Oyster stew, sturgeon soup: historic menus from Lincoln’s inaugural to San Quentin prison | Food

The buffet table at Abraham Lincoln’s second inaugural ball stretched over 250ft. On the menu was oyster stew, leg of veal, venison, quail and six flavors of ice-cream. After the president and his party of cabinet members feasted, the rest of the guests were allowed in. They reportedly stormed the buffet table, and food got everywhere.

Six weeks later, at a hotel in Springfield, Massachusetts, the menu was more somber, with a black border printed around the items, which included turkey with cranberry sauce and cold lobster with lettuce. The date was 16 April, one day after Lincoln’s assassination.

Both menus are on display at the Grolier Club, a rare-books society on New York’s Upper East Side. The pieces are part of a new exhibit titled A Century of Dining Out: The American Story in Menus, 1841-1941.

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The lavish menu for Lincoln’s second Inauguration. Photograph: Grolier Club

More than 200 menus are included in the exhibit, which tracks the cultural shifts and norms as viewed through the first hundred years of menus in the United States. These pieces all come from a larger collection owned by Henry Voigt, a curator based in Wilmington, Delaware.

Voigt began buying menus in the 1990s on internet auction sites and from individual collectors. Today, he owns more than 10,000 vintage menus.

“These menus were grand documents that promoted an establishment,” Voigt said. Early fine-dining establishments served what one British visitor at a Boston social club called “Frenchified English cooking”. There was wild game, elaborate desserts and vegetable side dishes. The fare tended not to differ much regionally: when people went out, they knew exactly what they would get.

Voigt’s collection starts in 1841, when menus first came to America. The idea began in Paris in the late 18th century, but it did not catch on in the States until the mid-19th century.

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The menu for Mark Twain’s 70th birthday party. Photograph: Grolier Club

“The menu reflected what it means to be a civilized society at the time,” Voigt said. “No matter where they went, Americans knew what to expect when they sat down to eat.”

In the beginning, Americans dined in communal seating arrangements and at set times: menus listed when breakfast, lunch, or dinner was served. “Hotels or restaurants would bang a gong, or ring a bell, to call people into the dining room,” Voigt said.

Private tables, à la carte menus and flexible mealtimes were other European imports that did not hit the United States until the turn of the century.

Men had their share of social clubs; women who wanted to dine without a male escort had fewer spaces. The most ornate and famous was New York’s Taylor’s Saloon, which had a 56-page “bill of fare” blazed with mother of pearl pieces. It looks more like a coffee table book than a menu. Inside, women would see advertisements for hotspots like Tiffany’s and Barnum’s Museum, plus a list of what they would consume that night: oysters, eggs, ice cream, wine and ale.

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The menu for the women’s only establishment Taylor’s Saloon. Photograph: Grolier Club

“At that time, they wanted to have a space that was separate, and suitable for ladies,” Voigt said. “What that was thought to be was a place that was grand and fully decorated. The main dining room of Taylor’s had very high ceilings with frescoes, and Corinthian columns painted red with gold trim. There were bubbling fountains, large mirrors and black walnut tables.”

Much less opulent are menus from the Confederacy. The south faced major food shortages and rationing during the civil war, and Voigt said everyone felt the “pinch” of this lacking – even the upper class.

“The dominant note of the Confederacy menus is hunger,” Voigt said. One from a hotel in Richmond, Virginia, offers a slim selection of roasted vegetables, fish and corn beef. There are no desserts or beverages available. A ham-and-greens salad on the menu features pokeweed, a toxic plant that has to be boiled three times to be safe enough to eat.

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A menu for the Lunar New Year celebration at San Quentin prison. Photograph: Grolier Club

Voigt believes that the vintage menus show how people are capable of coming together, even in the most unlikely circumstances. Consider one from a Lunar New Year Celebration – hosted at San Quentin prison in 1932. It shows how guards communed with each other when they were off the clock: that night they ate sturgeon soup, egg foo young and roast pork with apple sauce.

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A menu for immigrants coming through Ellis Island. Photograph: Grolier Club

Among the menus that Voigt believes have the biggest impacts on museum staff and visitors is one from Ellis Island’s “immigrant dining room”. European migrants who arrived for processing in the United States were given a free meal that was paid for by the steamship lines. On 5 June 1932, breakfast included boiled rice with milk, stewed peaches and coffee. Lunch (which was called dinner back then) featured mock turtle soup, ragout of mutton, and a dessert called “liberty pudding”. For dinner, roast beef, green peppers and apple sauce was served. All women and children received an extra glass of milk.

“When you read testimonials of people who arrived at Ellis Island, they say that they felt like America was welcoming them with food,” Voigt said. “It was one of the first ways they knew they were going to be OK.”

  • A Century of Dining Out: The American Story in Menus, 1841-1941 is on view from 26 April 26 to 29 July at the Grolier Club NYC

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