Sunday, January 24, 2016

A Touch of Irony

San Francisco, 

This gathering in San Francisco in 1918 celebrated the 6oth birthday of Jean Baptiste Pon, one of the founders of Bergez-Frank’s Old Poodle Dog where the party was held. Sitting in the foreground, his principal partner, Camille Mailhebuau, casually peruses the menu while everyone else poses for the photograph. (He seemingly took it with him from his seat at the head of the table where there is no menu.) One can imagine why he was interested in reading it—in addition to the French cuisine and vintage wines, the dinner concludes on a oddly prescient note, adding a touch of irony to the affair. 

Thursday, January 14, 2016

The “Reed Birds” of San Francisco

San Francisco, 

The Occidental in San Francisco was “Heaven on the half shell,” according to Mark Twain who described the daily routine at the luxury hotel in terms of its food service.1 “Here you are expected to breakfast on salmon, fried oysters and other substantials from 6 till half-past 12; you are required to lunch on cold fowl and so forth, from half-past 12 until 3; you are obliged to skirmish through a dinner comprising such edibles as the world produces, and keep it up, from 3 until half-past 7; you are then compelled to lay siege to the tea-table from half-past 7 until 9 o’clock, at which hour…(you) move upon the supper works and destroy oysters gotten up in all kinds of seductive styles until 12 o’clock.” Indeed, a menu from about 1881 shows the restaurant at the hotel served three types of oysters.2 The price for a plate of California oysters was 25 cents, those from the East Coast were 50 cents, and the ones “transplanted” for growth and conditioning cost 37½ cents, precisely positioned in the middle. Another interesting item on this menu is a game dish called reed birds. Unlike the oysters, they are not indigenous to the region, nor were they transported across the country by rail. 

Thursday, January 7, 2016

Out-of-Season Game Birds

New York City,

The mislabeling of food was a conventional practice in the nineteenth century when imagination often trumped scruples in the supply chain. While menus may not provide evidence of the most egregious misdeeds, they sometimes indicate puffery, such as when a game bird appears to have been given the name of a fancier species. For example, small rails from the swampy marshes of the Mid-Atlantic might be called ortolans, the European buntings beloved by gourmets in France. Claims of this type were probably not intended to fool the diner so much as to give the occasion a more sophisticated air. However, game birds may have also been mislabeled, or simply left off the menu, when they were served out of season. For a better understanding of this illicit practice, we turn to an investigative article about one such incident. Although I have not yet found a menu to support this report, ephemera tells us something about the restaurant implicated in the story.1

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Early Regional Influences

San Francisco,

Christmas in San Francisco in 1862 was “a most lovely day,” according to botanist William Brewer.1 “The city seemed alive, all seemed happy…The customs of Europe and of the East are transplanted here—churches are decked with evergreens, Christmas trees are the fashion—yet to me, as a botanist, it looks exotic…Churches are decked with redwood, which has foliage very like our hemlock—it is called evergreen, but it is hard for the people to remember that nearly all Californian trees are evergreen. While at Christmas time at home the oaks and other trees stretch leafless branches to the wintry winds, here the oaks of the hills are as green as they were in August…”

Sunday, November 22, 2015

The Booming Dakotas


Explorers like Lewis and Clark ventured into the vast Dakotas after the lands were obtained as part of the Louisiana Purchase, but 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 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.