A Brief History.
Providence, Rhode Island is a small city on the east coast of the United States Roger Williams was forced to flee the Massachusetts Bay Colony due to disagreements with the mainly Puritan population. He ended up on Prospect (College) Hill and founded Rhode Island on the premise of religious and political freedom in 1636.
By 1890, Rhode Island was no longer just a hill — instead, she was on her way to becoming a booming, industrialized city. The Providence Union Railroad had a network of over 300 horsecars and 1,515 horses. Just two years later, electric streetcars were introduced, helping to increase the already active jewelry industry in the area.
Mike Stanton, a journalism professor at the University of Rhode Island, described Providence as one of the richest cities during the late 1890s to early 1900s. Not only did Providence’s industries grow, but so did her population, by a whopping 321.63%
On Wednesday, February 24, 1897, the members of the Brown University Club met on College Hill, formerly Prospect Hill, for their fourth annual dinner. The dinner seemed to recognize the executive committee from 1896-1897 as well as to nominate the committee for the following year.
Things on the Menu.
The menu consisted of what I assumed to be about nine courses. The first thing to be served that night were oysters. Although the menu does not say how the oysters were served, it can be assumed that they were probably oysters prepared on the half shell. In New England, almost all oysters were served this way.
The second course was a serving of “mock turtle soup“. This part of the menu really caught my eye. Turtle soup, in general, is something that is very unfamiliar to me, as a New England native, which is why it shocked me to see it on a menu in Rhode Island. I had never heard of a “mock turtle soup” which is why I began to research it immediately.
Mock turtle soup started to become popular in the 1850s as a cheaper and much easier to locate alternative to the popular green turtle soup. Mock turtle soup was for often for special occasions, but green turtle soup was served at special occasions. The fact that mock turtle soup was on the menu for this meal shows that the meeting of the Brown University Club was indeed a special occasion.
Mock turtle soup was a concoction of whole calf’s head which would mimic the flavor and texture of the traditional turtle. Turtle soup was extremely popular in the South, where turtles were in abundance, but other regions of the country wanted to taste the flavors Southerners raved about. Some Southerners even held “turtle frolics”, turning turtle sells upside down and filling them with the delicacy. Mock turtle soup really gained popularity in from the 19th century through the middle of the 20th century. Lewis Carroll, the author of Alice in Wonderland even made mention of the soup, naming a character Mock Turtle.
Although mock turtle soup was more accessible than the real thing, it was not very easy to prepare. The process of “dressing a calf’s head” consisted of opening the calf’s skull and extracting the brains, face meat, and tongue. Then, the meat would be boiled until tender before sitting overnight. Next, the meat would be sliced into “finger thick” pieces before being placed in veal broth with Madeira wine, thyme, pepper, a large onion, and lemon peel. Oysters, salt, sweet herbs, and chopped brains would also be added to the mixture. After sitting for about an hour, the soup could be served with “forcemeat” and the yolks of hard-boiled eggs.1
There was a time where this soup was so popular that Campbell’s Soup actually made a canned version of the delicacy. However, by the 1960s, the once famous dish seemed to start to lose its fanbase In a 1962 interview with Anthony Bourdon, Andy Warhol said that Campbell’s mock turtle soup was his favorite and that he would keep an eye out for and hoped to one day purchase the discontinued flavor.
Currently, mock turtle soup is a dish that is difficult to find in the United States. Something that once frequented menus all over America eventually became scarce. However, mock turtle soup still graces menus in Cincinnati, OH if your taste buds ever crave a little calf’s head. Today, Cincinnatians enjoy their soup a little differently — with ground beef instead.
The third course of this meal, “lobster chops” were served with tartar sauce. It is no surprise that lobster appears on this menu since it has been a staple of New England cuisine for eternity. Native Americans would use lobster to bait their fish and as well as a fertilizer. They even cooked the shellfish by heating up rocks, placing the lobsters on top of the rocks, and then covering them with seaweed, similar to lobster-bakes of today. When the first colonists arrived in New England, it was recorded that the abundance of lobsters was so great that the bottom-feeders would wash ashore in piles two feet high.
The colonists and Native Americans gathered the lobsters by hand, often cooking and eating them after they had already been dead. During the 1700s, boats are known as were introduced in Maine in order to transport live lobsters. In the mid-19th century, lobster trapping was introduced in Maine as well. Due to the abundance of lobsters in the New England area, the shellfish was first only fed to prisoners, apprentices, slaves, and children and was a very cheap item to acquire. However, as seasonal tourism increased in Boston when the wealthy wished to escape the heat, the need for lobster began to increase as well.
The lobster featured on this menu is referred to as lobster chops. This is a way of serving lobster that involves wrapping the tail around a skewer of scallops, brushing the chops with butter, and then grilling them. This way of cooking lobster sounds extremely delicious, but also extremely expensive. It was also intriguing that the only “lobster chop” recipe found was from Red Lobster. The way that this lobster is served seems very elegant and refined, which is not what usually comes to mind when thinking of the food that is typically served at a Red Lobster.
Following the lobster, a course of “fillet of beef with mushrooms” was served with French beans and “potato croquettes“. The menu does not specifically say how the meat is prepared, but during this time period, most gentlemen preferred their meat served rare. The beef was another food that was easier to find in highly populated areas. Grazing lands for cattle were often situated close to bigger cities, which Providence was considered during this time. As railroads became more accessible, meat became more accessible as well. Providence was a grand railroad city during this time, which made food even more accessible. Food historian Roger Horowitz says that a special occasion in America does not occur if there is no meat on the table, but I personally believe an American celebration is not special without potatoes.
The potato croquettes which were served with the beef were a popular dish during the 1890s. What is interesting here is that potato croquettes are often referred to as a “poor man’s food”, yet they are served alongside a filet of beef which was said to be enjoyed by the wealthier members of society. The potato croquettes were most likely mashed potatoes dipped in egg, rolled in breadcrumbs, and then fried in an oil or fat. The French beans paired with this meal as well are what is more commonly known as green beans today, and it was unclear how they were prepared for this part of the dinner.
Following the beef course, “timbales of sweetbread, a la Rothschild” were served with French peas. The word is derived from the French word for drum. It refers to the type of pan used for baking or the actual food that is cooked inside the pan. A timbale is a deep dish filling that is enclosed in a crust of some kind. The type of timbale that was made for this meal used sweetbreads, which are the thymus or pancreas of a calf or lamb. One way that this dish could have been prepared by first decorating the dish with truffles, lining with chicken cream force-meat, and filling with a mixture of fat goose liver and more truffles. When dishes are prepared they are extremely elegant and lavish, paying homage to the who possessed the largest private fortune in the world during the 19th century.
The next item on the menu was “Roman punch”. Roman punch is a punch that is oftentimes served midway through the meal, sometimes frozen, as a way to cleanse the palate. The origins are of why it is dubbed is unknown, but it has been noted that popes in Vatican City have enjoyed the refreshment for many years.
Following the palate cleanser is a dish of “roast quail with watercress and currant jelly“. This is a dish that was heavily influenced by sophisticated, French cuisine and something that Queen Victoria of England would often enjoy for her own dinners. Quail was often enjoyed by the upper members of society, seen as a more refined, cleaner choice than chicken.
Finally, it would have been time for dessert. It truly is amazing that the attendees of this dinner were able to eat such a heavy, gluttonous meal and still have room for dessert! The options on the menu are individual ice creams, “fancy cakes”, an assortment of cheeses, coffee, and “Apollinaris”. The exact kinds of fancy cakes served are unknown, but it can be speculated that there were a variety of choices, from coffee cakes to fruit tarts. Apollinaris seems to be a type of bottled spring water.
Gentlemen in Attendance.
Those who attended the dinner had a few things in common: they either were involved in the military, were well educated, or both. John Henry Stiness, Charles Henry Merriman, and Charles W. Lippitt all had some sort of military involvement, either as an aide or an enlisted soldier. John Henry Stiness also graduated from Brown in 1861 and was later the Chief Justice of the RI Supreme Court and helped to revise the Rhode Island Constitution. John Howard Appleton received his Ph.D. from Brown in 1863 and went on to write twelve books in chemistry. Charles W. Lippitt went to Brown before becoming the governor of Rhode Island and William Carey Poland graduated from Brown in 1868 and was a professor of Greek and classics. Rathboro Gardner graduated from Brown with his B.A. during the 1860s as well. The only attendee of the dinner with no record of attending Brown University was Charles Henry Merriman. Merriman was the best known and most highly respected cotton goods manufacturer in New England at the time.
All the gentlemen who were in attendance at the dinner were men who would be considered in the upper class of their day’s society. The food that was served also reflected their high social status. Many of the foods that were consumed were marked as dishes that were mainly consumed by those considered wealthy. I had previously assumed that soldiers during the Civil War were uneducated men. I was surprised to discover that the soldiers who fought held a wide variety of occupations and had differing amounts of education. However, they fought towards a common goal. It seems like some of our leaders today could learn a lesson from those men.
Another similarity that the gentlemen at the University Club dinner were their social status. From what was uncovered, all men in attendance were white, educated men with positions in society, either educational or political. Regardless of how they obtained their status, their social standing made them accustomed to a certain lifestyle and a certain quality of food. Due to the fact that they were in the higher classes of society, they had already become accustomed to a certain kind of diet. The food that they are used to consuming is what shaped the menu. Around the time the event took place, the expansion of railroads started to enable foods to be transported quicker and further. Providence was a city abundant with a large variety of the freshest foods around. A busy railroad hub on the coast of Rhode Island — what more could you ask for?
The attendees of this dinner are directly related to the food that was served. Although most choices for the menu are foods that would be expected to be served to only upper-class people, certain things were snuck in that were more common to the average person during this time period. It can be assumed that a majority of the attendees of the dinner grew up as middle-class society members. This would make them very familiar with a food like “timbale”, which was an extremely popular dish for middle-class families in the late 1800s. However, the version that is mentioned on the menu from this particular dinner definitely puts an extravagant spin on a middle-class classic, hence the reference to the Rothschild family.
Also, the food offered correlates with the available technology of the time. Since railroads were just becoming an important mode of transportation, most of the food eaten during the meal needed to be locally sourced.
The food served at this special dinner for the members of the Brown University Club in Providence, RI was a direct representation of the attendees of the event. Certain dishes would have been very familiar to the gentlemen based on geography, social status, and past shared experiences. Many of the guests had certain things in common, like their involvement in the military or their time at Brown, which contributed to their participation in the dinner.
Written By: Cecilia Spinella
Originally Published: May 6th, 2018 || Last Updated: April 11th, 2018
A part of Doc Studio’s History of Food in America Collection
- Recipe from Ms. Fowle’s Mock Turtle Soup