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Food city

A century and a half ago, Boston ate well. Really well.

By Paul Freedman
April 17, 2011

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In recent years, as Boston has emerged as a capital of the “foodie” revolution in American dining, observers have relished pointing out the irony of new and exotic menu items arriving in a city better known for brown bread and New England boiled dinner. A dish like foie gras torchon with champagne-poached kumquat and cocoa bubbles is all the more surprising when served in a place long associated with truly bleak food — the home of the bean and the cod.

But is that reputation really fair to Boston? Is it right to assume that until this recent gastronomic explosion, Bostonians subsisted on a diet of bland staples?

The truth is more surprising. In researching the history of American restaurants and preparing a new college course on the history of food, I surveyed hundreds of menus from Boston restaurants in the mid-19th century. What they revealed is that not only are many aspects of Boston’s restaurant past more glamorous than we might imagine, the menus are far more diverse than those of most restaurants today. When Bostonians went out to dinner, they expected — and got — a range of dishes that would seem overwhelming to modern diners.

A routine dinner at the Tremont House Hotel in 1851, for example, consisted of seven courses, each of which came with options — the entree alone included venison in aspic, sweetbreads folded in pastry, and a complicated partridge dish called “chartreuse de perdreaux.” A different dinner, an 1830 meal at the Exchange Coffee House on Congress Street celebrating Boston’s 200th anniversary, featured puff pastry shells filled with no fewer than 10 varieties of roast birds, including snipe, woodcocks, and plovers. It was rounded off with mutton, eels à la tartare, and curried lobster.

Not everyone in Boston ate in this fashion, of course, even on festive occasions. But the menus make a vivid point about American eating at the time, one backed up by cookbooks, memoirs, and travelers’ accounts: that even the average American would have enjoyed a varied diet with a breadth of influences. Most of what people ate was, by necessity, locally raised and harvested. But as one of one of America’s wealthiest cities, Boston embodied the growing complexity of the American food economy, and its restaurant patrons could count on produce and game brought over some distance by ship or rail. Through its menus we can see a nation teeming with natural abundance and people with sophisticated palates — as well as extremely hearty appetites.

Boston today is fortunate to have an unusual group of authentic restaurants surviving from the 19th century. The oldest restaurant in continuous operation in the United States is the Union Oyster House, founded in 1826. Jacob Wirth, founded in 1868, represents the first popular “ethnic” cuisine in the United States, that of Germany. And Locke-Ober (1868, but its origins go back to the 1830s) has maintained the stately traditions of the Gilded Age.

Those give us a sense of the range of restaurants that Bostonians frequented, but nothing on the modern scene gives us a sense of the food they would have encountered at the top dining rooms of the day. Those were chiefly located in the city’s best hotels: Tremont House, Parker House, and Revere House, all located around Beacon Hill. These restaurants offered huge meals all day, but the main event was “dinner” in the mid-afternoon, between 2 and 5 p.m.

A surprisingly large number of menus from these meals have been preserved. (At the New York Public Library, for example, there are over 700 different menus dating from between 1862 and 1865 from the Revere House Hotel alone.) Many of these are regular dinner menus, which would have changed daily. Others are special-occasion menus that were even fancier and more elaborate, with a dozen courses or more, each with a separate wine pairing.

The fanciest restaurant in Boston in the mid-19th century was at the Tremont House Hotel, at the corner of Beacon and Tremont streets. Its menus in the 1840s and 1850s listed soups, fish, and boiled courses in English, and listed the more spectacular offerings in French. These included cold dishes such as “cailles volantes sur socle” (quails cooked and made to look as if in flight on a pedestal platter) and truffles in aspic. Entrees included small turtles in pastry “cases” and jellied calf’s brains. A meal would also be likely to include roast game birds such as wild turkey, red-headed duck, teal, wigeon, and that most prized of all gourmet items in 19th-century America, canvasback ducks, which had a fragrance of the wild celery they fed on along the Chesapeake Bay.

One of its rivals was the Revere House, built in 1847 on what was then Bowdoin Square (where Bowdoin, Cambridge, and New Chardon streets meet today). It was as luxurious as the Tremont — a Corinthian-columned entrance, marble lobby floors, and 200 rooms — but its menus were in English and it offered a slightly less pretentious cuisine. Particularly popular here were oysters, which appeared repeatedly on menus escalloped, or fried, or in their shells, or as patties with or without béchamel sauce. Other common dishes were chicken fricassee, salmis of duck (partially roasted duck finished in a ragout), beef à la mode (not beef with ice cream but rather larded and braised beef), baked beans with pork, and apple fritters. There was a great fancy for slowly cooked stews, particularly of organ meats (tripe and kidneys), mutton, and various birds. These would be served with classic French sauces. Pig’s feet, fritters, chicken pie, and lobster (especially curried lobster) were also well represented. There was a particular fondness for calf’s liver and calf’s head, served dozens of ways.

And such delicacies were just a typical night’s dinner choices. For special occasions the Revere House could surpass this standard. The menu for a dinner for six gentlemen on Jan. 22, 1848, was printed on gilded menus. The dishes required immense labor and skill — everything seems to have been boned, larded, jellied, or otherwise prepared in a way that demanded exact timing and expensive ingredients. Not only were boned canvasback ducks presented cold, but they appeared later in the meal roasted, along with teal, grouse, and red-headed ducks. Quail was boned and served in a form; lobster salad was presented with a border of aspic.

Perhaps oddly for modern diners, the menus show that a staple of luxury dining in the 19th century — in Boston, as elsewhere — was macaroni. In fact, looking at menus from first-class restaurants in Boston, it turns out that the single most popular entree was some form of macaroni. It might come as “timbale de macaroni à la Vénitienne” (macaroni baked in a pastry mold with cheese and meat) or as macaroni au gratin, macaroni au Parmesan, or macaroni à la Milanaise. No other pasta appeared on these menus; indeed, Italian cuisine was considered a low-class ethnic niche food until the beginning of the 20th century.

(It’s hard to tell how much of all this the average diner ate, or how, given the possibilities, anyone could have avoided morbid obesity — although of course they lacked our sodas and snack foods. And although they dined frequently, they ate little between meals.)

After this sort of dinner, the desserts seem less elaborate. There were always two dessert courses as we understand it now. The first was called “pastry,” which consisted not only of cakes and pies but also such treats as soufflés, puddings, and jellies (calf’s feet jelly a particular favorite). Following the pastry was what was termed “dessert,” which involved fruit, nuts, or cheese. A meal at the Parker House in 1863 ended with a pastry course — Charlotte Russe, apple dumplings, six kinds of pie, and three kinds of cake — and then dessert, which included Cheshire cheese, walnuts, olives, raisins, and figs.

In looking carefully at Boston’s restaurant menus, we can see a portrait not only of a cuisine, but of a country — an era with more wildlife, better natural habitats, and fewer people. We can also see that advances in transportation technology and increased urban prosperity had begun to transform how Americans lived and what they expected by way of dining. The best terrapin and canvasback ducks were brought up by rail to Boston from the Chesapeake Bay. South Carolina was renowned for its wildfowl such as reed birds. Early spring vegetables came by special trains from Georgia until the late New England growing season came around.

When the Civil War broke out 150 years ago, it doesn’t seem to have disrupted the food supply in New England or the mid-Atlantic, but it changed the South, because of poor transport and distribution and the increasing impact of the war as it was being lost. In 1864, while patrons of the Parker House or Revere House were trying to choose among dozens of dishes, Richmond’s distinguished American Hotel in March of that year served vegetable soup, boiled fish, stewed beef and potatoes, corned beef with turnips, and the like.

The exuberant and lavish variety available in cities like Boston might seem a privilege of the rich, and indeed these elegant restaurants were expensive. But their prices put them in reach of the prosperous upper middle class as well. Dinner at the Revere House or Tremont House would have cost between one and three dollars, a fixed price for all those courses.

And if the 19th century’s fondness for green turtles, mutton with caper sauce, stewed game-birds, and broiled pig’s feet still seems a little alien, there was one other facet of eating out that would be all too familiar to modern diners: The real expense was wine. It was priced separately and could run to $10 or more for an old Madeira or first-class Rhine wine. If you’re so inclined, you can still easily spend 10 times more on wine than on your dinner at Boston’s finest restaurants right now.

Paul Freedman is a professor in the history department at Yale University. This article was adapted from an essay in the March issue of the New England Quarterly.

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