Saturday, October 24, 2009

On and Off the Road 3, or KFC*

fig. a: Kaaterskill Falls

One of the prime attractions in the Catskills are the legendary Kaaterskill Falls. And when I say "legendary," I mean it. The cult of Kaaterskill Falls dates back to the early 19th century, when casual references to the Falls' breathtaking natural "amphitheater" in Washington Irving's "Rip Van Winkle" and in the work of James Fenimore Cooper turned them into a pilgrimage point for Thomas Cole and the Hudson River School. Cole and the Hudson River School not only devoted themselves to the region, they established the look of the landscape of the Catskills and did much to popularize it. “Irving had dealt with the Catskills in a mood of urbane detachment; Cooper had devoted only a few pages to them. But Cole passionately identified himself with the Catskills.”

By the late 19th century a number of hotels and a railway link had been constructed to handle the tourist traffic to the Catskills, and a great deal of this activity was clustered around the Falls. Not just any old hotels, either. Catskill Mountain House was built in the 1820s and it quickly became one of the most famous hotels of its day, hosting a virtual Who's Who of America's elite over the course of the century.

fig. b: Catskill Mountain House

The Kaaterskill Hotel was built in the early 1880s as the modern (electric light, elevators, etc.) alternative to the Catskill Mountain House, and it eventually expanded into a 1,200-room behemoth.

fig. c: Kaaterskill Hotel

And soon these impressive, ornate hotels were joined by others.

fig. d: Grand Hotel

The hotels are long gone, victims of changing tastes, neglect, and disastrous fires, but at the top of the Falls you can still see evidence of the observation deck that used to provide tourists with a stunning view of the valley,** as well as plenty of graffiti, much of it dating back to the lookout's 19th-century heyday.

geological graffiti fig. e: geological graffiti

And while access to the Falls, the "amphitheater,"

k falls 3 fig. f: the top of the "amphitheater"

k falls 2 fig. g: falls, "amphitheater," swimming hole

and the gorgeous swimming hole that sits within it, is not nearly as safe and established as it once was, it's just as impressive as it ever was.

What does any of this have to do with food? Well, making your way to the "amphitheatre" is hardly a long hike, but it's treacherous*** enough that you can work up a pretty nice appetite going there and back.

We didn't bring much food with us, when we visited back in August, just some cherries for a snack. But by the time we were done, we'd worked up a most unusual appetite for fried chicken. Which is a funny thing... You see, we didn't realize it at the time, but the reason that there were two major hotels in close proximity to Kaaterskill Falls was not only due to the heavy tourist traffic that was attracted to the Catskills during the 19th century, it was also due to the so-called "Fried Chicken War."

The story goes as follows: in the summer of 1880 a famous patents lawyer named George Harding was vacationing at the Catskill Mountain House, accompanied by his wife and his ailing daughter, Emily. Now, Emily was on a strict no-red-meat diet that relied on chicken for protein. One day, early in their visit, the Hardings were informed that the dish of the day was roast beef. Mr. Harding politely demanded that his daughter be brought an order of fried chicken instead, to which the waiter refused. “Other hotels might have their supper rooms and their kitchens staffed to prepare whatever a guest might want whenever he might want it. But not the Catskill Mountain House, where the old-fashioned ordinary reigned in all its anachronistic rigidity” [my emphasis]. Well, tempers flared, and eventually Charles Beach, the owner of the Catskill Mountain House, was brought in to settle the matter. Which he did. Mr. Harding must have been sure that he Beach would decide in his favor. After all, Mr. Harding had been a patron of the Catskill Mountain House since the 1840s, and, by the 1870s he was a veritable fixture at the hotel, a man who was widely regarded as the center of the summer social scene. Instead, Mr. Beach graciously informed Mr. Harding that if it was fried chicken he wanted, he should go ahead and build his own hotel. Which he did. Harding apparently received Beach's sarcastic suggestion in silence, but inside he must have been seething, for he promptly checked his family out of the Catskill Mountain House and decided to construct “a hotel that would dwarf Beach’s Mountain House by its size and eclipse it by its modernity," not to mention a hotel that, in all likelihood, would have the common sense to serve fried chicken. The very next year, Mr. Harding opened his Kaaterskill Hotel to great to-do, and the bitter hospitality battle that ensued became known as the Fried Chicken War.

The thing is, as petty and insignificant as this incident might seem to us today, it soon developed into a small-scale civil war, one which, in some ways, came to define an era:

At once, word of the Beach-Harding struggle traveled from town to town among the Catskills and to every trading center along the Hudson River... Fervent Beachites portrayed Geroge Harding as a malevolent associate of “Grab-all Cornell”**** motivated by nothing at all but a passion for crushing Beach and destroying the prosperity of Catskill. Hardingites saw Beach as a greedy and arrogant reincarnation of Rip Van Winkle who was determined to keep the modern world from penetrating the Catskills... The rivalry between Harding and Beach came to symbolize the changes taking place. The expansion of railroads, the multiplication of hotels, the change from the old simplicities to the comforts and sophistication of the final two decades of the nineteenth century--all became reduced to two men squabbling over a fried chicken.

No joke.

Our fried chicken feast was no joke either. We made plenty of good, old-fashioned Southern-style fried chicken, with cream gravy and all the trimmings, and then we took our positions and went to battle.


Source: Alf Evers’ The Catskills: From Wilderness to Woodstock (1972) is both endlessly entertaining and authoritative. All quotes in the post above are attributable to Evers.

*Take your pick: Kaaterskill Falls Chicken or Kaaterskill Fried Chicken.

**If you look closely at fig. a, you can see the structure I'm talking about.

***As Paul Grondahl of the Times-Union put it, "[Kaaterskill Falls'] beauty is matched by its treachery." Earlier this year, the Falls claimed another victim. Making your way to the swimming hole is no high-wire act, but it's no cake walk either. If you're going to attempt the climb, you should be a seasoned hiker/climber, and you should definitely be wearing proper footwear.

****Famously, Harding had been the patents lawyer to Samuel Morse. Ezra Cornell, the founder of Cornell University, made his fortune in the telegraph business as an associate of Morse's (and, presumably, of Harding's).

p.s. Among the many good reasons to visit the Bronck Museum in Coxsackie, NY, is its Victorian Horse Barn, which houses impressive scale models of both the Catskill Mountain House and the Kaaterskill Hotel.


Todd Carr said...

What a beautiful time and day we had.

I love the telling of history in this post....

Well Done!

Sandro Lisi said...

This article is a great example of the story behind the food. Enjoyed reading it.