Did you know that the notes in the refrain of “Cotton Blossom” are the inverted notes of the refrain of “Old Man River.” Go ahead, sing it in your head: Cot-ton Blossom……Old Man River. See? Now good luck getting that out of your head.
We’re speaking, of course, of the musical Show Boat, which was based on the novel of the same name by Edna Ferber. I took a compilation of five of her novels out of the library, because I actually wanted to read Saratoga Trunk. But Show Boat was there and it won the mental coin toss and I read it first. I hadn’t read anything by Edna Ferber before and was just blown away by her writing. Her sentence structure and cadence make the paragraphs read like songs. And her sensory descriptions are beyond everything. You don’t read Show Boat, you see, hear, smell, feel, touch and eat it. The food was unbelievable!
Begin with how the mischievous and Gallic Captain Andy Hawks convinces his staunch, Puritanical wife Parthy of his plan to buy the Mississippi river show boat Cotton Blossom:
“‘…And will you look at the way the kitchen looks, spite of ’em. Slick’s a whistle. Look at the stove!’ Crafty Andy.
Parthenia Ann Hawks looked at the stove. And what a stove it was! Broad-bosomed, ample, vast, like a huge fertile black mammal whose breast would suckle numberless eager sprawling bubbling pots and pans. It shone richly. Gazing upon this generous expanse you felt that from its source could emerge nothing that was not savoury, nourishing, satisfying. Above it, and around the walls, on hooks, hung rows of pans and kettlesof every size and shape, all neatly suspended by their pigtails. Here was the wherewithal for boundless cooking. You pictured whole hams, sizzling; fowls neatly trussed in rows; platoons of brown loaves; hampers of green vegetables; vast plateaus of pies. Crockery, thick, white, coarse, was piled, plate on plate, platter on platter, behind the neat doors of the pantry. A supplementary and redundant kerosene stove stood obligingly in the corner.
‘Little hot snack at night, after the show,’ Andy explained. ‘Coffee or an egg, maybe, and no lighting the big wood burner.’
There crept slowly, slowly over Parthy’s face a look of speculation, and this in turn was replaced by an expression that was, paradoxically, at once eager and dreamy…”
The boat is bought and a new life begun. Parthy is slow and reluctant to embrace it, but Andy is in his element, and so is his French lineage:
“Certainly it was due to Andy more than Parthy that the Cotton Blossom was reputed the best-fed show boat on the rivers. He was always bringing home in triumph a great juicy ham, a side of beef. He liked to forage the season’s first and best: a bushel of downy peaches, fresh-picked; watermelons; little honey-sweet seckel pears; a dozen plump broilers; new corn; a great yellow cheese ripe for cutting.
“He would plump his purchases down on the kitchen table while Queenie surveyed his booty, hands on ample hips. She never resented his suggestions, though Parthy’s offended her. Capering, Andy would poke a forefinger into a pullet’s fat sides. ‘Rub ’em over with a little garlic, Queenie, to flavour ’em up. Plenty of butter and strips of bacon. Cover ’em over till they’re tender and then give ’em a quick brown the last twenty minutes.”
It’s a magical, fantastic life for Magnolia, Andy and Parthy’s precocious daughter. She has the run of the ship from bow to stern, from stage to dressing rooms, from the captain’s wheel high above, to the kitchen far beneath, and it’s here she spends some of her happiest hours:
“Magnolia liked to loiter in the big, low-raftered kitchen. It was a place of pleasant smells and sights and sounds. It was here that she learned Negro spirituals from Jo and cooking from Queenie, both of which accomplishments stood her in good stead in later years. Queenie had, for example, a way of stuffing a ham for baking. It was a fasincating process to behold, and one that took hours. Spices – bay, thyme, onion, clove, mustard, allspice, pepper – chopped and mixed and stirred together. A sharp-pointed knife plunged deep into the juicy ham. The incision stuffed with the spicy mixture. Another plunge with the knife. Another filling. Again and again and again until the great ham had grown to twice its size. Then a heavy clean white cloth, needle and coarse thread. Sewed up tight and plump in its jacket the ham was immersed in a pot of water and boiled. Out when tender, the jacket removed; into the oven with it. Basting and basting from Queenie’s long-handled spoon. The long sharp knife again for cutting, and then the slices, juicy and scented, with the stuffing of spices making a mosaic pattern against the pink of the meat…”
Magnolia meets Gay Ravenal, a professional gambler who turns actor, but never loses the itch for the game. After they are married, he convinces Magnolia to move to Chicago with their daughter Kim, where their life is dictated by whichever way the Ravenal luck runs. Where fortune goes, the food follows. “If the Ravenal luck was high, [breakfast] was eaten in leisurely luxury at Billy Boyle’s Chop House between Clark and Dearborn streets.”
“In came the brokers from the Board of Trade across the way. Smoke-blue air. The rich heavy smell of thick steaks cut from prime Western beef. Massive glasses of beer through which shone the pale amber of light brew, or the seal-brown of dark. The scent of strong black coffee. Rye bread pungent with caraway. Little crisp round breakfast rolls sprinkled with poppy-seed.
This is 1870s Chicago, before it “got civic” – young, raw, bustling, coarse, when:
“Calories, high blood pressure, vegetable luncheons, golf, were words not yet included in the American everyday vocabulary. Fried potatoes were still considered a breakfast dish, and a meatless meal was a snack.”
We learn of the culture of the professional gambler, and of Chicago’s numerous gambling establishments. Gay Ravenal favors Mike McDonald’s “The Store”, and who wouldn’t:
“Ravenal might interrupt his game to eat something, but this was not his rule. He ate usually after he had finished his play for the day. It was understood that he and the others of his stamp were the guests of McDonald or of Hankins. Twenty-five-cent cigars were to be had for the taking. Drinks of every description. Hot food of the choicest sort and of almost any variety could be ordered and eaten as though this were one’s own house, and the servants at one’s command. Hot soups and broths. Steaks. Chops. Hot birds. You could eat this at a little white-spread table alone, or with your companions, or you could have it brought to you as you played. On long tables in the adjoining room were spread the cold viands – roast chickens, tongue, sausages, cheese, joints of roast beef, salads. Everything about the place gave to its habitués the illusion of plenty, of ease, of luxury…”
Luck continues to dictate the room and board of the Ravenals, such as at Cardinal Bemis’ famous place on Michigan Avenue:
“He would ask suavely, ‘What kind of a dinner, Mr. Ravenal?’ If Gay replied, ‘Oh – uh – a cocktail and a little red wine,’ Cardinal Bemis knew that luck was only so-so, and that the dinner was to be good, but plainish. But if, in reply to the tactful question, Gay said, magnificently, ‘A cocktail, Cardinal; claret, sauterne, champagne, and liqueurs,’ Bemis knew that Ravenal had had a real run of luck and prepared the canvasbacks boiled in champagne; or there were squabs or plover, with all sorts of delicacies, and the famous frozen watermelon that had been plugged, filled with champagne, put on ice for a day, and served in such chunks of scarlet fragrance as made the nectar and ambrosia of the gods seem poor, flavourless fare indeed.”
A reversal of fortune could quickly put the Ravenals in a rooming house on “Gambler’s Alley” where weak coffee and single eggs are made over a gas jet in the room, and Magnolia hoards the nickels that will allow her and her daughter a trolley ride to the park on Lake Shore Drive. And then, just as quickly, the luck can turn again:
“It was no novelty for Kim Ravenal to fall asleep in the dingy discomfort of a north side rooming house and to wake up amidst the bright luxuriousness of a hotel suite, without ever having been conscious of the events which had wrought this change. Instead of milk out of the bottle and an egg cooked over the gas jet, there was a shining breakfast tray bearing mysterious round-domed dishes whose covers you whipped off to disclose what not of savoury delights! Crisp curls of bacon, parsley-decked; eggs baked and actually bubbling in a brown crockery container; hot golden buttered toast. And her mother calling gaily in from the next room, ‘Drink your milk with your breakfast, Kim darling! Don’t gulp it all down in one swallow at the end.'”
As their circumstances become more dire, the descriptions of food grow more meagre and infrequent, and after Ravenal’s desertion and the decline of the river boat era, the food of bygone days becomes a dream. But what a dream indeed…