Boon Companion to Lager Beer – Overview
Before broaching the Dutch lunch, I’ll start with the “free lunch”, a topic that acquired cultural dimensions in the U.S. far beyond simply a matter of tavern history. The term itself entered the lexicon as metaphor to signal something ostensibly but not truly free.
Of course, the saloon’s free lunch came at a price, the need to buy beer. The late Madelon Powers, who chaired the department of history at the University of New Orleans, authored in 1998 the impressive Faces Along the Bar: Lore and Order in the Workingman’s Saloon, 1870-1921 (University of Chicago Press).
A chapter in the book running some 20 pages describes the origins, diversity and fate of the free lunch as a national social institution of the pre-Volstead era.
The book makes clear, as do other sources, that while cheese, rye and other breads, cold cuts, and salted fish often formed centrepiece of the free lunch, it could take many forms. Sometimes regional location influenced this, chili say in the Southwest, sometimes the ethnic origin of the proprietor.
An Italian-American barkeep might offer spaghetti. Therefore, such offerings cut across the pre-1920 constellations of foods that characterized drinking lager on the one hand, and ale and porter on the other.
This understood, my studies suggest that in general, roast beef, steak, mutton, Welsh Rabbit, the lobster, and the oyster were classic foods for ale and porter.
In contrast, cold cuts, sliced Swiss and spreadable German cheeses, smoked and pickled fish including sardines and herring, and cooked dishes typical of mitteleuropa (goulash, sausages, boiled beef) often accompanied lager.
I discussed earlier Virginia Elliott’s book Quiet Drinking issued in late 1933 as Prohibition was ending. It has a chapter on foods suitable for beer. The traditions of pre-1920 end as completely mingled, supplemented by ideas of the author, a modern touch in itself.
In part I think this derived simply from the passage of time, but also ale became less defined after 1933 – more akin to the cold, sparkling lager that almost effaced it by 1919, while porter remained marginal, as even before World War I.
Only a few people, e.g. at Keen’s Chop House in New York, recalled in the 1930s that a glass of old-fashioned ale was best suited to the mutton chop, as I chronicled earlier.
Returning to pre-1920, in the lager constellation of foods we must rank the “Dutch lunch” at or near the top for eminence. And this clearly had a German origin, as many sources suggest. The word Dutch has to be a corruption of deutsch, meaning German.
The dish first appears in the late 1800s, our earliest spotting is 1872, see in additional references appended below. From a canvass of many sources it appears the Dutch lunch was originally, and remained in some degree, an essentially German collation.
Cold cuts such as ham and salami, and wursts liver and other, formed the basis with cold cheeses sliced or spread, rye and pumpernickel breads, and salted or smoked fish.
While a truly Dutch meal, koffietafel, can be similar in construction, despite New York’s undoubted Dutch heritage numerous indices point to a German inspiration for the American Dutch lunch.
In time but still early on, foods deemed lager-friendly but not specifically German might appear in the Dutch lunch. Pickled tripe, say, chili, or spaghetti. The animating idea was a meal that could be assembled quickly and served informally. Despite the moniker lunch, a Dutch lunch might be served any time of the day.
It became a socializing staple in general American society, served at everything from whist games to college suppers, club events to the post-theatre. As noted, in its classic form, and persisting yet through the decades, a Teutonic stamp was evident – which meant beer.
This is made express in this 1890s menu, reproduced in a journal devoted to the ice and refrigeration trade (no ethnic context surrounds the event, in other words):
Beer is mentioned, lager was a safe bet. The Dutch lunch remained popular for post-theatre despite some food writers warning its digestibility posed risks when eating so late.
The Dutch lunch survived into the 1930s and beyond, I found instances into the 1970s and later, usually from fraternal organizations or other clubs, but the name at any rate was on its last legs.
As further indication beer was a subtext, a 1909 Missouri Valley Times article described (an evident) collegiate dinner where “coffee in steins” substituted for:
…the proverbial beverage which usually accompanies the ingredients of a Dutch lunch.
This was an interesting event, as after various games the “senior boys” entertained the “senior girls” at midnight with the dinner, an inversion from the usual social pattern at the time.
True, the boys didn’t have to cook really, but still. There must be something (laudable) about Missouri.
But who remembers the Dutch lunch today, in our cellphone age? Almost no one. Below are further sources that support and enlarge on the above. Peruse at your will.
So far, the earliest Dutch Lunch we found was in January 1872 at what seemed a tavern (“Peep o’ Day House”), advertised in Delaware’s Wilmington Daily Commercial. In December 1881 in Kentucky, a Greek letter society hosted a Dutch lunch.
The menu appeared in The Scroll of Phi Delta Theta. vol. 5, Part 2 – vol. 7 (November 1880 – June 1883). Evidently German-based, with “lager beer” served, only minor elements were American, e.g. chow-chow. The Wilmington notice does not disclose the offerings.
These subsequent references illustrate chronologically salient points in the arc of the Dutch lunch.
- High-end menu from Bismarck Restaurant, Chicago, in (1899) The American Pure Food Cook Book and Household Economist. Note the hot dishes served, mostly Austro-German, and translation of German terms into English. See at p. 426. The Bismarck was said to have popularized the Dutch lunch, but this version, in any case, was atypically luxe.
- 1899 description of Dutch lunch event in the journal The Process Photogram, mentioning “several kegs of beer” were consumed. See p. 126.
- 1904 article in periodical Table Talk picturing a table service for Dutch lunch, see p. 481. German steins are shown with suggestion to hold coffee but an extra-large stein in centre is filled hops! Text goes further than caption, stating beer or coffee can fill steins.
- 1906 article in Ithaca Daily News also describes Dutch lunch in German terms, e.g. schweizer kase, kakao, pretzels, kafflekuchen, zwiebach, gurken and Haringssealat.
- 1907 letter to editor of journal What to Eat argues Dutch lunch is German in origin and beer goes with the meal. The writer had relations in Holland. See p. 35.
- John Goins’ manual (1908, 1914) The American Waiter includes a list of suggested dishes of both German and non-German character, see at 209-210. Goins makes clear American hospitality has enlarged the original German dimensions of the meal.
- Americanized 1916 Sears Roebuck Dutch lunch menu reproduced in (2010) Consumers’ Imperium: The Global Production of American Domesticity, 1865-1920 by Kristin Hoganson. See p. 144
- In (1916) The American Jewish World, an advertisement in Minneapolis by a Jewish delicatessen advertises a Dutch lunch that includes kosher corned beef and wursts. Note two lager beer ads adjacent to delicatessen’s ad.
- 1917 issue of The Sun in New York advertises Bevo, a near-beer of Anheuser-Busch. Ad describes a further Americanized Dutch lunch, quite a pot pourri that incorporates lobster, spaghetti, sardines, swiss cheese, goulash, chile-con-carne, sausages, and more. Bevo of course would have tasted somewhat like the brewery’s classic lagers.
- 1936 ad by Simon Pure Brewing in Binghampton, NY, pictures a Dutch Lunch and touts Simon Pure Beer and Old Abbey Ale to go with it. First ad we found that actually mentions ale for a Dutch lunch, but it’s probably not the first.
- In 1960, Dutch lunch is described and pictured in California’s Santa Cruz Sentinel, described as “old-fashioned”.
- Italian-American bar Gus’ Place in Pueblo, Colorado still offers a Dutch lunch (2021), for which it is reputed. See details and restaurant sign at Trip Advisor. Dish features cold cuts and cheese. See detailed description in 1992 study Old Ties, New Attachments: Italian-American Folklife in The West, ed. by David Taylor and John Williams.
Part II concludes this look.
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