Object of the Month

The Berkeley Hotel’s Menu Ledger and the Philadelphia Pepper Pot

Berkeley Hotel (Boston, Mass.) menus, 1903, pages 106-125 Manuscript volume

Berkeley Hotel (Boston, Mass.) menus, 1903, pages 106-125


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    [ This description is from the project: Object of the Month ]

    This plain, standard-issue ledger contains the daily menus of the Berkeley Hotel of Boston between February and July of 1903. The ledger was once in the possession of Anthony Mario Brunella (1882-1968), a head waiter at the Copley Plaza Hotel, although he was not the creator of the menus. An Italian immigrant, Brunella arrived in Boston in 1904.

    The Berkeley Hotel

    The Berkeley Hotel was built in 1870 on the corner of Berkeley and Boylston streets in Boston’s newly developed Back Bay neighborhood. Known as The Berkeley House, it was originally a “family hotel,” largely comprised of residential apartments. The exterior resembled the brownstone townhomes that lined Boylston between Arlington and Berkeley, with pediments and a parapet upon the roof. It was also centrally located to all that the Back Bay had to offer: the Public Garden, Art Square (Copley Square), the Institute of Fine Arts (Museum of Fine Arts), and the Boston and Providence Railway station (Back Bay Station) were all within walking distance. The Boston Society of Natural History (Museum of Science) and Massachusetts Institute of Technology were across the street.

    In 1900, the hotel purchased the brownstone next door and undertook a major renovation project to expand the capacity of the Berkeley. The Boston Home Journal reported on 5 May 1900 that the hotel would no longer operate as a family hotel. In the 3 November issue, the Journal included further details about the revamped hotel. A large European plan dining room, an American plan dining room, and a bake shop were added to the plans. The hotel would also have electricity throughout the building, which enabled it, among other things, to freeze drinking water in bottles. An advertisement in the same newspaper from 1901 touted the hotel as a “convenient lunching place for ladies” with a separate café for men and billiards available until midnight.

    Despite these renovations, the improved hotel was short-lived. On 3 April 1905, the Boston Globe reported that the Berkeley Trust, the hotel’s owners, planned to demolish the building and replace it with a new mercantile building that included retail stores on the ground floor and salesrooms above. The resulting Beaux-Arts style Berkeley Building, designed by Stephen Codman and Constant Desire Despradelle, still stands today, one of Boston’s most notable architectural gems.

    The Menu Ledger

    The Berkeley Hotel is not widely remembered today, but this menu ledger provides a glimpse into what was the hub of the hotel: the kitchen. On the left-hand pages of the ledger, there are the daily menus for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, while price points for the entrees are on the right-hand side. Different price points for the same entrée may reflect the distinction between the European plan, in which patrons are charged for meals in addition to their room, and the American plan, where meals are included in the cost of a patron’s stay.

    Breakfast typically included a “cake”—most likely a pancake—made with some type of flour or meal, generally wheat, buckwheat, rice, or cornmeal. In addition to the daily cake, there were seafood and meat offerings, the latter typically a sausage, stew, or hash. On Sundays the hotel deviated from this formula and served Boston baked beans with brown bread and codfish balls. Lunches featured stews and chowders with fish and meat options and were always served with rotating sides of various potato and green vegetable dishes. Dinner menus were similar, offering meat dishes like roast lamb, smoked beef tongue with spinach, Irish stew with dumplings, filet mignon, and potted pigeons Parisienne, possibly similar to this 1914 recipe for potted squab (a young pigeon) published by the Southern Pacific Railway. Desserts included strawberry tarts, eclairs, rice puddings, and an assortment of cakes, thanks to the onsite bake shop.

    The ledger seemingly captures a creative, and sometimes hurried, level of activity in the hotel kitchen. Menu items are crossed out, and additions or substitutions to daily menus appear as though they were quickly scribbled in with pencil as market availability forced changes to the day’s plan, or if an unexpected ingredient--like strawberries in February--were suddenly available. On a couple of pages, doodles of a merman and livestock are drawn in the margins, the act of, perhaps, a daydreaming chef. The restaurant’s dishes were mostly French or New England inspired, but there are dishes with Italian, Indian, and West African influences. This latter is seen most prominently in the hotel’s frequent offering of one particular soup called Philadelphia Pepper Pot, which was served at both lunch and dinner.

    Philadelphia Pepper Pot

    Pepper pot soup has its origins in West Africa. Enslaved people from that region brought pepper pot with them to the West Indies, where it was adapted to include salted meats, and from there the soup came to Philadelphia, which traded with the West Indies. The soup utilized the common formula of using what meats and vegetables were available and was adapted to suit local preferences. A recipe for “West Indies Pepper Pot” published in The New Art of Cookery (1792) uses beef brisket, veal, and mutton along with root vegetables, greens, and lobster, and instructs the cook to season it “very hot with Cayan pepper.” Over the years as the recipe continued to be adapted, tripe and veal were more frequently utilized. Beginning in the early 1800s, pepper pot was cooked and sold as street food by free black women, as seen in an 1811 painting by John Lewis Krimmel.

    The widespread fame of pepper pot soup lies in Revolutionary myth. Christopher Ludwick, baker general to George Washington and a German immigrant to Philadelphia, was long given credit for creating pepper pot for Washington’s hungry troops at Valley Forge during the winter of 1777. Celebrated as “the soup that won the war,” Philadelphia pepper pot was later sold as a canned soup by Campbell’s and immortalized by Andy Warhol in his Campbell’s soup series. Although Campbell’s discontinued their soup in 2010, pepper pot still has its own day on the calendar—December 29—due in large part to its Revolutionary War “origin story.”

    The soup was so much a part of Philadelphia’s culture that the city’s Clover Club served it for Thanksgiving in 1901. Around the same time, recipes for the soup were found in local papers across the United States, with nearly as many variations as there were home cooks. Sadly, the Berkeley Hotel’s recipe for their version of the soup is unknown, but its frequent appearance on the menu indicates that regardless of season or meal, Philadelphia Pepper Pot was a perennial favorite.


    By Stephanie Call, Curator of Manuscripts

    For Further Reading

    ABIGAIL (Massachusetts Historical Society's online library catalog) includes a bibliographic record for the Berkeley Hotel’s Menu Ledger.

    Early 20th century newspapers printed a variety of recipes for Pepper Pot Soup:

    The Topeka State Journal’s recipe noted that “the genuine Philadelphia pepper pot is made very hot and plenty of pepper corns are added which give it the name.”

    The Indianapolis Journal’s version added heavy cream and green peppers, but reduced the amount of peppercorns.

    The Pacific Commercial Advertiser’s version included dumplings made of biscuit dough.

    Biggs, Tracy. “Pepper Pot Soup: The soup that won the war” in the Minot Daily News, January 4, 2017.

    Boston Landmarks Commission. Berkeley Building, 1975.

    Colonial Williamsburg Historic Foodways. “Pepper Pot Soup,” October 28, 2002.

    Galper, Allan S. “Building Boston’s Back Bay: marriage of money and hygiene” in Historical Journal of Massachusetts, vol. 23, no. 1 (Winter 1995), p. 61-78.

    Hopkins, Tonya. “How to Make Pepper Pot Soup” in The Philadelphia Citizen, September 3, 2019.

    Map of Berkeley and Boylston Streets in Atlas of the city of Boston : Boston proper : from actual surveys and official plans. Philadelphia: G. W. Bromley, 1898.

    Sammarco, Anthony Mitchell. Back Bay Through Time. Arcadia Publishing, 2018.

    Taplin, Theresa Altieri. “Philadelphia Pepper Pot” in The Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia. Rutgers University, 2020.