"Half a century ago Thanksgiving Day was an enjoyable feast on any big steamboat plying the Mississippi River. The meals served to passengers and crews were the finest money could buy. Besides turkey, there were all sorts of side dishes, a dozen different kinds of wine, mixed drinks sent to the tables from the steamer's own bars and the finest cigars. Society traveled by river fifty years ago. If there was a trip to make the head of the family usually waited his time so they would spend a whole or part of a day on some great steamer. They did this to get the one big meal--dinner and it was always served at the noon hour, often lasting until three o'clock."

[Ellis C. Mace, River Steamboats and Steamboat Men, a History from my Scrap Book (1944), p. 240]

Menu for a special dinner aboard the John W. Cannon in 1881. The Eads jetties at the mouth of the river, destination for this cruise of the Cannon, had been completed sixteen month earlier; they helped greatly to enhance the position of the port of New Orleans. As author John Barry notes in Rising Tide (1997):
In 1875, when [James Buchanan] Eads began work on the jetties, 6,857 tons of goods were shipped from St. Louis through New Orleans to Europe. In 1880, the year after he finished, 453,681 tons were shipped by that route. New Orleans rose from the ninth-largest port in the United States to the second-largest, trailing only New York. [p. 89]
Today, the port of New Orleans, along with its three upriver counterparts--the port of South Louisiana, the port of Plaquemine, and the port of Baton Rouge, comprise the largest port complex in the world.
[Louisiana Division Menu Collection]
Many recent writers have described steamboat dining as an even more lavish affair than Captain Mace's account suggests. John and Thomas Gandy, in their 1987 book of historic steamboat photographs, lists the following typical breakfast choices,
...broiled beefsteak or mutton chops, fried onions or codfish balls, calves' liver, stewed kidney with tomato eggs, corned-beef hash, jambalaya or veal cutlets, served with an assortment of breads such as muffins, Sally Lunn, rye toast, corn bread, French rolls, waffles or milk toast and with a choice of drinks such as green or black tea, chocolate, coffee or hot or cold milk.
Surviving steamboat menus such as the one shown here certainly testify to the accuracy of descriptions such as the above. Though not so readily documented, it is quite likely that the quality of on-board cuisine was linked closely with the quality of the dining experiences available on shore in New Orleans. Just as land-based jazz musicians took to the boats in the twentieth century it is easy to imagine cooks and waiters moving from steamboat cabins to restaurants in the city and back again.

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iw/we 5/1998