How Albany’s Celery King Transformed the Victorian Thanksgiving Table

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.

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Enter Albany’s Theophilus Roessle

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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.

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(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.)

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Theophilus Roessle died in 1890, He’s buried in the South Ridge of Albany Rural Cemetery; a massive granite shaft marks his grave. (Paula Lemire, the Cemetery Historian, says she’s actually seen celery, rather than flowers, left at his gravesite.)

*Roessle was far more than just the celery king and hotel mogul. There are strong indications he was an active, albeit somewhat silent supporter of the anti-slavery movement in Albany. He had a close relationship with Edward Delavan, the previous owner of the hotel and a wealthy abolitionist. Stephen Myers, the head of the Underground Railroad in Albany worked at the Delavan. If you look through old city directories, many of the Black men involved in the city’s anti-slavery movement worked in some capacity at the Delavan. Additionally, there was a very close relationship between Roessle and Adam Blake, son of slave, who first owned the Congress Hotel (where the Capitol is located today) and who then owned the Kenmore Hotel on N. Pearl. When Blake died the flag on the Delavan House was flown at half staff.

Julie O’Connor (thanks to Paula Lemire for her help)

Thanksgiving in New Netherlands? Not so much.

Although some historians allege the first Thanksgiving actually has Dutch links, and is a tradition the Pilgrims picked up during their sojourn in Leiden, Holland, after fleeing from England before setting off to America, there is little evidence to support the theory.

The colonial Dutch in Albany celebrated religious holidays with much joy and gusto, like Christmas, New Year’s and Easter (celebrations of which Puritans did not approve), but not Thanksgiving. Thanksgiving was basically a New England colonial tradition, that didn’t start making its way to New York until the early to mid-1700’s, when the Yankees started to move west into New York.

By the 1770s, the concept of a national day of Thanksgiving took hold – the Continental Congress declared a day of Thanksgiving after the Battle of Saratoga in 1777 for all 13 colonies. Albany MUST have rocked that one.. having escaped a near brush with the British Army. Congress declared another Thanksgiving Day in 1782 and in 1789 President Washington issued a proclamation for a national Thanksgiving Day from the seat of government – New York City.

By the early 1800s local newspapers begin to reference Thanksgiving, so it’s quite clear the idea caught on, and an annual Thanksgiving celebration was an Albany “thing”, even before it was proclaimed a national holiday by President Lincoln in 1863.

So it’s pretty safe to assume that by the time the definitive edition of the first truly American cookbook was printed in Albany in 1796 by the Webster brothers print shop (corner of State and Pearl) these recipes from Amelia Simmons’ “American Cookery” would have been in use on Thanksgiving in Albany for quite some time.

(Note 1: if you want to see a real Dutch colonial kitchen, take a trip to Rensselaer, just across the river to the NYS Crailo Historic Site. The building was erected in the early 1700s by Kiliean Van Rensselaer’s (THE Patroon) grandson, when the area was considered to be part of Beverwyck. (As it would before several centuries- until the late 1800s it was still known as East Albany.)

Note 2: Just in case you are cooking a turtle, I’ve included Amelia’s recipe for turtle; it’s quite laborious.. so you might want to consider it for Christmas, to give yourself ample time.)

To stuff a Turkey
1.Grate a wheat loaf, one quarter of a pound butter, one quarter of a
pound salt pork- finely chopped, 2 eggs, a little sweet marjoram,
summer savory, parsley and sage, pepper and salt (if the pork be not sufficient); fill the bird and sew up.
2.One pound soft wheat bread, 3 ounces beef suet, 3 eggs, a little sweet thyme, sweet marjoram, pepper and salt, and some add a gill of wine; fill the bird therewith and sew up. Hang down to a steady solid fire,basting frequently with salt and water, and roast until a steam emits from the breast. One third of a pound of butter into the gravy, dust flour over the bird and baste with the gravy; serve up with boiled onions and cranberry-sauce, mangoes, pickles or celery.
3.Boil and mash 3 pints potatoes, wet them with butter, add sweet
herbs, pepper, salt, fill and roast as above.

French Beans
Take your beans and string them, cut in two and then across, when you have done them all, sprinkle them over with salt and stir them together. As soon as your water boils put them in and make them boil up quick, they will be soon done and they will look of a better green than when growing in the garden if; they are very young, only break off the ends, them break in two and dress them in the same manner.

Biscuit: One pound flour, one ounce butter, one egg, wet with milk and break while oven is heating, and in the same proportion.

Pies:
Apple Pie: Stew and strain the apples; to every three pints, grate the peal of a fresh lemon, add cinnamon, mace, rose-water and sugar to your taste. Bake in paste No. 3.
Minced Pie of Beef: Four pound boiled beef, chopped fine; and salted; six pound of raw apple chopped also, one pound beef suet, one quart of Wine or rich sweet cyder, one ounce mace, and cinnamon, a nutmeg, two pounds raisins.. Bake in paste No. 3, three fourths of an hour.
Pompkin:
1.One quart stewed and strained, 3 pints cream, 9 beaten eggs, sugar, mace, nutmeg and ginger, laid into paste No. 7 or 3, and with a dough spur (Note: anyone know what a dough spur is.. please message us), cross and chequer it, and baked in dishes three quarters of an hour.
2.One quart of milk, 1 pint pompkin, 4 eggs, molasses, allspice and ginger in a crust, bake 1 hour.

Puff Pastes for Tarts (6 recipes.. no wonder Pillsbury has cornered the market.).
No. 1. Rub one pound of butter into one pound of flour, whip 2 whites and add with cold water and one yolk; make into paste, roll in in six or seven times one pound of butter, flowring it each roll. This is
good for any small thing.
No. 2. Rub six pound of butter into fourteen pound of flour, eight
eggs, add cold water, make a stiff paste.
No. 3. To any quantity of flour, rub in three fourths of it’s weight
of butter, (twelve eggs to a peck) rub in one third or half, and roll
in the rest.
No. 4. Into two quarts flour (salted) and wet stiff with cold water roll in, in nine or ten times one and half pound of butter.
No. 5. One pound flour, three fourths of a pound of butter, beat well.
No. 6. To one pound of flour rub in one fourth of a pound of butter wet with three eggs and rolled in a half pound of butter.

To Dress a Turtle
Fill a boiler or kettle, with a quantity of water sufficient to scald the callapach and Callapee, the fins, &c. and about 9 o’clock hang up your Turtle by the hind fins, cut of the head and save the blood, take a sharp pointed knife and separate the callapach from the callapee, or the back from the belly part, down to the shoulders, so as to come at the entrails which take out, and clean them, as you would those of any other animal, and throw them into a tub of clean water, taking great care not to break the gall, but to cut it off from the liver and throw it away, then separate each distinctly and put the guts into another vessel, open them with a small pen-knife end to end, wash them clean, and draw them through a woolen cloth, in warm water, to clear away the slime and then put them in clean cold water till they are used with the other part of the entrails, which must be cut up small to be mixed in the baking dishes with the meat; this done, separate the back and belly pieces, entirely cutting away the fore fins by the upper joint, which scald; peal off the loose skin and cut them into small pieces, laying them by themselves, either in another vessel, or on the table, ready to be seasoned; then cut off the meat from the belly part, and clean the back from the lungs, kidneys, &c. and that meat cut into pieces as small as a walnut, laying it likewise by itself; after this you are to scald the back, and belly pieces, pulling off the shell from the back, and the yellow skin from the belly, when all will be white and clean, and with the kitchen cleaver cut those up likewise into pieces about the bigness or breadth of a card; put those pieces into clean cold water, wash them and place them in a heap on the table, so that each part may lay by itself; the meat being thus prepared and laid separate for seasoning; mix two third parts of salt or rather more, and one third part of cayenne pepper, black pepper, and a nutmeg, and mace pounded fine, and mixt all together; the quantity, to be proportioned to the size of the Turtle, so that in each dish there may be about three spoonfuls of seasoning to every twelve pound of meat; your meat being thus seasoned, get some sweet herbs, such as thyme, savory, &c. let them be dryed an rub’d fine, and having provided some deep dishes to bake it in, which should be of the common brown ware, put in the coarsest part of the meat, put a quarter pound of butter at the bottom of each dish, and then put some of each of the several parcels of meat, so that the dishes may be all alike and have equal portions of the different parts of the Turtle, and between each laying of meat strew a little of the mixture of sweet herbs, fill your dishes within an inch an half, or two inches of the top; boil the blood of the Turtle, and put into it, then lay on forcemeat balls made of veal, highly seasoned with the same seasoning as the Turtle; put in each dish a gill of Madeira Wine, and as much water as it will conveniently hold, then break over it five or six eggs to keep the meat from scorching at the top, and over that shake a handful of shread parsley, to make it look green, when done put your dishes into an oven made hot enough to bake bread, and in an hour and half, or two hours (according to the size of the dishes) it will be sufficiently cooked.

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