Active Ingredients

How our city's history helped shape what we eat

wursthausPhoto: Cambridge Historical Commission

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By Gavin Kleespies

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mong the many other ways the Boston area has had a disproportionate influence on the world is in that all-important matter of what we eat. No, not that boiled and fried stuff that was for so long associated with this town, before the more recent advent of its world-renowned celebrity chefs. We’re talking about everything from schnitzel on a famous streetcorner to the refinement of national tastes that began in a Cambridge kitchen so important that it’s now in the Smithsonian Institution. But much of this history is hidden from view, the way you used to try to hide your Brussels sprouts under your potatoes.

In the heart of Harvard Square, the Wursthaus (above) was a popular gathering spot serving sauerbraten and schnitzel and imported beers. Its sensibility (and its decor) varied little in 79 years. Wursthaus was next door to the Tasty in the now-demolished Read Block building. In 1942, it was bought by “the unofficial Mayor of Cambridge” Frank N. Cardullo, who went on to open Cardullo’s Gourmet Shop across the street in 1950, which still operates today. Notable patrons of the Wursthaus included Harvard President Derek C. Bok, the Aga Khan, and Labor Secretary Robert Reich. The ‘Haus was bringing in more than $3 million a year in the mid 1980s.

How did history catch up with this landmark? The health-conscious, non-bratwurst eating masses of the ‘90s, along with the changing face of the square, slowed business to a standstill. Today it’s a gastropub called the Russell House Tavern, named for the 19th-century furniture dealer that once stood here.

Of course, few people in the Boston area have had as much of an influence on what we eat (and how we cook it) than Julia Child, who moved in 1961 from Europe to Cambridge, where her husband, Paul, accepted a job. They settled into a cozy house on tree-lined Irving Street with its soon-to-be-famous blue-and-green kitchen. Paul would stir up “upside-down martinis” while Julia readied supper on counters custom-built for her 6-foot-2 frame. In short order came Julia’s first big break: the publication of her Mastering the Art of French Cooking. The book’s popularity led to her second, and perhaps biggest break, as host of The French Chef, broadcast to 96 stations throughout America by Boston’s WGBH from 1963 to 1973. Seven more television series followed, and, starting in the 1990s, many were filmed here, in her home kitchen.

Kitchenware unfamiliar to American cooks, such as large balloon whisks, copper pots, and table décor, appeared on her shows courtesy of Harvard Square’s Design Research. Unfazed by celebrity, Julia was often seen about the neighborhood visiting D/R and its neighbor, Harvest restaurant, and then her butcher, Savenor’s Market. The house at 103 Irving has been renovated, but Julia’s kitchen will never change: Deemed a national treasure, it was moved in its entirety to the Smithsonian Museum. Charmingly, a sticker for one of her favorite local restaurants, Eat, is still visible on her refrigerator door.

Gavin Kleespies is director of programs at the Massachusetts Historical Society.

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