A menu from the first class service on the last luncheon of the Titanic’s maiden voyage has just been sold at auction for £76,000 [$A117,000]. This menu’s high value lies in its link to the Titanic, of course, especially in this centenary year. But menus in any case make great collectors’ items. They have an intrinsic fascination – I challenge anyone to read one without choosing which dishes they would order! – and they can tell us a lot about the time and place they come from.
The story of the Titanic is closely associated with issues of class, so it’s interesting to compare what the other passengers were eating, in Second Class:
and in Third Class:
In both cases the food is plain, and the choices are fewer, but the food was still cooked and served to the passengers, and came with a printed menu. It’s a far cry from the 19th century immigrant ships when steerage passengers were responsible for their own cooking. Even the Third Class menu seems adequate (though we can’t know how generous the serves were), providing a hot midday meal called Dinner followed by Tea of soup, cold cuts and bread and butter. Class determined not just what you ate – but when you ate it, and what you called it.
Ever since I went out to a posh French restaurant with a new boyfriend and ordered brains (cervelles) when I thought I was ordering prawns (crevettes), I’ve been deeply wary of menus, which often seem full of traps for the unwary.
Menus are notoriously hard to read, their descriptions hedged about by conventions as rigid, and as silly, as a Masonic handshake. A l’Argenteuil means ‘with asparagus’, because this area on the Seine, downstream from Paris, supplied asparagus to the capital. Anything Parmentier means ‘with potato’, because Antoine-Augustin Parmentier promoted potatoes as a food for the poor in 18th century France. And so on.
But even now that I know the difference between a salad Lyonnaise (bacon, croutons and egg) and Niçoise (tuna and green beans), the ambiguities remain. The Titanic’s menu is fairly straightforward, but what is Chicken à la Maryland?
My first experience of Chicken Maryland goes back nearly 50 years, when my mother took us out to celebrate my exam results. That dish consisted of a chicken leg and thigh, served with a banana and tinned pineapple rings, all of them deep-fried in a crisp orange batter. I thought it the height of sophistication – but I suspect it was a million miles from the Titanic’s dish – or from Baltimore, for that matter.
Menus are a valuable source of information, but they need careful interpretation. The Miss Frank E. Buttolph American Menu Collection, 1851-1930 is currently being digitized by the New York Public Library. But digitizing isn’t enough. Partly because menus are so decorative, partly because the names of dishes are so tricky, the library has recruited an army of volunteers to transcribe the menus and classify them, dish by dish.
Menus can tell us a lot about class and society, but they can also be used as a tool to understand environmental change. The History of Marine Animal Populations (HMAP) is a collaborative project using historical data to look at changes in fish stocks.
Both menus and recipe books are important sources of information – but menus have the advantage that they include prices. In the US, for instance, lobsters used to be eaten by servants, but as supply fell during the 20th century, their price rose and they became a luxury item. This is currently being traced through menus.
It will be interesting to see what comes out of this project. As readers of my blog already know, I’m very interested in seeing the ways that historical data can be used to help us understand our changing environment. Reading and interpreting menus offer another way to look at the past. Let’s hope the scientists can use the information on declining fish stocks well – or we may all be heading for another iceberg as we dance the night away.
What’s on the Menu? News, histories and culinary findings from NYPL’s collaborative menu transcription project