Thursday, September 9, 2010

Ma, Ma, Where’s My Pa?

New York City

Two national political conventions were held in Chicago during the summer of 1884. In June, the Republicans nominated Senator James Blaine of Maine, and a month later, the Democrats picked Governor Grover Cleveland of New York. Printed during the campaign that followed, this hotel trade card predicted that New York would be the swing state in a close election. As things turned out, the election was so close that it was decided by two events during the last week of the contest. In fact, one could argue that had Blaine eaten a “regular dinner,” such as the one advertised below for 25 cents, instead of attending a lavish banquet in his honor at Delmonico’s, he may have been elected as the 22nd president of the United States.

Considered one of the dirtiest campaigns in American history, both political parties coined slogans that focused on the shortcomings of the candidates. After it was revealed in July that Grover Cleveland had fathered an illegitimate child years earlier, the Republicans chanted, “Ma, ma, where’s my pa?” Not to be outdone, the Democrats called attention to Blaine’s unethical business deals with the refrain, “Blaine, Blaine, James G. Blaine, the continental liar from the State of Maine!”

Political Cartoon (1884)

On October 29, with the 1884 election less than a week away, Blaine experienced two public-relations disasters on the same day. The first one came after he met with Protestant clergy at New York's Fifth Avenue Hotel where one of the speakers depicted the Democrats as the party of “Rum, Romanism, and Rebellion.” The sentiment was nothing new—Rum referred to the liquor interests, Romanism to Catholics, and Rebellion to the Confederates in 1861. Blaine did not immediately repudiate the anti-Catholic slur and it hurt him with the Irish Catholic voters.

Blaine-Logan Presidential Campaign Flag (1884)

Making a bad day worse, Blaine later attended a fund-raising banquet at Delmonico’s, giving credence to the claim that the Republicans only cared about the interests of the rich. The next day a cartoon titled “The Royal  Feast of Belshazzar Blaine and the Money Kings” appeared on the front page of the New York World.1 The cartoon, an analogy to the biblical feast at King Balthazar’s court, showed Blaine and his wealthy companions dining on political spoils while a poor family in the foreground begged for table scraps.

The political handbill shown below was probably distributed soon after the banquet. On the front, it shows a fictitious menu, along with some of the names of the “millionaire monopolists” like financiers John Jacob Astor and Jay Gould who attended the dinner. On the back, there is a political tract, ending with the exhortation: “Working men, when you eat your frugal meals, think of Blaine’s Fifty Dollar Dinners…” (Fifty dollars included the campaign contribution; the actual cost of the dinner was about twelve dollars per person.)

Most of the dishes on this political handbill were not served at the actual banquet. For example, there was no dish called consommé à la Dumas served at Delmonico's. Charles Ranhofer, their long time chef, admired the famous French author and named a chicken dish after him, but not a consommé. (Ranhofer did name one of his consommés after the French novelist Balzac.) Many of the other dishes are equally fanciful, such as saumon à la Kennebec and kingfish à la Navarin.

The following day, the New York Times reported the bill of fare, the names of the two hundred guests, and the transcripts of the speeches. Since the details of the affair were not a secret, this handbill must have been printed in advance. Ironically, the dishes  on the actual menu, as shown on the one below from the New York Public Library, are much more refined and costly than the fictitious ones on the political flyer.

Three vegetables on the above menu also appeared on the handbill—petits pois Français (buttered green peas), harticots verts (string beans), and tomates à la Trévise (stuffed-baked tomatoes). These seasonal dishes were served at other banquets during the month, reflecting a modest attempt to make the handbill credible.2

Of course, it comes as no great surprise that the facts on campaign literature might be wrong. Although the political operatives who wrote this flyer may not have appreciated all of the intricacies of Delmonico’s fine cuisine, they understood that food is a powerful symbol of wealth and class. They did not need the actual names of the dishes to make their point. Indeed, things have not changed much over the last hundred and twenty-five years. It is still a good idea for politicians on the campaign trail to eat at a local diner, rather than be seen consorting with Wall Street bankers at an expensive restaurant, especially when there are only a few days to go before the election.

The damage was too great to be reversed. The trade card had been prophetic about New York being the “pivotal state.” Blaine lost the state by 1,047 votes (of the 1,167,003 votes cast) and thus the national election. On November 4, 1884, Grover Cleveland became the first Democrat to be elected president after the Civil War, providing his supporters with the opportunity to add a rejoinder to the taunting campaign slogan—“Ma, ma, where’s my pa? Gone to the White House, ha ha ha!"

1. Walt McDougall, New York World, 30 October 1884.
2. The same three vegetable dishes appeared on the menu at the annual banquet of the American Street Railway Association at Delmonico’s on 17 October 1884.

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