BC Exhibit Shows What Americans Used to Eat

What are the main differences between contemporary American fare and the way the nation used to eat? Through various documents, menus and historical examinations, this gastronomical comparison is one which “Are You Being Served?: Historical Menus from the Archives” seeks to explore. This exhibit, currently on display in the Burns Library, will be available until May 2014.

Photo courtesy of Geena De Rose/News Editor.

Photo courtesy of Geena De Rose/News Editor.

So, what are the biggest trends in the evolution of food consumption in American history?

1)   The restaurant is a relatively new thing— Restaurants were originally meant for traders and merchants who had to eat on the road. Eating outside the home was considered strange. In fact, “the restaurant as we know it today emerged in Paris in the late 1700s as a place for those with delicate constitutions to sip medicinal soups, known as restaurants, or restoratives.” Restaurants in their modern form were not around until the late 1800s when food and social life converged.

A cooking class at the Old Roxbury High School from the late 19th century. Photo courtesy of Boston Public Library/Flickr.

A cooking class at the Old Roxbury High School from the late 19th century.
Photo courtesy of Boston Public Library/Flickr.


2)Vegetarians would have been out of luck— Unsurprisingly, most of the main dishes on menus from the 18th century to the 1970s had very few options other than meat. While no vegetarian dishes were to be found, cigars and cigarettes were a mainstay.

3)   “Dessert” usually meant fruit—Before the snack-cake-industrial complex ravaged the nation, dessert often implied fresh fruit on various menus. It appears there really was a time before high fructose corn syrup and bacon-flavored everything took hold of American cuisine.

Yum, wine. Photo courtesy of Jon Sullivan/Wikimedia Commons.

Yum, wine.
Photo courtesy of Jon Sullivan/Wikimedia Commons.

4)   Things were cheaper— A glass of wine ranged from $.75-.90 at Bette’s Rolls Royce, a popular bar and restaurant near Faneuil Hall in the 1970s. A cup of chowder came in at $.85 while filet mignon topped out at $3.60, begging the question: does anyone on campus happen to own a time machine?

5)   Nonsense words—What are “fried smelts," “salmon muggleton” and “pickwick confection?” These strange menu items are among the wonders modern eaters will never know.

Featured photo courtesy of avlxyz/Flickr.

School, major and year: A&S ‘14, Political Science
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