Last year, thanks to a travel screw-up, we found ourselves eating Christmas dinner at a San Francisco hotel. It was new and chic, with a highly rated chef, so we could have fared much worse … and yet we were dissatisfied. There was something pompous about how dramatically the waiters poured soup from pitchers into bowls which had been daubed artistically with creme fraiche. Not to mention all the other absurd ceremony that surrounded the meal yet failed to prevent orders from being mixed up and food from arriving burnt or cold.
Anyway, this got me wondering about eating Christmas dinner in hotels roughly100 years ago, around the turn of the last century when lengthy formal dinners were still in vogue. Even though hotels were the best places other than home to have a holiday dinner then, I’m not sure we would have liked that experience any better.
For one thing, who could eat all the food hotels piled on? The menu shown here represents my distillation of the most typical dishes from about 20 Christmas dinner menus of American hotels from 1898 to 1906. I’ve selected only one dish for each course, whereas the actual menus often had three or more and diners could choose as many as they wanted! Though the number and sequence of the courses varied somewhat from hotel to hotel, the most common arrangement was as shown here. The meal began with Oysters (a course all their own in the U.S.), then Soups, Relishes, Fish, Relevé (featuring a roast despite a later Roasts course – I don’t get it), Entrées, Vegetables, Roasts, Game, Salads, Desserts (which could be subdivided, with hot desserts coming first, under Entremets), Cheese, and ending with Coffee. Strictly speaking the Relishes, Vegetables, and Salads are not separate courses as they would be served with other dishes. So I believe the sample shown here would be an 8-course dinner. Each course would have been accompanied with wine and brandy may have been served with the coffee.
There were some interesting regional dishes on the menus I looked at. The Hotel Metropole in Fargo ND offered Saddle of Antelope; the New Century Hotel in Union SC had Pompano and Carolina Quail; while the Tulane Hotel in Nashville had Stuffed Mangoes*, Fried Hominy, and Dew Drop Corn. The Hollenbeck Hotel in Los Angeles mentioned that its Turkey was “Pomona Farm Fed” and featured a salad of Monk’s Beard greens. Two hotels, in Alabama and Michigan, presented Suckling Pig that had been barbecued. Without doubt the most unusual menu was that of Jack H. Clancey’s Hotel Mabson, primarily accommodating traveling salesmen in Montgomery, Alabama. In addition to Pompano and Barbecued Suckling Pig, its Christmas menu – the only one entirely devoid of French – introduced dishes seen nowhere else such as Stuffed Tomatoes, Scrambled Calf’s Brains, and Grandma’s Fruit Cake.
Whatever kind of dinner you eat on Christmas Day, enjoy it!
* Thanks to food historian Gary Allen for decoding stuffed mangoes as stuffed bell peppers.
© Jan Whitaker, 2009