Menus from the 19th century, often called bills of fare, can be very confusing. One of the more puzzling aspects is the word “entree” (a French word whose accent is usually omitted in the U.S.).
In more recent times the word has been interchangeable with “main dish,” but that is not what it used to mean. To a large extent it was mainly a way to bring a bit of French culture to a cuisine that was rather plain and unsophisticated.
The way the term was used on old menus varies quite a lot and reveals some confusion on the part of menu makers.
Two menus from New York’s fashionable hotel, Astor House, are revealing. One is from the men’s dining room in 1841 and the other from the women’s dining room in 1845. The menu used in the men’s dining room has the following headings: Soup, Fish, Boiled, Entrees, Roast, Pastry, and Dessert. Under Entrees are 17 dishes, all in French, while the rest of the menu is in English.
The 1845 menu for the women’s dining room is entirely in English, with almost the same headings, and many of the same dishes under each heading. But instead of Entrees, the women’s menu says “Side Dishes” of which there are 10. They include Eels, cold sauce; Small oyster pies; Small birds, Port wine sauce; Wild Ducks, Game sauce; and also Beans and Pork and Baked Macaroni.
A variation is found at Brown’s Hotel, in Washington, D.C. in 1847. On Brown’s Bill of Fare for the men’s dining room, everything is in English. The heading Entrees is used, but the order of the various listings is quite different, with Entrees coming after Roasts but before Game and Boiled. The same ordering is found on the Bill of Fare of a San Francisco hotel in 1849 which, again, is entirely in English other than the world Entree itself.
Other dining rooms, such as that of Boston’s Revere House in 1851 preferred “Side Dishes” to Entree, as did many other hotels. It isn’t perfectly clear to me what they were side dishes for, although I’ve seen explanations saying they were to go with the first course. In most cases this was Fish, so that can’t be right.
Shown at the top is a portion of an 1853 menu from Boston’s Swiss Republic which uses a two-column format with English on the left and French on the right. On it, Entree is equated with Baked!
Entrees, and presumably Side Dishes too, were supposed to be more delicate than Boiled or Roast items. Entrees were things such as Fricassees, Croquettes, Meat Pies, or Stews, while Boiled and Roasts were such as Leg of Mutton, or Ham, or Veal, the latter two presumably presented as large chunks. Entrees usually had sauces. In some places a French chef would be hired to prepare the Entrees. It is odd, though, to imagine a French chef making pork and beans. It occurs to me that in some cases Entrees might have been made of leftover roasts. For instance, it would be a short trip from Roast Mutton to a Mutton Omelet.
An article in Harper’s Bazaar in 1898 explained the appeal of “savory entrees and made dishes as a variation upon the eternal roast and boiled.” The author, Christine Terhune Herrick, considered the preference for entrees, salads, and delicate desserts as evidence of a much-needed evolution of American cookery. Herrick referred to entrees and made dishes as two different things, but other cooking experts claimed they were the same.
In the 7th edition of his Hotel Meat Cooking, in 1901, Chef Jessup Whitehead recommended the term made dishes be used since it was clearer. He noted that making entrees called upon a cook’s creativity, and was a good way to use up scraps. He also explained that entree in France historically referred to the first dishes to enter a dining room and that for a small dinner party entrees might replace roasts altogether.
Entree as a separate course largely went out of use in the 1920s, during Prohibition when fine dining and French influence on cooking were scaled back. It came to mean “main course” and included fish, duck, and roast meat as well as made dishes. Still, it is interesting that the earlier meaning did not totally vanish. In 1966 restaurant consultant George Wenzel’s Menu Maker advised that “A balanced menu has: One roast, One solid (chop, cutlet, etc.), One fish, One prepared dish [i.e., entree], One meatless dish.” History lives on!
Nevertheless, most people now think of the entree simply as the main dish. Although it is still a familiar term, I find it interesting how many menus have eliminated the word entirely.
© Jan Whitaker, 2019