Welcome to “Eating History,” a series in which Jaya Saxena of the New-York Historical Society mines the vast archives of the museum and library in search of vintage images and ephemera that offer a look into how New Yorkers used to dine. Follow the museum @NYHistory for more.
In 1878, the repercussions of the Civil War were still being felt, especially for women who lost husbands or fathers and found themselves unprepared to support themselves. To help these women get back on their feet, the New York Exchange for Woman’s Work was founded in 1878, selling things like scarves and mittens made by “impoverished gentlewomen.” And how did the Exchange pay its rent? Partly with a restaurant.
The New York Times wrote:
“The exchange made its name — and some of its fortune — with its restaurant, which opened in 1919. . . The restaurant sold bittersweet chocolate cake and home-baked crab cakes, codfish balls and wedding cakes. It became a place to eat well and inexpensively and to be seen. In 1934, after Prohibition ended, the exchange opened another famed spot, the Crinoline Bar, which served sidecars and Manhattans to women wearing gloves.”
The New-York Historical Society holds a menu and recipe collection from the Exchange’s restaurant that spans from 1934-1980, showing the changes in tastes over the years. The earliest menus feature Chicken Aspic with Mayonnaise for 60 cents, and roast oysters with coleslaw for 75. By the 1960s “whipped codfish balls” made an appearance, and the last menu offered Chicken a la King for $4.
In the 1970s, the IRS began to question the restaurant’s tax-exempt status, concluding that the restaurant itself did not serve the Exchange’s charitable mission and would need to become a for-profit establishment. The restaurant closed permanently in 1980, and the rest of the exchange closed in 2003 amid rising rents.
The recipe collection includes the restaurant’s own recipe book, as well as numerous scraps and personal recipes, many of which were likely served at benefit dinners or other private occasions. One recipe I found is for “Bloody Mary Soup.” It sounded like a warm Bloody Mary, or tomato soup with vodka in it—both of which seemed promising.
How did it never dawn on me that the flavor profile of a Bloody Mary makes for such a well-seasoned soup? Seriously, this may become by go-to basic tomato-soup recipe from now on. The vodka isn’t even enough to taste—it just adds a bite right after it boils off. Kudos to whoever figured this out. Also, how long until someone poaches an egg in this soup and calls it brunch? You can thank me later.