Saturday, November 6, 2021

The 15-Cent Houses


Almost everyone living in large cities ate in a restaurant from time to time during the late nineteenth century. Unless poverty stricken,  average citizens patronized small eateries that served English-style fare at rock-bottom prices. There was nothing fancy about the food or the service. Dubbed 15-cent houses, these meat-and-potatoes restaurants seldom warranted attention in the press and exceedingly few menus have survived. One source of historical evidence is provided by handbills and business cards advertising specific dishes. A selection of such ephemera from ordinary restaurants in Boston 
from 1875 to 1885 reveals the food customs of the middling and working classes, especially when compared to similar material from other dining niches of society. 

Wednesday, September 1, 2021

Charles Dickens in Boston

1842 & 1925

Charles Dickens was enthusiastically fêted when he visited the United States in 1842 and 1867-68.  For many years afterward, these grand affairs lingered in the collective memory of the novelist’s most ardent admirers, as revealed by a menu from a dinner of the Dickens’ Fellowship in Boston in 1925.

Thursday, August 12, 2021

In the Good Old Summertime

Wilmington, Delaware

This postcard marks the second day of a trapshooting competition at the DuPont Gun Club on 
July 11, 1911. The recreational club had been established the previous year on the grounds of the Experimental Station of the DuPont Company that was then in the business of manufacturing gunpowder. Interestingly, the card includes the lunch menu—fried chicken, potato salad, and ice cream. The scene recalls the song “In the Good Old Summertime,” a popular tune of the era when life was seemingly less complicated.  

Monday, May 10, 2021

Economic Precarity


One of the underlying themes of American ephemera is the expansion of the middle and upper classes. Over time, higher incomes and increased leisure time fostered a culture of consumption and new social customs like eating outside the home. Not surprisingly, menus become increasingly scarce as you descend the economic ladder. By the time you reach the lower classes and those living in poverty, such material evidence is practically nonexistent. Nevertheless, menus and photographs occasionally surface that reflect segments of the population being pushed from a livable life, often by a financial crisis or war.

Thursday, April 1, 2021

Om Shanti

Los Angeles, 

front of this large menu from 1971 features the word “om” in Devanagari script. Underneath is a description of this sacred sound in Indian religions that ends with the mantra “om shanti,” meaning peace. Since the name of the restaurant is not shown on the cover, the menu is sometimes thought to have originated from a place called Om Shanti. It actually comes from a Los Angeles vegetarian restaurant named H.E.L.P., an acronym for health, education, love, and peace. The menu marks the moment in culinary history when vegetarianism began to enter into the mainstream of American life.

Monday, March 1, 2021

What is this, Gluckstern’s?

New York City, 

The Dairy Restaurant is a fascinating new book by writer and cartoonist Ben Katchor. Jewish dairy restaurants attracted patrons who followed the dietary laws that forbid the mingling of meat and any milk-based product, and those who simply yearned for the comforting dishes of Eastern European Jewish cuisine, such as borscht, salmon, potato latkes, blintzes, and kreplach (small dumplings filled with cheese).1 These eateries have now almost completely vanished without barely leaving a trace. The surprising lack of primary source material prompted me to take a fresh look at menus in my collection from Jewish restaurants of all kinds. Two in particular caught my attention. They came from Gluckstern’s and Isaac Gellis which were kosher meat restaurants on opposite ends of Manhattan. The menus were saved in 1948 by an anonymous couple who marked the dishes they ordered with X’s or O’s. The simple notations evoked a reminiscent feeling similar to what one reviewer described as Katchor’s “melancholy yiddishkeit,” recalling bygone eating places that were once a part of everyday life.

Thursday, February 4, 2021

A Sunday Dinner

New York City, 

Menus are generally the only documents that speak to how people dined outside the home in the nineteenth century. Yet, it is nearly impossible to get a visceral sense of a list of dishes from a bygone era, especially when it is removed by more than a hundred years of radical changes. On rare occasions, patrons marked the dishes they ordered, thereby enriching the historical evidence. An annotated menu from the Grand Central Hotel in New York provides a case in point, showing what two guests ordered for dinner on Sunday evening, February 12, 1882. The anonymous diners, identified simply as “A” and “E,” understood the nuances of the menu and took full advantage of the opportunity.