Friday, December 31, 2010

Sylvester Kränzchen

New York City, 

New York was, after Berlin and Vienna, the third largest German-populated city in the world in the late nineteenth century. It was filled with German clubs, theaters, libraries, schools, churches, and synagogues, as well as restaurants, beer halls, and delicatessens. In fact, there were about six hundred German delicatessens in New York, most of them on the East Side.1 

Saturday, December 18, 2010

God Bless America

New York City, 
ca. 1956

Irving Berlin published his first song in 1907 and four years later, Alexander’s Ragtime Band became his first big hit. Over the course of his long career, he composed over 1,000 songs, such as Easter Parade, There’s No Business Like Show Business, White Christmas, and God Bless America, a paean to his beloved country. As composer Jerome Kern once remarked, “Irving Berlin has no place in American music—he is American music.” And while Berlin spent a lot of time in Hollywood, he regarded himself as a New Yorker whose favorite haunts included Gallagher’s, Lindy’s and Sun Luck, a Chinese restaurant where he dined several times a week.1

Friday, December 10, 2010

Liberty Pudding

Ellis Island, 
...“Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
—Emma Lazarus, 1883

The Statue of Liberty, officially named “Liberty Enlightening the World,” was created to commemorate our alliance with France during the American Revolution. Over the years this iconic symbol of freedom also came to represent the willingness of the United States to open its doors to immigrants. There were a number of good reasons why this idea came about.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Harvard vs. Yale

1909, 1913 & 1927

The “deafening drone of vuvuzelas” won’t be heard at the 127th football game between Harvard and Yale this weekend. According to Bloomberg News, Harvard banned the plastic horns to avoid disturbing the players, marching band, and fans. The news report brought to mind writer Elbert Hubbard’s observation that football is “a sport that bears the same relation to education that bullfighting does to agriculture.” Indeed, the customs and traditions surrounding football have always been a reflection of popular culture, not higher education. Five menus from dinners in Boston after the Harvard-Yale games from 1909 to 1927 reflect many of the broad changes in American society over that period.

Friday, November 5, 2010

The Tenth Day Out

Cunard Line,

English railroad magnate Henry Pease, growing weary at the end of an eleven-day voyage across the Atlantic in 1856, made notations next to each item on the breakfast menu. Such first-hand observations are rare. Menus typically do not provide information about the quality and  quantity of the food, or even whether the dishes on the bill of fare were actually available that day. Four extant menus from his voyage provide a rare glimpse of the meal service on a mid-nineteenth-century steamship.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Twain’s Feast Revisited

Hot Springs, Arkansas
Christmas, 1875

This essay was published in The Book Club of California Quarterly, Winter 2019. 

While touring Europe in 1878 and 1879, Mark Twain filled many notebooks for use in a travelogue. Although much of what he wrote during the sixteen-month trip was never published, such as his comparisons of European and American homes and transportation, a list of his favorite foods made it into the final manuscript of A Tramp Abroad (1880). Having grown weary of the “monotonous variety of unstriking dishes” in European hotels, Twain declared: “It has now been many months, at the present writing, since I have had a nourishing meal, but I shall soon have one—a modest, private affair, all to myself. I have selected a few dishes, and made out a little bill of fare, which will go home in the steamer that precedes me, and be hot when I arrive…”1 Miraculously, Twain's iconic list of eighty American foods somehow defined a national cuisine.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Not Much On The Menu

New York City, 

In August 2009, critic Frank Bruni awarded Eleven Madison Park a perfect four stars in the New York Times. The restaurant, which opened in 1998, now ranked “among the most alluring and impressive restaurants" in the city. What brought Bruni “particular joy” was the fact that it had gotten better and better over time.  While most restaurateurs were battening down the hatches during the Great Recession, principal owner Danny Meyer continued to make improvements. In April 2010, it was named as one of the "World’s 50 Best Restaurants" on San Pellegrino's annual list compiled by Restaurant Magazine.

In September of that year, Eleven Madison Park went exclusively to a tasting format. The change was reflected in a minimalist menu which was the antithesis of the text-heavy style that had been popular for so long. Yet in the warm and inviting context of Eleven Madison Park, the new menu strikes me as a bit austere. Stylistically, the grid is more reminiscent of a word game than a menu.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Ma, Ma, Where’s My Pa?

New York City

Two national political conventions were held in Chicago during the summer of 1884. In June, the Republicans nominated Senator James Blaine of Maine, and a month later, the Democrats picked Governor Grover Cleveland of New York. During the campaign, this hotel trade card predicted that New York would be the swing state in the election. As things turned out, the election was so close that it was decided by two events in the last week of the contest. In fact, one could argue that if Blaine had eaten a “regular dinner,” such as the one advertised below for 25 cents, instead of attending a lavish banquet at Delmonico’s, he might have been elected as the 22nd president of the United States.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Lilliputian Quantities: An Early Tasting Menu


The cover of this 1879 menu from the Wellesley Hotel looks straightforward, except that the small town located a few miles outside Boston was not yet officially named Wellesley; it was still called Needham.1  After making a fortune in sewing machines, William Emerson Baker had first tried to establish a “hygienic village” named Hygeria, where he would conduct scientific work on sanitary food production. When his proposal was rejected, he simply adopted “Wellesley” as the name of his resort hotel and its location.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Mixed Icons

Occupied Japan, 

This cover illustration, showing Santa Claus flying through a Japanese gate toward Mount Fuji, represented a new style of graphic design. It appeared on a Christmas menu at the U.S. Tachikawa Air Base in Occupied Japan in 1949. What was different about it was that it showed Western holiday images in the same pictorial space with the iconic symbols of Japan. This exuberant scene stood in stark contrast with the deep despair that had been prevalent in Japan during the years immediately following World War II. By the end of 1945, more than 350,000 U.S. military personnel were stationed in Japan, supervising almost every aspect of civilian life. Sometimes called the “Confusion Era” in Japanese art history, this chaotic period was also disorienting for the Americans who participated in the Occupation. However, by the time this Christmas menu appeared, the situation had improved considerably.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Fat Man

Hanford, Washington

Hanford Engineer Works (1944)
Soon after a woman sold me an old Christmas menu online, she wrote to let me know something about it. Her father had been a machinist who rode the rails looking for work in the 1930s. He eventually landed a job at the Hanford Engineer Works in Washington State, where he worked for the Manhattan Project during World War II. In 1944, he enclosed this holiday bill of fare in a letter to his family in Chicago as a way of reassuring them that he was okay. There was a hand-written notation on the back of the menu that summarized its story. It read “atom bomb job.”

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Cheeseburger Diplomacy

Camp David, Maryland

President George W. Bush was anxious to form a good relationship with the newly-chosen British Prime Minister Gordon Brown when he came to United States in July 2007. Brown’s predecessor, Tony Blair, whom one of the backbenchers in Parliament unkindly characterized as “George Bush’s poodle,” had been a good friend and ally and would be sorely missed. Looking back at what previous administrations did in similar situations, the president decided to host a casual cookout.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Bavarian Strawberry Pudding

New York City, 

In her memoir This Time Together, comedienne Carol Burnett reminisces about the summer of 1959, when the musical comedy Once Upon a Mattress was enjoying a healthy run. “A few of us in the cast decided to splurge on Saturday night after the show and treat ourselves to a sundae at the most expensive ice cream parlor in New York City: Rumpelmayer’s, in the St. Moritz Hotel on Central Park South, she recalls. I was flush with the excitement of being in a hit stage show and raking in $80 a week to boot. I could afford a Rumpelmayer’s treat.1

“Rumpelmayer’s was a pretty posh ice cream parlor. You could spot familiar faces there anytime after the bows had been taken and the lights had dimmed on Broadway for the night. Some folks went to nightclubs and bars, but those who had a sweet tooth and who also wanted to be seen went to Rumpelmayer’s. I remember having peeked in a few months earlier and spotting Marlene Dietrich in a gorgeous gray pantsuit at the counter, elegantly digging a long-handled spoon into a whipped cream goodie.”

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Survival of the Fittest

New York City, 

Influential Americans of the Gilded Age were comforted by philosopher Herbert Spencerideas which adapted the theory of evolution to human society. Considered one of the most intelligent men of his generation, Spencer coined the phrase “survival of the fittest,” a concept more related to laissez-faire capitalism than Charles Darwin’s system of biological natural selection. On November 9, 1882, two hundred distinguished gentlemen gathered at Delmonico’s in New York to honor the British philosopher before he departed for England, thereby ending his three-month visit to the United States.1 And while Spencer dreaded having to attend this banquet—he was an insomniac who became irritable and grumpy when something threatened to encroach on his privacy—the other participants were excited about an evening that promised to touch on the burning issues of the Victorian era, such as “intelligent design, the proper role of government, America’s place in the world, and God’s existence.”2 Ironically, the menu shown below unwittingly evokes the theme of this dinner. 

Monday, April 26, 2010

The Grub of 1859


When the Society of Colorado Pioneers gathered for its first reunion in 1881 at the Windsor Hotel in Denver, the menu featured “grub.” Even so, the venue was first-class. Amidst its labyrinth of public rooms, the new 300-room Windsor boasted a Western Union office, a barber shop, and a tobacconist, along with several bars and restaurants. It was the largest and most luxurious hotel between the Palmer House in Chicago and The Palace in San Francisco.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Hot-House Tomatoes

New York City, 

The Café Au Bon Goût on the corner of Fifth Avenue and 30th Street features an enormous buffet that is open 24/7. If you step inside and look straight up, you will see the beautifully molded ceiling that once graced the dining room of the Holland House, one of grandest hotels in New York during the 1890s. Modeled after a celebrated mansion in London, the ten-story building (which now contains offices) was built in the Italian Renaissance style, using white limestone from Indiana. Seven photographs and a menu tell its story.

Sunday, April 4, 2010


Iowa, New York & Connecticut, 

Two corn cobs were walking along, and the first cob noticed that they were being followed by another cob. The first cob whispered to the second, “Don’t look now, but I think we are being followed by a stalker.” This was the type of corny joke that made the rounds at the corn-themed suppers that became popular in the late 1880s.1

Church suppers were commonplace occurrences during the nineteenth century, both as social gatherings and a way for women's groups to raise money. Around 1886, church groups across the country began to use corn as a theme for their suppers. The short-lived fad seemingly came out of nowhere—it was not confined to the Corn Belt in the Midwest nor related to the harvest season.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Nearly to the Jumping Off Place

El Paso,

Shortly after moving to El Paso, Texas in October 1883, J. T. Stevens sent a letter, along with this hotel menu, to his parents in Connecticut, letting them know that he had arrived safety. “I will enclose a bill of fare which I had the first day, wrote the young store clerk,  that you may see that I am not entirely out of this world if I have got nearly to the jumping off place.” Enclosing a menu was then a way of letting someone know that you were doing O.K. in your new surroundings.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Andersonville Beans

Lackawanna County,

It was startling to discover a dish called “Andersonville beans” on the menu from a Union Ex-Prisoners of War Association banquet in 1889. Andersonville, the largest Confederate prison during the Civil War, was a hellhole in Georgia, where nearly a third of the prisoners died of starvation or disease. A quarter of a century later, this local veteran’s group in Lackawanna County, Pennsylvania had the curious idea of naming a bean dish after the infamous prison. 

Friday, March 19, 2010

Taft is Notified; Cincinnati Joyful


This daily menu from the Sinton Hotel in Cincinnati reflects the city's exuberant mood on July 28, 1908, when William Howard Taft accepted the Republican nomination for president from the portico of his Federalist mansion. Feeling the intense heat of that hot summer day, the 300-pound Taft passed over large sections of his speech, explaining to the crowd that they could read his entire oration in the newspapers.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Oriental Hospitalities

San Simeon, 

Newspaper publisher William Randolph Hearst sent to San Francisco for the good linens and china in September 1929, when preparing for the upcoming visit of British politician Winston Churchill to his grand estate named La Cuesta Encantada.  Although Churchill appreciated the efforts that were made in his behalf, it did not stop him from keenly observing his host, writing to his wife Clementine: “Hearst was most interesting to meet, & I got (sic) like him - a grave simple child - with no doubt a nasty temper - playing with the most costly toys. A vast income always overspent: Ceaseless building & collecting not very discriminatingly works of art: two magnificent establishments, two charming wives; complete indifference to public opinion, a strong liberal & democratic outlook, a 15 million daily circulation, oriental hospitalities, extreme personal courtesy (to us at any rate)...”1

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

The Battle Creek Idea

The Sanitarium
Battle Creek, 1895-1903

Eating out is usually more about pleasure and diversion than subsistence. However, for those who checked into the Sanitarium in Battle Creek, Michigan to restore their health, it was more about diversion and subsistence, for they would take little pleasure in the meals that they would be served there. Four menus dating from 1895 to 1903 show what  foods then constituted a nutritious diet, including the addition of a new food group to the menu around the turn of the last century.