What’s On the Menu?

Many years ago, the junk drawer was where you put your telephone books, menus, random ticket stubs, church bulletins, and other odd bits and pieces that you thought you might need. My grandparents had one that always fascinated and baffled me. Fast forward some 20 to 40 years later and your kids (or grandkids) are cleaning out your house and they toss all that stuff away because it’s yellowed and out-of-date. At first, it’s hard to do because the stuff is full of memories, but this is taking too long, and why on earth is there still a phone book from 1973 in the junk drawer? Or a menu from a restaurant that doesn’t exist anymore? Why would anyone keep that stuff?

So you chuck it in the trash because what’s the point?

Well, once upon a time those things mattered because most people didn’t move and the phone number they had in 1973 was still the same number they had in 1997. Or at least, until they got a cell phone. And those menus, well, memories.

Our Department at the Library collects those treasures, some of which I find exciting and important for various reasons, but mostly because they make me curious and then I get interested and start looking up stuff I NEVER would have had a reason to.

For instance, we have an old menu for El Fenix Café in Dallas, Texas. Now, it is a little worn and dirty looking, but it tells a story. Not all menus do, but this one does. We think it was produced sometime after 1951 for a couple of reasons:

First of all, look at those prices! What the heck is an Alligator Pear? And did I really want to know that? And I’d never heard of Virginia Dare wine and didn’t know that Virginia was the first English born child in the Americas.

The second clue was in the El Fenix history which said that Miguel Martinez retired after his four sons came back from World War II and in 1948 they opened up a new location in Oak Cliff. The location had both Spanish and Mexican influences:

metapth29638_xl_PF-C_282_02_02

The last clue, though was Mr. James J. Metcalfe’s poem on the back of the menu. And this is really the whole reason I started looking at the menu’s history in the first place. It’s not surprising to see a poem, but the fact that the poet’s signature was included meant something. The guy must have been famous, a “regular” who was probably fond of the owners and the restaurant. The El Fenix in Dallas, was, after all, a pretty happening place at one time.

metapth29638_xl_PF-C_282_02_04

But back to James Metcalf. He emigrated from Berlin to the United States in 1913 when he was just a boy and later graduated from Loyola University with a law degree. Well, law firms weren’t hiring at that time, but the Justice Bureau was, so he joined the FBI’s Chicago Bureau from 1931 to 1936. I know this because I called his son, Don Metcalfe, who also became a lawyer and later a judge. He said, “In 1933, all hell broke loose. James was one of the men who ambushed Dillinger (part of the Dillinger Squad) and was across the street when it happened. He even played a part in the apprehension of Baby Face Nelson. That’s Metcalfe below, third guy down on the left-hand side.

dillinger+squad

“We Were The G-Men,” by James J. Metcalfe –http://historicalgmen.squarespace.com/the-faces-of-the-dillinger-squ

Afterwards, he left the FBI and became a reporter for the Chicago Times. He and his brother, John C. Metcalfe, and another reporter, William Mueller, went undercover to infiltrate the German American Bund and investigate Nazi activity in America. The guy had moxie!

But what he really liked was to write poetry and so that’s what he did: he wrote poems and had a column called “Portraits” that became nationally syndicated in 1945, appearing daily in over 150 newspapers through the Chicago Sun-Times until his death in 1960. He and his family lived for a time in Dallas in a house, “that poems built.” And they ate Mexican food at El Fenix in Dallas, Texas starting in the 1940s. The poem, Don said, was written in 1951. He remembers because he was in high school then and they had a discussion about it which made an impression. James wrote the poem for Miguel Martinez, as a favor. And El Fenix kept the poem on their menu for 50 years.

If you click on any of these links, you’ll see what I mean about getting carried away with the history of it all.

~Leslie Couture, Special Collections

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3 thoughts on “What’s On the Menu?

  1. I immediately was hooked when you started writing about junk drawers but even more fascinating was the story about James Metcalf. Thanks for your curious mind and for writing about the curiosities you uncover. My mom who is 93 and lives in the house I grew up in has a junk drawer or two. Maybe I’ll take a look the next time I am there!

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