The place to be in 1863 San Francisco is the bar in the Occidental Hotel on Montgomery Street where the legendary Jerry Thomas held sway – and where Mark Twain was seen to drink a cocktail or two.
A genial fellow guest, Edward Peron Hingston, author of the introduction to Mark Twain’s Innocents Abroad, was more than impressed by the work of the Occidental’s architect (ironically named Hyatt):
“An air of sumptuous splendor and easeful comfort strikes us immediately as we enter the doors … The interior fittings are those of a first-class hotel; the bedrooms are airy, the beds soft and large; the salle-a-manger is a spacious hall, with elaborate embellishments and columns of noble proportions. There are breakfast rooms and supper rooms, hot and cold baths for everybody, well-carpeted stairs, elegant drawing rooms for the use of the ladies, pianos of the best manufacture, and lounges and rocking chairs of the most luxurious construction.”
He was stunned by the magnificence of Jerry Thomas himslef – a showman “all ablaze with diamonds”. Jerry Thomas was a legend amongst drinkers, who had published in 1862 the first guide to American cocktails. Ambitious for the reputation of their hotel amongst wealthy travellers (soon to be Mark Twain, Robert Louis Stevenson, Waldo Emerson and, I think, Oscar Wilde – when he was on a tour that included a visit to Whitman: “the kiss of Walt Whitman is still on my lips”), the management seduced Thomas from the East Coast with a salary of $100 per week (at a time when Robert E Lee was being paid $75 a week and those of his Second Lieutenants who lived through Gettysburg, a paltry $20).
Generations of drinkers owe Jerry Thomas – and, in the mornings, blame him – for inventing what has become the Martini. Jerry’s recipe for The Martinez, as he called it, is:
- one dash of Boker’s Bitters (orange peel, cardamom and cinnamon)
- two dashes of Marashino
- one pony of Old Tom gin
- one wine glass of Vermouth
- two small lumps of ice (which he advised be washed first)
All to be shaken and strained into a large cocktail glass with a quarter of a lemon and … “if the guest prefers it very sweet, add two dashes of gum syrup”
We thought we owed it to historical research to try one or two of Jerry’s Martinez. I did – but the Captain was captivated instead by the flaming liquor arcing to and fro from the silver tumblers in Jerry’s bejewelled hands – his famous Blue Blazer (recipe below – but caveat emptor).
Jerry Thomas making a Blue Blazer (c) whiskey.com
All too soon, our earnest discussion of 1863 became lost in a gentle haze – out of which emerged a liveried waiter with the supper menu.
I have to say that the gastronomic world has regressed since 1863. As we sat in the multi-columned splendour of the dining room, a procession of extraordinary dishes found their way to me: Pickled Oysters, Green Turtle zu Vieux Madre, Filets of Turbotins a la Buena Vista, Riz de Veau Piques a la Cavour with Artichokes a la Barigoule, and a final flourish of Cabinet Pudding and Tokay Sauce.
But the Captain had ordered better: her feast started simply with Raw Tomatoes before moving on to Consomme de Volaille a la Royale, Vol au Vent of Oysters a la Baden Baden, followed by a flight of Pennsylvania Owls in Steward’s Sauce. Her pudding? – Champagne Jelly with Gum Drops.
I must confess to having reached over for a slice of tomato. The vegetable (confirmed as such by the Supreme Court in 1893 on the basis of its culinary usage not botanical category which confirms it as a fruit) was not like anything I had tasted in the twenty-first century – so much sweeter and without that troublingly perfect uniformity of colour and shape.
I have tried to say how significant was 1863 – and it was certainly a watershed for tomatoes. Though they had been in colonial America, perhaps since 1710,, they were still not popular: “an acquired taste” Ralph Waldo Emerson opined in 1856.
But, slowly, the vegetable had been gaining ground: the first cookbook to include tomato based recipes seems to have been The Virginia House-Wife by Mary Randolph published in 1824. And then ,in 1832, Dr John Bennet praised its health benefits and made good money and publicity for the vegetable by selling ‘tomato pills’ certain to cure a range of ailments.
Despite Waldo Emerson’s reservations, by mid-century, palatable cross-breeds were beginning to find a market: Burr’s 1863 catalogue of Field and Garden Vegetables of America, lists 24 tomato varieties for sale (there are 10,000 today). The Civil War helped the cause – tomatoes grow quickly and can well so were ideal to feed the burgeoning armies. And then, in 1869, came Campbell’s Condensed Tomato Soup and the poor tomato was on its conveyor belt to mass production, mass markets, and blandness.
If you are interested, my favourite way of treating a modern tomato is sliced in fig vinegar with crushed and whole walnuts, salt and a tiny sprinkle of harissa.
SOURCES AND LINKS
Perkins quote: Lowenthal, David. George Perkins Marsh – Prophet of Conservation (Weyerhaeuser Environmental Books. Washington UP)
Hingston quote from Occidental Hotel – Food and Drink in American History. by Andrew F Smith (October 28, 2013) Santa Barbara p.1229 quoted in Wikipedia article Occidental Hotel
Menu selection – from the menu for the Complimentary Dinner To Hon. H. F. Teschemacher, Occidental Hotel, July 21, 1863 on his retirement as Mayor of San Francisco. For the full menu enjoyed that evening see – https://www.abebooks.co.uk/first-edition/complimentary-dinner-hon-teschemacher-Occidental-Hotel/30977995561/bd
The Bar Tender’s Guide: How to Mix All Kinds of Plain and Fancy Drinks by Jerry Thomas (1862) – online here – https://euvs-vintage-cocktail-books.cld.bz/1862-The-bar-tenders-guide-1862-2-50/10
Imbibe!: From Absinthe Cocktail to Whiskey Smash, a Salute in Stories and Drinks to “Professor” Jerry Thomas, Pioneer of the American Bar by David Wondrich (Penguin 2007)
Jerry’s recipe for his extremely dangerous Blue Blazer:
“Use two silver-plated mugs.
Take 1 small tea-spoonful of powdered white sugar dissolved in 1 wine-glass of boiling water. 1 wine-glass of Scotch whiskey.
Put the whiskey and the boiling water in one mug, ignite the liquid with fire, and while blazing mix both ingredients by pouring them four or five times from one mug to the other. If well done this will have the appearance of a continued stream of liquid fire.
Serve in a small bar-glass with a piece of twisted lemon peel.
And do heed Jerry’s warning – “The novice in mixing this beverage should be careful not to scald himself. To become proficient in throwing the liquid from one mug to the other, it will be necessary to practise for some time with cold water.”
Compare British style cocktails – less chilled and less sweet – in the 1863 publication Cups & Their Custom by Henry Porter & George Roberts – https://euvslibrary.com/?p=459
Cooks Illustrated: The History of Tomatoes in America by Corilyn Shropshire (14/05/2021)
Grit – Rural American Knowhow: The History of Tomatoes in America by Craig Lehoullier (06/04/2015)
Modern Farmer: From Poison to Passion: The Secret History of the Tomato by Sara Bir (02/09/2014)
University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, College of Agricultural, Consumer & Environmental Sciences, Illinois Extension The history of tomatoes: How a tropical became a global crop (25/07/2020)
Andrew W. Smith The Tomato in America: Early History, Culture, and Cookery (Illinois UP 1994)
Healthline: Is a Tomato a Fruit or Vegetable? by Ansley Hill (17/10/2018)
YouTube: American Agriculture Technology – Harvest Billions Of Tomatoes in California (with a side-order of canned peaches) – https://youtu.be/C-d5_qLX6FE
YouTube: History of San Francisco in Three Cocktails – https://youtu.be/Wsv_lH6egKo
“When This Cruel War is Over” – perhaps the most popular song of 1863 – sung by both Union and Confederate soldiers (with slight changes to the lyrics) – https://youtu.be/vBuUu_fwzuQ
And perhaps much better known – When Johnny Comes Marching Home Again also written in 1863 – https://youtu.be/T3k8H_9SjoM
And this well-regarded love song somewhat overshadowed by the war – https://youtu.be/FmowHhmPyPw
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