Dinner Menus of Yore, Vol. 16, Issue 11

Food has been much on Etiquetteer's mind lately, perhaps after having had that pie heaved into his face on Pi Day. So you can imagine how happy Etiquetteer was when a scrapbook containing menu cards from the 1910s was heaved over the transom. As was the custom in those more leisurely days, the Technology* Club of New Bedford held an annual dinner that appears lavish by 21st-century standards. How did these compare to what was actually recommended in the etiquette books of the period?

The Victorians loved eating! Let’s start with the number of courses, which started big, and could only get smaller. No less an authority than Judith Martin, Miss Manners herself, recorded this list in her Guide to Excruciatingly Correct Behavior:

1. Oysters or clams on the half shell, or fruit or caviar.
2. Soup, one clear soup and one thick soup.
3. Radishes, celery, olives, and salted almonds.
4. Fish, served with fancifully shaped potatoes and cucumbers with oil and vinegar.
5. Sweetbreads or mushrooms.
6. Artichokes, asparagus, or spinach in pastry.
7. A roast or joint, with a green vegetable.
8. Frozen Roman punch
9. Game, such as wild duck or quail or ptarmigan, served with salad.
10. Heavy pudding or another creamed sweet.
11. A frozen sweet.
12. Cheese, or a hot savory of cheese.
13. Fresh, crystallized, and stuffed dried fruits, served with bonbons.
14. Coffee, liqueurs, and sparkling wines.

Now it’s important to note that some of these courses aren’t served one to a person, but are actually just placed about the table in little dishes between every place or two. The non-sweet early accompaniments to a formal dinner - those radishes, celery, olives, and salted almonds - would have been so. And later in the meal, the crystallized fruits and bonbons. Etiquetteer's beloved Ellen Maury Slayden described a dinner at the Taft White House this way: “Little silver dishes of salted nuts and green and brown candies broke out everywhere just as they do on all tables nowadays, and in every way it was a comfortable, unpretentious meal, not as handsome as several I have seen in the houses of the merely rich . . . Senator Tawney on my other side . . . consumed a whole dish of large soft caramels, taking one or tmore after each course from caviar to ice cream."

How does this 1910 menu differ?

First off, there's a reference to "Martini Cocktail," which seems odd to Etiquetteer since a cocktail was only to be consumed before one went to table**. It also implies that only martinis would be offered before dinner, and you'd either take it and like it, or go without a cocktail. Then, the number of courses is greatly reduced. And last, the heartiness of the menu, particularly that prominent "Sirloin of Steak" indicates that this is decidedly a "stag" dinner at which ladies would not be present.

The 1911 menu is much the same.

By 1914, it's clear a humorist worked his way onto the dinner committee, with references chemical and jocular appearing, "Coffee, Cigars, and Some Talk" being the principal feature of any stag dinner - and, at least for the Club of New Bedford, sirloin steak.

Now, by way of comparison, let's look at this 1915 menu for the annual dinner of the entire MIT Alumni Association held in Boston. This would be a larger and more formal affair than that held in New Bedford, but still likely a stag dinner. The mock turtle soup is a nod to the importance of the occasion, as terrapin, or turtle soup, was one of the two courses that signified one was at a true Occasion for the Victorians.*** Its vogue did not begin to fade until after World War I. And yet there is no Roman punch in the middle of menu as a chance to rest before consuming even more food. Note also the item "Cafe Noir." Those who like clouds in their coffee need not apply

The amount of food served per person seems astonishing in this century, but it occurs to Etiquetteer that the Way We Eat Today, this same menu could be offered almost as is for any public or charity dinner, with dinner guests checking off their entrée choices in advance.

And let's also notice how none of these menus are engraved on white or cream bristol board with gilt edges. And how small they are! They are there to be part of the table appointments, not book-sized annual reports or Advertisement Delivery Systems.

Etiquetteer, like many people, enjoys speculating about menus such as these, but they can only really be executed flawlessly when one has staff. Emily Post used to write about Mrs. Three-in-One who was simultaneously hostess, cook, and waitress, but Etiquetteer knows from experience how near-impossible it is to do that. So if you happen to know a good cook, do send him or her Etiquetteer's way.

*At this time, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology was popularly referred to as "Technology" or "Tech." Since World War II, "MIT" is preferred.

**It's actually still Bad Form to do so, and Etiquetteer has to remonstrate with That Mr. Dimmick Who Thinks He Knows So Much occasionally.

***The other was canvasback duck. Etiquetteer has not been able to figure out why the Victorians put such an emphasis on it and, later Long Island duckling.