Steampunk Cuisine, Part 2: Evolutionary Silver Designs

The Steampunk Aesthetic is based largely on the design features of the Victorian Era, when use of decoration was foremost.  However, I like to think of the Steampunk Aesthetic as “fancier than it needs to be to be functional”.

While many Victorian/Steampunk items are fancier than they need to be, this concept is perhaps demonstrated most clearly in the design, decoration, and alleged function of Victorian silver.

In our more utilitarian times, tableware generally consists of a fork, a knife, and a spoon, maybe with a salad fork, soup spoon, or teaspoon added on if the dinner is fancier. And these utensils pretty much take care of all our needs.

However in the later part of the Victorian Era, the co-called Gilded Age, there was an explosion of various tableware and serving pieces each one specialized and required for each course, or sometimes, even each type of food on the plate. And each one was deemed essential for the proper table.

Today we would use a knife and form to serve and eat fish. However, the fish fork was designed to be optimized for the task. The fish fork’s leftmost tine was longer than the rest and sported a notch. These features were meant to simplify removing the fish’s bones and skin. Although I wonder how much easier this task became, and how much one was supposed to merely ogle at the hostess’s fancy silverware.

The variety of forks increased over time to include (beside the modern dinner and salad forks) luncheon forks, dessert forks, pastry forks, oyster forks, berry forks and ice-cream forks. All deemed crucial for using at fancy meals.

It’s really with the serving pieces that the wide diversity of forms reached its zenith.  Let’s start with the asparagus tongs, below.

I like these because the rectangular design is so unusual in flatware. There are some more usually shaped asparagus tongs, but they all allow serving the exotic asparagus spears without causing a mess.

Asparagus Tongs, Tiffany and Co.

The dangerous-looking utensil shown below is a cucumber server, although it can sometimes also used to serve tomatoes as well. The tines make it look like a spork turned 90 degrees, but I could not find the rationale for the tines. Perhaps they are only to ensure the cucumber slices don’t fall off while serving.

Cucumber Server

The fish server below consists of a wide fork and knife which are used to slice a piece from a larger fish and deliver it to the diner’s plate. The width, I assume, is to prevent the fish from separating while being transferred to the place. I suppose this serves the same function as a spatula would today, just with more style.

Fish Server

Desserts had their own assortment of specialized tableware. The bonbon scoop (below) seems to have been used to serve chocolate-covered goodies without untoward stickiness. The ice cream server looks more like it’s made for slicing than scooping, although there are period designs that are concave as well. In any case, the design is very different than the ice cream scoop of today.

Finally, there is the mango fork. This bizarre three-tined fork is inserted at the end of the mango and while holding the fork, the flesh is cut away. It’s a very elegant way of saying, “I’m not only rich enough to afford exotic tropical fruit, but also the specialized tableware with which to eat it.

Bonbon Scoop
Mango Forks

Obviously, very few working-class or even middle-class homes would have been equipped with any of these fancy utensils. Not when a knife, fork, and spoon will do the work just fine. Their main function was as a display of conspicuous consumption–to demonstrate that you are rich enough to possess the latest and most stylish tableware to impress your equally gilded friends.

So, although fancy silverware may satisfy the Steampunk “fancier than it needs to be to be functional”, I think iit exaggerates its functionality when one of its main functions is to impress.

Steampunk Cuisine, Part 1. Pressure Cookers

I’ve been involved in Steampunk for over seven years, but it wasn’t until this year that I realized that there’s not much in the way of steampunk cuisine. I’m not sure exactly why this is– most steampunks I know certainly enjoy eating, and a good number enjoy cooking as well.

Sure there are plenty of steampunk beverages–tea, of course, as well as various libations of the alcoholic persuasion–rum, gin, absinthe–depending on how fancy you feel. But there is a dearth of steampunk-related foods.

I hope to remedy this deficiency.

Let’s start with what I consider the most steampunk piece of kitchen hardware–one that uses the mighty power of steam itself to cook your food. I am speaking, of course, of what was once known as the “pressure cooker” and is now branded as the Instant Pot. They consist of a pot with a sealed lid that when heated pressurizes the contents of the pot.

So how do these infernal devices work? At normal atmospheric pressure, water boils at 100C (212 F for you American non-scientists). However, remember the Ideal Gas Law from freshman chemistry (PV = nRT). Because the pressure cooker is sealed, the internal pressure (P) rises as the temperature increases and thus, the boiling point of the water in the cooker rises. So the water inside now boils at about 121C (250F). Higher temperature means faster cooking.

Of course, the higher pressure could mean a higher risk of explosion if the pressure cooker isn’t equipped with a pressure-relief valve or if it gets clogged with what’s being cooked. I can remember my mother cooking with a 1970s era pressure cooker and feeling a vague sense of imminent danger from the hissing, steaming device. Modern Instant Pots seem to be safer.

Vintage Pressure Cookers

The photos above show some vintage pressure cookers, and it should be obvious just how steampunk they look. The cooker’s lid is kept sealed by sturdy clamp bolts. The lid itself is festooned with pressure and temperature gauges as well as pressure relief valves to release excess steam and prevent unwanted explosions.

I haven’t jumped on the Instant Pot bandwagon. Perhaps the memories of my mother’s pressure cooker steaming away on the stove has hindered me. Still, my search for steampunk cooking continues unabated.

My next installment about Steampunk Cuisine will come next week. In the meantime, if you’ve got any good ideas for steampunk recipes, please leave them in the Comments section below.

Did you enjoy this blog post? Interested in more? My new FREE short story “Dreams Beyond Gold” is available HERE. It’s the tale of an airship rpirate captain who is looking to try his hand at more literary pursuits.

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“Dreams Beyond Gold”– A new FREE short story from Michael Tierney

Captain Jack Fawkes is a feared airpirate captain. Even though he has gained much renown and bounteous treasure from raiding airships, he is beginning to feel somewhat tired of the marauding life, and looking to try his hand at more literary pursuits. How will he manage to escape his airship without his crew realizing that he is giving up his former life—and the treasures he earns for them? It’s a tale of swashbuckling adventure along with a bit of humour.

“Dreams Beyond Gold” is available HERE. You will also be signed up to receive my periodic newsletter with information on my writing, as well as other interesting tidings. And I pledge: No Spam.

Welcome aboard!

Mooring Airships on the Empire State Building?

One oft-told story involves the use of the Empire State Building as a mooring mast for airships like the Hindenburg.  It sounds plausible. The spire of the Empire State Building certainly resembles a mooring mast, and if King Kong is not scaling the building, it appears that there’s plenty of room to moor. And no self-respecting steam- or diesel-punk would forgo the chance of mooring his airship at the Art Deco splendor of the Empire State Building.

However, oft-told stories can take on a life of their own in the cold and windy light of day.

The 1930s were the heyday of lighter-than-air dirigibles with the German airships Graf Zeppelin and Hindenburg flying travelers around the globe in luxury that could only be compared to that of the most opulent hotels or glamorous trains.  Although the US and Britain had no commercial airships, they advanced the capabilities of military airships over time. Airships on the transatlantic route generally landed at the Naval Air Station in Lakehurst, New Jersey which had the facilities needed to maintain and service the ships. However, Lakehurst is quite some distance from the passengers’ typical destination of New York City.  So, having a landing spot closer to New York would be a great benefit for transatlantic flights.

Composite photograph showing how the Navy airship Los Angeles would appear moored to the Empire State Building.
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Vacuum Airships: Reality or Steampunk Fantasy?

We steampunks love our airships.  Not because they’re particularly efficient or fearsome flying machines, but because they provide the most amusement per pound than any other vehicle.

There is a body of science that describes the performance of airships—much of which is blithely ignored or at least subverted in steampunk stories and artwork. My stories—the Airship Flamel Adventures—feature an airship whose characteristics have at best a tenuous relationship with actual Airship Science. So I know whereof I speak. However, I recently discovered a novel airship technology that seems completely impractical (and being more impractical than a standard airship is quite an accomplishment) yet which contains just enough real science to keep things interesting.

Airship of the future conceived in 1899.

Airships, including hot air balloons, work because they have a large volume filled with a gas that is less dense than air.  The gas weighs less than air, so it wants to float. If you add in the weight of the rest of the airship (such as the gondola and the cells containing the lifting gas) and the ship still floats, then you’re in business!  You’ve got an airship that will fly.  (If not, however, your airship sits obstinately on the ground.)

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Flowers and Stars

James Lick was one of those persons who, through hard work, intelligence, perseverance, and sometimes just good luck, managed to accomplish more than seems possible in one lifetime.  I find that many of these people seem to have lived during the Victorian Age, when opportunities were ripe, and a good dose of gumption could result in a dramatically improved situation.

Portrait of James Lick

James Lick was born in Pennsylvania in 1796 into fairly unexceptional circumstances; his father was a carpenter and young James followed suit.  He eventually learned the piano-making trade and after tuning his skills in New York, he shipped out to Buenos Aires which seemed to be a good market for pianos.

Unfortunately, Lick’s success was initially hampered by his inability to speak Spanish, as well as sporadic South American political unrest. He bounced around the continent for almost 30 years, his business becoming prosperous. Eventually, he tired of the social upheavals, leaving South America completely and ending up in San Francisco with his piano-making tools, $30,000 in gold and 600 pounds of chocolate to sell for a friend. The chocolate sold quickly, prompting Lick to send a letter back to his friend Domingo Ghirardelli advising him to move his chocolate business up to California.

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Pirate Epicureans

When considering pirates (or airpirates, if you’re in a steampunky mood), one’s thoughts immediately turn to treasure–large chests of coins, gold bars, and bejeweled bric-a-brac. And I’m sure no self-respecting pirate would pass these by. In reality, however, the definition of “treasure” was broader than what we normally assume.

I give you two examples of pirates who changed western cuisine as we know it.

Hughes’s treatise includes instructions on how to convert cacao to the chocolate drink.

William Hughes was a botanist by training, or at least by avocation. Hughes set out for the Caribbean in the 1630s and eventually found his way onto the crew of a British privateer, sanctioned by the Crown to raid Spanish trading ships. As they made their way around the Caribbean in search of plunder, Hughes had the chance to survey the local flora, how it could be grown, and how the indigenous population prepared and ate it. In 1672, after his piratical days were over, he summarized his findings in a treatise titled The American Physitian. Among the plants he described were the lime (“excellent good against the Scurvie”), sugarcane (“both pleasant and profitable”), and prickly pear (“if you suck large quantities of it, it coloureth the urine of a purple color” which I can only imagine was the basis of many shipboard pranks.)

The largest section of his book concerned cacao which he was so enamored with that he deemed it “the American nectar”. The Spanish had already encountered cacao as early as Columbus in 1502, but it took them over a century to accept it as suitable for drinking. One traveler to Nicaragua held it to be more fit for pigs than people. The British were lagging even further; it wasn’t until Hughes’s book that cacao was fully described in English. The ingredients that Hughes describes to flavor hot chocolate reads like a description of the spice trade itself: “milk, water, grated bread, sugar, maiz, egg, wheat flour, cassava, chili pepper, nutmeg, clove, cinnamon, musk, ambergris, cardamom, orange flower water, citrus peel, citrus and spice oils, achiote, vanilla, fennel, annis, black pepper, ground almonds, almond oil, rum, brandy, sack.” His personal recipe for hot chocolate has been replicated, and sounds delicious!

By the time his book was published, Hughes had settled down, and was working as a botanist in England, puttering around on the country estate of Viscountess Conway. Cacao, and its liquid version, chocolate, however, expanded out from Central America to the entire globe, surpassing even the spreads of other New World crops as tomatoes, corn, or potatoes.

A generation or so later, another English buccaneer, William Dampier, took up the mantle of Pirate-Epicurean. Dampier had a long history as a pirate and privateer, making three complete circumnavigations of the globe and attacking Spanish ships wherever they could be found. He also seems to have eaten his way around the world, finding new and different foods wherever he went. He recorded his findings in detailed diaries which he kept safe in wax-sealed bamboo tubes. After his first circumnavigation (on which in 1688 he was also the first Englishman to land in Australia), he published his diary A New Voyage Around the World in 1697 to great success. In his book he described a wide variety of animals and their edibility–flamingos, Galapagos penguins, manatees. He highlighted the breadfruit from Tahiti as an excellent food, so much so that the British adopted it to feed slaves in their Caribbean plantations (leading indirectly and much later to the mutiny on the Bounty).

William Dampier, National Portrait Gallery, Public Domain

Dampier also described a fruit “as big as a large lemon … [with] skin [like] black bark, and pretty smooth”–the avocado–and adds that it can be prepared “mixed with sugar and lime juice and beaten together [on] a plate.” Thus, the first recipe in English for guacamole.

His botanical and scientific observations made him famous. Besides compiling lists of edibles, he also monitored the weather, measured currents, and collected botanical specimens throughout his voyages. Both Charles Darwin and Captain Cook carried his book on their voyages. However, he never totally gave up his piratical activities throughout all of his voyages, raiding Spanish ships and ports around the world.

Not a bad side gig for an author.