Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Eating Out in the Good Old Days ~ Ellen O'Connell

The new romance I’m working on now has a scene in an elegant hotel dining room, which led me to research what a restaurant like that would really serve. My time period is later than most of what we discuss here (1899), but once I found a site with images of real Nineteenth Century menus, I couldn’t help but look at all the oldies.

To my surprise every one of these old menus listed many items even a picky, plain food person like me would be happy to order.
  • Roast Prime Beef, Dish Gravy; Mashed Potatoes; Green Peas; Blackberry Pie; Canadian and Edam Cheese (Alamo Hotel, Colorado Springs, April 14, 1895)
  • Baked Salmon au Vin Blanc; Shrimp Salad (Albert Café, Denver, November 16, 1891)
  • Porterhouse Steak; Pork Chops; Eggs done in many ways (Bazaar Dinning [sic] Room, Denver, probably circa 1892)
I know that during the great slaughter of the buffalo the only parts taken were hides and tongues and that tongues had value because they were a delicacy served in New York restaurants at the time. Bits of information like that led to an expectation of finding many such eeyew! items, and I did find a few.
  • Ox Heart with Jelly (Alert Restaurant, Denver, probably circa 1894)
  • Calves Brains Scrambled with Eggs (Boston Bakery and Lunch Room, Denver, probably circa 1892)
  • Boiled Tongue (Alamo Hotel, Colorado Springs, April 14, 1895)
I’m as unsophisticated as my character who questions the listing of roast domestic duck. A Google search showed that this description is still used and it wasn’t just in the Good Old Days that chefs differentiated between plump, shotgun pellet free duck and scrawny, shot from the sky duck. I couldn’t help but use that one in my story.

The fact oyster soup, salmon, and halibut were served in Colorado in those days was another surprise. How fresh could ocean fish be so far from the sea back then? By 1899 shipping on ice and some primitive refrigeration was available, but still.... In my memory many Coloradans didn’t consider ordering ocean fish in restaurants here a good idea even in the 60's and 70's.

Other things that tickled me were mentions of deposits and extra charges for dishes taken out (or rules forbidding takeout entirely). No Styrofoam to pack things in back then. They worried about whether dishes would be returned. One menu mentions an extra charge for two people who ordered a single meal and shared.

All in all this research went as it almost always does—I needed a small amount of information for one scene in an entire novel, spent a short time finding out what I needed to know and a long time checking out things that caught my interest.


Caroline Clemmons said...

Ellen, isn't that the way research goes? Recently I needed one line to show where a woman prisoner convicted of attempted murder was sent in 1873 and lost a day to research. LOL Nice post, and helpful to me as well.

Neil A. Waring said...

Living in Wyoming most of us are still more than a bit skeptical when, anything fresh from the ocean is on the menu. Interesting about the take home or takeout food, guess I thought they just ate it all at one setting. A few years ago we owned a restaurant and an old cowboy came in three or four times a week. Sometimes he would tell the waitress, “Tell them in back to not put too many fries on my plate, or too many mashed potatoes”. He told us that cowboys always ate everything giving them so when he wasn’t too hungry he didn’t want as much-fascinating old fella.

Jacquie Rogers said...

Oysters on the half-shell were a staple at the Idaho Hotel in Silver City, I.T. I still don't know how they got them with no rail service closer than Nevada. Not that I'd order oysters anyway, but I sure wouldn't order them if they were a week or more old!

Ellen O'Connell said...

Thanks, Caroline. So where did a woman prisoner get sent in 1873? Didn't it depend on the state?

Ellen O'Connell said...

That's interesting about the old cowboy. A lot of us had training not to leave anything on our plates. In my case it was my mother saying, "Think of the starving Armenians." Wasting food still bothers me, but I live with big dogs who take care of most of the problem. :-)

I no longer avoid ordering ocean fish, but I suspect people who have lived near the ocean can tell the difference between what you get here in Colorado and what you get seaside.

Ellen O'Connell said...

Oysters seem to have been a staple in many of these places. I'd love to know how they shipped them, but I swear I'm not spending a day finding out.

Devon Matthews said...

Great post, Ellen! I used to love it when research led me off into what-if land. Now, not so much because of the time involved. I'm getting ready to stick my nose into the necessities of life for an entire crew of working cowboys living on a shoestring. Should be fun. ;o)

Ellen O'Connell said...

Thanks, Devon. I expect we'll all find out at least some of what you come up with about that shoestring?

Paty Jager said...

Ellen, I think we all get lost in research. One tidbit can lead us on a whole different trail. Fun information. I was surprised when I read the menus on trains. They fed travelers well for a price.

Great info!

Lyn Horner said...

Ellen, I remember reading a few such menus when i was researching Utah and Clorado mining camps. It's amazing what they managed to ship into those mountains. Fun post! Thanks for sharing.

Meg said...

I LOOOVE researching food details in the 1800s. Cookbooks, menus, etc. I've spent days just diving in to recipes and availability, googling certain dishes -- oh yeah! LOVE it. I've never tried an oyster, but in the 1800s they were so plentiful people would eat them by the dozens. Now, probably not so plentiful. Great info, Ellen!

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