The Evolution of New York’s Palate: From Turtle Soup to Green Markets
John Farley | August 15, 2011 6:00 AM | Updated: May 24, 2012 12:40 PM
Update: It’s been a little over a year since the New York Public Library began digitizing its massive collection of historic menus. In June, the library will open a related exhibition about the city’s role in the development of modern lunch. Before you check out the exhibition, revisit MetroFocus’ story about the evolution of restaurant menus in New York City.
Forget Shake Shack burgers and momofuku’s spicy pork sausage. Back in the day (the day being the 19th century, in this case), turtle soup was the hot ticket item on the menu and oyster houses were as omnipresent and affordable as Gray’s Papayas.
Earlier this year, the New York Public Library began digitizing and transcribing more than 25,000 menus collected between 1899 and 1923 by menu archivist Miss Frank E. Buttolph for its, “What’s on the Menu?” project.
The menus provide a rare glimpse into the city’s ever-changing dining habits, including the economics of the 19th century oyster craze, the bohemian origins of foodie adventurism and the class discrimination inherent in early French bills of fare.
“Oysters were just a universally available ingredient. At one point, 50 percent of the world’s oysters lived in New York’s waters.
For a long period of time before inevitable pollution and over-harvesting brought the numbers down, the oyster was just one of the staple ingredients.
You read these great, almost erotic descriptions of how good turtle soup was when it was made by these great restaurants that specialized in it in New York in the early 19th century. By the mid 19th century you start seeing mock turtle soup and that’s the red flag that the turtles are disappearing.
There’s a huge amount of game that used to come into New York also that you see absolutely nothing of anymore, because New Jersey has been industrialized and all that habitat was wiped out for things like Plover and Woodcock and Snipe that were common on all sorts of menus.” - Williams Grimes
“In the old days it would be quite normal for a restaurant to survive for a couple of generations and the diners would have a relationship with the waiter and with the maitre d that would last. Social institutions were much more stable than they are today.
Now it’s such a mark of status to sort of know what the latest restaurant is and to go to the next thing. That’s not how people marked their status back in the old days.
The Fulton Market and the Washington Market on the west side were the two huge food markets in the 19th century. In the same way that restaurants go down to the Green Market in Union Square today, that’s what all these chefs were doing.
If you follow the menus most of the things would be pretty similar, given the season, from one day to the next. They wouldn’t change much at all.” - William Grimes
“I think the real changes started happening when Alice Waters came along and tried to do for the United States what certain kinds of restaurants did in France, which was to try to showcase fresh ingredients, make people conscious of the relationship between the dish and the farmer who raises the ingredients.
Highlighting that was this renewed appreciation for American regional cooking, because it was disappearing. And people like James Beard had been banging the drum for years to alert Americans that good food can actually happen in the United States.
New York has this fusion that’s unparalleled, and that means that diners here tend to know a lot and be pretty demanding.
People have eaten everything and been everywhere, they know what street food in Vietnam is like. It was a lot simpler in 1840, you knew that good food was French, and you know what those dishes were because they were classified and codified by great French cookbook writers. And you knew what your own cuisine was like because you grew up with it. That’s about all you knew.” - William Grimes
“People forget how many Germans there were in New York, starting in 1840. They brought with them what was the foundation of the delicatessen, which evolved of course once European Jews came and changed the makeup of the dishes that were offered.
Some of the greatest restaurants of the city were German. As you got waves of immigration they were accompanied by these little mom and pop kind of places that sold very cheap meals that were very attractive, particularly to the bohemian element — journalists and artists and the adventurous souls." - William Grimes
“In the middle of the 19th century, if you went out to a fancy restaurant you could either go to one of the more expensive chop houses, which would have be purely along English lines and might very well be run by an Englishman, or you would go to a place like Delmonico’s which was French through and through.
The menu would be in French. But most of the fancy restaurants were in hotels. Most of them would be heavily French influenced.
If you look over menus in the 19th century, graphically, in terms of the sumptuous quality of the printing a lot of them are just these gorgeous artifacts. But the things we think about as making a menu modern, like a lot of language on the menu describing dishes, there was none of that. It would just list what there was.
And in French restaurants you had to know what the different sauces meant. You know Sole Mornay, you had to know what Mornay sauce was.” - William Grimes
“Many of the Chinese restaurants in the early 20th century couldn’t get their specialty produce so many Asian farmers in the outer boroughs would grow specialty produce for the Asian markets.” - Annie Hauck-Lawson
“In the 1880s Chinatown got up and running in New York and the restaurants were instantly popular. It’s culturally kind of surprising because people were so fearful of the Chinese in general.
But they were able to overcome that because they were reading so many enticing accounts of what the Chinese food was like.” - William Grimes
“Joe Baum of Restaurant Associates, who started the Four Seasons and all these path breaking restaurants in the 1950s and '60s, he’s someone who actually paid a lot of attention to the appearance of a menu and the language on the menu -- the words you use to describe it, how you whip up a little excitement with the ingredients and signal to people that they’re getting something special.
Complicating the picture is the fact of people being able to travel. For the first time in human history these chefs could get, within 24 hours, ingredients from anywhere on the Earth.
People became more sophisticated and more demanding about what they expected from their restaurants.” - William Grimes
MetroFocus is made possible by James and Merryl Tisch, the Ford Foundation, Cheryl and Philip Milstein Family, Charlotte and David Ackert, Jody and John Arnhold, Betty and John Levin, and the Dr. Robert C. and Tina Sohn Foundation. Corporate funding is provided by Mutual of America.