Imagine yourself a young man of twenty-something. Before you stretches one of the most fascinating cities of the world, during one of the most interesting periods in history. You live in London, England at the end of the nineteenth century. The great River Thames slides along, as it has for ages, both dividing and connecting the City of London. Ships sail to The Dock's, bringing cargo from all parts of the globe. Buckingham Palace is the newest residence of the Royal Family. The streets are paved with crushed stone but the city is thick with smoke from coal fires and fog. Gas lamps are lit during the day, as well as at night. The workhouses of Dickens' Oliver Twist still exist, as do backstreet thieves and pickpockets. You probably don't interact a great deal with either the titled class or the extremely poor. You live close to both the Opera House and the Central Market. From your quarters on Pater Noster Square, you can easily walk to St. Paul's Churchyard to contemplate your future or to Covent Garden to purchase fresh fruits and vegetables. Mostly likely, you stroll Pater-Noster Row, visiting the many stationers and text writers who have shops there. And when you frequent Rule's public house, you are much in demand to share food, drink, a good cigar and an evening of lively conversation with the writers, artists and the theater people who frequent the it and the many other establishments like it that make up your neighborhood.
Why are you a sought after companion? Because you spent a glorious, adventure filled time in Kansas, United States of America! With your father, brother and others you travelled to and lived in a part of the world most alien to other residents of England. But that wasn't enough for you. You wanted to share those days with others and so, in 1886, you wrote and published Emigrant Life In Kansas. You are Percy G. Ebbutt and, we can continue to imagine, while you and your companions dine on traditional fare of roast beef and Yorkshire pudding, you regale them with tales of The Wild West. (And, almost certainly, these conversations incude descriptions of the food and drink in America.)
Food. How can anyone read about life in other times without thinking about what the people wore or read or, most importantly, what they ate! Percy's account is chock full of vivid food imagery. And no wonder! Nineteenth-century English children, until they were about sixteen or seventeen years old, usually dined on meat (mostly mutton), potatoes, bread, rice pudding and oatmeal. A little milk was thrown in for good measure, but not an overabundance. Shipboard food certainly offered nothing new or exciting.
Land. After weeks of the atmosphere at sea, the group must have been overjoyed to reach dry land. The journey from New York to Kansas was almost luxurious by comparison to the cramped quarters of the City of Brooklyn. And finally, the differences of life in Junction City, with a population of only few hundred, when weighed against English life, presumably, were startling. Percy, a mere lad of ten, had been whisked from his normal fare and found himself suddenly surrounded by a plethora of new sights and sounds, smells and tastes. The folks in Junction City were used to an assortment of vagabonds (including a long-haired and dandified "Wild Bill"), so the arrival of four men, two young boys and ten vermilion colored crates probably didn't create much of a stir. But to the English travelers, the crates carried a large portion of their new home.
Those brightly colored cases, Percy tells us, were packed with all the necessities. They contained "tools, clothing, arms and ammunition, besides tea, cocoa, etc." One case also held a most impractical piece of paraphernalia, "a hand corn-mill with a great fly wheel of five feet in diameter." Corn was uniquely American (the English used the word corn as a descriptive for all grain); however, corn meal played a big part in everyday life. One of the most common ways to eat corn meal was, and is, as Corn Bread.
Think of the adventure it must have been for boys, aged ten and twelve, to be allowed to run and play in this unspoiled environment. What a time they had blowing on old cattle horns to make music and spying on Indians and knocking on a strangers door to ask for beer. Boys with eyes wide as they watched desperadoes and "border ruffians" "shooting quails in a stable yard in the city." What fun to discover not only that "game was plentiful," but the Empire Hotel landlady was happy to cook with the game they brought back.
It wasn't just the boys who shared exploits. Percy's father and one of the other men got lost one stormy wet night. As did Walter, one of the other men. This left the boys alone in the house all night but they were very enterprising and ate their supper, shouted a bit in hopes that one of the adults would hear them and find his way home, then went to bed. After all they had to be up early the next morning! And almost every day was a new sight. In the autumn they "used all to go down the creeks gathering wild grapes or plums, or various other kinds of fruit which grew in great abundance" -- "... mulberries, gooseberries, raspberries, blackberries, cherries, strawberries and pawpaws...." Percy tells us that a pawpaw is "a large fleshy fruit somewhat similar to the banana." Others say the smoky taste of the pawpaw is an acqired one, at best. But the berries!
Juice and jam and jellies and cobblers and shortcake and pies fill the senses with pleasure.
What a picture is drawn by Percy's description of the grapes and vines twining their way over the landsacpe. "The grapes were more abundant than anything else. Vines hung on nearly every tree, or clambered over the great rocks with which the ravines are fringed, disputing possession with the Virginia creeper or the wild hop. The grapes, after being picked, were dried in the sun, and were very nice in the winter either stewed or made into pies." Who could wait for the cold weather and a warm piece of pie?
Spring and summer taught the boys about ponies and Methodists and snakes. One of the former, named Barney, went into the water with the children. What a fine pony he was, not only going into the water with the children, but allowing himself to be used as a diving board! The snakes hid in bushes and coiled on rocks and slithered through the water. As the transplanted English boys experienced their first Kansas heat, they also experienced their first parties. The Methodists (and others) set the tone for "socials" by looking "upon dancing as an unpardonable sin," although they did allow the young people to play "silly and childish games." The boys learned both quirky rhymes and that kissing, if done in the right circumstances, was allowed.
In the winter the Englishmen learned to trap prairie fowl. They would "put a big box on top of a figure 4 piece, and thrown some Indian corn under for bait, and would sometimes catch as many as three or four of these large birds at one time."
About the author, Susan Chaffin:
"I live in Woodbury Connecticut, a town where there are more antique stores than markets, with my husband (Chris) and two labrador retrievers (Moose & Casey). We also share the land with white tail deer, wild turkey, geese, racoons, fox, coyote and a variety of brightly colored birds.We have two grown children, Sean, who is a chef, and Erin, who is a junior in college. My undergrad work was in philosophy and English but I discovered history about 10 years ago and it has developed into a passion. I also love food (cooking and eating and talking about). Although I am researching a book on early women river guides and about to publish a workbook on writing personal and family history, I hadn't thought about combining food and writing and history until 'the other Susan' [the Voices editor] mentioned it. And what fun this has been! The recipies are all from my Kansas family: my mother Ruth Frisbie Hedrick (who just turned 85), my great aunt, Florence Cook Mamie Smith, and my great uncle, Bill Curth."
Editor's note: When I asked Susan to provide some information about herself, she suggested hopefully, "She's tall ... she's thin ... she can eat anything and never gains an ounce ...."!