It’s unlikely most Iowans recognized the name August Escoffier, the French chef famous for creating the delectable dessert called peach melba. But an Iowa couple living in Paris in the 1920s had crossed paths with the chef and had somehow acquired the recipe, consisting of a peach arranged artfully on a bed of vanilla ice cream smothered with raspberry sauce.
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Alden and Ellen Boyer spent part of each year in Paris, where Boyer International Laboratories had offices on the Rue Royale, just around the corner from the shop of renowned fashion designer Jeanne Lanvin, who Vogue magazine called “one of the great women of the world.”
The world of French cuisine and Parisian fashion must have felt a long way from their roots in northern Iowa, but the Boyers seemed to have no problem adapting. Alden, a Cresco native, and Ellen, born in St. Ansgar, married at Mitchell, Iowa, in 1909. Alden had earned a degree in pharmacy at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., and started Boyer International Laboratories in Chicago where he manufactured cosmetics, perfumes and hair products for men and women.
Alden’s mother, Cora Boyer Perkins, lived in Nashua, Iowa, and shared letters from her son and daughter-in-law with the Nashua Reporter. The couple was living in Chicago in 1917 when Ellen wrote a long letter about their trip to New York City via the southern states. Traveling by train and automobile, the Boyer’s visited Louisville, Ky.; Lookout Mountain, Tenn.; and the Vanderbilt estate at Asheville, N.C. Ellen was fascinated by a terrapin turtle farm in North Carolina, where she was offered a taste of soup, but replied, “Not me.” In Georgia they toured a market where housewives shopped for fresh oysters and clams. In New York City they stayed at the Alpin Hotel, crossed the Brooklyn Bridge, toured the Statue of Liberty and attended a show at the Century Theater. Another highlight for Ellen was a tour of the Campbell’s Soup Company in New Jersey, where they saw vegetables being canned and shipped around the world.
In 1925 the Boyer’s visited Holland where Alden described eating in The Hague at the Royal Restaurant, a world famous establishment patronized by royalty, ambassadors and celebrities. Their meal consisted of seafood, meats, vegetables and fruits from South Africa, all for $3. He wrote about being served a great delicacy—Plovers’ eggs, which he learned were robbed from nests for the dining pleasure of humans. He admitted the special dish lost its appeal when he learned the origin, as he said all he could think of was the “poor birds.”
Perkins shared another letter from her son in 1926 in which he offered insight into prices of everyday items in Paris: seven cents plus a two-cent tip for a shave at the barbershop, 16 cents for a haircut, four cents for a pound of bread, 35 cents a pound for a nice lamb chop. Dinner at a restaurant typically ran about 50 cents. Wages varied depending on the job. An expert stenographer earned $27 a month; drugstore clerks $30 per month. Plumbers and plasterers made $1.65 per day.
Boyer complained about taxes, writing that everything was taxed, including help wanted signs placed in a shop—taxed one cent by the government. Farmers who raised potatoes paid almost two cents per peck to the government; wholesalers who shipped the potatoes to Paris where they sold to shopkeepers paid the same tax—so the government collected twice on the product. The same tax applied to automobile tires, ladies’ hats, shoes, hair bobs and a cup of coffee. Alden blamed expenses from the Great War, which the world had recently waged, as an excuse for the high taxes.
- “A Letter From France,” Nashua Reporter, Jan. 27, 1926.
- “Another Letter From Paris,” Nashua Reporter, Aug. 4, 1926.
- Borrelli-Persson, Laird. “12 of the Most Memorable Lanvin Moments in Vogue,” Vogue, March 6, 2015.
- “Tulip Time in Holland,” Nashua Reporter, June 10, 1925.