Guest Post: The Food in Private Clubs


Today's guest post by Paul Freedman explains how private clubs provide a rarely utilized, but useful source of information about American tastes.

Private clubs in the United States were established in the early nineteenth century.  The Philadelphia Club, founded in 1834, New York’s Union Club (1836) and New Orleans’ Boston Club (1841 – named after a card game) are the oldest American city clubs and followed the example set by the gentlemen’s clubs of London[i]  While they have tended to be secretive and uninterested in publicizing themselves beyond the privileged confines of their grand premises, their food exemplifies elite tastes in dining and shows how class has affected American dining. 
Clubs tend to be conservative and they deliberately offer an ambience in which what is considered unpleasant change is slowed, if not stopped altogether. Resistance to Prohibition in the 1920s, to racial and gender integration in the 1970s, or to smoking bans in the 1990s are typical manifestations of this spirit.  Club food specialties, examples of the general conservatism, harken back so far sometimes that their origins are forgotten. The Philadelphia Club, for example, serves a veal and ham pie that was common in the 1890s and remains alive in British pubs, but has been extinct in the rest of America for decades.  Yet at the same time, certain American dishes were first served at clubs--- not just the club sandwich either.  

Elite Tastes
Clubs’ resistance to change shows what the wealthy actually liked to eat day in and day out, because unlike restaurants, which have to cater to a variety of people, clubs are responsive only to the expectations of their members. No one would claim that socially well-connected men represented the nation as a whole, but club menus provide a picture of unaffected elite dining, both in terms of defining gastronomic prestige (caviar), but also expressing fondness for what might be called simple, upper-class comfort food such as shrimp cocktail or Welsh rarebit.  Club menus are more focused than those of restaurants on a peculiar combination of ostentation and simplicity.
            For much of the past 175 years, upper-class dining has differed depending on three different venues: home, restaurants and clubs.  Among these three, the most distinct style from a culinary perspective is what restaurants offered.  Until about 1980, fine restaurants were French. Fancy steakhouses and certain other male haunts like the 21 Club in New York functioned somewhat like clubs, but from Delmonico’s in the 1850s to Le Pavillon in the 1950s, the top restaurants served what was presented as French cuisine.  This enthusiasm for France is notably missing in club menus, which are more English in inspiration and American in basic ingredients. No Croustades, Chaudefroid, or Ris de veau financière.  The menus might be written in French (at least in the late-nineteenth century), but the dishes are Anglo-American. 
If clubs generally ignored French cuisine, they also dispensed with the characteristic American fondness for so-called “ethnic” food, which began in the 1890s with what was called the “Chop Suey Craze.”  This is a little different from the British scene where not only were the Oriental Club and the East India Club famed for their Asian or at least British Raj offerings,[ii] but all London clubs as well as hotel restaurants regularly served curry. To this day, neither the Philadelphia Club, Century Association, Lotos Club or Pacific Union Club have anything on their menu that is even vaguely foreign--- even pasta is uncommon.
The tastes of clubmen in the nineteenth century were closer to what was served at festive home meals than to the standards of fancy restaurants. French cuisine was uncommon at home, while at least a claim to a French culinary aesthetic was what defined high-end restaurant cuisine.  American restaurants, nevertheless, as well as well-off households emphasized certain Anglo-American standard luxury items such as oysters, mutton and game.  More particular to the United States were what might considered two “signature” delicacies: wild canvas-back ducks and diamond-back terrapin.  Both terrapin and canvas-back ducks came from the Chesapeake where their diet of wild celery lent a particular taste to the meat.  These two constituted what General Winfield Scott, considered the great antebellum gourmet authority, called the “supreme native delicacies.”[iii] At the opening of the Civil War Anthony Trollope visited Baltimore and named canvas-back ducks and terrapin the city’s twin glories.[iv] 

The Maryland Club of Baltimore, founded in 1857, is unusual in this account of club food, which emphasizes the culinary conservatism of such associations, in that it was unusually innovative, responsible for codifying the ducks and turtles as luxury requisites.[v] A series of dinners served shortly before the Civil War established a canonical regional meal that was quickly defined as a national standard of elegance.  The chef of the Maryland Club, François Lagroue, served the following:
                                    Four small Lynnhaven Bay oysters
                                    Terrapin, à la Maryland
                                    Canvas-back Duck
                                    Salad of Crab and Lettuce
                                    Baked Irish Potatoes, Fried Hominy Cakes, Plain Celery

The menu was so popular that in 1863 that a more elaborate version was served by the American H. L. Batemen to London epicures as an example of the culinary marvels of the beleaguered republic. The Maryland Club menu became nationally renowned as it was featured in magazines such as Scribner’s Monthly (1877); The Century (1878); and Frank Leslie’s Popular Monthly (1880).[vi]   The Scribner’s article proclaimed Baltimore “the culinary capital of the nation.” Here is an example of club food as creative and influential, not merely a curious, retrograde experience.
Clubs are in some respects a museum of lost American tastes, but for that reason, they are an under-appreciated aspect of the history of cooking.  The only place I have ever been able to find terrapin is at the Wilmington Club.  I asked the manager how they managed this and he said it was no big deal---- hunting terrapin is legal in Delaware with a limit of five per day.  He told me that a trapper from the southern, rural part of the state brings them alive during the fall season since they should be dispatched just before cooking.  I expressed some surprise that the chef knew how to kill, take apart, clean and cook them and the manager told me the chef was old and African American by way of explaining the persistence of a rare skill. 
In fact the cuisine described above is an expression not so much of the club members as of the traditions of black chefs, caterers, and kitchen workers.  The mid-Atlantic, especially Philadelphia, has a long tradition of African-American chefs and entrepreneurs who marketed oysters, catered weddings and funerals, and opened restaurants.  Peter and Mary Augustin were renowned caterers and restaurateurs in Philadelphia and their son James was steward and chef of the Philadelphia Club.
James Prosser, a Philadelphia caterer was so famous for his terrapin that a poem written after his death in 1861 has St. Peter resisting Prosser’s broiled oysters, lobster salad and steaks, but relenting when he is offered stewed terrapin:
                        “What! STEWED TERRAPIN, Jeemes Prosser!”
                                    Open wide the gates are borne—
                        “Here comes Terrapin and Prosser!
                                    Make him Welcome as the morn!”[vii]


What Clubs Actually Served
The great majority of club menus preserved are for special occasions, not routine meals, because these were more likely to be regarded as worth saving. The Lotos Club in New York, dedicated to the arts, has a tradition of honoring men and women of accomplishment at what are called State Dinners, going back to the founding of the Club in 1870.  These take place several times a year and each menu is individually designed.  They number several hundred and constitute the largest and most elaborate series of special occasion club menus, but the problem is that the names of dishes were often made up on the spot to highlight the career of the honoree and so are unrecognizable. Thus a dinner on December 19, 1908 in honor of the Japanese Ambassador, Baron Kogoro, included “Chicken Gumbo à la Nippon,” “Filet Tokyo,” and “Quails à la Geisha.”  The gumbo is probably just regular chicken gumbo, but what would “Nagasaki Sorbet” have been?  What about the “Porto Rico Smelts” or “United States Cream” at a dinner for President Taft in 1912?  A more recent example of this practice is a bizarre menu from a dinner honoring the oil magnate and philanthropist Armand Hammer, April 21, 1983:  “Roast Veal of Peace,”  “Philanthropist Potatoes,” “Occidental Asparagus,” “Human Rights Carrots,” and “Larger than Life Strawberry Cake”.[viii]  Here the dishes are standard but dressed up with names to indicate the honoree’s activities (Occidental Petroleum, for example, was the company he ran).
More helpful as an archival source are the Union Club (NY) steward’s menu books for special occasions from the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century.  Looking at 328 menus for the five-year period September 5, 1884 to September 2, 1889 it is evident that certain items, particularly for the initial courses, are more-or-less de rigeuer such as oysters to start the meal (213 times), although Littleneck clams sometimes substituted (81 mentions) and in the later years caviar (68).  Clear turtle soup appears 169 times. The most common fish course is shad (here always prepared as broiled), a seasonal delicacy.  Shad season is normally thought of as early spring, but in the 1880s it could begin as early as February and last as late as June.  By far the most common main course was saddle of mutton or lamb (mutton 85 times; lamb 83).  Roasted canvas-back ducks appeared 48 times, served with fried or boiled hominy and celery salad or celery mayonnaise. The Chesapeake Bay ducks were particularly prized because their diet of wild celery gave their flesh a particular succulence, and so to complement them celery was appropriate. 
In certain respects there was a national style of club food just as there was a national repertoire of French restaurant dishes.  Terrapin, turtle soup, oysters, saddle of lamb or mutton, canvas-back ducks were universal.  Producing standard prestige dishes could be difficult for reasons of geography, but such obstacles could be overcome with a measure of trouble and expense. A dinner at the Sage Brush Club in Boise, Idaho given on January 15, 1885 features local Snake River Salmon and something called Sage Brush Sorbet as a palate cleanser, but also oysters on the half shell and deviled lobster, neither of these being at all easy or inexpensive to obtain in the Rocky Mountain region. 
           
Archaic Specialties
This peculiar combination of archaism, discrimination and simplicity is most obvious in the special dishes that clubs offer as signature items.  Dungeness crab leg cocktail or “paper steak” (very thinly cut) at the Pacific Union Club in San Francisco; the already-mentioned veal and ham pie or chicken salad with fried oysters at the Philadelphia Club; specially-made macaroons at the Century Association in New York.  Mory’s in New Haven, a dining and drinking club rather than a “full service” venue, is old enough to have established its peculiar traditions:  Baker soup (a curried tomato preparation) and a variety of Welsh rarebits. 
The common element among these dishes is that they were popular 100 to 150 years ago but are now rarely found elsewhere.  Among the Maryland Club specialties are creamed hominy and Smithfield ham.  There are a few dishes that were invented by club chefs, the most famous of which is the Club Sandwich, whose first mention seems to be connected with New York’s Union Club in 1889.[ix]  Crab Louis was invented at the Olympian Club in Seattle around 1900 and was a favorite of Enrico Caruso on his western tour of 1904.[x]
Other featured dishes such as corned beef hash or sautéed calves’ liver, both featured at New York’s Lotos Club, might seem quite ordinary, but have been long out of fashion and are now hard to find on restaurant menus.  Other specialties such as the Asparagus Roll-Ups (fried asparagus wrapped in toast spread with mayonnaise) at the Centennial Club, a women’s organization in Nashville, evoke gracious entertainment recipes of the mid-twentieth century.[xi]
Because they are sometimes difficult of access and often uninterested in food research, clubs have not been looked at by historians of cuisine, a pity since they are a surprisingly complex source of information changing and well as unchanging American tastes.



[i]   On American clubs, with a particular emphasis on Texas, see Diana Kendall, Members Only: Elite Clubs and the Process of Exclusion (Lanham, Maryland: Rowman and Littlefield, 2008).

[ii]   The Oriental was deemed by one observer  1843 as the dullest club in London, its members devoted to drinking Madeira and eating curry.  A curry paste made by Crosse and Blackwell in 1851 included a testimonial from the chef of the Oriental Club.  Denys Forrest, The Oriental: Life Story of a West End Club (London: Batsford , 1968), p. 53.

[iii]  Lately Thomas, Delmonico’s: A Century of Splendor (Boston, 1967), pp. 65-66.

[iv]  Anthony Trollope, North America (Philadelphia, 1863), chapter 13 (pp. 334-335).  Terrapin was also associated with Philadelphia as, for example, by Colonel John W. Forney, who wrote in The Epicure in 1879 that while Baltimore, Washington and New York take pleasure in terrapin, only in Philadelphia is it a crime not to have a passionate attachment to the turtles, cit. Susan Williams, Food in the United States, ca. 1820-1890 (Westport, 2006), pp. 119-120.  But this is more a question of taste and styles of preparation than habitat.  See also Andrew Beahrs, Twain’s Feast: Searching for America’s Lost Foods in the Footsteps of Samuel Clemens (New York, 2010) , pp. 148-182, especially p. 161.

[v]   On The Maryland Club and its food, see Robert F. Brugger, The Maryland Club: A History of Food and Friendship in Baltimore, 1957-1997  (Baltimore, 1997) , pp. 343-90.

[vi] David S. Shields, Southern Provisions: The Creation and Revival of a Cuisine (Chicago, 2015), pp. 93-94, 364.

[vii]   David S. Shields, The Culinarians: Lives and Careers From the First Age of American Fine Dining ((Chicago, 2017)p. 45.

[viii]   Menus from the Henry Voigt Collection of American Menus, Wilmington, Delaware.

[x]   Art Siemering, “Seafood on the American Menus, Past and Present; Sacred and Profane,” in Fish: Food from the Waters.  Proceedings of the Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery 1997 (Totnes: Prospect Books, 1998), p. 275.

[xi]   The current roll-ups are based on a recipe for a “rolled asparagus sandwich” in 1958 cookbook by Sadie LeSueur, the hostess and executive secretary of the Centennial Club, Recipes, Party Plans and Garnishes (New York, 1958)., p. 228.


Paul Freedman is a professor of history at Yale University where he has taught since  1997.  His doctoral degree was awarded in 1978 by UC Berkeley. His primary responsibilities are in the field of medieval European history.  He is also interested in the history of food and cuisine.  In 2007 Freedman edited Food: The History of Taste, which won a prize from the International Association of Culinary Professionals and has been translated into ten languages.  His book Out of the East: Spices and the Medieval Imagination (2008), looks at the desire for spices in the Middle Ages and how it led to European exploration and conquest. Food in Time and Place, (2014) a co-edited volume, appeared under the auspices of the American Historical Association. Ten Restaurants that Changed America, a way of looking at US food history through ten examples, was published in September, 2016. 

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