Railroads, Resorts, and the Old West, 1870-1883
The railroads grew rapidly after the transcontinental line was completed to the West Coast. The increase in freight traffic and use of ice-cooled rail cars drastically changed food distribution. Oysters were suddenly served daily in large cities and small towns across the country. Shelled and packed for shipment in Baltimore and New York, the raw oysters were simply placed back on the half shells before serving. Americans also began to take advantage of the new transportation network in other ways, travelling in all directions in the summertime. High society packed their trunks for the fancy-dress balls at Newport, the hops at Bar Harbor, and the casino and race track at Saratoga Springs. The seashore was enjoyed at places like Cape May and Long Branch, while church groups flocked to the campgrounds on Martha’s Vineyard. Others preferred the dramatic scenery of the Thousand Islands, the Adirondacks, and the White Mountains of New Hampshire, where the brisk air and absence of pollen first gave rise to the tourist industry. The urban masses could enjoy a day at a nearby beach resort such as Coney Island. By the early 1880s, well-heeled Bostonians were taking escorted “excursions” to the far West. Nevertheless, the days of the grand game dinners in autumn were numbered, as the free-roaming bison disappeared from the Great Plains and other native species approached extinction. The first generation of pioneers looked back with nostalgia to the great adventure of their youth.
Railroad Conductor’s Life Insurance Co. Banquet. Louisville, Kentucky: October 24, 1872.
The railroad industry flourished in the years prior to the financial Panic of 1873 that caused a major economic depression and temporarily stymied growth. This banquet began with raw oysters on the half shell. The menu also included oysters that were fried, steamed, escalloped, and pickled. The main courses were green sea turtle soup, stewed diamondback terrapin, calf’s head à la Toulouse, scrambled hog’s brains with drawn butter, and macaroni and cheese.
Centennial Celebration. Banquet. Rio de Janeiro: July 4, 1876.
American expatriates in all parts of the world celebrated the nation’s hundredth birthday in 1876. The French entrées at this Independence Day dinner are named after notable American hotels like the Lindell in St. Louis and Willard’s in Washington, D.C. Other dishes have wistful descriptors like à la Saratoga, à la Wissahickon, and à la Broad Prairie.
Grand Union Hotel.
Table d’hôte. Saratoga Springs, New York: August 24, 1880.
The massive Grand Union on tree-lined Broadway Avenue featured an expansive summer porch and a 1400-seat dining room. Since room and board was included in the daily rate, resort hotels promoted their establishments by printing stylish menus as souvenirs. In 1880, the Grand Union produced its daily menu on richly-illustrated card stock from Dempsey & Carroll, a high-society stationer in New York City. This menu contains the notice: “Hop this Evening—Full Dress Indispensable.”
À la carte. Nantasket Beach, Massachusetts: June 26, 1881.
Nantasket Beach was easily accessible to residents of Boston either by train or by one of the steamboats that routinely crossed the harbor in the summertime. Resort hotels near large cities had à la carte menus to accommodate the daytrippers.
West Brighton Beach Hotel.
À la carte. Coney Island, New York: June 15, 1882.
Large hotels were established at Manhattan Beach and Brighton Beach on Coney Island after the Civil War. By the summer of 1882, the popular summer resort had reached West Brighton Beach, a section of the shore line that was destined to become the largest amusement area in the country. Prices on this extensive menu range from 30 cents for a serving of raw oysters to $1.50 for a whole broiled chicken or a large Porterhouse steak for two.
Christmas Table d’hôte. Bismarck, Dakota Territory: Dec. 25, 1880.
Homesteaders began to pour into the Dakota Territory to lay claim to 160 acres of government land under the Homestead Act after the last Sioux War ended in 1877. During that year, the Sheridan House opened in Bismarck. Built on land owned by the Northern Pacific Railway, the hotel also operated as a railroad passenger station. Its bountiful Christmas dinner in 1880 offered more than eighty dishes. In addition to local game dishes like buffalo and elk, there were many foods brought in by rail, such as oysters, fresh cod, and Florida oranges.
Paul B. Du Chaillu. Raton, New Mexico: November 29, 1881.
Raton is located in the northeast corner of New Mexico. Established as a watering hole on the Santa Fe Trail, the town had become a depot on the line of the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway in 1881 when its literary society hosted a game dinner for French zoologist and anthropologist Paul B. Du Chaillu, the first modern European outsider to confirm the existence of gorillas and the Pygmy people of central Africa. Du Chaillu had recently published a book about the prehistory of Scandinavia titled The Land of the Midnight Sun (1881).
Grand Pacific Hotel.
The 26th Annual Game Dinner. Chicago: November 19, 1881.
Hotelier John Burroughs Drake (1826–1895) hosted his first game dinner at the Tremont House in 1855. A profusion of game was not uncommon in the nineteenth century, nor was it unusual for hotels to host a special feast of such dishes in November each year. What distinguished the Grand Pacific’s game dinner was its scale and scope, causing it to receive national attention in the newspapers. Tickets were in particularly high demand after 1874, when the autumnal event moved to the new Grand Pacific Hotel after a three-year hiatus due to the Great Fire. It was about this time that women were first allowed to attend the annual 500-person banquet. The dinner in 1881 included ham of black bear, leg of elk, saddle of antelope, and buffalo tongue. Small forest animals were transformed into entrées such as ragout of squirrel, à la Francaise, and the score of roasted fowl included sandhill crane, blue-billed widgeons, and red-winged starlings. The Grand Pacific hosted its last game dinner in 1893.
Society of Colorado Pioneers. Banquet. Denver, Colorado: January 25, 1881.
The Society of Colorado Pioneers held its first reunion at the Windsor, the largest and finest hotel between the Palmer House in Chicago and the Palace Hotel in San Francisco. Although the frontier was not completely tamed—the gunfight at the OK Corral took place in Tombstone in the Arizona Territory in October of that year—these early settlers were already expressing nostalgia for their great westward journey. The grand banquet is shown below under the heading “1881 Menu.” Shown above is a section labeled “1859 Grub,” representing the symbolic pioneer foods—beans, bacon, dried apples, hardtack, and a whiskey called “Taos lightning.”
Table d’hôte. El Paso, Texas: October 8, 1883.
Shortly after arriving in El Paso, a young clerk enclosed this menu in a letter to his parents in Connecticut, writing: “I enclose a bill of fare which I had the first day that you may see that I am not entirely out of this world if I have got nearly to the jumping off place.” The standard table d’hôte was reassuring in the sense that it represented an unvarying facet of the civilization. Entrées like pork and beans, lamb pie, and ribs of beef were served in hotel dining rooms all across the country each day. While regional influences were generally muted, this menu appears to offer one local dish—stewed veal with chili.