Saturday, April 4, 2020

No There There

ca. 1880

Novelist Gertrude Stein returned to the United States in 1934 after a 30-year absence. While crisscrossing the country on a speaking tour, the celebrated Parisian expatriate visited Oakland to see the farm she grew up on and the house where she once lived. After learning that her childhood home had been razed and the farmland developed, Stein famously wrote “there is no there there.” The significant places in California that helped define her no longer existed. The Stein family had moved to Oakland in 1880, when she was six, and lived for the first year at the Tubbs Hotel. Situated just east of Lake Merritt, the 200-room hostelry had some prominent guests in its day.1 Former president Ulysses S. Grant and his wife dined there in 1879 while on the final leg of their trip around the world. And author Robert Louis Stevenson stayed at the Tubbs Hotel from March to April 1880, the same year the Stein family was in residence. Nevertheless, a table d’hôte menu from the period reveals that it was a middling establishment where the meals were basically the same as those at other hotels in its class. Indeed, there was “no there” in the dining rooms of American hotels where the standardized cuisine reflected few regional influences. 

In addition to an array of relishes, nine basic meat dishes were routinely printed on the menu form, even though it seems unlikely that all of them were always available. Following the custom of the era, the soup, fish, entrées, vegetables, and desserts changed daily. At the Tubbs Hotel, they were written on by hand. Although the lines for these courses are blank on this unused copy, the complete bill of fare can easily be imagined. Soups such as mock turtle, tomato rice, and vermicelli were common. The most ubiquitous entrée was macaroni and cheese which appeared in various guises. Other prevalent dishes included pork and beans, oyster patties, larded sweetbreads, and mutton with caper sauce. It was not unusual to find small game birds on toast or a calf’s head with brain sauce among the principal courses. The last line in this section was often reserved for a sweet entrée like rice cakes or apple fritters served with a rum glacé

A mere handful of vegetables would have been followed by numerous pies and puddings crammed into the space allotted for them. 

The beverage list below features a modest selection of Champagnes, mineral waters, and “native wines,” presumably from the nearby vineyards in the Napa and Sonoma Valleys. There are only two beers, one of which was made by the Fredericksburg Brewery in Santa Clara County. The other is Budweiser. Anheuser-Busch in St. Louis already owned a fleet of refrigerated railroad cars for nationwide distribution. 

The predictable nature of the hotel menu defined one aspect of the national culture in the late nineteenth century. Since then, the food customs of the country have become more exuberant and diverse, if less coherent.2 

1. The Tubbs Hotel opened in 1871 on the main street of Brooklyn which was annexed into Oakland the following year. At one point, it was the city's largest employer of African Americans. When it was destroyed by fire on August 14, 1893, the hotel had only twenty guests and reportedly had not turned a profit in years.
2. Paul Freedman, America Cuisine and How It Got To Be This Way. New York and London: 2019.

1 comment:

Jan Whitaker said...

How interesting to learn the deeper meaning of no there there.