For a lifelong Chicagoan and food enthusiast, it’s a genuine tingle to hold an actual menu from Briggs House, a Chicago hotel restaurant, dated January 1, 1859.  Looking at the yellowing bill of fare opens a window onto the eating habits of an era.

It turns out that the Chicago History Museum has archived several hundred such menus, from as far back as the middle of the 19th century, when you could go out to eat and tuck into dishes like loin of bear, quail pie, and snipe. But, needless to say, the menus aren’t aging well. To raise money to digitize this slowly deteriorating bit of culinary history, the museum’s hosting an event entitled “Endangered Treasures” in the restored dining room at Roosevelt University, in what was once Louis Sullivan’s Auditorium Hotel, this Friday. Presenters include Bruce Kraig, emeritus professor in history and humanities at Roosevelt, and Rick Bayless,  who’ll talk about developments in Chicago’s culinary history.

According to Kraig, there were no freestanding restaurants in Chicago until the late 19th century. Many of the earliest menus at the CHM are from eating establishments located within hotels. Kraig explains that these early menus “follow a 17th-century French model, going back to La Varenne, starting with something like oysters or terrapin soup, then moving on to fish, meat and dessert.”  You can see the French influence in Briggs House dishes such as Westphalia Hams with Champagne Jelly Parisienne Style and Bread of Goose Fat Liver a la Richelieu (a dish our current foie gras ban would outlaw).

Many European wines were also on offer, including French bottles from the great vineyards like Chateau Margaux and St. Emilion.  Kraig explains that this Euro-style of eating was popularized in the States at New York places like Delmonico’s, and the French cooking tradition–and French-trained chefs–spread from the Big Apple to Chicago, along with .

As the old menus make clear, early Chicago dining establishments looked to France for guidance, but the Chicago dining experience has been modified by successive waves of immigration from countries like Germany, Italy, and Poland.  As Bayless explains, “One of the reasons I chose to open a regional Mexican restaurant in Chicago is because of the ethnic diversity of this town, and how this diversity has affected the availability of foodstuffs as well as the respect of Chicagoans for other cultures.”

There aren’t any menus from Mexican restaurants at the museum, but Bayless did discover that, in the years before Topolobampo and Frontera, small mom and pop taquerias were offering the kind of authentic Mexican cuisine that isn’t common even in cities such as Los Angeles. “Our city’s food scene has changed a lot in the last 20 years,” he says, “and we’re going to see many big changes in the next 40 years.”

Selected items from classic Chicago menus will be served at the reception following Friday’s talk. Here’s a partial list:

·        Terrapin Soup (Palmer House Hotel)

·        Oyster Patties (Foster House)

·        Planked White Fish (Rector’s Oyster House)

·        Venison Pies (Briggs Hotel)

·        Frog’s Legs (Congress Hotel)

·        Curry of Young Lamb with Rice Pilaf (The Pump Room)

·        Boneless Turkey Wings (The Auditorium Hotel)

·        Rumaki (Trader Vic’s)

·        Hoppel-Poppel (Red Star Inn)

·        Turkey Pot Pies (Toffanetti’s at Greyhound Terminal)

“Endangered Treasures” starts at 6 PM on April 13, at 430 S. Michigan. E-mail to get tickets; they’re $100, but hey, you’ll get to meet Kraig and Bayless, and there’s the big dinner, and it’s at least partially tax-deductible.