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St Joe banana pancake
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St Joe museum
By Nina Furstenau
Beef on the hoof and on the table is something the cattle drivers arriving in St. Joseph in the latter 1880s understood. After all, it is American history on the plate, and it's always been what's for dinner at St. Jo.
But consider the pancake.
Surely the cattlemen came off the range in search of breakfast as well as dinner. Pony Express riders leaving from St. Jo's post office and families on their way west on wagon trains had to fuel that fire in their bellies for adventure early in the day. In 1849 alone, fifty thousand people went west from St. Jo and they almost always started after breakfast.
America's penchant for quick foods to be eaten on the go must have begun in many ways, but one of our earliest convenience foods was the pancake. In fact, pancakes–also called flapjacks, flannel cakes, griddle cakes, journey cakes, johnnycakes, spoon breads, and more–were the original fast food, made early days by American settlers on hoe blades over fires, creating the hoecake. The griddle form of cooking predates oven baking, and the consistency of pancakes varies according to ingredients and available surface (stone, hoe blade, griddle) from fritter-like to custard.
The pancake is not confined to U.S. borders. The artful mix of flour, milk, eggs, butter or oil, shaped by the surrounding culture, creates a flexible staple that defies national borders and holds sway along with such universal foodstuffs as soup, pudding, and bread. In Hungary it is palacsintas, or blini in Russia. It's oppama in southern India and bin-ja tuk in Korea. True, these pancakes vary slightly–there can be coconut on the bottom of the oppama, and the palacsintas is like a French crepe–but every country seems to have a version, partly because of its humble ingredients and that it needs but a hot surface and a few minutes to create a meal. In Missouri, though, we made it even faster.
St. Joseph is home to the first-ever packaged pancake mix. Aunt Jemima Pancake Mix was conceived and produced here by Chris Russ and Charles Underwood, who bought the Pearl Millings Company in 1889 with the idea of developing ready-mixed, self-rising pancake flour. While attending a vaudeville show they heard the catch tune "Aunt Jemima," and decided that would be the image of their product. Despite contemporary criticism over its stereotyped character, the image stuck. Pearl Milling sold to Davis Milling Company the following year, and in 1925 Quaker Oats bought the brand.
The mix was a hit due in large part to the personality of Nancy Green, the advertising world's first living trademark, and she made appearances all over the country usually heralded by giant billboards, according to the African American Registry. In 1893, the Davis Milling executives risked their business on an all-out promotion at the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago. The constructed the world's largest flour barrel, and Aunt Jemima, in the form of fifty-nine-year-old Nancy Green of Chicago, stood beside it, demonstrating the pancake mix. They picked the right woman for the job. Green’s showmanship while making and serving thousands of pancakes created such a sensation that extra policemen were assigned to keep the crowds moving. After the exposition, Davis received more than fifty thousand orders from merchants all over America and beyond. The African American Registry says that fair officials proclaimed Nancy
Green the “Pancake Queen.”
Until the emergence of Aunt Jemima Pancake Mix, the bulk of flour sales were made in the winter. After the success of the Nancy Green promotion, flour sales were up year-long, and pancakes were no longer considered exclusively for breakfast. Nancy Green maintained her exclusive lifetime contract with R. T. Davis Co. until her death in a car accident in 1923. Quaker Oats Co. of Chicago purchased the mill in 1925.
Pre-mixed pancake flour was popular, but pancakes were pandemic before Nancy Green. Why? Besides convenience, pancakes adapt. They survived the rise and fall of the Roman Empire and the Middle Ages. In old recipes, some are savory, made with cheese, fish, and meat, while some are sweetened with fruit, nuts, and honey. The earliest cookbooks make mention of them. In “The Pancake: An Appreciation” in Restaurant Business magazine, Amy Sutherland notes that Apicius, in the ancient Roman cookbook Marcus Gavius Apicius: de re Coquinaria, included a recipe with omelet-like consistency, and a thirteenth-century, medieval recipe for white pancakes that emerge like a crêpe was made with a bit of white wine and egg whites. In 1514, several Dutch recipes were printed, and in 1615 John Murrell published A New Booke of Cookerie in London that included English pancake recipes, according to foodtimeline.org.
On this continent, American Indians had their version made from cornmeal batter shaped by hand. In Narragansett, the language of Rhode Island’s aboriginals, it was “nokehick” meaning “it is soft,” and settlers transmuted that term to “no cake,” according to food timeline. org. Soon, “Indian cakes” typically made from cornmeal were adapted by settlers, and by the 1830s and 1840s, white flour began replacing the harder-to-cook cornmeal.
The pancake has strong connections to social rituals. Shrove Tuesday, or Mardi Gras, the day to use up the butter and eggs forbidden during Lent, led to consumption of towering stacks of pancakes. In the annual Olney Pancake Race at Olney, England, there are women making a 415-yard dash each year from near the Bull Hotel to the Parish Church of St. Peter and St. Paul while flipping pancakes furiously on their hand-held griddles, according to The Oxford Companion to Food.
Since 1445, the Shrove Tuesday all-female competitors have dressed as housewives, complete with apron and head covering, to race. The winner gets a blessing, a kiss, and presumably the chance to relax. Plus, when you think about all those community pancake breakfasts throughout this country, the realization hits that the humble pancake has created a stronger America. This rich history cries out for a gold standard in pancakes, So I went in search of the perfect pancake mix in the town where Aunt Jemima was created.
Beth Courter of the Museum Hill Bed and Breakfast at St. Joseph makes a stunning variety of dishes for her guests, and her Souffled Banana Pancake breakfast is sublime. The wedges of her special recipe are adorned with lightly toasted pecan halves and a dusting of confectioner's sugar. The presentation of delicate shirred eggs and ham. fresh fruit compote, orange and lemon scones, toast, and wedges of banana pancake is impressive and delicious. It's a guarantee that if pioneers had eaten Beth's breakfast, they may have stayed put.
John and Beth Courter's house itself is a gem. Museum Hill Bed and Breakfast was built in the 1880s by George Kennard, a prominent grocer. Outside, the home boasts Victorian trimmings on the brick, tidy garden beds and porches with comfortable chairs. Inside, there's an ongoing jigsaw puzzle on a side table in the dining room.
"I like the grandness of Victorian style, the elegance of it," Beth says, and her affinity shows in the warmth and comfort created in this space, in the trimmings on the upholstery and drapery, and in the lace touches of Museum Hill.
The house's history though, has had its rough spots. In 1910, Ernest E. Chase, the inventor of Cherry Mash candy bar, bought it for his wife Emma, but by 1995, it had fallen on hard times–split into apartments and then abandoned–barely surviving a fire that ripped off the entire third floor. Museum Hill was featured in a 1995 story of This Old House magazine, in a section called "Save this House," and it was in this article that it found a salvation: John and Karen Wood saw the feature and bought the house for restoration as a bed and breakfast. In 2006, the Courters, lured by the town, the idea of providing hospitality and great food, and by the house itself, decided it was to be their home and business.
The house overlooks downtown St. Joseph, its impressive structure a testament to when this town was the westernmost point accessible by rial. By 1990, St. Joseph received nearly one hundred passenger trains a day, and wealthy merchants supplied those incoming visitors with materials, food, livestock and mail. Today, St. Joseph is a town of about seventy-eight thousand people, and Museum Hill sits amid a hilltop neighborhood of mansions and smaller homes, most restored and stunning.
When the Courters bought the operating bed and breakfast from John and Karen Wood in 2006, it was like opening a page of history, and Beth keeps an album of historic photos and mementos while she continues to research Museum Hill. Today, each room has its own theme. For instance, in the Empire Rose Room not only can tinkling sounds of a wind chime be heard through the lace-covered windows, but it has a sleigh bed, fresh flowers, large mirrors, and a claw-foot tub in the adjoining bath. All the rooms in the home fit the period of the house.
Another stop in St. Jo is Vincent Daunay’s Kirkpatrick Café downtown. Kirkpatrick’s offers up classic breakfast items combined with the flavors of Vincent’s French homeland. He creates a signature breakfast dish: his own tartines made with a sourdough slice of fresh French bread, cheddar, mozzarella, Swiss, and Parmesan cheeses plus a little cream and a sunny-side up egg. Traces of vanilla lace the cafe’s classic pancake, made to perfection with a golden crispy shell and thick cake. Vincent prepares a pumpkin pancake, too, and others depending on the season you visit. In February, in honor of Valentine’s Day, Vincent recommends Sweetheart Pancakes (see recipes on p. 86) and adds Baileys or another favorite liquor to the mix, along with cinnamon and sugar or whipped cream.
After munching on griddle cakes, consider a drive or a walk through St. Jo’s rather unique parkway system: The city has a twenty-six-mile green corridor connecting its parks. This corridor was first designed in 1910 after a City Beautiful push during the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893 and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. St. Jo abounds in other things to do and see. The Apple Blossom Festival and Parade held the first Saturday in May; the St. Joseph International Guitar Festival held the third week of May complete with public concerts, jam sessions, lessons, and a juried competition of musicians from around the world; and the annual Historic Homes Tour the last weekend in September are three noteworthy events
Several museums sit ready to round out a trip to St. Joseph, including the Jesse James Home, Patee House Museum, Glore Psychiatric Museum, the Pony Express National Museum, Albrecht-Kemper Museum of Art, Robidoux Row Museum, the Society of Memories Doll Museum, and the Wyeth-Tootle Mansion. Historic buildings are everywhere. Visit the Missouri Valley Trust Building downtown at Fourth and Felix streets for a beautifully preserved old-time bank, and the Commerce Bank building, also at Fourth and Felix, for its towering lobby with five 1920 Edward J. Holslag murals depicting commerce, communication, and transportation in frontier St. Joseph.