Researching Food: Post Script with Peter G. Rose

Traditions of the Hudson Valley Dutch with Peter G. RoseRecently, I interviewed food historian Peter G. Rose about her book Food, Drink and Celebrations of the Hudson Valley Dutch (Listen to the interview here). The book describes the traditions and celebrations of the Hudson Valley Dutch, some of which were carried over from the Netherlands and some of which were adopted in the new world.

With this Post Script interview we dig a little deeper into the occupation of a food historian and how it differs from other types of historians.

Post Script: Researching Food with Peter G. Rose

MPL: How did you become a food historian?

PGR: Becoming a food historian gradually happened as a natural extension of my work as a food columnist for the NY Gannett newspapers. We live in the Hudson Valley and more and more I became aware of the Valley’s Dutch roots. When I visited Historic Hudson Valley’s offices, the curator asked me to look at a Dutch book they had in their archives and to tell her about it. It was the 1683 edition of The Pleasurable Country Life, a book on gardening, beekeeping, medicines, and also a cookbook. That was in the early 1980’s and it took me a long time to properly research its background and – in the time of typewriters – to transcribe the cookbook part as it was too fragile to photocopy.  By 1989, Syracuse University Press published it  with the title The Sensible Cook: Dutch Foodways in the Old and the New World and that was really the beginning for me.

MPL: What do food historians focus on in their work and how do they differ from other types of historians?

PGR: Food historians as you can imagine focus on food. Some study agriculture, fishing or milling or some specific food, others are more interested in preparation, or specific dishes, others look more at ethnic development, assimilation, and cultural connections. For me it was a no-brainer, since I am Dutch, I wanted to know about the Dutch influence on the American kitchen and that is what I have given my attention to for the last 3 decades. What makes my specialty of Dutch food easier to research is that we have so much visual evidence in the paintings of the Golden Age of The Netherlands and American museums have many holdings of Dutch 17th-century art.

MPL: The term “historical foodways” is often associated food historians. What does it mean?

PGR: Foodways is a collective noun which encompasses not only recipes and preparation, Traditions of the Hudson Valley Dutch with Peter G. Rosebut also social customs of the period.
To illustrate:

From 18th and 19th century hand-written Dutch-American cookbooks belonging to the descendants of the early settlers, we know that they continued to cook in the manner of their forebears. Many of the recipes indicate not only the method of preparation but reveal that Dutch social customs continued here as well, as revealed for example by a recipe for doot koeckjes, which are funeral biscuits. From a Schenectady diary we know that the Dutch custom of serving plate size cookies and spiced wine, as well as offering pipes and tobacco at the time of a funeral, still continued until the mid-18th century. Recipes for kandeel, often anglicized to condale indicate that the custom of serving spiced wine mixed with eggs at the time of birth continued as well. Not only agricultural practices and horticultural introductions are attributable to the Dutch colonial past in America, but also doughnuts, coleslaw, waffles, wafers, pretzels, pancakes and above all cookies, to mention only a few examples. The Dutch touch left a lasting mark on the American kitchen.

MPL: Do you try to recreate the historical recipes that you discover? If so, are the recipes surprisingly good or do some disappoint?

PGR: Yes, I do try the recipes I find they work surprisingly well, providing you have enough knowledge of measures and are a reasonably experienced cook. In the case of 17th and 18th-century recipes, a good knowledge of hearth cooking comes into play as well. In general I would say that the recipes are delicious and some are outstanding!

MPL: What is the most fun aspect of being a food historian?

PGR: The most fun aspect of being a food historian is the constant discovery and the finding of little historical tidbits that help in rounding out the total picture. I hope to go on doing this and to go on giving talks because in the Q&A periods I always learn something new and that makes it exciting and great fun!

Researching Legends: Post Script with Jeremy D’Entremont

Post Script with Jeremy D'Entremont on Fieldstone Common

Jeremy D’Entremont

Recently, I interviewed maritime expert Jeremy D’Entremont about his book Ocean-Born Mary: The Truth Behind a New Hampshire Legend. (Listen to the interview here.) The book details the items most likely based in fact about Mary’s ocean birth, the pirates and the ghosts surrounding the story and reveals the embellishments based purely in fiction.

With this Post Script interview we dig a little deeper into the importance of researching legends and Jeremy provides advice for those getting started in this kind of research.

Post Script: Researching Legends with Jeremy D’Entremont

MPL: Why did you think it was important to document which aspects of Ocean-Born Mary were true and which were fiction?

JD: I love legends and myths, but I think it’s important to try to separate them from factual history when we can. When we’re unsure of the dividing line between truth and fiction, I think we need to clearly say so. Also, it can be fascinating to trace the development of a legend over time, observing how embellishment is repeated to the point that it becomes “truth.”

MPL: Can you take us through the process of how you narrowed down which pirate was the most likely fit for the Ocean-Born Mary story?

JD: I had no preconceived notions about this. I simply went by contemporary newspaper accounts that showed a Scottish ship being attacked by pirates in July 1720, and determined that the captain, called “Thomas Roberts” in the accounts at the time, was, in fact, Captain Bartholomew Roberts. The only other strong possibility, as far as I can determine, would be Montigny LaPalisse, a French pirate who was possibly in command of a ship sailing with Roberts. I haven’t found any evidence that places any other pirate captain off the northeast coast around that time.

MPL: If someone were going to research a legend to determine the truth of it, what advice would you give to help get them started?

JD: The important thing is to assemble all the evidence first, without any preconceptions. I think it’s very similar a crime investigator would work by gathering evidence without any preconceived notions about how it all fits together. Scour every possible source and see where it leads you. These days you can do much research online, but you also need to get out to historical societies, libraries, and other repositories of old newspapers, genealogical publications, etc. It’s amazing what you can do on your computer from home these days, but you still need to get out in the field.

MPL: Ocean-Born Mary is based on a legend that combines both fact and fiction. Ocean-born Mary with Jeremy D'Entremont on Fieldstone CommonIn your research on historic lighthouses have you found similar legends? If so, do they tend to fall more into the realm of fact or fiction?

JD: Yes, I have run into some similar legends involving lighthouses. Sometimes it’s virtually impossible to prove or disprove some of the stories that have been passed down, but that’s where critical thinking becomes important. An example is the famous ghost story of Seguin Island Lighthouse in Maine. The story as it’s usually told involves a keeper’s wife who played the same tune over and over on the piano until it drove her husband insane, and he supposedly took up an axe and killed his wife and himself. It seems to me that if this was a true story, someone would have produced a newspaper account or other proof of it by now, but nobody has. But can I say that it absolutely isn’t true?; No, I can’t. It may have some basis in fact.

MPL: Have you ever discovered a legend, perhaps related to a lighthouse, where the true story was more interesting than the fiction?

JD: Hmmm… I’m not sure about that. But I will say that some of the true stories of rescues of shipwreck victims near lighthouses are as dramatic as any fiction. An example is a famous rescue carried out in January 1885 by Marcus Hanna, keeper of the Two Lights Station at Cape Elizabeth, Maine. He waded out waist-deep into freezing water during a blizzard to get a rope to two desperate, shipwrecked sailors, and he was able to get them safely ashore. Some of these true stories are so amazing that you would probably disbelieve them if they occurred in a novel or movie.

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Post Script with James Redfearn

Recently, I interviewed James Redfearn about the 1919 Boston Police Strike and its James Redfearnimpact on the city of Boston and the nation as a whole (listen here). Jim wrote a novel, The Rising at Roxbury Crossing, based on his research.

Sometimes a recorded interview doesn’t provide enough time to answer all the questions I have. I really wanted to discuss how Jim researched the police strike and then transferred the factual information into a novel. In this special Post Script Jim provides insight into his work.

Post Script Interview with James Redfearn

MPL: Why did you decide to write fiction rather than non-fiction?

JR: I decided to write “The Rising” as fiction after I realized that the Boston Police Strike really is an Irish story as well as a Labor story. Once I realized that history had presented me with two great events (The Boston Police Strike and The Irish Rebellion), occurring in 1919, it seemed natural to merge one into the other because of similar themes. It also allowed me to fold my grandfather’s story into the history and gave me greater freedom to breathe life into the dynamic historical characters. Both events are about Power and the struggle to maintain Power as well as Order and the breakdown of Order. Willie Dwyer is the link between the two events and he is caught in their vortex.  Willie is Everyman trying to negotiate his own dilemma so that he can take a stand. The story asks the reader, if in Willie’s shoes, where do you stand?

MPL: One thing you did on your journey in creating this book was to get a degree in writing from the Harvard Extension School. Why did you decide to do that and how did it impact the shape of your final work?

JR: I always had a latent interest in writing, but held off from pursuing it because of other life commitments. When I retired from the state police and went to work for the Boston law firm, I decided to dip my toe into the water to see if I really did have an interest. I registered for a course at the Extension School, enjoyed it and was encouraged to “keep working at it.” Because of past experiences with other pursuits, I felt that I needed to enter a structured program. I entered a writing-intensive graduate program and earned a master’s The Rising at Roxbury Crossing by James Redfearndegree in Literature and Creative Writing. (Personal Note—one of the best things I have ever done and recommend it highly). The discipline and work ethic that was required and learned to successfully complete the degree program was instrumental in writing a four hundred-page first novel.

After you retired from being a police officer you worked for a law firm where, amongst other things, you taught how to do research using public documents. Can you tell us a bit about this and why few people are aware of how much is available?

During my career with the state police, I conducted many cases where knowledge of the public record was important to prove my case. In my last few years as a trooper, I was assigned to an Asset Forfeiture Unit, which developed cases to seize and forfeit the assets of large narcotics’ distributors.  With time, I developed an expertise in locating information through searches of the public record and was asked by my superiors to instruct other troopers. Eventually, I prepared lecture material and was invited to speak to federal, state and local agencies about this resource. I continued to gives these lectures at Law Enforcement conferences during my time at the law firm.

Like other pursuits, this knowledge that I acquired was through necessity. Most folks are unaware of the information that is out there about them because they probably just haven’t thought about it. At one time, I taught that the holder of the greatest number of personal records was the Government. But I believe today that Corporate America knows more about ordinary folks than anyone. And here is the interesting thing—much of what Corporate America knows comes from us and that we give up private information about ourselves every day in our day-to-day lives.

In The Rising at Roxbury Crossing, Detective Nolan uses his knowledge of the public record to identify the owner of a Boston warehouse. He finds records at the Suffolk County Registry of Deeds and the Secretary of State to learn that the property at 356 Necco Street is owned by Bradford Henshaw.

MPL: You researched the police strike with the intent of writing a novel. How did you go about researching the historical facts of the story? What resources did you use?

JR: I tackled the history first and the more I learned the more I realized that I was discovering an American tragedy. It was a story just waiting to be told. I had the benefit of reading Francis Russell’s non-fictional account, City in Terror. However, he didn’t use footnotes and provided a limited “Selected Bibliography.” I was able to use references in his narrative to track down original sources.  He wrote his book in 1975 and so had the opportunity to speak with some of the original strikers. I did not, but did obtain anecdotal stories from strikers’ families.

The Boston Police Strike has been studied over the years as an important and significant event in the context of Boston and American Labor history. Consequently, there are many sources of information related to it. But I found that much of it is repetitious, often covering the same material. My reason for writing the account as a fictional story was to make the event come alive—to put a face on it.

Other resources included: “Nineteen Nineteen, The Boston Police Strike in the Context of American Labor” by Zachary Schrag; Boston Police archives; Boston and national newspapers; private papers of Stephen O’Meara, Commissioner Curtis and Mayor Andrew Peters available at the BPL Private Collections; 1919 map collections at the BPL and the Bostonian Society; Biographies and other subjects  related to the 1919 society were researched at the Widener Library at Harvard College;  Period photographs from Historic New England; History books for Ballinasloe and Ireland.  I interviewed and obtained copies of dissertations from two Professors of History on the subject, Irish-American Nationalism, which was promoted by the Catholic Church in Boston in 1919. And of course I used the web to point me in the right direction on several occasions.

MPL: How many books do you think you read as background research for the novel?

JR: I have 22 listed in my “Sources Cited” and I probably read another 2 to 4 that I didn’t use.

MPL: When writing this piece of historical fiction how did you make the decisions about what to keep as factual and what to create as fiction?

JR: I established the historical timeline-frame first and then wrote the fictional story within the frame, not really changing the general facts of the case. Obviously, there were many more meetings and correspondences from all parties than covered in the book. I tried to place the most critical events on the stage, Coolidge, Peters and Curtis meeting in the governor’s suite just prior to the strike, for example. I also created scenes in which my characters, both historical and fictional, might react to some development. However, I do make the disclaimer that the novel is a work of fiction and all references to actual persons, places and events are fictional and any resemblance to actual persons, events or dialogue is entirely coincidental.

MPL: How did you research the language/slang that the people used back in 1919?

JR: I referred to a couple of sources, including newspaper articles written by Ring Lardner during the period. I also read several plays by Irish playwrights to pick up the vernacular. And then some of it came from me when it just sounded right after growing up in Irish Boston.

MPL: When we met before the interview you described how being a photographer helped you develop your characters. Can you explain what you meant by that?

JR: I tend to write in details, which probably came from my photography background. I actually have to watch this though because sometimes it can slow down the story. As a photographer, I tried to be cognizant of the details or I would end up with a slanted horizon or strange people and objects lurked in the background. So when writing the historical characters, I read as much as I could about how they looked and what their emotional makeup might be. Then when I described them in the story, I tried to capture their essence like a photograph. Early writers seemed to be more descriptive as compared to the modern writers who emphasize story.

MPL: What was the most fun part of this book project for you?

JR: Writing to me is like composing music and when the writing is good, the narrative sings. The whole idea in writing is to make the connection with another human being. And the most satisfying experience of creating “The Rising” continues to be when a reader tells me I really got it. “It was like being in Boston in 1919.”