This menu comes from the Plankinton Hotel in Milwaukee on January 28, 1885. As it happens, writer Samuel Langhorne Clemens was then staying at the Plankinton. Widely known by his pen name Mark Twain, he was on a reading tour with Southern author George W. Cable who marveled at Twain’s talent as a standup comedian. In a letter to his wife Louise the next day, Cable wrote, “Mark...has worked & worked incessantly on these programs until he has effected in all of them—there are 3—a gradual growth of both interest & humor so that the audience never has to find anything less, but always more, entertaining than what precedes it. He says, ‘I don’t want them to get tired out laughing before we get to the end.’ The result is we have always a steady crescendo ending in a double climax….his careful, untiring, incessant labors are an education.” The menu, which contains a reference to the two authors, takes us back to that day in 1885.
The hotel was built by meatpacking tycoon John Plankinton in 1867. Located on Spring Street (now Wisconsin Avenue), the upscale hotel was expanded at various points in its history. The second page has an illustration of the elegant dining room as it looked in the mid-1880s when it could accommodate about 300 guests.
The usual house rules are shown on the back. The defining feature of hotel dining in the United States was the custom of the table d’hôte, or host’s table, where everyone ate together at set meal times, although there could be some degree of flexibility. At the Plankinton, an early dinner was served from 12 to 12:30 exclusively for guests leaving on the 1 o’clock train. America had already earned a reputation as an eat-and-run society, dictated in part by the demands of its vast railroad system.
Hotels that included room and board in the daily rate did not have prices on their menus. While the table d’hôte dinner shown below is typical for a hotel of this class, there are a couple of interesting dishes like celery ice cream and pieplant pie, which is rhubarb pie. What makes this bill of fare notable is the notice at the bottom informing diners that Twain and Cable would be appearing at the Academy of Music.
Twain wrote several letters to his publisher that week. Had he written to his wife Livy instead, we might know what he thought of the food at the Plankinton, since he often shared such commonplace observations during his travels. However, he told a local newspaper what he thought of the weather. The next day, the Evening Wisconsin published an interview titled “Talk with Mark Twain.” Described as “brusque but genial,” the celebrated humorist observed that winter in Milwaukee was “not calculated to promote one’s comfort.”