Bertha’s Brownies at the Palmer House


Behind this 19th century ornate peacock gate is an equally glamorous design and food history. A wedding present for Bertha Honore from Potter Palmer, the Palmer House Hotel is a piece of Chicago history. The ceiling includes murals of Venus, the goddess of love, framed by Neoclassical Empire style of glam and glitz. It burned down in the great Chicago fire of 1871, only to be rebuilt bigger and better afterwards.

DSC_0048Sure, the Empire style Hall by Bertha Palmer is an architectural treasure and a Chicago historical landmark. Referenced in Devil in the White City, the Palmer House is an exemplar of the gilded age before the crash, the depression, before the World Wars and the ravages of the 20th century. The historical legacy of the Palmer House is unquestionable and excite architectural and cultural historians. However, unbeknownst to most of us, we have an even deeper connection to the Palmer House. A gastronomic connection. I hope you can sense my tone of reverence as I say…..the Palmer House is the birthplace of the ….wait for it…..

The Brownie.

Yes. Let this knowledge sink into your consciousness and memories of chocolatey, dense, moist deliciousness. It is probably the most coveted dessert in our home, rivaling its cousin warm chocolate chip cookies. The brownie is America’s Proustian Madeline that conjures memories of childhood pleasure and freedom. A “to-go” version of this confection at the Palmer House comes boxed and wrapped with a ribbon. The packaging also includes a brief history and the original recipe. The taste can be described as dense yet delicate, with a texture between fudge and cake that melts in your mouth. The walnuts that compose the top layer have a light glaze. The recipe says its an apricot glaze but a fruity taste is hardly noticeable. It is a familiar (as in brownie mix brownies) but elegant experience between candy and cake. The “to-go” version is perhaps the best way to eat this little morsel since it was designed to be a part of a boxed and portable, working lunch for ladies discussing the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. The Brownie represents a designed American cultural experience.  We say as American as Apple Pie but I think the saying should be as American as Brownies. This Fourth of July, I’ll have to bake brownies. Let’s start a new trend and vote for the Brownie as America’s dessert. “Bite into a piece of history”………indeed!


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“Food is often …

“Food is often the way to “knock” and engage a community. We all bring wine or a dish to thank friends or family for hosting. We eat with new friends to ritualize and legitimize our engagement, even if we don’t really like the particular dishes.”

This quote comes from Bruce Nussbaum’s book “Creative Intelligence” in reference to culturally responsive design strategies. After describing his first necessary taste of Monkey Brains…..yes, monkey brains in the Philippines, as a Peace Corps volunteer, he talks about how Lenovo reached a rural audience and marketed their computers better than HP and Dell. Here’s how Nussbaum explains the strategy of “knocking,”

“According to Fast Company, in rural China, people frequently buy PCs as wedding gifts. A computer purchase is not merely a market transaction, based on price; it’s a gift that provides the foundation for a lifetime of social interactions between two families. So the box, the packaging, the entire presentation, is crucial. By making the box representative of the gift it contained, Lenovo was able to capture more of the rural market than HP — a knock worth hundreds of millions of dollars in profits.”

Food as social and commercial strategy emphasizes and validates culturally shared experiences, even if different from our own cultures. The theatrical performance of the Lenovo box as a component of a wedding ritual conveys cultural respect, just as eating monkey brains. It may or may not influence our own tastes or meaning. I don’t think Nussbauam eats monkey brains habitually now. The gesture is enough. One does not need to like monkey brains in order to connect with those who do. But…….one has to at least try it, once. In the case of Lenovo….it wasn’t even the meal but the platter that made all the difference. So much of what designers do involves the aesthetic (articulate and material) presentation of constructed meaning. Food helps us practice the skill of human generosity. Makes me want to host a party! Would paper plates imply disrespect? Maybe not the well designed ones…….41MVIMU75IL._BO2,204,203,200_PIsitb-sticker-v3-big,TopRight,0,-55_SX278_SY278_PIkin4,BottomRight,1,22_AA300_SH20_OU01_