Wednesday, July 4, 2018

Symbols of Abundance

Iowa, Wisconsin & Maine

Menus, which are marketing tools as much as anything, are best taken with a grain of salt. It can be particularly difficult to identify exaggerated claims on old menus far removed in time and place. In the mid-nineteenth century, a large assortment of roasts and boiled meats regularly appeared on table d’hote menus at hotels, where most public dining rooms were then situated. It seems unlikely that all of these items were available on a daily basis, especially at modest hotels in small towns. Four menus provide insights on how we might interpret such documents from the antebellum period. 

Saturday, February 3, 2018

American Hospitality

New York, 

Queen Victoria’s eldest son, Prince Edward, traveled through the United States on a diplomatic tour in the fall of 1860, only weeks before the presidential election that would spark the Civil War. Crossing over from Canada on September 20, the prince and his retinue of British peers visited Detroit, Chicago, St. Louis, Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, and Washington. They dined with President Buchanan at the White House, slipped down to Richmond for a brief look, and resumed their journey northward to Philadelphia, New York, and Boston. The trip ended at Portland, Maine. The future king, then a month short of his nineteenth birthday, was a welcome distraction from the nation’s political woes. He was enthusiastically feted at each stop, although nowhere more than in New York where the bustling newspapers whipped up a frenzy of excitement. His meals in the Empire State were prepared under the direction of some of the best chefs, hoteliers, and restaurateurs in the country. Five menus from this leg of the trip reveal American hospitality at its finest in the waning days of the antebellum period.

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Thomas Frazier

Atlanta, Georgia

Thomas Frazier was the headwaiter at many fine hotels and resorts in the late nineteenth century. Born in Charleston, South Carolina in 1852, he was well known and much admired. I first became aware of him from a menu from the Kimball House in Atlanta in 1888. Even though he was an African American working in the post-Reconstruction South, snippets about him occasionally appeared in the Atlanta Constitution, indicating he was something of a local celebrity. One notice informed the readers, “Thomas H. Frazier, who enjoys the distinction of being the best headwaiter at any southern hotel, is off from the Kimball on vacation, and is in Florida visiting the various noted hotels of that state.” On another occasion, the newspaper noted that he received a silver cup on his birthday. Frazier was lavishly praised for his handling of the arrangements at the hotel for President Grover Cleveland’s visit to Atlanta in 1887. These reports confirm the evidence on the menu, leaving little doubt that Frazier was held in high esteem. 

Monday, December 11, 2017

Dancing at Reisenweber’s

New York City, 

Reisenweber’s played an important role in American popular culture during the second decade of the last century. Today, it is mostly remembered as the place where jazz was introduced to a wider audience in 1917. However, Reisenweber’s already made history five years earlier when the dance craze took New York by storm. It was the first restaurant to provide its patrons with space to dance and kept the party going through a steady stream of promotions. The energy and spirit of this early period of rapid social change is conveyed in an audio slideshow showing over ninety invitations, admission tickets, advertising cards, special notices, beverage lists and menus from 1912 to 1915. Although this chronology of ephemera primarily reflects the main location on Eighth Avenue at Columbus Circle, some pieces come from the properties it managed on Coney Island—the Brighton Beach Casino and the Shelburne Hotel—and the Ziegfeld Follies of 1915, which it catered. Even at the Follies, the theater-goers tangoed and turkey-trotted before and after performances and during intermission. 

Friday, November 24, 2017

The Emancipation Banquet

St. Paul, Minnesota 

A group of gentlemen held a dinner at a private club in St. Paul, Minnesota in January 1888 to mark the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, a wartime executive order issued by President Lincoln which freed the slaves in the Confederacy. In addition to the bill of fare and list of toasts, the menu featured a remarkable seating chart. In addition to the participants, it included the names of leaders who were there in spirit, being remembered for the role they played in the struggle for freedom.

Monday, October 9, 2017

Mission of Mercy


The departure of the steamship on September 12, 1914 was a memorable sight, as 126 American Red Cross nurses stood in their white caps and gray uniforms along the rails where the sea wind blew open their red-lined capes, creating a line of scarlet on the side of the vessel. World War I had erupted a little over a month earlier and now they, along with 30 surgeons and boxes of medical equipment, were sailing from New York on what was called a “mercy mission.” Striving to stay neutral, the United States deployed the American Red Cross to provide medical aid to both sides of the conflict in Europe. Once on board, they were organized into units that would establish military hospitals in seven locations—Paignton, England; Pau, France; Kiev, Russia; Kosel and Gleiwitz, Germany; Vienna, Austria; and Budapest, Hungary.2 A battered menu bears witness to this largely-forgotten expedition that embodied a humanitarian ideal which was ahead of its time. 

Saturday, September 23, 2017


New York City, 

The vault at Pfaffs where the drinkers and laughers meet to eat and drink and carouse 
While on the walk immediately overhead pass the myriad feet of Broadway…                
—Walt Whitman

Walt Whitman went to Pfaff’s almost every night between 1858 and 1862 when working on the early editions of Leaves of Grass.2 He occasionally read one of his latest poems to the writers and artists who regularly assembled in this underground beer hall. The free-spirited and unconventional group was brought together by Henry Clapp, editor of the Saturday Press and a champion of Whitman’s work. Other habitués included actor Edwin Booth, painter Elihu Vedder, psychedelic drug pioneer Fitz Hugh Ludlow, cartoonist Thomas Nast, and humorist Artemus Ward, now regarded as America’s first stand-up comedian. And since Pfaff’s was one of the few saloons that welcomed women, Clapp’s coterie was diverse for its time. Writer Ada Clare was a charter member of this artistic clique as was Adah Isaacs Menken whose “naked lady” routine made her the highest earning actress of the era. Given the importance of Pfaff’s, I was thrilled when a menu recently came to light. My first impression was how different it looked from those that previously catered to the city’s literati. This was truly a German menu, reflecting the arrival of new attitudes and foods from Europe. Interestingly, it marked a pivotal moment in our creative past.