The Tale Of Catfish And Waffles

 

A colored print of Bobby Evans's Hotel by David J. Kennedy; the tavern was known as Tissot's Park Hotel from the 1850s to the 1890s | Courtesy of Darren Fava, Philadelphia Parks and Recreation

A colored print of Bobby Evans’s Hotel by David J. Kennedy. The tavern was known as Tissot’s Park Hotel from the 1850s to the 1890s and was a popular catfish and waffles destination. | Courtesy of Darren Fava, Philadelphia Parks and Recreation

Chicken and waffles is a pretty popular dish in southeastern Pennsylvania, especially in Pennsylvania Dutch communities where they are often served at church, hotel, and fire-hall suppers. One hundred years ago, the chicken and waffles meal was considered representative of Southeastern and Central Pennsylvania Dutch cuisine. The meal, often mistaken for a traditional Southern dish, has seen a resurgence in the last decade. You might even spot it on a gastropub menu.

The savory meal’s antecedent, however, goes back to the early 1800s in the form of catfish and waffle dinners served by hotel-taverns (a.k.a. roadhouses) along the Schuylkill River. This unique meal was long recognized by local and national food writers as something distinct to Philadelphia well into the early 20th century. Called “waffles and catfish” in other parts of the country, the delicacy was also known as “catfish and coffee” since it usually began with fried fish and ended with coffee.

Angling for a Good Meal

Perhaps no place equaled the Wissahickon Creek and the Schuylkill River for fishing in the early 1800s. Annalist John Watson, in his Annals of Philadelphia and Pennsylvania (1830), told of the bounty of fish, including large-mouthed catfish, in the Schuylkill. Cornelius Weygandt wrote specifically of the allure of catfishing along the Wissahickon and the Schuylkill in his book, The Wissahickon Hills (1930). The word Wissahickon is, after all, derived from the Lenape words “Wissha mechan,” meaning “catfish creek.”

By the mid-19th century, both the upper Schuylkill River and the Wissahickon Creek had become a popular destination for tourists and day trippers from Philadelphia. Several taverns sprang up to cater to their need for a meal or a drink. One such watering hole, The Falls of the Schuylkill Hotel, was operated by Mrs. Robert Watkins, who originated the “Wissahickon supper” of catfish and waffles. Her roadhouse was the second pub from the city on Ridge Road, served by steamboats on the Schuylkill River that brought passengers upriver from Philadelphia’s Fairmount area every hour during the day. Soon, it became unthinkable to journey into the Wissahickon Valley without stopping at Watkins’ tavern or some other place to feast on catfish and waffles.

A late 1890s ad for Vasey's Inn, a.k.a Robert Evans Hotel, Bobby Evans' House, House of Louis Tissot, the Fountain Park Inn, the Park Fountain Hotel, Hotel Turf Villa, and Cafe La Riviere | Courtesy of Joseph Minardi

A late 1890s ad for Vasey’s Inn. | Courtesy of Joseph Minardi

In 1848 the Falls Hotel was run by John Knisell and the tavern was renamed Old Catfish and Coffee House, serving breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Knisell advertised that “a ride to the Falls of Schuylkill, with a catfish and coffee supper, has long been justly celebrated among city epicures.” The unique dish was picked up by other local inns and became popular with the pleasure-seekers from the city who took steamers or rode out to the Falls in carriages. Gourmets especially loved blue catfish, “caught at ebb-tide from the pure spring waters of the Schuylkill,” according to Knisell’s advertisement.

The meal itself was much more than just catfish and waffles. The typical Wissahickon supper consisted of fried catfish with pepper hash, fried potatoes, beefsteaks, fried or stewed chicken, and lightly salted buttered waffles to accompany the spread. The meal could be enjoyed for breakfast, lunch or dinner. One secret to creating a good catfish and waffles meal was using only the freshest and crispiest waffles direct from the stove or waffle iron. Kugler’s Restaurant, famed for specializing in distinctively Philadelphia-style dishes, featured wafer-thin waffles in its recipe and even offered waffles made with Jersey sweet potatoes or white cornmeal. No sugar or any other sweetener was added to the batter, a ingredient strictly reserved for desert waffles.

The proprietors of a few Schuylkill roadhouses were not always scrupulous. Some would grab a live fish from a tank and tell patrons that it had been in the Wissahickon Creek only yesterday and that the tavern would kill and cook that very fish as they carried it into the kitchen. But the fish would be surreptitiously returned to the its watery holding cell while a fish that had been caught and prepared some time ago would be served to the customer.

Despite such chicanery, taverns along the Schuylkill and the Wissahickon became so famous with their catfish and waffle meals that people held weddings and anniversaries there. This helps account for how the Wissahickon Valley became so popular in the 1800s to married couple—a place of wild beauty, romantic notions, and fine fish dinners.

The roadhouses arranged the basic catfish and waffle dish into price categories, from relatively cheap and simple to a full banquet of everything on the menu. Wissahickon suppers appealed to people of modest means living in the countryside who knew in advance what they would get for their money. But affluent urbanites would also come to these remote taverns along the Schuylkill and the Wissahickon as a way to take in local color, especially since some of the places often featured bands playing popular tunes.

A plate celebrating the Fairmount Inn, a.k.a Vasey's Inn | Courtesy of Darren Fava, Philadelphia Parks and Recreation

A plate celebrating the Fairmount Inn, a.k.a Vasey’s Inn. | Courtesy of Darren Fava, Philadelphia Parks and Recreation

In the early 1900s these were the people who owned touring cars and who had disposable incomes to spend a evening indulging in the rustic charm of the roadhouses. People visiting Philadelphia from nearby cities and neighboring states especially wanted to experience an authentic catfish and waffle feast prepared in a bucolic tavern just outside the bustling City of Brotherly Love.

Clubs would also serve catfish and waffles, and both of the celebrated fishing clubs, The State in Schuylkill and the Fishing Company of St. Davids, made a point of serving the dish to their epicurean members. The historian of the State in Schuylkill reported that the catfish were laid in rows in a pan and fried in the best butter to a brown color. With some practice the cook would carefully turn and flip the fish without breaking any apart often with a group of admiring onlookers looking on.

Catfish and waffles became a popular meal for special occasions in modest households. The steak was generally left off the menu and the catfish was served as a prelude to chicken and waffles. Shoppers patronized fishing wharves and markets along the Delaware waterfront. In neighborhoods women carried trays of raw catfish on their heads and cried “catfish, catfish” up and down the city streets in the spring.

The Last Supper

The inns along the Wissahickon and Schuylkill rivers were no longer permitted to offer alcohol after the Fairmount Park Commission purchased much of the Wissahickon Valley in the late 1860s. The temperance movement was in full effect at that time, resulting in a decline of day trippers and tourists into Fairmount Park and up the Schuylkill River. By the early 1920s, most of the roadhouses had gone out of business, waffles and all, after repeated scrapes with liquor licensing authorities. Meanwhile, pollution in the Schuylkill River caused most of the catfish and other wildlife to die off. The Philadelphia Bulletin in 1924 noted that “it is not a pleasant thought that we drink water from a stream in which fish cannot live.”

Many of the roadhouses and taverns were torn down as the surrounding area was developed. The Valley Green Inn on Forbidden Drive is the only surviving chicken and waffle joint. Inn Yard Park between Ridge Avenue and East River Drive, was once the location of a famous inn with a long list of colorful names, including: Robert Evans Hotel, Bobby Evans’ House, House of Louis Tissot, The Fountain Park Inn, The Park Fountain Hotel, Vasey’s Inn, Hotel Turf Villa, and Cafe La Riviere.

The historic inn by Ridge Avenue in the early 20th century | Courtesy of Darren Fava, Philadelphia Parks and Recreation

A photograph of Cafe La Riveria between Ridge Avenue and East River Drive in the early 20th century. | Courtesy of Darren Fava, Philadelphia Parks and Recreation

Demolished in 1933, the riverside roadhouse served tourists and day trippers with Wissahickon suppers since at least 1838. As one of the most popular amusement resorts in Philadelphia, the place also offered fine musical entertainment by popular orchestras and bands for decades. The inn even hosted boxing and wrestling matches and served as a training camp in the early 20th century. It was also a favored spot for members of bicycle and driving clubs. Around 1899 there was a move to locate the Fairmount Park Driving Club at the tavern, then known as Vasey’s Inn.

The space along Ridge Avenue became part of Fairmount Park after 1933. A playground was built there and lasted until the 1970s when it was demolished. The land was then a softball field until recently after the surrounding community requested it be turned back into a park. The new recreational area was opened as the Inn Yard Park in 2010, with playground equipment installed the following year.

Since then, a group, the Friends of Inn Yard Park, has been working with Philadelphia Parks and Recreation to install benches, signage, and other amenities, working to improve the park as part of the long-term improvement of the East Falls area. Street and sidewalk upgrades are also in the works. Advocates of the park plan to present a variety of programming including outdoor movie nights throughout the year.

About the author

Harry Kyriakodis, author of Philadelphia's Lost Waterfront (2011), Northern Liberties: The Story of a Philadelphia River Ward (2012), and The Benjamin Franklin Parkway (2014), regularly gives walking tours and presentations on unique yet unappreciated parts of the city. A founding/certified member of the Association of Philadelphia Tour Guides, he is a graduate of La Salle University and Temple University School of Law, and was once an officer in the U.S. Army Field Artillery. He has collected what is likely the largest private collection of books about the City of Brotherly Love: over 2700 titles new and old.

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5 Comments


  1. More great history from Harry K – thanks!

  2. No one who saw Pennsylvania Dutch and traditional Southern chicken and waffles side by side would confuse them. The Southern variety, which is currently enjoying a revival in this region, is *fried* chicken served with waffles (and typically syrup) on the side. The Pennsylvania Dutch variety, on the other hand is *creamed* chicken served *over* a waffle. Both are delicious…but quite different meals.

  3. Exactly right, Bruce. The current wave of chicken and waffles got currency when one of the Food Channel shows spotlighted Roscoe’s, an LA chicken and waffles restaurant, subsequently a small chain. Southern fried chicken and waffles accompanied the African-American migration and went from being a little-known specialty to a national trend.

    Thanks for the local history, though. I’m particularly fascinated by restaurant history, and you do a great job of describing the inns that fed our ancestors.

  4. Loved your article. I’m researching a Philadelphia folk monopoly game I recently acquired. One of the spaces is named “CAFÉ LA RIVIERE”. I am hoping to find the date (year) the restaurant closed for business. Any idea when it closed? Or, whom I may be able to contact that may have an idea?

    Regards,

    Malcolm

    • Here is all I have about that place…

      REVISED 4144 RIDGE AVE. (INN YARD PARK) TIMELINE

      –1771: Jacob Lewis bought the land (quite a bit more than just along Ridge Ave.).

      Robert Evans Hotel (Bobby Evans’ House) (Fountain Park Hotel) (1838-1858)
      –1838: Received a large supply of catfish, for suppers, etc. He served catfish and waffles to the best of Philadelphia society.
      –1840: Robert Evans leased the hotel from James Spenser (from an article describing the hotel’s history).
      –1843: Fountain Park Inn (according to Charles Ellet’s 1843 Philadelphia County Map).
      –1843: Catfish and coffee are served, and the grounds will be beautifully laid out, as guaranteed by Mr. Evan’s high character.
      –1847: Fountain Park Hotel. Robert Evans bought the place from James Spencer.
      –1847: A colored waiter was wanted by Robert Evans, Fountain Park Hotel.
      –1848: Huge explosion at the Falls of Schuylkill after a man tried to discover if saltpeter would explode. He had placed a quarter pound of powder in his trousers and then shoved his lit pipe down his pants. He survived.
      –1851: Advertised for a bar boy.
      –1853: Joseph Evans was appointed postmaster at the Falls of Schuylkill, in place of Robert Evans, who resigned.

      House of Louis Tissot (a.k.a. Fountain Park Inn (or Hotel) / Park Fountain Hotel) (1859-1891?)
      –1861: In December, Louis Tissot gave a public hog-killing demonstration. Three large corn-fed hogs, weighing half a ton, were slaughtered and the meat was distributed as dinner to those who watched and helped.
      –1869: Place was used as headquarters for the park engineers. A storm had flooded out the area.

      [Henry P.] Tissot’s (Park) Hotel or Fountain Park Hotel (1892-1897)
      –1892: Spring opening, Friday, April 1
      –1892: Sacred Concert To-Day, May 29; Grand Opening; Decoration Day, May 30; 2 bands of music
      –1892: Grand Opening; Decoration Day, May 30, with Professor Groeneveld’s Famous Orchestra (every member a soloist) in the covered pavilion with a seating capacity of 2000.
      –1892: Louis Tissot, Sr., dies at hotel on 6/23/92 (in obit dated 6/24/92), age 77; hotel was then apparently run by his son, Henry P. Tissot.
      –1893: Henry P. Tissot adds a concert garden.
      –1893: “The crowds that attend afternoon and evening to enjoy the luxuries of this model resort is evidence of its excellence. You only pay for your ride to the place, and the hotel is thrown open to you with all its pleasured, its fine music, its shaded lawns, the amusements and numerous other things that go to make the time pass pleasantly.”
      –1893: Regarded as “the coolest place in the city at which to spend an afternoon or evening. The high-class musical concerts are enjoyed by thousands daily, who fully appreciate these luxuries, for which there Is no additional charge.” Dockstader’s Original Minstrel Co. to give two entertainments daily. “They will sing the old songs which have made them famous, and those who Journey to Tissot’s will be well repaid for their trouble.”
      –1893: “The new amusements… have delighted thousands of pleasure-seekers every evening during the past week [July 16].” “Mr. George Nash, the great trick bicyclist, will give exhibitions in fancy riding on one and two wheels.” “A strong feature of the week will be Mlle. Morello and her beautiful prize spaniels, seven in number.” “For all this elaborate programme there will be no charge of any kind for admission.”
      –1893: New Features: “The Misses Cook and Clinton, the world-famous sharpshooters, will present an exhibition of the most wonderful and thrilling feats with the rifle ever performed.” “Mr. George E. Austin will give his great specialty in wire-walking.” “The patent ventilating fans are in operation throughout the hotel and pavilion, and the atmosphere is balmy and delightful.”
      –1893: Adam Jakob’s famous start orchestra (18 talented solo performers) played.
      –1893: Agents testified before the License Court that drunken men and women, as well as minors, were seen being served at Tissot’s.
      –1893: Christmas Entertainment under Professor Carl Mindt.
      –1894: Germania Orchestra every afternoon and evening.
      –1894: “Further enhance by the erection of a canopy which covers the entire garden.”
      –1894: Celebrate Decoration Day, May 30, 31 June 1, 2
      –1894: “Varied entertainments are given… every afternoon and evening” with “an abundance of commodious shelter [that] obviates any interference with the programmes being changed on account of the weather.” Also, a Rathskeller “is a new and popular addition to the summer conveniences.”
      –1894: “2 Orchestras” & “Bicycles Checked”
      –1894: “Celebrate the National Holiday, 4th of July, at Tissot’s.” “No postponement on account of weather.”
      –1894: The garden has been floored, and additions were made to the pavilion to afford more seating.
      –1894: “Mr. L.M. Kahnweller, business manager of the National Theatre, has been secured to look after the amusement department of the summer season at Tissot’s… [He] has already secured a host of attractions that will prove wonderfully pleasing.”
      –1894: Was regarded as “one of the most popular amusement resorts, as it is the coolest place in the city at which to spend an afternoon or evening,” with “high-class musical concerts… enjoyed by thousands daily… [at] no additional charge.”
      –1894: Advertised “an excellent vaudeville programme given nightly in the large enclosed glass pavilions by leading artists.” Also advertised that its glass pavilion had a seating capacity of 3000 persons, for use in all weather.
      –1894: Steamers on the Schulkill land passengers near the hotel.
      –1895: Tissot’s Park Hotel has “great reopening for the season” with an “attractive musical programme”
      –1895: listed license that year.
      –1895: At Tissot’s Grand Opera House at Broad & Montgomery, Annie Ward Tiffany starred in her musical comedy, Lady Blarney, along with others.
      –1895: Henry Tissot made an assignment for the benefit of creditors to Walter Willard. The deed includes the conveyance of the hotel property.
      –1895: This was considered a surprise: Tissot’s liquor license will not be renewed, because the place “has attained a somewhat unsavory repute because of the character of some of its patrons.” Also, there may have been sales to minors. However, Tissot’s friends gave testimony about the personal care he gave to the place and his desire to exclude improper persons.
      –1896: Tissot reapplied for liquor license.
      –1897: Fountain Park Hotel (property of Henry P. Tissot) listed for Sheriff’s sale–stone house with summer garden, terrace platforms, frame music pavilions, stable and carriage sheds, etc., and lot of ground 141 feet 3 1/4 inches NW of Midvale Ave; thence 145 feet 7 7/8 inches SW to River Drive; thence NW 350 feet 4 3/4 inches; NE 172 feet 5 1/4 inches to Ridge Ave; and then 349 feet 4 1/2 inches to the beginning.
      –1897: hotel closed by License Court and falls into decay
      –1897: George P. Chance, Jr., applied (to get the liquor license?) of Tissot’s old place

      Vasey’s Inn (1898-1899)
      –Eugene M. Vasey was born at the Wire Bridge Hotel on March 20, 1857, and later went to the oil regions of PA, where he made a small fortune in oil speculation. He returned to Philadelphia and opened the Vasey Model Stables in West Philadelphia. Well respected, he was a member of many prominent clubs in Philadelphia.
      –1898: Eugene M. Vasey invites people “to be my guest at the opening of Vasey’s Inn… on Sept. 30 [1898]… I want you to see how I can welcome you to the finest road house in America.” As a result of this invitation, a large number of prominent club men, owners of fast roadsters, newspaper men, and others gathered at the place. It was altered and improved inside and out, as “during the past summer, thousands of dollars were spent by Mr. Vasey in additions, outside improvements and interior decorations,” such that Vasey’s Inn “is undoubtedly the model road house of the country.” Luxurious furnishings, marble floors, expensive tilling and chandeliers, glittering glassware made a handsomer place difficult to find anywhere. At this event were prominent Philadelphians and New Yorkers, including beer barons John F. Betz and Fred Betz, Jr., and future operator William T. Kerbaugh. John F. Betz leased the property to Vasey.
      –1899: The Fairmount Park Driving Club, formed on Feb. 11, 1899, considers moving to Vasey’s Inn, but apparently does not.
      –1899: Proving not to be profitable despite its remodeling, Vasey’s Inn closes, causing much surprise and comment among sportsmen and horse owners who patronized the place.
      –1899: Perhaps sold the place to Henry C. Newhouse??????

      Albert J. Craven’s Fairmount Park Inn (1899-1901)
      –1899: Henry C. Newhouse sells (leases?) place to Albert J. Craven, a former manager at Kuglers Restaurant (once located at 34-36 South Broad Street). Newhouse was asked to transfer his liquor license to Craven.
      –1899: Architect George Plowman took estimates for material to construct porches and other improvements.
      –1899: “One of the handsomest and most attractive near-by family resorts Philadelphia has been able to boast of for a long time… Mr. Craven is a thorough hotel man, with experience covering every branch of the business, and hence the success of the hotel is assured. Among the attractions of the Inn are a first-class orchestra and spacious banquet halls for private parties and societies. The house is also provided with every convenience for teams and cyclists, and it has already become a great favorite with cyclers and horsemen.”
      –1899: “The Tannhaueser Wheelmen have been declared the winners of the silver punch bowl offered by Mr. A.J. Craven… to the bicycle club having the largest number of visitors to the Inn last week.”
      –1899: Fairmount Park Inn: June 18, The Philadelphia Record: “Finest Road House in America,” where “Wheels Checked Free”
      –1900: “Finest Road House in America,” where “Bicycles [are] Checked Free,” with “Cuisine Unsurpassed.”
      –1900: Had boxing matches: boxer Tom Sharkey trained at the place and some 200 women came to see him train there; the hotel had become known as a veritable “Fighter’s Rest”; the women met about a dozen boxers who were training with Sharkey. City officials also came out to see him. He also trained on the roads in Fairmount Park and planned to rest at the hotel after fighting another heavyweight named Goddard.
      –1900: Summer opening was a carnival, with “a splendid program of music” by Professor Charles Schrader’s string band, as well as “several soloists and quartets [who made] pretty music to the tune of the falls of Schuylkill.”
      –1900: Albert J. Craven went bankrupt in Nov. 1900 and advertised the liquor license for sale at auction.
      –1900: Due to his bankruptcy, Craven withdrew his application to transfer his liquor license to William T. Kerbaugh, who operates the Falls Hotel.
      –1901: up for rent
      –1901: Albert J. Craven sold place to Jonas E. Evans (related to previous Evans owners???)

      Jonas E. Evans’ Hotel / Fairmount Park Inn (1901-1912??)
      –1901: More boxing matches: Tom Sharkey’s training quarters were in the stable of the inn, but after these facilities were overrun with women to see the sailor-boxer, he moved his training quarters to the Inn’s parlor.
      –1902: William L. Kerbaugh sought a transfer of the place’s liquor license
      –1903: Jonas C. Evans loses liquor license
      –1904: Dominick F. McCaffrey, proprietor, failed to pay $1100 for city liquor license
      –1904: Frederick Hardwick (in place of Dominick McCaffrey) failed to pay liquor license
      –1906: Frederick Hardwick was aroused out of bed when a robber tried to break into the place. The robber was caught and was the same robber who had served time in jail for robbing the same hotel the previous year
      –1909: Frederick Hardwick sells license to Frank M. Reck.
      –1910: A black bear was caught ambling about the hotel and swimming in the Schuylkill.
      –1910: Bromley’s 1910 Philadelphia Atlas indicates that John F. Betz owned the property, which was known as Fairmount Park Inn. Betz died that year on April 8th.
      –1912: Gas escaping from a leaking jet in a room at the Inn nearly cost the life of an employee.
      –1912: bus boy wanted

      [New] Turf Villa or Hotel Turf Villa (1910??-1913??)
      [Turf Villa Summer Garden is mentioned here and there, as far back as 1910. Also, a Turf Villa had opened as a resort on the River Drive near the Falls of the Schuylkill in 1894.]
      –1912: Events there with motorcycles and automobiles.
      –1912: October 24, 1912: The Preachers Meeting has unanimously made demand on the authorities to act on the recommendation of the coroner’s jury to have the liquor licenses of Riverside Mansion and Turf Villa revoked for grossly illegal sale of liquor. This followed an auto accident in which some of the underage victims who died had imbibed at the place and the Riverside Mansion.
      –1913: Turf Villa and two other saloons refused licenses by Philadelphia courts.
      –1913: On January 3, the fixtures, stock and license of the place were sold off.
      –1916: Fairmount Park Inn: The Associated Ad Club had dinner there, with hundreds of members going there by car. They saw a pageant on the Schuylkill River.

      Café La Riviere/ Riviera (or Cafe LaRieviere) (or Cafe de LaRieviere or Cafe de LaRieviere) (“on the River Drive”) (1917??-1920)
      –1917: Advertised Halloween festivities, with two orchestras (including the famous Palm Beach Society Colored Orchestra) and two dance floors. Touted its having the “Best Dance Music in Philadelphia.”
      –1918: Was one of several restaurants that celebrated St. Patrick’s Day on Monday, March 18th.
      –1918: Sought bartenders and hotel staff.
      –1918: The former chef of the Fairmount Park Inn opened a “high class Chinese and American restaurant at 435 Market Street called The Hongkong Low.”
      1919: Was the scene of an attempted robbery; foiled by night watchman.

      S.W. Oplinger, Fairmount Inn (1920-??)
      –1920: The hotel and its garage were sold by Getz [not Betz], Jr. to S.W Oplinger for $65,000 (offered at $44000). Lot is 349 by 145 feet.
      –1918-22: Staff wanted (from bartender to coat girl to bookkeeper); dishwashing machine sold half price
      –1923: Ugo Savino’s Orchestra played.
      –1924: February 1: PA newspapers outside of Philadelphia report that a fire destroyed the “Turf Villa” by the Falls of the Schuylkill, but fail to offer the exact address or any history of the place to confirm that it is the hotel in question. The place that burned was being used as a canoe club.
      –1925: Advertised for sale or rent, with 5 acres of woodland, as a school for boys or girls. Care of S.W. Oplinger.
      –1930: Used as a training camp for wrestling. Jim Londos prepared for his match with World Champion Richard Shikat. He also trained with Jim McMillen and Bronowicz.
      –1933: Sold
      –1933 or thereabouts: Torn down. The Civil Works Administration project did repairs to East River Drive, near Midvale Ave.
      –1933?: Park created and playground later built on site.

      Recent history
      –1970: Playground demolished. The land was then used as a softball field.
      –2010: Inn Yard Park created.
      –2011: Playground equipment installed.

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