The New England Society and Maryland-style Terrapin

The menu I selected initially interested me because it had the Brooklyn Academy of Music in the title. It is actually a menu for the New England Society of Brooklyn’s 33rd annual dinner in 1912. Upon researching the menu further, the popularity of the concept of societies and clubs around the time period was intriguing to me as it isn’t something we really see a whole lot of today. The details surrounding the New England Society’s annual dinner, including the location and the main entree, tell us a lot about the New England Society and societies in general in the early 20th century. 

The location listed on the menu is the Brooklyn Academy of Music. The Brooklyn Academy of Music is the oldest performing arts center in America, presenting its first performance in 1861. It was established at a time in history in which the city of Brooklyn was just beginning to develop. Today it is known for its progressive and nontraditional performances, but they also host festivals and many other types of events occasionally. Up until about the 1960s it was used primarily for performances, but the building was also used to host galas, concerts, dinners, some religious services, and other events. The Brooklyn Academy of Music has always been a rather prestigious institution, so holding events there was not cheap. The kinds of private events being held there were generally dinners for members of clubs, organizations, and societies that were held in high esteem at the time. The fact that the New England Society hosted its annual dinner there is very telling of the society and the kind of people that were likely to be a part of it.

The New England Society in the City of Brooklyn was first formed in 1847. The purpose of the society was to honor the Pilgrims of New England and to create a community of people who had emigrated from New England to Brooklyn during the Industrial Revolution. The New England Society also strove to support the culture and social welfare of Brooklyn. It still exists today and has several programs intended to help residents of Brooklyn, specifically young people, such as the philanthropic program and the many dinners and events they host for members. The menu I selected was for the society’s 33rd annual dinner, which took place on Saturday, December 21st, 1912, a significant date because December 21st is the anniversary of the Pilgrims’ landing.

This concept of societies having dinners was much more prominent in the late 1800s into the early 1900s than it is today. A quick search in the New York Public Library Menu database shows just how popular societies and the dinners they held were around the turn of the 19th century. There are 557 results for menus with the word “society” in the name. Some of these include menus for a Caledonian Society in 1891, a Pennsylvania Society in 1905, the Ohio Society of New York in 1897. It seems that the majority of these societies were related to the regions people were originally from, but a good amount of them were related to a common interest or occupation. Examples of this kind of society include the Saint Nicholas Society in 1905 and the Medical Society of The State of New York in 1900. What is interesting about these dinners is the food that was being served at them. The foods being eaten at these dinners encapsulated the fine-dining culture of the time period. The menu for the New England Society’s 1912 annual dinner is an excellent example of this.

From a variety of fine wines to Maryland-style terrapin, the menu for this dinner has thirty-five items on it, almost all of which are served to the dinner guests.  The fact that so much food was being served alone is an indication of the wealth of the New England Society’s members. The first course includes Cape Cod oysters on the half shell and clear green turtle soup, followed by a course of side dishes including olives, radishes, celery, and salted almonds. Next is bass in a white wine sauce served with cucumbers. The next item on the menu is “filet of beef, with truffles” which is presumably something similar to filet mignon that was either encrusted in truffles or accompanied by a sort of truffle sauce; this was served with potato croquette and Boston baked beans. Punch was a very popular beverage at the time and this dinner was no exception as there is a Plymouth Rock punch listed on the menu. For dessert ice cream, bonbons, fancy cakes, coffee, and candied fruits are listed. 

The main entree was Maryland-style terrapin. Diamondback Terrapin is a species of turtle native to the eastern and southern United States. It used to be a famous delicacy of Maryland, but today it is no longer consumed, partly because terrapin fishing is now illegal, and partly because it was not widely enjoyed by those who ate it toward the end of it’s run. Today, the taste has been described as marshy woodland and the texture was described as gummy and slimy. In 1912, however, terrapin was held in a very high esteem. It was certainly expensive, at one point it sold for $45 for a dozen of them, which is approximately $1,182 after inflation. Terrapin’s high price meant that it was only commonly eaten by the elite members of society at this time, many of whom had described terrapin as their favorite dish. In addition to this, there was a large amount of pride surrounding the cooking of the dish. It was extremely difficult to prepare and the way to go about doing so was highly debated, so being able to do it properly required not only money, but a good amount of skill. The renown French chef Auguste Escoffier even once referred to the Maryland Terrapin as the “king of turtles.”

The fact that this was served at the New England Society’s dinner as the main entree, along with many of the other menu items, is certainly a testament to the amount of wealth its members had. Most times, terrapin was eaten in a stew. If it wasn’t in a stew it was also commonly boiled live like lobster and eaten with a lot of butter or sherry or dry Madeira. There were many different ways to prepare terrapin, though, and those who cooked it debated what the best way was. The biggest questions debated were whether or not to boil them alive or kill them first and whether to cook the portion of tough meat for a long time in an attempt to soften it, or to just throw that portion away. These questions, along with many others, led to a lot of various different preparations and recipes for terrapin. Since the menu doesn’t specify how it was prepared, there isn’t really one way we can assume it was. Regardless, the menu does specify that the terrapin was served alongside fresh mushrooms and followed by a course consisting of squab (baby pigeon) on toast and a romaine salad. 

Another menu that helps demonstrate the wealth of members of societies is one from the Society of the Genesee’s eighth annual dinner in 1906. The foods being served are notably extremely similar to the foods served at the New England Society dinner. The menu includes Cape Cod oysters, clear green turtle soup, radishes, olives, celery, and salted almonds, just as the New England Society’s did. There are differences, still; the Society of the Genesee served filet of king fish with lobster sauce and roasted red-head duck. While both of these entrees were certainly common among the elite in the early 20th century, they did not hold quite the same value that Maryland terrapin did. Both of these menus and the items on them indicate the wealth of society members in the early 1900s, but even when compared to another high-class society, the New England Society seems to be unique. The terrapin and the fact that the dinner was held at the Brooklyn Academy of Music both demonstrate, among other things, just how elite the members of the New England Society of Brooklyn must have been.

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