Tag Archives: Black caterers

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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Taste of a decade: 1840s restaurants

1849Marden'sEating places began to show a French influence as places called “restaurants” and “cafes” replaced “eating houses.” Many hotels adopted the European plan which allowed guests to choose where they would eat instead of including meals in the hotel in the room charge, a change that encouraged the growth of independent eating places. A “restaurant culture” had begun to develop, yet with stiff resistance from many who associated restaurants with vice and immorality.

Menus, particularly those of cheaper eating places, contained mostly meat, pastry, and ever-popular oysters. Meat production was still local; NYC had 200 slaughterhouses in operation. Out-of-season fresh produce was beginning to come North by steamboat from the South, but still not in large quantities. Harvey Parker’s well-known eating house in Boston was celebrated for acquiring peas from Virginia in 1841, but strawberries remained a seasonal delicacy in the Northeast later in the decade.

U.S. territory grew substantially when Texas became a state. Oregon territory was acquired, along with a big chunk of what had been Mexico (New Mexico, Colorado, Arizona, Utah, Nevada, and California). Gold was discovered in California and almost overnight San Francisco became a city of 25,000. San Francisco’s Tadich Grill, still around today, was one of the many restaurants that opened to serve the newcomers. The restaurant business was also doing well in New Orleans, home of generous “free lunch” buffets.

Among the middle classes in the Northeast the movement to discourage heavy drinking – or any at all — resulted in the establishment of “temperance restaurants” that served no alcoholic beverages.

1848Milliken'sBostonEating away from home remained a male activity mostly, as was true at The Alhambra in Richmond VA and Taft’s near Boston, but women sometimes made an appearance. Although an advertisement for the popular and inexpensive Milliken’s in Boston pictured men, it also advised it had  “apartments [dining rooms] for ladies exclusively.” (As the illustration shows, a stout figure was admired then.)

Highlights

1840 If a diner wants to leave his waiter a tip in a cheap eating house, the standard amount is 1 cent, which usually amounts to about 5%.

1841 The Colored American, a weekly newspaper dedicated to elevating the moral and social stature of free Blacks, declares it will accept no advertising for restaurants because they mostly dispense not “wholesome food for the body” but “liquid death, both for body and mind.”

1842 The Franklin Café and Restaurant, located in Philadelphia’s elegant Franklin House (hotel) announces it is serving Ice Cream, Sherbets, and Roman Punch made by a graduate of the world-famous Café Tortoni in Paris.

1843 When a group of temperance advocates visits the Eagle Coffee House in Concord NH to convince the proprietor to give up the sale of intoxicating drinks, he tells them that he would feel “very mean” if he had to refuse a visitor from Boston a drink.

1844 P. B. Brigham announces he has hired the best French and Italian “Artistes” for his Restaurant, Ice Cream, and Oyster Saloon in Boston and has a Ladies’ Saloon newly “fitted up in the Parisian style.”

1845Harvard

1845 Harvard forbids its students, all male then, from going to Cambridge eating and drinking places without a guardian.

1846 In an era when Black men occupy an important role in the catering business, NYC society caterer George T. Downing opens a summer branch of his business in Newport RI.

1846 A journalist travels somewhere “way out west” and eats at a small town tavern where the fare consists of ham and eggs fried in lard, hog jowl and greens (called corndoggers), and brains with greens, washed down with corn liquor or sassafras tea.

1849NYC

1847 Luxury comes to Baltimore with the opening of the Parisian Restaurant with a “French Cook.” As in Europe, Ladies (accompanied by Gentlemen) are to be honored in a private parlor “where it is hoped that they will be able to enjoy the luxuries of Oysters, Game, etc., from which they have been heretofore excluded.”

1848 In his vivid newspaper series New York in Slices, George G. Foster writes that about 30,000 persons who work in mercantile and financial occupations eat daily in the restaurants of lower Manhattan, and most of them “gorge . . . disgusting masses of stringy meat and tepid vegetables.”

1849 The Home Journal is convinced that the presence of restaurants, cafes, refectories, and oyster saloons, “on almost every corner of the streets” in cities is certain to lead young men to lives of “sensual excesses.”

© Jan Whitaker, 2014

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