Gift Books Offer A Local Flavor

Posted November 30, 2009 at 2:52pm

We love holiday gift books — they allow us to take a peek into the pages of something that we might not buy for ourselves but could be perfect for someone else on our list. Here are a couple of options for those who love the idea of pretty, gift-worthy books with a local connection.

• “Dining on the B&O: Recipes and Sidelights from a Bygone Age— provides a powerful dose of nostalgia for the days when travel involved dressing for dinner, relaxing in a comfortable setting and sitting back while others solved any minor inconveniences that you might anticipate. (Yes, Virginia, believe it.) The Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, which at its peak ran from New York City down to D.C. and then stretched west to Chicago and St. Louis, was noted for its dining cars and its service, with white-jacketed waiters serving meals on tables set with linen tablecloths. Rolls and bread were baked on board these trains, and each dining car had as many as eight waiters. Service in the dining cars ended with finger bowls, and meals were multicourse affairs with appetizers, soup, entrees, vegetables, dessert and beverages.

One of the delightful elements of the cookbook portion of “Dining on the B&O— is the glimpse it offers into the tastes and habits of the past. The B&O served meals on board starting on Nov. 5, 1842, up until 1971, when Amtrak took over the rail service. Many of the recipes in this cookbook, though, date from the 1940s and 1950s, with items such as salmon and lemon Jell-O — made up of boiled salmon, parsley, lemon and plain Jell-O — and marshmallow mayonnaise (don’t ask), as well as stewed celery, ox joint sauté and prune whip. Few of these are recipes that cooks will be willing to try at home, and there are almost no raw fruits and vegetables that aren’t dressed with a heavy dose of mayonnaise and nothing that doesn’t benefit from a little bacon fat or a heavy cream sauce — but they’re fun to peruse nonetheless.

“Dining on the B&O— also reprints copies of menus, such as “The Diplomat Luncheon— from October 1943, an austere offering with options of an omelet, fish, poultry (if available) and fried tomatoes with bacon. Dessert options are ice cream (“Rationed — Served when Available—), cheese (also rationed) and pie. An explanatory note on the menu explains the rationing and the higher prices and asks customers to “please be indulgent. We assure you that the quality you expect of B&O food will remain, within wartime limitations, at its usual high standards.— Another menu from 1958 offers several different versions of Maryland crab: crab lump cocktail, crab lump salad with mayonnaise and “de luxe Maryland crab cakes.— (“Dining on the B&O— is $34.95.)

• “Wonderland,— released this month by the Washington Ballet, is designed to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the leadership of Septime Webre, the ballet’s artistic director. The book is supposed to be a “dreamscape— of images based on previous Washington Ballet performances in a series of photographs of dancers arrayed artistically in spots throughout Washington. The photographs were apparently taken at the National Arboretum, inside the former Wonder Bread factory on S Street Northwest and at the Old Soldiers Home (known today as the Armed Forces Retirement Home). The 26 images show dancers in costume for a number of pieces in the Washington Ballet repertoire: “Peter Pan,— “Carmina Burana,— “Cinderella,— “The Nutcracker— and other ballets.

While the images are beautiful, the book offers nearly no explanation of where each photo was taken or what the context is for the shot. For instance, one photograph of two blonde intertwined dancers is adorned with the words, “If you drink much from a bottle marked POISON it is almost certain to disagree with you, sooner or later.— With a little sleuthing, a reader might be able to deduce that those words and the photo refer to the production of “Romeo and Juliet,— which premiered in May 2001.

The book’s second section, Conversations, is scattered with black-and-white photos and brief quotations from various Washington Ballet members and performers. Some of them sound a bit like things high school students would write in their senior yearbook: “Being part of The Washington Ballet is like being part of a big family,— company member Diana Albrecht writes. “We share so many moments and experiences together that we become very close.— (“Wonderland— is $55.)