What else would Whitman eat?
The menu at the newly opened Walt-Whitman-themed restaurant The Runner in Clinton Hill is meant to be a modern take on dishes that were prepared in the original Bard of Brooklyn’s day. We talked to a food historian and pulled some vintage menus out of the Brooklyn Public Library archive to see what other foods Brooklynites were packing in way back when.
The Runner got it right when it went seafood-heavy on its menu, especially when it comes to shellfish. The harbors in and around New York were long a major source of food for Brooklynites, according to a New York food historian.
“The average person ate oysters at least once a week,” said Sarah Lohman, author of the blog Four Pounds Flour, which focuses on historic recipes.
Restaurants in the 1850s and later were heavily influenced by French cooking, which was seen as the height of culinary excellence, according to Lohman.
“French cuisine was the go-to back then,” she said.
She also pointed out that in Brooklyn homes it was common for families to raise pigs because they were cheap and easy to care for.
The menus we pulled from the library’s Brooklyn Collection definitely have that French flair, but they contain few mentions of pork, perhaps because borough residents at the time were getting enough bacon at home.
Stand-out menus include a pair from the still-operating Montauk Club on Eighth Avenue in Park Slope. The menus are for a “Subscription Dinner” in 1894, five years after the club first opened, and include Shinnecock oysters, from Long Island, a turtle soup, and a spring lamb with mint sauce, which are not so far off from the kind of fare Slopers can feast on at the recently opened Grand Central Oyster Bar Brooklyn on Fifth Avenue. Also on the menu is a meat less often seen today, though the animals that carry it appear in abundance — squab, or as it is more commonly known, pigeon.