Monday 21 May 2018

Does James Bond eat Jell-O? Historical menu collection provides food for thought

Can the James Bond novels be used as historical documents, a reliable source of information on people, places, and events? Almost certainly, given Ian Fleming’s journalistic background and his determination to get factual details right. Take the food represented in the novels as an example. I was recently alerted to the existence of ‘What’s on the Menu’, an online collection of historical menus, largely of American restaurants, hosted by the New York Public Library (NYPL). One can search by restaurant, meal or food type, and decade or year, and even download the entire dataset. Browsing through the vast collection, it’s clear that the meals Bond eats or considers during his American adventures accurately reflect what was served and consumed at the time.
Cover of 1958 menu from Voisin. Image: NYPL 'What's on the Menu' collection

For instance, in Diamonds are Forever (1956), we read that Bond has a meal of two vodka martinis, Oeufs Benedict and strawberries at Voisin’s in New York. One of the menus available in the NYPL collection is a lunchtime menu from Voisin’s (closed Mondays) dating to 1958. The menu doesn’t offer eggs Benedict as such, but it does list Oeuf Poch√© √† la Reine (priced at $2.50). Berries in season with cream (presumably including strawberries if available) are also listed and would have cost Bond $1.75. The menu doesn’t show drinks, but a martini from the Hotel Astor (where Bond stays in Diamonds are Forever) cost 90 cents. 

I’ve tended to think of Bond’s choice of camembert, which Bond orders on the train to Jacksonville in Live and Let Die (1954), as being somewhat incongruous. However, browsing through contemporary menus, it’s clear that the cheese was a standard option in American restaurants. Bond regards domestic camembert as ‘one of the most welcome surprises on American menus.’ It was a surprise to me too: from low-price diners to fancy restaurants, it seems that there aren’t many restaurants where it wasn’t available. 

Another curiosity for me is the fact that the only meals for which prices are given in the Bond books are chicken dinners. At Sugar Ray’s in New York in Live and Let Die, Bond notes that the special fried chicken dinner cost $3.75. In an eatery near his hotel in Saratoga Springs in Diamonds are Forever, Bond orders a chicken dinner for $2.80. Looking through the menus, the prices are pretty accurate, although Sugar Ray’s appears to be on the pricier side. Perhaps its special was something very special.  

For contemporary British readers, a chicken dinner would have conjured up images of roast chicken served with roast potatoes, stuffing and vegetables and smothered in gravy, and was what people could win at village fetes and association raffles. Something approaching an English-style roast dinner was of course available in America. A menu dated to 1958 from Chickland, a chicken restaurant based in Massachusetts, lists among its many items a ‘roast turkey dinner’, comprising turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, vegetables and gravy. But, as we know from Sugar Ray’s, a chicken dinner could also involve fried chicken. Chickland naturally also served several fried chicken specials, such as the ‘General Lee Special’, comprising southern fried chicken, French fired potatoes and, to follow, ice-cream and coffee, all for $2.50. The celebrated Knotts Berry Farm restaurant in California offered a fried chicken dinner with mashed potatoes and gravy, as well as a pudding and drink, for $2.25 in 1956 [menu not in the collection].
Cover of 1958 menu from Chickland restaurant. Image: NYPL 'What's on the Menu' collection

Interestingly, Bond declines another opportunity to have fried chicken. He rejects the chicken ‘French fried to a golden brown, served disjointed’, listed on the menu on the train to Jacksonville, as ‘eyewash’.

Puddings served with chicken dinners, incidentally, could include fruit pie, ice-cream, a hot biscuit or Jell-O. I wonder which one Bond had with his chicken dinner in Saratoga Springs. (My bet’s on ice-cream.)   

The NYPL’s ‘What’s on the Menu’ collection is a treasure trove of information on dining and food culture mainly in the US from the 19th century to the present day. For the Bond aficionado, the resource provides useful background and context to Bond’s American adventures. The collection isn’t comprehensive; so far, the collection does not include many restaurants and hotels that Bond frequents and even fewer menus from those establishments that date to the year of publication. However, there is more than enough information from contemporaneous menus to show that Bond’s food choices (probably based on Fleming’s own experiences) accurately reflect the cultural environment around him. Time to go back to the online resource for a second helping!

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