August 7, 2013

“Calf’s Head, Brain Sauce” and “Broiled Pigeons.” It's what's for dinner.

Foods and diets go in and out of fashion, just like clothing and design. Some of the delicacies from centuries past may give today's diners pause. 

Watching “reality” shows, like Survivor and The Amazing Race, you see the contestants get a little more than they bargained for with food challenges. Every season it seems someone gags on a live larva or struggles through a meal of tongue. Our modern American palate may be too cautious to entertain the concept of eating what’s available, and not wasting a single organ. But our recent ancestors weren't so squeamish. The 1850s and 1860s Hotel and Restaurant Menus collection offers a glimpse of fine dining in 19th century America.

Delevan House menu, Bill of Fare
A sample of The Delevan House's offerings

Imagine you're a wealthy tycoon travelling from your home in New York to check out some new developments in the west. You'll likely travel by train, and you'll likely stay in a fine hotel where meals are served in a fancy dining room. You arrive in the dining room and begin to salivate when you see your favorite delicacy...stewed beef kidneys!

An early menu from Barnum’s in St. Louis features “Calves feet fried in a batter”, “Stewed kidneys, port wine sauce”, and, for the fish course, “Tongues and sounds”.  The Delevan House menu from 1860 offers “Calf’s Head, Brain Sauce” and “Broiled Pigeons”.

Anthony Bourdain may approve.

These items are a far cry from the menus of most fine dining restaurants today. So what has happened? Did our palates become less adventurous? Some foods have never gained traction - guinea pig, which is common in some South American countries, or rats and mice, which are more common in rural Asia. A scandal which broke in Europe earlier this year regarding the use of horsemeat in beef dishes drives home the point that many find the idea of eating certain animals taboo.


Guest Central Fair Restaurant menu, Bill of Fare & Wine List
Guest Central Fair Restaurant might get in trouble today for serving terrapin
Part of the reason some items may have disappeared from menus is simple over hunting - the supply could no longer keep up with demand. Buffalo, once on the verge of extinction, are once again making an appearance on American tables, both at home and in restaurants. Certainly, the Green Turtle and the Terrapin were both over hunted before the turn of the 20th century, and remain endangered today.


Pacific menu, Bill of Fare
Passengers on board the Steamer Pacific could feast on sheep tail

There was also a tendency to look down on any other foods than the English food the colonists remembered from home, especially French food. Great waves of immigration in the 19th century would have brought ethnic foods, which were adopted into small communities but tended to be rejected by the larger established society. The Temperance movement of the late 19th century may have also played a role. Many communities felt that plain, simple fare was a symbol of religious piety, especially in New England. 

Norvell House menu
Worried about whortleberries? That's just a bilberry, which is often confused with the blueberry

Today's fine dining establishments tend to focus on steak and seafood, and frequently embrace French influence. Escargot, caviar, and wild game are also no strangers to white tablecloths and gloved waiters. While our modern American culture tends to embrace multi-ethnic cuisine, it comes in the form of seasonings and preparations, rather than ingredients. 

Of course, one item that has disappeared from the menu has nothing to do with tastebuds - those visiting hotel dining rooms during their travels could also find train, ferry, and other transportation information!

Pulaski House menu

You can find more inspiration for tonight's dinner from the 1850s and 1860s Hotel and Restaurant Menus collection at the UH Digital Library!

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