Monday, June 30, 2014

Tempest on the High Seas

S. S. Liberté, 

The great luxury liners were perhaps never more glamorous and exciting than on the day of departure. As passengers arrived and the final provisions were loaded on board, scarlet-jacketed bellboys hurried back and forth to the cabins, delivering flowers, telegrams and champagne. And when the tugboats began to nudge the leviathan from her berth, brightly-colored streamers rained down from the upper decks onto the crowd shouting “bon voyage” from the pier. I witnessed this spectacle firsthand, sailing to Europe with my parents in the spring of 1959. At the time, it was not unusual to travel by ship; half of the people who crossed the Atlantic that year did so by sea, and there was arguably no better way than to book passage on the S. S. Liberté, the flagship of the French Line, renowned for its palatial Art Deco interiors and fine cuisine.1 During my week aboard this ship, there were two things that were particularly memorable; having the meal of my dreams and catching occasional glimpses of one of our fellow passengers, a stripper named Tempest Storm. 

Monday, June 23, 2014

War Weary


A hundred years ago this week, Serbian nationalists assassinated the heir to the throne of Austria-Hungary and his wife, setting off a series of events that led Europe into war. Although the United States did not enter the conflict until 1917, Americans living in Paris quickly sprang into action, establishing a military hospital for wounded French soldiers. Recalling this philanthropic effort, three menus from the hospital’s annual observance of Bastille Day unwittingly reflect this exhausting war of attrition.

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Robin au Crouton

New York City, 

In October 1857, philosopher Henry David Thoreau wrote about a chance encounter with a nearby farmer who was twice his age. “…I saw Brooks Clark, who is now about eighty and bent like a bow, hastening along the road, barefooted, as usual, with an axe in his hand; was in haste perhaps on account of the cold wind on his bare feet. When he got up to me, I saw that besides the axe in one hand, he had his shoes in the other, filled with knurly apples and a dead robin. He stopped and talked with me a few moments; said that we had had a noble autumn and might now expect some cold weather. I asked if he had found the robin dead. No, he said, he found it with its wing broken and killed it. He also added that he had found some apples in the woods, and as he hadn’t anything to carry them in, he put ’em in his shoes. They were queer-looking trays to carry fruit in. How many he got in along toward the toes, I don’t know. I noticed, too, that his pockets were stuffed with them. His old tattered frock coat was hanging in strips about the skirts, as were his pantaloons about his naked feet. He appeared to have been out on a scout this gusty afternoon, to see what he could find, as the youngest boy might. It pleased me to see this cheery old man, with such a feeble hold on life, bent almost double, thus enjoying the evening of his days.”1

Sunday, May 25, 2014

A Wonderful Machine

New York City, 

In 1897, when eight-year-old Virginia O’Hanlon asked her father whether Santa Claus really existed, he suggested she write to The Sun, one of New Yorks prominent newspapers, assuring her that “If you see it in The Sun, it’s so.” The editorial response, which included the famous line “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus,” became part of popular American folklore. More conservative than The Times and The Herald Tribune, The Sun mirrored the preoccupations of upper-class society, often marveling at the inner-workings and outward manifestations of wealth during the Gilded Age. For example, in October 1894, the paper sent a reporter to interview Chef Charles Ranhofer to learn more about Delmonico’s, calling the luxury restaurant at Madison Square a “wonderful machine.” Almost every night during the social season, this location hosted a large banquet on its third floor, where course after course arrived promptly from the basement kitchen. The resulting article, reproduced in part below with four menus from the period, describes the organization and management of a fine dining establishment at the fin de siècle.1

Saturday, May 10, 2014

Showing the Flag (Part III)

U.S.S. Villalobos, 

On the holidays, there is nothing like the “tastes of home,” those cherished dishes often made with common ingredients from our corner of the world. As we previously saw, the crew of the U.S.S. Wilmington described their desire for cranberry sauce as a “craving.” Not surprisingly, other sailors in the Asiatic Squadron felt the same way, as confirmed by a menu from the U.S.S. Villalobos, an American gunboat patrolling the Yangtze River.1 On Christmas 1906, the Villalobos was moored in Shanghai, where preparing a traditional dinner may have been more difficult than we might imagine. 

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Showing the Flag (Part II)

U.S.S. Helena, 

The chronology of holiday menus from the U.S.S. Wilmington begs the question as to what the sailors in the Asiatic Squadron typically ate in the early twentieth century. For that, we turn to an interesting menu from her sister ship, the gunboat U.S.S. Helena, while anchored off Hankow, 602 nautical miles up the Yangzi River. Dated December 2, 1906, this Sunday dinner for the chief petty officers (CPO) features delicacies like roast venison and roast pheasant, and the ubiquitous peach pie, presumably made with the local fruit for which this region of China was known. And so it seems that they ate very well, confirmed by an inscription at the bottom that reads: “This is a fair sample of our usual dinner.” This small menu card, which was once folded so that it could be enclosed in a letter, contains additional information on the back.

Monday, April 28, 2014

Showing the Flag

U.S.S. Wilmington

Caught in rough seas off the coast of Luzon in the Philippines on a stormy night in December 1915, the U.S.S. Wilmington rolled 61 degrees, dangerously close to the point where she might capsize. Having survived the worst of the dramatic rolls it would experience over the course of its forty-eight years in service, the naval vessel safely arrived in Manila the next day, completing its three-day passage from Hong Kong. The Wilmington was part of the U.S. Asiatic Squadron, charged with defending the Philippines and with upholding the American Open Door Policy in China. Although there were many hazards in this mission, typhoons posed one of the greatest threats to the Navy’s light-draft gunboats in Asia as they steamed from port to port “showing the flag,” establishing an authoritative presence in the region.