100 years of culinary history displayed at the Maine Historical Society

Posted on March 03, 2014 in Arts & Culture
By Sam Hill

Randy Hazelton
A Chinese restaurant menu from Bangor Maine, circa 1920.
Randy Hazelton
A Chinese restaurant menu from Bangor Maine, circa 1920.

To celebrate Maine Restaurant Week, the Maine Historical Society Museum has put together a collection of culinary history. From Chop Suey to Washington Pie, Maine Menus features a collection of menus from 1882 to 1949, all with a special link to the state of Maine.The exhibit has been curated by MHS archivist Nancy Noble, who suggested the idea after archiving a whole collection of different menus over the years.

“Some of them existed in larger collections, and some of them came individually, and a lot of them have been donated over the years by friends of the Society,” said Noble.

Each piece has a story behind it and has been paired with relevant pictures.

“At first you think they’re just menus,” said Noble, “but the stories behind them are wonderful bits of history.”

“[Noble] does a great job of creating a story as she does her work,” said Elizabeth Nash the marketing and public relations manager of the Society. “Finding a story, too. Going, if we have these in our collections, what are the common themes and the links and piecing that information together for the public to get a little insight.”One of Noble’s favorite pieces is a menu from Boone’s Restaurant in Portland dating back to 1940. This satirical menu includes an appetizer of “Mother of Pearl-in-Law (Ground Seashells),” a Maine seafood special of “Young Whale Stuffed with New Buick”(for only $3,500.00), Steaks and Stuff such as “Pigs Knuckles a Thritis,” and a dessert of “Jellyfish with Whipped Cream.”

This is one of the few menus in the exhibit that still has a home today. Boone’s Restaurant, a longtime staple of the seafood market on the Portland waterfront, dating back to 1898, was recently reopened as “Boone’s Fish House & Oyster Room.”

Another piece with a local connection is an 1882 menu from Peaks Island House. This “Bill of Fare” features lobsters served in a variety of ways, including plain, pickled, scalloped, stewed, fancy dip, fried, and as a salad, along with an enormous list of pie flavors. Everything is priced between 5 cents and 25 cents, except for fish dinners, which are 75 cents.

“Each one is a snapshot of a different era,” said Noble.

The Peaks Island House, a small hotel, was replaced in 1904 by a four-story building,which burned down in 1934.

“I think these are interesting because they’re very ephemeral,” said Noble.”Some are from places that have been torn down, and some have become condos or been repurposed in one way or another.”

There will be an opening reception for the exhibit next Friday during the First Friday Art Walk. On Thursday, New England food historian and author Sandy Oliver will speak and present a food demonstration with a Maine theme. In the past few years, Noble has started contributing to the NHS blog as she catalogues.

“It gives me more of an awareness surrounding the work. Instead of just cataloguing, I can go hey, this is cool, I should share this with everyone”

“She does a great job of creating a story as she does her work. Finding a story, too. Going, if we have these in our collections, what are the common themes and the links and piecing that information together for the public get a little insight.Some of them existed in larger collections and some of them came individually. A lot of them have been donated over the years.