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Famous in its day: Taft’s

Throughout much of the 19th century game topped the list of desirable restaurant fare. Taft’s Hotel located on the shore at Winthrop MA, 5 miles outside Boston, attained widespread fame as a place to enjoy a fish or game dinner. Proprietor Orray Augustus Taft called his place a hotel but did not accommodate overnight guests. Taft’s was actually a seasonal restaurant serving parties by reservation only, from May through October. It was established at Point Shirley around 1850 and closed in the mid-1880s.

Taft’s was not much to look at. Two unattractive structures attached to the main building (shown here) held bowling alleys and billiard tables suggesting that groups often made a day of it. According to visitors of the 1870s, the resort might have had a nice view of the harbor if it had not been blocked by a reformatory on neighboring Deer Island. Taft’s fame was obviously not based on an elegant setup but rather on its provisions. Taft liked to entertain guests by taking them into his kitchen and showing off the contents of his ice chests. Fish came from the waters of Nantucket, Boston Bay, Long Island, and far beyond. Flat fish, such as turbot and plaice, were his specialty. Ducks and birds (snipe, plover, reed birds, grouse) came from all along the Atlantic Coast and the Great Lakes.

A couple of the strangest items on Taft’s menus were “owls from the north” and “humming birds in nut shells.” Exactly what the “owls” were is uncertain. Snowy owls, horned owls? Or, perhaps it was a code for something else altogether. Owls sometimes appeared on 19th-century menus for birds obtained in violation of game laws. On an 1877 Taft’s menu the selection was explained cryptically in parentheses as “Lady’s Birds.”

The hummingbirds, according to a hunter who obtained them for Taft, were actually bank swallows. Another opinion suggested they were English sparrows. Clearly they were tiny and many believed they were genuine hummingbirds. They were served in a delicately hinged nut shell, which opened to reveal what resembled a miniature roast turkey. A guest from Philadelphia reportedly felt they were “really not worth eating, being dry and tasteless.” “But,” he admitted, “I wanted to say that I had eaten a humming bird, and now I can say it.”

© Jan Whitaker, 2008

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