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Interview with food historian Paul Freedman

A study of turn-of-the-century hotel menus reveals that Americans really liked macaroni.

By Rebecca FedermanCooked Books / April 10, 2011

An illustration from 'FĂȘtes Gourmandes au Moyen Age' depicting a gourmet feast in the Middle Ages.

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Paul Freedman, a medieval history professor at Yale, has been not-so-secretly flirting with food history for a few years now. First there was the James Beard-nominated 'Food: A History of Taste' which he edited in 2007. Next came 'Out of the East' (2008), a fascinating and very readable history of the medieval spice trade.

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And now Freedman has focused his attention on American food history by fastidiously documenting every dish found on thousands of early and mid-19th century hotel menus to understand what people were eating when they ate out. Among the surprising results: lots of macaroni.

The fruits of his labor have been published in the March 2011 issues of both Gastronomica and the New England Quarterly, and Paul has generously agreed to answer some questions about his latest project for Cooked Books.

You teach medieval history and have for quite some time. What attracted you to 19th-century American dining habits?
There were a few steps. I wanted to write about spices in the Middle Ages and why they were so popular. That is what first interested me in the overall history of food. I became interested in other eras and in particular what sorts of food were prestigious and which lacked prestige. So in the Middle Ages spices were associated with noble status while root vegetables were for peasants; organ meats were prestigious in the 19th century, poor people's food for most of the 20th, and now fashionable and high status again. When I was at the New York Public Library's (NYPL) Cullman Center (2002-2003), I was working on the book I eventually published on spices, but the menu history exhibit organized by William Grimes fascinated me. I'd date my interest in New York and 19th-century history to that exhibit.

How did you go about finding menus to consult?
I began with the NYPL and its immense collection. Others who work on the history of food, many of whom I met while editing "Food: A History of Taste," told me about other libraries such as those at Cornell, NYU, the Culinary Institute of America or the New-York Historical Society. You, Rebecca, were very important to me both in helping me with the NYPL material and we visited the authoritative private collector of menus Henry Voigt in Delaware at the suggestion of Darra Goldstein of Gastrnomica. In the past couple years I've tried to find out about state and local historical societies, some of which have great menu collections.

Turtle Soup, Canvasback Duck, Mutton ... those are familiar 19th-century foods to many people. What dishes were you surprised to see well-represented on the menus you consulted?
Well some of these game birds (like canvasback ducks) I had barely heard of or never heard of. The most surprising common item is macaroni. In the menus I've examined (several thousand of them) this is the most common item among the category of "entrees" or "side dishes", a middle course that changes the most from day to day and that involves the most elaborate cooking techniques. There were a dozen or so varieties of macaroni, mostly boiled with sauce or boiled and baked, usually with cheese, but also sometimes with meat or meat gravy. This was not what we would call "comfort food" but rather considered elegant. Other surprises: so many stewed game items such as salmi of duck, or snipe, or goose but also of squirrel, venison and other meat items. A lot of calf's head with various French sauces. Hearty, you might say.