Sunday, November 29, 2009

The Great Chow Mein Famine of ‘09

When I was a student at South School in Somerset, Massachusetts, we engaged in a daily ritual that we imagined common to children across the United States. In the lunch line, we placed on our trays a plastic knife and spork, a carton of coffee milk, a giant sticky roll for dessert and, if we were lucky, a chow mein sandwich.

The woman working the line would give you a styrofoam tray with distinct sections (only on chow-mein-sandwich day were we treated to styrofoam) filled with brown sauce, two slices of white bread, and a brown wax-paper bag full of crispy fried noodles.

Chow-mein-sandwich day was the most important day of the week. I preferred to axe the gravy and the white bread and just eat the noodles out of the bag. But I can still remember the grin on the face of one of my classmates, a sweet kid named Tony who spoke English with a slight Portuguese accent, as he gently rushed his chow mein sandwich to his seat in the cafegymatorium.

What chicken tikka masala is to London or bagels are to New York City, the chow mein sandwich is to greater Fall River.

Yet for much of 2009 the world, or the world that is southeastern Massachusetts and Rhode Island, has been deprived of chow mein sandwiches.

In June fire struck the Oriental Chow Mein Company, founded by Frederick Wong. For decades, this Fall River business has supplied local schools, restaurants, and stores with its distinctive, crunchy chow mein noodles. As of mid November the Wong family, which still owns the company, was trying to re-open at the same time that it warded off incessant phone calls with demands for noodles. Since the 1930s the sandwich has been listed on the menus of both Chinese and American restaurants and the Oriental Chow Mein Company has been and remains the region’s sole noodle distributor.

Could chow mein sandwiches become a bygone food?

If you have missed Emeril Lagasse’s expressions of love for chow mein sandwiches or did not grow up with him in Fall River, you might not know what a chow mein sandwich looks like or how to make one yourself. It’s not pretty, but it is tasty. Basically, it consists of crispy fried noodles covered in a brown sauce, which likely contains pork and only sometimes celery and other vegetables, placed on a hamburger roll or between two slices of square white bread. You may order it unstrained, with celery and other vegetables, or strained, without celery and other vegetables.

You can also, or once could, make it at home with the packaged version that the Oriental Chow Mein Company has distributed to grocery stores. Coveted boxes of Hoo-Mee Chow Mein are rumored to be selling for upwards of fifty dollars each since the fire.

The box, while reproduced until recently, is obviously of an earlier era; it contains a message explaining that Hoo-Mee Chow Mein is best made by housewives. Perhaps this marketing strategy helped to bring what was once an “exotic” food served outside the home into local kitchens.

But why chow mein sandwiches and why Fall River?

Fall River was once booming with textile factories and immigrants from Ireland, England, and Quebec to fill them. The story goes that chow mein sandwiches took off during the Great Depression of the 1930s, because a sandwich was cheaper to buy than a full portion of chow mein. Order a sandwich and you purchased less chow mein, but you at least had the bread to fill you.

The Depression hit Fall River hard and it never really recovered. I do not know if it can withstand the loss of chow mein sandwiches.

The chow mein sandwiches made possible by the Oriental Chow Mein Company are a testament to southeastern Massachusetts’ unique population and immigration history. Chinese-immigrant cooks, no matter where they settled, tailored their foods to the pre-existing culinary propensities of customers. The brown sauce of the chow mein sandwich reflects the tastes of Fall River’s established Yankee, Irish, and English populations of the 1920s and 1930s. The sauce and its contents are cooked for a long period of time or boiled, producing soft vegetables. Given the popularity of boiled foods in New England and among British and Irish immigrants, especially in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Chinese-American cooks like those in the Wong family probably tailored the sauce to their expectations. This, I venture, helps to explain why the soupy sandwich took off in Fall River in particular.

It remains beloved by many, including those of French-Canadian descent.

I would love to know what exactly happened when someone first asked a Chinese-American cook (Frederick Wong?) for a chow mein sandwich. Or did the cook take the initiative in first offering it to customers?

Most of all, I wonder, was that moment strained or unstrained?

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Scotch Raised Bread

To quote my childhood friend Tootie Ramsey: “We are in trou-ble!”

With Thanksgiving approaching, I see no need to do a huge shopping trip for the week. So, for dinner I figured we could have minestrone soup that I put in the freezer a few weeks ago. Why not contrast it with the Scotch Raised Bread, I thought. I found the recipe for that within a newspaper clipping placed in the pages of the 1908 Lowney’s Cook Book. Mrs. Edna T. Jackson says it goes well with beans, and I had cans of baked beans in the cupboard to use if the soup did not thaw in time for dinner.

This recipe appeals to a seasoned baker, which I am not. I had yeast, but I did not have a yeast cake. I hoped that one yeast cake is the equivalent of 2 and 1/4 teaspoons of yeast. I was very skeptical that ¼ cup of water would be enough for all of the dry ingredients. Then again, I thought, one cup of molasses might make up for the dearth of water. And I knew neither what constitutes “enough bread flour to the thickness of regular white bread sponge” nor how to finish that sponge in the “usual way.” I was aware, however, that a sponge could take many hours to rise. At the very least, I figured, the recipe would make copious use of the jar of molasses that sits like a wallflower in my pantry.

Not knowing exactly how to proceed, I decided to just see what happens and hope that I do not wind up like Lucy Ricardo with more bread coming out of the oven than I have apartment.

I also turned to (or, Retro-Stalker, as I like to call it) to do a little searching on Mrs. Edna T. Jackson of The Willows in Centre Harbor, New Hampshire. Judging from the image of a woman on the reverse of the instructions, I suspected that my great-grandmother clipped this recipe in the 1930s. The 1930 census told me that Mrs. Edna T. Jackson and her husband George lived at 54 Main Street in Centre Harbor with an English-speaking, Canadian-born housekeeper named Mary A. Allen. George was a New Hampshire native, but Edna was born in New Brunswick, Canada around 1878. The census also described her as the “manager” of a “boarding house,” which I imagine was called The Willows.

Perhaps Edna T. Jackson served Scotch Raised Bread to guests or residents at The Willows. It is also conceivable that she brought this recipe with her from New Brunswick, as various Scotch breads are popular in the Canadian Maritimes. I cannot find another recipe called “Scotch Raised Bread,” but I have found references on the web to Scotch Oatmeal Bread. Mrs. Jackson, or whoever named this bread, probably called it a raised bread to distinguish it from Scotch shortbread, which is also popular in Atlantic Canada.

Back to the baking, to the molasses and oats mixture I added raisins and a little shy of 4 cups of sifted flour, which I kneaded in my Kitchen Aid. (This is not 1930 and I do not have the requisite board.) Basically, I put in as much flour as I thought the wet ingredients could handle. The dough turned out to be a lovely caramel color. After I let it sit for the first rising (one and a half hours—until it doubled in size), I noticed that Mrs. Jackson tells us to put the dough into “pans” for the second rising. How many pans? I went with two, as that is all I have. I allowed 30 minutes for the second rising, although I cannot say much of anything happened in that interim. I baked the bread at 400 degrees for 30 minutes, not really knowing what to do on that front either.

To my surprise, the recipe worked—or worked well enough. Both of the loaves burned on the bottom, so I baked them at far too high a temperature. But they tasted fine with the molasses flavor very pronounced.

Served it with the baked beans for a change.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Welsh Rarebit

I feel cheated. I've eaten melted cheese on bread, but this was so much better. Much folklore exists as to why this dish is called rarebit and not rabbit, with most explanations positing that Welsh poverty forced that subset of the population of Britain to substitute meat with cheese.

Perhaps they simply realized that this tastes much better than rabbit.

As you can see, there's very little instruction in the recipe. This one is actually quite detailed in comparison to others written down by Great-Grandmother Alice. Basically, I melted everything in a pyrex bowl over a pot of boiling water.

In case you can't read the original, above, here is is again:
1/2 lb. cheese[,] 2 eggs, speck of cayenne[,] 1 tablespoon butter[,] 1/2 teaspoon of salt, teaspoon of mustard[,] 1/2 cup milk[.] [B]reak cheese in small pieces and put it and other ingredients into a saucepan over boiling water stir until the cheese melts serve on toast[.]


I recently came into possession of a few cookbooks that belonged to my great-aunt and her mother, my great-grandmother. Some of these date back to the early twentieth century, including a 1908 edition of the Lowney's Cook Book. The book is and of itself interesting, but between the pages I also found recipes penned or saved by my great-aunt, her mother, and perhaps even my great-great-grandmother. Those that appear to be the oldest are handwritten on scraps of paper. I also discovered recipes in the form of newspaper clippings from the 1930s and 1940s and flyers from the 1940s through 1960s encouraging cooks to use specific brands to make cakes and muffins.

My plan is to start this blog by posting and cooking some of these and other old recipes, while also putting them within some historical context. I want to see if I can recreate the dishes, but I'm just as interested in finding out what stories these recipes (or "receipts," as my great-grandmother called them) might yield.