Plant Museum's Menus explores how Tampa Bay ate back in the day

Victorian fine dining and its elaborate accoutrements drive the latest Henry B. Plant Museum exhibit.

click to enlarge A 1911 Tampa Bay Hotel Christmas menu, part of the Henry B. Plant Museum's Menus collection. - Henry B. Plant Museum
Henry B. Plant Museum
A 1911 Tampa Bay Hotel Christmas menu, part of the Henry B. Plant Museum's Menus collection.

Want a taste of how Tampa Bay ate back in the day? Pay a visit to the Henry B. Plant Museum tonight. Starting at 7 p.m. Friday, the museum at the University of Tampa opens its latest rotating exhibit, Menus: The Epicurean Experience, driven by Victorian-era fine dining and its elaborate accoutrements.

And they’re elaborate, all right.

Imagine using a big shaker to distribute powdered sugar onto your errr... raisin cake? Or a server coming at you with what’s called a “spaghetti server” with scary-looking teeth. Or the tunes of a live orchestra spilling down from the dining room balcony throughout a meal, because, you know, why not?

Alongside a variety of original, rare menus listing items like chowchow, minced chicken omelet and hodge-podge, Menus covers everything from etiquette and authentic cookware to fashion and specialized utensils, many of which are on loan from an anonymous private collector (and some of which, at first glance, could be mistaken for torture devices). (I’m looking at you, spaghetti server.) The exhibit’s kickoff begins with a free lecture by Lucullus owner Patrick Dunne, whose New Orleans shop specializes in culinary antiques.

“What we’re trying to do is sort of give you an idea of not just what the menus looked like, but the whole dining experience,” said museum relations coordinator Lindsay Huban. “You know, what are these crazy things that you would’ve been served with or using? And then we’re also having some sections on food preparation, where the food came from.”

As Huban explains during CLs sneak peek on Thursday afternoon, half of the new exhibit is dedicated to the components that make up front of house, and the other half examines back of house, including what the butler’s pantry might’ve looked like and recently acquired images the only ones the museum has ever found, we’re told taken inside the kitchens of the Tampa Bay Hotel, now home to the university and museum. The kitchens were located where UT’s science wing is today, while Fletcher Lounge is where the dining room used to be.

The months-long Menus, running through Dec. 23, examines the upscale culinary sophistication of the Tampa Bay Hotel and other Florida resorts — the Vinoy, Belleview Biltmore and Alcazar included — from 1891 to 1932. But there are some parallels to modern fine dining as well. Local restaurateurs, and even microbrewery owners, continue to stress the importance of the overall experience, for one. Dining out isn’t just about the food, as the exhibit highlights; it was a performance as much as a meal, when you consider the grand outfits, place settings and other ingredients that would’ve gone into each service.

“There was no expense spared when it came to any of this,” Huban said.

click to enlarge Some of the neat specialized serving utensils museumgoers will find at Menus. - Meaghan Habuda
Meaghan Habuda
Some of the neat specialized serving utensils museumgoers will find at Menus.

The exhibit also shows that farm-to-table isn’t a new development for the dining world; people have been eating this way for a long time. Museumgoers can check out old-timey photographs of farmers with their cattle, strawberries and huge heads of greens, among others.

“They tried to be as local as possible, so most of the produce and things came from here,” Huban said. “This part of Florida was the celery capital of the world.”

Curator Susan Carter added: “Even on the back side of the hotel, they had these garden areas. You can see papayas growing and different herbs and things. They just could’ve walked right out there and picked some things and gone back to the kitchen and added it to flavor the food.”

Although Menus was still a work in progress on our visit (audios are also planned for the one-room exhibit), my guess is that you could stop by more than once during its run and discover something you hadn’t noticed before.

I’m not gonna spoil all the little nuances — you’ll have to come and see them for yourself — but look for the Independence Day dinner menu from 1898 (during the Spanish-American War) with dishes named after dignitaries like “Roast Turkey, Shafter Sauce,” or the Barton & Guestier wine crate that’s original to the building — then try to find the bottle that was uncovered with it.

Menus: The Epicurean Experience

Henry B. Plant Museum, 401 W. Kennedy Blvd., Tampa. March 17, 7-9 p.m. Runs through Dec. 23. Free with admission. 813-254-1891.

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