The Origin of the Menu.
When did the practice begin of providing menus to inform dinner guests of the dishes to be presented, thereby enabling them to make their choices in advance? Surviving medieval bills of fare were working documents used by the providores and cooks involved in the organization and preparation of grand feasts, they were not intended to help dinner guests with their choices.
We know that Samuel Pepys noted the provision of a bill of fare on the tables at a civic dinner in London in 1663:
1663, Oct. 29. Up, it being my Lord Mayor’s Day … At noon, I went forth, and by coach to Guild Hall; and meeting with Mr. Proby, (Sir R. Ford's son), and Lieutenant-colonel Baron, a City commander, we went up and down to see the tables; where under every salt there was a bill of fare, and at the end of the table the persons proper for the table. Many were the tables, but none in the Hall but the Mayor's and the Lords of the Privy Council that had napkins or knives, which was very strange.
There is a wonderful story of the legendary variety on this topic which is set more than a century before Pepys diary entry. It is a highly improbable story, given the known facts of meal service at the time, but is fun nonetheless, so justifies my including it here. The following version appeared in a regional Queensland newspaper (the Gympie Times and Mary River Mining Gazette) of 10 May 1913:-
“Duke Henry of Brunswick, who flourished nearly four hundred years ago, is credited with being the originator of the menu-card now in universal use.
At a banquet in 1541 the Duke was observed consulting a long slip of paper in the intervals between courses. One of his guests whose curiosity was aroused, ventured to ask his Grace what the paper was for.
He explained that it was a sort of programme or catalogue of the dishes he had commanded from the cook. ‘To the intent that if some delicacy which particularly appealed to his appetite, were marked for a later stage in the repast, he might be careful to reserve his appetite for it.”
I would be delighted if a scholar somewhere in the world with detailed knowledge of Henry, Duke of Brunswick-Lüneburg (1489-1568) would comment as to the man’s epicurean sensibilities, but I hope he would approve of the following recipes from one of the earliest cookbooks written by a woman: Das Kochbuch der Sabina Welserin (c. 1553.) I am grateful to Thomas Gloning for the online version in its original German, and to David Friedman for the English translation available on his site.
Wild game marinated in peppersauce
Boil fresh game in two parts water and one part wine, and when it is done, then cut it into pieces and lay it in a peppersauce. Let it simmer a while therein. Make [the sauce] so: Take rye bread, cut off the hard crust and cut the bread into pieces, as thick as a finger and as long as the loaf of bread is. Brown it over the fire, until it begins to blacken on both sides. Put it right away into cold water. Do not allow it to remain long therein. After that put it into a kettle, pour into it the broth in which the game was boiled, strain it through a cloth, finely chop onions and bacon, let it cook together, do not put too little in the peppersauce, season it well, let it simmer and put vinegar into it, then you have a good peppersauce.
To make an English tart
First take one third of a quart of cream, some three quarters of a pound of fat and a quarter pound of sugar, which must be allowed to cook with the milk and the fat. After that take six eggs, according to how [large] they are, and, also six egg yolks, beat two eggs with a small spoonful of flour and stir it until smooth, and when it is well-beaten, then beat into it all the eggs, put it all in a pan and let it simmer together until it becomes fairly thick, and watch out that it does not burn, and when it is cooked then salt it a little and pour in a little rose water on it while it is still warm, and let it bake.