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Month: October 2008

Calling up the spirits: Victorian influence on American spiritualism

American Spiritualism is “completely Victorian,” according to Elan Zingman-Leith, curator for the Mid-Atlantic Center for the Arts (MAC). And it all began with the Fox sisters up in Hydesville, New York in 1848. Strange noises – knockings and rappings – were coming from the bedroom of John and Margaret Fox’s two youngest daughters, Katherine, age 11, and Margaretta, 13. Mrs. Fox heard the noises and came to the conclusion that they must be spiritual in nature. She brought the neighbors in to question the girls. Had disembodied spirits taken hold of them and if so, what information did the girls have of those “on the other plane” obviously so intent on making their presence known using these two young girls as their “medium”?

The girls answered all the neighbors’ questions – why wouldn’t they? It was a small town and they were intimately familiar with its comings and goings. The publicity surrounding their strange ability to go into a trance and call on the spirits of the dead aroused the attention of their older sister, Leah (Fox) Fish, living in Rochester, New York.

Leah knew a good thing when she saw it and made the sisters famous. On November 14 at Corinthian Hall in Rochester, Katie and Maggie called upon the spirits in front of an electrified audience of 400 people. Several investigative committees were formed to look into The Rochester Rappings and found the girls to be credible mediums. Their spiritual forays came to the attention of the very influential New York Tribune editor, Horace Greeley, who recently lost his youngest son, and was desperate to “contact” him. He was so impressed with the sisters he brought them to New York and made them national stars.

Eventually, many years later, Kathy and Maggie confessed that the “knockings” came from apples the girl tied to a string and dropped to the floor. The “rappings” came from a talent the girls had acquired – they could make rapping noises by flexing the joints of their big toes. They wanted to give up the charade long before. In fact, the first “knocking-rappings” were heard in March of 1848 and by November the sisters had tired of the attention and announced that the “spirits had left them.” But their sister, Leah who saw the fortune that could be made, wouldn’t hear of it and so the spirits returned.

At MAC, Elan noticed that ghost writer Craig McManus’s appropriately titled Ghostwriter Trolley Rides were so popular that MAC added more tours involving ghosts – Tale of Terror Trolley Ride, Miss Parmentier’s Psychic Teas, Historic Haunts Combination Tours, Phantoms of the Physick Estate. It seemed people couldn’t get enough of the spirit world and it got him to thinking: Why were the Victorians so enthralled with “the other plane?” He came up with a few ideas on that very subject and it has been the topic of an ongoing exhibit at the Carriage House of the Emlen Physick Estate on Washington Street called The Other Side: The World of Victorian Spiritualism which ends Nov. 9. The exhibit explores the world of séances, Ouija boards, fairies and ectoplasm through photographs and artifacts and shows why the Victorianworld was so fascinated by mediums and psychics and includes the story of the Fox sisters and several other noted mediums of the time.

Although interest in Spiritualism began before the Civil War, it really took off after the war in which at least 618,000 Americans died. Some experts say the toll reached 700,000. “So many people lost family members, especially teenagers, in the Civil War,” said Elan, “To believe that death was not so final and that their loved ones were still among us, but just on another plane, was one way to deal with death.”

Elan found the growth of Spiritualism curious because it “did not come out of either Protestant or Jewish theology,” but seemed propelled by people grieving their losses from the war coupled by a burgeoning interest in modern science and Darwinism which developed in the mid-19th century. “People for the first time were,” according to Elan, “beginning to look at the Bible symbolically and perhaps not reading the scripture quite as literally.” In so doing, he said, it appears as though they were disillusioned, particularly with the Protestant religion, and were looking around for alternatives “and some found that alternative in the world of spirits and the other plane.”

It is then no coincidence that this was a time for new religions popping up. Western New York and the Boston area seemed to be the “hot spots” for their beginnings. Mary Baker Eddy’s the First Church of Christ, Scientist of Boston (Christian Science) was founded in 1879. In western New York, The Church of Latter Day Saints was founded in 1860 by Joseph Smith, Jr. The Theosophical Society of New York was founded by Madame Helena Blavatsky (a famous medium of the time) and Colonel H.S. Olcott in 1875. The pair threw themselves into the defense of reality of spiritualistic phenomena while attempting to purify the spiritualistic movement of its materialistic trend. One odd thing about Madame Blavatsky, according to Elan, even when she was “found out,” in other words, when someone spotted the “trick” in one of her performances, she unabashedly would admit the ruse, maintaining she didn’t care, she “did it for your own good.”

The role of the medium was one of the few times when a woman of Victorian America could make a name for herself and not fall under ill repute. Unlike actresses and singers, a medium was well-respected and could earn a significant income. Séances were common forms of entertainment in the most distinguished of parlors. Unless someone was particularly religious and man of the cloth, most people did not seem the harm in “calling up the spirits.” And that popularity, curiosity and a genuine need to reconnect with the dead on top of the money to be made if you “had the gift” helped spawn some of the greatest con men/women of the time. Some of the tools of the trade are also on display. So, if you get a chance walk on down to the Carriage House, for the mere pittance of a $2 donation, you too can discover how to levitate tables and throw your voice across the room. Imagine. It all began with the Victorians, who so desperately wanted to believe. Séances, Ouija boards, spirit writing, levitation, spirit photography, trances and the mediums to connect the spirit world with the living began in the mid-19th century America.

Don’t miss it – it’s a fascinating exhibit especially if combined with one of the ghostly tours.


A sneak peek at the exhibit:


Ish’s Recipes

Inspiration has been a recurring theme for recent columns. It often comes from sources and at times we least expect. Being a chef has its perks and drawbacks. One drawback is everyone who has ever boiled water wants to talk food with you. So it was when I started at the Mad Batter on Jackson Street a few years ago. Imoved here after becoming tired of the corporate games of upscale hotels. Cooking for celebrities and VIPS in five star hotels made me a little full of my cooking abilities and myself. My arrogance must have shown when the maintenance guy at the Batter started talking to me about food. Here is this guy blaring Zappa in his workroom, looking a little like a Pine Barrens Version of a King of the Hillcharacter, trying to talk to me about food. I was cursorily polite in brushing him off. But he barreled ahead with conversation anyway.

A few days later he brought in some wing sauce for me to try. Great, I thought, another amateur cook looking for validation. This was no doctored store sauce. This was the real deal. The searing pain of chipotles and serranos laced with habeneros was unmistakable. This sauce wasn’t all heat but artfully layered flavors. I quickly brushed away my initial skepticism and said, “You got to tell me how you made this.” To paraphrase Humphrey Bogart, “It was the beginning of a food friendship.”

My friend Michael “Ish” Williams is not a professionally trained chef, but his food is a fusion of backwoods and Bocuse. He has given me the finer details of the proper way to cook muskrat and is a master of the grill and smoker.

Neither one of us works at the Mad Batter anymore, but we get together over at the Shrivers (current and former Batter chefs Chris and Lisa). With Ish and me, the conversation always centers around food – be it a discussion of a recent Alton Brown episode or some new ingredient one of us has run across. We gather together with fellow BBQers Chris Shriver and Joe Lotozo (another former Batter chef) each Sunday in the Shrivers’ driveway to barbeque. The Shrivers’ house is a kind of a culinary halfway house. Chris and Joe often regal me with tales of some legendary Ish Dishes of the past, such as the Infamous ISH-KABOB – lamb loin, figs, shallots and brandy-soaked apricots on a rosemary skewer, that ended up on Chris’ menu.

One Sunday this summer, while enjoying a few cold beers in the driveway, Ish arrived with a mysterious foil packet. The result? After about 20 minutes on the grill, the most perfectly cooked striped bass. Ish prepared the bass in a coconut milk, curry sauce with mango that had us scraping the foil for every last morsel. I promptly adapted the dish for a fish grilling class at school.

A few weeks ago I ran into Ish in North Cape May and as usual we chatted about food and talked about some dishes we might grill at Chris’ the next day. That next day Chris called. I expected our usual Sunday pre-football/grilling trash talking. Instead he told me our friend Ish had been in a bad motorcycle accident the night before and was airlifted to Atlantic City. Ish, get-well buddy. I have some classes coming up on southern country cooking. I need a good squirrel recipe.

This month, enjoy some recipes inspired by friend and culinary adventurer Ish.

(Yes, it is true that I ran a similar striped bass recipe in the July 2008 issue of CapeMay.com, but I have to confess, Ish’s is a notch above even my own concoction.)

Red Curry Striped Bass

  • 1 Striped bass
  • 1 Cup coconut milk
  • 2 Tablespoons red curry
  • 1 Stalk lemon grass split
  • 1 Teaspoon ginger
  • 2 Tablespoons Thai sweet chili sauce
  • 1 Teaspoon minced garlic
  • 2 Scallions chopped
  • 2 Tablespoons cilantro
  • 1 Large piece foil
  • 1 Lime juiced
  • 1 Mango peeled and diced
  • 1 Stalk lemongrass split

Clean bass. Mix all ingredients in bowl. Place bass on oiled foil. Pour over sauce/marinade. Wrap fish tightly in foil. Grill 15-20 minutes. Open. Serve with steamed rice.

Wing Sauce of Death

Caution: This sauce is deadly. Use gloves while handling pepper and do not inhale deeply while cooking.

  • 2 Habeneros seeded and minced
  • 6 Cloves garlic minced
  • 3 Serranos seeded and minced
  • 1 Can chipotles pureed
  • 2 Sticks butter
  • 1 Pint white vinegar
  • 3 Tablespoons honey
  • 1 Lime and lemon juiced

Melt butter. Sweat peppers and garlic. Sauté 4-5 minutes. Do not brown. Add vinegar, honey and citrus juices. Simmer 5 minutes. Store in plastic jar. Serve with hot wings.


The Very Rare Cape May Salts Oyster Can

As rare and elusive as the Cape May Salt oyster is itself, so is the artfully lithographed baby-blue tin can it once came in.

Manufactured by the F.F. East Co. in Greenwich, New Jersey, it pictures an old bewhiskered sea captain in a black sou’wester, the spit and image of the “Old Salt” himself, nestled snug in the large C of its trade name: Cape May Salts.

In 1902, after a man died from eating a tainted oyster in Atlantic City, newspapers began giving the consumption of oysters such a bad name they never really recovered. And although there were many factors in the oyster’s demise – over-harvesting, poor aquaculture and fast food like the newly invented hot dog – the real culprit was pollution.

In a gallant attempt to convince oyster consumers that oysters were wholesome and tasty and good for you, oyster companies up and down the Eastern Seaboard launched a massive campaign with one goal: to promote the “freshness” of the oysters and the “wholesomeness” of eating them, sort of like aGood Housekeeping seal of approval. This campaign included all sorts of advertising and giveaway gimmicks – oyster measuring tapes, oyster rulers, oyster pens and pencils, oyster this and oyster that – to make the oyster more appealing to Americans everywhere. But the chief aid in this decades-long campaign was selling oysters in hermetically sealed tin cans kept “well iced” with beautiful lithographic art that included fancy nude mermaids, Polly Purebred rosy-cheeked maidens, schooners, sloops, Maltese crosses, famous lords, famous chefs and of course the famous “Old Salt” of nautical décor.

These cans were produced starting at the turn of the century, and their production lasted well into the 1950s. But in 1972, the death knell for oysters in any form came when a massive kill occurred that summer, wiping out most natural oyster beds. It was the nail in the coffin. Today the oysters we eat come from aquaculture, farm raised and planted. The oyster truly has made a fantastic comeback and its prices reflect it. In Atlantic City casinos, you can expect to pay up to $10 a piece for a single oyster. In New York City, even more.

Nevertheless, at any given time on eBay, every day, every week, all year long (we’re talking 24-7, around-the-clock, through Christmas, Easter, Father’s Day, Fourth of July and Labor Day), there are almost always between 50 and 60 (or more) different oyster cans up for sale and being aggressively bid on by serious oyster can collectors for big, major bucks. They have eBay screen names like oysterbob, quinconian, and dalmationlady. Although the majority sell for between $30 and $100, they sometimes go for as much as $400, $1,200, and sometimes even as much as $5,000, like the extremely rare Cape May Salts oyster. Only a handful, perhaps four or five, are known to exist.

 

Richard Gove’s coveted Cape May Salts oyster can. Click to enlarge

 

The splendid oyster can pictured is owned by Richard Gove, who has been collecting oyster cans for 40 years and who just might have the finest collection in the country. It’s really a thing of exquisite beauty and great joy, at least to an avid collector. I’ve always wanted to own one myself. I decided to drive up along the Mullica River to Dick Gove’s house and see it for myself. Dick is, among oyster can collectors, considered to be one of the top three collectors in the country, maybe even number one. These guys turn their homes into museums with these things, and with every single can there comes a long funny story, usually about its price and its origin. Dick says he doesn’t know exactly how much its worth but he’s relatively certain that it will bring far, far more than the $4,000 he paid for it, maybe three times that figure. But he has no plans to sell.

Back in the ’80s, the 1980s, at an Atlantique City collectible show, I watched a man lay out 30 Ben Franklins—without batting so much as an eyelash—for an early handmade, hand-soldered oyster tin without any lithographic art on it at all and which was no larger than one of those little boxes of fried rice you get with your Chinese takeout. It was crude, embossed with its maker’s initials and adorned with a tiny wire-bale handle. It turned out the man who bought it was the great-grandson of the maker. I think it was then that I knew just how seriously collectors are about oyster cans.

If you would like to start an oyster can collection, eBay is the place to go, where if you have enough money, you can put a respectable collection together in a few months. But, caveat, buyer beware! You have to know your stuff. There are fakes. There are guys so good with a paint brush, they can take an old beat-up and dented coffee can and make it look like new. And furthermore, if you want to have a Cape May Salts oyster tin, be ready to take out a second mortgage on your home. Since eBay’s inception, a Cape May Salts oyster can like this one has never been seen.


Text and photographs by James Kirk. Oyster cans courtesy of Richard Gove.

This article first appeared in the August issue of Cape May Magazine. For more on Cape May Salts, pick up a copy.


Bogged Down with Cranberries

A working cranberry bog mirrors one of American’s earliest agriculture practices. It also showcases some of the newest and most innovative methods used by farmers today. But time stands still when one reflects on these glistening berries during a beautiful Indian summer day in the New Jersey Pine Barrens. Each autumn farmer continues gathering the glossy berries that were cherished by the native people of the area.

In Whitesbog when we turned off the highway into the Joseph J. White farm we saw a sea of cranberry color as the sun sparkled on floating berries. It is harvest time in the bog. Modern technology couples with native plants and anyone who had previous thoughts of cranberries being found in cans in the super market has a great awakening when they see the harvest process.

In autumn these gems are found on small evergreen plants that grow in the acid soil in southern New Jersey and other Atlantic coastal places. Today New Jersey is currently the third largest cranberry producing area in the United States with approximately 3,100 acres of cranberry bogs.

The glistening jewel-like red fruits called cranberries were cherished by the Native Americans and soon adopted by the Colonial people. Today the berry is still used in a multitude of ways, but we often think of it as a Thanksgiving food enjoyed by our forefathers. I make our favorite cranberry liquor cake (see recipe below) all year long so I freeze many bags of berries when they are in season.

Native Americans were said to have mixed these berries with dried deer meat to take on hunting trips. This nourishing berry is loaded with Vitamin C and ancient people dried it to keep it from one season until the next. Several early writings and recipes call these berries Rubies of the Pines. One antique book by Joseph J. White is Cranberry Culture, New York: Orange Judd Co., c1870.

We visited Jay Burton who owns the White Farm. It is run by Jay’s nephew, Joseph Darlington along with Joe’s wife Brenda. It is said to be the second largest cranberry farm in New Jersey. Brenda Conner is a descendant of the native people and lifelong resident of the South Jersey Pinelands. She is well versed in piney culture and presents wonderful programs on cranberries as well as other interesting South Jersey topics. She and Joe are innovative cranberry growers and have introduced Global Positioning Satellite (GPS) technology to the bogs. GPS is the gadget that folks have in their cars to help them locate places. It is now used in harvesting berries and tells the harvesters where to go in the bog.

In the early 1800s bog iron was mined in the New Jersey pines. I have been told that bog iron doesn’t rust like other iron so it was valuable to make stoves, cannons and other cast iron products. In the mining process the land was scraped down two or three feet and left thus. In 1857 Joseph J. White‘s father-in-law saw the possibility of growing cranberries in these places so he purchased this land near a good supply of water necessary for these early bogs.

Joseph Darlington ran the company in the ‘40s until he was killed in a small plane crash in 1949. His brother Tom then revamped and updated methods and machinery ultimately inventing the fresh fruit DRY harvester, which is still used today. His oldest son Joe came into the business and runs it now with his wife Brenda. Crop outputs have risen from 30 barrels (a barrel is 100 lbs) to the acre in Joseph J’s time, to over 200 today.

Cranberry Culture

The bogs are not really boggy, but actually have firm sand bases in which the cranberry vines grow. They are flooded in winter and in the early spring the water is drawn and the plants green up, bloom and produce berries. Harvest is mostly done “wet” starting in October and sometimes going until mid November.

Some gardeners grow these plants in their gardens. They require a place with acid woodland soil and little or no fertilizer other than the natural compost of leaf decay. They like a somewhat moist or humusy soil during the growing season, but need more moisture when it freezes. In the wild, the cranberry plant actually grows in very acidic soil, usually near a river or lake that floods in winter.

The word cranberry conjures thoughts of plants that grow under water. While it is true they are wetlands plants, cranberry vines live most of their life cycle on dry land. Water for cranberry production under New Jersey conditions is essential.  With New Jersey’s hot summer conditions, berries can be scalded from the heat when temperatures are above 85 degrees Fahrenheit. More detailed information can be obtained from this source at http://www.rce.rutgers.edu/burlington/cranberr.htm

Homeowners can grow cranberries without a bog or flooding. Insects and winter cold rarely threaten backyard cranberries. We sell a cranberry fall centerpiece basket complete with plants and bow. One local couple, Janet and Rich DeMarco, still have their plant from this basket and tell me it even reseeded. This summer they added a dozen or so more to their garden!

Cranberries, like rhododendron, mountain laurel, azalea, blueberry and other woodlanders, are finicky about their soil. It needs to be very acidic (pH 4-5), very high in humus, moist and low in fertility. The way to create these soil conditions is to mix a generous amount of peat moss, which is humus that is low in nutrients, into the soil.

By late summer shiny, red berries can be seen hanging on the wiry stems. Those cranberry fruits cling to the plants all winter if they are not gobbled by wildlife.
Every four to six years, during the winter months, commercial growers apply a layer of sand to their bogs to reinvigorate the wine growth. The reason for this is the vines will go to runners and the sand layer will force the plant to produce uprights and thus berries. Homeowners may use sawdust, leaves or especially pine needles to mulch plants for winter.

Using Fresh Berries

Cranberries have very few calories, but they are so tart and sour they are often combined with much sugar to sweeten them. Some folks find honey or other sugar substitutes effective for sweetening. . Usually cranberries are cooked with 2 cups of sugar to every 4 cups of berries. 1 to 1 1/2 cups of water or orange juice is also used. Wash and pick over cranberries. Place in wide bottomed saucepan, add liquid and cook over medium heat until cranberry skins pop. Stir in sugar and cook till it dissolves. Chill before serving.

Those on a sugar restricted diet can make a sugar free sauce using sugar-free Jell-o. Boil 1 cup of water and add 1 package of orange or cranberry sugar-free Jell-o. Add 1/2 cup of cold water and 2 cups of chopped cranberries. I put this all in blender to chop, but I have heard others say they simmer it until the berries pop. Let cool and stir in chopped apples, oranges or nuts for a healthy treat.

Most recipes call for fresh, frozen berries or dried berries. When using frozen cranberries, allow them to become room temperature before adding to cakes. Try stirring a cup into your favorite buttery pound cake. For cookies, dried berries work best.

When cranberries are added to vinegar, wine or vodka, the color and flavor of the fruit is extracted into the liquid. Delicious salad dressings can be made using cranberry vinegar and oil. Toss a handful of dried cranberries, pieces of orange and walnuts in with crisp greens and the salad is a fall delight.

You might even consider stringing some with or without some popcorn to trim a tree for the birds. I like to thread them with a thin wire and bend into wreaths or heart shaped trims for our tree. Make these little Jersey jewels part of your holiday traditions this year.

Lorraine’s Cranberry Cake

  • 1¾ Cup sugar
  • 3 Sticks of room temp butter (no substitutions!)
  • 6 Eggs
  • 1 Teaspoon vanilla
  • ½ Teaspoon brandy extracts
  • ½ Teaspoon rum extract
  • 3 Tablespoons cranberry liqueur (You can substitute any fruit liqueur or brandy)
  • 3½ Cups cake flour (if all purpose is used reduce to 1/4) and sift
  • ½ Teaspoon salt
  • ½ Teaspoon baking soda
  • ½ Teaspoon mace
  • 1 Cup dairy sour cream
  • 1 Cup fresh or frozen or thawed cranberries
  • 1 Cup chopped walnuts or pecans

Cream sugar and butter well. Add eggs one at a time. Add flavorings and beat very well. Gently beat or fold in dry ingredients with court cream, then add berries and nuts.

Pour into a well greased and floured large bundt pan or two small Turkish head pans. Bake at 325° for 1½ hour. Test for doneness. Cool 10-15 minutes. Remove from pan.

Let cool until warm. Glaze with crank liqueur/butter icing.

Crank Liqueur/Butter Icing

  • 1 Stick softened butter (no substitutions)
  • 1 1-pound box of 4xs powdered sugar
  • 3 Tablespoons cranberry liquor (or a liquid or fruit juice)
  • Milk

Combine ingredients and enough milk until desired consistency is reached. Put on warm cake so it drips down (but not hot or it will melt away).

Sources for plants

Cranberry plants are available year round from Triple Oaks Nursery:

2359 Delsea Dr.
Franklinville NJ, 08322
856-694-4272
www.TripleOaks.com