It’s purely coincidental that my husband, a Havana-born chef, and I are poring through the Cuban menus in the historical menu collection at the New York Public Library’s Rare Books Division on the same day Fidel Castro tenders his resignation after a 49-year tenure as Cuba’s president. We learned about the historical menu collection months ago and accessing it has been on our to-do list ever since, but travel and work have kept us away from the impressive main branch of the library, which spans nearly an entire city block between 41st and 42nd Streets on Fifth Avenue, and whose back yard is the city oasis of Bryant Park.
On our way to the library, we stop at a newsstand and scan headlines. New York’s three major dailies—The Post, The Daily News, and The Times—have each granted Fidel front page status, but The Daily News, generally considered the city’s liberal rag, wins the prize for hyper-political editorializing: “No Más!: Fidel’s 50 years of bloody rule come to an end, but nothing will change for Cuba.” We buy copies of each paper, planning to preserve them so that the children we don’t yet have may one day own these collector’s items that really offer no true insight into their father’s homeland. It’s only by going to Cuba that they could even begin to understand the country that is such a powerful presence in their parents’ lives. Their parents, in fact, are still trying to understand it.
Papers tucked into my bag, we turn the corner and enter into the vast and soaring lobby of the library and then, to the third floor. Through the reading room—long, solid wooden tables worn smooth by years of hands resting between turning pages; walls bathed in sunlight filtered through high windows; bricks gleaming with polish—we walk arm in arm under the ceiling painted with a celestial theme and present ourselves at the door of Room 328, where we press our yellow readers’ cards to the glass and wait to be granted admittance. The whole affair is formal and sober: we must sign a registry, fill out forms for each of the 12 menus we have requested, and then wait while a piece of felt is laid across a table and the menus are brought to us in groups of two. There are rules about what we can and can not do: We can make notes; we can not bring bags or backpacks. We can use pencils; we can not use pens. We can request photocopies of the menus (starting at $40 each); we can not photograph them ourselves. I admit surprise that the librarians don’t use white gloves and that they don’t inspect our fingertips or direct us to a basin to wash our hands.
We have come here with few expectations. We know that the menus in the collection are more than 100 years old and that many document the meals served at state events; these are the only clues we’ve been able to glean from the brief descriptions noted in the library’s electronic records. The first two menus are placed gently on the felt: on the left, a cream-colored card embossed with Cuba’s coat of arms, in such extraordinary condition it could have been a record of yesterday’s meal; on the right, a heavy paper emblazoned with the image of a ship and a list of seven songs, among them, Dugame’s “The Girls of America,” printed on the back. The first is a 1911 menu documenting a luncheon given to the diplomatic corps by Sr. Jose Miguel Gomez, President of Cuba, in celebration of the anniversary of Cuban independence. Guests dined on filet of pargo (snapper), asparagus, and Russian biscuits—a combination that is questionable from a gourmand’s perspective and which seems to foreshadow the relationship between Cuba and Russia that became so important in the coming years.
We’ll learn, as more menus are laid out before us, that pargo and asparagus were apparently in abundant supply, making frequent appearances on menus for formal turn-of-the-century meals in Havana. The second menu is an equally curious snapshot of fin-de-siècle foreign relations and culinary trends. This 1908 “Bon Voyage Dinner in Honor of Mr. and Mrs. Francis Draz and Mr. Adolph Rothbarth of New York City,” hosted by one Eugene Sullivan of Chicago, was a United Nations of a meal. The menu, written in German and English, details that the dinner was held in “Havana Harbor,” adding the descriptors “Island of Cuba, Caribbean Sea” for the geographically challenged. The plates served to guests included calf’s tongue (kalbszungen), a Ragout of Fish au Grautin, Henry IV soup, and Nesselrode ice cream. Henry IV soup, we learn later, is a concoction that has apparently gone out of vogue everywhere. Also called Queen’s Pottage, it’s not hard to see why; the recipe is not for the faint of heart, whether of the chef or of the guest:
Get almonds, grind them and set them to boil with good bouillon, a bouquet of herbs, a bit of lemon pulp, and a little breadcrumb; then season them. Take care they don’t burn, stirring them frequently, and strain them. Then get your bread and simmer it in the best bouillon, that you make like this: after you have deboned some roasted partridges or capons take the bones and pound them well in a mortar. Then get some good bouillon, cook all of the bones with a few mushrooms, and strain everything. Simmer your bread in this bouillon and, as it is simmering, sprinkle it with said almond bouillon and meat stock, then add in a little finely chopped partridge flesh or capon, always in such a way that it keeps simmering. Add almond bouillon until it is full. Then get the fire shovel, heat it to red hot and pass it over the top. Garnish with cockscombs, pistachios, pomegranate seeds and meat
stock, then serve.
Nesselrode ice cream, by the way, was a chestnut confection named for a Russian diplomat who was also a patron of the culinary arts. An entire series of dishes were named for him, the chef’s version, I suppose, of doing homage to his sponsor.
As the other menus take their turn resting upon the felt—who knows how long it’s been since American eyes have seen these?—the hosts and guests of these 100 year old meals reveal themselves to be nearly as interesting as the popular but mysterious Roman punch that appeared on a handful of menus, and as exotic and storied as estomac de poussin rotis, Green turtle soup, and potatoes Palestine, which, by the way, are nothing more than sweet potato croquettes fried in the shape of a pear and served with a sprig of parsley.
And like the foods, few guests are native to Cuba. There is the Honorable Charles E. Magoon, the U.S. born provisional governor of Cuba, who hosted a 1907 dinner that best approximated the ingredients and flavors that characterize contemporary Cuban dishes. Pictures of Magoon show a man who appears never to have missed a meal despite the headaches he had as the temporary but terribly unpopular head of state. There was Sr. Aristedes Martinez, president of the Manhattan Chess Club and guest of honor at a meal that boasted the cleverest and most creative of the 12 menus. And then there was my favorite guest: the mischievous Elbert Rappleye, described on the menu’s cover as “An American correspondent who told the truth and was expelled from Cuba by the Spanish Government.” Rappleye was no stranger to the hard-won story, it seemed. An 1897 article in the New York Times, published a year and a half after Rappleye’s dinner of broiled salmon, roast squab, and the redundantly named “Lettuce Salad,” reported that Rappleye was brought before a Jersey City, New Jersey court on contempt charges for failing to surrender evidence he possessed in a bribery case against a former assistant prosecutor. Celebrated one day, vilified the next…in a hundred years, some things never change.
We signal the librarian to collect the menus and then we walk out into the crisp afternoon. It’s hard to come back to 2008—to frantic presidential campaigns and war and shallow analyses of foreign leaders– after hours spent in the dimly lit reading room among the ghosts of meals past. The menus are curiosities, but they are also artifacts of history. Around banquet tables at the Viejo Palacio Presidencial, the Hotel Nacional, and the Hotel Telegrafo, relationships were forged over carefully cooked meals served up with spirits one would be hard-pressed to find in Cuba today. Renegades, rebels, and rich expats—each took a turn at the head of the table as a distinguished guest. Our appetites have been whetted. We catch the subway and head home, where Francisco cooks a Cuban dinner worthy of being embossed onto the creamy cardstock of a menu. I inscribe the menu in a notebook, a record for the future. For now, it’s as close as we can get to Havana Harbor, Island of Cuba, Caribbean Sea.
New York Public Library Lion Photo: Francisco Collazo
Havana Harbor Photo: Brayan Collazo