Well-dressed Dinners

Well-dressed Dinners

If you’ve ever seen illustrations in a Victorian-era cookbook, or marveled at the lavish meals served in the Downtown Abbey television series, you may be curious about the fancy foods of the past.  This week we will straddle the Atlantic to get a taste—just a little nibble—of the cuisines offered by a landmark New York City hotel and in the provincial hotel dining rooms of France, where Barnum preferred to eat while he was traveling in 1845.  (Granted, that was a few decades before the Downtown Abbey story.)

This topic of food follows in the wake of my recent research on early tourist and traveler guidebooks, and was inspired by finding among the digitized holdings of the New York Public Library a collection of 19th-century menus (The Buttolph Collection).  I decided it would be fun to see if any of the menus corresponded to the timeframe of Barnum’s American Museum and if they were from hotels or restaurants in its vicinity on Broadway in Lower Manhattan.  Luck was on my side!  I discovered that the earliest menu in the collection dates to 1843, and came from none other than Astor House, New York’s first luxury hotel, a large granite edifice erected in 1836 that covered almost an entire block.  Not only was this hotel on Broadway, it was situated diagonally opposite the American Museum, which suggests the likelihood that Barnum himself ate meals there, as would many of the museum’s visitors.  The NYPL collection also has an 1854 dinner menu from Astor House.  We’ll see what’s on the two menus shortly.

I should note that when I began reading the letters in Barnum’s copybook, I expected to see frequent references to French foods, but having now covered the first 200 pages, so far only one letter has discussed experiences with the cuisine.  (Fyi, there is another letter describing an innovation for the commercial preservation of food.)  The first complete letter in the copybook was written to the editors of the New York Atlas, for whom Barnum was serving as a foreign correspondent.  In that July 14, 1845, letter Barnum includes a funny-sad story concerning sausages, as well as a few comments on hotels and the unfamiliar cuisine.

Let’s start with a summary of the sausage story.  Barnum was not above publicly poking fun at the lack of sophistication and even willful ignorance (or disinterest in learning) demonstrated by Sherwood and Cynthia Stratton, the parents of “Gen. Tom Thumb.”  Mrs. Stratton was illiterate, so it is said, which must have made it even more challenging for her to pick up French words and phrases on their travels.  Barnum therefore found an incident involving Mrs. Stratton’s ignorance and enthusiasm-turned-horror over a special type of sausage to be quite hilarious.  Mrs. Stratton had declared that she did not care for the food in Brussels, as “everything was so Frenchified.”  But she discovered a type of sausage that, to her, “tasted natural” and was better than any she had ever had in America, so she went about inquiring what this variety was called and then ordered a supply for the journey.  As it happened, H. G. Sherman, a man who was working with Barnum, was present when Mrs. Stratton happily received the package and he asked her if she knew what “Saucisse de Lyons” (Lyons sausages) were made of, which she did not.  After hearing they were made of donkey meat, she retorted that she was not to be fooled so easily. The question was then put to Barnum’s French interpreter, Professor Pinte, who confirmed that Lyons sausages were indeed made “of asses.”  The package of sausages was immediately tossed out the window to be snatched up by a dog, and in disgust and anguish at the thought of what she had consumed, Mrs. Stratton soon became violently ill and kept to her bed for the next couple of days.

That said, Barnum himself was not always wise to the foods he was eating.  He noted that when dining in France,

. . . I usually expect to partake of about six dishes with which I am acquainted and about sixteen of the composition of which I have not the remotest conception.  If a person asks me if I ever ate snakes, or lizards or anything else I dare not answer no, for I do not know what I have not eaten in France.

Barnum explained his preference for dining table d’hôte in the remark, “I always do it when I can on account of the excellence and great variety of dishes.”  Table d’hôte is a very old term that translates to “table of the host” but the original literal meaning has evolved to describe a type of menu offering.  It is equivalent to a fixed price or “prix fixe” menu that offers a certain number of courses with more limited food options than a regular menu, and all at one price.  For Barnum, who was not fluent in French, a table d’hôte menu could take some of the guesswork out of ordering and offer the certainty of what he would be charged for the meal.

Although Barnum had not traveled to more than a few towns outside of Paris at the time he made this comment, he confidently advised,  “In most of the Hotels in France large or small they will furnish at almost any hour of the day at 10 minutes or ¼ of an hours notice, a well dressed dinner of 8 or 10 dishes, and generally for 3 to 5 francs.”  But cleanliness was another matter, he said, describing most hotels as “miserable affairs in many respects [though] excellent in others.”  The floors of the dining rooms, he wrote, were black “with the accumulated filth of years,” in contrast to the pristine table linens which were always “of the purest white.”  The bed linens were likewise clean and unsullied, and the well-stuffed mattresses and pillows, and white draperies in the guest rooms also met with Barnum’s approval.  These comments suggest that American hotels (and/or English hotels) operated with a different set of standards than the French.

Astor House, New York City’s first luxury hotel, as it appeared in 1862, twenty-six years after it opened. Diagonally opposite the hotel on Broadway was Barnum’s American Museum.
(Courtesy of Special Collections, University of Houston Libraries)

Dinner Menu
Astor House dinner menu for the hotel’s main dining room, April 1, 1854. This menu is printed on fabric. (The Buttolph Collection of Menus; image courtesy of the New York Public Library)

Back in New York, the elegant Astor House was offering its guests an extensive dinner menu.  (Dinner was served in the early afternoon.)  The April 1, 1854, menu presented eleven courses, beginning with Oysters on the Shell, and ending with Fruit.  Thinking of the way today’s restaurant menus often show the dishes in categories—separating meat entrees from seafood or poultry entrees, for example—it hardly seems possible that a person was supposed to order a dish from every category or course on this menu.  However, Barnum’s comment on partaking of 6 + 16 dishes and that even a quickly served meal in France included “8 or 10 dishes” makes me think otherwise.

Regardless, the extent of choices is impressive.  Between the Oysters and Fruit, Astor House offered a Soup course (Terrapin or Spring Vegetable), a Fish course (Boiled Salmon or Broiled Shad, each with its own sauce), and “Releves,” from which one could choose Capon Peéle garnished Montmorecy style; Saddle of Mutton with Currant Jelly Sauce; Boned Quail; and Bastion of Goose Liver with Truffles, the latter served on a pedestal!  Traditionally the “Releves” course came between the Soup and the Entrée.  On this menu Side Dishes follows Releves, and they do sound very much like entrees: Filet of Beef with Vegetables; Croustade Garnished with Quails; Breast of Chicken with Mushrooms; Cotelettes of Pigeons in a sauce; Sweet Breads (organ meats) with Lettuce and Cream Sauce; and Paté Chaud (possibly a meat-filled puff pastry) garnished with Reed Birds and Truffles.  Following Side Dishes are Vegetables, with a list of familiar choices: green peas, asparagus, green beans, mashed or boiled potatoes, spinach, and one less familiar-sounding option, green corn, which was young sweet corn.  Next, the Game course offered Canvasback Duck; Grouse; Quails; or English Snipe.

Now on to the sweets!  These courses begin with “Ornamental Pastry”—my favorite because of the curiously-titled dishes: “Gothic Temple” and “Nougat of Flowers.”  I have no idea what these are, and perhaps they truly were ornamental, edible but not meant to be eaten.  The Pastry course is easier to imagine with its choices of Charlotte Russe; Swiss Meringues; French Cream Cakes; Bavarian Cheese; Omelette Souffles; and two kinds of Jellies: Champagne and Rum.  “Confectionary” follows, though I am unclear on the distinction between its offerings and the Pastry course, since it, too, includes cakes (Punch, Almond, and Boston Cream varieties) as well as Lady Fingers, which are a main component of Charlotte Russe, listed under Pastry.  Two “cookie” choices are offered under Confectionary: “Macaronies” and “Kisses.”  Coffee and Liqueur, and Vanilla Ice Cream are listed at the end, beneath the illustrations for Fruit.

Astor House menu for the Ladies Ordinary dining room, August 25, 1843. (The Buttolph Collection of Menus; image courtesy of the New York Public Library)

Stepping back a decade to look at the August 25, 1843, menu, we have to give special consideration to interpreting its offerings.  This particular menu was for the Ladies Ordinary at Astor House, which was a dining room for women who were travelling alone, or traveling only with other women, or with children.  (Keep in mind, Barnum made a great point of advertising his museum as being safe and suitable for ladies to visit.)  At the time, women were not permitted into any upscale hotel’s regular dining room unless accompanied by a gentleman.  The Ladies’ Ordinary concept was still fairly new in 1843; it appears that the first such dining room in New York City opened in 1833 at 71 Liberty Street, though Boston had one before then in its Tremont House, a slightly older “twin” to Astor House.

The acknowledged purpose of a Ladies’ Ordinary was to provide a safe haven for women to eat their meals, away from the gazes of men, and enjoy a menu geared to their food preferences—as they were perceived at the time—for lighter and daintier dishes.  Even so, the Astor House menu shows a wide assortment of roasted and boiled meats, plus game, lobsters, codfish with oyster sauce, clam soup—not exactly light dishes amongst the nine courses.  However, the Side Dishes (entrees) may have been smaller portions, as the choices include “Small Chicken Pies,” “Small Birds, Italian style,” and “Rice Cakes, flavored with Orange” as well as macaroni, breaded veal cutlets, and more.   Oh yes, and “Calf’s Head with Brain sauce”—can’t forget that one.  Eleven standard vegetables were offered, such as beets, onions, mashed potatoes, tomatoes, rice, and green beans.

The offerings under Pastry and Dessert are fewer and simpler, and generally less rich compared to the 1854 menu for the main dining room.  “Pastry” included two kinds of pie (Blackberry and Cream); Bread Pudding; Pommes Meringues; Fieulté Macarons; and Broiled Almonds.  Dessert choices were various kinds of nuts, dried fruits, fresh fruits (oranges, watermelon, cantaloupe, and peaches), and Peach Ice—which sounds like a refreshing choice to finish off a summer meal.

And now I confess to feeling “virtually full” thinking about the hotel meals Mr. Barnum enjoyed at home and abroad, though it has been fun to discover the great variety of dishes he may have eaten.  Next week we will catch up on some of the outcomes, or progress, of stories previously shared.

Adrienne Saint-Pierre
Barnum Museum Curator