In the 1850s the great landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, designer of New York’s Central Park, traveled through the South to investigate the institution of slavery. His observations were published in three volumes which were influential in turning readers against slavery. Around 1857 he traveled to Memphis, Tennessee, where he stayed at the Commercial Hotel. Although it was considered a first-class establishment, things did not go well for Frederick in the dining room as his journal entry for March 20, below, reveals. Among the dishes appearing on the not-too-elegant menu were “Beef heart egg sauce,” “Calf feet mushroom sauce,” “Bear sausages,” “Fried cabbage,” and, for dessert, “Sliced potatoe pie.” Better than whole potato pie, I guess.
Being in a distant quarter of the establishment when a crash of the gong announced dinner, I did not get to the table as early as some others. The meal was served in a large, dreary room exactly like a hospital ward; and it is a striking illustration of the celerity with which everything is accomplished in our young country, that beginning with the soup, and going on by the fish to the roasts, the first five dishes I inquired for … were “all gone;” and as the waiter had to go to the head of the dining room, or to the kitchen, to ascertain this fact upon each demand, the majority of the company had left the table before I started at all. At length I said I would take anything that was still to be had, and thereupon was provided immediately with some grimy bacon, and greasy cabbage. This I commenced eating, but I no sooner paused for a moment, than it was suddenly and surreptitiously removed, and its place supplied, without the expression of any desire on my part, with some other Memphitic chef d’oeuvre, a close investigation of which left me in doubt whether it was the denominated “sliced potatoe pie,” or “Irish pudding.”
© Jan Whitaker, 2009