In A Tramp Abroad, Mark Twain’s account of his time abroad in Europe, Msr. Clemons found himself in Venice, eating hotel food, and longing, nay, praying for the delights of the food of America. This is his accounting of that desire. I note this, because it is a good accounting of the more popular American dishes of Twain’s time.
The European dinner is better than the European breakfast, but it has its faults and inferiorities; it does not satisfy. He comes to the table eager and hungry; he swallows his soup—there is an undefinable lack about it somewhere; thinks the fish is going to be the thing he wants—eats it and isn’t sure; thinks the next dish is perhaps the one that will hit the hungry place—tries it, and is conscious that there was a something wanting about it, also. And thus he goes on, from dish to dish, like a boy after a butterfly which just misses getting caught every time it alights, but somehow doesn’t get caught after all; and at the end the exile and the boy have fared about alike; the one is full, but grievously unsatisfied, the other has had plenty of exercise, plenty of interest, and a fine lot of hopes, but he hasn’t got any butterfly. There is here and there an American who will say he can remember rising from a European table d’hôte perfectly satisfied; but we must not overlook the fact that there is also here and there an American who will lie.
The number of dishes is sufficient; but then it is such a monotonous variety of UNSTRIKING dishes. It is an inane dead-level of “fair-to-middling.” There is nothing to ACCENT it. Perhaps if the roast of mutton or of beef—a big, generous one—were brought on the table and carved in full view of the client, that might give the right sense of earnestness and reality to the thing; but they don’t do that, they pass the sliced meat around on a dish, and so you are perfectly calm, it does not stir you in the least. Now a vast roast turkey, stretched on the broad of his back, with his heels in the air and the rich juices oozing from his fat sides … but I may as well stop there, for they would not know how to cook him. They can’t even cook a chicken respectably; and as for carving it, they do that with a hatchet.
This is about the customary table d’hôte bill in summer:
Fish—sole, salmon, or whiting—usually tolerably good.
Roast—mutton or beef—tasteless—and some last year’s potatoes.
A pate, or some other made dish—usually good—”considering.”
One vegetable—brought on in state, and all alone—usually insipid lentils, or string-beans, or indifferent asparagus.
Roast chicken, as tasteless as paper.
Decayed strawberries or cherries.
Sometimes the apricots and figs are fresh, but this is no advantage, as these fruits are of no account anyway.
The grapes are generally good, and sometimes there is a tolerably good peach, by mistake.
The variations of the above bill are trifling. After a fortnight one discovers that the variations are only apparent, not real; in the third week you get what you had the first, and in the fourth the week you get what you had the second. Three or four months of this weary sameness will kill the robustest appetite.
It has now been many months, at the present writing, since I have had a nourishing meal, but I shall soon have one—a modest, private affair, all to myself. I have selected a few dishes, and made out a little bill of fare, which will go home in the steamer that precedes me, and be hot when I arrive—as follows:
Radishes. Baked apples, with cream
Fried oysters; stewed oysters. Frogs.
American coffee, with real cream.
Fried chicken, Southern style.
Broiled chicken, American style.
Hot biscuits, Southern style.
Hot wheat-bread, Southern style.
Hot buckwheat cakes.
American toast. Clear maple syrup.
Virginia bacon, broiled.
Blue points, on the half shell.
San Francisco mussels, steamed.
Oyster soup. Clam Soup.
Philadelphia Terapin soup.
Oysters roasted in shell-Northern style.
Soft-shell crabs. Connecticut shad.
Brook trout, from Sierra Nevadas.
Lake trout, from Tahoe.
Sheep-head and croakers, from New Orleans.
Black bass from the Mississippi.
American roast beef.
Roast turkey, Thanksgiving style.
Cranberry sauce. Celery.
Roast wild turkey. Woodcock.
Canvas-back-duck, from Baltimore.
Prairie liens, from Illinois.
Missouri partridges, broiled.
Boston bacon and beans.
Bacon and greens, Southern style.
Hominy. Boiled onions. Turnips.
Pumpkin. Squash. Asparagus.
Butter beans. Sweet potatoes.
Lettuce. Succotash. String beans.
Mashed potatoes. Catsup.
Boiled potatoes, in their skins.
New potatoes, minus the skins.
Early rose potatoes, roasted in the ashes, Southern style, served hot.
Sliced tomatoes, with sugar or vinegar. Stewed tomatoes.
Green corn, cut from the ear and served with butter and pepper.
Green corn, on the ear.
Hot corn-pone, with chitlings, Southern style.
Hot hoe-cake, Southern style.
Hot egg-bread, Southern style.
Hot light-bread, Southern style.
Buttermilk. Iced sweet milk.
Apple dumplings, with real cream.
Apple pie. Apple fritters.
Apple puffs, Southern style.
Peach cobbler, Southern style
Peach pie. American mince pie.
Pumpkin pie. Squash pie.
All sorts of American pastry.
Fresh American fruits of all sorts, including strawberries which are not to be doled out as if they were jewelry, but in a more liberal way. Ice-water—not prepared in the ineffectual goblet, but in the sincere and capable refrigerator.
Americans intending to spend a year or so in European hotels will do well to copy this bill and carry it along. They will find it an excellent thing to get up an appetite with, in the dispiriting presence of the squalid table d’hôte.
Foreigners cannot enjoy our food, I suppose, any more than we can enjoy theirs. It is not strange; for tastes are made, not born. I might glorify my bill of fare until I was tired; but after all, the Scotchman would shake his head and say, “Where’s your haggis?” and the Fijian would sigh and say, “Where’s your missionary?”