Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Answer: How much did this menu item cost?

What's "normal" changes with time.   

Despite our sense that something as personal as what food you eat is permanent, in fact, our collective tastes have changed significantly over time.  I'm not even talking about national preferences (do you have mayonnaise, sriracha or ketchup on your deep-fried potatoes), but just about how what you buy in a local cafe has shifted over time.  

Moo.  "Eat more vegetables and not my head," says Bossie.  

As I said, I hadn't appreciated how much our commonplace and customary dishes have changed over the past 60 years.  My kids grew up eating edamame and nori snacks, but that's the influence of local Asian culture--I had no idea what those things were when I was growing up in a time of PB&J sandwiches, Tang orange drink, and Cheez Whiz.  

In my reading, I found that several popular dishes from the 1950s were seemed a bit over the top and a bit surprising.   

This week's Challenge was:  

1.  If you were in New York City in the mid-1950s, how much would you expect to pay for a good meal of broiled liver pudding or boiled calf's head with brain sauce 
2. (Open ended)  WRT the place you live, can you find something that was commonplace to eat in the 1950s or 1960s, that is very rare now?  Or vice-versa (something common now that was rare back then)?  

The research question here is really "how can I find prices for such odd meals?"  

Off hand, I can only think of one place to find the costs of prepared meals in the 1950s, and that's to find a menu.  So my first query was: 

     [ menu 1950..1960 "broiled liver pudding" ] 

In this query, I'm searching for a menu that was created sometime in the range between 1950 and 1960 with the quoted phrase "broiled liver pudding" on it.  

As it turns out, that's a lucky guess, because one of the highest results is a link to the New York Public Library's collection of archival restaurant menus!   (I can't tell you how happy this makes me.  Someone actually took the time and effort to collect, scan, and curate this collection. It's a little window back into the culture of the time.  Their collection has menus going back to the New York Hotel's 1859 menu (when boiled tongue and stewed kidneys were popular).  

But in our case, the search brings us to several menus with "broiled liver pudding."  The first one I saw was the Restaurant Haussner's 1955 menu, which lists this delicacy for $1.50 (along with your choice of 2 vegetables).  

Menu from Restaurant Haussner, 1950.
Courtesy New York Public Library. Link

If you then search in the NYPL menu archive, it's pretty simple to find our second delicacy of the week:  calf's head with brain sauce.  It was in the Hazeltine's menu of 1914 at $0.25 per portion.   

Interestingly, although I could find broiled liver pudding on a menu in the 1950s, I wasn't able to find calf's head with brain sauce on menus in that time span.  

I went to the web site to see if I could find anything in the '50s.  By searching over their entire corpus between the years 1842 to 1970, you can see that there was a real plethora of this dish in the years 1924 - 1926.  

A search for "calf's head with brain sauce" run on with the results restricted to 1842 - 1970

If you look at the blue bar chart, you'll see that my cursor is hovering over the two-year period 1924-1926.  That number (22) next to the year span shows the number of articles published with this search string ("calf's head with brain sauce").  Here's one from the Manchester Guardian (UK) where the price is listed at 1/4.  (Which I learned from my British friends is... "1/4 was one shilling and four pence, in other words, 16 pence, hence 16/240 pounds...  this then comes out as 0.0666 pounds or 6.666 new pennies - as they were called in 1971 when we converted our currency to a decimal basis."  In other words,  6.666 pence.  I'll let you figure out if that was a fair price or not...)

Calf's head and Brain Sauce for sale in Manchester, UK at the Waldorf Restaurant. (
I found this recipe mentioned in the 1903 Buffalo Sunday Morning News, but not mentioned with a price.  Apparently, it had fallen out of favor sometime between the 1920s and the 1950s... at least in the US.  

But with the query: 

     [ calfs head brain sauce   ]  

without the quotes gives many more results, but with this query, you CAN find sautéed calf brains at theThe Blue Spruce Inn for $2.75 (1955) and "Calf's Head and Bacon, Brain Sauce" onboard the RMS Queen Elizabeth (1957).  

WRT our second Challenge ("can you find something that was commonplace to eat in the 1950s or 1960s, that is very rare now?  Or vice-versa (something common now that was rare back then)?"), I liked Jon's example query: 

     [ popular foods after 1950 ] 

which leads quickly to a very detailed outline of foods popular in each decade since 1900! In each section (salads, mains, desserts, popular foods, snack fare), a fairly complete list is given.  

For the 1950s, tuna casserole, three bean salad, and Chex Mix were all popular.  While you can still find them, these dishes are much more rare than they used to be.  

Of course, with the collection (or any collection of online newspapers) you can do similar searches and see what recipes were popular at the time.  

Or, on Google Books you could do a search like this: 

 And learn all about the wonders of meals and recipes in each of the decades you want to know.  

I for one, am happy with my edamame, nori, and quinoa; and I'm pleased to have left pigs in blankets and Jello salads (Thanks, Debra) back in the dim dark days of the 1960s. 

Search on! 


  1. Dan, this item was just dropped into my inbox. The Most Unusual Menus From Libraries Around the World - Gastro Obscura

  2. "What's "normal" [for music] changes with time. [too]"
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    "You can now listen to nearly all of his back catalog, for free, at least through June 30th, after which users can subscribe “at a very modest cost,” according to my welcome e-mail. The archive, Young says, was developed “to provide fans and music historians with unprecedented access to all of my music and to my entire archives in one convenient location,” and is available via the high-quality streaming streaming service he announced earlier this year."
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    NYA tutorial
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