Tag Archives: banquets

Catering

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

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Banquet-ing menus

As those of us who collect menus know, people are more likely to preserve menus from restaurants related to memorable occasions than those from ordinary, everyday eating places. As a result, there are more menus in the ephemera market that come from famous restaurants, voyages on ships, and banquets than from humble eateries. I tend to concentrate on the latter group, but once in a while I will buy a banquet menu that interests me.

I particularly like ones that are from professional and business trade groups, unions, and organizations such as the three shown here. Even better if they have a humorous slant, as is surprisingly often the case.

The 1941 menu at the top, from a dinner presented by the American Can Company to a California trade group at the Hotel Del Monte, shares something in common with the dinner given for the Golden Jubilee of the Oakland Typographical Union in 1936. The site of the canners’ banquet, the Hotel Del Monte in Monterey CA, like the union’s locale, the Oak Knoll Country Club in Oakland CA, was soon to become a property of the U.S. Navy. The canners may have enjoyed one of the last banquets held at the historic hotel, originally opened in 1880, but rebuilt in the 1920s after a disastrous fire.

The Oakland “Typos’” menu is one of my favorites because of its design as a proof adorned with proofreader’s corrections. It is not only clever but reminds me of a job I once had back in the days of linotype when I marked up proofs using the very same marks indicating lines to be deleted and transferred, as well as misspelled words, broken type, etc.

The Legislative Correspondents’ Association, which still exists, held its first dinner in 1900, so this menu is from its tenth, held in Albany at the Hotel Ten Eyck – on April Fools Day, 1909. Throughout it is filled with wry commentary and comical rules for the banquet governing issues around table companions and drinking. Judging from the menu, I’d think everyone got plenty to drink. Not only is the dinner accompanied by wine, champagne, liqueur, and cognac, it’s topped off with cocktails. Whoa.

I don’t know if the canners were served canned food at their banquet, but I’d say that the journalists undoubtedly enjoyed the finest cuisine of the three groups.

© Jan Whitaker, 2012

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Banqueting at $herry’s*

In 1898 Sherry’s and Delmonico’s faced off on two corners of Fifth Avenue and 44th Street. Which would win the favor of New York City’s high society whose core membership was known as the Four Hundred? Even before Sherry’s boldly moved onto Delmonico’s turf it had been successfully poaching “Del’s” clientele. For a time there seemed to be enough elite diners to go around, but the days were numbered for both of New York City’s grand restaurants. Before too long each would suffer from the negative impact of Prohibition and World War I on food and drink and social life. Nonetheless many spectacular balls and dinners were still in store at Sherry’s before its demise.

Louis Sherry began his professional life in restaurants in New Jersey and New York in the 1870s, working as a waiter, then steward and head waiter at establishments such as the Hotel Brunswick. In 1881 he started a confectionery and catering business at Sixth Avenue and 38th Street where he supplied ice cream, cakes, and deluxe dinner party staples such as lobster, salmon, deviled crab, chicken salad, and terrapin. He soon opened a restaurant at the casino at Narragansett Pier, Rhode Island. His businesses grew, and he moved to Fifth Avenue at 37th Street, and when that became too small he commissioned Stanford White to design a multi-story restaurant with ballrooms and residential suites opposite Delmonico’s.

Although he has been singled out as one of the few American-born proprietors of a fine NYC restaurant at the turn of the 20th century, it is likely that he was a native of Canada rather than Vermont as is frequently reported. On several passport applications he attests that he was born in Quebec, in 1855.

Sherry was known for getting every detail right, particularly table appointments and decorations which could include everything from asparagus served in a hollowed out block of ice to tabletop forests and lakes (1908 dinner pictured). But from time to time the expense and elaborateness of his dinners prompted critics to call them symptoms of a decadent society. This was especially true of the $250 per person dinner on horseback given by C. G. K. Billings to 36 members of his Equestrian Club in 1903 – and the 1905 dinner for 500 guests costumed as 18th-century French royalty given by James H. Hyde where even the waiters wore powdered wigs.

In 1912 Sherry’s was hit hard by a restaurant workers’ strike which targeted the city’s top eating places. He professed indifference but bitterly cited “Bolshevik waiters” as one of the reasons for closing the restaurant and hotel in 1919 and moving up to 58th Street to continue with catering and confectionery. In 1921 Sherry joined a corporation headed by Lucius Boomer that opened a Sherry’s restaurant and candy shop at 300 Park Avenue. A subsidiary of the corporation owned the Sherry-Netherland Hotel. Sherry, who did not seem to be actively involved in these enterprises, died in 1926. Later, under a succession of owners, there were Louis Sherry restaurants in the Metropolitan Opera and the Philharmonic, while ice cream is still (or was until fairly recently?) produced under the Louis Sherry name.

* In The Real New York (1902), Rupert Hughes suggested that because the restaurant was so expensive, its name should be written this way.

© Jan Whitaker, 2010

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Between courses: rate this menu

5betweencoursesREVI always find it difficult to judge menus from the 19th century because our eating habits, food preferences, and food resources have changed considerably since then. It is difficult to decide whether any given menu is fine, average, or poor. The following menu was designed by a hotel steward (stewards were in charge of expenses) for a banquet in 1893. Almost certainly wines would have been served with the seven courses (which are Soup, Fish, Roast, Punch, Entree, Dessert, and Coffee).

How would you rate it?
A = an excellent high-class dinner
B = a fine basic dinner
C = an inexpensive yet acceptable dinner

MENU
Bisque of Oysters
Planked Whitefish, Maitre d’Hotel
Browned Potatoes
Roast Tenderloin of Beef, Sauce Madere
Green Peas
Lemon Water Ice
Deviled Lobster au Gratin
Vanilla Ice Cream
Assorted Cake
American Cheese, Water Crackers
Coffee

See what the steward thought about this menu.

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The brotherhood of the beefsteak dungeon

reisenwebers

During the 1880s rustic beefsteak dinners became a popular form of entertainment among wealthy businessmen who formed beefsteak clubs whose traditions they traced back to England and the early Republic. Then, at the dawning of the 20th century, large restaurants and hotels began to create special banquet rooms for these feasts. Known as beefsteak dungeons, dens, caves, or garrets, they hosted groups of men who gathered for a night of boyish fun blissfully free from conventional dining etiquette.

The standard beefsteak dinner at these festivities involved diners donning white butcher’s aprons to eat steaks with their hands while sitting on boxes and barrels in a dark basement contrived to seem menacing. No utensils were furnished, but the thick slices of steak, dipped in melted butter and grilled on a hickory fire, were accompanied by triangles of bread. In the classic version little else was served other than stalks of celery and unlimited mugs of beer (the steaks were unlimited too). However, niceties such as pre-dinner sherry and appetizers did creep in over time, especially on the rare occasions when women were invited.

zangheri1903Among the leading venues for “beefsteaks” in New York City were Healy’s, the Castle Cave Grill Room, and Reisenweber’s garret. It was at Reisenweber’s where 150 or so humorists and cartoonists toasted Mark Twain at a beefsteak dinner in 1908. Apparently the size of the group required using an ordinary, civilized banquet room (pictured at top with their opened menus). Theodore Roosevelt was among the celebrities who “ate with his claws” in a dungeon at NYC’s Zangheri’s (pictured), whose basement rooms were rigged up with papier maché stone walls, built-in beer kegs, mugs, and purported murder weapons.

beefsteakgarret210Beefsteak dungeons were not only found in New York, but appeared all over the country during the peak fad years before WWI. In Cleveland, the beefsteak dungeon in Finley’s Phalansterie attracted a delegation of Congregationalists from Oshkosh, Wisconsin, in 1907. Later they reported, “It was the most unique environment in which we ever took a meal, and although at first the novel surroundings startled us, the experience was thoroughly enjoyed.” When the Owyhee Hotel opened in Boise, Idaho, in 1910 it was furnished with a dungeon ready to host its first guests who turned out to be a group of ministers. San Francisco had barn-like beefsteak dens about this same time, such as at the Hof Brau and the Bismarck Café (pictured).

As popular as beefsteak dinners were with male college students, fraternal organizations, sports teams, and conventioneers, their appeal dimmed during the war and Prohibition and never fully returned. I can’t help but wonder if the memory of the churchmen’s trip to Cleveland in 1907 somehow explains why Oshkosh was one of the few cities which still had a beefsteak dungeon in 1939, in the Teddy George Grill and Taproom.

© Jan Whitaker, 2008

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