King Cotton and the Telegraph, 1853-1862
Hotel cuisine offered few surprises. Following the custom of the era, the typical table d’hôte dinner menu offered a large and unvarying selection of boiled, roast, and cold meat dishes, while the soup, fish course, entrées, vegetables, and desserts were changed daily. Soups such as mock turtle, tomato rice, and vermicelli were common. The most ubiquitous entrée was macaroni and cheese, which appeared in various guises. Other representative dishes included pork and beans, oyster patties, larded sweetbreads, and mutton with caper sauce. It was not unusual to find small game birds on toast or a calf’s head with brain sauce among the principal courses. The last entrée on the list was often a lighter, sweet dish like rice cakes or apple fritters served with a rum glacé. The meal service for breakfast, dinner, tea, and supper also followed a predictable pattern. Americans were notorious for eating quickly, spending as little as ten minutes at the dinner table. Still, there were oases of refinement, such as La Pierre House in Philadelphia; the Battle House in Mobile; and Taylor’s Saloon, the foremost women’s restaurant in New York City. On the other end of the social spectrum, a simple menu from the North American Phalanx reveals everyday fare at a rural Utopian community.
À la carte. New York City: 1853.
New Yorkers called the 6¼- and 12½-cent price increments a sixpence and a shilling, respectively, employing the British abbreviations “6d” and “s” for these units of American currency. For example, the price of the breaded veal cutlets on this six-page menu is shown to be 2s, or 25 cents. The most expensive dish shown here is the breast of partridge with truffles that costs 10s, which was about the amount a laborer earned for a day’s work.
La Pierre House.
Historical Society of Pennsylvania. Banquet. Philadelphia: November 8, 1854.
This extensive menu, printed by lithographer Eugene Ketterlinus for the 172nd anniversary celebration of the landing of William Penn, represented a lofty achievement in the American printing and culinary arts. Among the dozen game dishes are two of the country’s greatest delicacies—canvasback duck and diamondback terrapin, a species of turtle native to the brackish coastal tidal marshes of the eastern and southern United States. In the Philadelphia style, the stewed terrapin was garnished with terrapin eggs. The tables at this banquet were adorned with nine decorative confectionery sculptures, featuring names like “Cleopatra’s Palace,” “Russian Cathedral,” and “Genius of America, Protecting the World.”
Stephen Douglas. Honoree Banquet. Chicago: November 9, 1854.
Senator Stephen Douglas was fêted by friends and political allies at this post-election dinner at the third Tremont House, which was regarded as the finest hotel in Chicago. Stephen Douglas and Abraham Lincoln announced their respective candidacies for the U.S. Senate from its balcony in 1858. Douglas died suddenly at this hotel in June 1861, seven months after his defeat in the presidential election.
North American Phalanx.
À la carte. Red Bank, New Jersey: September 22, 1855.
The North American Phalanx was a Utopian community founded on the theories of French philosopher Charles Fourier in 1844. Over the course of its twelve-year history, there were between 120 and 150 members in this non-sectarian association in which women were accorded the same rights and wages as men. The community maintained a large kitchen and dining room, a gristmill, forges, carpentry shops, gardens, and a pond for bathing and ice harvesting. Its hominy, produce, and breakfast cereals were shipped by steamboat to markets in New York City. These high-quality products were marked “NAP,” one of the first brands in the country. The socialist commune abandoned the practice of sharing food in common in 1855, the year before it closed. Menus were printed each day and put out before the meal. Although the dishes were not priced, the meal service was à la carte. Metal chits were placed on the table with each dish and later collected by the server, who calculated the cost and recorded the amount in each member’s account. The prices were low, in keeping with the meager wages. A serving of meat or a slice of pie cost two cents. Coffee was half a cent per cup.
Queen Victoria’s Birthday. Banquet. Mobile, Alabama: May 24, 1855.
Battle House was the quintessential luxury hotel in the antebellum South. This dinner celebrating Queen Victoria’s birthday was held by British expatriates possibly connected to the plantation-era cotton trade. The bill of fare includes crab gumbo, green turtle soup, and four local fish—broiled pompano, baked sheephead, fried perch, and boiled redfish.
St. Charles Hotel.
George Washington Race. Honoree Banquet. New Orleans: December 3, 1856
Established in 1837, the St. Charles was one of the first great hotels in the United States. The upper-class social life of antebellum New Orleans revolved around its grand hotels to an even greater extent than in other American cities. This menu is entirely in French, unlike in other regions of the United States, where the roasted and boiled meats were typically shown in English. On this menu, the saddle of mutton is called selle de mouton, à l’Anglaise, much as it would be in France.
Mississippi River: April 19, 1857.
The riverboats Princess and Natchez were said to be the fastest paddle steamers on the Mississippi. During the late antebellum period, the sister riverboats made the round-trip journey to Vicksburg each week, departing New Orleans at 5:00 p.m. on Tuesdays and Saturdays, respectively. Paddling 300 miles upstream, they stopped at a dozen rural backwaters carrying hundreds of passengers and transporting 400-pound bales of cotton destined for the textile mills of New England and Europe. Mississippi riverboats that operated in the Deep South, such as the Princess and Natchez, were mostly manned by African Americans, many of whom were slaves leased from riverside plantations. Waiters and barbers ranked high in the hierarchy of riverboat workers. On the lower decks, there were more slaves than free blacks laboring as firemen and roustabouts. About two percent of the riverboat labor force was enslaved women who worked as chambermaids.
National Typographical Union. Banquet. Boston: May 5, 1859.
The Revere House provided a reading room for the Massachusetts Charitable Mechanics Association, a skilled-workers’ benevolent society named after its first president, Paul Revere. The democratic good name of the hostelry may have prompted the Boston Printers Union to select it as the venue for this banquet. The menu is a showpiece of the printer’s skill. Shortly after this banquet, the well-known hotelier Paran Stevens brought Marseilles-born chef Augustin François Anezin to the Revere House to replace Chef Gustave Feraud who was dispatched to his newest property, the luxurious Fifth Avenue Hotel in New York.
À la carte. New York City: ca. 1861-62.
Taylor’s Saloon was the foremost women’s restaurant in mid-century New York. It was richly furnished in the way that retail businesses then established themselves as respectable public spaces for women. This 56-page menu has a black leather spine with gilt rules, black gutta percha covers, ornamental gilt borders, inlaid mother of pearl, and navy-blue embossed endpapers. Printed advertisements are on the versos, such as this one shown here for Barnum’s Museum. Some of the advertisements for wine and spirits incorporate actual bottle labels. The two menus that will be in the exhibition (the other dated ca. 1862-63) are the only known copies from the early location in the International Hotel on Broadway at Franklin Street. In 1866, Taylor’s moved uptown to the St. Denis Hotel on Broadway at East 11th Street, where it was situated in the fashionable shopping district known as the Ladies’ Mile.