Friday, December 30, 2011

New Year’s Day, 1885

Iowa, Kansas, New Jersey & New York

The major happenings of 1885 involved large things—the Statue of Liberty arrived from France; the Washington Monument was finally completed; and the ten-story Home Insurance Building was erected in Chicago, becoming the first "skyscraper" made with structural steel. Newspapers also reported that Jumbo the Elephant was killed by a locomotive while crossing the railroad tracks, three years after showman P. T. Barnum brought the beloved circus animal to the United States amidst great fanfare. Four menus from the first day of that eventful year reveal how the holiday was once celebrated.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

The Great American Delicacies

Washington, D.C. & San Francisco
Christmas, 1890

Two menus from Christmas Day in 1890 reflect regional differences in cuisine at a time when local styles of cooking were not always evident. Despite being held on opposite ends of the country, the dinners also featured some of the same dishes, such as Diamondback terrapin and Canvasback duck. Described as “the great American delicacies” by British novelist Frederick Marryat in his 1839 Diary in America, these lavish game dishes were served in traditional ways that transcended regional variations and foreign influences.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Hopper’s Places

San Francisco, 

Working from drawings of ordinary restaurants in New York, Edward Hopper painted Tables for Ladies in his studio near Washington Square in 1930. The photo on the menu below from Chris’s Grill and Coffee Shop in San Francisco is reminiscent of the eatery shown on this large canvas (now at the Metropolitan Museum of Art), with the grapefruits lined up in the front of the window display.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

The Many Landings of William Penn


This November is the 329th anniversary of the landing of William Penn. Today, a statue of the entrepreneurial Quaker stands atop the Philadelphia City Hall, looking out over the City of Brotherly Love. (Many people think it is Benjamin Franklin.) In the early nineteenth century, Americans knew more about William Penn than they did about the Pilgrims who may have disembarked at Plymouth Rock.  A menu from 1854 reflects the importance once accorded to Penn's arrival in the New World. 

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

The Newsies

Chicago, 1900

…The works of religion and charity have everywhere been manifest. Our country through all its extent has been blessed with abundant harvests. Labor and the great industries of the people have prospered beyond all precedent…”
— President William McKinley,
Thanksgiving Day Proclamation, 1900 

Woolf’s clothing store, situated on State Street across from the luxurious Palmer House, closed early on the day before Thanksgiving in 1900, as it had done for years, in order to get ready to serve a holiday dinner for the poor of Chicago. It was unseasonably cold that afternoon; the temperature had already dropped into the teens when the store clerks sprang into action. In what had become a well-orchestrated ritual, they stored away the goods and removed the counters from the main floor. Next, the table were brought in, covered with marbled oilcloth, and decorated with flowers, fruit, and pyramids of small cakes.1 After carefully arranging a thousand place settings, reportedly with as much precision as you would find at a fine hotel, the clerks donned white aprons and jackets just before opening the doors at 6 PM, ready to serve old-fashioned turkey dinners to the multitudes who would begin filing in from the frigid weather.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

The Woodchuck Sunning


The annual game dinner at the Grand Pacific Hotel in Chicago was a nationally-renowned event in the late nineteenth century. Featuring every conceivable species of game, there were dishes like ham of black bear, leg of elk, loin of moose, and buffalo tongue. Small forest animals appeared on the menu as broiled rabbit and ragout of squirrel à la Francaise. Dozens of roasted fowl were at hand, including Blue-billed Widgeons, Red-winged Starlings, and “Sand Peeps,” which could have been any one of the tiny sandpipers that once flitted along in large numbers on the North American beaches. Ornamental dishes with fanciful names like “The Coon at Home” and “Woodchuck Sunning” completed the yearly spectacle.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Liberty Enlightening the World

New York City, 

The 125th anniversary of the Statue of Liberty in 2011 was celebrated with the issuance of a “forever” stamp. The new stamp turned out to be an embarrassment when it was later discovered that it was based on the half-size replica that stands in front of the New York-New York Casino in Las Vegas. Despite the mistake, the U.S. Post Office decided to stick with the design, explaining, “We still love the stamp design and would have selected this photograph anyway…Our track record is excellent for this as far as we’re concerned.”

Monday, October 3, 2011

Dante’s Pullman

New York City, 
ca. 1935

The three-story townhouse at 59 Charles Street in Greenwich Village is much the same as it was when it was built in the late 1860s. When the home was sold in 1967, the New York Times reported that the previous owner, Miss Emma Gerdes,  lived in the house for eighty-two years.1 She moved there with her family in 1884 when she was eight years old and stayed long after her brothers moved away and her parents died. All the while, she kept the house almost exactly the same, slowly turning it into a time capsule. According to Times, there had been a few small changes—the large metal chandelier hanging from the hand-painted ceiling in the parlor was converted from gas to electricity, and the stairwell received new wallpaper in 1923. Recent owners have confined most of their home improvements to systems hidden inside the walls, such as plumbing, electrical systems, and air conditioning. Given its seemingly well-documented history, it was surprising to learn something about this building that had been long forgotten. A menu revealed that it once housed an Italian restaurant.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Italian. Well, sort of.

New York City, 

I recently walked over to 139 West 10th Street in order to see where the Italian restaurant in John Sloan’s 1912 painting Renganeschi’s Saturday Night had once been located. Sloan, who lived  two blocks away and is known to have eaten there, was joined on at least one occasion by Robert Henri, a fellow artist of the Ashcan School. The artists and writers in Greenwich Village were fascinated by their neighbors, often using the social life of the city as the subject of their art.1 In this painting, Sloan depicts three young women on a girls’ night out, a scene so familiar that updating the clothing style would bring it into the present day. In fact, it was fascinating to see that there was still a restaurant in the old building, and that things had not changed all that much.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

A Vital City


In 2011, eighty-three-year old Philip Levine was named Poet Laureate of the United States. A native of Detroit, Levine worked in various industrial jobs as a young man. His experiences on the night shift at an auto factory provided him with one of the major topics for his poems. He remembers Detroit as a “vital city,” which is confirmed by five menus from the spring of 1940 that shows a prosperous Midwestern city hard at work and play. 

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Two Unexpected Guests

New York City, 

When the English actor Henry Irving completed his highly-acclaimed American tour in April 1885, a group of prominent men hosted a farewell banquet in his honor. Those who paid to attend this subscription dinner received an admission ticket, a menu card, and a seating chart, where some of the prospective attendees may have been surprised to see the names of two of the guests—Henry Ward Beecher, the aging Congregationalist minister once opposed to the theater, and twenty-six-year-old Theodore Roosevelt who left New York the previous year after his wife and mother died on the same day.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Enduring Traditions

1853 & 1884

When the Burnet House opened in Cincinnati in 1850, the London Illustrated News called it “the finest hotel in the world.” Located on the corner of Third and Vine Streets, the five-story building was designed by architect Isaiah Rogers, already well-known for Boston’s Tremont House (1827), New York’s Astor House (1836), and the Exchange Hotel (1841) in Richmond. Crowned by a dome forty-two feet in diameter, the hotel featured panoramic views of the Ohio River and the Kentucky hills. Large, ornate, and expensive, the Burnet House catered to a well-to-do clientele, as shown by two menus, one reflecting a passing social custom, the other reminiscent of a historic event for which the hotel would be long remembered.

Monday, July 11, 2011


New York City,

While the word carnivore” is now used to describe flesh-eaters, modern society may still find use for the obscure term zoophagy,” meaning the eating of animals. Since zoophagy usually connotes the eating of exotic creatures, it certainly can be used to describe a banquet in 1905 at the Astor Hotel in New York, where a Bornean Rhinoceros from the Berlin Zoo was served as the main course.

Monday, June 27, 2011

The Tea Party


This essay was published on Lapham’s Quarterly website in July 2011.

The first populist tea party movement came in the form of colonial-themed dinners during the centennial celebrations in 1873 and 1876, marking key events related to the country's hundredth birthday. These modest social gatherings featured simple colonial fare quaintly described in an antiquated style of English. When colonial-themed dinners came back into fashion in the early 1890s, they were decidedly different in character. Indeed, the second wave of tea parties was part of a nativist movement that came about in reaction to the large number of immigrants arriving in the United States.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Let There Be Peace

Richmond, Virginia

One hundred and eighty-nine Union veterans from Newark, New Jersey boarded a train in October 1883 heading for Richmond where they would attend a banquet with their former enemies in the Civil War. When I discovered a menu from this dinner, oddly printed on a Confederate banknote, I became curious about this unusual reunion in the former capital of the Confederacy.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

The Price of Fried Chicken in Old Florida

Winter Haven, 

When Cypress Gardens opened near Winter Haven, Florida in 1936, it was billed as the state's first commercial theme park. Carved out of a swamp, the botanical gardens later added water-skiing shows and other attractions like hoop-skirted “Southern belles” who strolled through the grounds, chatting with guests and posing for photographs—a little like Mickey Mouse, but prettier. Reminiscent of a bygone era in tourism, the souvenir shop sold alligator ashtrays, flamingo figurines, and other kitsch. Nevertheless, economic woes surfaced during the Korean War, even in paradise. Three menus from 1949 to 1952 reveal food prices at the park were increasing faster than inflation.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Summer of Love

Glassboro, New Jersey

In early June 1967, the Six-Day War was fought by Israel and the neighboring states of Egypt, Jordan, and Syria. In response, President Lyndon Johnson proposed to meet with Aleksei Kosygin of the Soviet Union during his counterpart’s upcoming trip to the United Nations. In addition to the Middle East, there were other issues to discuss, such as nuclear arms control (China announced the explosion of its first hydrogen bomb that month) and the Vietnam War—Johnson was looking for ways to end the conflict in Southeast Asia. A menu from this meeting recalls a time when the superpowers engaged in a continuous process of summits and treaties called détente, trying to ease strained relations at critical moments.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Wake-Up Special

Atlantic City, 

Some believe the adversarial relationship between the press and the White House started with Watergate, the political scandal that led to President Nixons resignation in 1974. However, there were already signs of strain in the 1960s when the term “credibility gap” came into widespread use, describing skepticism over the veracity of the Johnson administration’s public assessments of the Vietnam War. Although it may not be possible to pinpoint an exact date, trouble began soon after the first large-scale military deployment in March 1965, when the 9th Marine Expeditionary Brigade landed at Da Nang.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

No Nukes

Oregon & California, 

The anti-nuclear movement has been revived by the recent catastrophe in Japan, “putting governments on the defensive and undermining the nuclear power industry’s recent renaissance,” according to the Washington Post.1 Menus from dinners held backstage at two anti-nuclear benefit concerts on the West Coast during the 1970s recall an early phase of the movement. Although the efforts opposing the use of nuclear technologies have been ongoing, one of the ideas about food reflected on these menus has already entered the mainstream of American society.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Dry Monopole by Half a Length

New York City, 

Dry Monopole, a small, athletic horse named after a brand of Champagne, won the first stakes race run on turf in the United States. Called the Green Grass Stakes, it was the sixth and final race at the Sheepshead Bay Race Track in Brooklyn on June 10, 1886.1 Going off at 6-1 odds in the field of ten, the three-year-old thoroughbred won the one-and-an-eighth-mile race in 1:57.  Dry Monopole was the “class of the grass,” using the parlance of future generations of racing fans

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Too Fast for the Truth

Augusta, Maine

When the first transatlantic telegraph cable was pulled ashore in 1858, celebrations erupted across the United States. The technology that allowed people to communicate almost instantly across great distances began to transform society fourteen years earlier when Samuel Morse demonstrated that signals could be transmitted by wire. With regard to this latest development, the New York Times editorialized that the transatlantic telegraph was “superficial, sudden, unsifted, too fast for the truth…Ten days bring us the mails from Europe. What need is there for the scraps of news in ten minutes?” Nevertheless, the new cable was greeted with great excitement, marked by the ringing of church bells, torch-light parades, and a hundred-gun salute in New York City. In Augusta, Maine, a small hotel reprinted the initial telegrams on its menu the next day, reporting news of the historic event in real time.

Friday, March 4, 2011

On the Road


The gentleman on this advertising card declares, “Yes Miss, when traveling, I always drink Van Houten’s Cocoa. It is so sustaining.” This comic scene took place in the mid-1880s when the fast-growing railroads were changing the social landscape in the United States, bringing strangers together in social settings far from home.1 Rapid industrial growth also brought about the rise of a new breed of traveling salesmen called “drummers.” Distinctly different from hawkers and peddlers, the drummers were a new cultural phenomenon, the enterprising foot soldiers of capitalism, bringing its bounty to the hinterlands.2 They first appeared in the 1840s. Their numbers declined during the Civil War, but then skyrocketed in the post-war boom. By the late 1880s, there was somewhere between 60,000 and 100,000 drummers in the country. They soon became part of the national lore. Five menus from their heyday provide a rare glimpse into their world of fraternal relationships and professional associations. 

Sunday, February 13, 2011

St. Valentine's Day

New York City, 

Valentine’s Day was wildly popular in the late nineteenth century, reflecting the values of a society that prized ceremony and ritual. Traditionally celebrated on Saint Valentine’s Day, the holiday acquired its amorous meaning during the Middle Ages, even though none of the martyred saints named Valentine seems to have had any particular connection to romantic love.1 In the early 1800s, there was a revival of the tradition when couples began to consider romantic love a prerequisite for marriage, and it later got an added boost in the 1840s with the introduction of mass-produced greeting cards. By the early 1880s, the amative feast day was ripe for commercial exploitation that went beyond the usual candy, flowers, and cards. It was at about this time that the hotels in New York were looking for new ways to attract people, having recently lost many of their permanent residents to apartment buildings. One idea was to host lavish theme dinners on the holidays, as reflected by this menu from the St. Nicholas Hotel on Valentine’s Day in 1882. The culinary wordsmith who named a dish “Potatoes à la Santa Claus” on their Christmas menu a few weeks earlier rose to the occasion again, this time christening a cake “Gâteaux à la Valentine.”

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Burgeoning Bourgeoisie

New York City, 

One of the underlying themes of American ephemera is the rise of the middle class. The overall standard of living began to improve during the industrial revolution, and continued to grow despite periodic obstacles like the great wars and economic downturns. Although it played out differently in various segments of the population, people generally lived better and better over time, as illustrated by a group of antebellum menus from New York City.

Friday, January 14, 2011

The Doe-Birds


Tremont House - Boston (ca.1838)
Hotels are so ubiquitous that it is easy to forget that they were once a novel concept, invented in the United States during the early nineteenth century. The first hotels were large, impressive structures that boasted private bedrooms, grand public ballrooms, and elegant architecture. By the late 1830s there were hundreds of them across the country. Historian Andrew Sandoval-Strausz argues that the hotel was, in essence, “the physical manifestation of a distinctly American vision of mobility, civil society, democracy, and space.”1 In other words, hotels were an expression of American culture—not only as a safe and comfortable place for travelers, but also as an integral part of everyday urban life.