Secret Library

Food for Thought: Menus That Made History

In this week’s Dispatches from The Secret Library, Dr Oliver Tearle enjoys Vincent Franklin and Alex Johnson’s delightful history of notable menus

When did Britain’s first Indian restaurant open? What could the first diners on the Orient Express in 1884 enjoy for dinner? What food was on offer on board the Titanic on its last fateful night in April 1912? What was the signature burger in the first ever McDonald’s restaurant? These questions, and many more, are answered in a wonderful – and wonderfully produced – new book by Vincent Franklin and Alex Johnson, Menus that Made History: Over 2000 years of menus from Ancient Egyptian food for the afterlife to Elvis Presley’s wedding breakfast. And the answers are frequently very surprising.

Let’s take one of those questions I just asked. When did the first Indian restaurant open in Britain? The 1970s? The 1960s? In fact, it was back in 1810, when Sake Dean Mahomed opened the Hindoostane Dinner and Hooka Smoking Club in Marylebone, London. The emphasis was on swanky nosh for well-heeled middle-class Brits, and Mahomed offered exotic, high-class food: lobster curry, coolmah of lamb or veal, and lamb pullaoo all featured on the menu. The food wasn’t cheap. The pineapple pullaoo, for instance, cost the equivalent of £122 in today’s money. Franklin and Johnson note that, in order to drum up a trade for his new enterprise, Mahomed took out advertisements in The Times, declaring that ‘such ladies and gentlemen as may be desirous of having India Dinners dressed and sent to their own houses will be punctually attended to …’ As Franklin and Johnson observe, this makes Mahomed’s business not only the first Indian restaurant in Britain, but its first Indian takeaway, too. Unfortunately, the restaurant failed after two years, whereupon Mahomed moved to Brighton, later becoming ‘shampooing surgeon’ to two monarchs, George IV and William IV.

As is well-known, chicken tikka masala and chicken balti are both British dishes, created in Glasgow and Birmingham respectively. But in their entry on fish and chips, Franklin and Johnson point out that fish and chips, that quintessentially British dish, was actually a result of foreign immigrants introducing new cooking methods and foods to these shores. Fried fish in flour or batter was introduced by Jewish refugees from Portugal and Spain, while it was French and Belgian Huguenots who brought us fried potatoes, or ‘frites’, which became the chips so many of us enjoy when holidaying by the seaside. And as our authors go on to note, ‘what led to the duo becoming a legend was the Industrial Revolution’: fish and chips was the perfect meal to cater for a cohort of shift workers with nobody to cook them a meal at home when they left the mills and factories where they worked.

To return to those deliberately provocative quiz questions I opened this review with: the first McDonald’s opened in 1943, and its signature hamburger was not the Big Mac – that, and Ronald McDonald, and the golden arches, were all still some years away – but the Aristocratic Hamburger. You could also buy peanut butter and jelly with French fries, as well as ham and baked beans. It was only after they’d been running what was essentially a barbecue joint that the McDonald brothers realised that hamburgers were their biggest money-spinner. They were then bought out by Ray Kroc, who was the one who turned McDonald’s into a global brand. The evolution of the McDonald’s menu since then is itself a curious story: one reason the famous Filet-O-Fish burger was developed was to appeal to Catholic customers during Lent and on Fridays.

Menus that Made History: Over 2000 years of menus from Ancient Egyptian food for the afterlife to Elvis Presley’s wedding breakfast contains many such eye-opening (and mouth-watering) entries, on everything from the first Thanksgiving dinner (in September, rather than November, 1621, and with duck, venison, or even swan a more likely centrepiece than the now ubiquitous turkey), to the Christmas Day feast during the Siege of Paris in 1870, to King Midas’s funeral from c. 700 BC. There’s also an interesting section on menus and meals from art and literature, including a banquet from the Asterix comic strip and what Ratty had on his picnics in The Wind in the Willows.

The word ‘menu’ is etymologically related to the Latin minutus, describing something small or reduced in size. What Vincent Franklin and Alex Johnson have done here is to offer a miniature history of gastronomy through illustrative and historic menus, taking these fascinating examples as various ‘ways in’ to the history of fine dining, fast food, takeaways, and much else. But as well as touching upon the gastronomic we also take in space travel, rail travel, air travel, multiculturalism, and a host of other things. If you know someone who enjoys their food, and likes a good book – and let’s face it, who doesn’t? – this book would make a great Christmas gift. It’s a beautiful product (with plenty of pictures alongside the informative research) but style hasn’t triumphed at the expense of substance. Franklin and Johnson have really done their homework; all that’s left to do is to feast delightfully upon what’s been served up.

Oliver Tearle is the author of The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History, available now from Michael O’Mara Books.

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