The Palmer House, Revisiting the Original Brownie, & Bertha Palmer

022One of the best and most challenging aspects to the location of Lockwood is that it is inside the Palmer House. It is challenging in so much as it has a reputation as an antiquated hotel. Therefore, despite the 170 million dollars in renovations which Lockwood was a part of,  it is a constant challenge to catapult ourselves as the ‘in’ place for a young crowd. Oddly, I don’t think the food I’m doing here would be much different than were I on the North side of the river (ok… perhaps less salmon!), but I believe the young crowd would be larger.
The fact that we are in the Loop doesn’t help the restaurant. Despite the improvements made in the area – and aside from the theaters, opera house and ballet – there simply is not too much happening west of Michigan Avenue after dark. And though it is no further from downtown than the meat packing district, there are times it feels as though we might as well be out in Skokie. It seems that no matter what we do here with the cuisine, that to jive amongst  the ‘gold coasters’ or ‘meat packing’ restaurants is a feat not unlike climbing the Alps in the Tour de France without steroids.

On the other side of the spectrum,  it would be hard to find a setting that has as rich of a history in this city. When I informed my Mom that I had been offered the Chef position here, she couldn’t believe it. My late uncle, Dave Traeger, who brought the first professional basketball team to Chicago – and was even the city’s Man of the Year – was a regular of the famous Empire Room where all of the great performers used to play.

The Empire Room
The Empire Room

The history of this hotel is astounding and there is surprising little of it online. I can’t say enough how cool it was reading about Bertha Palmer (though a cameo) in the amazing historic novel, Devil in the White City, by Erik Larson. If you enjoy reading, check it out. She was an amazing woman who is largely responsible for discovering much of the impressionist art found in the Art Institute down the road, including Monet and Renoir. The hotel was a wedding gift to her by her husband Potter (Lockwood was Bertha’s brother).  Our PR guru, Ken Price, knows much more about her than she probably knew about herself.

bertha_honore_palmer

Bertha Honore Palmer

The Palmer House makes the claim as being the longest consecutively operated hotel in North America despite having burned down almost immediately after opening in the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. Looking up at the art deco ceiling and the Tiffany lamps in the lobby is a constant reminder not to settle for mediocrity. The ceiling itself is not something you come about many places outside of Rome. In a way, the concept of re-vitalizing the hotel also fits into my style of cuisine. I have a great passion and respect for my predecessors and also enjoy bringing the work they have done to a 21st century audience. I am also very appreciative that it mattered to those who invested in the restoration of the hotel, thus giving me this opportunity.

The Palmer House Lobby

The Palmer House Lobby

Not to be any more long winded or stray further from the food on these pages, the Palmer House also takes credit for inventing the brownie when Bertha comissioned the pastry chef (I don’t know his name and he’s long dead) with developing a chocolate dessert her and her friends could take with them on a picnic. Although there is plenty of controversy behind this claim, there was a good deal of pressure to put a form of the brownie on the menu when we first opened. The photo at the top was our take on it and developed by the Pastry Chef of the hotel, Fabrice Bouet.  I wound up removing it from the dinner menu shortly after opening, though we still offer a version for lunch, room service, and on the $38 prix fixe menu at dinner.

palmer-cookbook

The Palmer House Cookbook - Published in 1940... Escoffier would be proud!!!

9 Responses to “The Palmer House, Revisiting the Original Brownie, & Bertha Palmer”

  1. Crystal says:

    A second plug for “Devil in the White City”: I am currently working through the novel, and it is a hoot to read about the historical figures that shaped Chicago a century ago. Congrats on being able to immerse yourself in that history.

    Also, as a member of the “young” crowd that you aspire to tap, I stopped by the Lockwood bar a few months ago and was pleasantly surprised at the unstuffy vibe. The contrast of contemporary circular bar with ornate art deco ceiling made for an interesting juxtaposition.

  2. Aaron says:

    One would think that given your embrace of the blog and all the positive attention it’s received throughout the Chicago gastronomic blogosphere that us younger folks would pay at least a cursory visit, but alas I have had a hard time convincing friends to choose Lockwood over establishments in trendier areas (“we don’t even need a cab, it’s right off the Red Line” I plead to no avail).

    Then there is the case of my father who loathed [unnamed contemporary american meatpacking district restaurant] specifically because of the virtues that made the dishes both contemporary and delicious. However, when I took him to the House de Foss, he had nothing but raves. Must be something about the old-time glamor that serves as some seal of approval in his eyes.

    I will be back, most assuredly, with contemporaries who will hopefully spread the gospel around to others like us. Keep up the good work, Chef.

    • Phillip Foss says:

      Case in point, Aaron!
      Different strokes are certainly for different folks, but we’ve got to discover a means for your peers to be able to break down that barrier that is the Chicago River!
      Not to dis’ those who love us now, but the youthful David will once again slay the stodgy Goliath! And through those as yourself spreading our gospel, the slingshot will once again be mightier than the aging giant! Let us say Hallelujah, and hope to see you soon! As I mentioned in other comments, I like to take extra care of our readers, so don’t hesitate to call on me or my Sous Chef, Jens in my absence.

  3. olika says:

    Understood! We will be planning a summit for young international hipsters chez Lockwood in March. Stay tuned…

  4. Louise says:

    A friend and I have been having a discussion regarding the creation of brownies. I’m hoping you can help with a little information. Jean Anderson in “The American Century Cookbook: The Most Popular Recipes Of The 20th Century”, published 1997, references recipes in the 1906 edition of “The Boston Cooking-School Cook Book”(with 2 squares Baker’s Chocolate, melted) and in “Lowney’s Cook Book”, written by Maria Willet Howard and published by the Walter M. Lowney Company of Boston in 1907. Knowing the importance and grandeur of the 1893 Columbian Exposition, it’s very easy to believe Mrs. Palmer wanted a special dessert and the chefs set out to please her. Are there any photos of the brownie being served in the Women’s Building cafe? Or a menu from the cafe? It’s easy to find lists of “firsts” at the Exposition, but I can’t seem to find brownies. Were they even called “brownies”? I have a slightly later edition of Lowney’s Cook Book and they were brownies. And I have a 1916 edition of A “Calendar of Dinners” with 615 Recipes including The Story of Crisco, where there’s a recipe for Chocolate Brownies. They are described as a cross between cookies and heavy cake. I contacted Jean Anderson and she said that Palmer House never came up when she was researching brownie origin fifteen years ago. And, fyi, there’s a documentary called “Expo:Magic of the White City” which shows numerous photos from the Exposition. It’s available from Netflix. Thank you so much for any information you can provide. I have about exhausted the Internet.

    • Phillip Foss says:

      Below is the response from Ken Price, our director of PR

      Hello —

      Chef Phillip Foss of our LOCKWOOD Restaurant forwarded your inquiry to me about the confection, the Brownie. Actually, the Brownie is under the supervision of the hotel’s main kitchen directed by Executive Chef Stephen Henry.

      As the unofficial historian for the Palmer House, I have been keeper of much of the hotel’s history — both curious and culinary. What we now call the Brownie has been served in the Palmer House for over a century of the hotel’s 140 history. A symposium at the Newberry Library in Chicago some 25 years ago did a retrospective on century old Chicago dishes and the confection called the Brownie surfaced connected to the World Fair of 1893, specifically served at the Women’s Pavilion for which Bertha Palmer was the president of the Board of Lady Managers. The food served there was originated in the kitchen of Mrs. Palmer’s husband’s hotel, the Palmer House.

      The hotel has a whole host of “firsts, bests and onlys” — including the first vertical steam railroad (elevator); first fireproof building and first utilization of Edison’s invention of the light bulb, and Bell’s invention of the telephone in each room.

      With regard to the name “Brownie” — we are not exactly sure. But the recipe has remained the same over the years.

      Like the beloved story that Mrs. O’Leary’s cow started the Great Chicago Fire, we have been handed down that the confection called the American Brownie began in the kitchen of the Palmer House in 1893, and first served at the Columbian Exposition, World’s Fair.

      Ken Price

  5. I currently work at “Historic Spanish Point” (in Osprey, Florida) in a variety of capasities. “Historic Spanish Point” is the homestead for the former 160,000 acre property owned by Bertha Palmer after the death of Potter (in 1902) which she purchased in 1910. Bertha came to Sarasota in Winter and fell in love with this unique & historic property, purchasing it and subsequently acquiring some 160,000 acres of land. It was Bertha who convinced the railroad who only ran to Tampa, to build a spur to Venice, Fl.
    The spur (convinently) ran directly to the heart of Bertha’s property.
    I have lead tours of the core 30-acre site which is now a historic outdoor US museum
    thanks to many caring people who took the property to their hearts. There are 10 paid staff & 200 volunteers who are dedicated to this landmark historical property & grounds which takes approx., 2 hours on a walking tour.

    Although “The Oaks” (15 BR/ 9 BA home) where Bertha Palmer (and her extended family) lived part of the year, burned approx. 1960, most of the other origonal grounds & buildings have been rebuilt or destored to exactly as the photos showed them. I recently read Bertha Palmer’s biography
    “Silloutes In Diamonds” & found it facinating. Published in 1960, I am told (although out of print) it is available through Amazon.com — & it is indeed a facinating read. She was a lady far ahead of her time & when they believed in a cause Potter & Bertha Palmer put their money where their hearts were.
    Bertha worked for women’s rights & equal pay for equal work when it was not
    politically correct. She had a unique ability to being team work to a higher level. It was Bertha’s wish that the origional grounds be maintained as close to origional as was humanly possible. The museum includes the middens & buriel grounds of Archiac Peoples who occupied the
    property from 5000 to 1000 years ago. The John Webb Family homesteaded the property beginning 1867 to the early 1900′s & the majority of those buildings remain in tact & a curator helps with the preservation of the site & it’s buildings. Photographic opportunities abound.

  6. Janet Maldonado says:

    I am currently working on some geneological research for my father’s side of the family. His grandfather, my great grandfather, George Sieben, was a pastry chef at the Palmer House from some time in the 1890′s until about 1930. I have a picture of him with some of his coworker standing outside on the balcony – I also have the census’s from 1900 through 1930 saying that he was a “baker” at a “hotel” in chigago. And, last but not least, I have a 100 year old ashtray from the Palmer House. I am at a standstill with my research – does anyone have any ideas on how to find out who was working at the Palmer house during the dates I just mentioned?

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