Saturday, July 29, 2017

A Guest of Honor

New York City, 

Booker T. Washington signed the cover of this menu from a dinner in his honor at a club in New York called the Aldine Association in January 1901.1 The autograph adds a personal dimension to this memento from what must have been an inspiring affair. It was hosted by The Outlook, a weekly magazine that had recently published autobiographical pieces by Washington. By the time of this occasion, the essays had been rewritten and were about to be published in book form under the title Up from Slavery. In the autobiography, the famed educator recounted his experiences as a slave child during the Civil War, the difficulties he overcame to get an education, and his work establishing vocational schools. Although the book sold well, events would soon show that its appearance did little to soften the lingering racial prejudices of many whites in the South.

Saturday, July 1, 2017

A Vermont Breakfast Party

New York City,

The Limited Editions Club awarded its fifth gold metal at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in November 1949. According to the rules, the award was given to an American author of a book published during the last five years that the judges believed “most likely to attain the stature of a classic.” The previous two winners were Ernest Hemingway for “For Whom the Bell Tolls” in 1941 and E. B. White for “One Man’s Meat” in 1944. While the eight-page booklet from the presentation ceremony in 1949 does not reveal who won that year, it does contain an interesting menu from a talented writer in his own right. 

Saturday, June 3, 2017

Echoes of the Jazz Age


“The Jazz Age is over,” declared novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald in 1931, nine years after he coined the phrase. The era generally encompassed the years between November 1918, when World War I ended, and the stock market crash in October 1929.1 This period of economic prosperity and cultural transformation marked the birth of modern America. Lifestyles were impacted by automobiles, telephones, motion pictures, radio, and household electricity. For the first time, more than half of the people lived in towns and cities and women could vote. Although these trends had been evolving for decades, they accelerated in the 1920s, sparking a powerful backlash. The conservative counterassault manifested itself in the anti-radical hysteria of the Red Scare, the resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan, the ratification of National Prohibition, the passage of stricter immigration quotas, and the rise of Fundamentalism. Fifty menus reveal parts of this vast, complicated story. Some recall forgotten events; others provide unwitting evidence of societal issues that are with us to this day. 

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Suprême of Shark

New York City, 

This illustration fills the interior of a menu from the 1884 banquet of the Ichthyophagous Club.1 Active in New York from 1880 to 1887, this group of socially prominent men met once a year to feast on various types of unpopular seafood, endeavoring “to overcome prejudice directed towards many kinds of fish, which are rarely eaten, because their excellence is unknown.”2, 5 In addition to ichthyologists, who worked in the branch of zoology dealing with fishes, the club comprised naturalists, philanthropists, and gourmets. Indeed, the seal in this cartoon is holding a bottle of Cordon Rouge champagne. 

Sunday, February 5, 2017

A Spectacle of Horror

New York City, 

It was a beautiful Wednesday morning on June 15, 1904, when mothers and youngsters from Lower Manhattan’s Kleindeutschland (Little Germany) gathered at the pier adjacent to East River Park. They had arranged for a passenger steamer named the General Slocum to transport them to a picnic ground on Long Island’s North Shore. A thousand tickets were collected at the plank—a number that did not include 300 children under the age of ten. Soon after they departed however, as the ship passed 97th Street, the crew saw puffs of smoke rising through the wooden floorboards. When they tried to put out the blaze, the rotten fire hoses burst. One newspaper described it as “a spectacle of horror beyond words to express—a great vessel all in flames, sweeping forward in the sunlight, within sight of the crowded city, while her helpless, screaming hundreds were roasted alive or swallowed up in waves.” Most of the 1,021 people who died were women and children. A rare menu from the General Slocum, hauntingly dated to the day after the accident, recalls one of the worst disasters in American history. 

Monday, January 23, 2017

O Sweet Grows the Orange

1852 & 1859 

The Burns Club of Boston used to host a banquet on January 25 each year to commemorate the birth of Robert Burns. When the birthday fell on a Sunday, the celebration was moved to the following day, as shown by this menu from the Stackpole House in 1852, two years after the club was established. 

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

The Halcyon Days of San Quentin

Marin County, California

One of the most intriguing things about old menus from San Quentin State Prison is that they were saved as mementos. The legendary prison, situated on the north side of San Francisco Bay, was established to hold miscreants during the Gold Rush. Over the years, it has grown large enough to warrant two ZIP codes—one for inmates (94974) and one for Point San Quentin Village (94964), an adjacent community originally built to house the prison’s employees and their families. The menus mostly come from the period between 1928, shortly after the East Block opened (now described as a crumbling, leaky maze) and 1940. A dozen menus and related ephemera take us back to this bygone era when the guards enjoyed the gustatory pleasures of the table.