19th Century NYC Dining: 10 Fascinating Facts from William Grimes’ Appetite City


To go with your tureen of turtle soup, a glass of Madeira was the near-universal choice.

In 2009 former Times restaurant critic William Grimes published Appetite City, a book so crammed with details about the history of New York dining that you’ll find yourself returning to extract delicious little factoids long after you’ve finished reading it. Here are 10 recent gleanings about 19th-century NYC dining.

1. Many 19th-century New Yorkers lived in boardinghouses, which could hold anywhere from one to 80 residents, and often fed even more. Prior to 1850, according to Grimes, some of these boardinghouses served only vegetarian fare, in addition to those that exclusively provided German or French food. [page 18]

2. Boardinghouse operators were so cheap, they often cut coffee with burned bread crusts to save money. [page 17]

3. In the early 1800s, vendors sold hot gingerbread, tea rusks, oysters, apple pie, ice cream, hot ears of corn, beans in syrup, and clams from street carts. One of the cries for clams went:

Here’s clams, here’s clams, here’s clams today,
They late came from Rockaway.
They’re good to roast, they’re good to fry,
They’re good to make a clam pot pie.
Here they go.

[page 19]

4. Also in the early 19th century, customers were often expected to eat standing up and in tumultuous circumstances in the coffeehouses and cafés of the time. Lunch rarely took more than 20 minutes. Hmmm, sounds like fast-food places today. [page 62]

5. The most common dish in late-19th-century Chinatown was chop suey — though a far cry from the one we know today. Then, it was “chicken livers and gizzards stir fried over a fire of hay and hickory wood, with mushrooms, bamboo shoots, pig tripe, and bean sprouts,” three of the last four ingredients undoubtedly canned. Actually, it doesn’t sound too bad. [page 131] 6. How things stay the same! Grimes reports that the most celebrated restaurant of its age, Delmonico’s, staged a preview dinner for the press, and “there is no more enthusiastic salesman that a well-fed journalist who has had his champagne glass filled several times, and on this occasion the press was very well fed.” [page 56]

7. Reported Putnam’s Monthly in 1853: “It may be said that nearly half the people in New-York dine out every day in the week but Sunday.” [page 64]

8. On the preeminence of turtle soup as a dish associated with the city, Grimes says, “Although turtle soup has vanished from the American table, it reigned as one of the premier national delicacies from the colonial period into the early years of the twentieth century, usually accompanied by a glass of its equally forgotten companion, Madeira.” [page 79]

9. Mysteriously, in 1890, black street vendors appeared in the streets of Gotham selling chicken tamales wrapped in corn husks. These were carried in a small warming oven suspended by a shoulder strap. They caught on immediately; it was one of the city’s first food fads. [page 83]

10. Manhattan’s Chinatown had six restaurants in 1885. [page 86]

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