Monday, March 1, 2021

What is this, Gluckstern’s?

New York City, 

The Dairy Restaurant is a fascinating new book by writer and cartoonist Ben Katchor. Jewish dairy restaurants attracted patrons who followed the dietary laws that forbid the mingling of meat and any milk-based product, and those who simply yearned for the comforting dishes of Eastern European Jewish cuisine, such as borscht, salmon, potato latkes, blintzes, and kreplach (small dumplings filled with cheese).1 These eateries are now almost completely gone, barely leaving a trace. The surprising lack of primary source material prompted me to take a fresh look at menus in my collection from Jewish restaurants of all kinds. Two in particular caught my attention. They came from Gluckstern’s and Isaac Gellis which were kosher meat restaurants on opposite ends of Manhattan. The menus were saved in 1948 by an anonymous couple who marked the dishes they ordered with X’s or O’s. The simple notations evoked a reminiscent feeling similar to what one reviewer described as Katchor’s “melancholy yiddishkeit,” recalling bygone eating places that were once a part of everyday life.

Thursday, February 4, 2021

A Sunday Dinner

New York City, 

Menus are generally the only documents that speak to how people dined outside the home in the nineteenth century. Yet, it is nearly impossible to get a visceral sense of a list of dishes from a bygone era, especially when you are removed by more than a hundred years of radical changes. On rare occasions, patrons marked the dishes they ordered, thereby enriching the historical evidence. An annotated menu from the Grand Central Hotel in New York provides a case in point, showing what two guests ordered for dinner on Sunday evening, February 12, 1882. The anonymous diners, identified simply as “A” and “E,” clearly understood the nuances of the menu and took full advantage of the opportunity. 

Sunday, November 1, 2020

Plenty Sight-seeing!

Savannah, Georgia 

The message inscribed on the back of this postcard from the De Soto Hotel in Savannah, Georgia closes with the exclamation, “Plenty sight-seeing!” Unfortunately, the guest did not mention what he or she had seen in 1907 that prompted the enthusiasm. Tourist sights change over time based on the evolving interests and needs of visitors. A menu from this hotel provides a clue, revealing at least one of the local attractions at the turn of the last century. 

Saturday, October 10, 2020

Artistic License

Washington, D.C., 

One of the last glittering events of the antebellum era occurred in February of 1859 when a ball was held for British ambassador Francis Napier and his wife.
1 The ballroom at Willards’ Hotel was festooned with flags and adorned with portraits of George Washington and Queen Victoria for the occasion. At midnight, a curtain was raised to the adjoining dining room where almost a dozen sugar sculptures decorated the buffet tables. However, there was some question about the quality of the food, at least according to the correspondent from the New York Times who reported it was “an intolerably bad supper, intolerably ill served…” For journalists who wanted to hail the ball as a triumph, describing the problematic supper would require a fair amount of artistic license. Americans had become sensitive to the negative perception held by many Europeans about the eating habits in the United States. The Washington Evening Star put a positive spin on this gastronomic inferiority complex, reporting “the supper and wines were upon a scale of magnificence…rarely seen at such an entertainment on this side of the Atlantic.” One publication employed so much hyperbole that it unwittingly articulated a new way to define the national cuisine. 

Wednesday, September 16, 2020

President Harrison’s Great Railroad Journey

The South and West 
April 14 – May 15, 1891 

In the spring of 1891, two years after being in office, President Benjamin Harrison embarked on a month-long political tour by rail through the South to the West Coast.1, 2 He was accompanied by First Lady Caroline Harrison, their daughter Mrs. Mary McKee, Postmaster General John Wanamaker, Secretary of Agriculture Jeremiah Rusk, and eleven other close officials and family members.3 Thirty-one menus from the train convey the length and rhythm of this unprecedented journey through numerous states, some of which had only recently entered the Union.4 

Wednesday, July 22, 2020

“Bet-a-Million” Gates

New York City, 

John W. Gates (1855-1911) was a steel magnate, financier, and gambler. He became widely known as “Bet-a-Million” Gates after falsely claiming to have bet a million dollars on a horse race in England. Nevertheless, he did gamble large amounts and would bet on practically everything. From 1894 onwards, Gates maintained a suite at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel where he conducted high-stakes poker parties and baccarat games. A hotel account book shows that the storied capitalist and his wife were in residence on Christmas in 1905 when they hosted two dinners. Oddly, the cost of the meals was not recorded. 

Thursday, July 2, 2020

Three Sorosis Luncheons

New York City, 

The Waldorf Hotel was built with women in mind. Proprietor George Bolt’s wife, Louise, was herself a hôtelière who supervised its interior design, adding homey touches she thought would appeal to women. Astonishingly, when the Waldorf Hotel opened in 1893, it did not have a bar, then a male sanctuary at such establishments. The hostelry finally acquired one in 1897 when it was connected to the Astor Hotel and renamed the Waldorf-Astoria. One of the most popular features of the enormous hotel was its crystalline Palm Garden which proved to be an ideal setting for the latest customs of “lunching out” and “having afternoon tea.” What is more, the management tried to create a hospitable environment for women. In addition to employing the standard rule that the customer is always right, the staff was instructed to “never speak abruptly to a woman guest nor be indifferent to her complaints.”1 An account book from the social season of 1905-1906 shows the hotel was successful in attracting all manner of women’s groups, including Sorosis, the first professional women’s club in the United States. A look at three of their luncheons reveals the degree to which the hotel wanted to retain the business of this prestigious association.