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Festive Baltimore Dinner, Circa 1900

"It had the strange peculiarity of being wholly devoid of vegetables: every item on the bill save the salad was protein, and even the salad had slices of ham in it. It began with Chesapeake Bay oysters, proceeded to Chesapeake Bay terrapin, went on to Chesapeake Bay wild ducks, and then petered out in lettuce salad with Smithfield ham, and harlequin ice-cream. Sometimes a thin soup was served between the oysters and the terrapin, but often not. The oysters were not the rachitic dwarfs now seen on dinner tables, but fat, yellow eunichoid monsters at least six inches long; indeed, they were frequently nearer ten than six. A stranger to the Maryland cuisine, confronting such an oyster for the first time, usually got into a panic, but his host always bucked him up to trying it on his esophagus, and when he did so it commonly went down without choking him, for an oyster is a very pliant and yielding animal, and is also well lubricated. To cut up one, in Maryland, as an indecency to be matched only by frying soft crabs in batter or putting cream into terrapin stew. The last two crimes against humanity obtain in New York, Philadelphia and Washington, but not in Baltimore. Soft crabs are always fried (or broiled) there in the altogether, with maybe a small jock-strap of bacon added, and nothing goes with terrapin save butter, seasoning and a jigger or two of sherry. Today a Marylander will give humble thanks to God for any kind of wild duck he can shoot, trap, beg, bootleg, or steal, but in the Golden Age he offered his guests only the breasts of canvasbacks. Along with the orthodox dinner that I have outlined went an equally rigid programme of drinks. If cocktails were served before going to the table they had to be Manhattans, for no Baltimorean of condition ever drank gin ... With the terrapin came sherry, or maybe Madeira, and with the duck, champagne, or maybe Burgundy. The rest of the dinner was washed down with champagne only, and the more of it the better."

In a Baltimore hotel, the dinner would run you ten bucks, drinks included (with the exception of the pre-dinner Manhattans). A lot of money for those days. People would try to get the maximum bang for their bucks by guzzling as much champagne as they could.

Quotation from H.L. Mencken, Newspaper Days



September 2019



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