In the late 1800s, Americans’ awareness as to the rapidly declining fish populations in their lakes and streams prompted advancement in environmental studies of American water systems. This awareness, alongside the rapidly declining wild freshwater fish populations, specifically brook trout, led many Americans away from fish and towards other means with high values of protein. Decreasing brook trout populations made the food a delight to only be enjoyed during special celebrations, as their worth was too high to be included in an average diet. Thus, the brook trout served at the graduation dinner can take us on a historical journey into fishing legislations in the United States in the 1860s.
The Murray Hill Hotel, built and founded in 1884 by proprietors Hunting & Hammond1, reflected the wealthy and affluent nature of the graduation. Constructed in the wealthy neighborhood of Murray Hill, not only was this prime location on Park Avenue, between 40 and 41st streets, but it was also steps from the New York Train Depot. The Murray Hill Hotel saw itself as a competitor in the race among hoteliers in late nineteenth century New York to build the largest and most beautiful hotel.2 It contained marble floors, grand staircases, and craftsmanship rivaling the finest work in New York during this period, the Murray Hill Hotel was capable of establishing itself as a center of wealth.3 Pictured below, the main dining hall reveals sparkling chandeliers lighting up the room as the guests sit in awe of the craftsmanship designed into the columns and made the Murray Hill Hotel an ideal spot to host grand events such as the graduation ceremony for the United States Military Academy.
The nature of this venue was reflected in the food which it served to its guests. Serving elegant foods such as Little necks, bisque of soft-shell crab, sweetbreads and Adirondack Brook Trout with Sauce Verte indicated the nature of the celebration which the U.S. Military Academy hoped to accomplish. Little necks, require large amounts of labor to individually crack dozens of clams, but are known for their elegance. Other food and drink options such as the frog legs in crumbs and the sweetbreads truffles show the elevated of the food served. These items were not indicative of a normal American diet, instead of one which sought to express wealth and the celebration at hand. Specifically, the use of the Adirondack Brook Trout signifies the rarity of the menu’s food options within the average American’s diet in 1895.
The limitations on fishing can be traced through the development of the Adirondack Brook trout as a fishing population as well.In the 1800s the sport fishing of the adirondack Brook Trout was extremely popular, due to the stunning look of the fish. The land in the Adirondacks was seen as valuable in terms of how the state of New York planned to increase their production of materials which could help during the Industrial Revolution. The pressure on the population of Adirondack Brook trout was specifically impacted by many other human pressures including fishing.5 The major threats to the Adirondack Brook trout specifically are labeled as “the effects of acid deposition and the introduction of non-native competitors.” Non-native competitors offered too much in terms of economic value to the state of New York for them to turn down. They did not value the free land of space and did not quite yet understand the environmental impacts which they soon induced during the development of the land. The opportunity for development of the land in the New York State region specifically in terms of logging and tourism resources.6 Logging stripped the land of the trees which influenced the biodiversity of the region. This in turn, had an impact on the population with fishing as well. The removed trees ruined the system and destroyed many rooted habitats on the embankment edges of the fish. This as well as the constant traffic of individuals to fish in the region all stressed the population in the 1800s. The population soon decreased at an alarming rate. This decrease caused some panic which led to the implementation of fishing legislations in the 1800s.
The use of the Adirondack Brook Trout for this graduation event menu is extremely indicative of the lengths which the food provider went through, in an attempt to ensure the finest and most sought after foods, especially the Adirondack Wild Brook Trout, whose appearance is confusing given that nature of American freshwater fishing shifted greatly in the 1860s and 1870s away from the catching of trout to serve in restaurants. In the few years prior to the U.S. Military graduation dinner, the focus of many Americans is the declining fish population.
The fear for unsustainability created a movement which sought to seek the reasons for and the solutions to the rapidly declining fish populations in the 1870s and 1880s. This movement became known as the fish culture movement and soon administrative bodies were created by legislation that reflected the values of this movement. In the state of New York, the location of the Adirondacks, this movement led to the creation in 1868 of the New York Fish Commission, a body charged with studying the separate species and population habits of fish in New York for reasons as to the declining population. These studies found that there were several causes for declining fish populations. On a national scale, fishing techniques devastated fish populations, specialized commercial fishing nets which covered the majority of the river catch high rates of river fish, catch and non-release of both mature and non-mature fish, and overfishing in general were sighted as causes for the decline. But, in New York, the deposition of acid and dyes from textile mills were cited as a major influence in the rapid decline of the fish population.6 This acid deposition was not the least of the images provided, yet indicated future of the Adirondack Brook which soon disappeared from lakes and streams due to acid deposition. This fish culture movement was indicative of the movement of fishing where the rapidly declining population of fish made it exponentially difficult to attempt and catch fish like the Brook trout. This decline in accessibility allowed for an increase in the cost of the Brook trout in particular. In 1895, catching Adirondack Brook trout required journeying into the region and fishing specifically for it. Aside from the process of catching the trout, the preparation for trout is an event. The general preparation for the trout requires minimal effort, however the implications for the event raise a point that the preparation might now be of the higher standard.
The standard method for cooking of trout when mixed with sauces during the late 1800s is the method listed in Charles Ranhofer’s famous cookbook, Epicurean. Typically, the ideal trout weight is two to four pounds, the trout then goes through a process in order to prepare it for cooking. In the 1890s the process for preparing this food involved slicing the head and the tail off of the fish, removing its guts, rinsing it in water, then to fillet the fish and take out the bones in preparation for cooking. Then placing the fish in the boiling stock and waiting for it to finish cooking itself. This process requires little time, and the hardest aspect is filleting the fish. This Brook Trout is both easy to prepare, and simple for chefs to create on a grand scale.
This sauce is enjoyed by many as a traditional cover up for the bland trout flavor. It’s creation of sauce verte can be traced back to the French. Historically used as a dipping sauce for bland meat the use is not changed here. The Sauce Verte combines all of the greens , heats them up, has you break them down with a mortar and pestle, and then requires combination with a bechamel sauce. The process of creation for the sauce verte takes roughly 20 minutes but is well worth the taste.9
Below is the recipe which I followed in an attempt to create the sauce. I videod it for the viewing pleasure of the reader.
- 2. and 3. Edwards, Richard. New York’s Great Industries. Historical, 1884. P. 208 doi: 10.5479/sil.366942.39088005825278
4. New York Public Library. Murray Hill HoteL. June 12, 1895. U.S.M.A. Menu,
5. and 6.Pisani, Donald J. “Fish Culture and the Dawn of Concern over Water Pollution in the United
States.” Environmental Review: ER8, no. 2 (1984): 117-31. doi:10.2307/3984190.
7. 8. https://www.adirondackexplorer.org/stories/tragedy-of-the-trout
9.Senn, Charles Herman. Book of Sauces. Place of publication not identified: Hardpress Publishing, 2012. https://www.forgottenbooks.com/en/books/TheBookofSauces_10066195