The Blue Ship Tea Room, et seq.

Last night’s evening woolgathering on the day’s activities and discoveries (which is usually an hour or so after 9, accompanied by something tasty in the liquid line) found me reminiscing about the Blue Ship Tea Room, an uber-funky restaurant on Boston’s T Wharf in the 1940s and 1950s, which I visited with my parents on several occasions. They had whale steak on the menu, and the whole experience was memorable: you parked someplace on T Wharf itself, then walked up an exterior staircase to the third floor of a rickety building. The view of Boston Harbor was remarkable. Some searching discovered a wonderfully redolent photograph:



(photo by Nishan Bichajian, ca. 1955, from https://dome.mit.edu/handle/1721.3/34856)

There’s also a 1961 article from the Harvard Crimson On the Waterfront by Michael S. Gruen (in the series Around the Hub) about the character and characters of that long-vanished waterfront:

A long, faded-yellow loft building now used for apartments, a few lonely fishing boats, and an occasional tourist are all that remain today of what in better days was one of the world’s greatest fishing wharves. Perhaps the only fish people could see at T Wharf in recent years were those they consumed off of the willow pattern china at the Blue Ship Tea Room, a popular seafood restaurant at the tip of the wharf.

Situated near the foot of State St., where it meets Atlantic Avenue, T Wharf was built sometime between 1708 and 1718 as a relatively unimportant appendage to adjacent Long Wharf, which, until 1868, extended all the way back to historic Faneuil Hall and docked the greatest schooners of its day along approximately one mile of pier…

and so forth, well worth reading in full.

My search also caught an advertising brochure and the tails of a marvelous tale of Massachusetts legal history, in Priscilla D. Webster v. Blue Ship Tea Room, Inc., which details a case that sprawled over the period 1959-1964 and turned upon questions of proper chowder. A few of the delicious chowdery bits:

The plaintiff, who had been born and brought up in New England (a fact of some consequence), ordered clam chowder and crabmeat salad. Within a few minutes she received tidings to the effect that “there was no more clam chowder,” whereupon she ordered a cup of fish chowder. Presently, there was set before her “a small bowl of fish chowder.” She had previously enjoyed a breakfast about 9 A.M. which had given her no difficulty. “The fish chowder contained haddock, potatoes, milk, water and seasoning. The chowder was milky in color and not clear. The haddock and potatoes were in chunks” (also a fact of consequence). “She agitated it a little with the spoon and observed that it was a fairly full bowl…. It was hot when she got it, but she did not tip it with her spoon because it was hot … but stirred it in an up and under motion. She denied that she did this because she was looking for something, but it was rather because she wanted an even distribution *423 of fish and potatoes.” “She started to eat it, alternating between the chowder and crackers which were on the table with … [some] rolls. She ate about 3 or 4 spoonfuls then stopped. She looked at the spoonfuls as she was eating. She saw equal parts of liquid, potato and fish as she spooned it into her mouth. She did not see anything unusual about it. After 3 or 4 spoonfuls she was aware that something had lodged in her throat because she couldn’t swallow and couldn’t clear her throat by gulping and she could feel it.” This misadventure led to two esophagoscopies at the Massachusetts General Hospital, in the second of which, on April 27, 1959, a fish bone was found and removed. The sequence of events produced injury to the plaintiff which was not insubstantial.

We must decide whether a fish bone lurking in a fish chowder, about the ingredients of which there is no other complaint, constitutes a breach of implied warranty under applicable provisions of the Uniform Commercial Code,[1] the annotations to which are not helpful on this point. As the judge put it in his charge, “Was the fish chowder fit to be eaten and wholesome?… [N]obody is claiming that the fish itself wasn’t wholesome…. But the bone of contention here I don’t mean that for a pun but was this fish bone a foreign substance that made the fish chowder unwholesome or not fit to be eaten?”

…The defendant asserts that here was a native New Englander eating fish chowder in a “quaint” Boston dining place where she had been before; that “[f]ish chowder, as it is served and enjoyed by New Englanders, is a hearty dish, originally designed to satisfy the appetites of our seamen and fishermen”; that “[t]his court knows well that we are not talking of some insipid broth as is customarily served to convalescents.” We are asked to rule in such fashion that no chef is forced “to reduce the pieces of fish in the chowder to miniscule size in an effort to ascertain if they contained any pieces of bone.” “In so ruling,” we are told (in the defendant’s brief), “the court will not only uphold its reputation for legal knowledge and acumen, but will, as loyal sons of Massachusetts, save our world-renowned fish chowder from degenerating into an insipid broth containing the mere essence of its former stature as a culinary masterpiece.”

and worth reading in its entirety, especially by New Englanders born and bred (and perhaps likely to be somewhat incomprehensible to others not so endowed).

Just one more bit of glorious serendipity in all of this: the MIT Libraries photograph above references György Kepes and Kevin Lynch (he of the still-essential The Image of the City). Kepes had worked with László Moholy-Nagy in Berlin and London, and “after immigrating to the U.S. in 1937, he taught design at the New Bauhaus (later the School of Design, then Institute of Design, then Illinois Institute of Design or IIT) in Chicago. In 1967 he founded the Center for Advanced Visual Studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) where he taught until his retirement in 1974.” (Wikipedia). He was also a colleague of Len Gittleman, our photography teacher at Harvard 1963-1965, and was himself a photographer. A few years ago, while exploring in Mount Auburn Cemetery, I came across his grave:

Gyorgy Kepes

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