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.)