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.