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.”