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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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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Moving Victorians

(Note: This post is a slightly longer version of an article I wrote for my local Victorian home group. If you’re going to plagiarize someone, why not yourself?)

San Francisco Victorian Home on the Move. Photo from the San Jose Mercury News website.

A few weeks ago, a rare sight rolled down Franklin Street in San Francisco: a large Italianate Victorian house.  The house, called by some the Englander House, was built in 1882, but it was the last house left on its block–commercial buildings having taken over all others–and thus was inconveniently in the way of an planned eight-story apartment building.

The developer sold the house, instead of demolishing it (likely had to because of historic preservation laws), and the unoccupied house took a six block trip around the corner from 807 Franklin Street to 635 Fulton Street. The trip cost $400,000 to complete, including moving utility lines, trimming trees, and uprooting parking meters to allow the house to roll smoothly by.

Apparently, this house move was the first in San Francisco in 50 years, although vintage “mobile homes” were more common in the 1970s. Previously, older buildings were summarily demolished if they were in the path of a planned development. However, by the 1970s, it became so obvious that San Francisco was losing its historic houses when “urban renewal” was all the rage that historic preservation ordinances were passed.

House moving also occurred in San Francisco much earlier than the 1970s.  The house in the photo below was moved up Steiner Street in 1908. Where it eventually stopped moving is not known. One could assume that its move had something to do with the 1906 earthquake, but I could find no details about it. A careful examination of the downhill side of the house will show the means of hauling this building: a two-horsepower winch–literally two horses. Cables ran from the cribbing supporting the house to capstans driven into the ground. The horses circled the capstan, slowly rotating the capstans and winching the house along. San Francisco’s hills couldn’t have made it an easy task.

Horse-powered moving of a Victorian in San Francisco in 1908.

In fact, it was often the hills that created the need for moving houses. As the city grew, entire neighborhoods were re-graded in an attempt to flatten San Francisco’s infamous hills, sometimes leaving houses isolated and in need of moving to their newer, lower addresses.

Moving a house from its higher previous location to its new re-graded level.

Moving Victorians around town is relatively more common in flat San Jose (the larger and more populous yet less charismatic city at the south end of San Francisco Bay).  A dozen or so houses were moved from the site of the new City Hall into the midst of other Victorian homes in the Hensley Historic District and the Northside neighborhood. We got to watch two of them come past our house very early one morning.

The Houghton-Donner house, built in 1881, was home to Eliza Donner, one of the children in the infamous Donner Party, and her husband Sherman Otis Houghton, who served in Congress. The house was moved in 1909 and negotiations were ongoing in 2007 to move it again when it was destroyed by a “highly suspicious” fire.

So how does all this relate to Steampunk? Between the time when horses provided the power to move houses, and when diesel truck did, steam tractors were the vehicle to use. Here’s a picture of a house in Winfield, Kansas, USA being moved by steam tractor.

Steampower!

If you’re interested in this topic, a great book with many photographs is: “San Francisco Relocated” by Diane C. Donovan, part of the Images of America series by Acadia Publishing.

Scientific Steampunk

Weston Voltmeter, ca. 1901

Of all the items I own, none embodies the Steampunk Aesthetic more than a Weston Voltmeter that I bought on ebay several years ago.

Take a look at it. Compared with later analog meters, it’s massive The voltmeter measures 10 inches in diameter and weighs about 12 pounds. The face of the device is painted black with what appear to be nickel-plated text and decoration. The earliest patent number on the central plaque is July 16, 1901, meaning that it was built no earlier than that. Its maker, the Weston Electrical Instrument Company, was well-known at the time for the high quality of its electrical measuring devices. Indeed the device seems to accurately measure electrical voltage still.

It is in the same condition as when I bought it. I’ve considered trying to clean it up a bit, but I kind of like the used appearance.

This device evokes the Steampunk Aesthetic by combining both its functionality with its completely unneeded decoration. The filigree and fancy script on its face contribute not a bit to the device’s ability to measure voltage. Yet they are as intrinsic to the device as its function.

Voltmeter detail 1
Voltmeter detail 2

An interesting factoid: Edward Weston, the American chemist, who started the company making, amongst other instrumentation, the Weston Cell, a very precise electrochemical cell (i.e, battery), which was recognized as the international voltage standard until 1990. He named his son Edward Faraday Weston, obviously after the great British chemist, Michael Faraday. And there’s no scientist more steampunk than Faraday!

Steampunk Architecture – Redux

Transept of the Crystal Palace, 1851, the center of the Steampunk Architecture Universe.

Six years or so ago, I wrote a blog post titled “Steampunk Architecture” in which I gave a short description of several examples of real-life architecture that reflect the Steampunk Aesthetic. Since then it has been one of the most popular posts on my blog. I’ve also presented it as ta talk at the Bay Area’s steampunk con, Clockwork Alchemy.

As luck would have it, I had updated my presentation significantly in preparation for Clockwork Alchemy 2020 which subsequently caught the coronavirus and was postponed until 2021 (we hope). However, I want to present some of my talk here.

Full disclosure, I’m not an architect or a historian, but I am interested in how architecture reflects its society and vice versa, how society affects the architecture it builds. The Victorian Age was such a transformative time with huge changes in social, economic, and technological arenas. The architecture that was built in that time artifacts of that era.

So, what is Steampunk Architecture?

Yes, what is it indeed? Given that the many steampunk universes that exist are all fictional, how can there be real-life Steampunk Architecture?

Well, we know what the standard Steampunk Aesthetic is–vaguely Victorian with an overlay of superfluous detail and quasi-functional mechanisms. While there are many variations of this aesthetic (and I’m not going to get bogged down in the arguments about what is and isn’t steampunk), the big tent that is Steampunk contains all manner of variations on these design features.

So let’s take this Steampunk Aesthetic and see how it might have existed in the Real World –the mundane one that we live in, or at least in which our 19th century ancestors did. At the beginning of the 19th century, building materials were stone, brick, plaster, and wood. Any decoration was applied by hand by painting or carving. By the 1830s or so, the steam engine was being refined and soon it was applied to the fabrication of building materials. Steam powered saws, lathes, drills, etc. reduced the cost of building materials and put non-functional building decorations into the hands of the middle class, and on otherwise utilitarian and industrial buildings.

Similarly, the introduction of new building materials enabled bigger, more elaborate and just more impressive buildings. Cast iron, and eventually, steel support beams provided the skeletons of 19th century buildings instead of bricks and stone. Improvements in the production of window glass created larger panes, allowing more light into buildings. Inexpensive ass-produced ornamentation fed the Victorians’ desire for endless design details.

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Charles Darwin Considers Dragons

I am happy to offer the electronic version of my latest book, Mr. Darwin’s Dragon, at 50% off ($1.75) during Smashwords‘ July Summer/Winter promotion until the end of July.

This book is the latest Airship Flamel Adventure featuring Professor Nicodemus Flamel, the main character in this series.

Charles Darwin, one of Britain’s most famous and certainly most controversial scientists has a puzzle. How could it be that cultures all over the world–who had no prior contact with each other–have ancient myths of dragons? Could dragons have once lived alongside ancient man? Could dragons still exist?

Professor Nicodemus Boffin and his newly launched airship Flamel takes up the famous naturalist’s request to search for evidence of modern dragons. The voyage takes Flamel from Britain through the Middle East and over the Himalayas to China. The search is barely begun when Flamel discovers an illicit gold mine run by Cai Yuan, a cruel Chinese warlord, and his corrupt British collaborator. Professor Boffin and his family are taken hostage in the mine which seems to be guarded by a fierce dragon. The crew of Flamel must rescue them, and together discover whether Mr. Darwin’s dragon truly exists.

Enjoy!