By Christine Dzujna

Henry Voigt is an authority on American menus dating back to the mid-1800s, a culinary detective who traces American history by teasing out the hidden meanings in these culinary documents. 

Voigt opened with two examples of menus that ultimately filled in stories about Edgar Allen Poe and Walt Whitman. Remaining vigilant for unexpected leads was key to unraveling something about Poe’s process in writing “The Raven.”  Voigt found an 1857 menu from a restaurant run by Sandy Welsh, located on Nassau Street in New York City in the same general area where a number of newspapers were produced in the mid-1800s. Welsh printed his menu as a periodical, the “Welsh Times.” Poe, who worked across the street at The New York Mirror, carried stanzas of “The Raven” as he wrote them to Welsh’s and read them to fellow newspapermen for their reaction.

Whitman was a regular customer at Charles Pfaff’s establishment on Broadway near Spring Street while he was penning Leaves of Grass. Whitman is known to have enjoyed the socially tolerant atmosphere of Pfaff’s, which was frequented by male and female artists, writers, and illustrators and included two rooms, one of which was a gay bar. Voigt had been unable to locate a Pfaff’s menu from the period until he received a call from a woman in Berkeley who had uncovered thousands of menus while cleaning out a hoarder’s estate.

Voigt emphasized the need to be mindful of small, recurring themes that can often lead to the identification of a trend. He sees several symbolic menu categories in the 19th century, including Westward expansion, the Civil War, and even corn-themed events. One menu from an 1885 Akron, Ohio, Civil War veterans’ reunion banquet was composed entirely of food that was symbolic of the celebrants’ service. Hardtack was a nearly inedible wartime staple, a point driven home by the fact that the version served at the dinner had been manufactured over 20 years earlier in 1861. Coffee without milk was also served, a reminder of the hot brew boys would bring out in buckets to the battlefield to keep the soldiers going.

Voigt used late 19th colonial commemorative dinner menus to show how the symbolic meaning of foodstuffs changed over time. Where these dinners were once intended to celebrate American history, by the late 19th century, when nativist sentiments were rising, colonial banquets, like those sponsored by the hereditary Society of Colonial Wars, had evolved into exclusive affairs that made a political statement about new immigrants versus “true” Americans

Voigt’s extensive menu collection is the product of layers of investigative labor. He explained his process in unearthing the story of Antonio Sivori, a well-known chef, caterer, hotel steward, and restaurateur of the New York dining scene in the second half of the 19th century. It began when Voigt purchased a box of menus that spanned an eighty-year period and discovered that forty-five of them– from 1869 to 1881– were connected to Sivori. Some directly list Sivori as a proprietor or chef, but others Voight identified through Sivori’s handwriting in inscriptions he often made on the bills of fare. Voigt connected additional menus from Academy of Music events to the chef after learning that Sivori had catered their charity balls in the 1870s in a period when he returned to work at Delmonico’s. In-depth sleuthing allowed Voigt to use the menus to chart the life of this industrious and hard-working man who remained successful as a caterer in New York throughout an economic depression.

Voigt argues that any chronology of menus will reveal certain themes. In researching women’s history via menus, Voigt was initially presented with a challenge since women usually ate in restaurants only in the company of men, but his research uncovered details about ladies’ ordinaries—quasi-public women-only dining rooms in luxury antebellum hotels (the Astor House had one) in the early 19th century where the food was the same as that served to men, but the décor was much more suitable to a female assemblage. There were at least five such women’s restaurants in mid-1880s New York where men were not allowed unless accompanied by women. As women entered the workforce as office clerks,  Ladies Lunch establishments arose to meet the new demand, which eventually, by the early 20th century, led to coffeeshops and luncheonettes more reflective of the lighter cuisine–salads and the like–that women allegedly preferred.

Voigt emphasized the importance of sharing his collection with others who can benefit greatly from access to data that can otherwise be onerous to locate. In his interchanges with scholars and researchers, Voigt has learned to think of his collection in new ways and to ask new questions that enrich his own understanding of the ephemera and the social history it tells.

The post-lecture reception included Bouchées à la Reine, creamed mushrooms in  vol-au-vent, a puff pastry shell, a recipe that has been attributed to Queen Mary of France in the 18th century. The dish was part of the menu at Louis Sherry’s restaurant on 38th Street, which opened in the early days of the Gilded Age in the period after Antonio Sivori’s 7-year reign of the catering business in New York City. The dish was accompanied by the Waldorf Salad that was created by Oscar Tschirky, the maître d’hôtel of the Waldorf-Astoria in 1896. The delicacies transported us to another time when the culinary scene in which the menus Voigt has so assiduously studied were developed.