On 17 February 1906, a group of Freemasons in Clontarf dined on oysters, then slurped on a choice of turtle or hare soup.
After that, they chomped through the fish course: turbot and lobster sauce or filleted sole. The “releve” course was boiled chicken and ham, and haunch of mutton with sloke.
That’s only about half of the courses served that day at the Masonic Lodge.
“Whereas libraries and archives tend to collect opera programmes and things like that, they don’t collect menus,” says Máirtín Mac Con Iomaire, senior lecturer in culinary arts, gastronomy and food studies at TU Dublin.
During his research, he found only two menus in the Gilbert Library in Pearse Street, for example. Yet, there were many programmes for “high art” such as theatre and opera.
“Now people are understanding these are important cultural objects and part of our social history,” he says.
The boiled chicken and ham on the Masonic menu doesn’t sound exciting, says Elaine Mahon, who studies food history and Irish culinary culture.
“But chicken would have been considered a luxury item because of the whole idea of the symbolism of the winged bird,” she says.
She’s referring to the “Great Chain of Being”, the medieval concept that every living thing existed in a hierarchy, and birds were higher up the ladder than four-legged animals and were, therefore, much posher to eat.
Mahon says menus can reveal all kinds of things, including the prestige of the diner and the relationship between guest and host.
For several years, librarian Yvonne Desmond – who manages TU Dublin’s research repository – has been compiling the archive of menus. It’s something she does on the side, when she has the time.
They’re trying to create digital records of fairly ephemeral things, she says. “Things that come and go. Menus are part of it.”
The collection includes recipes, oral histories, photographs, and other documents. “Over time, that kind of collection assumes great value. And what people are eating says a lot about society,” she says.
It’s a “hodgepodge collection” right now, says Desmond. There’s neither staff nor resources to devote much time to it, she says. “But I do feel it’s better to collect what we can.”
Students and lecturers find it handy for all kinds of research.
Some of the menus that Mac Con Iomaire found during his research are now in the archive, including an 1875 menu from the Friendly Brother House in Dublin.
Longtime chef William Toft, who is in his second year of the master’s degree in gastronomy, says he’s planning to research how the archive is populated, how people are using it, and how it might become more accessible.
There are inspiring collections elsewhere – at the New York Public Library for example, where the menu archive is searchable.
Sugar and Parmesan
What the Freemasons in Clontarf served at their “Installation Dinner” well over 100 years ago “is a really interesting menu for several reasons”, says Mahon, who recently finished her PhD in Irish diplomatic dining from 1922 to 1963.
There were a lot of expensive ingredients: oysters, sole, turbot, lobster sauce. “They tell us this was quite a luxurious meal,” she says.
One entree was sweetbreads with mushrooms. “Sweetbreads were quite a delicacy and entailed quite sophisticated butchery skills to access them,” she says.
They have to be cooked precisely, she says. “It’s like cooking calamari. If they’re cooked a fraction too long, they turn to rubber.”
As for the “entremets”, or the sweet course at the end of the menu, nougat of almonds would have required a lot of sugar, another luxury item, she says.
Also on the menu were parmesan biscuits, which shows “they had parmesan cheese 100 years ago”, something Mahon thinks might surprise people.
Dessert was “Pines, grapes, bananas”. Mahon says “pines” were probably pineapples.
“This was Ireland in 1906. We still don’t grow these items here. They’re imported and would have cost a lot of money,” she says. It all adds up to an important meal.
“The host is saying, not using words, but showing with this menu, the importance of the event and the importance of the guest of honour,” says Mahon.
Mahon sorted through thousands of government records in the National Archives to find details of diplomatic menus for her PhD.
“People used to think food was too common a daily occurrence to be worthy of research. But in the last 10 or 20 years, that has been turned on its head,” she says.
Mac Con Iomaire says the menus show that over the last 20 years, French haute cuisine has “lost its panache”. Now, there’s a focus on ingredients rather than complicated cooking methods.
Contemporary menus might also show another trend: how chefs are stressing the Irish origins of their cheeses, meats, and more.
“This championing of Irish food culture has been going on quietly for the last couple of years and is more to the forefront now,” says Mahon.