Saturday, December 21, 2013

Christmas, 1864


On Christmas Day in 1864, a special dinner was served to the 4,500 Union soldiers housed at Satterlee General Hospital, then the largest army hospital in the country. Satterlee was located in Philadelphia between 40th and 44th Streets, near Baltimore Avenue, in a sparsely-developed area about a half mile west of the Schuylkill River. The sprawling 15-acre facility comprised rows of wood-frame wards and hundreds of tents, as well as a library, a reading room, and a printing shop that probably produced this menu card with an illustration of the hospital on the back. The holiday dinner shown below was provided by Dr. and Mrs. Milton Egbert, whose farm in northwestern Pennsylvania was luckily situated in the center of the nation’s first oil-producing region. In 1859, the early wells yielded only a few thousand barrels, but oil production quickly grew during the Civil War, making the Egberts immensely wealthy. At the time, it was said that no parcel of land in the United States of equal size had yielded a larger financial return than their farm on Oil Creek. 

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Cafeteria America

ca. 1955 

During a recent visit to Havana, I hailed a taxi (a 1958 Ford) and rumbled over to the Plaza de Armas to look for some old menus. Every day dozens of private booksellers set up their stalls in this leafy square, selling used books, ephemera, and souvenir photographs taken in famous nightclubs like the Tropicana during its heyday. Some of the books date back to the nineteenth century. One such rarity that caught my eye was a finely-bound volume containing copies of Frank’s Illustrated Weekly for the month of July 1870. As tempting as it was, I decided to forgo this treasure and stay focused on my mission to find historical evidence of Cuban influence on the food customs of the United States, or conversely, the spread of American culture abroad. And as luck would have it, I soon discovered a menu from the Cafeteria America. Coming from the period just before the revolution in 1959, it illustrated the simple pleasures of everyday life once enjoyed by the middle- and upper-classes in Cuba.

Saturday, November 30, 2013

Wrong Way Corrigan

Los Angeles, 

On a foggy morning in July 1938, a 31-year-old aircraft mechanic named Douglass Corrigan took off in a jerry-built plane from an airfield in Brooklyn. Disappearing into the haze, he carried with him some chocolate, two boxes of fig bars, one quart of water, and a U.S. map marked with a flight plan to California. Twenty-eight hours later, he landed in Dublin. Since he had repeatedly been denied permission to fly across the Atlantic, Corrigan told the authorities in Ireland that he left New York the previous day heading for the West Coast, but somehow “got mixed up in the clouds and must have flown the wrong way.” He theorized that the low-light conditions might have caused him to misread the compass. That was his story and he stuck to it. 

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Broiled Eels & Wild Hare


Thanksgiving was once regarded as “a Yankee holiday.” In the eighteenth century, the clergy in New England used it as an opportunity to rail against the British, and after that issue was resolved, they turned their attention to slavery. The autumnal celebration gained in popularity during the nineteenth century, as New Englanders migrated to other parts of the country. Two menus from Thanksgiving in 1852 stir the imagination, taking us back to a distant time and place. One is a rare survivor from a ship on the high seas. Proclaiming the special day in large script, it stands in marked contrast to a menu from a hotel in Connecticut, where curiously, the reference to Thanksgiving is much less obvious. 

Thursday, October 17, 2013

The Nativist Printer

Washington, D.C.

President James K. Polk was the last of the Jacksonians to sit in the White House. Nicknamed “Little Hickory,” Polk was committed to the concept of Manifest Destiny, using his Democratic majority in the Senate and House of Representatives to rapidly expand the country across the continent. In January 1846, marking the beginning of the first full year of his one-term presidency, the House voted to stop sharing the Oregon Territory with the United Kingdom. Five months later, a treaty was signed in Washington, setting the western border with Canada.1 In May, the United States declared war on Mexico, and although this conflict lasted two years, the annexation of California began almost immediately. During this combative year, some territorial issues were easily resolved, such as when Iowa was admitted as the 29th state or, in another Act of Congress, part of the District of Columbia was returned to Virginia. Fearing that the slave trade in the District would soon be outlawed, Alexandrians petitioned Congress for the land south of the Potomac River. After the retrocession of the thirty-one square miles ceded by Virginia in 1791, the nation’s capital was no longer ten miles square; all that remained was the territory originally donated by Maryland.2, 3

Monday, September 30, 2013

Grand Banquet at Delmonico's

New York City

In the preface of his 1894 cookbook The Epicurean, Delmonico’s chef Charles Ranhofer cited seventeen grand banquets as being particularly memorable.1 One of these dinners had been held fourteen years earlier for Count Ferdinand de Lessep, the French entrepreneur who built the Suez Canal. Eager to replicate his engineering feat, De Lesseps came to New York in March 1880 to raise money for a sea-level canal that would cut across the Isthmus of Panama. As was customary, a banquet was held in his honor. However, as far as the French-born chef and his brigade were concerned, their famed countryman was more than just another special guest. To them, he was a hero of the age. Observing a palpable excitement in the air during dinner, the reporter from the New York Times wryly noted that “the nationality of the distinguished guest of the evening had had something to do with the zeal of the cooks, confectioners, and waiters.”2 

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Epigram of Lamb, à la De Free

Topeka, Kansas

Ephemera often contains unwitting historical evidence. A case in point is provided by a small menu from the Copeland Hotel in Topeka, Kansas in 1883, the same year Emma Lazarus captured the welcoming spirit of America in her famous poem that included the  line: “Give me your tired, your poor / Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free...” Although a dish on the menu alludes to this ideal, the railroad timetable on the back reveals the harsh realities of a time when masses of dispossessed people were migrating throughout the United States.

Saturday, August 3, 2013

Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner

Beverly Hills, 

Sitting Pretty (1948)
With his attitude of thinly-veiled disdain, actor Clifton Webb was “a blast of asexual sophistication during Hollywood’s testosterone-fueled postwar epoch,” according to Turner Classics. It could also be said that he was an integral part of the social scene. Although Webb was often cast as a family man, he lived in Beverley Hills with his mother Maybelle, an uninhibited Auntie-Mame type. Together, they threw some of Tinseltowns most memorable parties. One such affair was held on July 1, 1948, a few months after the release of the film Sitting Pretty, a comedy for which Webb would receive his second Oscar nomination.  Although the guest list is a “Who’s Who” of the movie industry at the apex of its golden age, there is one important name that is missing.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Summer of 1842


Few menus from the early 1840s have survived. Dating to a time when people seldom ate outside the home, they were rarely seen even then. Hotels and restaurants were in their infancy, slowly emerging as an expression of American ideals of mobility, democracy, and civil society. This is evidenced by two menus from Boston in the summer of 1842, showing a certain degree of uniformity in the foods consumed by the middle- and working-classes of the Jacksonian Era.

Sunday, June 30, 2013

Returning to the Hellhole


This week marks the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg. Often described as the turning point of the Civil War, it was there that Union forces halted the Confederate invasion of the North in 1863. The ferocious three-day fight produced the largest number of casualties of any battle in the war—over 46,000 men were killed, wounded, or missing.

Saturday, June 15, 2013

The Black Warrior


Launched in 1852, the steamship Black Warrior was christened after the legendary Indian chief Tuscaloosa whose name comprised two Choctaw words—tusca (warrior) and lusa (black). Two years later, during one of its routine trips between New Orleans, Havana and New York, the 225-foot ship was seized by Cuban customs officials claiming that its load of Alabama cotton should have been declared, even though it was not to be unloaded on the island. The incident caused a furor, effectively derailing President Franklin Pierce’s plan to buy Cuba. Instead, pro-slavery forces demanded war with Spain, seeing this as an opportunity to turn Cuba into a slave territory. As the United States grew increasingly bellicose, Spain backed down and paid compensation for having detained the vessel whose fate would presage the Civil War.

Friday, May 17, 2013

A Circle of Friends

Flint, Michigan

The American custom of having afternoon tea is often traced back to the late nineteenth century when the upper classes in New York began to routinely engage in their version of the British ritual. However, well before that date, average women were using the term “five o’clock tea” to describe some of their get-togethers, as shown by nine enigmatic menus from the mid-1880s that recently came to light—a surprising discovery since menus were seldom printed for such events in private homes. These mementos were apparently saved by a woman who belonged to a small circle of friends. Although the menus contained the names of the participants, the use of nicknames and initials made it difficult to determine where the social events had taken place. Nevertheless, through trial and error, it was eventually determined that the women lived in Flint, Michigan, then a town of about 9,000 people. The menus provide a glimpse of the everyday social life of middle-class Midwesterners, while one in particular reveals the American entrepreneurial spirit that would soon set the country’s wheels into motion.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Longing for the Past

San Francisco, 

When menus are printed for a small get-together, they often reflect the underlying values of an individual or group, such as this charming menu from a dinner in June 1923 hosted by Camille Mailhebuau, Jr., eldest son of the famed restaurateur. His father had recently returned to San Francisco, opening his eponymous eatery on Pine Street, shown in the previous essay “A Moment in Time.” Although Camille Jr. describes this event as the “first dinner given to my friends,” as if he were marking a rite of passage in his epicurean family, the party was probably organized by his parents to celebrate his twenty-first birthday. It appears that his father planned this bill of fare and arranged to have the menus printed; the illustration is surprisingly old-fashioned for a youthful gathering during the Jazz Age. The image suggests a longing for the past, harkening back to the joyful time before Prohibition, when Champagne could be legally served in American restaurants, or perhaps even sipped while flying your “aeroplane.”

Saturday, April 13, 2013

A Moment in Time

San Francisco, 

When I first saw this photograph, there was something intriguing about the scene that I couldn’t put my finger on. The inscription in the lower right-hand corner provided some information about the event—Camille and Eugenie Mailhebuau celebrated their twentieth wedding anniversary at this dinner party on February 9, 1920. Camille was a French-born restaurateur who operated the venerable Old Poodle Dog in San Francisco. Camille and Eugenie can be seen at the middle of the long table, just behind the pretty cake. While the couple appears to be happy, some of guests look as if something is bothering them. Of course, it was entirely possible that the underlying anxiety that I perceived was a figment of my imagination. However, when a menu surfaced a few years later, showing where the dinner had been held and who was there, I realized what may have been on their minds that day, for the photograph marked a pivotal moment in the history of American restaurants.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

What Jackie Liked to Eat

The White House

Flashbulbs popped on the night of the Pre-Inaugural Gala, when Jacqueline Kennedy emerged from a townhouse in Georgetown into the swirling snow, dressed in a shimmering, winter-white satin gown by Oleg Cassini. It was the country’s first glimpse of Jackie in the role of First Lady, revealing the grace, elegance and unique style that she would bring to the White House.

Friday, February 8, 2013

The Princess

Mississippi River, 

This Currier & Ives print titled “Wooding up on the Mississippi” depicts the steamboat Princess taking on firewood for its engines. Such pleasant and reassuring scenes were produced for the American masses, creating romantic images that linger to this day. Of course, the reality of everyday life along the banks of lower Mississippi was far from idyllic. By the middle of the nineteenth century, there had been over 4,000 fatalities on riverboats due to boiler explosions alone. In addition to such hazards, there was the pervading institution of slavery. Having erected its economic edifice...on the shifting sands of opportunism and moral brigandage, the Antebellum South was an unpleasant and hellish society for most of those who lived it.1 An 1857 menu from the Princess provides unwitting historical evidence about this part of the American past.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Fresh Eggs in California

San Francisco, 

In late 1852, the clipper Golden Eagle set sail from Boston on her maiden voyage, bound for California.1 Rounding Cape Horn during the supposed calm of the Antarctic summer, the ship encountered rough seas that split the bow, causing it to return to Rio for a month of repairs. By the time she arrived at the Golden Gate, it was the spring of 1853. Sailing past the new lighthouse on Alcatraz Island, still waiting for its revolving lantern to arrive from France, the great clipper finally docked at a multinational city of 40,000 inhabitants who came to seek their fortunes.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Dining at a Love Hotel in the Gilded Age

New York City
ca. 1892

Women were a popular motif on cigar boxes in the late nineteenth century. They were often portrayed as angels, warriors, or voluptuous goddesses. However, it is rare to find a label that features a female nude since the cigar boxes with these images were seemingly intended for brothels. The Victorians were adept at being discreet whenever they strayed from their strict moral code espousing sexual restraint. Not surprisingly, ephemera that reflects this part of their private lives can be scarce. A case in point is provided by a menu from a little-known hotel called “The Palette.” Operating in New York during the Gilded Age, it was patronized by members of upper class who were leading double lives. This obscure hotel, which was never mentioned in contemporary newspapers or magazines, remains something of a mystery. The cuisine and prices on the menu indicate that its dining room was in a league with Sherry’s and Delmonico’s.