Pratt Library's Ephemera Collection

Mike Cook

The Central Pratt Library is currently displaying vintage Baltimore menus that will make you cry when you compare them to the menus of your favorite restaurants of today. The Pratt Library's Ephemera Collection consists of boxes of old brochures, menus, and advertisements from Baltimore, and at the moment some of the best of their menus are on display in the second floor hallway. If you ask the Maryland Department staff, you can get access to the rest too.

No matter how often a modern restaurant uses the words "traditional" or "classic" on its menu, a glance at these vintage menus proves food has changed as much as fashion.  None of the restaurants whose menus are on display still exist. (Even the best of old restaurants close)

The Pratt does have a menu for Peerce's Plantation. The first things you'll notice are the prices. This is where the tears come in. The Grille at Peerce's has now taken over the restaurant biz at Peerce's plantation, and a stuffed olives appetizer costs $5.95 there. At the old Peerce's, celery and olives cost just 50 cents, and that's expensive compared to some of the other menus. At the Hotel Rennert, chicken a-la-king was just $1.50, and on another menu sandwiches ran from 30 cents to a budget-busting $0.75. Even fast food looks pricey next to that.

Not all the menus had dates on them, but whether the menus were from the 1920's or the 1950's, you'll notice is they all have dishes you don't often see on modern menus.  Haussner’s offered broiled lamb kidney with bacon, on toast, for $1.50, while Peerce's had fried jumbo frog legs for $2.00. More than one menu included the famous, now vanished Maryland delicacy; Diamondback terrapin.

None of the vintage menus had ahi tuna or salmon, which illustrates that no matter now sustainable a modern restaurant claims to be, most modern ingredients are shipped long distances. In the old days, people ate chopped chicken liver ($0.55 at the Falstaff Room) partially because that's what was readily available.  The modern, diverse menu gives the illusion that we're picking what we eat. In reality, whoever designs the menu is doing the picking, and they're picking over a lot of things people once ate all the time.

It would be nice to see modern menus borrow more from our heritage. This has already begun in small part with charcuterie plates, which are a trend deserving of its own article. The more interesting area restaurants will use adishes or turnip greens or other forgotten veggies, but the average modern restaurant sticks to the predictable chicken breast/potato/pasta/steak lineup that could easily be spiced up with references to our past. Buttered beets (one of many sides offered by Haussners in '52) sound delicious, and who wouldn't want to try some diamondback?

There are risks in reintroducing old dishes. Liver and bacon may never be the next food trend, but since now-ignored products like liver are often much cheaper, restaurants would be taking less of a risk than they would experimenting with ahi. Plus, with the explosion of tapas restaurants and bloating of appetizer menus, there's plenty of room for a small plate of liver and bacon on modern menus. Price it at 55 cents and it's sure to move.

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