What’s on the Menu

A dig through the food archives reveals what people were eating a century ago

A number of years ago I was going through some old shoe boxes that my recently-deceased grandmother had stored away.

Among the other bits and pieces of recipes cards, photos, loose buttons, and other musty/minty smelling memorabilia was a menu card from a military Christmas dinner my great-grandfather had attended at the Quebec Armories in 1901. It looked like quite the feast with eight or nine courses including fish, fowl, dessert, and cheeses.

The most interesting menu item, however, was something I had never heard of: Snowbirds (snow buntings) on Toast.

There is scant mention of the dish online. I found one article in the Chicago Tribune (January 2 1888) discussing the hunting of snowbirds on State Street and the price hunters and restaurateurs could expect to get (wholesale to restaurants for 50 cents per dozen, cost to the diner: $1.50 per dozen). And there was another mention in the Franco-American Cookery Book of 1884. The small birds are typically wrapped in bacon, roasted in a hot oven on skewers, then served four apiece on toast with drippings.

With snowbirds all but completely disappearing from our culinary conscious, I set out to uncover what other morsels people might be sampling a century ago.

On Wednesday, October 27, 1926, at the Victoria Hotel quite the feast was offered up to the good burghers of Charlottetown. The Victoria Hotel (destroyed by fire in 1929) was the largest hotel in the city for many years and was located on the corner of Great George and Water Streets.

The Victoria Hotel, 1928

The Victoria Hotel, 1928

On that day the hotel was observing National Fish Day. The Department of Marine and Fisheries started the day to (as put by the next day’s Charlottetown Guardian) “educate the people of the Dominion on the value of fish as a food source.”

The dinner was a success according to the paper, serving many varieties of “the finny tribe” to 75 guests.

The menu was expansive:

Pickled beets and sardine canapes
Two soups: Boston clam chowder and a puree of green peas
Fish course: steamed salmon steak with lobster sauce
Entrees: Crab meat patties with Newburg sauce, corned beef and spinach, roast ribs of beef and shoulder of lamb, both in gravy
Relishes: tomato, Worcestershire sauce, anchovy sauce, assorted pickles
Vegetables: buttered carrots, creamed cauliflower, boiled and mashed potatoes
Sweets: English plum pudding with hard and vanilla sauce, apple pie, mince pie, raisin pie
Desserts: lemon jelly with whipped cream, crackers and cheese
Beverages: tea, coffee, buttermilk…

Unfortunately, the digitally archived document ends there so we may never know what the buttermilk beverage was. Maybe it was straight buttermilk. Notice the lack of alcoholic offerings on the menu. PEI, at the time, was under prohibition. You needed a prescription to get your hands on booze, as alcohol was banned on the Island from 1901 until July 6, 1948.

The lack of wine and beer was perhaps made up for by the abundant selection of sauces on the menu. I count seven sweet and savoury sauces on the list.

Next month find out what was on the menu at the Davies Hotel on April 9, 1901.

Rod Weatherbie


About Rod Weatherbie

Rod Weatherbie is a writer working in the hospitality industry. He spent a number of years in Toronto as a member of the financial press before returning to PEI. Rod has published one piece of short fiction, one book of poetry, and has had work published in Red Shift, the Antigonish Review, Mitre, and the Toronto Quarterly. He has also recently co-produced, co-directed, and acted in a stage production of old television shows.

He also likes writing about food. Go figure.

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