The catering business is closely related to restaurants, though many caterers work from a rented or home-based kitchen. Frequently caterers have been – and are — cooks or waiters; many later enter the restaurant business as proprietors. Then as now catering provides an important financial supplement to restaurants.
In the 18th and 19th centuries many coffee houses, taverns, eating houses, refectories, etc., not only catered to groups in their own banquet rooms or off-site, but also delivered food to homes and workplaces. Monsieur Lenzi, recently arrived in New York from London advertised in 1773 that he could provide jams, preserved fruits, pâtés, and “sugar plumbs” and could handle balls and masquerades as he had done in “most of the principal cities of Europe.” The early Delmonico café of the 1830s supplied meals to residents of a small hotel located next door on Broad street in New York.
Confectioners, who often ran eating places too, were especially likely to be in the catering business because, unlike many restaurant proprietors, they were skilled in turning out elegant cakes and ice cream. For most of the 19th century ice cream could only be obtained from a confectioner.
African-Americans were quite prominent in the catering business until the latter part of the 19th century. They could be found in Boston, Salem, New York, Washington, Baltimore, Charleston, and other cities along the East Coast, but especially in Philadelphia. Quite a few earned prestige catering to elite white patrons, often being referred to as “princes.” They were often rumored to have become quite wealthy.
According to W. E. B. DuBois in The Philadephia Negro (1899), “the triumvirate [Henry] Jones, [Thomas] Dorsey and [Henry] Minton ruled the fashionable world from 1845-1875.” Dorsey had been a slave, as had the celebrated caterer Joshua B. Smith, who was Boston’s top man in the field. At the opening of Smith’s new restaurant in 1867, the entire city government was present and former mayor Josiah Quincy gave a speech.
But despite the prominence and success of Black caterers, the fact that they served clients in high society, and the praise heaped upon them for their astute management and taste, they were still regarded as second-class citizens banned from public transportation in Philadelphia as well as theaters and cemeteries there and elsewhere.
According to the 1870 U.S. federal census, there were then about 154 caterers (undoubtedly an undercount), 129 of whom were born in the U.S. The majority of those born in this country whose race was identified were Black (56) or Mulatto (29). But by the end of the 19th century, Black caterers had become less numerous, with much catering having been taken over by the big hotels that by then were dominant in the field, particularly for large banquets.
Only two caterers identified in the 1870 census were women, both white. I feel certain, however, that many more women were caterers in the 19th century. Catering was common among women tea room proprietors of the early 20th century whose clients included civic organizations, women’s clubs, and wedding parties. Harriet Moody was a very successful caterer in Chicago of the 1890s, with a remarkable career that included opening a notable restaurant, Le Petit Gourmet, decades later when she was at an advanced age.
In addition to food, caterers usually supplied linens, china, and silver, as well as decorations, even when the dinner was held in a client’s home. In his book Catering for Private Parties, Jessup Whitehead explained that caterers obtained most of their linens and table ware at auctions, being careful not to acquire monogrammed pieces. A prized item was a large epergne which made a grand appearance on a table. Trenton NJ caterer Edmund Hill spent a good deal of time traveling to other cities to keep up with the latest trends in his field. He recorded in his diary on September 26, 1883: “Went to Wilmington, Del. to see about a Vienna Bread baker. Did not get him. Stopped in Phila on way home. Bought a silver epergne $20.00.”
Hotel catering, with its backstage mishaps, staffs of curious characters, and endless haggling over costs and contracts was described with humor by Ludwig Bemelmans who worked as a busboy at the fictitiously named New York “Hotel Splendide” before World War I. In the book Life Class (1938) he described how a group of well-bred but penniless blue bloods bargained for reduced rates based on their status and decrepitude, while accepting a simple supper menu of nothing but consommé and scrambled eggs.
After World War II catering continued on as before, distributed among hotels, restaurants, and independent caterers, the main change being the incorporation of frozen convenience canapes and better equipped kitchens to simplify and speed up the work. Some restaurants, and especially deli restaurants, such as Wolfie’s in St. Pete FL, offered party platters. By then large hotel banquets tended to lose their appeal for many people who had experienced too much Chicken a la King. Thanks to glittering parties thrown by Hollywood stars, it become clear that status accrued to the host or hostess who hired a famed restaurant’s celebrity chef to present novelties that piqued guests’ interest.
© Jan Whitaker, 2018