The Great Depression and Recovery, 1930-1941
By the time of the Great Depression, people of all classes were routinely eating outside the home. Like other retail businesses, restaurants reduced their prices at the depth of the crisis. Private food-relief organizations printed menus, and the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) issued special menus on the holidays in the work camps. Restaurants that supported the New Deal displayed the blue eagle emblem of the National Recovery Administration (NRA) on their menus. Revenues in the hospitality industry began to improve after Prohibition was repealed in December of 1933. The New York World’s Fair of 1939-1940 opened with the slogan “Dawn of a New Day,” promising visitors a look at “the world of tomorrow.” Despite the economic challenges, the 1930s witnessed advances in aviation and automobile technology. The national highway system continued to expand. And about a hundred years after menus were generally introduced in the United States, they were being perused by airline passengers.
Hugo’s Log Cabin.
Boston News Bureau Dinner & Dance. Scituate, Massachusetts: July 28, 1930.
Hungarian-born restaurateur Hugo Ormo operated several seafood restaurants in Massachusetts. Hugo’s Log Cabin was designed to look like a rustic Swiss hunting lodge, but with moose antlers rather than ibex horns mounted over the stone fireplaces. The set menu at this dance was called a “shore dinner,” featuring crabmeat cocktail, clam chowder, steamed clams, baked stuffed lobster, combination salad, and fresh blueberry pie.
À la carte. New York City: ca. 1931.
Bernarr Macfadden (1869–1955) was an early advocate of a healthy diet, vigorous exercise, and the pure health laws. He promoted his ideas in a magazine, Physical Culture, which became the foundation of his publishing empire. When the Depression hit, he used his fortune to establish a charitable foundation that provided nutritious meals at very low prices. In December of 1930, the first One-Cent Restaurant opened in New York. There were eventually six such eateries in the city. A penny purchased items like two slices of whole wheat bread or a cup of “raisin coffee” that provided iron in liquid form. A complete dinner cost ten cents. Notices like “Lots of Room,” “All Welcome,” and “Ladies Invited” convey a spirit of hospitality.
À la carte. New York City: April 5, 1932.
Voisin was located in the basement of an apartment building at 375 Park Avenue. The Art Déco design echoes the formality and precision of the service at this elite restaurant that served the needs of New York society during the Great Depression. This menu highlights appetizers like fresh Russian caviar and Hungarian goose liver. By the 1930s diamondback terrapins, a delicacy favored by the rich, had become scarce. A serving of terrapin Maryland is priced at $2.50 (about $43 today), while a supposedly similar dish called turtle fin Maryland is $2.00.
San Quentin State Prison.
Chinese New Year’s. Guards Dining Room. California: February 7, 1932.
The San Quentin Press seemingly enjoyed a golden age in the late 1920s and 1930s when it printed handsome menus for special occasions in the officers’ and guards’ dining room. This charming example comes from a dinner on Chinese New Year. The meal includes chicken chop suey, foo yoon hai (egg foo young), coagulated bean cakes, and lotus cakes (mooncakes).
À la carte. Chicago: August 13, 1933.
The Blackhawk opened in the Chicago Loop in late December of 1920. Six years later, the sedate 600-seat restaurant replaced its string quartet with a dance orchestra and soon a program called “Live! From the Blackhawk!” was broadcast on local WGN radio. The popular show was later picked up by the nationwide Mutual Radio Network. A telegraph machine was installed to take requests from listeners.
La Fonda Hotel.
State Highway Officials. Banquet. Santa Fe, New Mexico: November 14, 1934.
La Fonda was built on the Plaza in Santa Fe in 1922 and was later acquired by the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad. The hotel was leased to the Fred Harvey Company, a leader in developing commercial cultural tourism in the Southwest. This dinner given for the American Association of State Highway Officials includes gulf shrimp, cream soup with hearts of palm, mountain trout, and Rocky Mountain antelope. Although some construction funds were diverted to work projects for the unemployed, the national road system continued to expand during the Great Depression.
Civilian Conservation Corps.
Christmas. Uriah, Alabama: December 25, 1934.
The Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) was a public work program organized in April of 1933. Its purpose was to employ unmarried men between the ages of 18 and 25, a range that was eventually expanded to ages 17 to 28. By July of that year, 1433 CCC camps had been established. Company 230 was formed with enrollees from New York and New Jersey who were first sent to do conservation work in Wyoming and later transferred to Alabama, where they fought forest fires and built roads. The camps were run by U.S. Army reserve officers who, following the practice of the military services, issued special menus with rosters on Thanksgiving and Christmas. The CCC provided work for more than three million men before it was disbanded in 1942, thereby ending one of the most popular programs of the New Deal.
Big Red Apple.
À la carte. Wathena, Kansas: ca. 1935.
Roadside businesses attracted drive-by customers with a new style of novelty architecture that frequently took the form of the main product. This restaurant complex was situated next to an apple orchard and offered every convenience for the traveling public—camping grounds, gasoline service, restrooms, and a dance floor on the roof.
Musso & Franks Grill.
À la carte. Hollywood: July 17, 1936.
Frank’s Café opened on Hollywood Boulevard in 1919, when this still-rural area was the up-and-coming movie capital of the world. The restaurant, which was renamed Musso & Franks Grill in 1922, became the haunt of studio heads, actors, producers, directors, and screenwriters in the film industry. In the mid-1930s, Musso & Franks Grill opened its exclusive Back Room. Dubbed “Algonquin West,” the dining room was a literary hangout for the likes of F. Scott Fitzgerald, William Faulkner, Raymond Chandler, William Saroyan, Dashiell Hammett, and Dorothy Parker. The Screen Writers Guild was conveniently located on the other side of the street and Stanley Rose’s Bookstore was right next door. One of the classic dishes at Musso & Franks is sautéed medallions of filet mignon served in a pool of beef gravy with a drizzle of béarnaise sauce. On this menu, the entrée is called “Grenadine of Beef à la Frank” and costs 80 cents. The price had risen to $1.00 by 1937 when it was renamed “Grenadine of Beef, Bordelaise.”
À la carte. New York City: April 26, 1938.
Steinberg’s streamlined Art Déco interior is mirrored in the cover design of this menu that offers a tantalizing list of Eastern European Jewish foods including salmon, borscht, vegetarian (mock) chopped liver, chopped herring, cabbage soup, potato latkes, cheese blintzes, and kreplach—small dumplings filled with cheese. Opened in 1931, Steinberg’s was one of several beloved dairy restaurants on the Upper West Side. In Saul Bellow’s novel Herzog (1964), the protagonist’s ex-wife tells him that she wants to go to a nice place for breakfast but is not dressed for the Plaza, to which he replies: “In that case I’ll take you to Steinberg’s Dairy, which I prefer anyway.” Actor Walter Matthau reportedly spoke French to the waiters at Steinberg’s, placing orders such as “Garçon, some chopped eggplant, s’il vous plait.”
“Wrong Way” Corrigan. Honoree Banquet. Los Angeles: September 12, 1938.
Douglass Corrigan took off from Brooklyn in a jerry-built plane on a foggy morning in July 1938 and landed in Dublin twenty-eight hours later. Having been repeatedly denied permission to fly across the Atlantic, the likeable 31-year-old aircraft mechanic told the Irish authorities he had planned to fly to California but somehow “got mixed up in the clouds and must have flown the wrong way.” The press hailed him as “Wrong Way” Corrigan, capturing the imagination of a Depression-weary public. When America’s newest aviation hero was honored in Los Angeles in September of that year, the menu was printed backwards to underscore what had become a national running joke.
William Randolph Hearst Residence.
San Simeon, California: April 18, 1940.
Newspaper publisher William Randolph Hearst entertained a steady stream of celebrities from stage, screen, and politics at his estate, “La Cuesta Encantada,” or "The Enchanted Hill." Hearst referred to his palatial residence as the “ranch.” The sentiment was reflected in the casual flatware, paper napkins, Heinz ketchup bottles, and jars of French’s mustard that were placed on the table at meals. Even at dinner, which was served in a medieval-style refectory festooned with Flemish Gothic tapestries and paneled with 15th-century Spanish choir stalls, the ranch-style cuisine was deliberately straightforward, reminiscent of the picnics Hearst once enjoyed on the surrounding countryside.
Halloween. Oakland: October 31, 1941.
By the late 1930s, commercial airlines primarily depended on the twin-engine Douglas DC-3, which had a cruising speed of 207 mph and capacity of 21 to 32 passengers. Air travel became more comfortable with the introduction of upholstered seats, sleeper flights, and complimentary meals. In 1938, United Airlines served 500,000 meals aloft. Menus were printed for the regular dinner service and to commemorate special events and holidays, such as this menu for the Halloween dinner catered at Oakland, California.