In his 1904 Culinary Handbook, Charles Fellows pledged: One of my first thoughts in writing this handbook was to abstain from French terms. I said to myself, I WILL WRITE AN AMERICAN CULINARY HANDBOOK FOR AMERICANS. I have heard it frequently stated that the terms for the bill of fare could not be properly represented in the American language. I SAY IT CAN, and as proof positive you have it here. There are no French terms used for the receipts [recipes] of this book, and the headings as given are what should in my opinion be placed on the bill of fare, as perfectly adequate in describing the dish.
He was unable to keep his pledge. There are French terms throughout the handbook. On one typical page appear not only the fairly commonplace French words purée and sauté, but also béchamel, epigramme, haricot, matelote, saûtoir, and vélouté. He duly translates Chicken Chasseur as “Broiled chicken, Hunter’s Style,” but then instructs the cook to serve it with “sauce chasseur.”
Fellows felt that many dishes on restaurant menus went unordered simply because diners didn’t know what they were. This may have been true, especially since the dining public was broadening in the early 20th century, bringing unsophisticated but monied newcomers into high-class restaurants.
French terms began to appear on American menus in the 1850s. By the 1890s their use was considered essential for luxury restaurants. But the tide began to turn around the 1920s when people started eating lighter, faster meals and menus were greatly scaled down, simplified, and rendered in English. The 1918 menu of the Tuxedo Rotisserie and Grill actually listed “Frog Legs in Paper Bags” rather than the dreaded en papillote. But, there are terms that remain today and still puzzle diners. Many of the menu terms below were not well known by most Americans in the 1890s, nor even 40 years later.
compote – a dish of fruit stewed in sweetened liquid, sometimes a dessert as was the case with Compote of Apricots and Rice which appeared on an 1893 menu at San Francisco’s Delmonico’s Restaurant. But I have also seen “Pigeons en compote” on an 1841 menu.
fricandeau – sliced meat or fish fried or braised and sauced, similar to a fricasée. In 1839 Fricandeau of Veal appeared in the French section of a menu of the Astor House, a first-class NYC hotel. This term is antiquated today.
glacé – according to Restaurant Menu Planning (1954), this word is an excellent one for menus, right up there with oven-baked and crisp. It properly refers to reduced meat stock that can be used to give flavor and sheen to dishes. Sweet Breads Glace was on the menu for a special dinner at the Rankin House, Columbus GA, in 1887.
jardiniere – Le Jardinier de Macaroni à la Italienne appeared on an 1843 Tremont House menu under Hors D’Oeuvres. In 1915 the Budweiser Café in Indianapolis IN offered “Fricandeaux (perhaps indicating by the “x” that there is more than one slice) of Veal, Jardiniere” for a mere 30c. Jardiniere indicates a dish served with a garnish of cut up mixed vegetables, perhaps in gravy. In 1965 the Armour Company advertised a new product which provided restaurants with flexible film pouches containing eight servings of braised oxtails jardiniere.
la financiere – Sweetbread patties a la Financiere as served at Fleischmann’s in NYC in 1906 undoubtedly were patties made from the thymus glands of veal or young lambs with a garnish or sauce of button mushrooms, bits of truffle, and possibly some cockscombs (yes, the red things atop roosters’ heads) with Sherry or Madeira wine.
maitre d’hotel – The Broiled Halibut, maitre d’hotel on the menu of New York’s Café des Ambassadeurs in 1905 was fish with a melted butter sauce to which was added lemon juice, chopped parsley, and a little grated nutmeg. The popular and expensive Jack’s in San Francisco dared in 1947 to offer Broiled Spring Salmon Steak à la Maitre d’Hôtel, giving the words their full accented treatment. (The menu also featured Tripe à la Mode de Caen.)
ragout – this word, now antique, was almost synonymous with French cooking in the early 19th century and critics always referred to it when criticizing French food for its overseasoned character which was believed to be unhealthy and induce drinking. In short it means spicy stewed meat and vegetables. When given a French name, western restaurants could sell stew at high prices to miners who felt they were living large. Ragout of Mutton appeared on a 1903 menu of the Occidental Hotel, Breckenridge CO.
rissole – According to Delmonico’s long-time chef Charles Ranhofer, in the 1890s rissoles were one of many items that could be served for the hors d’oeuvres course which followed soup. They were made of chopped meat, or possibly fish, vegetables, or even fruit, which was held together with egg, formed into a rounded shape, encased in crumbs or pastry, and fried.
quenelles – meat or fish forced through a small mesh and formed into balls, such as the marrow balls in the Green Turtle Soup aux Quennells a la Moelle served at the Central Hotel in Charlotte NC in 1896 or Quenelle of Calves Liver, German Style, served at Kentucky’s Louisville Hotel in 1857. Not long ago I attended a forum in NYC which declared quenelles, and the fancy cuisine they represent, totally decrepit.
vol au vent – a pastry basket from which a “lid” is cut and replaced after inserting a filling of delicately sauced meat, fish, vegetables, or fruit. The case is then baked. Sometimes found grossly misspelled on menus as in “voloven garnie de clams a la poulette,” which presumably is pastry with a chicken filling garnished with clams.
© Jan Whitaker, 2010