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Eat Like A Robber Baron.
August 31, 2014 8:35 AM   Subscribe

Rachel Sanders of Buzzfeed compares the menus of venerable NYC eateries a 100 years ago to today.
posted by The Whelk (58 comments total) 31 users marked this as a favorite

 
FYI, if you see any form of Squab on those old menus, chances are very good that the bird in question was a Passenger Pigeon.

And, tomorrow marks the 100th anniversary of the Passenger Pigeon becoming extinct.
posted by Thorzdad at 8:40 AM on August 31 [14 favorites]


Have some more vintage menus (apologies for racist language in the Copa Cabana one).
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 8:41 AM on August 31


Amazing that many places are still open after a century.
posted by octothorpe at 8:52 AM on August 31 [1 favorite]


Delmonico's thinks they're pretty fancy now, huh? Too good for soups, eggs, fish, or 90% of the old menu?

Restaurants are far too pleased with themselves these days. It's funny, given that back then the menus were apparently much more comprehensive. Back then there was no such thing as a 'celebrity' chef, but many of them were aggressively trained in the kitchen (particularly those who trained in Paris).
posted by leotrotsky at 8:54 AM on August 31 [2 favorites]


Also interesting to note the terse menu descriptions.
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 8:55 AM on August 31 [1 favorite]


I got the impression back then a huge comprehensive menu meant you had this vast, complex kitchen and highly trained staff but now it means you get a lot of stuff premade or frozen off a Sysco truck .
posted by The Whelk at 8:57 AM on August 31 [17 favorites]


"Dished marked (*) are ready."?
posted by smackfu at 9:00 AM on August 31


On the other hand, good luck getting a decent curry in 1918.
posted by leotrotsky at 9:00 AM on August 31


Allready done so no need to wait for them to cook?
posted by The Whelk at 9:01 AM on August 31


Curries existed in England in the Edwardian period, popular with people who grew up or served in India ( although largely an invention to suit English tastes) they tended to be fish based and ...served at breakfast.
posted by The Whelk at 9:03 AM on August 31 [4 favorites]


It's funny, given that back then the menus were apparently much more comprehensive.

Like Whelk said, that's because back then you could have an enormous and highly-staffed kitchen. A lot cheaper to do back then, very difficult to do now. Even elBulli only had about a dozen actual chefs on staff; the other 40-50 were stagiers (culinary interns, basically). And even charging 275-300 Euro per person for dinner, they lost half a million a year. Labour is incredibly expensive, and in many cases--unless you either go the Sysco route and/or have serious economies of scale--has eclipsed food cost in kitchens.
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 9:07 AM on August 31 [4 favorites]


Also interesting to note the terse menu descriptions.

Descriptions, terse (locally sourced): $68
posted by Dip Flash at 9:16 AM on August 31 [8 favorites]


"Pin money sweet mixed pickles"!
posted by kenko at 9:22 AM on August 31


Interesting how the old menus also have lots of things that seem rather déclassé today—pig's knuckles and whatnot.
posted by kenko at 9:24 AM on August 31


I like that in the olden days restaurants served the same sort of meal that you could also eat at home: your choice of meat, and style of potato, and any of a wide range of probably boiled vegetables. I wish you could still go out and have a meal like that... sometimes.
posted by Flashman at 9:25 AM on August 31


Interesting how the old menus also have lots of things that seem rather déclassé today—pig's knuckles and whatnot

Those sorts of things are enormously popular today in certain circles. Google nose-to-tail cooking.

I wish you could still go out and have a meal like that... sometimes.

Try a diner? They come close, I think?
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 9:27 AM on August 31 [3 favorites]


Those sorts of things are enormously popular today in certain circles.

Yes, I know. But I think that in general, its presence on a menu would be remarked on.
posted by kenko at 9:28 AM on August 31 [1 favorite]


(And of course they aren't on the old menus as some big hoopla we use offal toooooo! thing.)
posted by kenko at 9:29 AM on August 31


I love the weird abbreviations on the Walton's Old Homestead menu. Mushro's! W'th Oni'ns! Saratoga F. Potatoes!
posted by Metroid Baby at 9:32 AM on August 31 [3 favorites]


The quality of the beef is another big difference. Hanging meat in the turn of the 20th century was the method, none of this wet aged cryovaced stuff. Also, grass fed was the standard and antibiotics in cattle was not even possible. I also found it fascinating that the protein content in eggs are different between the two time periods. I got this from Hesser describing how she had to adjust 19th century recipes and increase the amount of eggs when she was updating the New York Times Cookbook, while testing recipes.

Taking aside food adulteration issues, food in the 19th century and early 20th century seems so much more interesting and less pretentious.
posted by jadepearl at 9:37 AM on August 31 [5 favorites]


I now want to write a menu that has Saratoga Fucking Potatoes on it. Also, just learned what they are.
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 9:38 AM on August 31 [3 favorites]


jadepearl, some places still dry-age (thank goodness). First restaurant I worked at out of school we dry-aged all of our beef. There's a huge steakhouse in NYC that has massive walk-ins solely for dry-aging; I can't remember what it's called but Heston Blumenthal visited for In Search of Perfection on the steak episode.

agreed wholeheartedly that cryovac wet-aged bullshit is bullshit.
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 9:40 AM on August 31


I had previously known that there was a time when celery was considered somewhat of a luxury food so the solo appetizer position didn't surprise me there, but I didn't know the same was true for radishes. At least, they were being served as an appetizer on their own in that first menu, and in the same price range as clams.
posted by tavella at 9:43 AM on August 31


Radishes with butter are a pretty classic French recipe. And delicious. (Admittedly I only learned this from Iron Chef America, someone did radishes with goat butter, and I had to make it for myself except with cow butter.)

Just saying it's something tasty to eat is all. Radishes are the best. My neighbour and I have a half-baked plan to see what happens when you candy them. We think it might be like candied ginger. Maybe.
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 9:52 AM on August 31 [7 favorites]


I bet candied radishes are great!
posted by kenko at 10:03 AM on August 31 [2 favorites]


Curries existed in England in the Edwardian period, popular with people who grew up or served in India ( although largely an invention to suit English tastes) they tended to be fish based and ...served at breakfast.

...but I doubt you could find them in Brooklyn. I'm just saying that there was a bit of a culinary monoculture (outside of perhaps a few ethnic enclaves) an anglo-germanic low spice cuisine occasionally leavened by escoffier-inspired french food at the high end.

We're lucky today to know that there are alternatives.
posted by leotrotsky at 10:03 AM on August 31 [2 favorites]


Also, grass fed was the standard . . .

No, we have been finishing cattle on grain since at least the early 19th century.
posted by slkinsey at 10:09 AM on August 31 [1 favorite]


Saratoga F. Potatoes

You should have seen his variety act.
posted by like_a_friend at 10:25 AM on August 31 [8 favorites]


I like that for some of the places the numbers for the prices haven't changed, just the units (cents vs. dollars).
posted by benito.strauss at 11:04 AM on August 31 [1 favorite]


The side dishes on these old menus are so much more appetizing. Everyone (well, that I noticed, anyway) has lima beans! The new menus are way too heavy on the various-kinds-of-potato-usually-fried, for me. And just heavier in general, which is surprising. Like, I don't actually want to sit there eating a huge piece of red meat and a portion of fried potato -- I like steak frites as much as the next person, but there's only so much of that you can have, and that's so simple it doesn't even seem worth going to a restaurant for?

I guess that's the main difference between the old menus and the new -- the old ones look much more complicated. There are tons of dishes to pick from, and a huge variety of types of food, not just in ways of preparing it.

I had previously known that there was a time when celery was considered somewhat of a luxury food so the solo appetizer position didn't surprise me there, but I didn't know the same was true for radishes. At least, they were being served as an appetizer on their own in that first menu, and in the same price range as clams.

I still eat them like that at home and they are DELICIOUS. The radishes have to be new/fresh, so I guess they're a luxury because they have to be in-season/new and you can't really hide how they taste (you have to use good ones).

Like fffm was talking about, you just clean them up, put some fresh butter on them, sprinkle a little salt, and bite in. The radish is so peppery and sharp and the butter is so rich and creamy mmmmmm. Love it. One of my favorite foods.

It's a good appetizer because it sorta-kinda cleans the palate and, mostly, because the cook doesn't have to do a ton of prep. She can just set out the clean radishes, butter, and salt, and let everyone go at it while she cooks the main dish/next course. You don't even have to take off the greens first if you don't want to get fancy -- people can hold onto the greens while they eat the radish from the other end.

My family's French, so maybe it just is a French thing (though definitely something people do now, it's not archaic) and maybe that's why it's not popular elsewhere (either a 100 years ago or now)? Otherwise, I've only seen uncooked radishes (or honestly, radishes generally) on restaurant menus in places that specialize in some kind of East Asian cuisine. For example, I used to work at a Korean place that served "side dishes" to every table at the beginning of the meal (in lieu of the bread some other restaurants serve, I guess?) and there were usually 2-3 kinds of pickled radish included in those side dishes. The side dishes in general were basically a selection of different kinds of pickled radish, kimchi, and fish cake.

Strange, now that I think about it, because aren't radishes grown in all parts of Britain? What do English/Welsh/Irish/Scottish people do with their radishes? Or are they not grown there after all?

Curries existed in England in the Edwardian period, popular with people who grew up or served in India ( although largely an invention to suit English tastes) they tended to be fish based and ...served at breakfast.

Do you know if the curries were usually fish based because they were based on Bengali food, or if they were fish-based because the English like to eat fish for breakfast (thinking of kippers and herring)? Though I guess it could be both?
posted by rue72 at 11:04 AM on August 31 [3 favorites]


If you want to see an amazing archive of cookbooks then the crowdsourcing of transcriptions of the University of Iowa, Szathmary Culinary Manuscripts and Cookbooks is a treat! You have cookbooks from the 1600s onwards. It is one of the few good deeds that I do by transcribing.
posted by jadepearl at 11:05 AM on August 31 [7 favorites]


Interestingly, the most common form of curry in 19th century England, was a sort of beef or mutton stew, to which curry powder was added late in the cooking process (rather than being simmered in ghee with aromatics early on). This was the result of the encounters of Anglo cooks in gentlemen's clubs with new spices being brought back from India. It would later be brought to Kobe by members of the British legation there, where it would become the dominant form of "Curry-rice" in Japan.

Kedgeree was another Anglo-Indian innovation from the 19th century- a sort of biryani (itself a product of Perso-Turkic-Indian fusion) made with smoked fish (usually kippers or haddock). It is also what I made for breakfast this morning.
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 11:14 AM on August 31 [6 favorites]


Seeing the prices on the current menus made me feel exceptionally 99%.
posted by Sassenach at 11:16 AM on August 31 [1 favorite]


More importantly with this story, is the link to NY Public Library's menu collection.

I actually *did* know about this before, and spent several enjoyable hours going through it.

They have menus from outside NYC as well. The place I live used to the dining room for a restaurant, and my kitchen still has a chute for the dumbwaiter that would've delivered food to the upstairs bordello.
posted by markkraft at 11:26 AM on August 31 [2 favorites]


So these littleneck clams, they're a big thing yes
posted by aydeejones at 11:40 AM on August 31


This thread and post are brilliant, and I would like to hear more tales and learned histories of curry in the 19th century
posted by clockzero at 11:43 AM on August 31 [3 favorites]


For example, I used to work at a Korean place that served "side dishes" to every table at the beginning of the meal (in lieu of the bread some other restaurants serve, I guess?)

Banchan! Probably not in lieu of bread because I believe this is just standard for Korean restaurants in general (and not an adaptation in places where other restaurants give you bread).
posted by kenko at 12:00 PM on August 31 [2 favorites]


"Dished marked (*) are ready."?

Ready to go, I take it? Delmonico's divides dishes between "ready" and "to order", indicating (I assume) whether they're cooked to order or can be brought out right away.
posted by kenko at 12:37 PM on August 31


Well, the food may have been better 100 years ago, but would some of the restaurants have allowed minorities and/or immigrants to dine in them during that time period?

I'm honestly curious, not only if I have a time travelling mishap, but also since NYC is a northern city, but there was still a lot of active discrimination against immigrants back then. Not to mention this was around the time of the resurgence of the Klan as well.
posted by FJT at 12:42 PM on August 31


If you had 50 cents ($9 today) you could choose between fried soft-shell crabs or figs.
posted by RobotVoodooPower at 12:44 PM on August 31


And if your Delmonicos budget is a little thin these days, there's nothing like some good, old-fashioned home cooking from The Boston Cooking-School Cook Book by Fannie Farmer, 1918 Edition.
posted by cenoxo at 1:20 PM on August 31 [2 favorites]


The Boston Cooking-School Cook Book by Fannie Farmer, 1918 Edition.

I have that book! That edition, even. It was my grandmother's. Although I think it's in the garage right now, I should dig it out...
posted by suelac at 1:45 PM on August 31 [2 favorites]


Nikola Tesla dined nightly at Delmonicos, to the point that he had kitchen privileges and would prepare his own squab, selecting just one tiny morsel from the bird to actually eat.
posted by StickyCarpet at 1:54 PM on August 31 [3 favorites]


You would like a history of Curry and Chai, maybe? I enjoyed this book that shows the introduction of curry to the west. Also, the "invention" of chai to India as creating a market for locally grown tea. Fascinating.
posted by jadepearl at 2:38 PM on August 31


Previously. (Most links now dead, but you can check out the fine collection of vintage 404 pages!)
posted by languagehat at 3:29 PM on August 31


I've been served raw radishes with butter (and maybe with olive oil? Can't quite remember) as an amuse bouche at quite a few restaurants in recent years. Definitely felt like there was a mini trend there for awhile, at least amongst farm-to-tableish places. A+ would eat again.

Back then there was no such thing as a 'celebrity' chef,

Oh, celebrity chefs were around long before the Food Network...
posted by retrograde at 5:02 PM on August 31 [1 favorite]


The title totally mislead me. If I'll going to eat like a robber baron, where's the dishes like "braised street urchin" or "broiled heart of seamstress"? What's the point of being old-timey super wealthy, if you can't feast off of the poor?
posted by happyroach at 6:26 PM on August 31 [3 favorites]


"It's priest, try a little priest..."
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 6:47 PM on August 31


Why does everything I post turn into a Hannibal thread.....
posted by The Whelk at 6:56 PM on August 31 [1 favorite]


You can help out with proofreading and geotagging if you want... which I totally do, and am doing as we speak. Great post; thanks for the pointer, Whelk.
posted by GrammarMoses at 7:06 PM on August 31


"For example, I used to work at a Korean place that served "side dishes" to every table at the beginning of the meal (in lieu of the bread some other restaurants serve, I guess?) and there were usually 2-3 kinds of pickled radish included in those side dishes. The side dishes in general were basically a selection of different kinds of pickled radish, kimchi, and fish cake. "

The "relish tray" used to be a thing in many restaurants. I know of at least one diner out on Staten Island that I like that still features them.
posted by mikelieman at 1:32 AM on September 1


If we're having a little side discussion about old British Indian restaurants, this one is 88yrs old and still open for business. No idea what the old menus would have been like, but they had Indian chefs so hopefully sort of authentic.
posted by tinkletown at 5:36 AM on September 1


Also cool
posted by tinkletown at 5:41 AM on September 1


StickyCarpet: cite? That's an amazing story but I can't seem to find it.
posted by MetropolisOfMentalLife at 8:27 AM on September 1


Do archivists die a little inside when they see that the original collection stamped an identifier on these things?
posted by smackfu at 6:00 AM on September 2 [1 favorite]


tavella: "I had previously known that there was a time when celery was considered somewhat of a luxury food so the solo appetizer position didn't surprise me there"

As seen in this previously.
posted by Chrysostom at 1:51 PM on September 2


I'm going to have to try the radishes with butter and salt next time I have fresh ones. Thanks metafilter!
posted by tavella at 2:00 PM on September 2 [1 favorite]


And if you want to go back a little further than a hundred years...
posted by Rykey at 11:47 PM on September 5 [1 favorite]


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