Knife and Fork in New York

Two of the restaurants participating in New York’s 2012 Winter Restaurant Week (which actually spans three weeks from January 16 through February 10), have stood the test of time and are celebrating numerous decades of serving food to hungry New Yorkers, namely, Delmonico’s and the “21” Club.  An obsession with dining in our fair city, however, is a tradition that dates much farther back in our history, to the early days of Dutch settlement, before New York was a city at all or was even called such.

In A Description of the New Netherlands (1653), Adriaen van der Donck described waters filled with sturgeon, salmon, oysters, herring, sharks, turtles and lobsters up to six feet long and fields dense with elk, deer, bear, venison and all manner of fowl.  Van der Donck’s account is affirmed by Nicasius de Sille, a contemporary who enthused, “[t]he Indians bring us wild geese, turkeys, partridges, wild pidgeons [sic], ducks, and various other birds and animals; in fine, one can live here and forget Patria.”  Two Labadist missionaries touring New York in 1679 marveled at trees “so laden with peaches and other fruit that one might doubt whether there were more leaves or fruit on them,” and concluded that “the city was quite like a garden.”  Daniel Denton, in the first English-language description of New York, described rollicking in fields of wild strawberries.  All of the above quotes, other than Van der Donck’s, are found in Bayrd Still’s excellent Mirror for Gotham, which includes more than 600 diverse voices from Dutch times to the 1940’s woven into a historical narrative.

Thomas De Voe as a butcher from The Market Assistant 1867

New York, a polyglot society of Belgians, Dutch, English, and African-Americans from its very early days, always offered a uniquely cosmopolitan cuisine.  One man who was fascinated with the foods of New York was Thomas DeVoe, a cattle dealer and head butcher at the Jefferson Market.  DeVoe delved into old newspapers, books and archives to write two excellent books, The History of Public Markets (1862) and The Market Assistant (1867), a compendium of the surprising produce and livestock (including skunk, sold under another name) available in the city’s markets.  Here, DeVoe cites the range of foodstuffs exhibited, provides recipes and methods of preparation, and adds practical advice to housekeepers, offering a window into daily life.  Both books incorporate anecdotes, excerpts from earlier writings and arcane historical facts about old New York:

Black Bear. – The flesh of this animal is the only species I ever knew to be brought to our markets for sale.  Bear, (or b’ar-meat) is the common name to designate its flesh (when spoken of), and is rather luscious but savory eating; that from a young bear, when nearly full-grown and fat, is considered best.  Generally found in our markets in the late fall or early winter months, and some years in great plenty.  The dealers in its flesh cut it to suit purchasers, for roasting, steaks, etc. (The Market Assistant)

A modest cafeteria named Delmonico’s opened on William Street in 1828 and introduced New Yorkers to exotic French cuisine.  Until then, the choice of dining establishments had been limited to taverns, private eating clubs or meals taken in one’s home or boarding house.  Henry Collins Brown’s Delmonico’s: A Story of Old New York is a history of the restaurant that parallels the evolution of New York’s culinary tastes to the restaurant’s own meteoric rise to become one of New York’s most legendary restaurants as it continued to move uptown with the growing affluent classes.  William Grimes writes in Appetite City, his social history of restaurants and food trends in New York, that “[i]n 1860, not long after Delmonico’s had scored the coup of the century by catering a grand ball for the Prince of Wales at the Academy of Music, he [Lorenzo Delmonico] bet once more that the tide of wealth and fashion would surge even further uptown,”  and adds that “. . . Delmonicos’s established the tone for fine dining in New York almost overnight and it would remain preeminent until the 1890’s.” 

In 1836, well-heeled visitors and New Yorkers dined lavishly when John Jacob Astor opened the splendid Astor House, America’s first luxury hotel.  “Black duck, lake duck, meadow hen, short neck snipe, doe witches, cedar birds, grouse, plover, rail birds, mallard duck, robin snipe, surf snipe and venison” were featured on one fall menu.  The Metropolitan, the Saint Nicholas, the Hoffman House, and the Fifth Avenue Hotel followed, evermore luxurious and culminating in the Waldorf-Astoria.

After the Civil War, parvenus such as Astor and Vanderbilt invaded the bastion of the staid, Dutch society and vied with each other in throwing extravagant balls and dinners.  As Allen Churchill writes in The Upper Crust: An Informal History of New York’s Highest Society, “[t]he parvenus seemed to increase daily.  As the year 1880 drew nearer, the number of people in New York Society or aspiring to it was placed at 100,000.  It was a measure of the challenge facing the “Shoddies” [a newly wealthy with no social standing; called shoddies because of allegedly inferior products they manufactured for the Civil War.]  

The dining room at the Astor House

The passage of the 1920 Volstead Act prohibiting alcohol consumption changed the New York dining landscape forever.  Law-abiding, fine restaurants like Delmonico’s, Rector’s, and Louis Sherry’s floundered, as people of all classes patronized the new illicit speakeasies such as Jack and Charlie’s 21, which remained a favorite haunt called The “21” Club after Repeal, after Rector’s and Louis Sherry’s were long gone.  Delmonico’s closed its doors for some time but reopened in a new location and is still in business today.  

From 1815 to 1915, and especially in the late 1800s, millions of people from all over the world passed through New York’s harbor. Those who stayed enriched the city’s cuisine and culture.  Rupert Hughes’ The Real New York, 1904 has an extensive description of all manner of restaurants to fit any customer’s desires:

We have everything that every other nation has, and all our own besides. . . .Dining in New York is like other forms of religious worship. There’s something for every taste.  In London all restaurants serve the same thing.  It’s only the prices that vary. . . .In New York you can get almost anything that has ever been heard of.

An oyster shack

Chinese chop suey, Southern Italian pastas and sauces, German pastries and Eastern European Jewish staples of dried fish, hot dogs and cold cuts were seen in stalls and stores on the Lower East Side.  The strange and exotic foods of improvident immigrants eventually were integral to New York’s cuisine.  One could sup at the Waldorf-Astoria, down a beer with a sandwich of dubious content in a raucous Bowery saloon and stand at one of the many counters selling fresh oysters all in one day, in one afternoon if one were hungry enough.  Rian James’ 1931 All About New York: An Intimate Guide states:

Within a few square miles, you can sample the foods of India, Syria, Japan, and Normandy; you can eat the foods of the French, the German and the Irish; the specialties of the Italians and the Swedes and the Russians and the Danes.  You can drink Turkish, European and Florentine coffee; rose-water or Danish beer.  You can revel in Smorgasbord, Hors d’oeuvres, or Antipasto; and buy a meal for 50 cents or 50 dollars.

The above was written almost a century ago.  Perhaps today, one could add a few more nationalities to the mix, but the general outlook remains the same: the more, the tastier.  Bon appetit!

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