Are you a little tired and frustrated by restaurant menus which require too much reading at the end of a long, too-much reading sort of day? I think of them as ‘three aperitif menus’ because of the time it takes to process the information in them sufficiently well to ensure that you end up with a dish that fits your mood. These are not menus which simply list the dishes available for the day. These are menus made up of exhaustive and exhausting descriptions of multiple procedures perpetrated on uber-fresh, reassuringly locally sourced (or alternatively, impressively difficult to find) ingredients which have been ethically, organically, and lovingly reared or grown, and then mindfully prepared, intricately but accurately seasoned, and meticulously plated by a dedicated band of kitchen hands, cooks and chefs whose sole purpose in life is to provide you with the single most unforgettable dining experience of your life. And did I forget the nutritional information? And that may only be the breakfast menu.
Nineteenth century diners had a related problem, according to the author of a book named The Art of Naming Dishes on Bills of Fare (New York, 1920.) Mr. L. Schumacher writes in his Preface:
This little work is written for the progressive element in the hotel and restaurant profession because of the fact that the menus and bills of fare are, to a great extent, neither intelligible to the server nor the served. Therefore, a method of naming dishes will be offered in the following pages, which I hope will be satisfactory to all concerned — proprietors, employees and guests. There is no doubt that this way of naming dishes is the only effective method of reforming and doing away with the medly that now generally exists. It must be understood that a plain and intelligible menu and bill of fare is exactly the same as an attractive advertisement and has the same value of silent salesmanship. The author is sure that the system, if carried out, will also avoid most of the food waste which now occurs, because it eliminates the sending back of dishes by guests and the spoiling of goods in stock. This, on account of the many patrons who order without knowledge of what the names of dishes represent and inversely there are many dishes which have names unintelligible to guests and therefore are not ordered. In particular table d'hote dinners would not have the immense waste, and many millions which are now lost could be saved.
Next to these advantages, there are others which should not be underestimated. Waiters, waitresses, etc., will be relieved of the study regarding names of dishes which, as at present, can never be studied to perfection because the medly is too great. The attendants will have to deal with only such names as are plain and intelligible to everybody. This will make them better waiters, and in a shorter time.
Most of the nineteenth century confusion, embarrassment, and misunderstanding was due to the universal practice of using the French language to name dishes on menus. But the principle of avoiding frustration by increasing simplicity is surely just as applicable to today’s problem, is it not? The author of the above book notes a number of advantages of having Intelligible Names on Bills of Fare. The following point should be of equal interest to the restaurateur:
Easily understood bills of fare have this advantage: that a guest can give an immediate order, and the waiter can forward dishes more quickly and thereby be at liberty to attend to other guests that are waiting. This will make it possible for the employees to take care of more customers at the same time, the guests will be better pleased, and the place will be recommended more because good and quick service are to a large extent the basis of a good reputation — a feature always sought by the progressive hotel and restaurant manager
I want to explore this book a little more this week, but for today will finish with a few of his words from the same chapter, which relate to the hazards of using names from the classical French repertoire:
Veal, Marengo is another one of the thousands of difficult names which appear on bills of fare. Some guests who have eaten the dish and who know what this name means will be satisfied with it, but others will undoubtedly ask what kind of a dish it is and what it is like. They want to have an explanation as to how the veal is prepared. The veal may be fried, boiled, or stewed, etc., but to the guest it is a riddle. Veal, Marengo is made of cubed veal, chopped onions, charlottes, herbs, etc., and the whole is stewed over a fire. This means that it is a kind of a stew, or better perhaps, a ragout. Therefore, Veal, Marengo is the proper name. The simple word ragout clears up the whole mystery surrounding the name Veal, Marengo, and every guest would be satisfied when reading it, as everybody understands the word ragout.
Today, these words throw up a whole lot more mystery to us. I, for one, have no idea what ‘charlottes’ means in this context. A ‘charlotte’ according to the Oxford English Dictionary is ‘a dish made of apple marmalade covered with crumbs of toasted bread; also, a similar dish made with fruit other than apple’ and a Charlotte Russe is ‘a dish composed of custard enclosed in a sort of sponge-cake.’ I also sincerely doubt that most folk today would know what a ragout is, so in re-writing his paragraph for a modern audience, we would use his alternative word of stew.
We have We have previously discussed the much misunderstood history of the famous, supposedly Napoleonic dish, Chicken Marengo, but a for the author’s comments on Veal Marengo, I have no idea what constitutes the authentic dish - but then I have no idea what authentic ever means in relation to any dish!
As the dish of the day, I give you the version of Veal Marengo included by Alessandro Filipini, in his book The Table: how to buy food, how to cook it, and how to serve it, published in 1895. Filipini was for a short time chef at the famous nineteenth century New York restaurant, Delmonico’s, so could be presumed to know the authentic recipe. It does not contain ‘charlottes.’
Veal Stew, Marengo.
Cut three pounds of lean veal into pieces, and reduce them in a stewpan with one gill of oil, a cut-up onion or two shallots, and two ounces of salt pork, also cut up. Toss them occasionally, and when well browned after ten minutes, strew in two tablespoonfuls of flour, stirring well again. Moisten with one quart of white broth (No. 99), and one gill of tomato sauce (No. 205); season with a good tablespoonful of salt and a teaspoonful of pepper, adding a crushed clove of garlic, and a bouquet (No. 254). Cook for forty minutes, and serve with six croutons (No. 133) around the dish, and a little chopped parsley sprinkled over it.