Sunday, January 24, 2016

A Touch of Irony

San Francisco, 

This gathering in San Francisco in 1918 celebrated the 6oth birthday of Jean Baptiste Pon, one of the founders of Bergez-Frank’s Old Poodle Dog where the party was held. Sitting in the foreground, his principal partner, Camille Mailhebuau, casually peruses the menu while everyone else poses for the photograph. (He seemingly took it with him from his seat at the head of the table where there is no menu.) One can imagine why he was interested in reading it—in addition to the French cuisine and vintage wines, the dinner concludes on a oddly prescient note, adding a touch of irony to the affair. 

Thursday, January 14, 2016

The “Reed Birds” of San Francisco

San Francisco, 

The Occidental in San Francisco was “Heaven on the half shell,” according to Mark Twain who described the daily routine at the luxury hotel in terms of its food service.1 “Here you are expected to breakfast on salmon, fried oysters and other substantials from 6 till half-past 12; you are required to lunch on cold fowl and so forth, from half-past 12 until 3; you are obliged to skirmish through a dinner comprising such edibles as the world produces, and keep it up, from 3 until half-past 7; you are then compelled to lay siege to the tea-table from half-past 7 until 9 o’clock, at which hour…(you) move upon the supper works and destroy oysters gotten up in all kinds of seductive styles until 12 o’clock.” Indeed, a menu from about 1881 shows the restaurant at the hotel served three types of oysters.2 The price for a plate of California oysters was 25 cents, those from the East Coast were 50 cents, and the ones “transplanted” for growth and conditioning cost 37½ cents, precisely positioned in the middle. Another interesting item on this menu is a game dish called reed birds. Unlike the oysters, they are not indigenous to the region, nor were they transported across the country by rail. 

Thursday, January 7, 2016

Out-of-Season Game Birds

New York City,

The mislabeling of food was a conventional practice in the nineteenth century when imagination often trumped scruples in the supply chain. While menus may not provide evidence of the most egregious misdeeds, they sometimes indicate puffery, such as when a game bird appears to have been given the name of a fancier species. For example, small rails from the swampy marshes of the Mid-Atlantic might be called ortolans, the European buntings beloved by gourmets in France. Claims of this type were probably not intended to fool the diner so much as to give the occasion a more sophisticated air. However, game birds may have also been mislabeled, or simply left off the menu, when they were served out of season. For a better understanding of this illicit practice, we turn to an investigative article about one such incident. Although I have not yet found a menu to support this report, ephemera tells us something about the restaurant implicated in the story.1