Sunday, December 18, 2011

The Great American Delicacies

Washington, D.C. & San Francisco
Christmas, 1890

Two menus from Christmas Day in 1890 reflect regional differences in cuisine at a time when local styles of cooking were not always evident. Despite being held on opposite ends of the country, the dinners also featured some of the same dishes, such as Diamondback terrapin and Canvasback duck. Described as “the great American delicacies” by British novelist Frederick Marryat in his 1839 Diary in America, these classic game dishes were often served at lavish dinners during this time of year, prepared in traditional ways that transcended regional variations and foreign influences.

Illustrated with an elf-like Santa Claus, the menu shown above comes from the Ebbitt House, then a fine hotel in Washington, D.C. Although Canvasback ducks were hunted in many parts of the country, the ones on this menu came from the Susquehanna Flats, a twenty-five-thousand-acre water area near Havre de Grace, Maryland that was abundant with the wild celery that gave this species its distinctive flavor. Diamondback terrapins were also found in the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries, for these brackish-water turtles inhabited neither freshwater habitats nor the sea. For this dinner they were prepared in the so-called “Ebbitt House style,” most likely a slight variation of the Maryland style in which the terrapin was cut into pieces and cooked in a saucepan with Madeira wine, cayenne pepper, and butter. Cream mixed with the yolks of boiled eggs was added, stirring briskly to avoid letting it come to a boil. It was then poured into a heated tureen and served very hot.1

Map of the Chesapeake Bay (1895)

Jorge Lysles, the well-known chef at the Ebbitt House, believed the “three great essentials of good cooking” were that his dishes first be wholesome; second, palatable, and third, attractive in appearance. Given his priorities, it is surprising how much of the food on this menu is deep-fried, reflecting a Southern style of cooking that was prevalent in the nation’s capital. Cromesequis de capon are small croquettes in which the diced ingredients are bound with a sauce, wrapped in pig’s caul, dipped in batter, and fried. This dish is accompanied by hominy croquettes, which appear again with the Canvasback duck in what seems to be a more appropriate pairing. Other deep-fried foods include potato croquettes, sweet potato fritters, and potato chips, which until recently had been called “Saratoga chips.”

Ebbitt House, Washington, D.C. (1889)

Once dubbed the “Ebbitt House genius,” chef Lysles occasionally provided recipes to the newspapers that printed them alongside those from other culinary notables like chef Charles Ranhofer of Delmonico’s, and Herman Berghaus, the chef at Young’s Hotel in Boston. When it came to the press, Lysles gave his dishes politically oriented names. One of his favorites was “à la Reform,” a reference to the political movement in the late nineteenth century against the waste, inefficiency, and corruption of the Gilded Age. For example, he called his recipe for fried mutton cutlets “cottlett’s de monon à la Reform,” and later used the same term for his “Christmas cake à la Reform.”2 He also created a “Christmas cake à la Blaine,” named after James Blaine, the former Republican Senator from Maine who was then the Secretary of State, having lost the presidential race to Grover Cleveland in 1884.3 However, none of the dishes on this menu have whimsical names.

The elegant cuisine at the California Viticultural Restaurant and Café in San Francisco was decidedly Old World, a by-product of the city’s vibrant French community that included many talented restaurateurs and chefs. However, this establishment only served wines from California, reflecting the fact that it was affiliated with the State Viticultural Commission, an association that assisted the local wine industry. In keeping with the theme, the menu shown below from their Christmas dinner in 1890 is decorated with a gilded cluster of grapes and a hot-air balloon advertising Eclipse Extra Dry Champagne. This sparkling wine was produced by Agoston Haraszthy & Co., the firm named after the Hungarian-born winemaker who founded the Buena Vista Winery in Sonoma Valley in 1857, making it the oldest commercial winery in California. A bottle of this domestic champagne is illustrated on the back of the card, being just one of the three hundred wines offered at this restaurant.

In addition to their regular à la carte menu, the California Viticultural Restaurant offered a six-course lunch for fifty cents and an eight-course dinner for seventy-five cents. Although the price of this special holiday dinner is not shown, it may have been higher, given the array of lavish dishes. Following the oysters, there are numerous soups, fishes, hors d’oeuvres, entrees, and roasts, including seven species of duck. There is a good selection of local vegetables, such as artichokes from nearby Napa Valley. Although the Canvasback ducks may have been sourced locally, the terrapin was shipped to San Francisco from Eastern Shore of Maryland via the transcontinental railroad. In fact, the terrapin was prepared en caisse à la Maryland, using a fanciful piece of paper to mold and serve this entrée. Even with the French name and care in presentation, it was essentially the same dish served 2,800 miles away at the Ebbitt House that day, an American delicacy that symbolized the national cuisine.

Backed by some of the California’s prominent vintners, restaurateur Albert Franckx opened a California Viticultural Restaurant and Cafe in Chicago in 1891, while his partner Otto Ruhlemann stayed behind to manage their first location in San Francisco.4 Situated on Wabash Avenue near the leading hotels, the new restaurant in Chicago was well-positioned to promote California wines during the upcoming World’s Columbian Exposition. Franckx envisioned that his cuisine would challenge that of Kinsley’s restaurant and the Richelieu Hotel, then considered the best places to dine in the Windy City. Unfortunately, the banquet on opening day turned out to be a fiasco. For one thing, the Chicagoans complained that they could not understand the French waiters, and even worse, they “roundly and unanimously condemned” all of the wines.5 For whatever reasons, it appears that both locations of the California Viticultural Restaurant were short-lived.

1. Alessandro Filippini, The Table: How to buy food, how to cook it, and how to serve it, C. L. Webster & Co., New York, 1889.
2. Fort Worth Daily Gazette, 14 September, 1890.
3. Pittsburg Dispatch, 18 December, 1892.
4. Pacific Wine and Spirit Review, January-July, 1891.
5. Salt Lake Herald, 17 May 1891.

1 comment:

Deana Sidney said...

Funny, when I saw reform, I thought of the great club in London... where the great Alexis Soyer once cooked... but that would be a little hard to figure since Soyer would have been 40 years dead and long forgotten by that time. Still, one of the most frustrating things are those one-off dishes with names that you can't associate with a recipe... that might even have been popular for a season but now, who knows?

Cool menus, as always.