It’s time to take a look back in time to an Albany Thanksgiving table in the 1860s. Most of the foods would be familiar – turkey, cranberry sauce, pumpkin pie, mashed potatoes, biscuits and, importantly- celery!! Yes – it wasn’t a Thanksgiving without celery. Really.
Why celery? It’s was a fussy, difficult to cultivate vegetable. As a result it was an expensive treat. (A food blogger – Hannah Arndt Anderson calls it the “Avocado Toast” of the Victorian Age.) And because it was such a luxury, it was displayed proudly on the Thanksgiving dinner table in a glass vase, stalk end down, leaves up. The wealthy always had intricately carved crystal vases (the really rich had sterling silver celery vases), but by the 1850s pressed glass started to be manufactured and celery vases for the masses were within the reach of the middle class. Cooks cleaned and scraped raw stalks, and then put them in cold water in the vases. The celery was a symbol of prestige and confirmed a family’s status as the celery vase was passed around the table. Etiquette books of the time identify where the celery should be placed in a table-setting.
Enter Albany’s Theophilus Roessle
Roessle was born 1811 in Germany and emigrated to the U.S. in 1825. He came to Albany penniless. He said he was offered a place to say by the father of match girl he met on the street. The next morning he borrowed a shovel from the old man, found work and was paid a meager sum. But he was off and running towards making his fortune.
Back in Germany his father was a market gardener. Roessle worked at odd jobs for about 5 years and finally leased property near the Western Turnpike from his employer, Dr. Wendell, and started a market garden. Over time he learned landscaping and saved every penny.
Roessle began to buy land along the Albany-Schenectady Turnpike (now Central Avenue between the city line and Wolf Road) and continued farming. His cash crop was celery, which had been a notoriously finicky item to grow. But grow it did for Roessle. By 1840 he was selling a thousand bunches a day, mostly to restaurants in Albany and Saratoga, but as far south as the Fulton Market in NYC. He began with 7 acres and soon had over 100, devoted almost exclusively to celery.
(This area would later become the hamlet of Roessleville. As his wealth increased, Theophilus Roessle built a large, elegant Italianate mansion, the entrance road flanked by stone lions, near present-day Elmhurst Ave. The Mansion is long since gone.)
Roessle then embarks on a new career. Around 1850 he buys the Delavan House hotel in Albany on Broadway, near the train station. (Having spent much time selling produce to the hotel he thought he could make a better profit than the current owner, Edward Delavan.)* Roessle’s celery became legendary far and wide across the country as travelers passed through Albany and stayed at the Delavan. It becomes the premier hotel in the city. (The Roessle family sold the Delavan in the early 1890s and it was, sadly, destroyed in a horrible fire in 1894. The destruction of the hotel paved the way for the construction of Union Station.)
Meanwhile Roessle knew so much about celery, he literally writes the book, “How to Cultivate and Preserve Celery” in 1860. Farmers everywhere started to grow celery using the Roessle method. But Roessle kept growing celery (there’s an ad in an Albany paper in 1876 in which he advertises 200,000 bunches for sale).
Roessle also continues the hotel business, acquiring and substantially improving and enlarging the Fort William Henry Hotel in Lake George, and later taking over the Arlington Hotel in Washington, D.C., known as one of the most opulent and exclusive hotels in the District.
Roessle’s hotels were huge successes, which is a good thing, since by now everyone in the country was growing celery and it was no longer the “thing” it had once been. Celery had now become accessible to the masses.. it’s a huge deal. There’s a celery frenzy. All sorts of celery recipes make their way into cookbooks of the late 1800s. (I was raised by grandmother who fed us stewed and creamed celery in the 1950s – a particular unappealing holdover from the late 1890s when anything was fair game for inclusion in a white sauce.)
Celery vases were relegated to back cupboards and celery stalks took their rightful place on “relish dishes” with pickles and green olives (which became the newest thing, shipped from California) on Thanksgiving tables by the early 1900s. (According to food historians, the next – and only appearance- of the upright celery stalk is in the Bloody Mary cocktail in the 1950s.)