Thursday, April 17, 2014
Why do we have such a fascination with old menus?
Menus in the collection of the Maine Historical Society in Portland trace the history of dining out in Maine going back to the 19th century.
Photos by Tim Greenway/Staff Photographer
A menu from The Gerald (circa 1900) in Brunswick features a photo of owner W.J. Bradbury.
WHAT'S YOUR FAVORITE Portland restaurant memory? What restaurant, or restaurant dish, do you miss the most? Write to me at email@example.com, and I may share your story on our food blog, Maine a la Carte.
Maybe we like seeing that we have something in common with our great-grandparents, who apparently loved oysters and macarons as much as modern-day Portlanders.
Or maybe it's the satisfaction of knowing that, unlike visitors to the Hotel Fiske in Old Orchard Beach in 1890, our servers will never – ever – place before us an entree of "Braised Calf's Head, brain sauce."
There's lots of fun trivia to be found in old menus. How else would we know that Albert Einstein supped on turtle soup and saddle of lamb when he accepted the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1921? Or that Henry IV's coronation feast in 1399 included bitterns, herons, egrets, peacocks cranes, curlews, pigeons, snipe and an assortment of "smal byrdys”?
Old menus also feed our fixation with the idea of "the last meal." We may never be on death row or go down with a sinking ship, but we can ponder whether we would want our last lunch to include eggs Argenteuil or chicken a la Maryland, as it did for the ill-fated passengers of the Titanic. (That menu, by the way, sold for $120,000 last year.)
Other folks long for the days when a cup of coffee cost a nickel and a sirloin steak dinner was 50 cents.
When I heard that the Maine Historical Society had a collection of old Maine menus, I couldn't help heading down the street to have a look. The collection includes some historical gems, as well as menus from restaurants that are still around, and some that are gone but not forgotten.
Here's a look at some of the menus that come with a big helping of nostalgia:
RIVERTON PARK CAFE
The more things change, the more they stay the same.
I've always hated that saying, but I have to admit it went running through my mind as I gingerly held a menu that had been printed circa 1900 for Portland's Riverton Park Cafe.
For those of you who don't know, the Riverton Trolley Park was a happening place at the turn of the last century. Portlanders paid a nickel to ride the trolley from Monument Square to the park so they could watch vaudeville, take boat rides on the Presumpscot River, play croquet, visit the wildlife zoo and watch acts as varied as Japanese acrobats and a counting horse in the outdoor theater.
The park also had a little cafe. Its bill of fare, along with other turn-of-the-century menus, shows that modern-day Mainers like to eat some of the same dishes their great-grandparents enjoyed.
Think oysters are hot now? At the Riverton Park Cafe, you could order a bowl of oyster stew for 25 cents or indulge in an order of fried or "fancy roast" oysters for 30 cents.
Macaroons (or macarons) are a currently trendy confection that also appear on the park's menu, although they don't specify if they mean the colorful sandwich cookies made with almond flour or the coconut cookies. If you lived in Portland in the late 1800s or early 1900s, you could enjoy a 10 cent macaroon after you downed your 50 cent sirloin steak.
The cafe also offered a variety of sodas and tonics, including Simmons & Hammond root beer, birch beer and that old Maine favorite Moxie. Today, old-fashioned craft sodas are making a comeback, and can be found locally at places like Duckfat or Vena's Fizz House in the Old Port.
Plus ca change …
I was thrilled to find a menu for this historic Portland restaurant because a new place, named after the original Boone's, recently opened in the same space on Custom House Wharf.
(Continued on page 2)
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The menu from Elder’s Lunch at 71 Oak St. in Portland shows how the price of breakfast has changed over the years (bacon omelette, 35 cents, for example.)
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A special menu from The Preble House in Portland for an 1888 celebration organized by friends of Alger V. Currier in honor of the artist from Hallowell.
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The collection also includes menus from more recent history, like this one from the departed Victory Deli & Bake Shop on Monument Square.