by Nancy Noble, MHS Archivist/Cataloger
If you’re any kind of food history buff, the Maine Historical Society Library is the place for you. Recently, two wonderful menus came across my desk.
One was for the Worster Hotel in Hallowell, built in 1832. This menu, dated September 7, 1949, includes everything from omelets to “Casserole of fresh lobster a la Maine” and many in-between, such as “Broiled sugar cured ham steak” and “Roast stuffed native chicken with giblet gravy.” First courses include “iced celery” and “chicken broth with celery and macaroni” while vegetables include “cream whipped potatoes” and “cream green peas.”
One could choose one dessert, such as “apple pie with American cheese,” “Baked Indian pudding with vanilla ice cream,” and the ever popular “fresh blueberry pie.” The prices are interesting to ponder, too, with the most expensive item on the menu being the “broiled western sirloin steak” at $2.50.
The second menu I had the privilege of cataloging was for the “Egyptian dining room” at the Eastland Hotel in Portland, which has this claim: “This dining room is believed to be the first, if not the only public dining room of its type in America, – the figures represented as being carved in stone after the ancient Egyptian manner.”
The menu, dated January 13, 1939, has nothing Egyptian about it, however. The offerings are more traditional New England dishes of the day, such as the plate luncheons of items such as “Roast beef hash, poached egg, Harvard beets” (65 cents) and items “cooked to order,” such as “Fried chicken, cream gravy, corn fritter, new peas, potato” (90 cents).
Desserts on this menu include “lime jelly,” “stewed prunes,” and “raised cinnamon doughnuts.” Shellfish includes oysters, lobster, scallops, and clams. “Cheese with crackers” comes with a choice of which kind of cheese one may want, including American cheese, Philadelphia cream cheese, Swiss cheese, Roquefort cheese, and camembert cheese (all for different prices). Salads include “Banana cream cheese and nut,” and sandwiches include “Ox tongue sandwich.” Finally a choice of beverages includes iced chocolate, “Horlick’s malted milk,” and a pot of “Kaffee Hag” (apparently a brand of decaffeinated coffee).
This is just a sampling of the menus that can be found in our library. By searching “menus” as a subject heading, one can find menus from Peaks Island, York Harbor, Rangeley Lakes, Belgrade, Greenville, and many other destinations. Some are more recent, such as the many menus collected for the Chinese American collection (Coll. 2080), including Chinese restaurants from Mexico to Millinocket and in-between (and beyond). Many more are not catalogued individually, but can be found in a browsable collection in our ephemera section.
The menus at MHS are a fascinating resource to show us what people ate in times past, whether fancy dinners or comfort food for travelers. Some of the offerings are more familiar to us, or at least within nostalgic memory, but others perplex and mystify. All will definitely make you either hungry or thankful that such items are no longer served.