Let’s Read An Old Menu, featuring a Plane, a Train, and an Automobile!

Hello, everyone and welcome to Let’s Read An Old Menu! This is a somewhat irregular column in which I, your humble LibraryLass, look at restaurant, hotel, and lunch counter menus from the 19th and 20th centuries. Sometimes things will be familiar, sometimes they’ll be weird. But one thing you can count on is that they’ll almost always have cottage cheese on the menu, and they’ll almost never actually explain what’s in anything.

The title of this column is, of course, an allusion to John Hughes’s 1987 Steve Martin-John Candy twofer, a Thanksgiving classic I’ve never seen in full. While you await your turkey, why not appetize with me with the travel food of yesteryear?

Part 1: So What’s the Deal With Airline Food?

The first commercial airline meals were served by Handley Page Transport on their London-Paris route in October 1919. Believe it or not their fleet consisted at the time of decomissioned WWI bombers! The only available options were sandwiches and fruit. Western Air Express was the first US airline to offer meals, in the 1920s, and American had the first in-flight galley in 1936. This galley mostly consisted of dedicated storage space for large thermoses intended to serve food cooked on the ground at a hot temperature, which remained the state of the art for decades, especially after Pan American’s (culinarily– no lives were lost, fortunately) disastrous attempts at using a glycol heating system intended for serving fresh coffee to make food aboard the plane. Arrangements would be made with restaurants or hotel kitchens incities the airline serviced to prepare thermos-ready meals. Marriott got in on the ground floor of this, due largely to a fluke– American Airlines’s operations manager in the DC region liked to stay at the Marriott and happened to ask the manager of his usual hotel if he could assist. For longer flights or emergencies, a small supply of canned food was also often kept aboard airliners. Only with the development of the jet airliner, the convection oven, and the frozen ready meal in the 1950s did the galley expand. Which brings us to our first menu, from United Airlines on the San Francisco-Honolulu route, circa 1953.

For those of you playing at home, Pommes Brabant are diced potatoes parcooked and then pan-fried served with garlic butter, it’s a creole dish. Green Beans Fermiere I’m not familiar with and googling produced inconsistent results– if anyone has more explanation I’d be very interested. There are two things called Sauce Bercy– one is for fish and one is for roasts or steaks, this is probably the latter and is made with white wine, shallots, and demi-glace (the other is a veloute made with fish stock.) No clue what Peas Anna could be, that may be the chef’s own invention. Paul Masson vineyards are still around under the name The Mountain Winery and is primarily a music venue– if you’re old enough you may remember Orson Welles recording advertisements for them and the slogan “We Will Sell No Wine Before Its Time.” They are not very good.


I’ve talked previously about railroad food when we covered the Pennsylvania Railroad. This is the same “B&O railroad” you may remember from your Monopoly set, by the way. They spent most of the 20th century being passed around between different owners before being dissolved in 1987. A note on this menu dates it to May of 1957.

A 1957 Baltimore and Ohio Railroad menu. I wonder what flavor the pie is.

Not much here that stands out to comment, but get a load of what is almost certainly a perfectly ordinary hamburger being insistently referred to as a “grilled chopped steak sandwich.”

Part 3: Gotta Go Fast (In My Automobile)

Last up we’re covering another famous chain, in its very, very early days. Yes this is that Sonic, with the awful commercials and the pretty good slushies. The first was built in 1953 in Seminole, Oklahoma under the name “Top Hat Drive In.” By 1959, the chain had grown to four locations, all in Oklahoma, and the familiar name had been chosen after founder Troy N. Smith learned “Top Hat” had already been tradmarked. He also initially operated a fried chicken restaurant, Troy’s Pan Full of Chicken, but sold it to buy his business partner’s shares of the more profitable drive-in. This menu is from 1959, though I’m not sure which location. This scan was provided by Reddit user /u/AxlCobainVedder.

Sonic Drive-In menu, circa 1959.

It’s interesting, the core of Sonic’s menu is almost exactly the same today. You can’t get a Frito Pie today,, but you can get a chili cheese Frito wrap. Other than that the only things no longer on the menu are the No. 3 burger, the Bar-B-Q Beef sandwich, the Whopper (no relation, one presumes– this actually post-dates Burger King’s whopper by two years!), the pies, the pineapple sundae/shake, Pepsi, and hot cocoa.