Hospitality from Sea to Shining Sea, 1841-1853
The United States had a population of about 17 million people in 1841, when small groups set off from the Missouri river towns, blazing a 2,000-mile trail to California soon dotted with covered-wagon trains. Since the vast majority of people lived in a rural setting and urban artisans earned between one and two dollars per day, it was the professional and upper classes who initially dined outside the home. Most public dining took place in hotels which followed the custom of the table d’hôte, or hosts table, where guests dined communally at set meal times. The bill of fare did not have prices since the daily rate included room and board at most establishments. Hotels also became centers of civil society, hosting lavish banquets on special occasions where the menu took the form of a long list of meat and game dishes, seemingly as an expression of American abundance. During this period, the expansion of the railroads dramatically increased human mobility; steamship companies inaugurated regular transatlantic service; and the discovery of gold expanded the fortunes of the country.
Table d’hôte. New York City: September 9, 1841.
The Astor House opened in 1836 on Broadway, directly west of City Hall Park. It was originally called the Park Hotel and later renamed after its wealthy owner, businessman John Jacob Astor. It was the first luxury hotel in New York City and remained one of the nation’s most prestigious hotels for decades. The philosopher William James was born there on January 11, 1842. During the antebellum period, the finest upper-class hotels maintained separate dining rooms for men and women. The dishes on this menu from the men’s dining room are shown in English and, for the fancier entrées, in French. The language of the menu was mirrored in the organization of the kitchen at the Astor House, where French chefs cooked the entrées and English chefs roasted the meats.
Parker’s Restorant [sic].
À la carte. Boston: June 29, 1842.
Parker’s Restorant opened in 1832 in a low, basement room near the Old State House, where it was well situated to serve the commercial and professional classes. The word “restorant” is an early spelling that referred to the specialized shops in eighteenth-century Paris that sold health-restoring bouillons. This menu is organized by “Dishes Ready Cooked” and “Dishes Cooked to Order,” giving diners the option of eating quickly so they could get back to business. The prices are shown in increments of a sixteenth of a dollar, units that were then common to accommodate the widespread use of the Spanish real and other foreign coins. The United States outlawed the use of foreign coins in 1857 when the country had enough gold and silver to mint all of its own specie. Restaurateur Harvey Parker established the famed Parker House on School Street in 1855.
Welsh’s Eating House.
À la carte. New York City: February 12, 1847.
Welsh’s Eating House was located on Nassau Street, then the center of the Fourth Estate in New York. Restaurateur and temperance advocate Alexander “Sandy” Welsh (1793–1857) printed his daily menu within a four-page newspaper, reflecting a humorous and bombastic style seemingly inspired by showman P. T. Barnum, whose popular American Museum was situated around the corner on Broadway. At the time, New York had about 123 such eateries, not counting the oyster saloons. Fifteen of them were located on Nassau Street. What makes this particular restaurant noteworthy in the annals of history is an event that may have occurred there in the winter of 1844–1845, when Edgar Allan Poe was working as a critic and assistant editor at the nearby Evening Mirror. Years later, a story persisted among newspapermen in New York that Poe read “The Raven” stanza by stanza to fellow journalists, and accepted their assistance, at Welsh’s Eating House.
George Stillman Hillard. Honoree Banquet. Boston: November 16, 1848.
Chef Gustave Feraud (1822 –1899?) went to work at the new Revere House in 1847, when he arrived from France. Feraud excelled at creating decorative food displays, including the architectural and sculptural centerpieces of confectionery called pièces montées that adorned the tables at banquets. This dinner for sixty guests featured five ornamental dishes, including boned turkey in jelly, a pig’s head, and a pyramid of chicken patties. The side dishes, or entrées, on this menu range from macaroni à la Milanese to squirrel with turtle sauce.
Table d’hôte. Boston: December 10, 1851.
Tremont House was established in 1829 and is now regarded as the first modern hotel in the United States. It was designed by architect Isaiah Rogers, who would go on to create other luxury hotels, including the Astor House in New York. The dining rooms and other public spaces at such hotels were centers of upper-class social life during the antebellum period. This menu is constructed with imported lace paper mounted over a rose-colored backing, giving it the appearance of an early Valentine’s Day card.
Hasty Pudding Club. Boston: January 12, 1852.
Mock turtle soup was a common imitation of green turtle soup. It was made with a calf’s head or a calf’s foot (a sweet dish called “calves’ feet jelly” is shown in the confectionery section). The cuisine at the finer American hotels might be described as “Frenchified English cooking” (as one British visitor put it) with an emphasis on wild game. The focal point of this dinner was provided by the seven varieties of game birds listed in a pyramid shape at the center of the menu.
Table d’hôte. New York City: May 22, 1852.
This menu comes from the women’s dining room which was smaller and more ornately furnished than the dining room for the men. The social customs were also different. Unlike the men, who scrambled to their seats when the bell or gong was sounded, women were individually seated by the headwaiter. While the meals in the two dining rooms may have been served at different times of the day, the content and design of the menus were most likely the same. The wine list in the side columns includes nearly fifty types of Madeira, an extraordinary selection that English novelist Frederick Marryat noted in his travelogue Diary in America (1840).
Thanksgiving Dinner. At Sea: November 25, 1852.
The side-wheel packets of the American-owned Collins Line were renowned for luxury and speed, typically crossing the Atlantic Ocean in a little over ten days. The 282-foot Baltic carried only sixty-eight passengers on the choppy, off-season crossing from Liverpool to New York in 1852. This early transatlantic menu features hare in three dishes—a soup, a cold pie, and a game dish in which it was pared with plover, a shorebird also with a gamey flavor.
Winn’s Fountain Head.
À la carte. San Francisco, ca. 1853.
Winn’s Fountain Head was located near the Central Wharf that accommodated the large vessels. It was a temperance restaurant, reflecting a social movement then gaining national momentum even in a hard-drinking town like San Francisco. The cartoon illustration shows a well-dressed gentleman at Winn’s and a disheveled man entering a bar labeled “Not Winn’s.” The antebellum era is conveyed by the puddings named “Aunt Sally” and “Cousin Jane.” Restaurateur M. L. Winn claimed to have sold 125 dozen eggs per day in 1853. While the local “fresh eggs” on this menu are 25 cents each, the price of three “Boston eggs” is 37 cents, or 12⅓ cents each.