I’ve been captivated by the New York Public Library’s online collection of menus lately. It’s a fascinating collection on many levels, but especially because the language of the menus says so much about their time.
We’re a lot more squeamish about food terms than our turn of the 20th century relatives were. For the most part, they don’t use the euphemisms we take for granted today. Take Stewed tripe Lyonnaise, for example. If I were writing that menu today it would read Andouille Lyonnaise. It’s like the difference between snails and escargot. Or cows and beef.
Today, no self-respecting chef -- or at least no one with a good public relations firm -- would put calf’s head with brain sauce on a menu today, though it was common then. Likewise pig’s head cheese. Or pigeon pie. If you live in a city, you are not ordering pigeon. Squab, maybe.
Somehow, reading “Canada Frogs, Fried,” as it is listed on the 1900 menu of Dorlon’s Oyster House in New York, is much more disconcerting than reading “frog’s legs” would be.
The spelling of “Hindquarter of american fawn” [sic] from the January 18th, 1900 menu for the Annual Supper of the Queen City Club in Cincinnati, Ohio bothers me less than the image that springs to mind. But I love that they serve their Virginia ham in the New England style.
The menus in the collection are from hotels, restaurants, ocean liners, railroads, oyster houses, and cafeterias. Many list foods we seldom see days, like green (or mock) turtle soup, mutton, stewed prunes, or the young bear served, or at least offered, at the 1912 Waldorf Astoria. The same menu also listed “Monk’s Beard” under salads. There has to be a better, more appetizing name for this type of chicory. How about chicory?
Some names are completely new to me. The rail birds listed on a 1907 menu for the Clover Club dinner held in Philadelphia’s Bellevue-Stratford Hotel, turn out to be wild waterfowl. They’re still hunted during specifically approved times of the year, but I don’t think any find their way onto menus.
Some names have changed – their alligator pears are our avocados. Eggplant is generally listed as two separate words. Tunny is tuna. Gems are muffins. “Picked-up codfish in cream” is on many menus including New York’s Hotel Vendome in 1900. This turns out to be salted cod that’s been flaked, boned, and soaked to soften, then simmered in a cream sauce with, generally, minced parsley and a dash of cayenne and served on toast. Not codfish they happened to pick up somewhere. The Vendome’s menu, along with many others, lists Yarmouth bloaters. The name makes me think of jellyfish, but they are actually cold-smoked herring.
The menus also reveal fascinating historical and cultural tidbits. The Fifth Avenue Hotel in New York lists special meal hours for “Children And Servants” on an August, 1881 menu. Cigarettes and tobacco are often listed under the dessert section. Some restaurants dictate that ladies unaccompanied by gentlemen will not be served after 9 pm.
The menu for the A.M. Sweet & Son Hotel Restaurant, Fulton Street in New York noted, “It is unnecessary to fee the waiter. If you cannot get properly served without doing so, please make mention of it to the Cashier.” An early argument for wages, rather than tips?