Tag Archives: 1870s

Famous in its day: Fera’s

fera'sfrontIn the second half of the 19th century wealthy families patronized Fera’s Confectionery and Restaurant in Boston, which had earned a reputation for high quality pastries and candies throughout the East. The business was established ca. 1855 in the basement of the Temple Club on West Street, and after 1876 was located on Tremont across from the Common and near the Boston Theatre. [The trade card shown front and back in this post is probably from the 1880s.]

At Fera’s, patrons could enjoy dainty luncheons or after-theater suppers or could arrange to have the firm cater their next dinner party, complete with table ornaments. Women shoppers might stop there for lunch or bon bons after a visit to the shopping district where, in 1866 for instance, they could consult a clairvoyant or pick up such things as freckle lotion, a new perfume from Mexico called Opoponax, potted meat, or library slippers. Fera’s was especially popular with female patrons, as was always the case with confectioneries in the days when many other kinds of restaurants were considered off-limits to respectable women. [see 1866 advertisement below]

fera's1866

Respectability in eating places was not easily achieved then and it’s surprising that Fera’s was able to rescue its reputation from a scandal it was caught up in not long after opening. It was constantly in the newspapers in 1857 because of a sensational divorce case in which a husband alleged that his wife had committed an “adulterous act” in Fera’s. Although the defendant’s lawyer argued that no such occurrence took place since the restaurant was “a wide hall” that was “open all the way through” (i.e., not divided into small private rooms or boxes), the divorce was granted, branding the defendant as an adulteress and leaving in doubt what had occurred where.

Somehow Fera’s survived the scandal, as well as George Fera’s own marital breakup, fires, robberies, changes of address, and a couple of bankruptcies.

At the Tremont address Fera’s was divided into two sections with the restaurant occupying space behind the confectionery and separated by an arched doorway. After redecorating in 1887, the restaurant was painted in cream and gold, with lower walls in marble and upper walls hung with large mirrors. Electric lights were installed, producing a  bright and glittering style that emulated a Paris café.

fera'sback

Like many Europeans in the culinary trades who came to this country, George Fera had traveled a prestigious career path before arriving on U.S. soil in his early 20s. Born in Lübeck, Germany, he compressed a lifetime into a few years. Starting out at a young age he had trained in confectionery in Paris, succeeding so well that he was appointed confectioner to the Czar of Russia in St. Petersburg, where he remained for a number of years. Upon his arrival in the United States, he went to work at a New Orleans hotel, moving from there to New York City where he was employed by the famed confectioner Henry Maillard. He was said to have made for Maillard’s the first caramels produced in this country.

George Fera retired around 1890 and his two sons, who had been working with him for years, took over. In 1892 Fera’s closed and the furnishings and equipment were auctioned, including in part: “30 marble-top saloon tables, 75 bentwood chairs, 5 nickel plated show cases, one show case with deck, one square [show case] with fancy chocolates, two large mirrors, candy jars, 50 doz. wine, cordial and hot water glasses, decanters, Eper[g]nes punch bowl, triple plated spoons, knives and forks, plated castors, water pitchers and cold water urn, 600 decorated French china plates, platters, compotes, pitchers, cups and saucers, &c., Jap. plates, fine lot candies, French wedding cake ornaments, fruits and marmalades in jars, costume crackers, candy machines, bon bons, ice cream apparatus, &c.”

© Jan Whitaker, 2008, revised 2015

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Taste of a decade: 1870s restaurants

Marked by a deep Depression with high rates of unemployment and business failure, the destruction of Chicago by fire, and the world’s most popular international fair to date, the 1870s are a tumultuous time for the burgeoning restaurant trade. On the one hand many restaurants fail, yet the field widens as new types and markets emerge. Despite a 14% unemployment rate, the appeal of dining out grows as many of the nearly 10 million visitors to Philadelphia’s Centennial Exposition experience restaurants for the first time. Some of the fair’s restaurants set up permanent businesses when it ends.

The temperance movement introduces innovation with cheap coffee houses that demonstrate how to serve the masses on a strict budget without profits from alcoholic drinks. Under financial pressure American-plan hotels, which formerly provided limitless amounts of food with the price of a room, shut down their dining rooms, expanding the number of customers for outside restaurants. Better restaurants open special rooms and sections for unescorted women in response to growing demand. A Civil Rights Act is passed in 1875 that outlaws discrimination in public accommodations but it is disregarded and has little impact.

Experiencing reduced incomes, middle-class people wish for inexpensive eating places that are clean and have decent food. The NY Times comments, “Gentlemen who a few months ago would spend a dollar or so for a lunch and bottle of ale, now would be satisfied with a piece of roast beef and a glass of lager or cup of coffee…”

The country is primarily rural. As the decade begins only two cities have more than 500,000 population. The big wave of immigration has not yet begun, and many restaurants are run by Irish, English, and German immigrants from earlier decades. Refrigerated railway cars make it easier than ever before to ship dressed meat, oysters, seafood, fruits, and vegetables to all parts of the country, bringing luxuries to the tables of restaurants in out of the way spots.

Highlights

1870 After dealing in spices, coffee, wholesale liquors, and real estate, and running a beer hall, ball room, distillery, dry goods store, and country hotel, Hanoverian baron Christian Wolfgang von Dwingelo, a refugee of the failed German revolution of 1848, opens a restaurant on William Street in NYC.

1871 Amidst the smoldering ruins of the Great Fire, inventive Chicagoans put their culinary operations on wheels and tour about the city supplying long lines of hungry patrons with fried fish, sausages, coffee, and pie. In a sense these are the first American “diners.”

1873 Harvey & Holden in Washington D.C., which claims to be the largest oyster house in the nation, serves premium oysters from Maryland and Virginia every day from 6 a.m. until midnight. The restaurant is moderately priced, except for black patrons who allege they are charged extortionate prices.

1874 The enterprising Frederick Kurtz, operator of four “Old-Established and First-Class Restaurants” in lower Manhattan advises his customers that he has “reduced the Prices of his Bill of Fare to the most reasonable rates, To Suit the Times.”

1875 At Thompson’s in Chicago, about one third of the patrons are women. Unlike most restaurants, no liquor is served here.

1876 The Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia is well supplied with restaurants, among them a re-creation of the world-famous Trois Frères Provençeaux [Three Brothers from the Provinces] which closed in Paris four years earlier. One commentator prays it will influence America’s tough-steak-and-weak-coffee cookery.

1876 Edmund Hill of Hill’s Dining Rooms in Trenton NJ visits the Exposition for the seventh time and has dinner at Lauber’s German Restaurant with a refrigerator salesman. He writes in his diary, “There must have been a thousand persons there at the time I was eating.”

1877 After an editorial appears in the Boston Globe stating a need for decent, inexpensive restaurants, a reader writes in to complain about how “Dirt and democracy seem somehow inseparable” and the only clean restaurants are unaffordable ones such as Delmonico’s.

1878 At the Oyster Bay Restaurant on Alpine Street in Georgetown, Colorado, oysters are served “in all styles and at all hours.”

1879 Journalist and author Lafcadio Hearn starts a cheap restaurant in New Orleans called The Hard Times where all dishes cost 5 cents. He writes to a friend that he is “going to succeed sooner or later, even if he has to start an eating-house in Hell,” but rapidly goes out of business all the same.

© Jan Whitaker, 2010

Read about other decades: 1800 to 1810; 1810 to 1820; 1820 to 1830; 1860 to 1870; 1890 to 1900; 1900 to 1910; 1920 to 1930; 1930 to 1940; 1940 to 1950; 1950 to 1960; 1960 to 1970; a href=”https://restaurant-ingthroughhistory.com/2013/09/24/taste-of-a-decade-1970s-restaurants/”>1970 to 1980

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A chef’s life: Charles Ranhöfer

Or, how Americans got dishes fit to set before a king.

In the middle of the 19th century highly trained European chefs began arriving in the United States. Many were lured to California by the inflated gold mining economy while others stopped on the East coast. Charles Ranhöfer (he soon dropped the umlaut) arrived in 1856, first working for a Russian diplomat in NYC, then for a Washington DC restaurant and a private family in New Orleans. After spending some time in his home country of France in 1860, he returned to New York and in 1862 accepted a position as chef at the “uptown” Delmonico’s on Fifth Avenue near Union Square.

At this time New York City was engorged with wealth from the Civil War. The rich bought up yachts, race horses, fancy carriages, and real estate. It was the perfect time to introduce them to fancy French cuisine. Despite his young age, 26, Ranhofer had extensive experience, having begun his career as a child and running Paris restaurants and the kitchens of European royalty.

The reputation of Delmonico’s as the premier American restaurant, the one most nearly resembling the finest in London and Paris, was built largely during Ranhofer’s reign which lasted from 1862 to his death in 1899, with a brief interruption when he returned to Paris in 1876 around the time Delmonico’s moved from Union Square to Madison Square (shown).

The restaurant’s glory was founded less on regular patronage than on lavish banquets given to honor prominent men. Grand dinners of the 1860s included one given by British railway tycoon Sir Morton Peto and one for President Andrew Johnson and another for Charles Dickens. The Peto dinner, costing $30,000 in 1865 (over $400,000 now), spread Delmonico’s fame across the nation. Another celebrated dinner planned by Ranhofer featured a 30-foot pond set into the banquet table, banked with flowers to protect guests from splashing by four live swans.

Ranhofer’s name became widely known after he published his vast cookbook, The Epicurean, in 1894, divulging how “haute” restaurant cuisine was produced. The cookbook reveals just how many props and quantities of plaster of paris and glue (jelly) are needed to turn out highly decorated French dishes. The illustration of salmon steaks from The Epicurean shown here exhibits salmon coated along the sides with butter paste onto which circles and diamonds cut from truffles have been attached. Truffles also cover the yolks in the boiled egg border. On either side of the salmon dish are decorative spears (hatelets/attelets) of prawns. Ranhofer is also known for inventing baked Alaska – in his recipe ice cream is stuffed inside a hollowed out cone-shaped cake before the meringue is added.

Although his early training was similar to other top chefs, he was atypical in holding one job for over 30 years. Perhaps his percentage share of profits explains his long tenure with Delmonico’s. His base pay was good for its time – $300 ($7,300 today) a month in 1890 – yet not the highest on record. William K. Vanderbilt’s top kitchen man reportedly earned $6,000 a year. However when his share was added, it’s likely Ranhofer’s income exceeded Vanderbilt’s chef’s as well as those of the top men at New York’s Savarin Café and Hoffman House.

© Jan Whitaker, 2010

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Who invented … lobster Newberg?

The tale has often been told of Benjamin Wenberg who created a fabulous new dish at Delmonico’s restaurant in NYC sometime in the 1870s. The punch line revolves around how Charles Delmonico changed the name to Lobster Newberg to spite Wenberg after the two men had an argument. Do you believe the story? I am suspicious of it.

As a historian I run across many legends of this type. There is always a delightful little detail that makes the story click and lures journalists into repeating it so often that it becomes undisputed truth. Less catchy, and thus less repeated versions of the Lobster Newberg story, suggested that Wenberg did not want his name used so the name of the dish was altered slightly – or that the Delmonicos named the dish Newberg right from the start out of respect for Wenberg’s privacy.

It’s doubtful that Wenberg invented the dish. A sauce made of cream, egg yolks, butter, and sherry wine – the à la Newberg part of Lobster Newberg – was known as terrapin sauce and was in use before the 1870s.

Did Wenberg have anything to do with Lobster Newburg? Some stories imply he was the first to use the sauce with lobster. To me it seems doubtful that he would be more likely than top chefs to see its wider potential. In fact at least one Delmonico chef claimed to have developed the dish. In yet another version of the story, Delmonico’s named it for him because he ordered it so often.

Maybe. Whatever. As far as I can tell, no one has ever found the name Lobster Wenberg on a Delmonico’s menu. Nor has Lobster Newberg been found on menus from the 1870s or 1880s.

Although Benjamin Wenberg may be altogether irrelevant to the story of Lobster Newberg, he was an actual person, a well-known figure in New York City in the 1850s and until his death in 1885. He was in the shipping business, buying, selling, and chartering sea-faring vessels. At least one of his ships, Panchita, was suspected of engaging in the slave trade in 1856 and 1857.

The dish attributed to him became popular in the 1890s and the legend of its naming was oft repeated in this decade. It was a favorite chafing dish recipe for home entertaining and any restaurant with the least pretensions was bound to have it on the menu. Restaurants occasionally prepared it tableside in a chafing dish. Shrimp, crab, scallops, and sometimes frog legs were also offered à la Newburg.

These dishes were usually spelled with a U on restaurant menus. Which is another oddity since Wenberg’s name was usually spelled with an E.

© Jan Whitaker, 2010

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