Wednesday, March 18, 2020

Willis Morgan

ca. 1928

Willis Morgan was among the several hundred thousand African-American soldiers sent to France during the First World War. Born in Marshall, Texas in 1877, Morgan worked as a chef in railroad dining cars and Harvey House restaurants prior to becoming a mess sergeant in the U.S. Army. He served in the Philippines, on the Mexico border, and finally on the Western Front. After the Armistice, Morgan settled in Paris as part of the small but steady stream of black Americans attracted by wartime memories of French racial tolerance. He opened the Chicago Inn at 31 Avenue Bourdonnais in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower. Later renamed the Chicago-Texas Inn, the restaurant was a popular tourist destination in the Jazz Age. A scarce menu from the late 1920s reveals the down-home American cuisine at this welcoming restaurant where Morgan’s French-born wife worked the cash register while their pet cat looked on from his favorite spot nearby. 

Tuesday, February 11, 2020

The Waitress at Duval


French impressionist Pierre-Auguste Renoir portrayed a waitress from one of several Parisian restaurants established by a butcher named Pierre Louis Duval who began by using meat scraps to make broths.1 The Établissements Duval were commonly referred to as the “Bouillons Duval,” or “Établissements de Bouillon,” in reference to this signature dish. Founded in 1854, the business expanded to about a dozen locations by the end of the following decade. The chain almost exclusively employed women servers who wore black dresses, half hidden by aprons and snow-white bibs, and caps.2 The Baedeker guidebook (1881) advised travelers that Duval offered a limited and affordable menu to customers who were “waited on by women, soberly garbed, and not unlike sisters of charity.” In much the same vein, a journalist from the New York Times wrote that the “neat, nun-like uniforms” reminded him of what the cooks wore in the kitchen of the House of Commons.3,4 Nevertheless, “Renoir imparted to his comely model an unaffected grace,” notes the Metropolitan Museum of Art on its gallery label. Three menus recall these low-cost restaurants that were renowned for their waitresses.

Sunday, January 12, 2020

Breakfast on the Mississippi

Steamer James Montgomery
ca. 1858 

Steamboats played a major role in transporting passengers and freight on the Mississippi River and its tributaries. By the 1830s, it was common to see more than 150 steamboats at the St. Louis levee at one time. The James Montgomery was one such paddle steamer. Built in 1856 at New Albany, Indiana (on the Ohio River opposite Louisville), this wood-hull, side-wheel steamboat was 270 feet long and powered by six boilers. A menu from about 1858 shows that large breakfasts were among the joys of being a cabin passenger on this antebellum riverboat.