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In the boarding house

(article, Sharon Hunt)

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“Living in a boarding house was like being a child again. You were called once for meals, and if you were late, the food was cold or in someone else’s stomach. Grace was said before anyone lifted a fork. You were forbidden to go to the fridge for a snack. And if you came in late and woke anyone, you got a warning. Three warnings — like three strikes — and you were out.”

These were my father’s recollections of the three months he spent in 1964 living in a boarding house. He had gone ahead to start a new job while I finished my school year. While he waited for my mother, my sister, and me to join him in our new city, he boarded in a house owned and run by a man named Gerhardt who had been in the navy and whose military training never left him.

[%image reference-image float=right width=400 caption="An old photo from a Canadian book about Alaska and the Yukon, captioned 'In the miners boarding house.'"]Breakfast was at 6:30 and consisted of two fried eggs, three strips of bacon, two slices of toast with strawberry jam, and one cup of coffee. Gerhardt’s boarders, working men like Dad, were sent on their way each morning at 7 with a bologna sandwich — paper-thin meat with mayonnaise on white bread. (Dad called the bread “baker’s fog,” a Newfoundland expression disparaging the spongy texture of the factory-made loaves.) In addition to the sandwich, there was an apple and saltine crackers. Dinner was served family-style at 5. Beef stew or boiled dinner often awaited the men who got back on time. 

Gerhardt’s served its temporary purpose for Dad, giving him a place to live while he found a home for us to come to. Living in the boarding house was time suspended from his normal life, and after we arrived, that time was relegated to the past.

h3. A brief history of boarding houses

Boarding houses these days are indeed a relic. Their heyday was during the 19th and early 20th centuries, when America's booming cities were flush with young workers, transitioning — like my father — from one life to another.

Lured by the promise of city jobs, these workers needed a roof over their heads and food in their stomachs. At boarding houses they found both, in varying degrees of quality depending on the depths of their pockets.
 
Many boarding houses in working-class areas were filthy and offered no privacy; sleeping in the same bed with strangers was not uncommon. Men with more money to spend could secure clean and private rooms, better food, and even hot water for shaving.

Whatever the quality of the boarding house, life in it was an adjustment for both the boarders and for the person who ran it, often a widowed or married, middle-class woman needing an income. 

My maternal grandmother fell into this latter category. She reluctantly opened her house to boarders when my grandfather injured his back and couldn’t work for a long period. With five children under six, two sisters-in-law, and a mother-in-law as well as her husband and herself to feed, she had no choice. 

A few more hungry mouths meant little extra work, but the money she earned was the difference between surviving and starving. Assuming a man’s role and earning the family’s money was shameful, but for those in my grandmother’s circumstances, taking in boarders was the best of the bad choices presented to them. 

She took in boarders for just a few years, until my grandfather was better and there was work again. During those years, however, she was a strict disciplinarian: meals at prescribed times, no food substitutions. But for all the rigidity, she also kept a spotless home and her food was delicious. If her boarders bemoaned the regimented atmosphere, they certainly appreciated the clean sheets and filling food.

She, however, was a private person, and hated strangers watching and judging her. Still, she was a pragmatic woman who did what she felt she had to do — just like her boarders, trying to improve their lives.

Women didn't just run boarding houses; they also lived in them. When American textile mills set up company towns in the 1820s and 1830s, they needed responsible young women as their workforce. Since they also had to reassure families that their daughters would be safe, and their moral character protected, the Lowell Mills created chaperoned boarding houses, with a family atmosphere. 

Young women shared an early but filling breakfast — meat or fish, vegetables, porridge — that fueled the work ahead. At noon a bell called them to a family-style meal. Another summoned them back to work, and the evening bell signaled the end of the day. The young women went home to eat supper, sleep, and start all over again the next morning. 

Other groups with needs or interests in common gathered in like-minded establishments as well. Immigrants who couldn’t speak English sought out boarding houses where the language, food, and customs were familiar. “Grahamites” lived in Graham boarding houses, and followed the principles of the Reverend Sylvester Graham, a Presbyterian minister and American dietary reformer who stressed whole-wheat flour and vegetarianism. 

In this period of growth, boarding houses thrived. The 1860 census listed 2,651 boarding-house owners in New York State alone, while historian Wendy Gamber, in her 2007 book [%amazonProductLink asin=080188571X "The Boardinghouse in Nineteenth-Century America"], writes that "somewhere between a third and a half of 19th-century urban residents either took in boarders or were boarders themselves."

At the end of the 19th century, summer boarding houses attracted those with the means to escape the crowds and heat of the cities for a few weeks of fresh sea or mountain air. 

Some stayed in boarding houses that catered to the wealthy, run by women who had once had a more privileged and genteel life. At Mrs. Griffith's boarding house in Philadelphia, for example, guests lived in beautifully decorated rooms and ate three superb meals a day for $12 to $15 a week. 

Mrs. Griffith’s guests were lucky, as superb meals were not always on offer in the boarding houses of the day. Food quality and variety depended on the weekly rent, but also on the skill and inclination of the cook. Horrors existed, although were presumably exaggerated in the folk song '"Silver:

In the boarding house where I live,
Ev'rything is growing old,
Silver threads are on the butter,
All the bread is growing mould,
When the dog died,
We had hotdogs,
When the cat died,
Catnip tea,
When the landlord died I left there,
Spareribs were too much for me.

(Listen here.)

h3. Boarding-house fare and its influence

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Typical fare in a 19th-century American boarding house included cornbread and biscuits, eggs and fried meats, stews, roast beef, meat pies, puddings and pies, coffee, and tea. Boiled dinner was a favorite meal. It was easy to cook and to serve, and the inexpensive preserved beef and root vegetables were available year-round. Leftovers also made a hash for the next day’s breakfast. This kind of eating still reigned supreme in the 1900s, when my grandmother fed boarders, and later, in 1964, when my father was a boarder. It was communal-type food and communal-type eating. 

Menus often reflected the boarding house’s location, such as the recipes collected in two books about Southern boarding-house food. The first, 1994's [%amazonProductLink asin=1558533141 "Miss Mary Bobo’s Boarding House Cookbook: A Celebration of Traditional Southern Dishes that Made Miss Mary Bobo’s An American Legend"], offers up Miss Mary’s Country Goulash, Ambrosia Cream, and Dew Drop Biscuits, while the second, 2001's [%amazonProductLink asin=1580082572 "Mrs. Wilkes’ Boardinghouse Cookbook: Recipes and Recollections from Her Savannah Table"], includes Mrs. Wilkes’ legendary fried chicken, butterbeans, and banana pudding. The boarders at these ladies’ tables surely had no room for complaint. 

[%image stew float=right width=400 credit="Photo @ Culinate" caption="Beef stew was common boarding-house fare."]

Icons of 20th-century American food also had boarding-house roots. [/author/JamesBeard "James Beard" newpage=true], the "dean of American cookery," grew up in an Oregon boarding house operated by his mother, Elizabeth. She passed on her passion for food to her son, who became a pioneer in the food movement, laying the groundwork for a food revolution in America. 

Among his accomplishments, Beard hosted the first food program on television, in 1946, and he inspired a generation of cookbook authors and chefs who helped to change the way Americans eat.

The food writer and New York Times restaurant critic Craig Claiborne also helped to change the way Americans regard food and dining out, encouraging Americans to move beyond European food habits to embrace global cuisines. Like Beard, Claiborne’s first lessons in the culinary arts were those from his mother, taught in her Mississippi boarding-house kitchen.

h3. The legacy of the boarding house

The popularity of boarding houses waned in the 20th century. But they are still around, although now they're usually more like dorms with communal kitchens, not rooms in private homes with meals included. Today's urban boarding houses sometimes exist for those unable to keep up with the frenzied pace of modern life, and sometimes they serve as temporary lodging for those working toward more inclusion in that life.

My family's boarding-house experiences helped us build better lives. The money my grandmother earned from her boarders not only kept her family going through the Depression, but also went toward university educations (much more affordable then than today) for some of her children. And Dad’s time in a boarding house helped him save enough to rent a house for us in a neighborhood with good schools for his kids; those schools, in turn, helped us move ahead.

Amen, and pass the biscuits.

p(bio). Sharon Hunt’s food writing has appeared in Edible Vancouver,  Edible Toronto, and Gastronomica,_ among other publications. She has worked for the Stratford Chefs School, one of Canada’s premier culinary-training institutes, and at Rundles Restaurant, one of the finer restaurants in Canada.


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