Sunday, December 28, 2014

The White Mountains


The Presidential Range comprises seven mountains—all named for U.S. presidents—situated within the picturesque White Mountains of New Hampshire. Mount Washington is the highest peak in this contiguous, twenty-five-mile line of granite summits, precisely positioned where high altitude systems from the Great Lakes and Canada collide with warmer air from the southern states and eastern Atlantic. As a result, the unpredictable weather can turn deadly in winter, renowned for sub-zero temperatures and the fastest wind gusts on earth. In summer, the conditions are much calmer, affording spectacular views in all directions on a clear day. A small stone hotel was built atop the mountain in 1853, followed sixteen years later by a cog railroad, the first in the world. In the early 1870s, the old hotel was replaced by a cushier one, as tourism began to take root throughout the United States.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Freedom from Want


Norman Rockwell painted this iconic scene in 1943. Depicting a family dinner on Thanksgiving, the painting “Freedom from Want” was the third of his Four Freedoms series that was inspired by President Roosevelt’s State of the Union Address two years earlier. Unlike the freedoms of speech and worship, and the freedom from fear, the concept behind freedom from want was not commonly understood, or accepted, as a universal freedom. Perhaps for this reason, this picture was also called “The Thanksgiving Painting.” Five menus from Thanksgiving 1943 show us what was happening elsewhere, as the world remained engulfed in the largest war in history. 

Sunday, November 9, 2014

To the Lighthouse

Miami Beach, 
 ca. 1968 

When I look at this menu, I can’t help but imagine what it would’ve been like if the English writer Virginia Woolf, and her husband Leonard, had lived in Miami in the late 1960s…

“Yes, it’s fine if we go tomorrow,” Ginny called out from the kitchen. “But there’s no sense in us getting there early. The place is always packed at this time of year.” 

To her husband these words conveyed a feeling of annoyance, as if the matter was not really settled. Each year on their anniversary, as if drawn by some need, they returned to The Lighthouse, where they recounted over dinner the joys and sorrows of their marriage. Feelings of irritation turned to anger, as he brooded over her remoteness. Had there been a gun handy, or a bat, who knows what might have happened next, such were the extremes of his emotions at moments like this. “Then it’s settled. But wait, you’ll see; it won’t be crowded,” Len said, as he poured himself a Scotch. “Yes, it will be fine,” she called back, not knowing he had slipped out of earshot, having stepped out into the backyard to breathe in the balmy night air.

Monday, August 11, 2014

An African-American Waiter’s Ball


Any document relating to an early African-American union is a rarity, such as this menu from a ball held by the Tremont House Waiters’ Association in 1892. Reflecting the traditional values of this group, the nine-page menu contains the bill of fare, concert program, and order of dances, as well as the names of the officers and management committee. Its most revealing feature is a portrait, perhaps of the association president, which expresses the calm and confident spirit of the time and place. Unbeknownst to these waiters, this joyous social gathering marked the apex of their collective lives.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Caffeinated Heroism

Akron, Ohio

This menu from a veteran’s reunion in Akron, Ohio in 1885 features an unusual dinner based solely on the basic rations of a Union soldier during the Civil War—coffee, pork, beans, and hardtack. Although hardtack was usually not served at such banquets, the hard biscuits had been the source of many jokes during the war. And while it came to be regarded as the most nostalgic of the army foods, even the coffee had a special meaning for these veterans from the Buckeye State

Monday, June 30, 2014

Tempest on the High Seas

S.S. Liberté, 

The great luxury liners were never more glamorous and exciting than on the day of departure. As passengers arrived and the final provisions were loaded on board, scarlet-jacketed bellboys scurried back and forth to the cabins, delivering flowers, telegrams, and Champagne. And when the tugboats finally began to nudge the leviathan from her berth, brightly-colored streamers rained down on friends and relatives who shouted “bon voyage” from the pier. I witnessed this spectacle firsthand in the spring of 1959 when I sailed to Europe with my parents. At the time, it was not unusual to travel by ship. Half of the people who crossed the Atlantic still did so by sea, and there was perhaps no better way than to book passage on the French Line’s Liberté which was renowned for its palatial Art Deco interiors and fine cuisine.1 My week aboard this steamship provided me with many memories, such as having the meal of my dreams and catching glimpses of one of our fellow passengers, a stripper named Tempest Storm.

Monday, June 23, 2014

War Weary


A hundred years ago this week, Serbian nationalists assassinated the heir to the throne of Austria-Hungary and his wife, setting off a series of events that led Europe into war. Although the United States did not enter the conflict until 1917, Americans living in Paris quickly sprang into action, establishing a military hospital for wounded French soldiers. Recalling this humanitarian effort, three menus from the hospital’s annual observance of Bastille Day unwittingly reflect this exhausting war of attrition.

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Robin au Crouton

New York City, 

In October 1857, philosopher Henry David Thoreau wrote about a chance encounter with a nearby farmer who was twice his age. “…I saw Brooks Clark, who is now about eighty and bent like a bow, hastening along the road, barefooted, as usual, with an axe in his hand; was in haste perhaps on account of the cold wind on his bare feet. When he got up to me, I saw that besides the axe in one hand, he had his shoes in the other, filled with knurly apples and a dead robin. He stopped and talked with me a few moments; said that we had had a noble autumn and might now expect some cold weather. I asked if he had found the robin dead. No, he said, he found it with its wing broken and killed it. He also added that he had found some apples in the woods, and as he hadn’t anything to carry them in, he put ’em in his shoes. They were queer-looking trays to carry fruit in. How many he got in along toward the toes, I don’t know. I noticed, too, that his pockets were stuffed with them. His old tattered frock coat was hanging in strips about the skirts, as were his pantaloons about his naked feet. He appeared to have been out on a scout this gusty afternoon, to see what he could find, as the youngest boy might. It pleased me to see this cheery old man, with such a feeble hold on life, bent almost double, thus enjoying the evening of his days.”1

Sunday, May 25, 2014

A Wonderful Machine

New York City, 

When eight-year-old Virginia O’Hanlon asked her father in 1897 whether Santa Claus really existed, he suggested she write to The Sun, one of New Yorks prominent newspapers The editorial response, which included the famous line “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus,” became part of American folklore. More conservative than The Times and The Herald Tribune, The Sun reflected the preoccupations of upper-class society, often marveling at the inner-workings and outward manifestations of wealth during the Gilded Age. For example, in October 1894, the paper interviewed Chef Charles Ranhofer at Delmonico’s, calling the luxury restaurant “a wonderful machine.” Almost every night during the social season, there was a large dinner in the third-floor banquet room of its Madison Square location, where course after course arrived promptly from the basement kitchen. The article, illustrated below with four menus from the period, describes the organizational efficiency of a fine dining establishment at the fin de siècle.1

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Up the Yangzi River

U.S.S. Helena, 

The chronology of holiday menus from the U.S.S. Wilmington begs the question as to what the sailors in the Asiatic Squadron ate on normal days in the early twentieth century. For that, we turn to a menu from her sister ship, the U.S.S. Helena, on December 2, 1906, while anchored off Hankow some 602 nautical miles up the Yangzi River. This Sunday dinner for the chief petty officers features delicacies like roast venison and roast pheasant. For dessert, there is the ubiquitous peach pie, presumably made with the local fruit for which this region of China is known. Indeed, it seems that they ate very well, confirmed by a note at the bottom which reads: “This is a fair sample of our usual dinner.” (The CPO cook, J. J. Pinkerton, was reputedly the best chef on the Helena, outclassing those who prepared meals for the crew and the officers.) 

Monday, April 28, 2014

Showing the Flag

U.S.S. Wilmington

Caught in a storm off the coast of Luzon on the night of December 20, 1915, the U.S.S. Wilmington rolled 61 degrees, dangerously close to the point where she would capsize. Having narrowly survived the worst roll in her forty-eight years of service, the naval vessel arrived in Manila the next day, safely completing the three-day passage from Hong Kong. The light-draft gunboat was part of the U.S. Asiatic Squadron, charged with defending the Philippines and with upholding the Open Door Policy in China. Typhoons posed one of the greatest threats to the American warships as they sailed from port to port, establishing an authoritative presence in the region by “showing the flag.” Twenty-three holiday menus from the Wilmington reveal the rituals and rhythm of this naval patrol in the early twentieth century.

Monday, April 7, 2014

The Life & Times of Antonio Sivori (Part IV)

New York City, 

Antonio Savori achieved some degree of notoriety during his lifetime. He was perhaps best known for the charity balls he catered at the Academy of Music. Located on East 14th Street at Irving Place, this theater was was situated only one block off Union Square, the center of New Yorks social life until the early 1880s. Featuring a lavish white and gold interior illuminated by thousands of gaslights, the venue was used for operas, concerts, and even high society balls by removing the 4,000 crimson-velvet seats to create a large dance floor.

Friday, March 21, 2014

The Life & Times of Antonio Sivori (Part III)

New York City, 

Despite the onslaught of a severe depression, Antonio Sivori got a job in early 1874 as the steward of the Union Square Hotel. The area near the park had by then become largely commercial. In 1870, the jeweler and stationer Tiffany & Co. moved to 15th Street from its old location at Broadway and Broome Street. It was also around this time that the Union Square Hotel and its adjoining theater opened on the corner of Fourth Avenue and 15th Street, occupying the site where one of the finest boarding houses in the city once stood. 

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

The Life & Times of Antonio Sivori (Part II)

New York City, 

By June 1872, Antonio Sivori was the proprietor of St. Mark’s Restaurant at 27th Street and Broadway, situated inside the newly-completed Stevens House. Designed by the country’s leading architect, Richard Morris Hunt, the mansard-capped building was the first apartment complex of its kind. The eight-story structure occupied the entire south side of 27th Street between Broadway and Fifth Avenue, and yet it contained only eighteen luxury suites.1 Then thirty-nine years old, Sivori appears to have operated this restaurant for only about one year. Well-educated and fluent in six languages, he should have been able to work well with members of high society, but for some reason, he kept moving from job to job throughout his career, sometimes working at places you might least suspect.2

Friday, February 14, 2014

The Life and Times of Antonio Sivori (Part I)

New York City, 

One morning last spring, while combing through a box of old menus, I stumbled across a lost chapter of American culinary history. There had been only a brief opportunity to examine the tattered contents of this box before purchasing it, and I was now sorting through the hodge-podge of papers more carefully, hoping to find a hidden gem, when it suddenly occurred to me that forty-five of the menus from New York might somehow be related to each other. As I separated these from the others, and arranged them in chronological order from 1869 to 1881, an intriguing narrative began to take shape, for it appeared they had once belonged to a hotel steward named Antonio Sivori. No longer remembered, Sivori was well-known in his day, catering some of the city’s most important social events.1, 2

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Wedding Banquet of Irene and Solomon R. Guggenheim

New York City, 

Russian-born painter Wassily Kandinsky is credited with creating the first abstract painting, perhaps as early as 1910. Thirteen years later, he painted Composition 8, a large canvas with interacting circles, triangles, and linear elements that he considered the high point of his postwar work.1 Mining magnate Solomon Guggenheim and his wife Irene purchased Composition 8 from the artist at his studio in Dessau, Germany in the spring of 1929, and hung it in their suite at the Plaza Hotel, the first of more than 150 works by Kandinsky to enter their collection. The avant-garde painter and these important patrons, all born in the 1860s, came from the same generation and would later say that their interest in art was sparked by an event in 1895. For the Guggenheims, the artistic journey began shortly after their marriage in April of that year. A menu from their wedding banquet suggests that it was a conventional, upper-class affair of the fin de siècle, the closing phase of the nineteenth century when art was running out of new things to say, and the seeds of a more daring expression had not yet taken root. 

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

King Kalākaua of Hawaii

 New Bedford & Honolulu,

For those of us who live on the Mainland, the words “king,” “palatial residence,” and “Hawaii” are likely to conjure up images of Elvis, Graceland, and the movie Blue Hawaii, before recalling that Hawaii once had a royal family. One of the kingdom’s last monarchs was David Kalākaua who ascended the throne in 1874. Kalākaua entered the history books again that year when he became the first foreign head of state to visit the United States. While the purpose of his trip was to sign a treaty of reciprocity, assuring Hawaii a duty-free market for its sugar and other goods, he used the opportunity to visit people and places in America that had had a long relationship with his country. Two menus dating from this period, one from a dinner with old contacts in the whaling industry, the other from a luncheon after he returned to Hawaii, reveal interesting details of his goodwill visit and daily life at home.