Tag Archives: menu terms

Entree — from side dish to main dish

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!

On the strange little 1889 menu for Sunday dinner at Kilburn’s, in Rockford IL, Entrees come last as though an afterthought.

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

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Menu vs. bill of fare

billoffare1876ClevelandThe short version is that Bill of Fare is English and Menu is French, and up until the 1920s the use of Bill of Fare was standard, but by the 1930s it had been almost universally supplanted by Menu. In a way it seems surprising that Menu won out and I wonder, was it because it’s shorter?

Commercially printed Bills of Fare were unknown before the late 1830s. But did that mean that previously diners had no idea what was being served until they sat down and saw what was being set out on the table? No.

As early as the American revolution, and no doubt much before that, public eating places (whether taverns, inns, coffee houses, or eating houses) provided a written list of what they were serving that day. For instance a New York paper advertised in 1777 that at Mrs. Treville’s “the bill of fare is to be seen in the coffee room every forenoon.” In other places, too, around 10 or 11 a.m. a list of what was to be served that day would appear.

How the Bill of Fare was presented is never described, alas. Since paper was rare and expensive then, I would guess that it was usually chalked on a board.

It is also interesting that more than a few eating places in the early Republic followed the (supposedly French) innovation of letting guests choose their dishes and pay accordingly rather than charging them a set fee for pre-chosen dishes. Baltimore’s Freemason’s Tavern and Coffee House in 1796 advertised that “A bill of fare, with the price of each article, will be fixed up in the public room, so that gentlemen may chuse [sic] their own dinners, at any price, from a quarter of a dollar upwards.”

In the cheapest eating places the day’s offerings were recited verbally at the door, presumably because most patrons could not read.

In the 1860s the word Menu came into use – often referred to in italics to indicate a foreign word. Special dinners and banquets at first-class eating places, such as Delmonico’s and a few hotels in the Northeast, were accompanied by souvenir Menu cards giving the dishes chosen for that event. Such a Menu, sometimes called a Carte du Diner, was often decorated with gold lettering, ribbons, and hand-colored illustrations.

By the late 1800s it was commonplace for the better hotels and restaurants to print a Menu, not Bill of Fare, for their special dinners, including those for holidays. Often some or all of the dishes were listed in French but this was not essential. As a manual published in 1896 called The Practical Hotel Steward explained, in American usage the word menu was popularly understood to indicate a “limited, choicely selected meal, as for a table d’hote dinner, a banquet, etc.”

BillofFare636

Bill of Fare remained in use up until roughly World War I, especially among everyday lunchrooms, such as Clerk’s (shown). It was so common, in fact, that it came as a surprise to me to discover an ordinary eating place that had no association with anything French using the term Menu in the first decade of the 20th century. What led Mann Fang Lowe on Pell Street, or Van Liew’s quick lunch, both in NYC, to head their list of dishes with the word Menu?

At that time Menu still carried an association with French terms and dishes – and with a degree of snobbishness that brought forth “just folks” humor such as the following from 1914:billoffare1914joke

But change continued nonetheless. In the 1920s, many restaurants switched from Bill of Fare to Menu, yet it was still enough of a transition period to produce some strange combinations such as an American, Italian & Chinese restaurant in St. Louis that termed its list an A La Carte Bill of Fare, or the Berkeley CA restaurant that printed Menu on the outside but Bill of Fare on the inside.

By the 1930s Menu had become the norm, with no suggestion whatsoever of any French connection, so much so that it didn’t seem a bit strange that drug store lunch counters used that term. If a restaurant wanted to put on French airs they would have to resort to Carte du Jour.

© Jan Whitaker, 2013

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Anatomy of a chef: Joseph E. Gancel

At an antiquarian book show last weekend I picked up a copy of Gancel’s Encyclopedia of Modern Cooking originally published in French in 1918, with an English version in 1920. Gancel’s Encyclopedia was an enlarged and enhanced version of his 1909 Ready Reference of Menu Terms which he compiled to assist waiters in explaining to diners the bewildering number of dishes, mostly in French, found on menus of the best restaurants of that time.

Joseph E. Gancel was a Frenchman who had a long career working in hotels and restaurants in the United States, France, and Belgium, as well as clubs and organizations such as the Brazilian Embassy in Brussels and the Press Club in Paris.

In 1874, at age 12, Joseph began his culinary apprenticeship in Rennes, France. In the 1880s he worked in the kitchens of European hotels such as Paris’s Grand Hotel and restaurants such as the Café de la Paix and the Moulin Rouge in Paris and the Antwerp branch of the Paris oyster house Rocher de Cancale.

In 1892 he immigrated to the United States with his wife and five children, finding work at the Waldorf-Astoria [pictured], the Plaza, Sherry’s, and others. He worked at many places; I’ve counted 21 and I’m sure the total is greater. When he published his 1920 edition of the Encyclopedia, he was about 58 years old and living in San Francisco where he was a member of Cooks’ Union Local 44. The self-published book, mailed from the author’s lodging house, cost $2.50. I hope he made some money from the book – evidently he had not become rich as a chef.

Just how confusing menus could be is indicated by the number of egg dishes included in his 1920 book: 477! To keep the book pocket-size he had to do a lot of abbreviation, leading H. L. Mencken to say, rather wryly, “His terse, epigrammatic style touches the heart.” Readers trying to make sense of the above sample page might like to know that . . .
art. = artichokes
can. = canapé
dec. = decorated
foi-g. = foie gras
gar. = garnished
po. = poached
pu. = puree
sa. = sauce
sal. = salpicon (a filling of chopped meat, fish, or vegetables)

There are some curiosities in Gancel’s Encyclopedia. Only a handful of Asian menu items are described. He pretty much dismisses Asian cuisine with the sentence, “Culinary art is very poor in China and Japan.” Yet there is room in the book for esoteric dishes such as Sauterelles Rôties, which I must remember never to order. At least I now know how to eat Roast Locusts (“When cold, take off head, wings and tail, eat same as shrimps.”) and how to store them (“Salted locusts can be conserved in a jar, covered with mutton grease.”)

The Encyclopedia also reveals that Gancel was an advocate for kitchen workers. He was quite unhappy with conditions found in most hotel and restaurant kitchens. Noting the stark contrast between magnificent dining rooms and the squalid subterranean areas where meals are prepared, he wrote, “When you see the cooks come out of the basement kitchens, pale and very often rheumatic, it is no wonder that they are so, considering that they have been shut up in such an atmosphere, forced to inhale the gas from the range and the fumes generating in the cooking utensils. . . . Give to these men sanitary, hygienic, well lighted, and ventilated kitchens. Such would be an act of humanity as well as a public necessity.”

I agree.

© Jan Whitaker, 2012

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L’addition: French on the menu, drat it

In his 1904 Culinary Handbook, Charles Fellows pledged: One of my first thoughts in writing this handbook was to abstain from French terms. I said to myself, I WILL WRITE AN AMERICAN CULINARY HANDBOOK FOR AMERICANS. I have heard it frequently stated that the terms for the bill of fare could not be properly represented in the American language. I SAY IT CAN, and as proof positive you have it here. There are no French terms used for the receipts [recipes] of this book, and the headings as given are what should in my opinion be placed on the bill of fare, as perfectly adequate in describing the dish.

He was unable to keep his pledge. There are French terms throughout the handbook. On one typical page appear not only the fairly commonplace French words purée and sauté, but also béchamel, epigramme, haricot, matelote, saûtoir, and vélouté. He duly translates Chicken Chasseur as “Broiled chicken, Hunter’s Style,” but then instructs the cook to serve it with “sauce chasseur.”

Fellows felt that many dishes on restaurant menus went unordered simply because diners didn’t know what they were. This may have been true, especially since the dining public was broadening in the early 20th century, bringing unsophisticated but monied newcomers into  high-class restaurants.

French terms began to appear on American menus in the 1850s. By the 1890s their use was considered essential for luxury restaurants. But the tide began to turn around the 1920s when people started eating lighter, faster meals and menus were greatly scaled down, simplified, and rendered in English. The 1918 menu of the Tuxedo Rotisserie and Grill actually listed “Frog Legs in Paper Bags” rather than the dreaded en papillote. But, there are terms that remain today and still puzzle diners. Many of the menu terms below were not well known by most Americans in the 1890s, nor even 40 years later.

compote – a dish of fruit stewed in sweetened liquid, sometimes a dessert as was the case with Compote of Apricots and Rice which appeared on an 1893 menu at San Francisco’s Delmonico’s Restaurant. But I have also seen “Pigeons en compote” on an 1841 menu.

fricandeau – sliced meat or fish fried or braised and sauced, similar to a fricasée. In 1839 Fricandeau of Veal appeared in the French section of a menu of the Astor House, a first-class NYC hotel. This term is antiquated today.

glacé – according to Restaurant Menu Planning (1954), this word is an excellent one for menus, right up there with oven-baked and crisp. It properly refers to reduced meat stock that can be used to give flavor and sheen to dishes. Sweet Breads Glace was on the menu for a special dinner at the Rankin House, Columbus GA, in 1887.

jardiniere – Le Jardinier de Macaroni à la Italienne appeared on an 1843 Tremont House menu under Hors D’Oeuvres. In 1915 the Budweiser Café in Indianapolis IN offered “Fricandeaux (perhaps indicating by the “x” that there is more than one slice) of Veal, Jardiniere” for a mere 30c. Jardiniere indicates a dish served with a garnish of cut up mixed vegetables, perhaps in gravy. In 1965 the Armour Company advertised a new product which provided restaurants with flexible film pouches containing eight servings of braised oxtails jardiniere.

la financiere – Sweetbread patties a la Financiere as served at Fleischmann’s in NYC in 1906 undoubtedly were patties made from the thymus glands of veal or young lambs with a garnish or sauce of button mushrooms, bits of truffle, and possibly some cockscombs (yes, the red things atop roosters’ heads) with Sherry or Madeira wine.

maitre d’hotel – The Broiled Halibut, maitre d’hotel on the menu of New York’s Café des Ambassadeurs in 1905 was fish with a melted butter sauce to which was added lemon juice, chopped parsley, and a little grated nutmeg. The popular and expensive Jack’s in San Francisco dared in 1947 to offer Broiled Spring Salmon Steak à la Maitre d’Hôtel, giving the words their full accented treatment. (The menu also featured Tripe à la Mode de Caen.)

ragout – this word, now antique, was almost synonymous with French cooking in the early 19th century and critics always referred to it when criticizing French food for its overseasoned character which was believed to be unhealthy and induce drinking. In short it means spicy stewed meat and vegetables. When given a French name, western restaurants could sell stew at high prices to miners who felt they were living large. Ragout of Mutton appeared on a 1903 menu of the Occidental Hotel, Breckenridge CO.

rissole – According to Delmonico’s long-time chef Charles Ranhofer, in the 1890s rissoles were one of many items that could be served for the hors d’oeuvres course which followed soup. They were made of chopped meat, or possibly fish, vegetables, or even fruit, which was held together with egg, formed into a rounded shape, encased in crumbs or pastry, and fried.

quenelles – meat or fish forced through a small mesh and formed into balls, such as the marrow balls in the Green Turtle Soup aux Quennells a la Moelle served at the Central Hotel in Charlotte NC in 1896 or Quenelle of Calves Liver, German Style, served at Kentucky’s Louisville Hotel in 1857. Not long ago I attended a forum in NYC which declared quenelles, and the fancy cuisine they represent, totally decrepit.

vol au vent – a pastry basket from which a “lid” is cut and replaced after inserting a filling of delicately sauced meat, fish, vegetables, or fruit. The case is then baked. Sometimes found grossly misspelled on menus as in “voloven garnie de clams a la poulette,” which presumably is pastry with a chicken filling garnished with clams.

© Jan Whitaker, 2010

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