Ahwahnee Hotel Menus, Yosemite National Park, 1961

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Fifty years ago, the menus at Yosemite’s Ahwahnee Hotel featured a series of beautiful woodblock prints, taken from the 1932 book “Trees of Yosemite” by Della Taylor Hoss. I’m not sure how many menus were in this series, nor how long these menus were in use, although I would guess just a few years. All the pieces in my collection date from 1961, though I’ve seen others dated in the mid-1960s. I’ve also seen Ahwahnee menus with Ansel Adams photographs on the cover with dates that ranged from the 1930s through the 1960s. It’s possible that both style were used concurrently, or perhaps this version was used for breakfast only during a time? The actual menu size of these woodblock prints is about 6.5 x 10 inches. Enjoy!

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“The Natural Cuisine of Georges Blanc,” 1987

Zuchini Flans with Sliced Zucchini and Salmon Cream.

While killing some time between meals the other day, I finally turned up a copy of “The Natural Cuisine of Georges Blanc” at a used bookstore in Berkeley. It was a nice find, and one of the best discoveries that I’ve recently made “in the field” (as opposed to trawling eBay for such an item).naturalcuisinegeorgesblanc_grande Originally published in 1987 — just six years after the eponymous author earned his third Michelin star — “Natural Cuisine” earns its stripes for its lavish photography, with the pictures outnumbering the recipes by almost three to one.

Although long out of print, the book remains a prescient example of the cookbook-as-coffee-table-book concept, an approach to food-related publishing that has become increasingly popular over the last 25 years. In the case of Blanc’s “Natural Cuisine,” however, the photography itself is rather straight-forward, although maybe that’s actually for the best: Blanc’s classic geometric designs and vivid color contrasts ensure that his plates will shine on their own artistic merit, no outside assistance necessary. Here’s a taste (photography by Christopher Barker):

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Pineapple with Raspberry and Kiwi Sauces and Pineapple Sorbet.

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Sauteed Eggplant and Baked Whiting in a Butter Sauce.

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Tomato, Red Pepper and Olive Tart.

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Pineapple Fritters with Macerated Kiwi Fruit.

1960s Nut Tree Menu, Vacaville, CA

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1960s Nut Tree Menu, front cover.

I’m fascinated by the Nut Tree. Almost obsessed. This menu is probably 10 years before my time, but I collect anything from this former California landmark. Sadly, the Nut Tree has devolved into a lousy outlet mall, practically a cemetery in comparison to what it was 50 years ago. Even the best places have their time. Today, anybody under 40 would zip down the 80 and not even realize what was once there. Vacaville ceased to be a destination once the restaurant closed.

When I was eight or nine years old, I wanted to visit the Nut Tree for my birthday. It was that sort of place. Growing up in Lodi, we made the hour-plus journey a handful of times, but I still can’t remember as much about it as I would like. I wish I could see some old pictures of the food, but nobody bothered with any of that back then. Maybe there’s a photo or two out there somewhere. The restaurant’s brand of “western food” was an early precursor to what we would now call “California cuisine.” Peruse the menu and mull over the past.

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Inside cover.

Inside cover.

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Now known as California cuisine.

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“The Justin Wilson Cook Book” by Justin Wilson, 1965

Being in my 30s — and not being a native of Louisiana — my first exposure to Justin Wilson was from a Ruffles commercial in the mid-1980s. For better or worse, that was also the first time that I’d ever heard the Cajun dialect, a quirky easygoing patois that now has many associations for me, having lived and cooked in New Orleans since then. During the same few years that Wilson was landing these national ad campaigns, his Louisiana-based cooking series began to appear on California public television stations, and Wilson himself began doing cooking demos on several morning talk shows. At least that’s how I remember it, growing up in Northern California.

As a semi-serious collector of vinyl LPs, I would later discover Wilson’s comedy albums from the early 1960s, languishing in the dollar bins, alongside so many copies of “Staying Alive.” Although I never purchased any of Wilson’s albums (even for a buck), his ample discography was a strange revelation for me: I had grown up assuming that Wilson was simply a chef with a schtick, not an established humorist who had somehow branched out into cooking. I’m still not even sure how Wilson — as grassroots and as authentic he was — managed to make the jump to celebrity chef, although I’m glad he did (I should note, however, that Wilson actively continued to record comedy albums well into the 1990s, long after his popularity as a chef had peaked).

I stumbled across my reprinted edition of “The Justin Wilson Cookbook” on a rainy Napa Valley afternoon, and felt it was worth mentioning. Wilson originally published his first cookbook in 1965, though my copy is the eighth printing from 1986 (just about the same year that Wilson began shilling Cajun-spiced potato chips for Ruffles). The spiral-bound book is a rather slender volume — about 90 pages — with simple Cajun recipes and plenty of photos and anecdotes, written in his trademark dialect. I found my copy of “The Justin Wilson Cook Book” in a used bookstore for $3, and I’m pretty sure most copies turn up for $5 or less. At that price, it’s a wondermous piece of Americana, for true.

“Hot Dog” by Roy Lichtenstein, 1963-1964

I’ve always admired the famous “Hot Dog” enamel by Roy Lichtenstein, pictured just below. Even though the hot dog itself resembles a logo more than anything edible, I can appreciate the way that Lichtenstein makes the hot dog appear to glisten and shine. In that sense, the painting is very appealing from its “theoretical taste” standpoint, as if the hot dog was freshly prepared and incredibly succulent. As cartoonish as it looks, it does seem delicious. The colors of the enamel are also striking: ketchup red and mustard yellow. I wonder if this was largely a coincidence, or if Lichtenstein was really that in tune to food.

Roy Lichtenstein, Hot Dog, 1964 (enamel on plate).

Either way, Lichtenstein’s “Hot Dog” enamel remains extremely vivid in its execution. As an artist, Lichtenstein often borrowed his color palate from consumer packaging, incorporating schemes that featured powerful and eye-catching contrasts. This approach, coupled with his everyday subject matter (such as hot dogs), was reminiscent of the Pop Art movement of the 1950s. Lichtenstein obviously had hot dogs on his mind for a quite some time. To wit, here are a couple other incarnations of Lichtenstein’s ode to America’s favorite food. Enjoy!

Roy Lichtenstein, Hot Dog (Sketch for Enamel), 1964 (graphite and ink on paper).

The sketch above is obviously an early draft of Lichtenstein’s finished “Hot Dog” enamel. Below, an oil painting from 1963 reveals the red-and-yellow color scheme that Lichtenstein would eventually revisit in 1964. The oil and magna painting (which almost looks like an homage to Oscar Mayer’s wiener mobile) shows more detail in terms of shading and dimension. However, the image below remains far less stylized than Lichtenstein’s trademark enamel.

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Roy Lichtenstein, Hot Dog, 1963 (oil and magna on canvas)

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Roy Lichtenstein, Hot Dog with Mustard, 1963 (oil on canvas).

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This rendition sold for almost $150,000 at a Christie's auction in 2011.

Roy Lichtenstein, Hot Dog, 1964 (porcelain enamel on metal tray, 12.75 x 19.13 x 0.75 inches). This rendition sold for almost $150,000 at a Christie’s auction in November 2011.

 

Antiques from Heritage Culinary Artifacts, Napa Valley

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Hand-painted citrus juicer, Japan, 1930s-1940s.

heritageHeritage Culinary Artifacts has been a staple at Oxbow Market ever since the venue opened in 2008, but the shop will close at the end of January 2013, after a five-year run. I definitely enjoyed browsing the ever-evolving display of antique cookware, which is now available for purchase online. Owner-curator Lisa Minucci has a great eye for original pieces, and she has traveled the world to procure a truly unique collection. I always felt that Heritage had a museum aura about it. It’s only by sheer coincidence that I finally got around to pitching this feature to Lisa a couple weeks ago; that’s when I first discovered that she was set to close her brick-and-mortar shop.

Click on any picture for the full-screen photo. To view more items, or for purchase inquiries, please visit Heritage Culinary Artifacts.

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Meat press, France, 1800s.

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Mounted cork puller, America, late 1800s.

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Egg grading scale, America, early 1900s.

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Wine barrel driller, France, 1800s.

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Wine barrel driller, Rhone Valley, France.

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Pocket (hobo) stove, America, late 1800s.

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Hand-painted porcelain beer stein, Germany, 1910.

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Gravy boat by Eva Zeisel, America, 1940s. As an artist, Eva Zeisel cultivated a distinct linear style, which was captured in her “Town and Country” line of pottery, produced for Red Wing in 1947.

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Zig-Zag corkscrew, France, 1954.

“Ekiben: The Art of the Japanese Box Lunch,” 1989

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“Ekiben: The Art of the Japanese Box Lunch,” Chronicle Books, 1989.

I’m convinced that used bookstores offer much more than any big box book retailer (what’s left of them, anyway). The problem with Barnes & Noble, or Borders when it existed, is that these stores don’t offer any old out-of-print books in their inventory. The large book retailers deal exclusively with new books, or new versions of old books, whatever the case may be. But as time goes by, there are so many interesting books that go out of print, our only chance of discovering them (if we missed them the first time around) is when they cycle back through a used bookstore.

For $9, I couldn’t pass up “Ekiben: The Art of the Japanese Box Lunch,” which I found at Green Apple in San Francisco a couple weeks ago. Published by Chronicle Books in 1989, “Ekiben” is a thin paperback, but with ample dimensions. The book is comprised mostly of photos, which document several dozen of the ekiben found in Japan. According to the book, the word “ekiben” is derived from “eki” (train station) and “bento” (the familiar Japanese boxed lunch).

Thus, these are the boxed lunches offered at train stations in Japan. But here’s the thing, most Japanese train stations offer their own, unique boxed lunch for travelers or commuters. These lunches usually encapsulate some sort of theme that is relevant to the area, and each ekiben is different from station to station. For mass-produced meals, these ekiben all seemed insanely clever. I wonder how much their aesthetic has changed over the years, or if they still look the same today. Here are a couple scans from the book. Enjoy!

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Tooge No Kama-Meshi @ Shinetsu Honsen Yokokawa Station. Served in pottery, this ekiben is arguably the best in Japan (at least back in 1989). Rice is served with chicken, shiitakes, burdock and apricot.

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Nagoya Zanmai @ Tokaido Shinkanshen Nagoya Station. Some ekiben have two or three compartments. Click photo to read the full caption.

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Masu No Sushi @ Hokuriku Honsen Toyama Station. This photo is the interior of the box on the book cover. Masu is a type of river trout, which is served over rice.

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Saba Bou Sushi @ Kansai Honsen Tennoji Station. Yes, that’s a piece of fish, straight up. Click the photo to read the caption.

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Kuri Okowa @ Sanyo Shinkansen Okayama Station. Kuri is Japanese for chestnut, which are prevalent in Okayama. Okowa is sticky rice.

“The Treasury of American Wines” by Nathan Chroman, 1976

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Dust jacket for “The Treasury of American Wines” by Nathan Chroman, 1976. Please click to enlarge the photo to full resolution.

I’m a geek when it comes to food history, but I’m especially nerdy about California’s wine history. Old wine books are often fascinating to me because they’re like time capsules, snapshots from a bygone era. The California wine industry has evolved so dramatically over the last four decades, it’s interesting to be reminded of past trends and early beginnings.

To place “The Treasury of American Wines” into historical context, this book was published in the summer of 1976, perhaps just weeks before California’s triumph at the now-famous Judgment of Paris. I thought it was prescient (and perhaps just coincidental) that the very wine that won the Chardonnay category in Paris — the 1973 Chateau Montelena Chardonnay — is actually pictured on the dust jacket above, eighth from the right.

The dust jacket for “The Treasury of American Wines” offers a great look at the wine labels of yesteryear, and it was the main reason why I shelled out $6 for an otherwise outdated book. With vintages ranging from 1969 to 1974, some of these labels remain familiar and unchanged, while others represent varietals that have now fallen out of favor.

I’ve scanned and stitched the dust jacket in four different pieces. Please click the image above to see the photo at full resolution. Enjoy!

Al’s Chop Suey Menu, Oakland Fruitvale, CA

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In Oakland, East Fourteenth Street became known as International Boulevard in 1996, so the former home of Al’s Chop Suey is currently occupied by Canchola’s Restaurant.

I discovered an old menu for Al’s Chop Suey while visiting an antique shop in Berkeley this afternoon. I dig this sort of thing, especially since the idea of “chop suey” denotes a very specific period in American food culture, namely the mid-20th century. Several myths surround the origins of chop suey, which has been referenced in the United States as early as the 1880s. However, despite the many stories regarding the genesis of this dish, chop suey was most likely inspired by the Cantonese dish “tsap seui” (meaning miscellaneous leftovers, according to Wikipedia). These days, it’s easy to dismiss chop suey as a Chinese-American bastardization, but I still regard this dish as an important gateway to Chinese cuisine. We had to start somewhere.

I can’t find too many details about Al’s Chop Suey, but some googling does acknowledge that the people of East Oakland were once rather fond of this joint, which was located right across from the New Fruitvale Theater (the cinema burned down in 1968, and was ultimately demolished in 1979). The November 8, 1939 edition of the Oakland Tribune features an ad for the grand opening of Al’s Chop Suey, and the ad also mentions Benny Chin as the new proprietor. Oakland phone directories link Chin to restaurant well into the late 1960s, so Al’s Chop Suey was certainly a neighborhood staple for several decades.

I’m not sure how much the Al’s Chop Suey menu had changed over the years, but this particular version of the menu is divided into an American section and a Chinese section (the latter of which is pictured below). There are few clues as to the specific date of the menu, but the American section does offer a bottle of Coca-Cola for 10 cents, which makes me believe that it was probably from the 1950s.

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1970s Nut Tree Menu, Vacaville, CA

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Planes, trains and automobiles: The cover of the Nut Tree menu acknowledges the property’s airport, it signature locomotive, and its reputation as a road tripper’s oasis.

I found an old Nut Tree menu the other day, published the day after Thanksgiving in 1975 (long before this day became commonly known as Black Friday; alas, Walmart had only invaded nine states by then). I’m completely fascinated by the history of the Nut Tree, having visited this Vacaville destination a handful of times with my parents in the late 1970s and very early 1980s, back when I was still very young. Of course, my main memory of the Nut Tree was its signature locomotive, which looped around the vast property. I’m sure that it was all much more quaint than I remember, but everything seems so big and impressive when you’re little.

The Nut Tree restaurant had an amazing reputation for food at the time, and many, including Alice Waters, acknowledge that the Nut Tree had a vital (if not founding) role in the California Cuisine movement. I remember, just barely, eating the mini-burgers from the kids menu, and I wish that I could remember more about the overall restaurant experience. This menu offers an insightful glimpse int0 the past. Enjoy!

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The inside cover of the menu recounts the Nut Tree’s history leading up to the mid-1970s. I believe the property ceased to exist in 1996, so this menu is definitely from the restaurant’s heyday.

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There is a heavy Asian influence on the Holiday Lunch section, which is a unique twist for 1975.

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More international fare.

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