A Place, a Time, a Memory
The Meaning of Thanksgiving
By Barbara Chisholm, Fri., Nov. 24, 2000
More Is MoreOne of my favorite Christmas dinners occurred more than 60 years before I was born. Around the turn of the century my paternal great-grandfather was the chef at the Hotel Superior, in Superior, Wis. At that time, Superior was a busy port with prosperous traders and shippers in residence or in transit. The Hotel Superior was elegance central for lodging and dining. Dinners at the hotel were bounteous illustrations of the "more is more" philosophy of time for the well-to-do. Course after course after course were laid out. The staggering array of food isn't just folklore; menus were recorded on stiff, heavy paper that graced each table. Some of these survive in our families' albums.
My grandmother worked in the hotel dining room as a hostess. She took most of her meals there as well, save breakfast. Not surprisingly, my grandmother developed a taste for fine food and, equally predictably, she failed to develop any cooking skills whatsoever. After my grandmother married and my great-grandpa retired, he came to live with Gram and was responsible for the family's meals. Dinner preparation began right after breakfast as he made his rounds to the butcher, the green grocer, etc. Each of these proprietors knew my great-grandpa well and they allowed him to inspect their supplies personally and choose his purchase from their finest reserves. Dinner was promptly served at six o'clock, and Old Gramp (as we refer to him) insisted on eating in the kitchen. And while everyone anticipated dinner on any given night, they weren't the stuff of the Noël meal of 1896.
Eleven courses are listed on the menu. Not counting fruit and coffee.
Presumably the items listed under each course were choices within that category. Surely one wouldn't partake of boiled Columbia River salmon with egg sauce (25 cents) and fresh Spanish mackerel with drawn butter sauce (35 cents) and the silver smelts in breadcrumbs (25 cents)? The dinner proceeds as follows: soup, fish, relish, boiled, roast, wild game, vanilla ice cream, entrées, salad, vegetables, dessert. Soups are either a delicate clear consomme, or a rich oyster variety called "a la Plessey." Then the fish options described above. The relish choices are listed individually rather than a cornucopia on a tray. It's hard to know how far a dime went in those times, but if it was a considerable amount of money, then 10 cents for celery, another 10 cents for olives, and 15 cents for some sliced cucumbers would add up quickly to an expensive relish plate.
The "boiled" items were sugar-cured ham in champagne sauce or Boston capon a la macaroni (25 cents each). The roasts of the evening were turkey stuffed with oysters, goose, saddle of spring lamb, and prime beef. The most expensive among these items were (can you guess?) the turkey or goose, each of which would set you back 35 cents for either of them. At this point in the menu the wine list is offered. It reads "California wine 10 cents." Well, this doesn't provide a clue to the color, much less the vintage, but at 10 cents a pop (a glass? a bottle? who knows?) I'd be willing to knock some back.
Then it's on to wild game. Venison, jackrabbit, squabs, and "Salmi" of wild duck. After the palate-cleansing vanilla ice cream, it's the main event. On this occasion great-grandpa offered calf brain patties, sweetbreads (what's the difference?), spring chicken fricassée, or lobster (35 cents!).
The salads are lobster or chicken. It's hard to imagine they were the kind bound with mayonnaise, but it's impossible to say for sure. After choosing from among the veggies of succotash, mashed or boiled potatoes, corn, or pickled beets, you'd be ready for some sweets. And you could choose from among the seven varieties of pie or partake of the Delmonico Christmas plum pudding. Toss in a few mixed nuts, peruse the assorted cakes, and have a hunk of American cream cheese, and you're done. Except for oranges or bananas. You could be looking at a bill in the neighborhood of $2.25, before tip.
In those days before refrigeration, it's hard to imagine how he kept the massive varieties of foods edible, much less fresh. But then again, the whole outdoors is a giant refrigerator in Superior. By all accounts, my great-grandfather was an absolute perfectionist when it came to the food he prepared. I can just see him in the cavernous kitchen, slicing, whipping, blanching, roasting, and sautéing for hours and hours in preparation for this meal. I plan to do a bit of cooking myself this holiday season, and I hope our dinner is memorable, but it'll never come close to the repast put forth by my ancestor in 1896 in faraway Superior.