Monday, April 18, 2011

Boston's Menus of Yesteryear

Ocean Spray Brad just sent me a fascinating article from In an effort to uncover whether Boston's current status as foodie central is a) a miracle, since the city used to subsist on "beans and cod" or b) part of a long-standing history of culinary glory, Yale history professor Paul Freedman dove into an archive of Boston's old menus.

This article hits all my trigger points. I love the lists of exotic and elaborate-sounding dishes, the variety of dishes offered, and the references to small details that help us put things in perspective - like the price point for a very special bottle of wine ($10). It's this paragraph that really gets me, though:
In looking carefully at Boston’s restaurant menus, we can see a portrait not only of a cuisine, but of a country — an era with more wildlife, better natural habitats, and fewer people. We can also see that advances in transportation technology and increased urban prosperity had begun to transform how Americans lived and what they expected by way of dining. The best terrapin and canvasback ducks were brought up by rail to Boston from the Chesapeake Bay. South Carolina was renowned for its wildfowl such as reed birds. Early spring vegetables came by special trains from Georgia until the late New England growing season came around.
Food helps paint a larger picture of life several hundred years ago? Of course it does! This is only the tip of the iceberg, of course. Studying what and how people ate certainly helps us understand macro factors, like transportation and economics on a broad scale, but it can also give us so much insight into less tangible elements of day-to-day life: what was valued and how people interacted.

Food - is there anything it can't do?

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