An Exhibition of Historic Menus Starts With Levity But Serves Up Cultural Commentary as the Main Course
"A Century of Dining Out: The American Story in Menus, 1841-1941" is on view at the Grolier Club in New York.
If you had dined at the Grand Pacific Hotel in Chicago in 1880 for the Annual Game Dinner, you might have had a hard time choosing among the 50 species offered. If Ham of Black Bear didn’t tempt you, maybe Ragout of Squirrel à la Française was your jam. One would expect to be charmed by some anachronistic dishes (and rock bottom prices) at an exhibition of vintage menus. But there is much more than kitsch value to “A Century of Dining Out: The American Story in Menus, 1841–1941” and plenty of subtext between the appetizer and dessert sections.
The show, which opened in April at the Grolier Club in Manhattan and runs until July 29, lives up to its name. Free of charge and open to non-members, it idiosyncratically and chronologically tells the story of American gastronomy, and the country itself—in menus. These include menus from restaurants, banquets, soup kitchens, private yachts, and even houses of ill repute.
“It’s like a 15-degree slice of history,” said collector Henry Voigt, who adroitly curated the show and wrote the accompanying catalogue. “You’re looking from a different perspective. It’s not just what people were eating, but what they were doing, with whom they were doing it, and what they valued. It’s a mirror of society. Yes, it runs along class lines, but it represents all classes in various ways. They’re minor historic documents that reflect everyday life.”
He continued, “I reflect on not only just the upper classes, but women’s history, African American history, and what’s dubbed economic precarity, meaning people who have been pushed from a livable life by war and financial crisis. These menus are very rare. Who saved a menu from a soup kitchen, saying, ‘I wanna remember this evening for the rest of my life?’”
Major swaths of the American story are touched upon. The show is divided into sections such as “The Great War and Onset of Prohibition,” “King Cotton and the Telegraph,” “Echoes of the Jazz Age,” and “The Great Depression and Recovery.”
Shortly after completing the show’s installation, Voigt—in a tie, blazer, and loafers—gave me a run-through of some of the 224 menus he’d selected for the exhibition. “Oh, this one makes me tear up,” he said. “A couple of them here make me lose it.” He pointed out an Emancipation Banquet menu from an African-American social club honoring Sojourner Truth. Nearby was the menu for Lincoln’s second inaugural ball; guests could munch on delicacies such as terrapin and tongue en gelée.
Voigt noted two other menus, saying, “These are the only two menus I know of from southern states under Confederate control, one from Lanier House in Macon, Georgia, in 1862 and the American Hotel in Richmond in 1864, which perished in a fire the following year during the fall of Richmond. There was a scarcity of food in the Confederacy.”
This menu is remarkably sparse. In the accompanying exhibition notes, Voigt wrote, “The lack of shipments from outside the region also caused the cuisine to be markedly local in character. The ham-and-greens dish was made with poke sallet weed, a poisonous wild plant popular in Appalachia and the South. The leaves must be boiled in water three times to make them safe to eat, even in the early spring when its toxins are at the lowest levels.”
An Ellis Island menu, typewritten on onion skin paper, is particularly moving. It offered boiled rice and milk, and bread and butter, to newly arrived children. “When poor immigrants arrived in the 19th century, they came in steerage and they were in a state of shock,” Voigt explained. “Read about the number of children that died on the island. So, the practice began to give them milk and bread.”
“Immigrants thought that America was welcoming them with food,” he added. “The food was paid for by the shipping lines, but they thought America was. And 50, 60, 70 years later, they had warm feelings. No, they’d never seen white bread before, but they knew they would be okay because food is symbolic. We welcomed them symbolically.”
The advent of modernism in the 1920s marked an invigorating aesthetic shift, but it would be short-lived given the simultaneous rise of Prohibition. “There was nothing cool about Prohibition,” Voigt said. “It was a disaster. People didn’t care about food anymore. The good restaurants were all closed. Speakeasies didn’t care about food. People no longer drank wine; they drank booze. Society collapsed and food did too, from an haute cuisine point of view.”
Voigt paused and continued thoughtfully, “Prohibition was repealed in December of 1933, but it took about 50 years to get over it. When do you think we got back on our feet gastronomically? The 1980s!”
Before embarking on menus, Voigt and his wife collected 17th- and 18th-century Dutch art. “It was a reflection of everyday life,” he said. “I’ve always been interested in everyday life. We were also interested in food and wine. Also interested in how food affects culture and societal patterns.” He sold off the paintings, keeping only prints and drawings. Menus became a focus when he retired at 60 as a senior executive at Dupont in the mid-1990s.
“It’s not just the art element,” Voigt said of his attraction to the milieu and explained what he looks for. “What’s the language of the menu? Who’s the intended audience? Is there evidence of race, gender, or class? All menus are seen through the prism of class. What about the typography? What about the graphic design? Who owned this menu? Why did they save it? Who was the printer? Who was the lithographer? Visual appeal is wonderful, but there’s a series of questions around a menu’s significance.”
Voigt has now amassed about 12,000 menus and stores them in his home in Delaware. His wife doesn’t partake in his collecting. “I’m very interested in history, food, and wine,” he said. “And everyday life. It wasn’t an expensive hobby like owning a sailboat. It was an ignored field. It wasn’t like collecting art, where you needed to be a multi-billionaire to go to an auction and buy one thing. This was something that I could do.”
It’s not surprising that Voigt isn’t thrilled with today’s QR code dining culture, but he’s not trapped in the past. “I don’t pine for the old days when I look at the menus,” he said. “The old days are not as great as we think they were. Life is better now than it was then. Certainly for more people.”
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