This afternoon I joined a guided walk through Forest Hills Cemetery led by Anthony Sammarco, a local historian and author of more than forty books on the history of Boston. This garden cemetery is one of the most beautiful in the country, aside from holding great personal significance for me (my paternal grandparents are buried here), and I was excited by the idea of a food-themed walking tour, replete with tastings! It was a beautiful, brisk, fall day as Mr. Sammarco led our small group through the turning leaves.
We started at the grave of Thaddeus Clapp, the hybridizer of the Clapp’s Favorite variety of pear, a cross between the Bartlett and Flemish Beauty (apparently there is a giant pear sculpture in Everett Square in Dorchester, MA commemorating this accomplishment). This variety was unique because it was an early ripening pear, making the fruit available at a time of year when it was previously unobtainable. While Mr. Sammarco spoke we enjoyed some slices of fresh pear.
Our second stop was at the grave of Samuel Downer (1807-1881), who achieved fame for hybridizing the Downer’s Late cherry, which conversely ripened about a week after the regular cherry season, extending the availability of fresh cherries. Here we sampled fresh cherries, cherry juice, and gummy cherry candies.
Next up on the itinerary was the final resting place of Jacob Wirth (d. 1892), restauranteur and one of the first to introduce “ethnic” food from his native Prussia to the Boston area at his beer hall in Stuart Street, founded in 1868 and the second-oldest operating restaurant in the city after the Union Oyster House. At Jake’s gravestone we enjoyed some apple cider, the original idea of beer apparently having been nixed by someone behind the scenes at Forest Hills.
Next we visited the grave of Maria Parloa (1843-1909), one of the most popular cooking teachers and cookbook authors of the 19th Century, and co-founder of the Boston Cooking School. At Maria’s grave, a basket of mini Hershey’s chocolate bars had been set out, in honor of the chocolate cookbook that Maria authored (although it was for the Walter Baker cocoa company, rather than Hershey’s).
We then made a pilgrimage to the gravestone of Ruby Foo (1904-1950), the owner of Ruby Foo’s Den, one of the first resturants to offer Chinese food to Bostonians. Considering the state of Chinese cuisine in the Boston area today (one word: dismal), I was quite curious about what types of dishes Ruby Foo might have served to her customers in the 30s and 40s. Crab Rangoon could not possibly have been one of them, since that peculiarly un-Chinese concoction was actually invented at Trader Vic’s in San Francisco in the late 1950s. Mr. Sammarco informed us that Ruby’s restaurant was quite popular with the local Jewish population, not least of all because they were banned from dining in many other local restaurants at the time. Could this be one of the reasons for the enduring love that many Jewish people still have today for Chinese food? Or is it that Chinese restaurants are open on Christmas Day? At this stop we were offered fortune cookies, another American Chinese food invention (this is fodder for an entirely separate post, so I’ll refrain from commenting further).
We then wandered through the beautifully-landscaped grounds to the plot of S. S. Pierce (1807-1881), the proprietor of a fine-foods emporium that once stood in Copley Square (1887-1958). While munching on cookies, Mr. Sammarco described how Pierce imported upscale foods from around the world and had them delivered to well-to-do Back Bay families by horse-drawn livery coach (Today, Back Bay residents like yours truly use “old lady” wheelie carts to haul their groceries from Shaw’s and Trader Joe’s to their brownstones. Not quite as elegant).
Our final stop was at the plot of the Pfaff family, whose once well-known brewery was at Roxbury Crossing. We learned about the Pfaff brewery and the almost two dozen others that used to stand along Stony Brook from Roxbury to Jamaica Plain. The clear water from Stony Brook (now dry) was used to produce German-style lager beers. By this point, Mr. Sammarco’s assistants had somehow managed to sneak some real ale into the tour, and we enjoyed it on the steps of the Egyptian-style Pfaff Mausoleum.
I had a great time on this tour and learned a great deal – Mr. Sammarco is a vast treasure-trove of historical knowledge and clearly has a soft spot in his heart for anything related to food and dining. I wished I could have spoken to him longer and asked him some questions, particularly about the mysterious Ruby Foo. I guess I’ll have to do some research of my own!
When the tour ended I took the opportunity to visit my grandparents, Eugene and Lena St. Onge, in the newer section of the cemetery. My French-Canadian grandfather was a chef, and my grandmother told me that they met when she and a girlfriend saw him slicing turkey in the window of a restaurant in Cape Cod one day. He was tall and handsome, and my grandmother’s girlfriend said to her, “I bet you can’t make him!” and she retorted, “I bet you I can!” and the rest, as they say, is history…