Food Bytes: Essays on Burlington’s Food History


How many oysters can an oyster shucker shuck?

Jul 07, 2016 Gail Rosenberg

Author Rowan Jacobsen would effortlessly shuck off every excuse I have for not eating oysters.

They’re too slimy, I’d say. In his book A Geography of Oysters, Jacobsen already anticipated my justification. “But so are mangos,” he’d reply. Oysters are alive, I’d argue. His response, “Don’t fret it. An oyster feels no pain and thinks no thoughts. It has no real brain, just a feeble cluster of ganglia. To an oyster, a housefly is a super genius.”

I have no plans to eat oysters – or houseflies for that matter.

Still, I have become fully consumed by oysters. I read Jacobsen’s book and also Mark Kerlansky’s absorbing history of the role of oysters in New York City, The Big Oyster. I’ve marked pages in fictional books, a number about NYC, which describe oyster saloons and middens of oyster shells in the streets. And in Jane Ziegelman’s extraordinary non-fiction book 97 Orchard, I read about German Jewish immigrants reinterpreting dietary restrictions about shellfish to make exceptions for oysters. Ziegelman includes a description of a meal in NYC held shortly after the Civil War that included oysters: “Well,” said the (Jewish) host, “I belong to that portion of the people of Israel who are changing the customs of our fathers to conform to the times and country in which we live. We make a distinction between what is moral in the law, and, of course, binding, and what is sanitary….The oysters of Palestine were coppery and poisonous. Had the great lawgiver enjoyed a fry or stew of Saddlerocks or Chesapeake Bay oysters, he would have made an exception in their favor.”

I can’t find another food from the 1800s and early 1900s that was equally popular among rich and poor. This was a high protein, tasty food easily accessible to people who couldn’t afford many other options. In NYC, hundreds of oyster stalls sold “all you could eat for 6 cents” while wealthy individuals sat in fancy restaurants downing oysters before ordering numerous other courses.

Which brings us to Burlington and its love affair with oysters, past and present. At UVM Special Collections, I searched through old Vermont cookbooks. In a sampling of seven, published between 1885 and 1902, there was a host of oyster recipes. In the 1889 Young Ladies of the First Baptist Society Cookbook, from Brattleboro, Vermont,there were five recipes in the chapter on Fish. Three of these were oyster recipes – oyster patties, oyster pie, and croustade of oyster. A recipe for oyster stew was under Soups. The cookbook also had ads, including one for F.H. Scott Provisions noting that oysters were “fresh every day” and cost $1.45 per gallon. Oyster recipes in the other cookbooks included oyster stew, oyster fritters, fried oysters (with one advising cooks to buy large oysters), broiled oysters, oyster cutlets, oyster pie, raw oysters, and escalloped oysters.

In the 1850s and 1860s, there were oyster saloons on the waterfront and on Church Street and Main Street. In 1869, G.W. Kelley Wholesale Groceries & Provisions at 10 Church Street bragged about stocking “oysters first in their season.” In 1915, there were two fish and oyster dealers downtown. Kieslich’s Market on North Avenue had a large container on its front porch, with Oysters printed on it, and customers could scoop their own oysters, put them in Chinese-style take out cartons, and bring them inside to pay.

Where were these oysters coming from? When Lake Champlain was the salt-water Champlain Sea, were oysters growing here? Elise and I posed the question to faculty of the Geology Department at UVM. The short answer: probably not – the water was too cold. They did send a research article that reveals oyster shells from elsewhere were brought here 500 – 700 years ago. So theAmerican Indians were eating oysters here for hundreds of years.

We figured oysters were being imported from New York, Massachusetts, Maine, and/orCanada. But we were seeking documentation. The Maritime Museum’s Executive Director, Erick Tichonuk, and archaeologist Scott McLaughlin provided it. They say that the manifest from the first cargo ship coming from New York through the newly built Champlain Canal had oysters on it.

And just how many oysters can an oyster shuckers shuck? As described in the amazing book Eat the City by Robin Shulman, an oyster-shucking contest was held in Grand Central Station, NYC, in 1885. The winner shucked 2,500 oysters in two hours, 23 minutes, and 39 and ¾ seconds.

Burlington restaurants featuring oysters and even an oyster cocktail (Hen of the Woods serves a shot of vodka set on a plate with ice and one oyster) now include The Asiana Noodle Shop, Bleu, Church & Main, Hen of the Woods, The IceHouse, Juniper’s, Leunig’s, Shanty on the Shore, and E.B. Strong’s.

Wouldn’t a 15-minute shucking competition among local restaurants, with donors paying big bucks for the shucked oysters, make an appetizing fundraiser?

I need to get something to eat – but, Rowan, it definitely won’t be oysters.


Tater Flakes

May 30, 2015 Gail Rosenberg

It slices, drops, cooks, curls, crisps, and browns. The Why-Not Tater-Flakes Company Opens on Lower Church Street, Burlington, VT, in 1925. And, with the promise of amazing investment returns, why not? OR Hey Alan Newman! The Why-Not Tater Flake Company already built it.

Want career advice for 2015? Pundits say your future is in software development, biomedical and environmental engineering, and physical therapy.

In 1967, if you followed the advice given to Dustin Hoffman’s character in The Graduate, your future would have been captured in one word – “plastics.”

  1. If you wished for a “thriving, money-making business,” according to descriptive ads placed in Popular Mechanics and newspapers throughout the country, your future was bright if you opened a TATER-FLAKE store.

Here was your equal gender rights opportunity. “Women as well as men are successful,” offered the three-quarter page ad in the February 1925 issue of Popular Mechanics. “Be the TATER FLAKE man or woman in your vicinity,” the ad screamed. “Bright boy or girl” could operate the special machine, said a quarter-page ad in the magazine’s June 1925 issue.

And what a machine!

“It slices, drops, cooks, curls, crisps and browns,” the ads bragged. An earlier ad in the February issue extolled the money-making possibilities. “$1,000 monthly,” the banner promised. “Two hundred stores in operation averaging $100 to $250 weekly.” The company challenged readers to “figure the profit” when $2.50 worth of potatoes makes $25 worth of Tater-Flakes.

Buyers even had a built-in slogan: “They’re Smackin’ Good.”

All an entrepreneur needed was this newly-invented machine, a good location, a medium-sized storeroom, ideally a display window to entice customers, and a distribution plan to sell wholesale to grocers, restaurants, druggists, pool rooms, and cigar stands.

Tasting success, W.E. Mitiguy opened the Why-Not Tater Flake Co. in 1925 at 176 Church Street, Burlington. The store is listed in the Burlington Business Directory. And Wilfred E. Mitiguy is listed, along with his wife Lillian, in the Alphabetical Directory as Proprietor. For the ten years before and after, there is no mention of W.E. and Lillian Mitiguy. They lived at 72 North Willard for one year only.

The store appeared in the city directory for that one year. Then the business seems to have crumbled. It disappeared from Burlington, just like its proprietors.

Burlington had to wait more than 60 years for a new potato chip company to open. Champ’s Chips was located on Pine Street, near what is now called the Soda Plant, and operated there between 1988 and 1994.

Madhouse Munchies opened next, in 1996 (albeit in South Burlington), and has been featured by Raechel Ray and Al Roker on TV and in food sections in the Boston Globe and NY Times, among others. When Magic Hat founder Alan Newman was contractually forced to sell his shares in the company, Seven Days interviewed him about his plans (November 2, 2011). He had made a bid for Madhouse. He told reporter Andy Bromage that he planned to create a Willy Wonka-esque potato chip factory. Then he made his partnership deal with Samuel Adams Beer and the Boston Beer Company instead. Perhaps that seemed an ideal match. Or, just maybe, Newman learned about Burlington’s Why-Not Tater Flake store and figured we’ve already had our storybook machine.


Food Carts Revisited

May 30, 2015 Gail Rosenberg

120 Years of Lunch Carts But Who’s Counting?

A dozen food carts set up Wednesday nights in July on Church Street as a promotional event.

Vermont may beat out Portland for the number of breweries per capita, but we can’t hold a gas grill to the 500-plus food carts there.

Still, we match Portland’s history of eating from food carts! We’re talking 1895 here. That’s when the Burlington City Directory listed H.D. Stone as Proprietor of the White House Café on Bank Street by the corner of Church. The following year the Café is listed at College near the Y.M.C.A. and is described as “night lunch,” an early designation for lunch wagons that were open (no surprise here) through the night. These night wagons served people on late shifts seeking food after long hours. The carts were also called Owls because they served the needs of people who were out late for recreation—night owls.

The lunch cart we talk about on our tour was owned by Samuel Bergman who started in Winooski, then set up at Main Street near City Hall Park, and in 1902 moved to 32 Church Street. From there, he moved to various nearby locations. While another Burlingtonian, Israel Colodny, was granted licenses for two night lunch carts in 1900 (he ran one at Main Street near City Hall for the next three years), Bergman got a license for only three months, possibly because of prior problems. By 1916 he was granted a license to move his lunch cart just south of the Van Ness House, located on Main and St. Paul Streets.

According to a May 10, 1917 Burlington Free Press story, “A complaint was received in writing from Mrs. F.E. Gaines, who owns a home on Pine Street, which abuts Property of the Van Ness House,” and specifically about where Bergman had his lunch wagon. But Bergman had his supporters too. In July 1917 the Free Press reported that a petition was signed by a large number of citizens asking that Bergman be granted a license to maintain his lunch cart at his then current stand. After Bergman pleaded before the Board that he would be ruined, his license was finally extended for a year, but only after he promised that he would not apply for it again in the same location as it was called an “unsightly object in the street heading for the Union Station.”

Samuel Bergman’s granddaughter told us that her father talked about how he helped his father in the wagon prepare hamburgers and possibly hot dogs. Other information about what was served in Vermont lunch carts comes, intriguingly, from newspaper articles of arrests in or around the carts and the reporters’ descriptions of what had been consumed. In 1920, a report of an arrest at a cart on Main Street and South Winooski Avenue said that the perpetrator had a “sandwich and a glass of milk in the cart.” In 1912 while the partner of a man who “did the shooting” waited for the police to arrive, he ate two sandwiches and a cup of coffee in Watson’s lunch cart in Bennington.

Ads or news briefs were other ways to learn the menu. A lunch wagon on the NH/VT border, near Lake Spofford, NH, in 1898 advertised that it had milk, butter, eggs, bread, and pies for sale, and that hot clam chowder, baked beans, sandwiches, and “frankforts” were “constantly on hand.” Ice cold drinks included ginger ale, soda, birch beer, and moxie. The July 9, 1917 Bennington Evening Banner “Briefs” announced that strawberry shortcake would be served at the Hughes lunch cart on Wednesday.

The Historical Oregonian, Portland’s early newspaper, had an ad in 1898: “Must sell by Jan. 10 Night Lunch Wagon “The Owl.” A lunch wagon ad in 1899 declared the business as good “for one man.” As in Burlington, other reports described arrests or altercations at or near lunch wagons. Astoria, some 96 miles from Portland, had its wagons in 1900, according to local papers. Similar to today’s licensed taxi owners protesting Uber cars, restaurant owners and countermen there advocated for higher license fees and year-round fees for the carts that could just come in during high season.

In Salem, OR, ads in the Daily Capital Journal in 1911 and 1912 for the Dick Saloon lunch wagon and Fred’s lunch wagon in front of the Madison Saloon tried to lure customers by claiming their meat sandwiches were fried in “creamery butter” and their hot sandwiches were “dandy.” They advertised “Coney Islands, hot tamales, and chicken tamales.” They suggested that men stop on their way home from work to buy chicken tamales for their wives.

Imagine Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein in Portlandia parodying this February 17, 1914 news story from Portland in the East Oregonian.

Girl Tries to Kick Hat. Just for That Grace Williams finds Herself Arrested by Police: Miss Grace Williams, who was described as a clerk, was arrested Saturday night for attempting to kick a man’s hat from his head. She had stopped at a sandwich wagon for lunch. Martin Mathison greeted her by saying, “Hello, kid.” She retorted, “Whadd’ye mean, ‘kid?’” So he said, “Why, honeybunch.” Williams said she’d kick his bloomin’ hat off his head if he trifled with her. He said, “Try it. Just try it once! I’ll…” The officers say that she tried. The kick fell “a trifle short of the target,” but the uproar attracted the attention of the police. Williams was charged with attempting to kick Mathison’s hat from his head by Patrolmen Green and Gustafson. She was released on $20 bail.

Lunch carts will continue to grace Church Street during the day. Gratitude for the continued presence of Friday night food wagons on Pine Street. If you go to either, wear your hats!



BITES OF BURLINGTON HISTORY

May 30, 2015 Gail Rosenberg

We asked a Burlington historian and City of Burlington Senior Planner, Mary O’Neil, a question about a downtown building that she answered quickly and concisely. Then she added stories about powerful women business leaders of our past, downtown apartment building and early home ownership, and a Lake Champlain steamboat captain’s journal entry: “My birthday – 23 years of age. Fine weather.” She described what happens when she is asked about Burlington’s past. “I have all these pieces of information floating in my brain,” she said.

We know how she feels. We have gathered information like farm-fresh raw ingredients in search of a recipe.

When Elise and I set out to uncover the food traditions of the various ethnic groups that settled Burlington more than 100 years ago or those who were already here, we found very little research that focused on food history. Reference librarians, local historians, and City Hall staffers were often stumped by our questions about whether pigs roamed the tenement streets of the waterfront in the mid-1800s; what foods were served from the first recorded food cart on Church Street; where did the oysters that were sold in local taverns, fish stores, and groceries come from; which early beekeepers sold honey to Burlington groceries; and which businesses had beer and liquor licenses during the years municipalities voted on being “wet” or “dry.”

Like Mary O’Neil, we have far more information in our brains and notes on our laptops than we can use on a three-hour walking-and-eating tour of the city. We tried. Our first practice tour took six hours. It’s been hard to cut out these bites of history, especially knowing they haven’t been sampled before.

So that’s how this Bites of Burlington History blog was cooked up. We will write about how the US Coast Guard stationed in Burlington saved Thanksgiving, how a “world famous” tater chip machine didn’t burn up the market, how “Bananas” Fayette got his nickname, and much more.

We invite you to ask us questions, send us stories your families have told you, and take our Burlington Edible History tour. Since starting this research, I am hungry all the time. For now I need to get something to eat.

Gail