Friday, May 17, 2013

A Circle of Friends

Flint, Michigan
“Five O’clock Tea” by Charles Morgan McIlhenney (1887)

The American custom of having afternoon tea is often traced back to the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, shortly after it opened in 1898. However, well before New York high society engaged in their version of the British ritual, members of the middle class were using the term “five o’clock tea” to describe some of their get-togethers. This is illustrated by nine enigmatic menus from the mid-1880s that recently came to light—a surprising discovery, since menus were seldom printed for such events in private homes. The only information about them was that they all came from the same source, apparently saved by a woman who belonged to a small social group; one of the menus was from a dinner dance that included a broader circle of friends. Although the menus included the names of the participants, the use of nicknames and initials made it difficult to determine where the menus originated. Still, through trial and error, I was able to identify the location as Flint, Michigan, then a small town of about 9,000 people. In addition to providing a glimpse of the social practices in the nation’s heartland, one of the menus also reveals the inherent optimism of the rising middle class whose confident spirit would soon set the country’s wheels into motion.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Longing for the Past

San Francisco, 

When menus are printed for a small get-together, they often reflect the underlying values of an individual or group, such as this charming menu from a dinner in June 1923 hosted by Camille Mailhebuau, Jr., eldest son of the famed restaurateur. His father had recently returned to San Francisco, opening his eponymous eatery on Pine Street, shown in the previous essay “A Moment in Time.” Although Camille Jr. describes this event as the “first dinner given to my friends,” as if he were marking a rite of passage in his epicurean family, the party was probably organized by his parents to celebrate his twenty-first birthday. It appears that his father planned this bill of fare and arranged to have the menus printed; the illustration is surprisingly old-fashioned for a youthful gathering during the Jazz Age. The image suggests a longing for the past, harkening back to the joyful time before Prohibition, when Champagne could be legally served in American restaurants, or perhaps even sipped while flying your “aeroplane.”