Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Tropical Snow in Hawaii

If you were to go visit a house in Hawaii back in the 1870s, and you were offered a little something to eat, you would not see the preparations at all. Cooking was done in separate, detached "cook houses," but "in and on American cooking-stoves," according to Isabella L. Bird, who wrote about Hawaiian cuisine in her 1875 book Six Months Among the Palm Groves, Coral Reefs, and Volcanoes of the Sandwich Islands (she also went to Hawaii). Bird wrote this about the local cuisine:

We have everywhere bread and biscuit made of California flour, griddle cakes with molasses, and often cracked wheat, butter not very good, sweet potatoes, boiled kalo [taro], Irish potatoes, and poi [mashed, cooked taro]. I have not seen any fish on any table except at the Honolulu Hotel, or any meat but beef, which is hard and dry compared with ours.  We have China or Japan tea, and island coffee. Honolulu is the only place in which intoxicants are allowed to be sold, and I have not seen beer, wine, or spirits in any hotel. [pp 123-4]

And  after her poi and griddle cakes, what did Isabella Bird have for dessert in 1875? She probably enjoyed some bananas, or sliced guavas, with milk and sugar. She said that these were both "very good," as well they might be, being local fruits. If the cook house staff was feeling especially ambitious, perhaps you would have a banana concoction such as Tropical Snow, as recipe from the 1887 Centennial Cook Book, atrtibuted to a Mrs. D.E. Beach:
Hawaiian Ladies Riding Dress Isabella Bird 1875 p 30
An invigorating ride, followed by bananas for tea *

Tropical Snow

Eight oranges, 5 bananas, 1 cocoanut, 1 cup of sugar. Slice the bananas thin. Cut the oranges into small pieces. Grate the cocoanut. Arrange the orange, banana and cocoanut in layers, sprinkled with sugar. Have the top layer of cocoanut, with a few slices of banana for ornament. [p 106]

It would not be too hard to get bananas in California, but if you were a Victorian gourmet living in, say, New Jersey - it might have been a bit trickier. Bananas had been available in the eastern US since about 1850 -  but they were fairly expensive. In 1890 Good Housekeeping (vol. 7, p. 227) noted that bananas were until recently "counted among the luxuries of life" and that they sold in that year for 12 to 25 cents a dozen, whereas a few years before - in Isabella Bird's time - they had sold for four times that amount. Even with the reduction in price, a banana dessert such as Tropical Snow would have been considered an expensive treat for guests in the Victorian period - unless you had a house (and cook house) in Hawaii, of course.

*Illustration from Isabella Bird's Six Months Among the Palm Groves (1875), p. 30.

1 comment:

Russ AKA Grampy said...

Now see I never knew anything like that. Of course we just take Bananas for granted.