Posted in 1930s, 1940s, Atlantic City books, Food, Historical fiction, Writing

The perils of pinning down every historical detail

While every good historical writer obviously needs to do a lot of research and get as many facts as possible right, there are inevitably times where we can’t find any information, the known existing information is scarce and sketchy, or it’s so difficult and time-consuming to locate information that it’s not really worth the effort. When that happens, we need to weigh the need for historical accuracy against how likely it is anyone will actually notice or care if some details aren’t 100% correct.

One of those scenarios is what was on the menu at real restaurants.

I’ve spent the past week working on my World’s Fair chapter in the book formerly known as The Very Last, and part of my research includes finding out what was served at the restaurants. I found several great New York Times articles in the archives (which I can search for free through my local library), along with the information at this awesome repository and some other sources.

However, one thing I didn’t count on was that some of those restaurants didn’t exist during the Fair’s second season in 1940, since almost a dozen foreign pavilions in the Government Zone were closed due to WWII. Other restaurants offered different menu items in 1940.

Above is the original menu of the Iraqi café, which sounds totally awesome, but which wasn’t the same during the second season. After I wrote a scene of Cinni and some of her friends having lunch there during their first day at the Fair, I discovered the café expanded to a full restaurant and added savoury Middle Eastern food. I can’t discount the possibility that they still offered those sweet date-based dishes, but that was no longer the entirety of their menu in 1940.

Historical menus absolutely can be found if you know where to look. Some major restaurants will mention the evolution of their menu and food offerings over the years in the history section of their websites. The New York Public Library has a huge free online treasure trove of archived menus. I’ve found numerous websites and serious blog posts about Brooklyn’s sadly closed Gage and Tollner restaurant (which was kind of like Delmonico’s).

But sometimes, it’s just too time-consuming and difficult, or even downright impossible, to track down certain details. Yeah, I could fly up to NYC and spend a few days looking through archives, or pay an archivist or librarian to do the research for me and send me the relevant information. But is that really worth the effort when the World’s Fair only occupies a single chapter? It’s not like the entire book or an entire part of the book is about the Fair!

In the absence of 100% proof, we should err on the side of plausibility. E.g., a seafood restaurant probably wouldn’t serve hamburgers. Vegetarian and vegan options just weren’t a thing until fairly recently. A French café wouldn’t offer Thai food.

Using a fictional restaurant eliminates the possibility of inadvertent error entirely.

Plus, how many people are going to notice or care if you include a menu item that may not have really been available on that date at that restaurant? I highly doubt that’ll pull anyone normal out of the story like a blatant anachronism would. You shouldn’t stress over a tiny detail that’s not important to the overall book. All that matters is doing the best you could with the information available.

Another little detail you may not always be able to find is makeup colours. There are plenty of vintage makeup ads to be found, and vintage beauty bloggers, but not all makeup comes from major name brands. Many makeup companies also like to give their colours creative names, beyond simple designators like red, pink, and green.

Also, makeup colours were a lot more conservative decades ago. The kind of lipsticks I like to wear (black, dark blue, dark green, purple) didn’t exist, and while nailpolish had a somewhat larger range, it also generally didn’t include colours like black, orange, and purple.

Do you notice or care if a few minor historical details aren’t 100% accurate? Do you appreciate an author’s note explaining the reasons for such decisions?

Posted in 1930s, Atlantic City books, Cinnimin, Food, Historical fiction, holidays, Judaism, Religion

WeWriWa—The Smalls’ Shavuot menu

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Welcome back to Weekend Writing Warriors and Snippet Sunday, weekly Sunday hops where writers share 8–10 sentences from a book or WIP. The rules have now been relaxed to allow a few more sentences if merited, so long as they’re clearly indicated, to avoid the creative punctuation many of us have used to stay within the limit.

This week’s snippet comes from Chapter 19, “Happy Shavuot,” of the book formerly known as The Very Next and published last spring as Movements in the Symphony of 1939. Last week I described the table itself, and now you’ll get to read about all the delicious foods on offer. I know many people really enjoy my food-themed scenes.

Cinnimin Filliard’s father helped to bring a German Jewish family to America from Amsterdam in 1938, and they’ve been living in the guesthouse ever since. Their youngest child, Sparky (real name Katherine, changed from Katharina), shares Cinni’s attic bedroom in the main house, and has become her best friend.

Cinni, who has no love lost for her family’s nominal religion of Methodism and finds Judaism much more fun and colorful, is thrilled to be invited to celebrate Shavuot with the Smalls (originally the Brandts). Her friend Kit’s father is also a guest.

Just prior to this excerpt, Cinni saw strange things that looked like bread doughnuts on a silver platter, and Mrs. Small explained they’re bagels from Philadelphia, to be served with lox, cream cheese, tomatoes, and lettuce.

Cinni hoped her eyes weren’t wider than her stomach as she began heaping her plate high with a little of everything offered. She couldn’t complain for lack of meat when she had salmon broiled in butter, bagels loaded with the promised toppings, plenty of smoked salmon by itself, scalloped potatoes cooked in cheese, mushrooms stuffed with chopped walnuts, garden salad with chunks of goat cheese, fruit salad with shredded coconut flakes, and artichoke quiche. There was so much sumptuous food from which to feast, Cinni hardly cared there were some artichokes in the mix. If only her mother cooked such wonderful food. Mrs. Filliard put in some effort for Christmas and Easter, but didn’t offer anything nearly so grand.

“Which cheesecake would you like to try first?” Sparky asked after the supper plates and silverware were cleared away.

“Which cheesecake? You mean you’ve got more’n one? Lemme have a slice of all of ’em!”

Cinni’s eyes almost fell out of her head as Mrs. Small and Gary brought out cheesecake after cheesecake—the normal plain variety, chocolate, chocolate chip, lemon, orange, strawberry, raspberry, double chocolate.

The ten lines end here. A few more follow to complete the scene.

Her mouth watered even more when Mr. Small and Barry lugged out canisters of ice-cream and bowls of toppings, followed by even more desserts upon which to feast.

“My folks never serve nearly so much dessert. I’m gonna weigh twenty more pounds after tonight.”

“We’re having ice-cream sundaes at synagogue after services tomorrow,” Sparky said. “Plus lots more cheesecake.”

“I almost wish I could tag along!”

Posted in 1270s, alternative history, Dante, Food, holidays, Middle Ages, Writing

WeWriWa—The party nears its end

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Welcome back to Weekend Writing Warriors and Snippet Sunday, weekly Sunday hops where writers share 8–10 sentences from a book or WIP. The rules have now been relaxed to allow a few more sentences if merited, so long as they’re clearly indicated, to avoid the creative punctuation many of us have used to stay within the limit.

I’m now sharing from a brand-new project, an alternative history with the working title A Dream of Peacocks. It starts on May Day 1274, when Dante met his great love and muse Beatrice Portinari at a party held by her parents.

This comes a bit after last week’s excerpt, when the main course of dinner (the Medieval name for lunch, the biggest meal of the day) was served. After a long, decadent meal punctuated by conversations and songs, the final foods are now brought around.

The descriptions of the Maggerini (May Day singers) and the people watching from the house are based on Marie Spartali Spillman’s 1887 painting, seen below.

Another round of basins and towels were brought around at the conclusion of the meal, and then we had dragées to close our stomachs until we ate again. On offer were aged cheese, lumps of spiced sugar, honey-covered almonds, and hippocras, a hot wine mixed with cinnamon, spices, and sugar. After a final hand-washing, the tables were cleared, and everyone gradually dispersed to different corners of the house and yard.

The sweet sounds of Maggerini brought me to one of the side doors. Out in the courtyard were seven children playing cymbals, horns, and lutes to accompany their heavenly verses. They were all bedecked with fragrant flowers and held more flowers or alder and laburnum branches. Behind them, a maidservant was drawing water from a well, and an older girl sat on the uppermost of the stone steps around the well, holding a long violet chain in one hand and a large cloth sack in the other, presumably to collect their courtesy tokens.

When they finished their performance, Beatrice’s mother, Monna Cilia, came forward to distribute gold florins, hard-boiled eggs, figs, and pears. As she went around rewarding each child, I noticed Beatrice was standing to my right, leaning against a yellow, blue, and lavender cloth draped over the half-wall above a small tree in an earthenware jug. Her face was very intent as she observed her mother’s charity and the happy faces of our guests.

Posted in 1270s, alternative history, Beatrice Portinari, Dante, Food, Writing

WeWriWa—The main course is served

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Welcome back to Weekend Writing Warriors and Snippet Sunday, weekly Sunday hops where writers share 8–10 sentences from a book or WIP. The rules have now been relaxed to allow a few more sentences if merited, so long as they’re clearly indicated, to avoid the creative punctuation many of us have used to stay within the limit.

I’m now sharing from a brand-new project, an alternative history with the working title A Dream of Peacocks. It starts on May Day 1274, when Dante met his great love and muse Beatrice Portinari at a party held by her parents. They’re now walking in the garden.

This comes right after last week’s excerpt, when the partygoers were summoned to dinner (the Medieval name for lunch, the biggest meal of the day). Per that era’s scientific views, a meal had to begin with apéritifs to open the stomach, followed by light foods which were easy to digest, and then somewhat heartier foods. Only after all these preliminary foods had been eaten did the main course come out.

The Taste of Medieval Food - Medievalists.net

Our next course consisted of cabbage, more fruit, broth, duck meat, lettuce, and herbs. Finally, the servants brought the towels and water basins around again so we could wash our hands in preparation for the main course which sat temptingly in the middle of every table. And what a marvellous meal it was.

Though everything I ever could’ve dreamt of at a dinner was on offer, I regardless waited to see what Beatrice and Ricovero would put on their plates first. This wasn’t my home, and I was a first-time guest. If they thought I were a glutton or more interested in the food than their company, my chances of being invited back would diminish.

“You must eat your fill,” Ricovero said. “Don’t wait for us to start eating. This isn’t Great Lent.”

“Yes, please serve yourself whatever you’d like,” Beatrice said.

The ten lines end here. A few more follow to complete the scene.

“All this food is here for us to enjoy in abundance. Calendimaggio only comes once a year.”

I smiled at her and began filling my silver plate with an abundance of hard-boiled eggs, bread, cheese, sausages, beef, olives, roasted vegetables, and porpoise meat. Then I requested a servant fill my tankard with mulberry juice. If my stomach still permitted the intake of food afterwards, I planned to eat a slice of vegetable and eel pie, ravioli, and mussels. It was imperative to preserve enough space in one’s stomach for the dragées which closed every meal, but I wasn’t sure when I’d again get the chance to eat so much decadent, delicious food in one sitting. At least I wasn’t tempted by everything on the table. To this day, I’ve never had the desire to eat swan, lark and other songbirds, porcupine, whale, or hedgehog, despite their popularity among the wealthy. People often develop many strange habits when they acquire or are born into too much money.

Posted in 1270s, alternative history, Beatrice Portinari, Couples, Dante, Food, Middle Ages, Writing

WeWriWa—Called to dinner

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Welcome back to Weekend Writing Warriors and Snippet Sunday, weekly Sunday hops where writers share 8–10 sentences from a book or WIP. The rules have now been relaxed to allow a few more sentences if merited, so long as they’re clearly indicated, to avoid the creative punctuation many of us have used to stay within the limit.

I’m now sharing from a brand-new project, an alternative history with the working title A Dream of Peacocks. It starts on May Day 1274, when Dante met his great love and muse Beatrice Portinari at a party held by her parents. They’re now walking in the garden.

This comes a few pages after last week’s excerpt. Before being called to dinner (the Medieval name for lunch, the biggest meal of the day), Beatrice suggested Dante might become friends with her brother Ricovero. If he’s friends with both of them, her parents will be more inclined to approve future visits.

The next-best-friend Dante mentions in La Vita Nuova is believed to be one of Beatrice’s brothers, and we know from Folco Portinari’s will (which names all his children) that his oldest sons were Manetto and Ricovero. His other three sons were under eighteen as of 1288, which would’ve made them too young to be friends from childhood.

The Taste of Medieval Food - Medievalists.net

Just then a maidservant came into the garden and announced it was time for dinner. Without having to be asked twice, I went towards the door and followed the other guests towards the great hall, where an immense feast awaited.

Beatrice led me to a long walnut table where all the other children were taking seats. The scents of the food laid out before us were so tempting, nothing like the meals I usually ate at home. Babbo and I didn’t eat like peasants, but we were nowhere close to the level of a wealthy family like the Portinaris, who regarded things like wheat and beef as everyday staples instead of luxuries to be indulged in when finances could justify it.

“Ricovero, this is my new friend Dante,” she told a boy dressed in a burgundy tunic and cornflower blue hose. “Mamma and Babbo will be more likely to invite him to visit again if he’s friends with you too. He’s serious and thoughtful like you, so I think you’ll like him.”

“Pleased to meet you,” Ricovero said.

The nine lines end here. A few more follow to complete the scene.

“If Bice likes you and thinks you’re a good person, I must too. She’s a better discerner of worth than many adults.”

We chose chairs near the back left-hand side of the table after almost everyone else had claimed a seat. Presently, maidservants and manservants came around with linen hand towels and shallow silver basins for washing our hands before eating. After that, we said Grace in one voice, and then finally we were at liberty to partake of the apéritifs eaten at the start of every meal to open the stomach.

There were so many to choose from, but I didn’t want to reverse the positive impression I’d made so far, and so settled for just a few pieces of sugar-coated ginger and honey-covered anise. For an apéritif beverage, I directed a manservant to pour me a tankard of sweetened milk. I could drink wine any time I wanted, but milk was a special treat I didn’t often have the opportunity to enjoy.