A Forgotten Diner

What do you do when you choose a menu for a restaurant that has almost no information available online? Well, I made up a history of a mobster using the restaurant as a cover for his crimes given that the only information I could find is that the potential owner was once cited for having menu prices set too high during the Great Depression. However, it wouldn’t be responsible for me to tell these lies so instead of that I will be reliant on cooking for this examination of my menu. The only other articles I could find were a few ads throughout the ’40s that didn’t offer me much more information.

Sammy’s Plaza Menu from 1939. Photo from New York Public Library.2

Sammy’s Plaza was a restaurant on Madison Avenue in New York, New York.3 I can’t find much information on it as noted earlier, so I don’t know when it opened or closed. I know it was open in 1939, as that is when my menu is from. It should be noted that with the design of the menu, it seems to have been a place for men to congregate on their lunch breaks from their office jobs. I also found an eBay sale that was for a menu from 1953. This shows us that the restaurant was at least open for 14 years. Real estate records show that the building that is currently located at 635 Madison avenue was built in 1958.4 This means that the restaurant could have only existed until then extending our time frame to 19 years at the absolute most. The only other information found is that the building was owned by Samuel Berlin. Is this the Sammy’s namesake I have been searching for? The sad answer is that I just can’t be sure. It seems that Sammy’s Plaza is a part of the pre-war Manhattan that did not survive after the city’s landscape radically changed post WWII.5

So, since I can’t find much information on Sammy’s I can offer up some information on the rise of delicatessens in the 1930s. Delicatessens, or delis, offered a quick and easy spot for workers in the city to stop in for lunch. We’ve learned through our readings and lectures that kitchens in New York City during that time were small, if people had them at all. This made delis like Sammy’s popular for feeding people in the 1930s.

I began my research for cooking by looking for a recipe for the Chicken Paprika. I found a recipe for it in the Foods of the Foriegn-Born in Relation to Health. It’s a pretty simple and easy recipe so I am excited to try it. For this I do think I will try to find a more expensive paprika than the dollar store one that I currently have in my spice cabinet. Next will be a chocolate layer cake. For this I will be using a combination of a chocolate cake and chocolate icing recipe from Miss Parloa’s New Cook Book. I chose these recipes because they were the best sounding ones, and I felt like they would hold up the best to today’s standards of cooking. 

I’m starting my cooking with the chocolate cake that way it has time to cool before icing it. I’m using semi-sweet chocolate as the recipe just says baking chocolate without a specification on what kind. The recipe also says to set the oven at a “moderate temperature” and by today’s cooking standards that is around 350°, so that’s what I’m going for with this recipe. The recipe says that it will make two sheets, so I’m making two nine inch rounds hoping I can get a two layer cake. Luckily I live in a time of modern luxuries so I have access to my mom’s stand mixer which will come in handy for the mixing process. Here are all the things needed for my cake making process to begin! After measuring everything out, I’m starting to feel a little nervous that there might not be enough flour to get me the two rounds that I want. 

Ingredients measured out. Photo by Elisabeth Lee.

Now the cooking begins! I’m starting to boil the water for the chocolate and starting beating the butter and sugar together. I melted the chocolate over a low heat to make sure it didn’t seize. Once glossy I added to my mixture of egg and butter and then in a few short minutes I got my fluffy cake batter! Now the recipe didn’t say to grease and line your pan but I know better than that and went ahead and did it so that I can get my cake out in 20 minutes. I put my cakes in their pans and sent them into the oven with a cup of water (my mom swears this keeps cakes moist) and said a quick affirmation that they’ll look good in 20.

Cake batter in pan. Photo by Elisabeth Lee.

It took about 27 minutes, but my cakes are finally done!

The cakes fresh out of the oven. Photo by Elisabeth Lee

After I get these out of their pans, it’s time for the icing! 

Finished icing in a bowl. Photo by Elisabeth Lee

The icing came together quickly so I only got a photo of it after it was finished.  Time to assemble this cake!

Drum roll please…..

Finished cake. Photo by Elisabeth Lee.

Here is the final result! This is by far the ugliest cake I have ever made in my life. Hopefully it tastes better than it looks, and that will have to wait until later to be found out. 

Now it’s time to start on the chicken paprika. The only diversion from the recipe that I’m taking is using vegetable lard instead of the assumed animal lard that the recipe calls for. I’m also using two chicken breasts instead of a whole chicken to attempt to make a smaller batch.

Everything ready to go for the Chicken Paprika. Photo by Elisabeth Lee.

With everything chopped and ready to go, I’m heading to a skillet to get things started. After Sautéing the onions for around three minutes they got their yellowish color. This means it’s time to add the chicken and the paprika!

Chicken browning in pan with onions and paprika. Photo by Elisabeth Lee.

After my chicken was browned, I added the water, parsley, and salt and put a lid on it to simmer. After 10 minutes my chicken paprika was done! I plated it up with parsley on the side like the recipe suggests.

Finished chicken paprika. Photo by Elisabeth Lee

Now the menu at Sammy’s Plaza did not say anything about galuska, but the recipe says to serve the chicken over it, so I made a batch to try with it. 

Now it’s time to serve up what my potential lunch would’ve looked like at Sammy’s Plaza in New York City in 1939.

Finished meal. Photo by Elisabeth Lee.

First up is the chicken paprika, I actually really like this, I was worried about the seasonings and flavor before I tasted it, but it actually has a really good taste to it, and honestly I would be willing to try this again, even the 1922 recipe! I don’t particularly like the goluskas, so if I try this again, I’ll probably just have it over rice. 

The cake, however, is a different story. It is dry, flat, and way too sweet. I think it had too much sugar in it and not enough flour, plus the oven temperature thing might have messed it up some. I realized as I was typing up the recipe what happened! I put in too little flour. After this discovery I feel like I would be willing to give this little chocolate cake another try know knowing the proper ratio of flour to sugar.

It was really interesting to attempt to make these recipes as true to form as possible.

Although we have been going through how different cooking techniques are and how food preparation has evolved throughout American history, there is nothing like the hands-on knowledge of experiencing it personally. Participating in this really evolved my thinking. I went into this thinking that it would be easy to recreate these things. I like cooking, and I imagine it was easier in the past. I was wrong, I got my idea overthrown almost immediately with the cake. It was shockingly hard, and did not turn out anywhere near how I thought it would. This was an amazing learning experience and I hope I made the mobster….. I mean owner of Sammy’s Plaza proud of my attempt at food served at their restaurant. 

Recipes:

Chocolate Cake6:

One and a half cupfuls of sugar, half a cupful of butter, half a cupful of milk, one and three-fourths cupfuls of flour, a quarter pound of Baker’s chocolate, three eggs, one teaspoon of cream of tartar, half a teaspoon of soda. Scrape the chocolate fine, and add five table-spoonfuls of sugar to it (this in addition to the cupful and a half). Beat the butter to a cream. Gradually add the sugar, beating it all the while. Add three table-spoonfuls  of boiling water to the chocolate and sugar. Stir over the fire until smooth and glossy; then stir into the beaten sugar and butter. Add to this mixture the eggs, well beaten, then the milk and the flour, in which the soda and cream of tartar have been thoroughly mixed. Bake twenty minutes in a moderate oven. This will make two sheets. Frost it, if you like. 

Chocolate Cake No.2 Icing7:

The whites of two eggs, one and a half cupfuls of powdered sugar, six table-spoonfuls of grated chocolate, one teaspoonful of vanilla. Put the chocolate and six table-spoonfuls of the sugar in a sauce-pan with two spoonfuls of hot water. Stir over a fire until smooth and glossy. Beat the whites to a froth, and add the sugar and chocolate.

Cesirke Paprikos (Chicken Paprika)8:

Chop one onion and fry it in lard till yellowed. Add enough paprika to give it a pinkish color. Cut up a chicken in serving pieces and fry in same pan until golden brown. Add one or two cups of water with two tablespoons of parsley, and let simmer till chicken is tender. Salt to taste. Serve on a platter with galuska sprinkled with parsley around the edge and pour hot sour cream over the chicken. 

Notes

  1. Sammy’s Plaza. New York. Menu. 16 June 1939. 
  2. Ibid
  3. “10 RESTAURANTS CITED ON OPA COMPLAINTS: TWO NIGHT CLUBS IN GROUP ACCUSED OF VIOLATING CEILING PRICES.” New York Times (1923-Current File), Jun 01, 1944. http://ezproxy.loyno.edu/login?url=https://www-proquest-com.ezproxy.loyno.edu/historical-newspapers/10-restaurants-cited-on-opa-complaints/docview/106974775/se-2?accountid=12168.
  4. The Real Deal. “635 Madison Avenue.” https://therealdeal.com/new-research/topics/property/635-madison-avenue/
  5. “Sprouting Skyscrapers are Changing Face of Midtown Manhattan: 41 Structures Built since End of War– 351 More Planned Rentals show Increase Corning to use Glass Marguery to be Razed.” New York Times (1923-Current File), Feb 03, 1957. http://ezproxy.loyno.edu/login?url=https://www-proquest-com.ezproxy.loyno.edu/historical-newspapers/sprouting-skyscrapers-are-changing-face-midtown/docview/113952637/se-2?accountid=12168.
  6. Parloa, Maria. Miss Parloa’s New Cook Book. Boston: Estes and Lauriat, 1882. “Chocolate Cake.”
  7. Ibid. ”Chocolate Cake, No. 2. Icing.”
  8. Wood, Bertha M. Foods of the Foreign Born in Relation to Health. Boston: Whitcomb and Barrows, 1922. “Cesirke Paprikos.”