Cooking up Thanksgiving


The history of Thanksgiving is much more interesting than the mythical Pilgrims and Indians tale we all learned in grade school, even though restaurants actually have played only a small part.

For much of the 19th century Thanksgiving was considered a predominantly Yankee holiday, which to Southerners implied domination by the North, particularly when Abraham Lincoln declared Thanksgiving a national holiday in 1863 to honor the Union victory at Gettysburg.

Previously, Thanksgiving holidays were proclaimed by governors, who also set the date each year. In 1815, however, President James Madison declared a Thanksgiving Day to celebrate peace with England. Still, it retained strong association with New England and a Thanksgiving dinner in Philadelphia that year was composed of New Englanders “got up in Yankee style, and finished with a compliment of Yankee toasts and hymns.” In 1821 a state outside New England, New York, officially recognized the holiday.

Thanksgiving spread slowly in the 1820s and 1830s. By 1839 the holiday was celebrated in Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, New Jersey, New York, and Rhode Island. Homecoming was a popular theme, especially in Massachusetts where abandonment of rocky farms was a growing trend. By 1858 it was reported that in New York City alone at least 10,000 New Englanders had returned home for Thanksgiving.

pumpkinpieDave'stableThe holiday spread faster in the 1840s and 1850s. The New York Times reported that by 1859 all the Eastern and middle Atlantic states, and the Western territories, plus five Southern states celebrated Thanksgiving.

But the spread was uneven. Although the governor of Missouri proclaimed a day of Thanksgiving in 1843, it was observed only seven times over the next 20 years, and many citizens of that state knew nothing of Thanksgiving until after the Civil War, despite President Abraham Lincoln’s 1863 proclamation declaring Thanksgiving a national holiday to occur on the last Thursday in November.

So, although by 1890 Thanksgiving was officially recognized by 42 of 44 states and territories then part of the United States, it is unlikely that people of all regions, social classes, and religions celebrated it to an equal degree.

According to historian Elizabeth Pleck (“The Making of the Domestic Occasion: The History of Thanksgiving in the United States,” Journal of Social History, Summer 1999), many working class men regarded Thanksgiving as a holiday like any other, that is, a time to drink, parade noisily through the streets, and demand treats from the gentry. In 1859 the board of aldermen of the District of Columbia refused to set a date for Thanksgiving because it had become an occasion for widespread lawbreaking. In the late 19th century the rowdiness tradition was channeled into Thanksgiving Day football matches. In the West, Pleck writes, Thanksgiving dinner tended to be  simple and the day largely devoted to hunting.

pumpkinpie1874VirginiaCityNVNor was it a big restaurant day in the 19th century, though I have found a few advertisements for Thanksgiving dinner in the 1850s, and more after Lincoln’s proclamation [above, menu from Virginia City NV restaurant, 1874]. Restaurants also supplied cooked food to homes and catered philanthropic dinners for the needy. Edmund Hill, a New Jersey restaurateur and caterer, wrote in his diary: Thanksgiving, Thursday 30. 1882: Busy sending out orders all the morning. – Closed store at noon. Dinner at two. Mother improving, for which we give thanks. – We furnished a newsboys’ dinner – fifty at the reading rooms. The Trenton Times paid for it. Lots of fun.”

Pleck suspects that “Thanksgiving celebration was most common among the middle and upper classes in New England and the middle-Atlantic states, and among Protestants.” The job of integrating everybody else was a task for late-19th-and-early-20th-century patriotic societies, public schools, and popular magazines. Immigrants were subtly encouraged to see themselves as modern-day Pilgrims being welcomed by the natives. The strategy worked.

© Jan Whitaker, 2015

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Automation, part II: the disappearing kitchen

automatedJay'sdrive-in1966beltThe dream of a robotized restaurant is an old one, first focused on service, then on the kitchen. It culminated in a system that automated nearly the entire operation, both service and food preparation. Sounds futuristic, but the pinnacle of automation took place around 50 years ago.

If the first stage of automating the restaurant involved getting rid of servers, the second stage involved eliminating kitchen personnel while streamlining food preparation. Kitchen tasks were mechanized and geared toward producing predictable results with standardized portion sizes and speedy cooking.

The modern automated kitchens of the post-WWII period, were either (1) absent altogether in the case of machines vending frozen dinners, or (2) filled with equipment that needed only a few employees to trigger the slicing, mixing, pouring, and frying of a limited selection of burgers, fries, shakes, and sodas. Gathering steam, by the 1960s automation took giant leaps in a number of high-volume drive-ins, the restaurant type that foreshadowed the fast food restaurant.

A fully automated push-button kitchen was available for lease or purchase in 1964, a product of the American Machine and Foundry Co. (AMF), a large diversified company that developed and produced, among many other things, bowling alley pin spotters, power boats, guided missiles, and nuclear reactors for Israel, Iran, and Pakistan.

automatedJay'sdrive-insept1966OrbisconsoleDespite all the effort that went into its development, the fully automatic restaurant proved to be a failure. It was ridiculously expensive compared to how cheaply workers could be hired. And it broke down regularly, necessitating a well-paid, full-time technician on staff.

That full automation did not succeed should not obscure the fact that many restaurants today are highly automated compared to how they operated in the early 20th century. Plus in many chain restaurants tasks are so routinized and scripted that the humans who perform them might be considered quasi-robotized. As plans move ahead to raise hourly wages for workers in chain restaurants, it’s possible that restaurant automation will once again come into focus.

A sampling of projects:

1931 – Inventor H. Russell Brand’s automatic pancake machine is used at a Childs restaurant on West 34th St., NYC. Guests push a button on their table to start an automatic pancake machine that produces a stack of three pancakes which are, however, delivered by waiters. Possibly the earliest case of the automation of food preparation, nonetheless Childs removed the machines in 1938.

1939 – Meant to grow into a chain, a Roboshef restaurant with an automated cooker opens in San Francisco with the slogan, “Quality Food Cooked by Controlled Temperature, Not Temperament.” One employee can produce 120 meals per hour, producing perfectly timed steaks, seafood, fried potatoes, and biscuits.


1948 – With the debut of the WWII spinoff radarange that cooks instantly by molecule-agitating sound waves, Popular Science magazine imagines a restaurant of the future in which customers push buttons at their table that send frozen dinners to microwave ovens and then on conveyor belts to their tables.

1949 – In San Francisco, Ott’s, billed as the world’s biggest drive-in, turns out meals in 6 minutes on average in its modern kitchen in which a machine molds 800 hamburger patties an hour while another slices 1,000 buns in the same time.

automatedPopMech19581958 – Popular Mechanics magazine proclaims that a revolution has taken place in restaurants, due to infrared ray grills, electronic ovens, timing devices, precision slicing and cutting machines, patty extruders [pictured], compression steamers, soft-drink mixers, and other wonders. Quoting a restaurant consultant, the magazine declares, “Food service has become an exact science.”

1959 – According to the Washington Post, the nation’s three largest hamburger chains – then McDonald’s, Burger Chef, and Golden Point – are set to revolutionize food vending through standardization, menu simplification, and “a good helping of automation.”

1961 – The increasing use of pre-portioned frozen food in restaurants heated with sophisticated high-speed fryers, pressure cookers, and electronic ovens shrinks preparation areas in kitchens even as freezers grow larger.


1961 – Stouffer’s opens two short-lived automated vending restaurants with frozen food. The roadside restaurants are paneled with recycled wood from old barns to avoid a sterile appearance. Customers are unexpectedly confused about how to heat their meals, requiring an attendant to help them. Schrafft’s [pictured] and White Tower’s Tower-O-Matic, NYC, also experiment with vending machine operations.

1962 – The first of Pat Boone’s Dine-O-Mats opens, with coin-operated vending machines stocked with frozen dinners prepared off-site that are to be microwaved. The chain fails.


1963 – The first fully automated kitchen is installed at the La Fiesta Drive-In, in Levittown NY. A test case for “AMFare,” the drive-in uses a computer-driven order and billing system that launches refrigerated items on a 4-minute journey to be cooked and trayed “without any handling whatsoever by restaurant personnel.” Alas, a live worker is needed for matching completed orders with checks [pictured]. The AMF system is installed secretly in the basement while a false kitchen in back is added “to satisfy customers.”

1966 – AMFare testing complete, Jay’s Brookdale Restaurant in Minneapolis MN becomes the first fully automated restaurant in the nation. Second is the Mustang Drive-In in Lexington KY.

By 1968, when the system is being tested by the Breese Terrace Cafeteria at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, it is employed by five restaurants. Then it seems to vanish.

© Jan Whitaker, 2015


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Dining alone

loneDinerWithViewRecently the online reservations service announced that their reservations for solo diners had gone up 62% over the past two years. Just how meaningful this increase was is hard to judge from so little information, but the press release conjectured that “the stigma surrounding dining solo may be starting to lift and . . . consumers are eager to savor unique culinary experiences alone.”

I can’t say with certainty that no one ever felt the stigma of eating alone in the 19th century but I believe that certain patrons were eager to savor any and all culinary experiences alone.

Why? In the early 19th century communal dining was the norm and there was little sense of privacy in public halls and dining rooms. An Englishman wrote in 1843 of his visit to America where he often felt he was “a fraction . . . of a huge masticating monster” as he dined “with people to whom he is bound by no tie but that of temporary necessity, and with whom, except the immediate impulse of brutal appetite, he has probably nothing in common.” An escape from the crowd was desirable to those who could afford to pay the price for a private dining room.

Stigma came later. It was the development of the luxury restaurant after the Civil War that created problems for the solo diner. Now there were no communal tables. Every table was private and the assumption was that no one dined alone. Portions were meant for two, so patrons made sure to arrive with a dinner companion. An article in the New York Sun in 1890 reported that this practice was so well known that “if a man comes in alone the waiters at once conclude that he is a countryman or unused to restaurant life, and treat him accordingly.”

By contrast it was true then and has been since that in casual and self-service eateries where meals are quick and unceremonious – such as lunchcounters, diners, and fast food outlets –  patrons typically eat alone entirely free of stigma or self-consciousness.


The history of dining alone has been a different story for women than for men, both in the 19th century and through most of the 20th. Until 1910 or so, the meaning of a phrase such as the following 1894 New York Herald headline “Lone Women Not Wanted [in First Class Restaurants]” is ambiguous. Usually what was meant by a “lone woman” was a woman unaccompanied by a man. Thus “lone women” could apply to a woman totally alone or several women together. None would be admitted to a fine restaurant.

Men often felt lonely eating by themselves in a restaurant, or that they were being treated as second class customers, but they were not turned away under suspicion of being prostitutes. The idea that a lone woman entering a restaurant might be in the sex trade was the reason given for barring her from first-class restaurants in the evening. Generally in the early 20th century fine restaurants and hotels in NYC reversed their policy, stating they would serve any lone women  they judged to be a “lady.” Yet, even as late as the 1960s, some restaurants would not seat a solitary woman at the bar for fear she was soliciting.

Even as it became more common and acceptable for women to dine alone, they continued to feel unwelcome even into the 1970s. In that decade, when more women had careers in which they traveled for business, they began to protest publicly about the difficulties they had in restaurants. Like men, they complained that they were given poor service, often ignored, or seated by the restrooms.

lonediner1962There are pragmatic reasons why restaurants have been less than thrilled about single diners. They occupy tables that could accommodate more guests, thus ordering less food and usually fewer drinks and producing lower tips. And lone diners have been painted as social rejects. Ann Landers wrote in 1962 that men eating alone had character flaws. It has even been suggested that solitary diners depress other diners. According to a 1976 columnist, a lone woman in particular “suggests disappointment, a failed rendezvous, an empty heart; she subtly alters the ambience of the restaurant like the scent of old pressed roses.”

Little wonder that a survey in 1979 reported that most women found gynecological exams more pleasant than eating alone in a restaurant.

lonedinerbirdcagewestchester1950Just as there have always been some people who prefer eating alone, there have always been some restaurants that advertise special attention paid to lone diners. Lord & Taylor’s Birdcage in Westchester NY provided tables for one [pictured, 1950]. In the 1980s many restaurants stepped up their efforts. Even though 1980 Gallup survey interviews showed that 71% of men and 66% of women said they would rather not be seated at a table with other diners, a number of restaurants in the 1980s created communal tables. As far as I know it did not become a big trend. On the other hand, dining clubs such as “Fine Diners over 40″ in NYC may prove more appealing.

© Jan Whitaker, 2015

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Coppa’s famous walls


The San Francisco restaurant Coppa’s became legendary in the early 20th century as a gathering spot for bohemian artists and writers, especially after they decorated its walls with curious and intriguing murals. Though the murals remained in existence for scarcely a year, because of the devastating fires that followed the earthquake of April 1906, they have been forever tied to the restaurant’s mystique.

coppaincoppa'sBlackCatOver the course of months in 1905 the murals were drawn in chalk crayon by artists who frequented the restaurant on Montgomery Street. Legend has it that proprietor Giuseppe “Joseph” Coppa papered (or painted) his walls a hideous red that offended their esthetic sensibilities, impelling them to mask it with their humorous, nonsensical drawings. An alternative explanation is that Coppa asked the artists to draw on the walls and that he chose red as a good backdrop. I find this more convincing since Coppa himself was a painter.

A row of stenciled black cats at the original location, by Xavier Martinez, was inspired by Le Chat Noir in Paris, the city where Martinez had studied painting. They gave the restaurant its nickname, The Black Cat, which was also used at its new post-fire location.

While I was at the Library of Congress a few weeks ago I had a chance to look at the hard-to-find book The Coppa Murals, by Warren Unna (1952). He interviewed some of the artists involved and also Felix Piantanida, Coppa’s early partner who was responsible for preserving the photographs shown in the book. It’s likely the photos were taken for use in an article by Mabel Croft Deering not published until June 1906 in The Critic, but written before April’s destruction caused Coppa’s closure. The murals themselves were at some point scrubbed off or painted over by the landlord.


Though the restaurant was looted by vandals, the building Coppa’s restaurant was in actually somehow escaped destruction [shown above]. With few buildings intact, its value rose and Coppa’s landlord raised the rent, leading Coppa to vacate and open another Black Cat on Pine Street in November. He and Piantanida split up, and for a short time Piantanida conducted a restaurant called La Boheme in the space formerly occupied by Coppa’s.

The artists and illustrators who contributed drawings included some who would become prominent, such as Maynard Dixon, Xavier Martinez, and Gelett Burgess. The artists, along with poets and writers, contributed puzzling sayings and quotations that adorned the walls, fascinating – and insulting – customers (“Philistines”) who came to gawk at the bohemians.


The cover of Unna’s book shows a crude rendering of a mural by Xavier Martinez depicting the restaurant’s core group of regulars. Martinez is seated at the far right. Standing behind him is poet Bertha Brubaker, wife of Perry Newberry, smoking a cigarette. Her nickname “Buttsky,” which referred to her habit of saving cigarette butts, appears in the “hall of fame” of names that run beneath the black cats. The names of Coppa’s regulars are interspersed with those of famous writers such as [Johann Wolfgang] Goethe, [François] Villon, and [Guillaume] Apollinaire. The few women named are hard to identify since their last names do not appear, but Maisie was freelance writer Mary Edith Griswold and Isabell was allegedly a newspaper writer.

coppa'sMaynardDixonSimpleLifeinBohemiaWhen Coppa moved to Pine Street, a new row of cats appeared, but now marching in the opposite direction. Maynard Dixon also contributed several new images. One of his shows Coppa unfurling a scrolled menu to a crowd that includes regulars who were violinists, writers, poets, and artists. On another wall Dixon commemorated Coppa’s “Last Supper” at his old location, celebrated soon after the fire and necessitating official approval and protection from a marshal who stood guard outside. Another notable feature of the Pine Street murals were two works by a woman, painter and jewelry designer May Mott-Smith.


Coppa’s second Black Cat closed in 1913, after which Joseph and his son Victor launched Neptune Palace, a more commercial cabaret restaurant. In 1916 Joseph returned to a bohemian theme with The Red Paint, a short-lived restaurant on Washington Street that went out of business at the start of Prohibition, stopping the flow of “red paint,” i.e., wine. It too had murals, never completely finished and lacking the inspiration of those at the earlier Black Cats, despite Maynard Dixon’s participation once again. Many in the old gang had moved to Carmel by the Sea and things were not the same.

coppasaug231933In 1922 Coppa opened yet another restaurant, at 120 Spring Street, offering “old-time dinners,” possibly so-called because they were paired with illicit wine. Joseph was often arrested in raids by prohibition agents, and Victor once escaped by running out the back door. It’s possible the restaurant was officially padlocked for a time because in 1933 it “re-opened,” with the unveiling of a painting by the ever-faithful Maynard Dixon of a nude woman dressed only in shoes, stockings, and a large-brimmed hat with her legs crossed atop the table, toasting an obese man opposite her [see 1933 advertisement]. The same image was used on the cover of the restaurant’s menu at its final location, 241 Pine. That closed in December 1939, marking the end of Joe Coppa’s long culinary career.

Joseph’s wife, Elizabeth, who had been the dining room manager and cashier, died in 1938. After his retirement he took up painting, focusing on portraits of men such as business magnates, Italian dictator Benito Mussolini, and poet George Sterling.

© Jan Whitaker, 2015

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Image gallery: insulting waitresses

waitressinsultJudging from postcards and cartoons, the early 20th century was not a fun time to be a waitress. However hard working, competent, or skilled in dealing with demanding situations they may have been [see recent op-ed on how much skill serving takes], there was no recognition of that in popular images.

Quite the contrary. The images were of two basic types. Either female servers were shown as incompetent or as objects of fantasy who were open to the sexual advances of their customers.


All but two of these images in this post are from 1906 to about 1915. The gum chewer is from the 1920s.


waitress1908BeaneryButeThe reasons for these degrading images could be many. Joke-style postcards were designed to get men to send postcards, an activity that they were less inclined to do than were women. Almost all joke postcards derived humor from insulting others, whether women, Blacks, immigrants, or the poor. On several of the cards in the post, the women illustrated are Irish immigrants, a status that was generally portrayed as both stupid and ugly. Women who were in the public eye, such as actresses, department store clerks, or restaurant workers, were evidently considered fair game, possibly out of resentment that they strayed outside the realm of church and home or because they appeared in public without male protection.

waitressstockings1946Later postcards mostly dropped the theme of incompetence but images of sexy bimbo waitresses persisted for decades, as for example on this postcard mailed in 1946.

© Jan Whitaker, 2015


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Famous in its day: Partridge’s

partridgesTradeCardI began this post intending to present some of the history of Partridge’s restaurant that is advertised on many Victorian trade cards of the 1870s and 1880s, such as the one shown above. Despite their age, many of the cards still exist; those in this post are only a few of over a dozen different designs I’ve seen.

As is often the case, sorting out the story of that restaurant became harder the more I learned. In fact, the two restaurants on 8th street, operated by Edward Partridge and his son E. Frank Partridge, turned out to be only part of the story.

partridge'sdoubleIn the Philadelphia city directory of 1858 there are five different Partridges operating restaurants, Edward not included. At that time Edward apparently was a seller of cheeses in the city’s food market on the corner of Fourth and Market. He also sold “Cakes, Pies, and Beverages, such as will suit the most delicate and fastidious taste.” I suspect that most of the Partridges were related and had come from Medway in Massachusetts, but haven’t been able to substantiate this.

In 1862 or 1863 Edward moved to North Eighth street near Filbert and opened a restaurant in the heart of the shopping district. It occupied several stories, with a ladies’ dining parlor seating 100 on the second floor. In the early 1880s it acquired a fancy ceiling of Lincrusta wallpaper that mimicked molded decorations of game and fruit. It became one of the city’s best known first-class restaurants, serving three meals a day as well as catering weddings, receptions, and large parties on and off the premises. It also specialized in fancy cakes, ice-creams, and ices. Edward was a generous benefactor to his Presbyterian church, so I seriously doubt that alcoholic drinks were served at his restaurant.

partridges947Partridge’s was not a luxury restaurant but a respectable full-service restaurant with moderate prices and no French on the menu. In the second half of the 19th century American cities large and small had at least one such restaurant and Philadelphia undoubtedly had quite a few. In almost all respects it was nearly identical to Thomas Hill’s in Trenton NJ and Barr’s in Springfield MA.

partridges948As the back of this trade card states, Partridge’s was proud of its drinkable water, at a time when public water could not be trusted. A story in the Public Ledger said that the restaurant displayed two bottles of water in its windows, “one as clear as crystal, the other the color of weak coffee, due to the mud held in suspension in it.” The crystal-clear bottle, of course, held filtered water that Partridge’s served, the other water came directly out of the tap.

In 1893, the restaurant established by Charles D. Partridge, which had long operated in the old Eastern and Farmers’ Markets, opened as the Reading Terminal Restaurant, in a space attached to the new Reading Terminal Market. Charles, who may have been Edward’s brother, had died in 1877 and his restaurant was taken over by a longtime employee yet it retained the company name of C. D. Partridge & Co. (In much the same way, Frank Partridge retained the name Partridge & Son after his father’s death in 1896.)

When Edward died in 1896, no one knew that disaster was about to strike his landmark restaurant on North Eighth. On the day before Thanksgiving in 1899, a fire started in the neighboring Bee Hive dry goods store, aka Partridge & Richardson (co-owned by yet another Partridge). The massive fire swept through the block, destroying Partridge & Richardson, Strawbridge & Clothier, the J. B. Lippincott publishing offices, Partridge’s restaurant, and numerous other businesses.

partridgesJuly1900ADVPartridge’s restaurant was rebuilt on Market Street in “elaborate Renaissance style,” opening in July of 1900. But less than a year later Frank Partridge died, and his widow closed the restaurant a short time later. The like-new fixtures and furnishings, including electric chandeliers, Wilton carpets, and French mirrors, were sold at auction in 1902.

© Jan Whitaker, 2015


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Find of the day: Mrs. K’s Toll House Tavern


Over the weekend, at a vintage paper and postcard show in Boxborough MA, I found a charming diecut menu from a restaurant in Silver Spring MD. Established in 1930 by Olive and Harvey Kreuzburg, the landmark restaurant is still in operation today though no longer owned by the founding family.

Shown through the window is page 2 of the menu illustrated with a fireplace inscribed with a cryptogram. Can you figure it out? Hint: the riddle is said to have originated in England. (Click to enlarge. Answer below.)

MrsKs941Judging by the prices, this menu is from around 1950. A Tenderloin Steak dinner accompanied by French Fried Onions or Fresh Mushrooms, cost $2.25. It was served with soup, fruit relish, salad, three vegetables, a sherbet course, hot bread, dessert, beverage, and after dinner mints. By 1962, when the Kreuzburg’s son Richard ran the restaurant, that dinner had gone up to $6.00. Burgundy, Sauterne, Claret, and Blue Ribbon beer were available. All meals were served family style with bowls filled with enough for the entire table. Mrs. K assured guests that everything was prepared from scratch on the premises and under her supervision.

Olive Kreuzburg was not new to the restaurant business when she and her husband took over the old toll house that had previously been the home of two other failed tea rooms. In 1923 it operated as the Seven Oaks Tavern where sky high prices must have contributed to its demise. Olive’s prior experience included running the dining room of the Hotel Wellesley in Clayton NY, a tea room in Miami FL called Mrs. K’s, and two tea rooms in Washington DC, one named Mrs. K’s, and the other Mrs. K’s Brick Wall Inn. Clearly using her abbreviated name served her well.

At its opening in 1930 the Silver Spring Toll House was listed in a DC newspaper under “Where to Motor and Dine.” At that time development had not sprung up around Mrs. K’s; although only “a 30-minute drive from the White House,” it was in the country. The early advertisement read: “This old Toll House with its charming furnishings and Terraced Gardens marks a delightfully smart Country Dinner Place.”


Getting through the Depression was no doubt aided by Duncan Hines’ recommendation of Mrs. K’s in his very first list of his favorite restaurants that he sent out to friends in a 1935 Christmas card. Later he expanded the list and published it as a book. In the 1937 edition, he said of Mrs. K’s, “You dine in the past here – so far as furnishings are concerned. Nothing is changed apparently from the Revolutionary days when it was built. Even the pretty girls who wait on you in Colonial dress seem to have been miraculously preserved from a more leisurely age when dining was a rite not to be passed over casually.”

Whether or not the building dated from the Revolution, the quaint restaurant was filled with antiques collected by the Kreuzburg’s.

The cryptogram explained:
If the grate be [great B] empty (m t), put coal on [colon].
If the grate be full, stop [ . ] putting coal on.

© Jan Whitaker, 2015


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