Woman's Industrial Exchange has food with a taste of history

March 29, 1998|By Rob Kasper

DUE TO HISTORIC demand, tuna rarebit is making a comeback. As is chicken jelly with deviled eggs, and floating island.

These dishes were once crowd-pleasers at the tearoom of the Woman's Industrial Exchange at 333 N. Charles St. in downtown Baltimore. And they are being resurrected during the week of April 6 as part of the institution's anniversary of its 116th year of operation.

The idea, according to Diane Coleman, executive director of the exchange, is to fill the tearoom's 121 seats by offering lunchtime customers a taste of the past. Earlier this month, when word got around town that the exchange was going to serve lunches from years gone by, patrons began calling the exchange with menu suggestions.

There were requests for the return of tuna rarebit, a variation of the cheesy British dish Welsh rarebit. According to Dorothea Wilson, who has been cooking in the exchange kitchen for 33 years, tuna rarebit is made by putting chunks of tuna on toast and covering everything with a cheese sauce. "It warms the body," she said.

During one of the rare breaks Wilson takes from the kitchen, she told me, in general terms, how some of the tearoom's old favorites were made.

Chicken jelly, she said, is a form of chicken broth that has to be strained through cheesecloth. After gelatin is added, a vibrating mound of jelly is formed. It is served in the middle of a plate, accompanied by deviled eggs.

Floating island, a much-requested dessert, is a vanilla-flavored custard, once made with half-and-half, now made with whole milk. Because nothing in the dish is floating, I wondered how the dish got its name. According to "The Dictionary of American Food and Drink" by John Mariani (Hearst Books, 1994), floating island is a translation of the French ile flottante, a dessert once described by Benjamin Franklin as "custard with floating masses of whipped cream." I took this to mean that floating island is a dessert endorsed by a Founding Father.

As I looked over the menu of oldies, I was struck by two thoughts: First, how appropriate it was that the Woman's Exchange was trying to attract customers by trumpeting its past. Baltimore is a city that appreciates its past, where "old" means "good."

The Baltimore Woman's Exchange, founded in 1882, is the oldest remaining exchange in the country, Coleman said. There were once 72 such exchanges around the country, most of them combinations of shops and eateries, where needy women raised money by selling handmade items ranging from clothing to baked goods.

Back in the days when baked goods were made by women cooking in their homes, the exchange insisted that all cakes had to be made from scratch with butter. Nowadays, butter still plays a prominent role in dessert preparation, but, according to Coleman, some desserts are made with mixes.

I was also struck by the notion that the Baltimore exchange's proposed retro menu was not that different from its current daily offerings. Indeed, one of the items on the anniversary menu, fried oysters with potato salad and slaw, was, according to Wilson, on the menu just the other day. And, she added, the oyster platter sold quite well.

That is fine by me. I regard a visit to the exchange as a chance to get reacquainted with historic flavors. Recently, as I walked through the exchange, admiring its polished wood, its daily offering of cakes and pies, I was reminded that others had been here before me.

Other eaters have come here to eat a chicken-salad sandwich, or buy a lemon meringue pie on Thursday, which, according to the custom, is the day lemon meringue is made.

I also noticed signs on the walls of the exchange. Like almost everything about the operation, the signs were handmade. They reported the efforts being made to put the exchange on firm financial footing. The institution had a scare last summer, and cut staff and closed for four weeks to reorganize. The signs reported that the effort to raise $150,000 was about halfway to its goal. The exchange still refers to itself as a damsel in distress.

"People keep asking what they can do to help the exchange," Coleman told me. She said that while the institution will always accept donations, it also needs a thriving lunch business.

"What people can do to help us is to come here and eat," Coleman said.

As a fan of the exchange, I took that to heart. I came back a few days later for lunch. I had a crisp, fried-oyster sandwich and creamy coleslaw.

It was a lunch rich in flavor and a sense of history.

Pub Date: 3/29/98

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