Broken Budget? Bake Bread!

Amid last weekend’s rising rivers and lightening strikes, Hilary and I fled the city and headed south into the Brandywine River Valley. I wanted Wyeth country, but with the afternoon almost gone, we settled for a quick tour of the John Chads House. John Chads–after whom Chadds Ford, PA is named–built this three-story stone house during the 1720s. It’s a wonderful example of early Pennsylvania architecture that features original woodwork and masonry. The Chadds Ford Historical Society owns the place and offers regular tours although, as our guide indicated, visitation is way down this season. As of 4:30 on a Sunday afternoon, we were the day’s first visitors!

How that can be confounds me because, despite hard times for nearly all historic sites, the John Chads House boasts what may very well be the most irresistible souvenir that I’ve encountered anywhere in recent memory: fresh bread! Every year, in the run up to September’s Chadds Ford Days festival, master bread baker Lise Taylor churns thousands of loaves of bread out of the building’s beehive oven. Most of the bread is frozen until September when it’s thawed and sold to festival goers. The rest is gobbled up by house visitors, like us, lucky enough to show up at the end of a baking day. $4 buys you a steamy fresh-baked loaf; $10 buys three. It’s well worth it.

There’s nothing new about house museums selling baked goods out of colonial kitchens. In fact, this is precisely the kind of thing that got Americans excited about historic tourism in the first place. Take for example the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia where a “real” colonial kitchen turned out to be a big crowd pleaser. A century later, colonial kitchens–and their wares–remained a staple of living history museums during the nation’s 1976 bicentennial celebrations. Eating the stuff costumed interpreters make in bygone kitchens has since grown less common. I imagine this has partly to do with health and liability issues. Additionally, big operations like Colonial Williamsburg have learned how to make more money by funneling visitors into centralized stores that sell “authentic” copies of food and other products made throughout the museum.

The John Chads house, however, is a pretty small operation, but all the more charming as a result. And it doesn’t take itself too seriously. You won’t get a certificate of authenticity with your bread nor promises that it tastes just like it would have two centuries ago. It is, like all good sourvenirs, a charming (and tasty) reminder of an interesting experience. And in this case, charm pays. Charm is a prickly proposition at museums and historic sites. For starters, it’s very diffcult to define. What is charm? How do you budget for it? When done carefully, charm enhances educational missions and keeps visitors coming back. If mishandled, though, charm can quickly turn good history into naive nostalgia or, in extreme cases, heavy-handed ideology. One way or the other, it’s hard to deny that charm makes good business sense. Fresh baked bread may not solve all budget woes, but in these hard times, pehaps modern historic sites can learn a thing or two from their predecessors.

The Boardwalk and Beyond

While watching New Jersey Public Television just a few days after arriving here in Philly, my wife Hilary and I discovered that the Jersey shore’s famously kitschy beach front boardwalk communities are struggling with a rash of architectural teardowns. A teardown is any instance where old buildings are destroyed to make way for new construction. There is nothing inherently bad about a teardown when necessary, but in recent years our country has witnessed a remarkable rise in the number of perfectly decent and often historically valuable structures gratuitously destroyed to allow construction of aesthetically incongruous big-ticket buildings. I know it sounds like a trivial concern, but no matter how you feel about McMansions, too many teardowns ultimately mean bad news for the environment, knock our historic neighborhoods out of whack, and make it real hard for first-time home buyers of modest means to get a leg up on the market. It turns out that New Jersey ranks first in the nation among states dealing with substantial loss of historic buildings to teardowns. And Wildwood, a New Jersey boardwalk town bred of post-war America’s love affair with tail fins and pink flamingos, is supposedly among the most at risk of losing all those wonderfully tacky dive motels of the technocolor yesteryear, a.k.a. Doo Wop architecture.

So, with all of this in mind and with a few days to spare, Hilary and I set out in search
of the bygone object along New Jersey’s imperiled coast. I had spent time in these parts previously and so had a pretty good idea of what to expect. For Hilary, however, who hails from considerably further inland, it was her first time amid the gaudy surf shops, greasy spoons, and candy-striped tourists that all distinguish a motif I call boardwalk gothic:

Despite the teardown problem, there is still plenty of Doo Wop to go around in Wildwood and it appears that some effort is being invested in preserving a handful of these places. And, even though I imagine that developers might make a decent buck off some flashy new high rises, it doesn’t seem to me that Wildwood devotees are particularly troubled about shelling out $100 a night to stay in shabby old motor inns with names like Starlux and Casa Bahama. Isn’t that, after all, the point?

It’s hard to deny the carnivalesque magnetism of places like this. Maybe it’s something in the cheese fries, but stroll down the boardwalk on any given summer night and you’ll be amazed by the throngs. We encountered people of all shapes, sizes, ages, and origins enjoying a place that, if it weren’t for the beach, would resemble some kind of funky Happy Days red light district. Wildwood means something to them all and, judging by the atmosphere, that something has something to do with some notion of the past. But this is not the Wildwood of yesteryear. Scattered across the aged stage set are extreme bungee rides, cell phone shops, and a human diversity not permitted in this place forty years ago. There is plenty of new here, but the bygone object beckons loudly and tourists from miles around come to gobble it up like pieces of salt watter taffy.