup, but at the tearoom I sit up straight and mind my manners, and I’m reminded that I’m capable of being a more polite person.
Reason #3: Tea time is time off the clock. Once we’re seated at our table admiring the gracious surroundings and sipping our tea, we have no worries about where we need to be and what time we need to be there. I deliberately schedule a generous amount of time for tea so we don’t have to rush.
Reason #4: It’s time with my friend. We don’t see each other very often, and when we do, there are usually other people around: other friends, her family, my family. For just the two of us to go out and enjoy some deep, meaningful conversation in an unrushed way–that’s really special to me. It’s like we’re saying to each other, You’re worth spending time with. You deserve my attention, and I’m interested in your life and in what you have to say.
Reason #5 to love tea-time: It feels literally like a step back in time. From what I’ve read in old magazines and books, afternoon tea used to be observed a lot more regularly by women. There are recipes for tea cakes and patterns for tea gowns. Before World War II, our small-town newspaper used to report on tea parties: who hosted them and who the guests were, and who poured. It was considered an honor to pour. Often the guest of honor was given that duty.
I got curious about this, and about the etiquette of teatime in general. I learned that the time of day usually considered teatime is four o’clock, and it’s meant to be a late-afternoon break between the strenuous hurry and preoccupation of the day and the formality of a later dinner, at least in traditional upper-class households. For middle- and lower-classes teatime was more often to be what in my house, growing up, was called an after-school snack.
If you’re hosting tea in your home, the atmosphere is important. If it is winter, a fire in the fireplace and a few lighted candles are nice. In the summer if the weather’s nice, you might want to serve the tea outdoors, in which case it veers into the garden party, a concept which deserves its own episode, and will eventually get one. I also found out that there is considerable difference between “tea” and “a tea.” The latter, “a tea,” is a party and calls for, as one etiquette book put it, pretty decorations and one’s best afternoon gown and white gloves. A tea will likely include from several friends to a whole community of women, such as a club tea or church tea. It might also be called a “reception.” By contrast, an invitation that says, “come for a cup of tea on Tuesday” usually means a quiet corner, an intimate talk, and the restful atmosphere which teacups for two always suggest. Also, for those who may be wondering, “high tea” has nothing to do with status or level of formality or, heaven forbid, snootiness. A high tea is merely a more substantial tea that’s more like a light supper, with heartier food but less than a full-on dinner party. In the olden days, high tea sometimes preceded a game of bridge or an informal dance.
For those of you wondering about the custom of raising one’s pinkie finger while drinking from a delicate china cup, I’ve heard that the custom resulted from a princess, one of Queen Victoria’s daughters, who’d broken her finger and was thus unable to bend it. As often happens, the ladies of the court imitated her, and the custom spread. A less colorful but more probable explanation is that the handles of most teacups, unlike the hefty mugs out of which we drink our coffee, do not accommodate all of our fingers. The pinkie is extended to balance the cup in the hand. Whatever the reason, most etiquette experts agree that obviously lifting one’s pinkie while taking a sip is an affected and silly gesture.
The sixth and final reason I love afternoon tea is that it is rare. Not much happens in the way of tea parties anymore. Do little girls still have them? Maybe afternoon tea fell out of favor because so many women have careers outside the home now, so afternoon social events of any kind aren’t really practical. Or maybe it’s because we’re so much more invested in spending time with our kids that a quiet, adult-centered activity like a fancy tea is out of the question, at least while the kids are young. Or maybe it’s just too fancy, too formal, for most modern women’s taste. But when I go to afternoon tea, I feel like I’m participating in a sisterhood that goes back thousands of years.
How about you? Do you enjoy the occasional afternoon tea? Or is that a little too much frou-frou for you? You can let me know in the comments.
Today’s grace note is another podcast. In keeping with today’s topic, I’m recommending the “Tea and Tattle” podcast. This is a sublimely interesting podcast, hosted by the articulate and very British Miranda Mills, that’s mainly about books and authors, but also about creative women in general, doing all sorts of interesting things. The conversations are fun to listen to, and I always learn a lot. You’ll find the Tea and Tattle podcast at teaandtattlepodcast.com, or search for it on your favorite podcast host. If you have a topic you’d like me to cover or a question you’d like answered on A Sparkling Vintage Life, feel free to send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Also, if you can take a few minutes to stop by iTunes or Stitcher or wherever you get your podcasts and leave a star rating, or even better write a quick review, that will help raise the visibility of this little show so that more of gentle souls like you can find it.