Sunday, November 22, 2015

Thanksgiving in the Booming Dakotas


Explorers like Lewis and Clark ventured into the vast Dakotas after the lands were obtained as part of the Louisiana Purchase. Few people settled there, even after the Homestead Act was passed in 1862, allowing any U.S. citizen or intended citizen to lay claim to 160 acres of government land. Many would-be migrants may have been discouraged by recurrent skirmishes with the Sioux. The situation changed in 1874 when gold was found in the Black Hills, the rolling dark mountains considered sacred to the tribe. The discovery set off the last Sioux War. When the conflict ended three years later, homesteaders began pouring into the region, one of the last areas of the United States to be settled. Three scarce Thanksgiving menus mark distinct periods of growth and prosperity in the years that followed. 

Saturday, September 19, 2015

The Carlos

New York City, 

The Carlos was an Italian restaurant at 25 West 24th Street in New York. Located a half a block from Madison Square, between 5th and 6th Avenues, it was near the Hudson Tube Station where trains arrived from New Jersey. The above postcard from about 1912 points to the station in the distance, promoting the restaurant to Jerseyites by claiming it was “free from mosquitoes.”1 The comic scene is a bit confusing, showing a cityscape on the left and a railroad platform in New Jersey on the right, where swarms of mosquitoes can be seen harassing commuters waiting on the platform. In reality, the Carlos faced the drab façade of a building across the street that hid Stanford White’s love nest. (The famed architect rented the second and third floors for his trysts, fitting the rooms with mirrored walls, a canopy bed, and a red velvet swing.2

Saturday, August 22, 2015


New York City, 

Rector’s is one of the most important restaurants in American social history. Established on Broadway at the dawn of the twentieth century, it operated at a time of sweeping social change. The transformation was nowhere more evident than in the theater district around Times Square, where over the course of twenty years there were four distinctly-different dining establishments that bore the family name. Opening in succession, they were Rector’s restaurant, the Rector Hotel, George Rector’s restaurant, and an eponymous cabaret. Some of these enterprises were successful; others disappeared quickly, barely leaving a trace. To illustrate its story through material culture, we will cast the net wide, utilizing menus from this collection and that of the New York Public Library, along with other types of ephemera and related artifacts.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Diaz Café


My family and I had a good time this summer traipsing through Southeast Alaska. In Ketchikan, we had lunch at the Diaz Café, a modest eatery situated a short walk from the heavily touristed area where the cruise ships are docked. Despite its relative proximity to these modern-day leviathans, the colorful café evoked pleasant memories of a bygone era. Its laminated 8½- x 14-inch menu offered typical American fare on one side and an eclectic mixture of Asian dishes on the other, including chop suey, chow mein, and egg foo yong. Seeing this old-fashioned triumvirate of Chinese-American cuisine, I became curious as to when the menu was last updated. When our server told us that nothing had changed since the late 1940s, I knew we had struck gold.

Saturday, June 27, 2015

West Meets East

Chinese-American Restaurants

Chinese restaurants first opened in the United States during the California Gold Rush. In the early years, these modest eateries fell into two basic categories, serving Chinese food for Chinese immigrants or typical American fare for non-Chinese patrons. However, by the 1890s, a new style had emerged that we now call Chinese-American cuisine in which traditional Cantonese dishes were modified for the dominant American palate. Compared to traditional native dishes, this version of Chinese food utilized fewer ingredients and expressed a narrower range of textures. The most prominent adaptation was chop suey, comprising assorted pieces of meat or seafood, quickly stir fried with vegetables like bean sprouts, cabbage, and celery, and bound in a starch-thickened sauce.1 Even though this inexpensive dish quickly became popular, it wasnt long before Chinese restaurateurs began putting a few Western-style dishes on their menus, trying to attract the broadest possible audience. A chronology of menus from the early twentieth century shows how the culinary traditions of the two cultures slowly came together.

Sunday, May 10, 2015


San Francisco, 

Interfoliata is the technical term for items that are found between the pages of rare books. These unexpected discoveries often add a fascinating dimension to the volume, telling us something about its history. Such is the case for this reservation book from Bergez-Frank’s Old Poodle Dog in 1908, the year it reopened in San Francisco after the Great Earthquake and Fire. Interesting in its own right, the book contains eighteen pieces of paper randomly scattered between its pages, revealing small details about the operation of this restaurant and its clientele. 

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Easter Sunday, 1865

Springfield, Mass.

This menu comes from the Massasoit House in Springfield, Massachusetts on April 16, 1865. It was Easter Sunday—150 years ago today. The dinner was served in the early afternoon and featured a typical selection of nineteenth-century dishes, such as prairie chickens (usually from Illinois), apple fritters, and squash pies. There were also a few springtime specialties like Connecticut River shad and cowslips, a flowering herb traditionally used for medicinal purposes. What is unusual about this menu is not the cuisine, but the design; the border seems slightly too thick for its overall proportions.