Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Christmas at the Winter Resorts

Florida, Georgia & New Jersey 

After the Civil War, much of the country’s wealth was used to expand the railroads and build hotels for the tourist trade. In mid-June each year, these hotels opened for the summer season in wilderness areas like the Green Mountains of Vermont, the White Mountains of New Hampshire, and the Adirondacks. There were also numerous resorts dotting the coastline from Maine to New Jersey. Church groups flocked to the campgrounds on Martha’s Vineyard and Ocean Grove, while high society packed their trunks, heading to their watering holes in Bar Harbor, Newport, and Saratoga Springs. By the mid-1880s, with over 100,000 miles of railroad track crisscrossing the country, well-to-do easterners began to venture farther afield. Some took escorted “excursions” to the far West, while others headed south in winter to escape the cold weather. 

Monday, November 19, 2012

Thanksgiving Confusion


A store owner in Kokomo, Indiana hung a sign in his window in 1939 that read: “Do your shopping now. Who knows, tomorrow may be Christmas.” The humorous sign referred to President Franklin Roosevelt’s decision to observe Thanksgiving on the third Thursday of November that year, instead of the fourth, in order to extend the shopping season. Since company holidays, school vacations, and college football games were already scheduled, the idea of celebrating a week earlier was not universally popular. Some disliked the idea for political reasons, claiming that it was just another New Deal scheme. In fact, the polls indicated that sixty percent of Americans were opposed to moving the holiday. Since the new date was not legally binding, twenty-three states ignored the presidential declaration, choosing to stick with the traditional day a week later. Oddly, Colorado and Texas officially celebrated on both days. 

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Election Night

New York City, 

After walking through Herald Square on election night in 1907, artist John Sloan noted in his diary that the cheerful crowd was “so dense in places that it was impossible to control one’s movement.” The square on Sixth Avenue and 34th Street, then bounded to the east by the elevated train, was one of the traditional places where New Yorkers gathered in the years before radio to hear the election results. Although this was a period of social activism and political reform, the citizenry was mostly out to have a good time. Filling the squares and circles of the city, the large gatherings were generally peaceful, except for the shouting and blaring of horns, and the feather ticklers that the celebrants wiggled under the noses of passers-by. Within a week, Sloan painted the scene he witnessed, masterfully capturing the excitement of urban life.1 

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Eleven Madison Park Revisited

New York City, 

Eleven Madison Park is currently ranked as the tenth best restaurant in the world.1 Despite this achievement, it remains a work in progress, restlessly changing its format.2 While maintaining the level of its fine cuisine, distinguished by reductions, foams, and creative combinations, it continues to introduce different themes, taking the narrative in new directions. Perhaps believing that it gets in the way, the restaurant has deconstructed the traditional menu in an experiment yielding mixed results.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Chauncey Depew’s Big Day

New York City,

Chauncey Depew was very busy on Monday, February 17, 1890. In addition to being the president of a railroad, Depew headed the World’s Fair Committee, charged with securing the upcoming Colombian Exposition for New York. It had been four months since the city's aristocrats had discussed the matter over dinner at Delmonico’s and time was running out; Congress was expected to make a decision by the end of the week. And yet, even at this late date, the states political leaders were still divided as to whether they wanted to host this massive event—the municipality was difficult enough to manage without the added burden of millions of visitors. Depew was now making one last effort to align the warring political factions. While the newspapers seemingly reported his every move, two menus provide additional information about his exact whereabouts on a day marked by striking contrasts.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

William Waldorf Astor’s World’s Fair Dinner

This article was first published in the 2010 summer issue of Gastronomica. It is posted here as a prelude to the essay titled “Chauncey Depew’s Big Day.”

New York City,

William Waldorf Astor
At grand dinners of the Gilded Age, canvasback duck was a typical autumn dish, much appreciated for its subtle flavor of celery. In the fall of 1889, however, the species was suddenly scarce. There were reports from Havre de Grace, Maryland, a small town at the mouth of the Susquehanna River, that storms had driven mud over the wild celery upon which the canvasbacks liked to feed.1 Some feared the ducks had simply been overhunted.1 Whatever the trouble, Charles Ranhofer, Delmonico’s longtime chef, could not get his hands on them—not even for someone the New York Times would shortly proclaim “the wealthiest man in the world.”2

Thursday, August 9, 2012

The Class of 1888

West Point,

When the class of 1888 graduated from the U.S. Military Academy in June, there were so few of them that The Daily Graphic, an evening tabloid in New York City, had no trouble arranging their photographs on its two-page spread.1 Beginning their military careers during the final conflicts of the Indian Wars, some of these cadets would serve in the Spanish-American War, the Philippine Insurrection, the Mexican Expedition, and World War I. Harkening back to the Victorian era in which they were trained, five menus provide a glimpse of the foodways at West Point during the mid-1880s. However, some of the menus convey a deeper meaning, for they were saved by men who unexpectedly died while still young. Not in battle. Though in one case through a selfless act of heroism. How these menus came to be preserved, and what this may tell us about the long cycle of mourning caused by a sudden death, adds a poignant dimension to these minor historical documents.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

The Russians Are Coming!

New York City

In the 1966 comedy The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming, a Soviet submarine accidentally runs aground near a small New England town during the Cold War, sparking fear and chaos throughout the community. However, when the Russian navy actually arrived in force a hundred years earlier, it was greeted with open arms. That naval visit, presumably an act of friendship during the American Civil War, was orchestrated by the Russian government. In reality it was a ploy, feigning an alliance with the Northern states to discourage the European powers from intervening in the Polish Rebellion which the Russians were brutally crushing. Still, Russia’s ulterior motives were of little interest to those caught up in the struggle to preserve the Union. Indeed, President Lincoln  appreciated getting at least this measure of international support, given that Great Britain and France were still toying with the idea of supporting the Confederacy.

Monday, July 9, 2012

Come Fly with Me

American Airlines

Julie (1972)

Although stewardesses are now called flight attendants, some things in commercial aviation have not changed much over the years, such as the in-flight meals. Restaurant critic Bryan Miller once observed, “The quality of food is in inverse proportion to a dining room’s altitude, especially atop bank and hotel buildings (airplanes are an extreme example).” It is not as if the airlines never tried. For example, during the years immediately after World War II, when transatlantic air travel was still a novelty, American Airlines worked with famous restaurants to improve the quality of its food on their new routes to European destinations.1

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

The Russian Revolution

St. Petersburg, Archangel & Vladivostok

One of the most intriguing aspects of ephemera is that it reminds us of long-forgotten events. A case in point is provided by three scarce menus from the time of the Russian Revolution. Interestingly, they were saved by people who found themselves on the losing side of the conflict—Russia’s ill-fated bourgeoisie; foreign intelligence officers;  and the United States Army sent to fight the “Red” Bolsheviks.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

The Butter Wars

New York City, 

When five members of a congressional subcommittee came to New York in April 1880 to inspect the new factory of the Commercial Manufacturing Company, the firm rolled out the red carpet, hosting a dinner at Delmonico’s in their honor.  Typical for a grand banquet of the Gilded Age, the menus for the occasion were printed on satin of various colors. What is unusual about the menu shown below is what it doesn’t say—golden blocks of margarine were placed on the table to accompany the meal. What is more, the low-cost butter substitute was even said to have been used to prepare these classic French dishes.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

General Lewis Cass


Eight counties, ten small cities, thirty townships, and numerous streets, schools, parks, and lakes are named after Lewis Cass. Born in New Hampshire in 1782, Cass had a long and distinguished political career at a time when many places in the country needed names. After serving as a brigadier general in the War of 1812, the rugged-looking statesman was appointed governor of the Michigan Territory. In 1831, he became the Secretary of War and was later sent to France as the American Minister, a post he retained for six years. Shortly before returning to the United States in November 1842, Cass was honored by the American expatriate community at a farewell dinner at Les Trois Frères Provençaux in Paris. 

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Here They Come!

New York City, 

The scene is still funny. Appearing in the Sunday comic section of the New York World in March 1899, the first cartoon in a series, it shows a prosperous miner from Montana named “Slagg Diggins” stepping off the ferry with his wife and daughter, ready to enter high society.1 The headline warns the city’s well-established aristocrats, popularly known as The 400,” of the arrival of this newly-minted millionaire, much to the amusement of the city’s masses who were well aware of the societal shift then taking place.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Compliments of George Kessler

Washington, D.C. & New York City

There was an intriguing story behind the menu that supposedly came from the state dinner in 1902, hosted by President Theodore Roosevelt for Prince Henry of Prussia. The biggest issue was its monotone blue cover, unlike the full-color menus seen at the dinner. Then there were two small advertising cards still tucked inside, one noting that the menu was provided compliments of George Kessler, the clever importer of Moët & Chandon Champagne, and the other touting his product’s popularity. The menu reveals a curious incident in presidential history, orchestrated by Kessler to promote his products. Known as the “Champagne King,” he led a colorful life, distinguished by high living, intermittent disasters, and a celebrated act of atonement, making his one of those uniquely American stories.

Thursday, March 29, 2012


Washington, D.C. & New York City

Ortolan is the French common name for a finch-like bunting that is a native of Europe and parts of Asia and Africa. Even though there are strict laws protecting these migratory birds, they are a great delicacy still being captured in nets in southwest France. Weighing less than an ounce, the tiny songbirds are first kept in a lightless box, prompting them to instinctively gorge on millet, grapes, and figs. Once the bird has quadrupled in size, becoming nothing more than a four-ounce lump of richly-flavored fat, it is drowned in Armagnac, plucked, roasted, and flambéed.

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

The Café Martin

New York City

By the late 1890s, the neighborhood surrounding Madison Square Park had lost some of its luster. After being the center of New York’s social scene for twenty-five years, its leading hotels and restaurants began to close. Delmonico’s, which had moved there from Union Square in 1876, now relocated to Fifth Avenue and 44th Street. Despite this notable departure, Madison Square was still a stylish part of town, prompting Jean and Louis Martin to take over Delmonico’s lease on the 26th Street location, well-situated between Fifth Avenue and Broadway. The French-born brothers refurbished the old building, giving it the latest flourishes of Art Nouveau design, and renamed it the Café Martin.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

The Quick & Not-So-Quick Lunch

New York City, 

Crowds on Sixth Avenue (1903)
Europeans visiting the United States in the nineteenth century were fascinated with how quickly Americans ate their meals, especially lunch. By the 1890s, there were a number of new options for those in a hurry. In addition to lunch wagons and cafeterias, there were small restaurants that served the so-called “quick lunch.” It was these that most captured the European imagination, for there were no such eateries in Europe at the time. In 1892, French writer Paul de Rousiers described the scene at one of these lunch places in his travelogue La Vie Américaine:

“Lunch time, the streets fill once more. In New York nobody goes home in the middle of the day. They eat wherever they happen to be: at the office, while working, in clubs, and in cafeterias…In blue-collar restaurants, thousands of people eat standing up, with their hats on, all in a line, like horses in a stable. The food is fresh and appetizing, though, and prices are lower than ours. While lines of men dug into plates brimming with meatballs, others wait to take their place.”

Saturday, January 28, 2012

The Religion of Health

New York City & Chicago

In the early twentieth century, there was a growing awareness that exercise and diet played an important role in good health. The physical fitness movement was then aligned with vegetarianism which was reemerging in the United States. The menu below comes from the first annual banquet of the Brooklyn Physical Culture Society in 1904. In addition to showing the connection between vegetarianism and the new cult of physical fitness, it also includes a list of toasts, including one to “The Religion of Health” given by Bernarr Macfadden.  An early advocate of vigorous exercise, vegetarian diets, and fasting, Macfadden promoted his ideas in Physical Culture, a popular magazine that became the cornerstone of his publishing business empire.1 

Thursday, January 12, 2012

The Laurel

New York City, 

The Laurel was one of only a few vegetarian restaurants in New York at the turn of the last century. Technically, it was a lacto-ovo vegetarian restaurant in that it served dairy products and egg dishes. A menu from 1903 offers a wide selection of dishes, along with health tips, nutritional advice, and quotes from the Bible and the poet Oliver Goldsmith. This à la carte menu, and a banquet menu from the following year, mark the reemergence of vegetarianism in the United States after a hiatus of fifty years.