The Palm Beach Hotel: Privilege and Prejudice

Beginning in the middle of the nineteenth century, revolutionary changes took place in the production, transportation, and industrialization of agriculture, the advent of steamed transportation, and the refrigeration of perishables combined to allow for a variety and availability of grains, vegetables, fruits, and meats that had previously been unimaginable.1 Once refrigeration was added to the railcars that traversed the nation with rapid speed, even seasons hardly mattered. By the middle of the twentieth century, almost anything edible was available almost anywhere, at any time of the year. With the advent of the Industrial Revolution, cities grew. Better transportation allowed for workers to commute to these cities. Technological advancements in food production and preservation lowered the prices of food. Consequently, restaurants became popular and affordable for the working class. It was no longer only the idle rich who could dine out. Nevertheless, the wealthy continued to eat at restaurants. The newer, faster, and better railroads took them to their winter homes in South Florida, where the revolution in the food industry allowed them to eat from menus, the likes of which they had in the past only fantasized. This project will analyze such a menu: the luncheon menu from the Palm Beach Hotel for December 29, 1947.

The Palm Beach Hotel Luncheon Menu, Monday, December 29, 1947
http://menus.nypl.org/menus/29896/explore

By the end of the 1800s, the wealthy had begun to winter on the small barrier island of Palm Beach, but it was not until Henry Morrison Flagler arrived that this practice truly took hold. Flagler amassed a fortune from the Standard Oil Company, and by the time he came to Palm Beach at the end of that century, he had grown even wealthier, creating a hotel and railroad empire.2 In 1893, he began construction on his first grand hotel with more to follow. Three years later, his company, Florida East Coast Railroad, brought its initial passengers to Palm Beach.3 Construction exploded and the privileged descended upon the island every winter like the snowbirds for which they were soon named. The Roaring Twenties catapulted Palm Beach to the forefront of the national obsession with the rich and famous. Talented architects like Addison Mizner built mansions in the Spanish and Moorish architectural style termed Mediterranean Revival that still dominates the island.4 Palm trees and local delicacies, like stone crabs, coconuts, mangoes, and avocados, added to the flavor of the subtropical paradise.5 As in the entitled haunts throughout the globe, these luxuries were only open to the few, primarily WASPs (White Anglo-Saxon Protestants). Jews were discouraged or sent south to Miami Beach, and black people were only allowed on the island for construction and to pedal the wealthy whites around in wicker rickshaws.6 The fact that Palm Beach was a small island made exclusion easier. Blacks were forced to live on the mainland in West Palm Beach, as were middle- and lower-class whites. It was a modern feudal society. By the 1940s, the island’s habitues were not much different than they are today.7 It was a home for the rich and famous, period. The Palm Beach Hotel, built in 1925, was an oasis for these wealthy visitors. As mentioned previously, this project will investigate its luncheon menu from December 29, 1947.

The Palm Beach Hotel

During the course of my investigation, I came across a man my father knew, who had dined at the hotel often, and during this same period. In fact, he had eaten at the restaurant within a week of this menu. His knowledge has allowed a unique approach to this project, whereby the menu will be dissected partially through his eyes and direct experience, as a first-hand informant and unparalleled primary source. Charles Cochran was born to a wealthy upper-class family from Manhattan in 1936 and first came to Palm Beach in 1942. His family socialized among the exclusive class of New Yorkers who rode to Palm Beach each winter in private train cars. He was a jazz singer and pianist, and then served as the pianist on the Queen Elizabeth 2 ocean liner for many years, so he is well acquainted with fine menus from around the world—he even lent me some old cruise line menus for my research, including those of the SS City of Los Angeles for March 1, 1926, the RMS Queen Mary for May 19, 1937, the SS Noronic for June 30, 1942, and the SS Argentina for August 3, 1953. What is more, Cochran loaned me a fantastic cookbook written by the actor Vincent Price that contained old menus and recipes. These menus made interesting comparables to that which I was studying. I interviewed Cochran at length about the Palm Beach Hotel menu, and his comments will help inform this exercise. Where practical I will include links to recipes for the various dishes, which I will discuss one at a time, the assorted entries in bold print.

Charles Cochran at 19 with Ella Fitzgerald.
Cochran at Lincoln Center Memorial for Bobby Short.

Iced Peach Nectar and Chilled V-8 Vegetable Juice are offered as juice drinks on the menu. The peach nectar is obviously a beneficiary of the modernization of the food industry discussed above. Peaches are unavailable throughout the nation in winter, so preservation, reconstitution, and perhaps pasteurization were essential to its presentation on the winter lunch menu. V8 was created in 1933, but not widely available until its formula was purchased by Campbell’s in 1948.8 Cochran said that V8 was considered somewhat exotic and had just begun showing up on menus at the time.  

Cold Russian Borsht, Boiled Potato, and Cream of Cauliflower, Dubarry are the soups on the menu. Cochran related that Borsht was an item found on many menus in many fine dining establishments of the time, but is now out of favor. He also mentioned that it was a popular lunch item since lunches were often served cold, even at fine hotels. For the most part, the Palm Beach Hotel menu represents a cold luncheon. Borsht (or Borscht) is a soup common to Eastern Europe and Northern Asia. The soup’s principal ingredients are beetroots, hence it is red in color. Potatoes are added to the soup as well. In various parts of the world, and in many families, it has a ritual significance.9 Cream of Cauliflower was also a more common menu item at the time, according to Cochran. It is often served cold, like a vichyssoise, so that might have been the case for this cold luncheon as well. Both beets and cauliflower are winter crops, so the soups were most certainly fresh.  

From the colonial times until the late 1800s, oysters were a ubiquitous food item along the East Coast. In particular, Lynnhaven Oysters from Virginia were a staple among the well-to-do until pollution, overharvesting, and other factors caused a decline in Chesapeake Bay oyster production.10 According to Cochran, Lynnhaven Oysters were like Prince Edward Island Mussels in a sense—the best of the best and specifically labeled on menus of the period. Oysters, too, are a winter food offering. It is often said to only eat oysters during months with “Rs” in them. Consequently, they were most likely fresh.     

Salami and Eggs, Country Style and Poultry Livers and Onions Saute, Caruso en Casserole are both menu items that today we would not necessarily associate with the upper class, and some might consider more “ethnic” in sensibility. Indeed, neither salami, nor chicken livers and onions are common menu items in any form today. Salami and chopped chicken livers are foods associated with delicatessens, while fried chicken livers are common fast food items in the South.11 Neither would be found on the menus of upper-class hotels today, in venues like the Monteleone or the Windsor Court. Cochran stated that both of these items were more universally popular at that time in the United States and would have been served both in Palm Beach and “across the bridge.” Cochran was of the opinion that neither of these more proletarian dishes were present as a result of postwar shortages, as “those issues did not apply to Palm Beachers.” He remarked as an aside that, in that era, a Palm Beacher “would never have eaten in West Palm Beach, unless he were catching the train or a plane.”

Florida Avocado Pear Stuffed with Shrimp Salad is a menu item reflecting the local bounty of the subtropical paradise. Another cold dish, with local ingredients, this offering represents the best of local foods, for which no preservation or frozen storage is required. Perhaps this demonstrates that, regardless of the technological advances that created the modern restaurant menu, there is still a preference for fresh local fare, when available. Florida avocado pear is a quite different food from the California or Mexican avocado, which is smaller and tastier.12 The Florida fruit is large and somewhat bland, rather watery. That is why it can be stuffed and paired with menu items whose taste one does not want to overpower. In exterior appearance, the fruit is somewhat like the mirliton we know in Louisiana, but it is darker green, and unlike that squash, it is a fruit with a softer inner core and large seed. Its interior flesh is indistinguishable from the California avocado in appearance and texture.

Pink Salmon and Celery Salad, Jardiniere fit well on this mostly cold luncheon menu—perhaps reflecting the fact that, even in the middle of December, it can be quite warm in South Florida. Cochran related that air conditioning was still very uncommon in Palm Beach at that time, if available at all. I asked Cochran if salmon was on the menu out of any form of New York or New England “snobbery,” or preference for coldwater, less “fishy” tasting fish, in contrast to the local catch. He indicated that this was not the case, but that local fish was often seen on Palm Beach menus. As Dr. Nystrom had queried, I asked Cochran if perhaps salmon had to do with kosher or Jewish menu preferences in South Florida. He replied that this would be the case in Miami, but Palm Beach was still racist and intolerant, and only a few very wealthy Jewish families were on the island at that time. He had similar thoughts about the salami and chicken livers above—in his opinion they were not from any Jewish influence or catering to a Jewish clientele. He felt that salmon was on the menu because it was a good dish to eat chilled and merely represented this particular and more general Palm Beach lunch menus of the time.  

California Sunburst Fruit Salad, Palo Alta is a great example of the diversity that became available throughout the country with the advent of refrigerated railroad transportation. Foodstuffs could be moved faster and preserved longer under such conditions. It would be interesting to know if this menu item was a general mixture of fruit from California (and not locally grown Florida fruit)—that is, what we think of as a typical fruit salad, or was it the more particular recipe for “California Fruit Salad” that involves sour cream and/or mayonnaise.13

Cold Sliced Vermont Turkey, Potato Salad, Dill Pickle is a menu combination that we are all infinitely familiar with today from any buffet or picnic. Interestingly, potato salad owes its origins to a diverse group of cultures. Potatoes came from the New World, principally Peru, and were brought to Europe during the colonial period, where they became immensely popular due to their hardiness and utility, which over time led to the creation of the dish potato salad in Germany.14 The principal ingredient of American potato salad is mayonnaise.15 The dish is another served cold or at room temperature. As to why “Vermont” turkey, Cochran commented that the idea was similar to “Virginia” ham. Vermont was a state known for producing good turkeys.    

Bowl of Sour Cream, Minced Vegetables, Cottage Cheese. These ingredients speak for themselves, yet the combination might seem unusual to today’s palate. Seemingly contrary to the official history found in the Historical Society of Palm Beach County and the opinion of Cochran, this appears to be a Jewish dish. At least the recipes on the Internet indicate that to be the case.16 This might be an example of popular history not matching with actual history, something we first discussed in Dr. Nystrom’s Historiography class. This dish is served cold.  

Broccoli Hollandaise and Elbow Macaroni. These are common offerings, perhaps for the “vegetarian” at the table. When asked about elbow macaroni, Cochran replied, “that’s a snob’s way of saying macaroni and cheese, or macaroni salad, probably the latter in this case.” Macaroni and cheese is a common American staple—indeed, many children survive solely on Kraft Macaroni & Cheese—derived from pasta and cheese casseroles that originated centuries ago in Italy and England.17 There are hundreds of different recipes available on the internet for what at its base is a cheap, hearty, and delicious meal.18 Macaroni salad typically shares the same ingredients with potato salad, with macaroni replacing the potatoes. It is served cold. Hollandaise comes from the French for “Hollandic” sauce and is believed to be of Dutch, or possibly French, origin. It typically consists of a mixture of egg yolks, melted butter, and lemon juice.19 Unusual for this menu, Broccoli Hollandaise is served hot.

 Assorted Rolls and Breads were described by Cochran as “what you see is what you get.” He opined that this is one area in which American restaurants have improved tremendously over the intervening years. He felt that American breads have only recently approached the quality of those found in the rest of the world. Cochran explained the typical Palm Beach menu breads of the day as “hard salted rolls, often with sesame seeds,” or “long, phallic, poorly-tasting, rock-like buns.” These were invariably presented with small plates of spiral-shaped sweet butter.

Swiss, Blue, Camembert, Gruyere, American Cheese and Saltine Crackers seem like typical items found on a cold buffet today. Yet, we would not expect American Cheese and Saltine Crackers on the menu at this expensive establishment. American Cheese—not really even cheese—was invented (and patented) by the Kraft brothers in the early twentieth century. “The cheeses of yore, handcrafted in tiny batches on individual farms and later whipped up en masse in large factories, arrived at the local grocer in huge wheels (the most economical way of transporting them and keeping them fresh). James and the rest of the Kraft brothers, however, began to occupy an entirely new production paradigm. Their cheese wasn’t shaped into wheels and aged in a cave—it was a gloopy mass that was heated up, stirred in a cauldron, and removed of all bacteria. It could take on any shape.”20 Saltine Crackers come from similarly humble beginnings. They are a thin cracker first commercially produced by the predecessor of Nabisco in the late 1800s, whose principal ingredient is baking soda and, thus, they are commonly known as “soda crackers.”21 It is difficult to think of a more utilitarian pair of food items than American cheese and saltine crackers. The fact that real cheeses are present on the menu argues against any lack of availability, postwar shortage, or shipping issues for more preferable, flavorful alternatives. Perhaps after the war, there was a sense of patriotism, and people wanted to eat “American” products?  

The dessert selection of the menu includes Danish Pastry, Dutch Apple Cake, Chantilly, Pudding Anna, Vanilla or Strawberry Ice Cream, Fruit Jello with Whipped Cream, Butter Cookies, Macaroons, and Pound Cake. Danish Pastries are actually of Austrian origin and consist of many layers of buttered, sweetened yeast dough that are rolled and folded several times. The pastries came to the United States with immigrants, who added cream cheese or fruit as toppings or fillings.22

Dutch Apple Cake is a common dessert with which most of us are familiar.23 The same can be said of Vanilla or Strawberry Ice Cream. The existence of ice cream in South Florida once more attests to the revolutionary transformations in food technology, preservation, and transportation. Ice cream in South Florida, whatever the season, was once an unimaginable treat. Likewise common are Butter Cookies and Pound Cake, which are still restaurant regulars throughout the country, at buffets of all types and qualities.   

On the other hand, Chantilly is somewhat more distinctive and enticing. In its most common form, Chantilly Cake is made from layers of soft white cake, each layer frosted with whipped cream containing fresh berries. Today, many recipes call for mascarpone or cream cheese in the frosting for a fuller, richer flavor.24

On the opposite side of distinctive is Fruit Jello with Whipped Cream, though this was not always the case. Gelatin, a protein derived from collagen taken from boiled bones and excess animal parts, has been in common use since the fifteenth century, but not exclusively for sweets. It became popular as a sweetened dessert in the United States in the 1800s, but was complicated and expensive to make, so it was basically reserved for the wealthy, until the turn of the last century, when processes were developed to make it more easily and more cheaply.25 Refrigeration was the real catalyst in bringing Jello to the masses. We can speculate that this item was on the Palm Beach Hotel menu primarily for children, but, then again, who does not like Jello?

Macaroons, not to be confused with the French cookies called “Macarons,” are coconut cookies. Coconut is another local fruit, so perhaps this was a way to localize the menu. More interestingly for our study, because they lack flour or leavening, macaroons are a popular Jewish sweet eaten during the Passover holiday. This might be another case where Cochran and the Historical Society of Palm Beach County are incorrect and Jewish influences and kosher foods are presented on a Palm Beach menu, as Dr. Nystrom suggested.26

The most puzzling mystery on the menu is Pudding Anna. There does not seem to be a specific dish so named—at least it cannot be found on the Internet. We must assume that it was a Jello pudding or bread pudding named after the chef, owner, or one of their loved ones. Cochran neither remembers nor has he heard of the dish. Of course, we here in New Orleans love a good bread pudding. This is a dish that is central to the Commander’s Palace mystique.27

Coffee, Tea, Milk, Buttermilk, Sanka, Postum, Iced Tea, and Iced Coffee make up the drink menu. Where is the Coca-Cola, we might inquire? According to Cochran, soda was not on the menu in any of the nicer restaurants on the island. It was available, however, from the soda fountain at the combination diner/pharmacy that still exists.28 Buttermilk is an interesting choice that has lost its popularity over the years. I remember my great-grandfather drinking it daily. It is still a common cooking ingredient and found at all groceries. Sanka is no longer on restaurant menus, but was once a popular instant decaffeinated coffee beverage commonly advertised on television.29 It is still available at groceries. The most perplexing beverage on the menu—and for that matter maybe the most puzzling item on the menu—is Postum. The drink is a non-caffeinated beverage created in 1895 by C. W. Post, the founder of Post Cereal, made from molasses and roasted wheat bran and sold as a healthy alternative to coffee. It was discontinued and eventually made a return to the market, but almost certainly not to restaurants.30

As eleven-year-old Charles Cochran sat down for lunch with his wealthy parents at the Palm Beach Hotel during December of 1947, he was certainly unaware that his meal, his surroundings, and even his location on the exclusive island were the results of revolutionary technological and scientific transformations made over the preceding hundred years. Without the Industrial Revolution, his grandfather could not have accumulated the large fortune that enabled his family to spend its winters in the Florida sunshine. Without transportation, the island could neither have been reached nor developed. Most importantly for our purposes, without stunning advances that involved the industrialization of agriculture, the preservation of foodstuffs, and the transportation of these items across this vast country, Cochran could not have enjoyed many of the items on the luncheon menu. Much of the food had to be chemically fertilized, mechanically sown and harvested, mass produced, transported by ship or railroad, and refrigerated or frozen in order to arrive on his plate fresh and delicious. The menu for December 29, 1947 demonstrates that what we can eat at any given time depends upon what is produced, fresh, and available. By the middle of the last century, for the wealthy, that was virtually anything. Perhaps the most important—and upsetting—discovery of this project has been the complete lack of information available as to what the middle and working classes ate across the bridge in West Palm Beach, less than half a mile away. My initial objectives were centered around the class distinctions and economic inequalities that were (and are) rampant in South Florida and how these played out on menus of the day. Nothing I was able to find in the Historical Society of Palm Beach County, or on JSTOR, really spoke to this. Menus are simply not available for the restaurants of West Palm Beach during the 1940s. I guess I should not be surprised after all. Palm Beachers lived then as they do now, giving little thought to how the rest of us live.

Notes

  1. Katherine Leonard Turner, “Factories, Railroads, and Rotary Eggbeaters: From Farm to Table,” in How the Other Half Ate: A History of Working-Class Meals at the Turn of the Century (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2014), 28. 
  2. Richard A. Marconi and Debi Murray with the Historical Society of Palm Beach county, Images of America: Palm Beach (Charleston, SC: Arcadia Publishing, 2009), 28.
  3. Ibid., 32.
  4. Richard A. Marconi and the Historical Society of Palm Beach County, Then & Now: Palm Beach (Charleston SC: Arcadia Publishing), 78.
  5. Nicolaas Mink, “Selling the Storied Stone Crab: Eating, Ecology, and the Creation of South Florida Culture,” Gastronomica 6, no. 4 (Fall 2006): 33.
  6. The Historical Society of Palm Beach County with Russell Kelley, An Illustrated History of Palm Beach: How Palm Beach Evolved Over 150 Years from Wilderness to Wonderland (Palm Beach: Pineapple Press, Inc., 2020), 53.
  7. Seth H. Bramson, Remembering Palm Beach (Nashville, TN: Turner Publishing Company, 2010), 71.
  8. “V8 Vegetable Juice was created in Evanston, Illinois,” Digital Research Library of Illinois History Journal, June 15, 2019, https://drloihjournal.blogspot.com/2019/06/v8-vegetable-juice-was-created-in-evanston-illinois.html.
  9. Olia Hercules, “Let Me Count the Ways of Making Borscht,” The New Yorker, December 7, 2017, https://www.newyorker.com/culture/annals-of-gastronomy/let-me-count-the-ways-of-making-borscht.
  10. Benjamin H. Trask, “Oyster Culture on Chesapeake Bay,” Postcard History, December 21, 2010, https://postcardhistory.net/2020/12/oyster-culture-on-chesapeake-bay/.
  11.  Tori Avey, “Chopped Liver,” Tori Avey, January 21, 2021, https://toriavey.com/toris-kitchen/chopped-liver/.
  12. “Avocados – Learn All About Avocados,” What’s Cooking America, https://whatscookingamerica.net/avocado.htm.
  13.  “California Fruit Salad Recipe,” Best Foods, https://www.bestfoods.com/us/en/recipes/california-fruit-salad.html.
  14. “Potato salad,” The Food Timeline, https://www.foodtimeline.org/foodsalads.html#potato.
  15. Sommer Collier, “The Best Potato Salad Recipe Ever,” A Spicy Perspective, https://www.aspicyperspective.com/make-best-potato-salad-recipe/.
  16. Myrna Turek, “Cottage Cheese, Sour Cream and Vegetable Salad,” The Jewish Kitchen, https://thejewishkitchen.com/cottage-cheese-sour-cream-and-vegetable-salad/.
  17. Clifford A. Wright, “Origin of ‘Macaroni and Cheese,’ CliffordAWright.com, https://www.cliffordawright.com/caw/food/entries/display.php/topic_id/16/id/105/; James L. Matterer, “Makerouns,” Gode Cookery, 2000, http://www.godecookery.com/goderec/grec6.htm.
  18. Julia Moskin, “THE WINTER COOK; Macaroni and Lots of Cheese,” The New York Times, January 4, 2006, https://www.nytimes.com/2006/01/04/dining/arts/the-winter-cook-macaroni-and-lots-of-cheese.html.
  19. “Julia Child’s Hollandaise Sauce,” Food.com, https://www.food.com/recipe/julia-childs-hollandaise-sauce-251332.
  20. Grant Brandley, “Real Cheese Product—No Country for Old Cheeses,” Culture: The Word On Cheese, January 20, 2014, https://culturecheesemag.com/blog/real-cheese-product-no-country-for-old-cheeses/.
  21. Saige Cavayero, Lauren Geniviva, and Anna Kilshtok, “Nabisco Premium Saltines: The Snack That Takes You Back,” http://www.saigefalyn.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/04/Saltines_Strategic-Project.pdf.
  22. “Homemade Pastry Dough (Shortcut Version),” Sally’s Baking Addiction, October 29, 2013, https://sallysbakingaddiction.com/danish-pastry-dough/.
  23. “Classic Dutch Apple Cake,” Food.com, https://www.food.com/recipe/dutch-apple-cake-7732.
  24. John Kanell, “Chantilly Cake,” Preppy Kitchen, May 5, 2021, https://preppykitchen.com/chantilly-cake/.
  25. “The History of Jello-O,” Jell-O Gallery, https://www.jellogallery.org/history.html.
  26. Joanna O’Leary, “The Jewish History of Macaroons,” My Jewish Learning, March 23, 2021, https://www.myjewishlearning.com/the-nosher/the-jewish-history-of-macaroons/.
  27. “Commander’s Palace Bread Pudding Souffle with Whiskey Sauce,” Martha Stewart, December 2001, https://www.marthastewart.com/1162024/commanders-palace-bread-pudding-souffle-whiskey-sauce.
  28. “Our History,” Green’s Pharmacy of Palm Beach, https://www.greenspb.com/.
  29. Eric Pace, “Advertising; Last Cup of Sanka for Dr. Welby,” The New York Times, August 26, 1982, https://www.nytimes.com/1982/08/26/business/advertising-last-cup-of-sanka-for-dr-welby.html.
  30. Jenna Fisher, “Can Postum fans revive their beloved beverage?,” The Christian Science Monitor, March 12, 2008, https://www.csmonitor.com/The-Culture/Food/2008/0312/p13s02-lifo.html.

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