Bananas, Lobsters, and the deadly history of the Hotel Vendome

The guests who attended the 20th anniversary of the Harvard Dental School back in 1889 were greeted with dinner menus of assorted items that ranged from frozen pudding to deviled lobster on the shell. However, among the more popular items listed on the menu at the Vendome on March, 11th 1889 were bananas and lobsters. It’s no coincidence that lobster was a main fixture of this small, but versatile menu given that Harvard and the Vendome are located on the East coast — an area widely known for the high quality and abundance of its native lobsters.

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But among the more surprising food items that make multiple appearances on this menu are bananas; which is odd considering that bananas weren’t a common food item in North America until late in the 19th century. The innovation and proficiency of the North American cold chain helped to boost the popularity of bananas in the United States by making it more accessible to the common public. Once seen as a luxury food item for the upper class, bananas were distributed by the millions from other countries into North America and were finally available to common folk, who in years past, might not have even known what a banana looked like. Much like the banana, the lobster was able to transcend its culinary status among the American public. When lobster food dishes such as canned lobster were first introduced to the American public during the time of the Revolutionary War, lobster was viewed as a meal more commonly associated with lower class citizens. Years later, the status of the lobster and its various dishes among the culinary landscape of American cuisine skyrocketed to prominence with the wealthiest of American citizens suddenly choosing to make lobster a main fixture of their splendid, lavish feasts. In this paper, I will flesh out how the lobster transcended its class-associated status, how the cold chain played a significant role in the distribution and the popularization of bananas in the United States, and the deadly history of The Vendome.

Before 1900, Before the 20th century and even a few years deep into the 20th century bananas were solely seen as a food product linked to higher class people in the United States. Why? Bananas hadn’t yet been exposed to the American public on a mass scale. In the 1880s, an American businessman by the name of Andrew Preston began importing a different variety of banana into the United States with the intention and hope that Americans would fall in love with the fruit, prompting the demand for bananas in the United States to grow. Preston began to buy plots of land in Jamaica, cultivated his own crops off the land, and purchased an armada of steamships to help import bananas into American markets on the East Coast. The idea of being able to transport fruits like the banana over the ocean on a steamship was unheard of at this time because the technology needed to keep the bananas fresh during the long voyage hadn’t been perfected to an exact science. “To get them to port without rotting, the company built a network of ice-cooled warehouses, boxcars, and ships, vertically integrating the whole operation in a way that paralleled the oil and steel monopolies developing during the same era” (Dan Koeppel, author of Banana: The Fruit That Changed The World). It also helped that bananas could defy the seasons and survive without refrigeration. Nevertheless, much of the product still suffered from spoilage if conditions on the cargo vessels weren’t adequate. Preston bought storerooms, refrigerated cargo vessels, and boxcars to help ensure that the quality of his bananas wouldn’t suffer from long voyages that often spelled disaster for fruit and other perishable food items around the time. Preston also received some help from one of his friends in New Orleans. Joseph Vaccarro — a fellow importer who bought almost every ice factory around the Gulf of Mexico so that Preston’s product could reach the southern region of the United States. The trio of Preston, Vaccaro, and businessman Minor Keith eventually went on to evolve into the “Dole” fruit company. “Because of the success of firms like these, the price of bananas dropped from five or ten cents each to ten or fifteen cents a dozen from the late 1800s to the early 1900s. Refrigeration turned bananas from a luxury to an extraordinarily common food despite their distant points of origin” (Jonathan Rees, Refrigeration Nation, 86-87). For a menu such as the one that Harvard administrators were handing out to their guests on March 11th, 1889 to feature bananas and banana fritters is a bit unusual and reflective of the dinner’s exclusivity.

Like bananas, the appearance of lobsters on this menu reflects the changing tastes of the time. In Twain’s Feast, author Andrew Beahrs describes how lobster meat, as late as the 1850, was dirt cheap. So cheap that Nova Scotians were still feeding lobster meat to their pigs. When observers saw piles of lobster shells, they immediately associated the sight with “poverty and degradation”. Lobsters and lobster dishes remained fairly limited to coastal cities until canneries began shipping lobster meat nationwide. Beahrs notes that the first attempt to ship a live lobster to another part of the country was conducted in 1842, but on this trip from New York to Chicago, the live lobster died in Cleveland. According to Bearhs, with the demand for lobster being nothing out of the ordinary, early cannery companies could afford to use “huge” lobsters. Lobsters so big that two of them would provide enough meat to fill a can. “Within a few decades, as the larger specimens were fished out, as many as eight lobsters were needed to pack the same sized container. Soon they were too rare and expensive to be sold like Starkist tuna. Lobsters grew scarce because they were an elite and desirable food, but they also became an elite and desirable food because they were scarce” (Beahrs 149). Although originally viewed as “trash food”, worthless enough to be used as fishing bait, lobsters were over-fished and lobster numbers dwindled drastically in the late 19th century. By the 1880s more open-minded diners in Boston and New York City began to recognize lobster meat as a delicacy and the prices commanded by lobster meat began to rise drastically. Toward the turn of the 20th century, lobster meat took on a whole new reputation, landing on plenty of American menus around the country between the 1880’s and 1920’s. With this in mind, and being that the east coast, and more importantly, Maine, is known for its abundance of high-quality lobster meat, it makes sense why lobster is a staple on the menu for a feast that took place in Boston.

 

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Lastly, we’ve talked about the food on the menus that were handed out at the Harvard Dental School’s 20th anniversary, but we haven’t yet talked about the place that housed all those hungry guests back on March 11th, 1889.  As depicted above, “The Vendome” is written on the middle of the opening of this historic menu. The Vendome was originally built as a luxury hotel in 1871 Boston’s “Back Bay”. The hotel underwent huge expansions beginning in 1881 that were completed in 1882. Eventually in 1971, coincidentally the year of the building’s centennial, the owners of Hotel Vendome sold it and the newly-minted owners underwent plans to transform the former hotel into a cafe. They did exactly that and the first floor of the building was renovated and labeled “Cafe Vendome”. The remaining parts of the building were renovated and constructed into small condominiums and a shopping mall. However, tragedy struck on June 17th 1972. Just one year after the building was sold to new owners, renovations were still being done with the intentions that every floor above the cafe would be turned into living spaces and a shopping mall. Workers noticed a fire that had caught some momentum on the third and fourth floors. Sixteen engine companies and five ladder companies answered the emergency calls to battle the inferno and believed that they had successfully hemmed in the blaze. Suddenly, in the blink of an eye, all five floors of The Vendome collapsed on top of a fire truck. Up to 17 firefighters were buried under two stories worth of heap, rubble, and debris. Just one day before Father’s Day, eight of those 17 unfortunate firefighters lost their lives while nine more were injured. It remains the worst firefighting tragedy in Boston’s history.