Monday, May 10, 2021

Economic Precarity


One of the underlying themes of American ephemera is the expansion of the middle and upper classes. Over time, higher incomes and increased leisure time fostered a culture of consumption and new social customs like eating outside the home. Not surprisingly, menus become increasingly scarce as you descend the economic ladder. By the time you reach the lower classes and those living in poverty, such material evidence is practically nonexistent. Nevertheless, menus and photographs occasionally surface that reflect segments of the population being pushed from a livable life, often by a financial crisis or war.

Thursday, April 1, 2021

Om Shanti

Los Angeles, 

front of this large menu from 1971 features the word “om” in Devanagari script. Underneath is a description of this sacred sound in Indian religions that ends with the mantra “om shanti,” meaning peace. Since the name of the restaurant is not shown on the cover, the menu is sometimes thought to have originated from a place called Om Shanti. It actually comes from a Los Angeles vegetarian restaurant named H.E.L.P., an acronym for health, education, love, and peace. The menu marks the moment in culinary history when vegetarianism began to enter into the mainstream of American life.

Monday, March 1, 2021

What is this, Gluckstern’s?

New York City, 

The Dairy Restaurant is a fascinating new book by writer and cartoonist Ben Katchor. Jewish dairy restaurants attracted patrons who followed the dietary laws that forbid the mingling of meat and any milk-based product, and those who simply yearned for the comforting dishes of Eastern European Jewish cuisine, such as borscht, salmon, potato latkes, blintzes, and kreplach (small dumplings filled with cheese).1 These eateries have now almost completely vanished, many disappearing without barely leaving a trace. The surprising lack of primary source material prompted me to take a fresh look at menus in my collection from Jewish restaurants of all kinds. Two in particular caught my attention. They came from Gluckstern’s and Isaac Gellis which were kosher meat restaurants on opposite ends of Manhattan. The menus were saved in 1948 by an anonymous couple who marked the dishes they ordered with X’s or O’s. The simple notations evoked a reminiscent feeling similar to what one reviewer described as Katchor’s “melancholy yiddishkeit,” recalling bygone eating places that were once a part of everyday life.

Thursday, February 4, 2021

A Sunday Dinner

New York City, 

Menus are generally the only documents that speak to how people dined outside the home in the nineteenth century. Yet, it is nearly impossible to get a visceral sense of a list of dishes from a bygone era, especially when it is removed by more than a hundred years of radical changes. On rare occasions, patrons marked the dishes they ordered, thereby enriching the historical evidence. An annotated menu from the Grand Central Hotel in New York provides a case in point, showing what two guests ordered for dinner on Sunday evening, February 12, 1882. The anonymous diners, identified simply as “A” and “E,” understood the nuances of the menu and took full advantage of the opportunity. 

Sunday, November 1, 2020

Plenty Sight-seeing!

Savannah, Georgia 

The message inscribed on the back of this postcard from the De Soto Hotel in Savannah, Georgia closes with the exclamation, “Plenty sight-seeing!” Unfortunately, the guest did not mention what he or she had seen in 1907 that prompted the enthusiasm. Tourist sights change over time based on the evolving interests and needs of visitors. A menu from this hotel provides a clue, revealing at least one of the local attractions at the turn of the last century. 

Saturday, October 10, 2020

Artistic License

Washington, D.C., 

One of the last glittering events of the antebellum era occurred in February of 1859 when a ball was held for British ambassador Francis Napier and his wife.
1 The ballroom at Willards’ Hotel was festooned with flags and adorned with portraits of George Washington and Queen Victoria for the occasion. At midnight, a curtain was raised to the adjoining dining room where almost a dozen sugar sculptures decorated the buffet tables. However, there was some question about the quality of the food, at least according to the correspondent from the New York Times who reported it was “an intolerably bad supper, intolerably ill served…” For journalists who wanted to hail the ball as a triumph, describing the problematic supper would require a fair amount of artistic license. Americans had become sensitive to the negative perception held by many Europeans about the eating habits in the United States. The Washington Evening Star put a positive spin on this gastronomic inferiority complex, reporting “the supper and wines were upon a scale of magnificence…rarely seen at such an entertainment on this side of the Atlantic.” One publication employed so much hyperbole that it unwittingly articulated a new way to define the national cuisine. 

Wednesday, September 16, 2020

President Harrison’s Great Railroad Journey

The South and West 
April 14 – May 15, 1891 

In the spring of 1891, two years after being in office, President Benjamin Harrison embarked on a month-long political tour by rail through the South to the West Coast.1, 2 He was accompanied by First Lady Caroline Harrison, their daughter Mrs. Mary McKee, Postmaster General John Wanamaker, Secretary of Agriculture Jeremiah Rusk, and eleven other close officials and family members.3 Thirty-one menus from the train convey the length and rhythm of this unprecedented journey through numerous states, some of which had only recently entered the Union.4