Pass the Corn Gems, Please

Springdale News, December 9, 1904.

Whilst perusing the December 1904 edition of the Springdale News recently, this ad for Christmas dinner at the Arcade Hotel caught my eye. What an elegant feast! But I would expect nothing less from the Arcade in 1904. That’s when this downtown boarding house was enjoying its heyday.

Springdale's Arcade Hotel, circa 1900.

Springdale’s Arcade Hotel, circa 1900. Annabel Searcy Collection (S-68-19-53)

The Arcade was located on the northeast corner of Emma Avenue and Spring Street (the present-day location of the Ryan’s Department Store building). When the hotel opened for business in 1890 the Springdale News proclaimed, “This building would be no discredit to a city of 20,000 people, and is by all odds the finest hotel building in Northwest Arkansas, outside of Eureka Springs.”

I recognized most of the Arcade’s Christmas bill of fare, but a few were dishes I’d never heard of, such as “devil slaw.” A quick internet search yielded no recipes for such. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word “devil” to describe food first appeared in 1786. as a reference to spicy food, or as the OED puts it, “A name for various highly seasoned broiled or fried dishes; also for hot ingredients.” Perhaps devil slaw is a zesty variant of cole slaw.

Then there’s the “hot corn gems.” These are muffins baked in a cast-iron pan called a “gem pan,” similar to today’s muffin tin. Perhaps this 1895 recipe for corn gems in The Century Cook Book by Mary Ronald (digitized and available at Google Books) is similar to the Arcade’s corn gems:

Corn Gems
(Made of Corn Flour)
2 eggs
1 cupful of corn flour
½ cupful of white flour
1 tablespoonful of butter
1 cupful of milk
1 teaspoonful of salt
1 teaspoonful of baking-powder

Break the yolks of the eggs; add to them milk, salt, and melted butter; mix them well together, then add the two kinds of flour. Beat the whites of the eggs to a stiff froth; when they are ready, add the baking-powder to the flour mixture and then fold in lightly the whipped whites. turn at once into warm gem-pans, a tablespoonful of batter into each one, and bake in a hot oven for fifteen minutes. This receipt can be used for any kind of flour.

And what exactly is a “cream fritter”? Here’s an 1893 recipe from Three Meals A Day: A Collection of Valuable and Reliable Recipes in All Classes of Cookery by the appropriately named Maud C. Cooke, also digitized at Google Books:

Cream Fritters.  Mix a pint and a half of wheat flour with a pint of milk. Beat 6 eggs to a froth and stir them into the flour a little at a time, beating thoroughly. Grate in ½ nutmeg, add 2 teaspoonfuls salt and 1 pint of cream. Stir just long enough to mix in the cream and drop by tablespoonfuls into boiling lard. Sprinkle powdered sugar and put a spoonful of jelly or marmalade on each one.

The rest of the menu finds many items that have stood the test of time and remain popular festive meal offerings today–turkey, corn, potatoes, cranberry sauce, and pumpkin pie.

For holiday travelers or locals looking to dine out, the Arcade Hotel’s Christmas dinner was a sumptuous celebration of the season. It was likely followed by the after-dinner need to unbuckle the suspenders or loosen the corset—another aspect of the holiday season that has stood the test of time.

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