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Culinary Art

April 2018

Americans used to take their dinners seriously. The preposterous social arbiter Ward McAllister proclaimed in 1890 that “a dinner invitation, once accepted, is a sacred obligation. If you die before the dinner takes place, your executor must attend the dinner.” In that era there were dinners at the Waldorf that cost a hundred and twenty dollars a setting at which guests were served as many as twelve courses. Nor did this sort of gaudy consumption seem to sit ill with the fledgling social consciousness of the day; in fact, after one such bacchanal the Atlantic Monthly congratulated the participants, pointing with pride to the fact that America produced men whose eating capacities were equal to those of Homer’s heroes, men whose “stomachs were as heroic as their hearts, their bowels as magnanimous.” In this sort of atmosphere it is hardly surprising that a minor but elegant art form grew up around the formal banquet. Any such affair, especially one honoring a dignitary or a head of state, had to be accompanied with a carefully designed and scrupulously printed menu. Some of them, as the examples shown here attest, were elegant indeed. The ones on these two pages were printed by the classy firm of Dempsey & Carroll, whose less colorful productions included calling cards and stationery. The meals themselves were, of course, every bit as opulent as the menus suggest. The ebullient cover on the preceding page is from a menu for a dinner given in honor of Teddy Roosevelt in 1903. Roosevelt liked to eat big meals but preferred simpler fare to the predominantly Gallic viands favored at these banquets. President Taft, however, had no such Yankee skepticism about foreign kickshaws. He was the guest of honor at the Automobile Club banquet (above). Though he loved that kind offcast, it always represented a setback in his endless battle to keep his weight under three hundred pounds. The other menu covers are shown with the menus open below them. Our thanks to Joseph Devorkin for bringing them to our attention.