“I’ll Have the Pickled Walnuts:” Unpacking Turn of the Twentieth Century Menus

In the spring semester of 2018, students in Dr. Nystrom’s “A History of Food in America” used the New York Public Library’s captivating “What’s on the Menu?” digital menu archive to explore dining at the turn of the twentieth century in America.

Dining in 1900, whether in a hotel, on train, aboard a naval vessel, or in a department store lunchroom would have contained elements both familiar and foreign to our modern eye. Foods such as pickled walnuts and calf brains have long disappeared from all but a comparative handful of restaurants today, but these menu items were common at the turn of the twentieth century. Yet at the same time, restaurants serving Bananas in Boston or Florida Pompano filets in Maine, thousands of miles from the place of their origin, revealed the emergence of a burgeoning and efficient national commercial fresh food distribution system. One student even wrote about the relationship between chemistry and food in this emergent age of science with her exploration of the menu celebrating the 25th anniversary of the American Chemical Society in 1901.

Rapidly modernizing technology operated in tandem with broader global transformations, and the meals that diners ate at the turn of the twentieth century were a manifestation of this fact. Whether it was the banquet for an Englishman with French food at the Astor Hotel in Shanghai for his accomplishments in laying making possible the transpacific cable between the United States and China, a commemoration of the Old South’s white supremacy amongst southern whites who had heeded Henry Grady’s call to “out Yankee the Yankee” and become businessmen in New York City, or the fourth annual gathering of the Brown University Club in 1897, public feasting was an extravagant extension of Gilded Age masculine privilege. Yet it wasn’t all men venturing out to eat. A thoughtful exploration of the Siegel and Cooper’s Lunch Room revealed a menu geared towards changing tastes and eating habits of women shoppers who might stop in for an afternoon tea and a slice of one of the restaurant’s 17 different varieties of pie.

In some cases, students went to the kitchen to replicate some of the dishes that they read about. This included a college student’s riff on sole meuniere served at a banquet at Buffalo’s Iroquois Hotel in 1908 and a Charlotte Russe cake served at a New Year’s Eve celebration at the New Orleans’s St. Charles Hotel in 1906. One took lengths to prepare food served at San Francisco’s famous Martinelli’s restaurant. A particularly ambitious student tried to replicate major portions of the 1898 banquet of the New Orleans Bar Association, with its punny and inscrutable nomenclature. Another set out to make a cold beef tongue sandwich like the one served on the Pennsylvania Railroad in 1900 – and made a film about it!

To browse all of the 22 entries for this project, navigate to the “Categories” menu to the right and select “Restaurant Menu” or click on this link.