Historical Research – Details of Dining

Assume for a moment you’re an author, writing a historical novel based in 1890.  Your two main characters arrive at the Fifth Avenue Hotel for dinner and once seated order the… er… what do they order? One could choose to gloss over the menu entirely, of course, or use generic terms such as beef, fish, or chicken. There was no ‘Spa Cuisine’ or ‘Fusion’ dishes in 1890, but if the story isn’t about the food, does it really matter what the characters eat?  Well, to this author, it did.  In my mind, what people were eating in that era and what the food was called, was important to creating an authentic atmosphere. Unfortunately, unless one’s great-great grandmother tucked the actual hotel menu away in a scrapbook passed down through the generations, how is one to know what was on the menu? Fortunately, there is a project at the New York Public Library that has preserved many menus from a myriad of hotels and other venues. The website is called What’s on the Menu?, and not only has this project scanned in actual historical menus (from the 1850s on), but it is also in the process of transcribing the menus so they can be searchable. FthAveHotelmenu1897 The database isn’t perfect; it doesn’t contain every menu from every venue for every day of the year, for example. But for me, it became an invaluable resource. Should I wish to write a novel set in 1851 Boston, I will now know what the Bill of Fare at the Revere House was, including the wine list. I think that’s pretty darn cool.

~ S.G. Rogers


When American-born Wesley Parker inherits a dukedom in 1890, he must learn to be an aristocrat. Assigned to the task is his attorney’s daughter, prim Belle Oakhurst. As they travel to England together on a luxurious ocean liner, their tempestuous relationship encounters more than rough seas. Although Wesley is increasingly attracted to Belle, she is already engaged. While Belle begins to regret her hasty promise to marry, she is bound by honor and duty to keep her pledge. Furthermore, a thoughtless fabrication on her part threatens to expose her as a liar. Neither Wesley nor Belle can foresee that their voyage across the Atlantic will be fraught with peril, and will cost more than one man his life.


Because the dining room had just opened for dinner, the Parkers and Oakhursts had a table largely to themselves. Not including dessert, there were seven courses to choose from, with several different kinds of soup, fish, boiled dishes, cold dishes, entrées, roasts, and vegetables. Unused to so much abundant food, Wesley agonized over the menu. Finally, he ordered chowder, an entrée of beef filet with mushrooms, mashed potatoes, and baked tomatoes. He ate everything set in front of him and still had room for a serving of custard pie afterward.

Belle selected roast chicken for her entrée, along with sweet potatoes and stewed tomatoes. Mr. Oakhurst was delighted with his roast beef and potatoes, which looked so delicious that Wesley vowed to order it next time. A glance at Lady Frederic confirmed she was enjoying her lamb cutlets.

“You look somewhat restored, Mother,” he said. “When Miss Oakhurst and I came in after our walk, you seemed distracted.”

She breathed a happy sigh. “That’s putting it politely. When I saw all our new things, I began to feel overwhelmed. Truly, I’m not sure how I’ll manage the crossing by myself. I hope there will be a steward or stewardess on the ship whom I can call upon.”

“There are both, but you don’t have to manage alone, milady,” Mr. Oakhurst said. “I’ve contacted the Mrs. A.E. Johnson Employment Agency on your behalf. If you’d like to interview candidates for a lady’s maid, you can begin tomorrow after breakfast.”

Delighted, Wesley laughed. “My mother is to have her own maid?”

“The agency also has several highly qualified valets for your consideration, Your Grace,” Mr. Oakhurst said.

“A valet? Like Passepartout in Around the World in Eighty Days?” Wesley snorted. “That’s silly.”

“You must hire someone to attend to your wardrobe and personal needs,” Lady Frederic said.

“You’re not serious?” Wesley shook his head in dismay. “What if I don’t want a valet? I can dress myself, thank you very much!”

ornament29Duke of a Gilded Age is available in Kindle format HERE.

4 thoughts on “Historical Research – Details of Dining”

  1. Great post! I really appreciate the info since my next project will be about the American Civil War. It’s very interesting to research different aspects of food through history. My 1715 characters, for example, would never know what a sandwich was. The Earl of Sandwich hadn’t come up with it yet. lol


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