The above picture is a lithograph of a dinner celebrating the life and celebrity of Washington Irving. While I have interesting in the first Knickerbocker, he’s not the purpose of this post. Instead, look at the style of the banquet hall – long tables, shaped like the interior Hogwart’s dining hall. The picture gives a good indication on how the upper class ate in social engagements.
But, as with all banquets, these are the exceptions to every day eating, not the rule. So what was the food culture of the era of 1825-1863? Let’s set aside Delmonico’s, the first name often brought up when talking about eating in that era. Delmonico’s should be noted, but again, they are the exception, not the rule. The idea of “restaurants” had yet to take off in Gotham.
The first thing we have to remember was that New York City, more than another other city on the planet at that time, was designed as a financial center. The first way this manifested itself was through shipping, which meant merchants, which meant people buying and selling cargo. This also meant that the city attracted business men. It has been reported that on any given day in New York City during this era, one should add an additional 60,000 people to its citizenry, all temporary residents who stayed an average of three days. This people had to be fed somehow, and the primary way was through the hotels and boarding houses where they stayed. Those who put up these boarders were expected, through etiquette and tradition, to feed those who stayed with them. Hotels were expensive, and often had their meals reflect that status. Boardinghouses were middling to cheap, and the food served at these places were famously poor.
Other places where people could eat included the chophouses I mentioned yesterday, with some of these evolving into eating houses that sat next to or near the various playhouses and theaters that were popping up throughout New York City, including a place called Windust’s that sat next to the Park Theater in 1824. The idea of catching a dinner and a show, has its roots way before the idea of “Broadway” could even be fathomed.
Also around the theaters, and peppered throughout the city were the bakeries who provided the daily bread and pastry fix, to the confectioners, now far removed from their apothecarial past. Then there were the taverns, where drinking was the primary order of the day, and food was provided to keep people drinking. Coffee houses had similar a similar outlook, with the intent of keeping people on site as long as New Yorkers could bear.
And for those who had less money to spend, or no time to get home during the work day, food peddlers provided cheap food directl, calling out their wares which included everything from oysters and clams, to baked beans, strawberries and mint, hot yams, and corn on the cob peddled by the hot-corn girls.
All of this was in place by the time Delmonico’s arrived on the scene, and changed the landscape of the New York Dining scene. But, I’m getting just a bit ahead of myself.