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. 

The Grand Central was located on Broadway, near Bond Street. Opened in 1870, the building was distinguished by elaborate mansards with dormers in the French Second Empire style.1 
The hotel operated on the American plan which meant that breakfast, lunch, and dinner were included in the daily rate. Its cuisine ranked a notch below the city’s finest establishments.2 The typical table d’hôte menu below is organized under ten headings—Soups, Fish, Releves, Entrees, Roast, Cold Dishes, Game, Mayonnaise, Vegetables, and Pastry & Dessert.

This course provided the first indication of the class of the establishment. The two soups changed every day, with the most delicate ones being reserved for Sundays and holidays. Typically, there was a clear soup and a puree. Célestine consommé contains a sliced crepe that acts as a noodle and was favored for Sunday dinners in country homes in France. Chicken à la Reine, or “in the queen’s style,” is a creamy white soup then made with almonds.

Guest A: Chicken à la Reine 
Guest E: Consommé Célestine 

The Grand Central had one fish on its bill of fare, whereas luxury hotels offered a choice of two such dishes. Given the mid-February timing, the shad may have been the first of the season, marking an annual culinary event. The mild and buttery fish was accompanied by hashed potatoes baked in cream. 

Guests A & E: Broiled Shad à la maître d’hôtel 

During the week, there was a category called “Boiled” that contained meat dishes such as corned beef and cabbage. On Sunday, it was replaced by special entrées known as relevés which made the menu appear more opulent. This change provided an opportunity to upgrade pork and beans, a dish traditionally served on Sunday in New England. Unmoved by this marketing ploy to promote a low-cost mainstay, Guest “A” ordered the capon braised with mushrooms, wine, and parsley in lieu of a regular entrée.

Guest A: Philadelphia Capon, brasé, au Chasseur 

The entrées were the most refined and elegant dishes, reflecting the skill of the chef. Unlike today, the entrée was not the main course, but instead was designed to provide the guest with just a taste.3 They were cooked using moist methods, such as sautés, ragoûts, and fricassées. The rich sauces were complimentary; none was used more than once at a dinner. In addition, this section generally included a macaroni dish prepared in one of four ways—au gratin au Parmesan, a l’Italienne , à la Neapolitaine, or à la Milanaise. The entrées were often arranged in a loose sequence, with the most prestigious one listed first. The last entrée was customarily a hot sweet entremets, such as apple fritters with rum sauce or rice cakes with lemon sauce. Oddly, no such dish appears on this menu. Guest “E” ordered three entrées, indicating the portions were small.
Guest E: Deviled Lobster baked in shell 
Guest E: Calf’s Head, fricasseed, à la Poulette 
Guest E: Timbale of Macaroni à la Milanaise 

No course conveyed the underlying theme of plentitude more than the roasts, the foundation upon which the American menu was built. Of the four commonplace roasts on this menu, ribs of beef and ham with Champagne sauce were daily fixtures on hotel menus across the country. The other roasts were also frequently available, although somewhat less often.4 

Guest A: Turkey with Cranberry Sauce 
Guest E: Saddle Southdown Mutton 

Cold Dishes
Regular meats, such as tongue, lamb, and roast beef, were replaced on Sundays by attractive cold dishes that echoed the artistry of the chef. These included pâtés made of fat goose liver and elaborate displays that had a gel coating of aspic and were decorated with fancy garnishes like sliced black truffles.

Guest A: Pâté de Foie-gras 
Guest A: Boned Turkey 
Guest E: Pâté de Strasbourg 

A game dish was offered during the hunting season which ran from September to about mid-March. Mallard duck was one of the most common game dishes at this time of year. 

Guests A & E: Mallard Duck with currant jelly 

The format of the table d’hôte menu was continuously evolving. “Mayonnaise” was a new category that first appeared in the early 1880s. 

Guests A & E: Celery [Salad] 

By custom, the vegetables were minimally described. There was usually no indication as to whether they were canned, fresh, or local, except for a few weeks in the summer when the corn was called “green” and some of the others were identified as “new.” The selection of eight to ten vegetables almost always included potatoes, onions, and stewed tomatoes. The lowly position of the vegetables on the bill of fare may not have represented their place in the service. Perhaps they were served as side dishes with the roast which was the main attraction of the meal.

Guest A: Cream Spinach 
Guest A: Mashed Potatoes
Guest A: Green Peas
Guest A: Stewed Tomatoes 
Guests A & E: Fried Oyster Plant 
Guest E: Coarse Hominy 

Pastry & Dessert 
Beginning in the early 1880s, the pastries and desserts were shown under one heading. Previously, a separate section called “Pastry” offered a selection of puddings, pies, tarts, cakes, creams, blancmanges, jellies, and meringues; the “Dessert” category was confined to fruit, nuts, and an ice cream or two. Neapolitan ice cream was a seldom seen flavor reserved for an occasional Sunday or holiday. Charlotte Russe was a special sweet dish that routinely appeared on Sunday menus. Interestingly, the mince pie is called “home-made,” a rarely-used descriptor that literally meant it was not made on the premises. Still, it may have been a house specialty. Guest “A” ordered six sweet dishes, some of which may have been plated as a little of this and a little of that, similar to how such an assortment would be served from a dessert cart today. On Sunday, the Grand Central offered “French coffee” instead of its regular brew. 

Guest A: Apple Dumpling, brandy and hard sauce 
Guest A: Napolitaine Ice Cream 
Guest A: Molasses Cake 
Guest A: Fruits 
Guest A: Nuts and Raisins 
Guests A & E: Homemade Mince Pie 
Guest E: Charlotte Russe a la Vanille 

Guests A & E: French Coffee 

Table d’hôte menus were lavish in a way that expressed societal aspirations and ideals. Such cultural positioning was achieved by offering an abundance of dishes and by the inclusion of French cuisine. Since chefs also needed to contain costs, menus included dishes that consumed the ingredients left over from previous meals. Nothing was wasted. Inexpensive dishes, such as macaroni and pork and beans, were ubiquitous and portion sizes were not as large as commonly supposed, although this stratagem did not always work as intended. Astonishingly, of the 42 items on this menu, the two guests ordered 20 and 15 dishes, respectively.

1. The Grand Central gained notoriety in 1872 as the site of the murder of financier James "Big Jim" Fisk, a flamboyant robber baron of the Gilded Age. The hotel is also remembered as the place where eight baseball teams formed in February 1876, eventually becoming the National League of Major League Baseball. 
2. Sunday dinners at the Grand Central became decidedly less grand in the decade following its opening. A menu from a Sunday dinner in 1872 shows a choice of two fish, nine side dishes (entrées), and eight roasts, compared to this menu from 1882 that features one fish, six relevés/entrées, and four roasts. Despite this downward trend, the Grand Central never adopted the section titled “Relishes,” a category some hotels employed to make their table d’hôte menu appear larger and more generous. 
3. Entrées were often called “side dishes” on American menus in the 1850s and 1860s, and were still being called by that name at the Grand Central Hotel as late as 1872. 
4. The quantity of roasts on American menus begs the question as to whether such a vast array of meat dishes was actually available every day, especially at middling hotels. 
5. Freedman, Paul. “American Restaurants and Cuisine in the Mid-Nineteenth Century.” New England Quarterly 84 (2011): 1–55. 
6. The menu was printed by Borden & Cain at 46 West Broadway, a specially press that produced weekly and daily menus for over 35 hotels and restaurants, including Delmonico’s, the St. Nicholas Hotel, the Union Square Hotel, and Taylor’s Saloon, the renowned women’s restaurant in the St. Denis Hotel on Broadway at East 11th Street.


Jim O'Connell said...

This is an especially insightful explanation of how menus worked at 19th-century hotel dining rooms. The initials provided by the diners put you at their table. They certainly ate a good deal of food, even if the portions were small.

Jan Whitaker said...

I really like your explanations of how each course was understood at that time.