Monday, June 9, 2014

From hominy to ham with champagne sauce

One defining factor of much early Florida life-writing is socioeconomic. Only wealthier and/or educated tourists and settlers had time and ability to leave behind records of their day-to-day life. And the hotels and other businesses that catered to them churned out promotional literature. So we often don't learn what regular folk had for dinner in pioneer households. But we know a lot about, say, the 11-course meals served at places like Ponce de Leon Hotel in St. Augustine and Tampa Bay Hotel in Tampa. The two were rival establishments that, for a time, represented the ultimate in elegance in late 1800s Florida. Some guests stayed for the season and considered the hotels their winter homes.

Plant Museum brochure and reprint of historical brochure
An interesting side note: Both majestic former hotels are now centerpieces of well-regarded colleges, Flagler College in St. Augustine, and University of Tampa on Florida's west coast. At Tampa, a portion of the historic hotel structure houses the Henry  B. Plant Museum, well worth the visit. In St. Augustine, Lightner Museum - another former hotel - is directly across the street from the college, and is also a must-see.

Credit: 2012 El Scribano, page 33
We can be fairly sure neither modern dining hall is offering the type of cuisine hotel guests expected back in the day. The 2012 issue of El Scribano, the St. Augustine Historical Society's journal of Florida history, has a really interesting article by society research library Chief Librarian Robert Nawrocki about kitchen operations at Ponce de Leon Hotel. Included is a detailed look at the 11 courses served for dinner on Jan. 31, 1893, the height of the winter season. I'm fascinated by the mix of mundane food and haute cuisine on the menu. Patrons could have hominy or stewed tomatoes with their Granadine of Lamb, a la Soubise. Everyday fruits (bananas, raisins) and nuts were rolled out after people feasted on macaroons and Baba au Rhum.

The scope of the menu surprises, and I wonder how people ate so much. Judging from old photos, obesity wasn't a problem back then. I've heard diners ate sparingly of each serving in order to survive multiple courses. Which makes me wonder what happened to the leftovers. Were the local hungry fed? Were servants allowed to take home the extra food? Was it composted? Fed to backyard animals? Official records, at least the ones I've run across, are silent on these details. The people who knew were too busy working to sit down and write about it.

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