Tag Archives: menus

An annotated menu

One of my most-treasured menus is a grubby, dog-earned Afternoon Tea menu from Schrafft’s at 181 Broadway in NYC dated September 3, 1929. What makes it so great is that it was carried off from the restaurant by someone who took detailed notes concerning a number of dishes. Apparently (judging from the notation “Monday & Wednesday”) the “spy” made two visits to the restaurant. The menu has holes along the side as though it was kept in a binder for reference.

I have always imagined that the spy, who must have been accompanied by a few friends, was a rival tea room operator hoping to learn a lesson or two from a successful competitor. The notes really bring the menu to life, and also give a feel for just how scanty tea room dishes could be. I had read that tea rooms were often criticized for their high-priced “bird-like” portions. I see from this menu that there was some truth in the charge.

The prices are indeed high. It is difficult to be confident about today’s equivalents to the prices below, but keep in mind that in 1929 a full dinner could be had at a decent restaurant for 50 cents. So, clearly, the sense in which Schrafft’s was a middle-class restaurant essentially means that it was easily affordable only to the upper middle class and above, though lower-income patrons may have enjoyed an occasional splurge there.

Here are a few of my transcriptions of the difficult-to-read notations, with my punctuation and explanations added:

Cold Fresh Shrimp with Tomato Mayonnaise in Puff Shell – 55 cents
Cut top off a tea [?] puff; put a 40 sc. [presumably refers to scoop size] of tomato mayonnaise inside; put 5 large or 6 small shrimp in the puff; place 3 or 4 nice sprigs of watercress around puff; serve on T. P. [tea plate]; make Bread & Butter sandwich cut in [fourths]

Toasted Mushroom Sandwich, Stuffed Celery, Ice Cream and Cocoanut Crisps, Pot of Tea – 60 cents
Cut crusts off 2 sl. toast and ½ inch off remaining 2 sides; butter and cover with mushrooms, a nice piece of lettuce; cover with another sl. toast same size; spread with mayonnaise; cut in 3 oblong pieces; serve on a doily on a T. P. with 1 stalk of stuffed celery

Egg and Tomato Salad – 50 cents
4 pcs. crisp lett. laid on a salad pl.; 3 ½ slices of tomato, cut crosswise; in center ½ stuffed egg; between each slice of tomato, place a nice spray of watercress

Fruit Salad with Orange Cream Dressing – 65 cents
A small sl. pineapple on 2 sm. lettuce leaves; on 1 side 1 section orange, half on pineapple and half on plate; on other side between orange & grapefruit on a l. l. [lettuce leaf] put 30 sco[o]p of dressing

Cocoanut Crisps – 25 cents
2 ea. on the Tea [see Toasted Mushroom Sandwich above], 4 ea. ala carte

Chicken Salad Club (Sandwich) – 60 cents
Tea plates. 1 sl. toast; 30 scoop of Ch. salad, may[be?] 8 lettuce leaf. Another slice of toast, cut diag. on ea. half; place ½ sl. of bacon, ½ sl. tomato, sweet pickle & toast cover

Fresh Fruit and Pecan Salad – 55 cents
Tea plate. 1 sl. pine[apple]; 2 sec. orange; 2 sec. grapefruit, 8 pecans

Fresh Bartlett Pear and Roquefort Cheese with Special Dressing – 65 cents
Tea plate. 2 halves of pear, 50 sc. of cheese in ea.; sp. dressing, capers, pimiento

Creamed Potatoes with New Lima Beans (Plate) – 45 cents
Tea plate. 1 sp. cr. pot[ato]; 1 sp. of limas; sprig of parsley

© Jan Whitaker, 2012

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Banquet-ing menus

As those of us who collect menus know, people are more likely to preserve menus from restaurants related to memorable occasions than those from ordinary, everyday eating places. As a result, there are more menus in the ephemera market that come from famous restaurants, voyages on ships, and banquets than from humble eateries. I tend to concentrate on the latter group, but once in a while I will buy a banquet menu that interests me.

I particularly like ones that are from professional and business trade groups, unions, and organizations such as the three shown here. Even better if they have a humorous slant, as is surprisingly often the case.

The 1941 menu at the top, from a dinner presented by the American Can Company to a California trade group at the Hotel Del Monte, shares something in common with the dinner given for the Golden Jubilee of the Oakland Typographical Union in 1936. The site of the canners’ banquet, the Hotel Del Monte in Monterey CA, like the union’s locale, the Oak Knoll Country Club in Oakland CA, was soon to become a property of the U.S. Navy. The canners may have enjoyed one of the last banquets held at the historic hotel, originally opened in 1880, but rebuilt in the 1920s after a disastrous fire.

The Oakland “Typos’” menu is one of my favorites because of its design as a proof adorned with proofreader’s corrections. It is not only clever but reminds me of a job I once had back in the days of linotype when I marked up proofs using the very same marks indicating lines to be deleted and transferred, as well as misspelled words, broken type, etc.

The Legislative Correspondents’ Association, which still exists, held its first dinner in 1900, so this menu is from its tenth, held in Albany at the Hotel Ten Eyck – on April Fools Day, 1909. Throughout it is filled with wry commentary and comical rules for the banquet governing issues around table companions and drinking. Judging from the menu, I’d think everyone got plenty to drink. Not only is the dinner accompanied by wine, champagne, liqueur, and cognac, it’s topped off with cocktails. Whoa.

I don’t know if the canners were served canned food at their banquet, but I’d say that the journalists undoubtedly enjoyed the finest cuisine of the three groups.

© Jan Whitaker, 2012

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Frank E. Buttolph, menu collector extraordinaire

It was Monday, January 1, the start of a brand new week, year, and century. A patron at the Columbia Restaurant on 14th Street in NYC’s Union Square experienced a jolt when she looked at the menu. “The first time I saw the new date 1900 on a menu it thrilled me as if I had been suddenly transplanted to the planet Mars,” Miss Frank E. Buttolph would later say.

It occurred to her to save that menu. She gathered more and soon realized she had the makings of a collection. She donated 900 menus to the New York Public Library, with an offer of 1,000 more. By 1917 she claimed to have amassed about 28,000 menus for the NYPL, and had spent countless volunteer hours cataloging them and stamping them with the now-notorious blue stamp.

Although I suspect she actually started collecting menus in the 1890s, Miss Buttolph would repeat the engaging origin myth for years, using it in press releases and interviews to inspire menu donations from near and far, even from European royalty. Menu collecting was not unheard of, but had not yet become the fad it would be a few years later. It was said that when she began to collect menus, “no one thought of it as anything better than a rather tiresome freak, on which a vast amount of energy was being wasted that might have been better expended.” Poster and cookbook collecting were likewise viewed as trivial pursuits.

Born Frances Editha Buttles in Mansfield PA, Frank’s father was a wagonmaker and undertaker who filed at least a dozen patents for common tools. Frank became a teacher and taught in Rahway NJ, Minneapolis MN, Scranton PA (where she briefly ran her own girls’ school), Bolivar TN, and Saratoga Springs NY. I haven’t discovered exactly when she moved to NYC, but by 1900 Frank was a single 56-year-old whose family was deceased and who knew several languages and had traveled abroad at least three times. Her source of income in NY is unclear. She taught Sunday school and did some tutoring. She declared she was a magazine author but I’ve never found any of her publications. Perhaps she inherited money.

Evidently she had enough free time to spend long hours in her library office, first located in the old Astor Library and then, after the new Fifth Avenue public library building was completed in 1911, overlooking Bryant Park.

Her name “Frank” has caused much perplexity. Did it imply gender ambiguity? Although I can’t prove it didn’t, Frank was not a totally uncommon nickname for Frances which gained popularity in the 1870s and 1880s. She was known as Frank as early as 1866 when she finished teacher training [pictured]. It seems she was not especially fond of either Frances or Buttles. She researched her family’s genealogy and in 1900 changed her last name to the more dignified-sounding Buttolph, of which Buttles was a corruption.

Frank collected all sorts of menus, from restaurants, hotels, steamships, and trains. She insisted that they be clean and rejected those from businesses she sensed were simply trying to get publicity. Many she preserved were from club banquets or dinners celebrating famous individuals. Most were American, but she also collected menus commemorating the opening of the Suez Canal, menus from royal courts, and from other exotic occasions worldwide. It seems as though the public was most appreciative of rarity, but I am grateful that she saved menus from everyday restaurants such as the Columbia, all the more so since it went bankrupt about two years after her fateful visit.

More on Frank Buttolph and her collection.

© Jan Whitaker, 2012

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Between courses: rate this menu

5betweencoursesREVI always find it difficult to judge menus from the 19th century because our eating habits, food preferences, and food resources have changed considerably since then. It is difficult to decide whether any given menu is fine, average, or poor. The following menu was designed by a hotel steward (stewards were in charge of expenses) for a banquet in 1893. Almost certainly wines would have been served with the seven courses (which are Soup, Fish, Roast, Punch, Entree, Dessert, and Coffee).

How would you rate it?
A = an excellent high-class dinner
B = a fine basic dinner
C = an inexpensive yet acceptable dinner

MENU
Bisque of Oysters
Planked Whitefish, Maitre d’Hotel
Browned Potatoes
Roast Tenderloin of Beef, Sauce Madere
Green Peas
Lemon Water Ice
Deviled Lobster au Gratin
Vanilla Ice Cream
Assorted Cake
American Cheese, Water Crackers
Coffee

See what the steward thought about this menu.

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Mary Elizabeth’s, a New York institution

Mary Elizabeth Evans, for whom the landmark tea room was named, began her career in 1900 at age 15 as a small grocer and candymaker in Syracuse. After one year in business she cleared the then-handsome sum of $1,000 which she contributed to the support of her family while supervising a growing crew of helpers which included her two younger sisters who served as clerks and her brother who made deliveries.

Her family, though in seriously reduced circumstances, had valuable social connections. Her late grandfather had been a judge, her uncle an actor, and her departed father a music professor. That may help explain how she achieved success so rapidly – and why her story garnered so much publicity. By 1904 several elite NYC clubs and hotels sold her candy and soon thereafter it was for sale at summer resorts such as Asbury Park and Newport and in stores as far away as Chicago and Grand Rapids. In 1913 the all-women Mary Elizabeth company, which included her mother and sisters Martha and Fanny, was prosperous enough to sign a 21-year lease totaling nearly $1 million for a prestigious Fifth Avenue address close to Altman’s, Best & Co., Lord & Taylor, and Franklin-Simon’s.

By the early teens the candy store had expanded into a charming tea room with branches in Newport and two in Boston, one on Temple Street and the other in the basement of the Park Street Church near the Boston Common (pictured ca. 1916). Like other popular tea rooms of the era, Mary Elizabeth’s bucked the tide of chain stores and standardized products by emphasizing food preparation from scratch. Known for “real American food served with a deft feminine touch,” Fanny Evans said the tea rooms catered to women’s tastes in “fancy, unusual salads,” “delicious home-made cakes,” and dishes such as “creamed chicken, sweetbreads, croquettes, timbales and patties.” For many decades, the NYC Mary Elizabeth’s was known especially for its crullers (long twisted doughnuts).

Mary Elizabeth distinguished herself as a patriot during the First World War by producing a food-conservation cookbook of meatless, wheatless, and sugarless recipes, and by volunteering to help the Red Cross develop diet kitchens in France. After her marriage to a wealthy Rhode Island businessman in 1920 she apparently played a reduced management role in the business.

In its later years the NYC restaurant passed out of the family’s hands and began to decline, culminating in an ignominious Health Department citation in 1985.

© Jan Whitaker, 2008

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Lunching in the Bird Cage

Lord & Taylor’s Bird Cage restaurant and tea room was opened in the late 1930s. It continued on the fifth floor of the Fifth Avenue New York City store until the 1980s when it was updated and renamed Café American Style. Accommodating only about one hundred persons, the Bird Cage was considerably smaller than the main restaurant in Altman’s which held over two hundred, as well as Abraham & Straus’s in Brooklyn which held over four hundred. Until the mid-1970s the Bird Cage was outfitted with armchairs with trays connected to them. In the early years each tray was supplied with a complimentary cigarette. Diners selected sandwiches, salads, and desserts from rolling carts modeled on Italian racing cars. As Lord & Taylor branches were opened after World War II in locations such as Westchester (shown here, 1948), Millburn NJ, Hartford CT, and Washington DC, they too were furnished with their own Bird Cages.

For many years the Bird Cage staff at the Fifth Avenue store provided refreshments to shoppers who arrived before the store opened each morning. Lord & Taylor president Dorothy Shaver initiated the custom and insisted that the coffee, juice (in summer), or bouillon (when temperatures were frigid) be served in china, not paper, cups.

birdcagemilkbarny1950Other well-loved eateries in the Manhattan store were the men’s Soup Bar on the tenth floor and the children’s Milk Bar (shown, 1950). Scotch broth and deep-dish apple cobbler with rum sauce were specialties at the Soup Bar.

© Jan Whitaker, 2008

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