Wyckoff-Bennett Wafers

Food will always be a mainstay of social media posts. Now, while we’re home isolating to stop the spread of Covid-19, it seems recipe sharing is even more popular (just behind those polls asking for your favorite record album covers. . .). I am not a chef, but I do love to binge on cooking shows. And I am intrigued by the longevity of some dishes: I estimate my family has been making a certain soup for the holidays since about 1910, and for who knows how many years before that back in Italy. But that’s just a drop in the bucket compared to the old recipes passed down by the descendants of Brooklyn’s 17th-century settlers.

One I’ve long fantasized of tasting is that for Colonial Dutch wafers described by Gertrude Ryder Bennett (1901-1982). The longtime caretaker of her historic birthplace, the 1766 Wyckoff-Bennett Homestead (1669 East 22nd Street), Gertrude was a saver of everything. Among her treasures was a heavy iron with thirty-one-inch handles. Its weight suggests a crane would have held it over the fire. One of its discs bears the initials of Gertrude’s great-great-grandfather, Wynant Bennett (1740-1815). The other has the date 1780, commemorating some long-forgotten family event. A teaspoonful of batter was placed on one disc, the other disc clamped down, and the whole turned over once while cooking. The paper-thin wafers–embossed with “WB” and “1780” could be rolled before they cooled and crisped, or served flat.

Rubbing of Gertrude Ryder Bennett’s wafer iron published in Albert H. Sonn, Early American Wrought Iron (New York: C. Scribner’s Sons, 1928), vol. 3, plate 307.

Unlike everyday waffles, wafers were a treat served on holidays and special occasions. Gertrude’s mother Nellie May made them often, but when she died in 1951, the recipe was presumed lost. Gertrude despaired of ever again savoring their delightful, “crisp, slightly browned sugar and nutmeg flavor.” As she describes in Living in a Landmark (1980), after scouring libraries and questioning fellow descendants of the Dutch–whose “faces brightened at the thought of the wafers they had enjoyed in their youth,” but who had no recipes–Gertrude happened upon an old book in her mother’s handwriting. It contained two recipes for the wafers that varied only slightly. After much experimentation with their vague measurements, and in consultation with dietitian friends, Gertrude hit upon the following method that recreates the same taste and texture of her mother’s wafers. She used a more manageable Norwegian krumkake iron to cook them, but I suppose an Italian pizzelle iron might work, too.

COLONIAL DUTCH WAFERS

Cream together ½ C[up] butter (no substitutes) and 1 C[up] sugar. Then add 3 egg yolks, beaten. Add 1 ½ C[up] flour plus 6 T[ablespoons] flour, ¼ t[easpoon] salt, and ½ t[easpoon] nutmeg. Add 3 egg whites, beaten but not too stiff. Place one spoonful at a time in the center of the cooking disc and close handles. Hold over a gas burner for a few seconds, turning once, until both sides are slightly browned.

If you’re game to give them a try, please let me know if these wafers are as mouthwatering as I imagine. Or, better yet, send me some!

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The Wyckoff-Bennett Homestead as it appeared around 1924. Image from Frederick Van Wyck, Keskachauge, or The First White Settlement on Long Island (New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1924).


Copyright © 2020 by Joseph Ditta (webmaster@gravesendgazette.com)

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Flash Flood Past

How did we survive without buzzing smartphones to warn us of coming thunderstorms? We waited for the rain to pass to run outside through the puddles! That’s just what this Brooklyn family did in September 1934, after a thirty-hour downpour left a lake outside 2403 East 13th Street, at the southeast corner of Avenue X. Their house, like others in the vicinity, dated from the 19th century. It bordered the valley of Squan Creek, a narrow tributary of Coney Island Creek that originated near Avenue W and East 11th Street and snaked its way south. Although the waterway had been largely filled in by the time this newspaper photo was taken, the unevenness of the surrounding terrain trapped storm runoff and residents alike–unless they were willing to “wade” it out.

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“IT RAINED IN BROOKLYN. Brooklyn, N.Y. . . . Officially, only 1.48 inches of rain fell on Brooklyn, N.Y., during the precipitation of the past thirty hours, but, in spots, it seemed that the amount was many times that. Here is a scene on Avenue X, at East 13th Street, which gives an idea of the flood conditions faced by residents of that neighborhood.” 9-18-34.


Copyright © 2019 by Joseph Ditta (webmaster@gravesendgazette.com)

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School’s Out For the Summer!

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Postcard view of P.S. 81, Ulmer Park, Brooklyn, published by S. Strauss, postmarked 16 July 1911.

The Town of Gravesend’s School District No. 3 was established 25 October 1870 to serve pupils in the village of Unionville, the waterfront settlement on Gravesend Bay later called Gravesend Beach or Ulmer Park, and now absorbed by Bath Beach. The schoolhouse on the postcard above went up shortly after, at what would become the corner of Cropsey Avenue and Bay 41st Street, the approximate site of 2550 Cropsey Avenue. When new it stood in a cedar grove. Inside it must have resembled another primitive schoolhouse in Gravesend, where Nellie May (Ryder) Bennett (1873-1951) recalled how “cold air blew up out of the wide cracks of the plank floor and, in bitter weather, [how] she would sit on one foot at a time, spreading out her woolen skirt, in an effort to keep warm.” A central stove threw heat on the students seated closest to it but barely radiated to the classroom’s far corners. Bennett remembered one sneaky boy who tossed Limburger cheese on the coals. Early recess, anyone?

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“Antiquated and in the way of waterfront highway improvements, the old P.S. 81 building near Gravesend Bay soon is to be demolished.” Brooklyn Times Union, Sunday 2 February 1930.

In time District School No. 3 came to be called P.S. 81. The little wooden schoolhouse stood until early 1930 when the widening of Cropsey Avenue forced its demolition. It might have survived had it been moved back 15 or 20 feet, as a plan suggested, but by then the sixty-year-old structure had been surpassed by larger, modern, brick–and fireproof–schools erected in the neighborhood.

Incidentally, until last week I never knew this postcard of P.S. 81 existed. I almost didn’t bid for it, thinking its caption must be a printing error of the type sometimes encountered on old cards. But the newspaper image above, from the Brooklyn Times Union, definitely shows the same building, thus confirming that the postcard depicts what it claims to!

[Nellie May (Ryder) Bennett’s memories are recorded by her daughter, Gertrude Ryder Bennett, in her book Turning Back the Clock in Gravesend: Background of the Wyckoff-Bennett Homestead (Francestown, N.H.: Marshall Jones Company, 1982).]


Copyright © 2019 by Joseph Ditta (webmaster@gravesendgazette.com)

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The Other White Horse Tavern

News of the recent sale of the building housing the White Horse Tavern has Greenwich Village preservationists worried for the future of that legendary watering hole. Did you know that Gravesend once had its own White Horse Tavern? It stood on the southwest corner of Avenue U and McDonald Avenue–its official address was 286 Avenue U–from the mid-1890s through about 1922. (The current structure on the site was completed in 1927.) The rare and possibly unique postcard below captures the place and maybe shows its owner, too. On his 1910 U.S. passport application, Bavarian immigrant Engelbert Schindlbeck (1868-1921), the proprietor, stood five-foot-six, with a broad forehead, blue eyes, proportionate nose, medium mouth, round chin, brown hair, fair complexion, and round face. That description seems to match the fellow standing front and center, at the corner of the White Horse porch, in dark suit and boater.

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Circa 1911 postcard view of Engelbert Schindlbeck’s White Horse Tavern, 286 Avenue U, Gravesend, Brooklyn. (Collection of Joseph Ditta.)

Schindlbeck’s place catered to patrons of the nearby Gravesend Racetrack, offering food and drink and hotel rooms to sleep off the latter. The track had closed by the time J.E. Reid, the wag who mailed this postcard, visited on July 31, 1911. He wrote: “A friend of mine and my self came down here Sunday morning [July 30]. We got lost, but will be back as soon as we find our way out.” Unlike the poet Dylan Thomas (1914-1953), whose heavy drinking at the other White Horse Tavern led to his early demise, we suspect Mr. Reid and companion made it out of Gravesend alive.

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Google’s street view of the same corner as it looked in June 2018.


Copyright © 2019 by Joseph Ditta (webmaster@gravesendgazette.com)

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Sally Gil’s Gravesend

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Sally Gil, “Edges of a South Brooklyn Sky,” 2018. Sea Beach line, Avenue U station, Manhattan-bound platform. Fire Engine Company 253 (center), New Utrecht Reformed Dutch Church (second from right).

Riders of the N train (a.k.a. the Sea Beach line) in southern Brooklyn have been tortured since 2015, when the MTA began work to revitalize the system’s nine crumbling, open-air platforms and station houses. Constructed between 1913 and 1915, the line remained largely untouched for a century, with maintenance limited to slathering on layers of beige paint in futile attempt to mask decades of exposure to vandals and the elements.

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Sally Gil, “Edges of a South Brooklyn Sky,” 2018. Sea Beach line, Avenue U station, Manhattan-bound platform.

To “expedite” renovations, the line shut down in stages, first the Manhattan-bound platforms, then the Coney-Island bound side. After nearly four years of being forced to ride several stops in the wrong direction to catch a train running the opposite way, things are finally nearing completion. At Avenue U both platforms are open once again and both station houses are looking better than ever, although the one at the southern end is not quite finished as of this writing.

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Sally Gil, “Edges of a South Brooklyn Sky,” 2018. Sea Beach line, Avenue U station, Manhattan-bound platform. Magen David Synagogue (upside down, at left), P.S. 95 (center).

I knew the MTA planned to include artwork as part of the Sea Beach improvements, as it had when it renovated the West End (D), Culver (F) and Brighton (B/Q) lines. Those stations are all elevated in this part of Brooklyn, so their artwork has taken the form of translucent panels that filter daylight through images and abstract patterns. Similar installations, but in mosaic tile, have started appearing along the N line, like the botanical-inspired splashes at 86th Street, and the big blocks of color at Bay Parkway, reminiscent of the Max Spivak mural uncovered at 5 Bryant Park in Manhattan.

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Sally Gil, “Edges of a South Brooklyn Sky,” 2018. Sea Beach line, Avenue U station, Manhattan-bound platform.

Imagine my happy shock one recent morning when, after boarding a Manhattan-bound N train at 86th Street and snagging a seat, the doors opened at the next stop, Avenue U, and I looked up to see Lady Moody’s House on the wall! The doors closed, leaving me slack-jawed and straining to see what else was there as the train sped away.

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Sally Gil, “Edges of a South Brooklyn Sky,” 2018. Sea Beach line, Avenue U station, Manhattan-bound platform. 62nd Precinct station house (center).

That night I couldn’t wait to get home to see if I hadn’t imagined it all. The station had no artwork the day before. But now, miraculously, it had fourteen mosaic tile panels, seven on the Manhattan-bound platform, and seven on the Coney Island side. Those on the Manhattan side show blue skies swirled with clouds and sparkly stars over a dark, asphalt-colored ground. On the Coney Island side, the sky is black and the ground a shimmery blue.

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Sally Gil, “Edges of a South Brooklyn Sky,” 2018. Sea Beach line, Avenue U station, Manhattan-bound platform. Masjid Al-Iman Islamic Center (right).

Sitting along the horizon on each panel, sometimes at ground level, sometimes floating askew, and occasionally upside down, are familiar buildings from Gravesend and the greater neighborhood. It’s fitting that I spotted the Moody house first, but I instinctively knew so many more sites. They’re all so realistically done that it’s hard to believe they’re fashioned from small tiles and not painted on canvas.

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Sally Gil, “Edges of a South Brooklyn Sky,” 2018. Sea Beach line, Avenue U station, Manhattan-bound platform. Van Sicklen (a.k.a. Lady Moody) House (right of center).

The places I recognize include

  • Van Sicklen House (a.k.a. Lady Moody House), 27 Gravesend Neck Road, built early 18th century, (a designated landmark).
  • Fire Engine Company 253, 2425-2427 86th Street, built 1895-1896 (a designated landmark).
  • New Utrecht Reformed Dutch Church, 18th Avenue, built 1828 (a designated landmark).
  • Rear of the house at 2066 West 7th Street between Avenues T and U, as visible from Coney Island-bound platform of the Avenue U Station.
  • P.S. 95, 345 Van Sicklen Street.
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Sally Gil, “Edges of a South Brooklyn Sky,” 2018. Sea Beach line, Avenue U station, Coney Island-bound platform. Antonio Meucci monument (center), Stryker House (right).

  • Magen David Synagogue, 2017 67th Street, built 1920-1921 (a designated landmark); depicted upside down.
  • 62nd Precinct Station House of the New York City Police Department, 1925 Bath Avenue.
  • Masjid Al-Iman Islamic Center, 2015 64th Street, as visible from the Manhattan-bound platform of the 20th Avenue Station; depicted on two panels.
  • Top of the house at 2076 West 7th Street between Avenues U and T.
  • Top of the house at 30 Village Road North; depicted upside down.
  • Monument to Antonio Meucci (1808-1889), inventor of the telephone, in Meucci Triangle, at the intersection of Avenue U, 86th Street, and West 12th Street.
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Sally Gil, “Edges of a South Brooklyn Sky,” 2018. Sea Beach line, Avenue U station, Coney Island-bound platform. Hubbard House in silhouette (center).

  • Top floor and tower of the Stryker house, 346 Van Sicklen Street, opposite P.S. 95.
  • Hubbard House, 2138 McDonald Avenue, built circa 1830-1835 (a designated landmark); depicted in silhouette on three panels.
  • Avenue U station house of the Sea Beach Line.
  • Top floors of the houses at 71 and 75 Avenue U.
  • New York State Education Department sign (1938) at the Gravesend Cemetery (the original of which reads: GRAVESEND | SETTLED IN 1643 BY ENGLISH | QUAKERS [sic] UNDER LADY DEBORAH | MOODY ON LAND GRANTED TO | THEM BY THE DUTCH | GOVERNOR OF NEW AMSTERDAM).
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Sally Gil, “Edges of a South Brooklyn Sky,” 2018. Sea Beach line, Avenue U station, Coney Island-bound platform. Avenue U station house (left of center).

Architectural fragments–awnings, grill-work doors, and rowhouse cornices–are scattered among the panels, as are cups of coffee, a rainbow cookie, and loaves of bread. Tulips and other blooms breathe life into it all.

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Sally Gil, “Edges of a South Brooklyn Sky,” 2018. Sea Beach line, Avenue U station, Coney Island-bound platform. Houses at 71-75 Avenue U (right).

If you have not been to the Avenue U station for a while, go examine these whimsical mosaics for yourself. Go early and plan to miss a morning train. Or linger when you get home at night. I promise it’s worth it. See if you can pick out the images I’ve listed. And tell me if you spot others I’ve missed.

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Sally Gil, “Edges of a South Brooklyn Sky,” 2018. Sea Beach line, Avenue U station, Coney Island-bound platform. Masjid Al-Iman Islamic Center (left), New Utrecht Reformed Dutch Church (center).

The artist, Sally Gil, who calls her work “Edges of a South Brooklyn Sky,” was commissioned by MTA Arts & Design to create this permanent series using “found” places from the neighborhood to represent the diversity of its residents, present and past. She placed them along the horizon because that is where “the business of living happens.” As she explained by email, the objects in the mosaics “reference meaningful, mundane, iconic things and places in the neighborhood, all there for people to slowly (or quickly) realize they know.”

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Sally Gil, “Edges of a South Brooklyn Sky,” 2018. Sea Beach line, Avenue U station, Coney Island-bound platform. Hubbard House in silhouette (left of tulips).

Gil’s original, small-scale, mixed media pieces were enlarged and fabricated in glass by Mosaicos Venezianos de Mexico. The artist hopes her work will remind us how “every day we are making our place in the world, and the subway is the conduit that transports us. We live on a physical plane while dwelling in our thoughts and imaginations–the world of our own stories.” We all have the same goal, Gil continues, “To live peacefully, with what we need and want.”

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Sally Gil, “Edges of a South Brooklyn Sky,” 2018. Sea Beach line, Avenue U station, Coney Island-bound platform. Hubbard House in silhouette (left), Gravesend Cemetery sign (left of center).


Copyright © 2018 by Joseph Ditta (webmaster@gravesendgazette.com)

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