This Week in Block Island History: A late summer hotel menuFrom "Block Island," “Florida” and “California” to the National Hotel's French menu
This week in history 101 years ago, the demise of farming in New England was inadvertently spelled out in the National Hotel’s menu for late August, 1911, with the words: “FLORIDA ORANGES” and “CALIFORNIA PLUMS.” But this writing on the wall — or rather, under their noses — was probably little understood by summer diners.
With the development of refrigerated railroad cars, and the electrification of towns throughout the country, produce could be shipped ever more easily from distant farms — mammoth in size compared to New England’s family farms. And the ice box in everyone’s kitchen kept the food fresh.
It was the electric refrigerator, though, that changed everything. As Americans on the East Coast purchased more and more refrigerators, the farms in their own towns became more and more overgrown. On Block Island, after 1930, it was the bayberry bush that took over the landscape of rolling pastures.
In 1911, though, many of the vegetables on the tables of island hotels were still from local farms — in addition, of course, to varieties of fish from nearby waters.
A tourist booklet written in 1909 by Beatrice Ball, daughter of Ocean View Hotel owner C. C. Ball, touted the island’s farming and gardening virtuosity:
“Vegetables are somewhat later than on the mainland, but when they are ready for use are unrivaled anywhere. The common vegetables are raised in great abundance, and with the list may be mentioned, artichoke, strawberries, tomatoes, mushrooms, etc.
“The farms supply the hotels in summer with poultry, milk, eggs and fresh vegetables, and supply lamb and veal for the markets. In the fall, butter and cheese are added to the list, and around Thanksgiving time the demand for Block Island turkeys exceeds the supply.”
French Block Island fish?
Readers of that National Hotel menu 98 years ago needed a bit of French to get them by, or at the least, the ability to put on a stiff upper lip and disguise from their companions and the waitress their ignorance of the finer things in life.
The belle époque era was in full swing in the early 1900s, and as was de rigueur with writers and speech-makers of such earlier centuries, the status quo meant you sprinkled your words with Latin or French terms — appearing to have, even if you didn’t, a certain je ne sais quoi enlightenment.
In the late-1970s a few restaurants began that habit here, and a simple, good-tasting mushroom cheeseburger became an entire story on some menus, with adjectives and adverbs.
The Block Island owner of the National Hotel in 1911, Ray Lewis, succumbed to that fashion.
Food became cuisine.
Starting at the beginning of the menu, diced vegetable soup was Consommé Macedoiné, the National Hotel’s printer lacking the ability to place the “accent acute” over the last “e” in each of the two words.
Instead of “Mock Turtle” soup — bad enough to decipher for country folk, and meaning in my dictionary “soup made from calf’s head, veal, or other meat, and spiced to taste like green turtle soup” — the National added cognac, or “au cognac,” which if you imbibed enough would, verily, make a calf’s head look like a turtle.
Even the lowly bluefish, as common around the island as rounded stones on the beaches, was Frenchified, being cooked with small anchovy fish — “a l’anchovie.”
Apples became “Pommes Windsor.”
Amongst the main courses there was “Filet Mignon a la Richelieu.” Cardinal Richelieu, originally the powerful chief of government under King Louis XIII in the 1600s, became steak.
But no one dared mess with spaghetti, which remained true to its roots, “Italienne” — no doubt a bit more expensive at the National, though, due to that single, unnecessary word.
The National Hotel menu thus visited places all over the map: Bermuda, Florida, California, Spain, France and Connecticut — reminding guests, in the very last entry, why a stay at the National costs so much: Because the coffee, whose origin had nothing to do with Europe, was nevertheless “cafe noir demi-tasse,” served in such a small cup that for American thirsts to be quenched, you needed to buy two or three.