The Otis House: When Wilshire Boulevard was Mansion Row in Los Angeles

Harrison Grey Otis residence on Wilshire Boulevard, Los Angeles (demolished)


I was browsing through the amazing digital archives of the New York Public Library recently, looking for fun stuff to pin to my Slices of Blue Sky Pinterest boards, and I ran across an old postcard from Los Angeles that caught my attention. The photo isn’t much — it’s a pretty big Spanish-style house — but the name in the caption is huge in Los Angeles history: Harrison Gray Otis. I remembered it from somewhere…cue the harp*…. oh yes, it was mentioned in my book review of Wilshire Boulevard: Grand Concourse of Los Angeles.

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Completing the Celery Trilogy: A Celery Ngram

loading celery crates onto trucks near Sarasota, Florida - Florida Memory on FlickrI’d like to conclude my celery trilogy by looking at the ngram for celery (the first two parts of the trilogy were about celery on restaurant menus and celery vases).  Ngrams show the popularity of a word or phrase throughout time and are especially useful for slang, grammar, and spelling preferences (like ketchup and catsup). An ngram is a blunt tool, of course, since it’s not possible to limit the search to books with a certain subject matter (like cookbooks).

The chart below is the ngram for celery. There are three notable features: a significant rise between 1900 and 1920, a drop between 1940 and the mid-1960s, and another significant rise from the mid-1960s to the early 1980s. The first rise was probably related to authors capitalizing on the popularity of celery in that era, both for eating and growing (at home and commercially). The mid-century decline was likely connected to the post-war interest in processed food and convenience, a place where celery does not fit (except perhaps in canned cream of celery soup).  I’d guess that the renewed interest in healthy eating in the 60s and 70s led to celery’s change of fortune (hippies, back to the land, clean eating, etc.). To get the real answers would take a lot more research.

Image Credits
Burquest and Stockbridge Company employees loading celery crates onto trucks near Sarasota, Florida on Flickr Commons. No known copyright restrictions.

Cover of Celery for Profit: An Exposé of Modern Methods in Celery Growing (1893), original from the University of Minnesota.  No known copyright restrictions.

Cover of Celery for Profit - An Exposé of Modern Methods in Celery Growing, 1893, U of MN Library

Ornate Celery Vases Brought Style to an Unexciting Vegetable

Celery Vase from the Metropolitan Museum of Art - 1519 - DP241433 Celery Vase from the Metropolitan Museum of Art - 1513 - ADA5473 Celery Vase from the Metropolitan Museum of Art - 1511 - 187153 Celery Vase from Metropolitan Museum of Art - 9310 - DP206750 Celery Vase from the Metropolitan Museum of Art - 667481 - DP341335
The Seller of Celery by John Ingram - Metropolitan Museum of Art DP826283
“The Seller of Celery” by John Ingram (18th c.)

When I typed “celery” into the CC Search box to search a few museums’ public domain collections to illustrate my previous post on celery on restaurant menus, I was expecting one or two results, perhaps a still life. And so I was surprised when the search returned a bunch of objects called “celery vases” from the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It turns out that “celery vases” were a thing. And some of them are attractive works in glass or ceramic.

Celery was a popular vegetable in the 1800s and early 1900s — often served as an appetizer with other raw or pickled vegetables. And so the artisans of the era created appropriate dishes to hold the crisp green stalks. (I wonder: are potters and glass makers working feverishly on the ideal plates for avocado toast or bowls for kale salad?)

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Before 1950, Celery Was an Extremely Popular Restaurant Menu Item

Charts of celery on restaurant menus, data from NYPL

I don’t like celery, so it might have been a defense mechanism when I started noticing it on menu after menu from the late-19th and early-20th centuries*. As I looked through the Buttolph Collection of Menus for food conservation messages on World War I-era menus, it seemed that nearly every menu included celery as a distinct menu item, like the five shown below.

Collage of menus with celery, menus from NYPL

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Bring Zing to Your Posts with Public Domain or Creative Commons Images

Banana, from Flora de Filipinas by F.M. Blanco, ca 1880 Unswept floor mosaic from ancient Rome Cacao from Flore Medicale by Chaumeton et al, 1820.08 Hiroshige woodblock print - Fugu and Inada Fish, from the series Uozukushi DP123586 Winslow Homer Gulf Stream - from the Metropolitan Museum of Art DP140858 Owl person drawing by W.M. Thackeray from Thackerayana (1875) - page 387 Passenger Pigeons by Audubon 1840-1844 from NYPL digital collections "Her Bitter Awakening", book cover from the British Library Tacos for 89 cents from Robert Couse-Baker on Flickr Heade - Hummingbird and passionflowers DT2080 from the Metropolitan Museum of Art

Main Reading Room at the U.S. Library of CongressSoon after I started blogging 10+ years ago, I learned about Creative Commons licenses, which some creators apply to their own work so it can be shared with certain restrictions (note that this blog is currently licensed with a CC BY-NC-SA 2.5, and my Flickr collection also has a CC license).  After figuring out the mechanics, I started using CC-licensed items to add visual elements to my blog posts (the first CC image I used was a lovely black and white photo of a crow in flight from Mark Lorch’s collection for my random musings about a Los Angeles street).  I continued to use Creative Commons art, mostly from Flickr, when I wanted a picture of a carrot, or a wheel of cheese, or something similarly relevant to my post.

As time went on, new collections of images appeared and I learned about existing collections, and started to use them as sources of the art for my blog. Eventually, however, my tastes changed slightly and I started being attracted to the ‘vintage’ material in the archives. I liked adding quirky or unusual images to my posts — instead of a picture of a finished dish that I was writing about, I’d include something from an old seed catalog or a fairy tale (as in my post about turnip pickles and turnip greens).

In the spirit of the Creative Commons, I’ll share a few of my favorite sources and list some of their good and bad characteristics:  Flickr Commons, Flickr, Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons CCSearch, and Google Books/Hathi Trust.

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A Man’s Pie from Sun-Maid Raisins

A Man's Pie - ad from California Associated Raisin Co. in 1933 Saturday Evening Post

One of my finds while bouncing through the Flickr Commons was this 1920 advertisement for “A Man’s Pie.”

A Man's Pie - ad from California Associated Raisin Co. in 1933 Saturday Evening Post

A “Man’s Pie,” it turns out, is a California raisin pie.  Here’s some of the copy:

A Man’s Pie

Fresh — delicious. Buy it ready baked.

Just phone to your grocer or bake shop and say, “Send a California Raisin Pie.”

You’ll get the pie that men like best because of its flavor and nourishment.

It’s a man’s pie — and a woman’s, too, for it saves home baking.

I don’t recall ever eating a raisin pie, but it sounds promising — I can imagine some spices, macerating the raisins in brandy or rum, and intense flavor. I made a quick run-through of my baking cookbooks and found only one recipe for raisin pie (in Professional Baking by Wayne Gisslen). Surprisingly, the Pie and Pastry Bible by Rose Levy Beranbaum doesn’t have a raisin pie (but does have macerated raisins for another dessert).

Image credit
A Man’s Pie, advertisement from the California Associated Raisin Co. in the November 20, 1920 Saturday Evening Post, from the Internet Archive, no known copyright restrictions.

Yogurt Making Updated

yogurt container pattern

I have been making yogurt at home for more than five years, avoiding countless plastic containers and saving a good bit of money.  Over that time I have made some improvements to my process, such as switching from 1 quart canning jars to the Luminarc Working Glass (easier to use, easier to clean).  To account for these upgrades, I updated my earlier post on yogurt making which you can find here:    The Home-Made Yogurt Routine.


Another Batch of Vintage Book Covers

"A Man's Man", book cover from the British Library

While browsing the amazing and often confounding Flickr Commons, I was entranced by a collection of late 19th century book covers from the British Library. The majority of the nearly 900 covers are “pulp novels,” but you’ll also find travel books, text books, and other miscellany. Last month I shared a batch of six vintage book covers, and this post has six more in the image gallery that have interesting art or a lurid title.  (Click any one of the images to expand the image and navigate through the collection.)


Image Credits
All book covers from the British Library’s Flickr Commons collection, in the Book Covers found by the community from the Mechanical Curator Collection. No known copyright restrictions.

The Cowboy Clan, or the Tigress of Texas
Dark Dashwood, the Desperate; or the Child of the Sun
Mad Tom’s Mission; or Crushing the Silver Scorpions
The Texas Tramp, or Solid Sam the Yankee Hercules
A Man’s Man
Cloven Hoof – The Demon Buffalo of the Border Vultures

Taco Innovation: Two Early Tortilla Frying Patents

Detail of illustration page from US Patent US2570374

Tacos for 89 cents from Robert Couse-Baker on Flickr I recently finished reading Gustavo Arellano’s Taco USA, an interesting combo platter of history, personal stories, and food culture. In his detailed overview of the history and evolution of Mexican food in the U.S.A., Arellano recounts many fascinating stories, like how the first English-language taco recipe got into print, the invention of the frozen margarita machine, and inventions for frying tortillas for tacos.  In this post, I’m looking at that last topic, tortilla frying inventions.

In the late 1940s, tacos became a popular food in some parts of the United States.  Most tacos back then were hard-shelled, so each day restaurants needed to fry lots of corn tortillas into the taco shape before filling and serving. It was a tedious and sometimes dangerous ordeal for kitchen staff, as Arellano writes in Taco USA:

But preparing the tacos was an arduous task. In the days before fast food, restaurateurs fried each taco shell to order, throwing them into hot oil in a U-shaped form held together by a toothpick. To properly fry them, cooks had to poke around the cooking oil with their fingers or clumsily use utensils to ensure that each side achieved an ideal crispiness, then take out the finished product without scalding themselves.

Naturally, restaurateurs, cooks and inventors tried to find a better way. And some even went through the lengthy process of filing for a patent on their invention.

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Two Distinctive Fruit Crate Labels

Berkeley Apricots fruit crate label from California Historical Society Flickr collection

In this post, a look at two distinctive fruit crate labels.

“Don’t Worry” Apples Fruit Crate Label

Don't worry apples fruit crate label from California Historical Society Flickr collection

I doubt that “Don’t Worry” brand apples would be a successful brand today.  It’s easy for me to come up with a bushel of worrisome questions when choosing your food.  Organic? Local? What pesticides? Imported? In season? By buying the trendy Honeycrisp, am I dooming heirloom varieties?  Do they still use alar? Or how about the use of arsenic and lead as pesticides (in the distant past)?

The Omnivore’s Guilt Trip at New York Magazine takes a good look at some of the troubles one can face.

Without today’s angst about food, perhaps a modern version is the time-worn Don’t Worry pear label on the Flickr account of user firebrat.

Berkeley Apricots Fruit Crate Label

Berkeley Apricots fruit crate label from California Historical Society Flickr collection

As a graduate of the University of California, Berkeley, I find this label exciting.  Sure, the proportions of Sather Tower aren’t quite right, and the artist removed tower’s surroundings to put it in a pasture, but it’s advertising, not a documentary.  Reading the label, however, brings slightly different feelings: “Below U.S. Standard…Not High Grade.”  Perhaps whoever decided that Berkeley apricots would be “not high grade” was a Stanford graduate?  (As far as I know, Berkeley never had commercial apricot orchards, or any other large scale agricultural endeavors. There were famous apricot orchards at the southern end of San Francisco Bay in Santa Clara County.)

Image credits
Don’t Worry brand fruit crate label and Berkeley Apricots fruit crate label from the California Historical Society’s Flickr Commons Collection, no known copyright restrictions.  The California Historical Society’s collection “comprises thousands of crate, can, and bottle labels, the bulk of which were designed and created between the 1920s and 1940s by San Francisco and Los Angeles lithography companies”