Ringing in the New Year in Atlantic City

A Picture of Atlantic City, ca. 1919

Atlantic City’s “Golden Era” is the subject of popular histories for a reason- the beach town-turned-playground stood as a tangible zeitgeist of Post-World War I America that, for the first time on such a scale, made middle-class accessibility a top priority. On the cusp of the Prohibition years this fact was truer than ever, with the city’s hotels drawing hundreds of thousands of Americans each year in search of a place to escape the monotony of the post-war boom, and, instead, be immersed in its fruits. Tourists would have checked in at any one of dozens of the beach-front hotels that lined the boardwalk, such as the Malborough Blenheim and Chalfonte-Haddon Hall. The latter boasts one of the longest records of any of the city’s major tourist complexes, and was one of many to have offered off-season guests lodging and dinner on New Year’s Day, 1919. 

It is necessary to understand the landscape in which the Chalfonte-Haddon operated during these years in order to grasp the historical import of the hotel’s culinary contribution. The geographic landscape of what became Atlantic City had seemingly always been appealing, with “Cape May [attracting] 100,000 visitors a year,” in the first half of the 1850’s. (Simon, 21) Investors appreciated the value of this diamond-in-the-rough and turned nearly four miles of beach into a resort town. Simply slapping down the boardwalk’s planks did not completely seal the deal, though- a rail line connecting the city to Philadelphia was responsible for that. (Simon, 21) With a seasonal wave of visitors assured, business boomed and more permanent establishments appeared. Chalfonte-Haddon Hall was one of these, built independently in 1868 and 1869 as two separate hotels which were bought and merged together twenty years later by the Leeds and Lippincott Company. For a succinct timeline of the city, click here.

The unprecedented appeal of Atlantic City was at once necessitated and produced by a clandestine web of conventions that were strictly upheld by local politicians. Comparable to other major political systems, the Atlantic City machine managed to support its semi-wholesome appeal on “graft, patronage, intimidation, and electoral muscle that rivaled any political machine in the country, including Chicago’s Daley machine and Memphis’s Crump machine.” (Simon, 58) It was this corruption that kept the city predictable and, therefore, comfortable for its white, middle-class patrons by stifling racial and class mixing, petty crime, and conspicuous mismanagement. 

Chalfonte-Haddon Hall

At this point I’ll focus on the dining room of the Chalfonte on January 1st, 1919. What immediately strikes the reader is its simplicity. Oysters, clams, and the usual offshore suspects are accounted for, accompanied by more pedestrian selections of roasted ribs, beef, and turkey. A number of items, though, speak to the city’s comparatively cosmopolitan atmosphere- tangerines, bananas, Neufchatel cheese, and tomato salad all suggest that the hotel’s owners had the means of getting foreign and off-season goods in the dead of an Atlantic winter. And if we take the conception of American historian Bryant Simon, whose work is primarily relied upon throughout my post, of dining rooms like the Chalfonte-Haddon’s, the initially mundane New Year’s menu becomes even more dynamic:

“During the city’s heyday, these busy hotel lobbies, and to a lesser extent the dining rooms, functioned not as safe havens in a heartless urban world, but rather as extensions of the Boardwalk. They were, in other words, public—yet still rigidly segregated—spaces. It didn’t matter if they stayed in the crummiest boardinghouse in town, any white woman or man in their Boardwalk clothes could sit down on lobby chairs, have a drink, or meet a friend. This equal access gave Atlantic City its all-important democratic cloak.”

(Simon, 30)

Chalfonte-Haddon Hall was a mere facet of this network of spaces and, as such, reflected municipal authorities’ intentions in its operation down to the most minute detail. This is why something like Chow-Chow appears on the New Year’s Day menu- by 1919 the dish was popular enough to have been heard of, but exotic enough to have made visitors feels like they were taking one or two well-monitored steps outside of the conventional by ordering it.

What’ll you have?

Green Turtle Soup

I, a native New Orleanian, was surprised to find that there is a significant portion of the country- an unenlightened majority, in fact- that does not consume this cold-weather staple. What’s even more interesting, perhaps, is that this isn’t a New Orleans staple at all, but, rather, a nineteenth-century one. Turtle Soup was served at all manner of high-end venues, from Presidential Inaugurations to noble English households. By the time the Chalfonte was serving it, however, the dish was already experiencing a decline in popularity. A consensus seems not yet to have been reached on why exactly this occurred, but it was most likely a combination of over-hunting and changing post-war American palates that put an end to the dish’s place on menus like the Chalfonte’s. And to further complicate matters, it is unlikely that we can know whether Green Sea Turtle, Green Snapping Turtle, or mock-turtle was served in Atlantic City on January 1st, 1919.

Roquefort Cheese

If the goal at the Chalfonte was to bring the extraordinary to the ordinary, then having Roquefort on this menu would have made a lot of sense. Cheese was just as pretentious then as it is now, and this variety is typical. Roquefort is one of the oldest varieties of bleu cheese and hails from the Roquefort region in France, from which it takes its name. Both visually and gustatorily striking, the cheese has a rich, often romanticized history:

According to legend, Roquefort first occurred when a lovestruck gaulois shepherd left his lunch and bread at the mouth of a cave while he went chasing a shepherdess. When he returned to the spot three months later he found the bread covered with mold, some of which had infected the cheese. He must have like what he tasted.

https://www.nytimes.com/1982/06/23/garden/blue-veined-cheeses-the-expanding-choices.html

Romantics aside, we can surmise more than a few things about the Chalfonte based on this cheese’s presence on its New Year’s Day menu. Only a few years after this point, Roquefort Cheese was the first to be given Appellation d’Origine, “a mark or guarantee of quality.” Because of this, we might assume that its highly specific production, which still involves “exclusively [making it] from sheep’s milk in caves that tunnel four miles into Mount Combalou in the Massif Central of south-central France,” was likely in the process of being standardized. The suggestions made by the fact that the Chalfonte offered an import like this even during the off season are that 1) it was the beneficiary of an established, but growing, global food market and 2) even the hotel’s winter visitors would have expected the best to be served during meals.

Zwieback

If you paused at this while looking at the menu, then it’s likely that you fell into one of two categories: 1) people who have no clue what zwieback is or 2) people who know what zwieback is, but have no clue why it’s on the menu. I fell into the former.

“Zwieback” translates from German roughly to “twice-baked”- zwie meaning “two,” backen meaning “to bake.” It’s sweet, simple to make, and easy to digest. Unfortunately for the consumer, there isn’t much more to it than that. Fortunately for me, its presence on the menu makes matters even more interesting. In addition to being influenced by global trends, the Chalfonte seems to have adopted domestic trends which had their roots in late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century immigrant cultures. Zwieback is commonly associated with Russian Mennonites who immigrated to the United States, as many other groups had, as religious refugees. In a 2013 Menno Simons lecture, Professor Marlene Epp explained the bread’s significance:

Many Russian Mennonites have direct experience or family stories of being “refugees wrenched from their homes,” Epp said. For them, “food holds deep religious meaning. Food reminds them of home. Hunger is so closely linked to despair.” Zwieback, when roasted and dried properly, is “the perfect travel food,” she said. “It is connected to many often painful memories. It is a unifying social force – roasting and packing zwieback became a communal ritual. As long as there was zwieback, God existed. There was hope. That connection between bread and life is reinforced in the Eucharist meal.”

https://www.bethelks.edu/article/lectures-zwieback-symbolizes-place-food-mennonite-history-culture

It’s worth noting that not very many other menus in the New York Public Library’s “What’s on the Menu?” Collection feature zwieback- in fact, only ten do over a century-and-a-half-long period. Considering the fact that the NYPL’s database is still expanding, this may change. However, given the number of menus that have been made available, it’s clear that the bread’s place on the menu is unique.

Unfortunately, I cannot say exactly why zwieback is on the menu. Based on other items and the period during which it was offered, we know that Americans were beginning to grow comfortable with traditionally-foreign foods. This was especially true of German foods, which had become staples in the North-East decades before the release of this menu. Jane Ziegelman gives a solid history of the proliferation of German food in the first chapter of her work 97 Orchard: An Edible History of Five Immigrant Families in One New York Tenement. Was zwieback’s presence a testament to the new dynamism of the American palate?

The Big Picture

So, what does it really mean that the Chalfonte served fancy French cheese to its guests in 1919? It means that, as Bryant Simon suggested, even the smallest details of events like this were part of a much bigger network of strict expectations and developing customs. What this menu tells us is that middle-class Americans who went to Atlantic City to experience something exceptional were really getting it. And, from the broadest perspective, the rapid connection of the twentieth century world was what was making these exceptional things attainable.

Sources

Schwartz, David G. Boardwalk Playground: The Making, Unmaking, & Remaking of Atlantic City. Winchester Books. Kindle Edition.

Simon, Bryant. Boardwalk of Dreams. Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition.