Christmas at the Denison Hotel

The Denison Hotel in Indianapolis places a heavily reliance upon regional-specific dishes within its Christmas Day 1906 menu. From French Snails to ‘Civet of Belgian Hare’, the selections on this menu indicate that this hotel in downtown Indianapolis was one which catered to a wealthy clientele. The online media channel ‘Historic Indianapolis’ tells us that the Denison Hotel was one of the finest in Indianapolis in the late 20th century and hosted the Republican Party on numerous occasions. President Benjamin Harrison used the hotel as a political gathering spot during his pre-presidential stint as an Indiana politician. The hotel was rebuilt in 1897 due to fire, and so at the time of this chosen menu the hotel appeared as new as when first built, and was home to judges from the Supreme Court and their families.



‘Hyman’s Hand Book of Indianapolis’ refers to the Denison Hotel as being “the pride of [Indianapolis]” and a “hotel that is known from one end of this country to the other and conceded by all to be one of the most elegant hotels in America”, after its rebuilding.



One interesting choice on the menu of the Denison Hotel is ‘Diamond Back Terrapin a la Baltimore’. ‘Diamondback terrapins in Maryland: Research and conservation’ says that “during the 19th and early 20th century, Diamondback terrapins were in high demand in the United States as a gourmet food”. Additionally, by 1900, just six years before the Denison Hotel’s Christmas Day 1906 menu, there were experimental breeding farms to evaluate the potential to supply food markets with diamondback terrapins. According to the Baltimore Sun, terrapins from the Baltimore region had been fished near to the point of extinction by the 1900s and quotas had to be placed on their capture. Its price on the Denison Hotel’s menu reflects its scarce supply; in 1906 Diamond Back Terrapin a la Baltimore was the most expensive item on the menu at $75. Pfau and Roosenburg tell us that in 1920, prohibition led to a decline in the demand for terrapin flesh because a key ingredient of terrapin soup was sherry, and so this contributed to the recovery of terrapin populations as the market demand evaporated. We can see on the NYPL that Diamond Back Terrapin a la Baltimore does not feature on any menus between 1914 and 1941, and this information explains why. Reduction in demand for terrapin flesh meant harvests continued on a smaller scale and in the U.S. the terrapin slowly decreased in value as a food as it was replaced by other foods, and no longer was considered a delicacy.


Considering Baltimore’s position as one of the closest cities on the Atlantic Coast to the city of Indianapolis, it is no surprise that the Denison Hotel utilises food from this region. The hotel’s other dish from this region is ‘Fried Spring Chicken a la Maryland’. The NYPL chronological timeline shows the dish being a consistent feature of menus throughout the period of 1898 to 1946. The Delmarva Peninsula which includes Eastern Maryland has historically contained a superb quality of poultry, aided by the region’s large flat expanses. The Delmarva Peninsula has been one of the nation’s most consistently large poultry producers, and this explains why according to the NYPL chronological timeline, fried spring chicken from Maryland has been a consistent option. Maryland Chicken is different from Southern Fried Chicken due to the fact that Marylanders pan-fry the chicken in a heavy skillet so the chicken steams as well as fries.


The second most expensive item on the Denison Hotel’s Christmas Day 1906 menu is the Philadelphia Squabs En Casserole. The NYPL shows this dish being prevalent between 1895 and 1914. It is no surprise the squab is the second most expensive item on the menu, considering squabs were only beginning to be commercially raised in North America in the early 1900s. The restricted supply at the time means Philadelphia Squab was likely somewhat of a rarity, which it has come to being in 21st century America after a period of being used heavily as a ‘household meat’, particularly during wartime shortages. Due to the comparatively larger and cheaper meat of chicken, squab has largely been displaced in 21st century America and is seen as a specialty item which is often sold for much higher prices than other forms of poultry.


The ‘Civet of Belgian Hare’ is a fascinating choice on the menu, and is a stew containing meat from the Belgian Hare, which could according to some recipes contain the hare’s blood in the stew. Hare Stew (Civet de Lievre) can also be called ‘jugged hare’, in reference to the ‘jugging’ process which involves stewing/boiling the hare in a covered container. According to ‘Domestic Rabbits & Their Histories: Breeds of the World’, there was a movement in the late 19th century to create a practical meat rabbit and by 1898 the Belgian Hare boom was peaking with thousands transported across the Atlantic to America. However novice breeders were unable to turn the rabbit into a production meat breed and by 1902 the flooded market had gone bust. This perhaps suggests that by 1906 the Belgian Hare had become more of a rarity once much of the supply in the market had been eliminated, and so it was an apt choice for a hotel such as the Denison which seemed to target rarer foods for their rich clientele.


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