Suit vests and mustaches are back in vogue, nerds on the internet are building steampunk mahogany and brass laptops, and those flickery Edison bulbs seem to be standard equipment in every new restaurant or bar in town. We’re apparently undergoing an invasion by time travelers from the early twentieth century, and really, I’m okay with it; Maude Adams outranks Audrina in my book any day.
Reviving Brass Age drink recipes reveals an exotic boozilogical landscape that flourished from the 1870s through the 1910s, continued under legal duress in the 1920s, sputtered on lamely after prohibition ended, then declined further out of sight in the decades that followed. But as tastes turned from home-cured hams, farmhouse chickens and crusty bread to plastic-packed slices, flavorless nuggets and Wonder Bread, the delicate concoctions of the past were similarly replaced by bottled sour mixes and factory-produced atrocities like Zima and Smirnoff Ice.
But it remains a shocking idea that any cultural artifact may have willfully been allowed to peak in the past, leaving modern counterparts as dilute renditions of their former selves. It’s downright counterintuitive - hasn’t the beating drum of progress continually made life better than it used to be? We’ve moved forward from squealing steamy radiators, soot-belching furnaces, and lead-based paint; how could it be that anything from the age of polio and the Titanic could have an edge over this clean-burning touchscreen world we now call home?
Luckily, with the help of neurotic bartenders, nostalgic distillers, and obsessive book publishers, we’re awakening from this ill-informed slumber, blowing the dust off some great forgotten cocktails, and rediscovering what our 100-year sleepwalk left behind. In my own efforts to cultivate a dialogue with this lost world, my research has led me to the broader culinary traditions of that era, beyond the glass and onto the plate. And accordingly, while on a typically arduous airline flight, I began to wonder - if the bargoing public of the time was accustomed to drinks like the Hot English Rum Flip and Philadelphia Fish-House Punch, then what passed for travel fare? We can’t have arrived at the current state of airplane food in any direction but downward; surely the predecessor was nicer.
Standards today are pretty dismal. Arrive just a little too late for your flight, missing the chance to grab something near-acceptable in the terminal, and you’ll be stuck all the way to Cleveland with no options but six-dollar tubes of Lays Stax and wraps that taste like their packaging.
But there’s comfort to this bougie, woe-is-me nightmare. In just a few hours, it’s over. The worst case used to be much worse. Back in the days when the rails were the only option for transcontinental schleppage, the hopes for food hung on the state of fare in the next town, and hungry travelers faced the fear of dealing with questionable sustenance for days on end. Thankfully, if you were en route in the 1890s, you needed only to look for Fred Harvey’s name on the top of a menu for assurance that the forthcoming meal would be prepared with respect. This eponymous owner of the Fred Harvey Company was a British American entrepreneur who began his career in the 1870s with restaurants for passengers of new rail routes throughout the Southwestern US. With his Harvey Houses, he brought hospitality to the wilderness, and set standards high, with hot food, reasonable prices, and attractive waitstaff. (Among the thousands of customers impressed by these operations was young New Mexico native Conrad Hilton, who expressly recalled Fred Harvey as noteworthy inspiration.)
The Santa Fe Railway management took notice, and when upgrading their service to include dining cars, entrusted Harvey to provide the food. Passengers could now dine as they traveled, no longer hurriedly slurping the last drop of soup before the train puffed away from the platform.
I dug into the interwebs to get a glimpse of what these steam-powered meals might have been like. Luckily, the Cline Library at Northern Arizona University has a fine online collection of old Fred Harvey Company menus from about 1902 until the 1960s. What I found was stunning.
The first eyebrow-raiser here, on a menu dating from October 1906, is the list of mineral waters. There are TEN of them, in various bottle sizes, from all over the United States and Europe. On a train.
Now, over a hundred years later, Donald Trump thinks he’s a culinary trailblazer for serving four kinds of bottled water in his hotel minibars, when punters in Ought-Six had more choice on the way to Kansas City.
What else did we find on this rolling Dean and Deluca? Well, it’ll take a few miles down the track to peruse the whole beverage menu and consider the seven kinds of beer, five champagnes, fourteen wines (six California and seven European, including several from Bordeaux), before we even start on the list of liqueurs, whiskey, sherry, and the requisite mustache-twirling selection of cigars and cigarettes.
The dishes on the food menu are equally otherworldly, not because the options are necessarily foreign to modern palates, but because they were served on a train, as the erstwhile predecessors to the crap we eat in Economy Plus today. Roast Squab au Cresson? Veal Kidneys en Brochette? I think I’m hallucinating.
Harvey Houses are mostly gone, with a few restored exceptions, and the railcar dining operations became irrelevant long before they were discontinued entirely in 1968, by which time the airlines had a death grip on the American passenger rail business.
It is my sincere hope that today’s menu writers, chefs and corporate foodservice planners, emboldened by the same spirit that has reanimated so many fascinating cocktails from the McKinley era, may begin to look back upon this relatively recent history of hospitality for their next inspirations. Admittedly, today is a different world, and the forces of food technology and profit margins light a clear path to mediocre grub, but isn't there some way to eat respectably between the points on our itineraries?
Pining nostalgically for this time I never experienced, I can’t help but think - if potatoes persillade and coddled eggs are the olden day answers to a bag of Sun Chips and an Otis Spunkmeyer muffin, then I’m ready to regress.