That’s right, what were they eating in the 1700’s, 1800’s and early 1900’s? As part of the many resources at Theodore Barber & Co., we archive over 4,000 vintage menus dating as far back as 1752. We know every kitchen design must start with the “menu.” It is the theme and story of the restaurant, it is the heart and soul, it is the Chef’s expression of the Owner’s vision. During my 40+ years in the food business, it has been interesting to track culinary trends, menu structure and specialties throughout the years by collecting vintage menus. During my research, I have noticed one important aspect of dining out; the menu structure as far back as 1752 hasn’t changed all that much. The meal started with small plates (not called appetizers yet), soups (usually consommé’s), four to six entrée’s, fresh vegetables (in many cases cut at the table) and something contrasting in taste to finish the meal with, usually a sweet fruit or combination of nuts, a local cheese and sweet port. In early trans-Atlantic crossings meals were more of a challenge. Livestock were boarded “live” or already cured. With no refrigeration on board, early voyages had to deal with the livestock as if they were on land; the various animals (birds, beef, mutton, hogs) were slaughtered out of sight and prepared by boiling, pickling, salt air dried or barrel cured, and in some cases cooked over fire or roasted depending on the ships galley or accommodations. I have included a few marine menus for you; on the British and North American mail ship, R.M.S Siberia, Sunday September 8, 1878 you will notice nothing on the menu is chilled. The menu is hand written and you can enjoy “calves feet jelly” for dessert. Animal “organs” remained a mainstay on most menus throughout the 1900’s. Another interesting note is that menus were typically hand written or type set press printed for each day. For example, at the Hotel Fiske in Old Orchid Beach, Maine, I have included the menu for Friday, July 17, 1885. The menu also lists Hours of Meals, including when nurses and children can dine. In the 1800’s and early 1900’s Cigars from Havana were a common site and choice among cigars and wines offered at the end of a meal. On May 24, 1914, two years and a month after rescuing the remaining survivors from the Titanic, the R.M.S Carpathia was serving up Ribs of Beef, Virginia Ham, Roast Turkey, and Venison au Vin, with Desserts consisting of Pouding Anglaise, Victoria Tartlets and Ice Cream, yes something cold!
Next up, JELL-O hits the menus in the late 1920’s! Now with the ability to chill food and control the “heat” the advent of consistent hot and cold food on the menu’s exploded and we entered the age of; “The Commercial Kitchen Designer.”
To read this article on the web and to see additional photos of menus, click here
As part of our Newsletter, each month we will feature another unique menu from our collection.
All the best!
Theodore “Ted” Barber, FCSI