“What’s on the Menu”: a history of food

By TARA ABRISHAMI | February 25, 2016

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Stewart Butterfield/CC BY 2.0 What a piece of cooked quail may have looked like in 1897.

1. Quail on Toast

Popular in New York in the late 1890s, Quail on Toast showed up on the menus of a number of hotels and restaurants. On the Fifth Avenue Hotel’s menu, Quail on Toast appears under the “Game” section, along with Canvas Back Duck and Lettuce. (Yes, lettuce. Maybe it was hard to come by...) Other notable dishes on the Fifth Avenue Hotel’s 1897 dinner menu: English Plum Pudding, Charlotte Siberienne (a type of cake) and Game Pie with Jelly. Most of the words on this menu were utterly incomprehensible. (“Cauliflower, Villeroi,” anyone?)

2. Chicory and Beets

A search for vegetarian items led me to the menu of Waldorf Astoria in July 1914. The Vegetables, Fruits and Salads section unsurprisingly contains many vegetarian items, such as Chicory and Beets. What’s for lunch at the Waldorf Astoria? “Noisette of Veal with Sorrel,” “Fried Porgies, Tartar Sauce” and “Scotch Grouse.” For dessert? Hickoryisques.

3. Alive Soft Shell Crab Served With Tartar Sauce, Shoestring Potatoes, Cole Slaw, Rolls-Muffins&-Butter, Coffee, Tea, or Milk.

Yes, for real. That monster of a meal special cost 65 cents at The French Village in 1940. (Apparently eating animals isn’t enough; for maximum effect, eat them live.) They also offer a section called “Colonial Dinners,” including “Broiled Filet of Haddock, Lemon Butter.” The Kentucky Special consists of Half Fried Chicken, Country Gravy, Mashed Potatoes with Cole Slaw, Hot Rolls & Jelly and Coffee. The restaurant offered to mail the menu to friends of their patrons as a souvenir gift.

4. Concentrated Pluto Water

At the Chicago, Milwaukee, and St. Paul Railway Dining Car Service in 1915, Concentrated Pluto Water features on the menu. Apparently, Pluto Water, a strong laxative mineral water, was quite popular in the early 1900s. Two other beverages with “laxative” in the name are also on the menu. (Travelers in the early 1900s were apparently picky about their laxative water. “Pluto Water” is so much better than “Red Raven Water,” obviously!)

5. Rigatoni Eggplant, Portobellini Mushrooms, Tomato and Ricotta Sarda

Finally a vegetarian dish I can get excited about at Fiorelli’s in 1998. Though they offer some dishes I’ve never heard of, like “Ossobuco” and “Vongole,” they feature overall a much more recognizable menu. Also more recognizable prices: Instead of offering dishes for below a dollar, as all the previous restaurants have, the eggplant rigatoni at Fiorelli’s cost $17.95.

6. Eels, Breaded with Ravigotti Sauce

Available at the Delta Kappa Epsilon fraternity convention supper in 1851, breaded eels graced the menu, along with Mallard Duck, Wild Pigeon, Woodcock, Frogs Fried in Crumbs and Ox Eyes. They also offered “Ornamental Pyramids,” such as Strawberry Ice Cream in Dolphin Form, and “Confects,” which were apparently different than desserts.

I hope you’ve enjoyed these bizarre tidbits from the menus across history. Check out the New York Public Library’s “What’s On The Menu?” Lab for the whole database of menus going back to the 1800s. Marvel at what you can find... (Though, sadly, my search for Central Perk was to no avail.)

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