In 1996, Jo Foxworth and Jeanne Bauer published “The Bordello Cookbook,” a fascinating, if not titillating analysis of seven, late nineteenth and early-twentieth century American bordellos, and the food, menus and recipes that each offered to their high class clients. The women who owned these bordellos astutely recruited some of the best chefs available to create the haute cuisine of these unique social clubs of their times. Foxworth wrote the history and Bauer researched and adapted the historical recipes to modern times. As the book jacket says, these millionaire madams “were the nation’s first successful businesswomen, a gutsy band of entrepreneurial pioneers who had the wit to add wickedly delicious food and drink to the menu at their joie de vivre establishments.”
These “establishments” survived precisely because they catered to the social elite of the time. I should say the male social elite of course. This means all the top political figures, business tycoons, community leaders and intellectuals in its locale. It didn’t matter whether a person was interested in sex. The bordello was the place to go and be seen. Dining was sumptuous and expensive. And if the client wanted a little something extra, it could be discretely negotiated. Also discretely negotiated was the protection of the facility from both evil doers and overzealous members of local society or of the police. The pragmatists in the community realized that a valuable function(s) was being provided and moved to protect it. This usually allowed the bordello to grow and prosper for many years, but eventually the political tides would turn and the bordello would be swept away.
Foxworth has done an excellent job of researching the lives and adventures of the madams featured in this book and the behind the scenes details of bordello operations, especially the chefs and cuisine. I will summarize just one of the bordellos, the Everleigh Club of Chicago, which flourished from 1900 to 1911, averaging $10,000 a month.
Minna, 21, and Aida, 24, were sisters, who together endured bad marriages to two brothers for a year and then ran away. Their break came when their father died and left them $35,000. They were in Omaha at the time, and opened a bordello there that offered fine food and wine from the start. They quickly doubled the money in less than two years. Convinced that they were on to something, they took their money and moved to Chicago, one of the places to be in 1900. They launched the Everleigh Club, using the business formula that had succeeded so well in Omaha. They weren’t alone. Chicago has 500 such clubs at the time. From the start they aimed for the top, hiring only the best girls and staff, including chefs. They employed from 15 to 25 chefs, including at least one Cordon Bleu chef. The Everleigh Club rapidly became world famous the best way possible, by word of mouth. It even attracted foreign royalty. It also attracted the press. One of Minna’s rules was that “no member of the working press was ever to pay a dime for anything – food, booze or girls.” This was a very symbiotic ecosystem.
The Everleigh Club cuisine soon became a trendsetter and people sought out its recipes. Venison and all forms of game were offered. A late night supper was offered for $50. The girls ate well, often having their tab paid for by the gentleman. Another madam complained that every whore in America wanted to work at the Everleigh Club. These suppers were extremely lavish and on special occasions featured stuffed baked swan, just because it sounded exotic.
Minna and Aida dressed lavishly and circulated through the club each night graciously greeting and mixing with the visitors. Although neither Minna nor Aida ever provided sexual services themselves, they did offer very generous bribes to city officials. Never-the-less, in October 1911, they were given notice to close and after a grand farewell party, they closed the Everleigh Club and took a six month vacation in Europe.
Although I have been explaining the history as it is presented by Foxworth, I should mention that Bauer does provide 28 recipes in this one chapter of the book. Recipes cover the whole spectrum from appetizers to desserts and drinks. Main courses include venison, capon, crab Newburg, pheasant, oyster stew, roast pork, swordfish, duck hash and Peking beef strips. These recipes are scattered throughout the chapter and nicely integrated with the historical commentary.
On their return from Europe, the Everleigh sisters tried to open a new club, but quickly found that the bribes had doubled and still they had to put up with angry neighbors. So they retired. With $2 million in cash, a horde of jewelry and Aida’s gold piano, they moved to New York. They bought a brownstone on West 70th Street, changed their names and became part of high society, living out their years in comfort.
The other stories in this book are all interesting in their own right. Not all are examples of luxury, but each has its hook. If you like the mix of history, narrative and cookery, this is a must book for you.