The names of dishes, particularly if they are in an unfamiliar language, can be daunting to spell. Depending upon your perspective, discovering spelling errors on menus can be trivial, annoying, or amusing. Jane Black’s Washington Post column on mistakes she has spotted was funny to me, and got me thinking about errors I’ve seen while researching restaurants of the past.
Often menus were reproduced or reprinted in newspaper advertisements, in which case it’s hard to know who was to blame for garbled words, the restaurant or the newspaper. But given that newspaper typesetters were often more literate than the general public, I would think they corrected more mistakes than they made. In either case, plenty made it into print.
Horne’s Restaurant in Macon GA prepared a special celebration dinner in May of 1859 which featured MAJONAISE of Lobster and, for dessert, SUFFLE (Soufflé). For a long time mayonnaise was an unfamiliar word that caused a lot of confusion.
Overall French culinary terms, intended to impress restaurant guests, posed the greatest spelling challenges but that did not seem to limit their use. Menus were littered with semi-recognizable dishes such as Giblets VOLIVEN (Vol au Vent — in puff pastry cases), BLAUMAGE or BLAMONGE (Blancmange — a vanilla pudding), Chicken COQUETS (Croquets), and Peach MERANGUE (Meringue).
Sauces and methods of cooking received rough treatment, as in the following: Croquets of Chicken FINNENCIER (Financière), Breaded Frog Saddles MAITRA (Maitre) d’Hotel, and Regon of Veal JULIEANN (probably Rognon of Veal [veal kidneys], Julienne). The last appeared on an 1893 menu from Delmonico’s Restaurant in Woodland CA which also featured Scallops of Mutton a la PROVENSIAL (Provençale), and Queen Pudding au RUM (Rhum).
Although foreign language terms were the most perplexing to Americans, mistakes were also made with relatively more common words such as TERREPIN, RABIT, PARSNEP, ASPECT (Aspic), BRASED or BRAIZED (braised), SHELLOT (Shallot), and BANNANA (Banana).
My favorite misspelling occurred on a banquet menu from 1883 which featured a sorbet course consisting of a gelatin shell resembling a glass ball filled with wine punch, referred to as a Fifth Avenue BOMB (Bombe). What a difference one letter can make.
Obviously menu spelling errors did not cease in the 20th century, though I found fewer on chain restaurant menus than on those of independent restaurants. The examples illustrated above are from about 1950 to 1980, from restaurants in San Francisco and Los Angeles. Corrected, the misspelled words would read: Parmesan, Du Jour, and Wienerschnitzel.
© Jan Whitaker, 2011