Milk Toast at The Roosevelt Hotel

What is now known as “The Roosevelt New Orleans”, was originally called “The Hotel Grunewald” when it was built by German immigrant Louis Grunewald  in 1893. The building was originally six stories tall, with the capacity of 200 hotel rooms. Grunewald strived for the hotel to be open just in time for Mardi Gras in 1894. The expansion of the hotel in 1900 added a separate tower, known as the Grunewald Annex, with 14 floors, expanding the room capacity to 600. In addition to more rooms, the expansion also provided several dining facilities, the Forest Grill, The Lounge, The Fountain Grill, and The Cave. The expansion also allowed room for entertainment facilities, like the Romanesque Room, which is now famously known as The Blue Room. In 1923, the hotel was repurchased and renovated to be one single 16 floor building, renamed as “The Roosevelt.” Soon after, the glamorous Blue Room became one of the best music venues in the city, as well as the Sazerac Bar being just as popular.

Within these formative years during the early 1900s, the Roosevelt was a hub for the best musicians and celebrities alike, becoming the best place to be to experience the height of luxury. This legacy still holds today, as they continue to follow their same traditions, year after year. The Roosevelt has hosted many throughout the years, from esteemed celebrities like Sonny and Cher, Frank Sinatra, Judy Garland, Marilyn Monroe, and Audrey Hebpurn; to important politicians like Calvin Coolidge, Dwight Eisenhower, Gerald Ford, and Bill Clinton. The Roosevelt proved to be a hotspot for everyone looking for a delicious cocktail, live music, and a warm meal.

While The Roosevelt’s Fountain Lounge hosted a fantastic dinner, I wanted to highlight their breakfast options from their 1949 menu, which was hosted in the coffee shop. I found it quite interesting that over the years, breakfast has stayed very similar to what it is today. Since the time frame of the menu I chose is situated right in the wake of World War II, it is important to look at this menu with the implications of America’s food stability at the time. Throughout World War II, which lasted from 1939 until 1945, there were many concerns regarding food scarcity. In the years before the war, much of the meat consumed by Americans was shipped from overseas, and the threat of war raised concerns for how Americans would find a protein substitution. At the time, the only solution was what was considered “variety meats”: hearts, kidneys, brains, stomachs, intestines, or even the feet, ears, and heads of various livestock. 

The concept of breakfast has changed drastically over the centuries. In the middle ages, it was considered gluttonous to eat early in the morning, and people frowned upon it. They, instead, opted for a light supper at midday, followed by a larger meal at nighttime. However, it was viewed as acceptable for the working class, as well as babies and the elderly to eat a very small meal at the beginning of the day, as people knew they needed the calories. In the years to follow, this view of breakfast abruptly shifted. Breakfast was now considered something necessary; lavish even. I mean, Queen Elizabeth was doing it, so obviously we all should too. This brought about extremely large and heavy breakfast portions. The 19th century Industrial Revolution streamlined this process, furthering the idea of breakfast as an extremely necessary meal. At the tail end of the 1800s, breakfast was becoming a social event. Everybody who was anybody was doing it. Wealthy people had entire rooms in their homes dedicated to breakfast. This, obviously, changed for Americans when World War two broke out in 1939, and food rationing was insisted upon everyone.

In the years shortly following the war, food scarcity was at such a high that people were forced to get creative with solutions. These formative years are when we begin to see processed foods entering the household. Processed foods were highlighted as the new, healthy normal. Margarine, shortening, and boxed cereals became a household staple across the United States. Food writers of the time, like New York Times Columnist Jane Nickerson, were enthralled by the convenience of industrially processed foods that began popping up. Although we know now that processed foods generally are not very nutritious, it was easy to market them as such when they were new, especially in such a food scarce world post war. Substitutions like evaporated milk in place of heavy cream became marketed as a healthier and less expensive swap. In her New York Times column, Nickerson explains this distinction, claiming, “a half-pint of heavy cream averages 35 cents, a tall can of evaporated milk 15 cents. Ounce for ounce, the cream costs more than triple.” She also goes on to explain the caloric intake of each, expressing, “the milk is richer than the cream in all nutrients except calories and vitamin A.” The clarification of the time period helps us to understand why the Roosevelt Hotel’s breakfast menu in 1949 still highlighted meats like grilled calf’s liver and chipped beef

.

Breakfast in 1949 at the Roosevelt Hotel was hosted in the coffee shop, and had all the basics, from juice to omelets.  One menu item I found quite odd, however, was milk toast. Milk toast originated in the 1930’s as a “sick man’s food.” In layman’s terms, chicken noodle soup is the modern day milk toast, typically only served when someone was not feeling well. Besides its origins, people seemed to thoroughly enjoy the dish, leading the way for milk toast to become a breakfast staple, appearing on many breakfast restaurant menus. It was adapted to become a popular comfort food among the population, and today we see similar dishes that could be considered a modern milk toast, like French toast, or even cinnamon toast crunch. Milk toast was around well before Kellogg’s rocked the world with prepackaged cereal, so it makes sense why everyone thought so highly of the dish. Food writer Sarah E. Daniels made a strong case for milk toast alongside her recipe adaptation, stating:

“A popular dish of the 19th century, milk toast is exactly as the name implies: a marriage of two breakfast standbys, milk and toast, resulting in something that could be considered the precursor to the cereals we fill our bowls and our bellies with today. It was an obsession for many, and was cited as healing almost all ails, but was realistically heralded because it was easy for the sick and elderly to digest. Unsurprisingly, children were also pretty big fans of what was essentially a bready precursor of today’s Cinnamon Toast Crunch. Milk toast is a meal of solace. It’s homey, warm, and earnest. It’s the kind of thing that would welcome a new day or round out a particularly difficult evening. Satisfying in its own right, it’s easy to see how this combination of bread and sweet milk once served the same niche as a bowl of cereal does today – and how  it’s worth bringing back.”

To prepare milk toast,  bring one quart of milk to a boil, then add one tablespoon of butter and flour and stir. Add salt to taste and pour over a piece of toast. Traditionally, it is topped with cinnamon and sugar, although some prefer a savory milk toast, opting for salt and pepper instead. In later years, milk toast was adapted slightly. The milk is just warmed up alone, and then poured over a piece of toast that is ripped up into smaller pieces and coated with cinnamon sugar. For the sake of the time period, I assume that the Roosevelt Hotel’s milk toast was the former recipe. Milk toast is not a dish commonly found on breakfast menus anymore, which is why I wanted to highlight its significance within the context of the time period.

Throughout the difficult times surrounding food availability in the years immediately following World War II, something that the United States seemed to have in abundance was wheat. While food production decreased exponentially elsewhere in the world following the war, it increased substantially in North America. Post war, American wheat production increased by 50%, with the majority of it going towards military and civilian demands. Despite the Lend-Lease Act, which allowed America to lend supplies to any nation they deemed, “vital to the defense of the United States,” while still remaining neutral in conflict, most of these exports post war ended up in civilian households. Despite the efforts of rationing, food consumption actually rose in the United States throughout the duration of the war. Production of oils and fats also rose 50% above pre-war production. Again, with the majority of this production going to civilian consumption, it makes sense why we see dishes like milk toast popping up frequently on breakfast menus, as it is a dish consisting of majority wheat and fats. The only ingredient still being rationed in the United States post war was sugar, which could be a strong indicator why the majority of the menu items are savory, while the limited sweet options are exclusively served with honey or cane syrup. These options are also considerably more expensive than if they were served without honey or cane syrup.

The Roosevelt Hotel has been a historical landmark in the city of New Orleans since its opening in the late 1800’s, under former owner Louis Grunewald’s name. Many famous people have stepped through the front doors, whether it be politicians staying at the hotel, or legendary musicians coming to perform in the infamous Blue Room. Jazz legend, Louis Armstrong, performed in the Blue Room in 1949, the same year of the breakfast menu I highlighted. In this same year, many famed people walked the halls of the hotel, from Ella Fitzgerald to Frank Sinatra. Given the circumstances of food and money scarcity in the years following World War II, The Roosevelt Hotel provided a lavish experience for civilians desperately needing it, with legendary food and performances alike.

Resources

Daniels, Sarah E. “Milk Toast Recipe on food52.” Food52, 10 Nov. 2021, https://food52.com/recipes/54262-milk-toast.

Garber, Megan. “A Brief History of Breakfast, the Most Contentious Meal of the Day.” The Atlantic, Atlantic Media Company, 20 June 2016, https://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2016/06/breakfast-the-most-contentious-meal-of-the-day/487220/.

History.com Editors. “Lend-Lease Act.” History.com, A&E Television Networks, 29 Oct. 2009, https://www.history.com/topics/world-war-ii/lend-lease-act-1.

“The Roosevelt New Orleans.” The Roosevelt History | Historic New Orleans Hotels | Then and Now, https://www.therooseveltneworleans.com/about-the-waldorf/history/hotel-history.html. 

WANSINK, BRIAN. “Classified World War II Food Secrets.” Marketing Nutrition: Soy, Functional Foods, Biotechnology, and Obesity, University of Illinois Press, 2005, pp. 21–32, http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.5406/j.ctt1x74kd.7.

R. H. “The Post-War Food Position.” The World Today, vol. 2, no. 1, Royal Institute of International Affairs, 1946, pp. 6–12, http://www.jstor.org/stable/40391880.

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