Old restaurant menus are often beautiful works of epicurean art, created as part of the complete sensory dining experience to entertain and awe guests. Reading these menus today is both a form of mini-time travel and a horrifying glance at the food habits of yesteryear. Pickled lamb tongue, Canadian Cheese Coup, Calf’s Head Piquante, Boiled Hog’s Head (we used to boil a lot of heads), and lots and lots of celery (apparently the only acceptable raw vegetable for decades) are just some of once-popular dishes that appeared on popular restaurant menus. Tastes have surely changed since Essence of Fowl was a staple of the Occidental Hotel menu in Seattle, but these beautiful menus still tempt us today with their charm and their foul fare, or at least make us glad for modern meat substitutes.
China Airlines (1950s)
On the menu: Tea Sandwich of Ox Tongue and Cucumber
Because cucumber makes ox tongue dainty.
S.S. Rotterdam (1970)
On the menu: Green Turtle Consommé au Xeres
The green coloring of this classic green turtle soup, made with a sherry consommé, comes from the armor-like shell of the turtle, which, when cooked, becomes a greenish gelatinous substance. Green turtle soup was wildly popular for most of the 19th and 20th centuries, until turtles became endangered and diners recognized how cute they were.
The Terrace Room, The New Yorker Hotel, New York (1940)
On the menu: Celery, Hearts of Celery
Got a celery craving? The New Yorker Hotel’s Terrace Room has you covered.
The Gourmet Room, Town and Country Hotel, San Diego (1953)
On the menu: Rumaki of Chicken Livers
Violator of the eighth commandment of food: Thou shalt not wrap innards in other innards and call it “Polanysian.” Rumaki is an hors d’oeuvre of mid-century faux-Polynesian origin, in which chicken or duck liver is wrapped in bacon and marinated in soy sauce and ginger or brown sugar.
Mikasakaikan, Tokyo (1969)
On the menu: Shark’s Fin with Shredded Chicken, Jellyfish
Comically mismatched surf and turf: shark and chicken. Also, jellyfish.
Occidental Hotel, Seattle (1889)
On the menu: Essence of Fowl, Boiled Ox Tongue, Roast Stuffed Capon in Giblet Sauce
Never mind the Boiled Ox Tongue and Essence of Fowl, this menu features Capon in Giblet Sauce, wherein — according to the venerable Larousse Gastronomique — a young rooster is castrated in order to make the meat more tender. The emasculated fowl is then fattened, stuffed, and doused in a sauce of its own neck, gizzard, heart, and liver.
Lotos Club, New York (1900)
On the menu: Boudins of Sweetbreads Duchess
At the Lotos Club in New York, the literary elite (Mark Twain was an early member) passed quips between sips of Celestial Punch and nibbles of delicate petits fours, along with some pancreas and thymus glands, known as sweetbreads, one of many cruel culinary euphemisms. Boudins are sausages usually involving blood. Sweetbreads are either made from calf, lamb, or pig innards (though calves are considered the tastiest of the youngsters). This dish was then served in a Duchess, a savory pastry, for an elegant touch.
On the menu: Sandwich of Smoked Tongue and American Cheese
Nothing spices up smoked tongue like cheese product.
Red Star Line (1910)
On the menu: Headcheese (for breakfast!)
It’s not cheese, but it does involve head. A charcuterie product made of pig’s head meat. Tip for the home chef: Take your hog’s head and rinds (the latter for their “jellying property”) and salt cure them. Then, cut it all up and throw on some spices. Make sure you have your hog’s stomach handy (or canvas bag, if you must) and stuff it with your cut-up head and rinds. Then cook it. You can smoke it after, if you insist on flavor. For a special occasion, add tongue.
The Cloud Room, Seattle, WA (ca. 1950)
On the menu: Milk Fed Chicken
Everyone likes milk and everyone likes chicken. So, what’s the problem? Adding buttermilk or skim-milk to chickens’ diets used to be a common way to fatten them. Traditionally, in England, chickens were often pumped full of milk mixtures all night and day “until the desired rotundity is obtained.”
Oceanic Steamship, Co. (1901)
On the menu: Calves Head Piquante
We’ve moved on to calves head, piquante! None of that bland calves head on the Oceanic Steamship, Co.
Tip for the home chef: If you only have sheep, lamb, or pig’s heads in your icebox, that’ll do. Boil the head (to remove the hair) but leave the tongue in (for extra piquante?)
Hotel Kickerbocker, New York (1907)
On the menu: Fried Scrapple
An early spam of German origins, commonly eaten by the Amish and Mennonites, which calls for (yet another) young pig’s head boiled. It’s cooked with cornmeal or flour and forms a hearty meat (head) loaf.
Tip for the home chef: Boil the head until meat falls off the bones/skull. For an easy head substitute, use the trimmings (the young pig’s ears, feet, tail, etc.) Then, finely mince the meat, place it in a soup, then season and thicken it with buckwheat or cornmeal until it’s the consistency of a mush. When it cools, slice it up, fry it, and enjoy.
Fidelio Club, New York (1889)
On the menu: Cold duckling
Poor little shivering duckling!
American Gynecological Society, Boston (1889)
On the menu: Owls
The American Gynecological Society threw a dinner for the Obstetrical Society of Boston with a literary theme. How nice. They thoughtfully memorialized the evening by decorating the menu with overgrown maniacal babies celebrating with a parade of obstetrical equipment. Also, by eating owls (From the North).
The Holland Society of New York at the Waldorf Astoria, New York (1915)
On the menu: Bud Cigarettes
Hotel Astor, New York (1919)
On the menu: Ox Tongue a L’Anglaise
Tongue was a very popular meat dish in the early 20th century. At the Astor Hotel it was served “a L’Anglaise,” a term referring to anything prepared in a simple way, like boiling or poaching. In other words, the way the French thought the English cooked everything.
Tip for the home chef: When purchasing a fresh tongue, the Larousse recommends you select one that is “thick and firm, with plenty of fat on the underside.” Make sure to do your calisthenics prior to your market run, as a healthy ox tongue can weigh up to five pounds.
Schaefer Center, New York (1939)
On the menu: Canadian Cheese Soup
Did you really think they call it American cheese in Canada? The Schaefer Center was the restaurant of the Schaefer Beer Company at the 1939 World’s Fair in New York, which featured a beer-heavy menu (including frozen beer pie, which actually sounds amazing). The pavilion featured a huge mural illustrating the history of beer, which was also depicted on the menu.
Mon Cher Ton Ton, Tokyo (1969)
On the menu: Bean Sprouts
Yeah, you know, just bean sprouts. By themselves. Delicious.
Nippon Yusen Kaisha, S.S. Kasuga (1900)
On the menu: Mock Turtle Soup
Starlight Roof, Chase Hotel, St. Louis (1949)
On the menu: Diced Capon and Sweetbreads
Get all your tortured animal parts in one dish.