Food for Thought: Fast and Fine Dining in UCD Special Collections  

In a recent article for the Irish Times, Rosita Boland highlighted some of the menus for dinner dances and other special functions attended by her parents in the period 1960 – 1983. Although many of us have been to formal dinners (and know the well-rehearsed ‘beef or salmon’ jokes that crop up during wedding season) menu cards are a piece of ephemera that can be easily overlooked. This is particularly true in library and archival settings, where glitzier items more often demand a reader’s attention.

Menus however, as Boland so clearly showed her readers, are little time-capsules that can tell us as much about a place and a society as any other historical document. Food, after all, is a huge part of our day, whether that’s the routine breakfast you have every morning, or the gastronomic treat of a seven-course tasting menu. In UCD Special Collections, we have a small collection of menu cards that capture a wide variety of dining experiences. Some are dated, others are not. Some come from Dublin’s high-end restaurants and hotel dining rooms and others well…don’t.

At the less salubrious end of the scale is an undated, simply printed menu for ‘The Restaurant’, 86 Stephen’s Green, or the University College Dublin canteen when it was located in Newman House rather than Belfield. Priced in shillings and pence, the range of food isn’t that different to what can be found on campus today: carvery lunches, desserts, chocolate, and cakes, along with the student staple of chips!

UCD Special Collections, 35.N.8/17

Moving up ever so slightly up in the world, a menu for Iarnród Éireann’s ‘Intercity Opera Express’ provided passengers with options for both dinner and supper. For the former, diners could enjoy prawn cocktail, beef stroganoff and fruit salad, and the latter offering a lighter option of chowder and brown bread. A search in the Irish Times digital archive suggests that this is from 1989, when Iarnród Éireann ran a special service during the Wexford Opera, with price of a ticket (£59) covering a return ticket, dinner on the train, a ticket for the opera, and a ‘light refreshments’ on the return journey. [1]

UCD Special Collections, 69.B.11/62

A more formal set of menus can be found in the Constantine Curran/Helen Laird Collection. Constantine Curran was a lawyer and historian who was active in cultural circles throughout the twentieth century, and who was friendly with leading artists and writers, including Jack B. Yeats and James Joyce.

UCD Special Collections, 1.I.1/6a

Included in the collection is the menu for an Irish P.E.N dinner held for W.B Yeats’ seventieth birthday, at the Royal Hibernian Hotel, then on Dublin’s Dawson Street. The summer menu finished off with strawberry ice cream and coffee.

UCD Special Collections, 1.I.1/6a

In 1935, Curran was among the organizers for a dinner in honour of the artist, activist and curator Sarah Purser, who was turning ninety. Held at the Shelbourne, the dinner was hosted by the Friends of the National Collections of Ireland, of which Purser had been a founding member. The menu, with an illustration designed by Jack Butler Yeats and printed at the Cuala Press, was a French feast: most fitting for an artist who had trained in Paris.

UCD Special Collections, CUR L 387d

One of the more exciting sounding dishes on this menu is ‘Tournedos Rossini’, or steak pan-fried in butter and served with a crouton and a hot slice of pan-fried foie-gras. A letter from Thomas Bodkin, former director of the National Gallery of Ireland, offers further insight into the dinner as he wrote to Curran with a draft of the toast he was proposing to Purser. Sung to the tune of ‘Come in the Evening’, the final verse reads:

‘Because she has lavished on us a rich treasure
Of counsel, help, censure, hot cake and pure pleasure
At Mespil that pilgrimage shrine of our city
Where she welcomes the great with the wise and the witty,
While whose who are bidden there, every guest of them,
Thrill to behold her outshining the best of them,
We, her true followers, gratefully swear a
Deep and enduring devotion to Sarah.’

A final menu in the Curran collection is for a ‘Dinner to Jack B. Yeats’ held at the famous Jammet’s restaurant on 10 October 1951, marking the artist’s eightieth birthday. Smoked salmon and Galway oysters got the meal underway, but on this menu, it is the dessert that caught my attention as it is one of my personal favourites, Crêpe Suzette! The selection of wines for this meal also suggests that it was one to be roundly enjoyed by all attending.

While all these menus tell us something about the food that was available, and the tastes of the time they were made, those from the Curran/Laird Collection also mark the passage of time for a generation of public figures who came to prominence during the Irish Cultural Revival. They show us how coming together for food is an important marker of respect and friendship, of giving people their due in a convivial setting. That being said, we certainly won’t turn our noses up at a plate of chips on a cold campus day, and by the same token, we’ll happily enjoy a prawn cocktail on an intercity train!

This post was written by Katy Milligan, Library Assistant, UCD Special Collections

[1] ‘Wexford Opera’, Irish Times, 12 October 1989, 18.

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