Ursula Kremer, Media Production Intern
*The views expressed in this blog post are solely those of the author and not of the Barker Mansion*
As someone interested in the more menial, day-to-day aspects of life for people in history, I was thrilled to find that tucked away in the Barker Mansion’s archives are seven menus handwritten by Mrs. Katherine Barker herself. I was interested in anything concerning the food itself and the process of preparation. Lo and behold, there were many things on the menus that stood out as extravagant, wealthy, and even bizarre by our modern-day standards. The titles of some dishes were even entirely unknown to me (granted, I am about the furthest possible thing from a food expert). Anyhow, my interest was piqued, and thus began my research journey into the foods eaten by the Barker family as based on the remaining menus.
Firstly, it is important to know the approximate dates of the menus. All of the menus that we have in the archives are, again, handwritten by Mrs. Katherine Barker. Knowing this, anywhere from 1893 to about 1910 would have been possible dates. However, my research in this way was made much easier by one of the Barker Mansion’s heritage interpreters, as he had already determined that all of the menus are likely dated from the 1890s. So, with a time frame identified, I could press forward.
Some of the most striking dishes (at least to a modern reader) are scattered throughout the menus, intercut by familiar courses such as cheese and crackers, of all things. It is known that the Barkers dined in “the Russian style”– at least for formal meals– of which the trademark is multiple smaller courses. One of the menus has eight courses written out for one meal and is followed by specified drinks. A variety of dishes served in the rounds of courses caught my eye, including: “fillet of Sheeps-Head,” “Capon Breast,” “Chicken Timball,” “Blue Points,” “Prairie- Chicken,” “Terrapin,” and “Peas in Aspic.” Additionally, the amount of oysters eaten amazed me. Oysters were included as the first course on nearly every menu. As a modern person living in Midwest America, it seemed to me that this family dined in near exorbitant fashion. However, my research was soon to prove me wrong.
(Menu, Barker Mansion Archives)
Before I dive into my discoveries, I would like to offer some quick clarifications and vocabulary concerning the menus. I apologize if, for those of you reading, this is a review, but I certainly had to look them up. “Sheeps-Head,” or sheepshead, is actually a fish now found along the western Atlantic, but at one time was common in the Great Lakes. Capon is a type of meat made from the breast of a fattened up, castrated rooster. “Timball,” which I presumed to mean timbale, is the name given to food that has been pressed into a mold or pastry shell. “Blue Points,” or bluepoints, are a type of oyster. Prairie chicken is, in fact, not a chicken, but is more similar to a grouse and is considered hunting fowl to this day. Terrapin is a type of turtle. Aspic is similar to gelatin, in that it is a jelly-like substance, commonly made from meat stock. Those are the terms that I found unfamiliar. So, once I felt more confident in understanding what the Barkers were eating, I could then pursue why the Barker’s ate what they did and the social impact and history of some of the dishes.
After reading the menus, I formed a hasty hypothesis immediately. As the Barkers were a wealthy family, wouldn’t meals with prominent or multiple guests be a key moment to display their wealth to their peers? Yes and no seems to be the correct answer. Surely, I thought, unusual and even lavish meats such as oysters, terrapin, capon, and prairie chicken would the best show of the Barker’s awareness of wealth and what was fashionable for the times. This theory was quickly undermined by my discoveries. I also noticed that there was a suspicious lack of red meats. No dishes involving ham or beef (aside from maybe stock) are included on the Barker’s remaining menus. I found this surprising, as the Barkers had a farm nearby that included livestock. Yet, it seemed that they didn’t partake of that readily available supply for meat. Again, my hypothesis centered around class, as I guessed that ham and beef were more common among the lower classes. This also turned out to be wrong. So, I was 0 for 2 on my theories, but it required a fair amount of research to realize that.
Luckily for me, the internet has been invented and hundreds of resources are available through it. I was able to track down multiple menus from a similar era, as well as a few cookbooks from the time providing background and societal conditions surrounding dishes in addition to the recipes themselves. My next step was to draw up a comparison between the dishes included in the Barkers’ menus and these other menus of the time. Would it prove that the classy Delmonico’s hotel of New York city didn’t serve any beef or ham to their upper-class patrons? What about the Bingham House hotel? I would soon find out.
The first topic that I tackled was the oysters. On the Barker menus, the oysters are listed as either the first or second course. Oysters proved to be a common starter. Then, as the comparisons continued, they seemed too common. The proper and fashionable upper-class dinner “…[commenced] with raw oysters” . At an elaborate Easter Sunday dinner at the Bingham House in 1899, blue points (a type of oyster) were served . These are just a few examples of the prevalence of oysters on the American table. Looking further, I gathered more information about the cultivation and industry of oysters. Popular in America since the beginning of America, oysters became so popular in the mid-19th century that whole restaurants were devoted to them. These were typically called “oyster houses” or “oyster saloons” . America seemed to have completely fallen in love with oysters, finding such muses as to even write articles about them and their recipes in dedicated cookbooks and newspaper articles. Eventually this love resulted in an over-harvesting of the New England oyster beds and so oysters were harder to come by starting around the 19th century . However, this drop in the availability had not occurred when Mrs. Barker was writing up the menus. They were in the midst of the oyster craze. So, as oysters were an expected first course for a proper household, and regularly made their way onto a majority of American tables in addition to dining cars, hotels, and clubs, oysters surprisingly did not seem to be a display of the Barkers’ wealth. My attention turned elsewhere.
I then focused on other meats rarely eaten in today’s world: prairie chicken and terrapin. Imagine my dismay at finding my theories again busted. The prairie chicken is not a commonly known bird species today, although it was once thriving in the grasslands of the uncultivated Midwest. Today the prairie chicken is at regular risk of endangerment, largely due to a loss of their grassland habitat over the centuries of America’s history. This shortage of prairie chickens was not felt in the mid-to-late-19th century, however. The plowing of the grasslands with the newly invented steel plow caused an increase in the prairie hen industry, as now the now homeless birds became vulnerable to hunters and populations were more congregated in the remaining ideal habitats. So, in the mid-1800s, “[more] than 600,000 prairie-chickens were bought by the city’s [Chicago’s] markets every year, at a price of $3.75 per dozen” . That is a little over $100 for a dozen in today’s money. Recipes of the time seem to accommodate the upper class, like the Barkers, through to those of somewhat simpler means . The Barkers served prairie chicken during an era when it was literally being brought into Midwestern cities by the trainload. Its popularity and the abundance of diverse recipes involving the prairie chicken lead me to conclude that this was not the fancy, elite dish that I was searching for. Terrapin seemed to be another notable meat. Yet again, I stood corrected, as terrapin and other turtles dishes could be found in an abundance of menus, in a range of costs . In fact, it seemed to be that turtle was a typically used meat and source of protein in the 19th century, leading to their endangerment in some cases and a drop in the availability of turtle meat in the more recent centuries . Foiled again in my quest to find evidence of the Barkers’ wealth in their meals, it was time to think outside of my modern box and make an interesting discovery.
So, what was the most noticeably expensive food on the menus? Mushrooms. This element of my research led me into an extensive study on the mushroom industry of the Gilded Age in America. I will go into further detail on my process and finds of researching on the next Barker Mansion podcast. It will go live this Friday, so be sure to check it out!
Another point on meat, or lack thereof, that could not be ignored was the absence of beef and pork from the menus. Granted, the Barker Mansion archive only retains seven menus from the era, so it could easily be the case that the family had such meat on days that we simply do not have documentation remaining. However, these menus include meals that suggest they are not the average family dinner. One menu elaborates on having 20 guests, at least eight courses, and specifications on what the maids should wear. It would seem that for dinners such as these, it would behoove the high-profile Barkers to put their best foot forward and impress their guests. Yet there is the lack of beef even here. I suppose I was stuck in a rut of sorts from my first hypothesis, as I figured that these red meats must be the meat of the lower classes, or at least not as prestigious and influential as seafood and fowl. This was quickly derailed once I looked at other menus from the time, as beef dishes were present at expensive, upper-class institutions and events. I am unable to argue with the numbers– steaks were commonly some of the most expensive items on each menu . This left me with a great puzzle. Where was the beef?
A few explanations arose from further research and discussion with the Barker Mansion heritage interpreters. The first was that it was simply a matter of taste. It is important to remember that it is a subjective, dynamic individual creating these documents that we now study. Perhaps, as Katherine Barker grew up in an upper-middle-class family on the East Coast, she simply brought her palate with her and wished to eat foods from her childhood (many of the dishes have connections to the East Coast). Or there is no specific trends to her tastes, she simply had the family eat what they liked and beef was unliked. It is hard to say. The other theory involved research into the family health. I noticed that many of the dishes, such as seafood, chicken, vegetables in gelatin, and croquettes, are all foods that are easy to eat. They require less chewing than a hearty steak. Mr. John H. Barker was considered older when he married Katherine Barker, and is known to have suffered from a variety of ailments that accompanied his “old age.” Mr. Barker passed away on December 3, 1910 at the age of 66 years from what was diagnosed as double pneumonia. According to Michigan City’s The Evening post article from the same day (found in the Barker Mansion archives), Mr. Barker had also been diagnosed with jaundice a year prior to his death. His symptoms as a result of the jaundice and any other illnesses that he may have had are unknown to me at this time– it would require much more research on my part. However, it is possible that this somewhat unusual menu could have resulted from his poor health and potential discomfort that he might have had, such as nausea or abdominal pain. With no evidence yet discovered by myself or the Barker Mansion staff, it is not possible to yet prove either of these theories. Both remain little mysteries at present, brought about by the research done by myself and observations made by myself and colleagues, and perhaps further research on it will soon follow.
After all of this research, it seemed I had only concluded what was not the case. The Barkers curiously did not have any beef or ham dishes included in their menus, but it is not totally clear why. Oysters, prairie chicken, and terrapin all were not extravagant meats used for impressing important guests. However, in addition to the presence of mushrooms, it seems that the Barkers had a few additional ways of validating their societal position. Occasionally, Mrs. Barker would write out extra specific dishes on the menus. These included items such as: German asparagus, California artichokes, fresh strawberries, fresh mushrooms, all of which are on the menu for the large party of 20 people. Perhaps Mrs. Barker did not show her class through eye-catching, over-the-top dishes, but instead getting the best ingredients for more modest dishes. The Barkers certainly did not opt for modesty concerning the expenses of their house, including the kitchen amenities. By having a large refrigerator which used ammonium to keep items cool, as well as a gas-powered warming oven to keep pastries and bread toasty, the Barkers were able to provide guests and themselves with regular dishes that may have been more inaccessible to the average American of the time. These included food items such as ice cream and jellies.
While the Barkers were certainly wealthy for their time and let it come through in their meals via their eating of mushrooms, cold dishes, and specific food items, it is also balanced with an element of unpretentiousness which I found surprising. My initial hypothesis of which dishes were used to show wealth and prosperity, especially dishes such as oysters and terrapin, was ultimately proven wrong through extensive research. The Barkers tended towards meals, especially meats, that were common for all classes of the time period. This entire project served as a valuable lesson for my first major research here at the Barker Mansion and truly helped me to get my foot in the door with the experience. It’s actually nice knowing that, even at the cost of my initial hypothesis, new and interesting information was found and I am grateful for the opportunity to share it.
Don’t forget to check my podcast coming out this Friday in which I will cover my extensive research and discoveries of mushrooms! See you then!
 Farmer, Fannie Merritt. The Boston Cooking-School Cook Book. Boston: Little, Brown, and Company, 1896. Courtesy of MSU Digital Libraries.
 Beahrs, Andrew. “The ‘Prairie Hens’ of Illinois.” Cornell University. Last modified July 15, 2008. https://www.allaboutbirds.org/the-prairie-hens-of-illinois/.
 Dwyer, Dialynn. “Raw or Fried?” Boston Globe Media Partners. July 21, 2017. https://www.boston.com/food/history/2017/07/21/raw-or-fried-theres-more-to-the-history-of-the-oyster-in-new-england-than-whats-on-the-menu.
 “What’s On the Menu?” New York Public Library Labs. http://menus.nypl.org/menus/decade/1890s.
 Winston, Sydnee C. “Extreme Dining in the Gilded Age.” The National Women’s History Museum. Last modified June 14, 2013. https://www.womenshistory.org/articles/extreme-dining-gilded-age.
 Zhou, Li. “The Foods Americans Once Loved to Eat.” Smithsonian.com. Last modified June 24, 2015. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/foods-americans-once-loved-eat-180955683/.
Ursula Kremer 7.9.19