This post is published in conjunction with the New York Public Library’s What’s On The Menu? crowdsourcing project, which will digitize over 10,000 menus from the library’s collection to create a searchable database. Here’s how you can start transcribing.
You won’t find mention of it in the annals of war, but in the late nineteenth century, a battle broke out on two of the highest peaks of the Catskill Mountains. While no shots were fired, the war began as many have, over oil. Boiling oil, to be exact. The skirmish was called, according to some sources, The Fried Chicken War.
But this food fight didn’t take place in the mess halls of a camp, nor did it involve any colonels or sailors. Rather, the combatants were two middle-aged, well-to-do civilians: George Harding, a patent attorney from Philadelphia, and Charles Beach, the owner of the Catskill Mountain House, a massive and glorious mountain resort firmly placed on the edge of Pine Orchard, NY, overlooking the Hudson River.
Almost immediately after it opened in 1823, the Mountain House attracted wealthy East Coasters who sought refuge from urban heat and disease by taking in the fresh air and pure water of the Catskill Mountains. Nineteenth-century society ascended to the Mountain House for a few weeks a year, and artists from the Hudson River School used the Mountain House as both a backdrop and muse.
George Harding was a Mountain House regular. He summered there as a bachelor and later as a husband and a father. It was said that he and Beach, who had been proprietor of the Mountain House since 1839, were friendly and that Harding was a valuable member of the resort community.
In the summer of 1880, like many before, Harding and his family were relaxing at the Mountain House. But that year, according to one version of the tale, Harding’s wife and his daughter Emily were suffering from illness and unable to eat red meat due to a restricted diet. Harding asked the waiter if fried chicken could be substituted for the beef that was on the menu, but was told that the resort allowed no substitutions. The lawyer sought appeal from Beach but was further rebuffed, allegedly adding that if Mr. Harding so desired fried chicken, perhaps he should open his own hotel.
Harding took Beach’s suggestion literally. After a few set backs caused by inclement weather, massive winds, and clumsy construction, the Hotel Kaaterskill opened in 1881, just one year after the two men declared war. Harding’s desire to fry the Mountain House’s chicken, so to speak, was successful: roughly a mile away from the Mountain House, with 900 rooms, 50 with their own bathrooms, Hotel Kaaterskill was called the largest mountain hotel in the world.
Fortunately, the New York Public Library’s menu collection includes a Hotel Kaaterskill bill of fare from September, 1881—just a few months after their opening day—but guess what’s not on the menu?
This is not to say that the war between Harding and Beach didn’t happen. In fact, it’s a well-documented tale, although with differing versions. Recent histories prefer the taste of fried chicken in the story, while contemporary New York Times articles cover at least two other variations: one indicates that Hotel Kaaterskill stemmed from a dispute between Beach and Harding over vegetables; Harding requested hot, Beach served cold. The other—Harding’s New York Times obituary from November 19, 1902 in which the Kaaterskill is called the “spite hotel”—does mention chicken, but the culprit is broiled.
The obituary suggests that Harding’s greater frustration lay with the Mountain House’s adherence to the American Plan of dining with a set menu and set hours, rather than a European Plan where diners have the option to dine on what they want, when they want: “‘Well, then,’ said Mr. Harding, according to the story as generally related in the Catskills, ‘I will build a hotel where I can get chicken when I want it.’”
Image: The original Hotel Kaaterskill, 1881.
Author photo by Beowulf Sheehan, courtesy of NYPL.