This is probably a better lead for a grant proposal than a blog post, but I'm fascinated by the history of historical dining. Since Colonial Williamsburg in 1951 opened the King's Arms Tavern, serving up frosted fruit shrubs and Sally Lunn cake, scores of museums have tried to amplify their guests' experiences by withholding modern utensils and serving fried chicken on tinware.
My favorite period dining hall is the Eagle Tavern at Greenfield Village, the open-air museum that resulted from Henry Ford's habit of buying up his heroes' childhood homes and workplaces. When I was young, the restaurant served meals that better approximated a scene from Hogarth than 1850s southeastern Michigan: A Globe & Mail reporter in 1985 wrote about her dinner featuring "heaping plates of roast turkey and fried oysters." The highlight of every visit was sucking lemonade through a macaroni straw.
The Eagle Tavern has since introduced more accuracy to its menu, offering heirloom tomatoes and Plymouth Rock chicken eggs with blue-speckled shells. (Funny how it always turns out that the folks being remembered ate the exact same way that rich people eat now.) Frankly, I'd probably go to a period restaurant even it was serving meatloaf and mashed potatoes, which may well have been on special when I celebrated New Year's Eve at the Tavern in Old Salem, a collection of buildings central to North Carolina's antebellum Moravian community.
So I was thrilled to discover that Seattle has a pseudo-historical restaurant of its own, albeit not one connected to a museum where I can buy penny whistles and horehound sticks. Argosy Cruises periodically offers a "Taste of History" lunch cruise, featuring food items drawn from the city's Gold Rush past. The two-hour cruise follows a course around the harbor.
When I contacted Argosy about a recent sailing (Full disclosure: I took the ride on Argosy's dime, since I had no intention of formally reviewing it or any competing harbor history lunch cruises), a spokesperson warned me that forecasted nasty weather meant there might be plenty of empty seats. She was right. The lunch was scandalously underattended: Only the window tables were occupied.
So here's what everyone missed: When cruise guests are seated, they're handed an 1897 provisions list and a jar of cream so they can shake their own butter. (Later, to bide time before dessert, servers distribute bits of rope for knot-tying practice.) After a plated crab Louie salad, which goes nicely with a bloody Mary, the remainder of the terrifically rich lunch is served buffet-style. Although smoked salmon's the centerpiece, a row of chafing dishes feature an in-shell Hangtown fry, cheesy gratin potatoes and tidy chicken croquettes.
The food's fine, but if you don't get a chill upon learning that a Fisher scone's served just after the cruise's costumed narrator's explained the relationship between Fisher Flour and the TV towers visible atop Queen Anne hill, this may not be the jaunt for you. The history's solid: Although the guide injects a fair number of "fun facts," the stories of the city's founding (which also happen to go nicely with a bloody Mary) are told in full.
I love that a Seattle kitchen's serving dishes it swiped from a 1933 Olympic Hotel menu (the potatoes) and an 1889 Occidental Hotel menu (the croquettes.) With so many restaurants looking forward, it's great to find a restaurant looking back. And when you're tucking into sauteed celery and listening to a retelling of the Denny party's saga, it makes no difference whether it's raining.
The "Taste of History" cruise sails again this Sunday; Friday, Dec. 7 and Tuesday, Dec. 11.