When Lauren Monroe first saw photographs of her great-great-grandfather Albert E. Dutrieuille and his family, elegantly dressed and posing around Philadelphia with an air of carefree sophistication, she did a double take.
“I remember looking at the photos and thinking, ‘Black people lived like this?'” Monroe told Billy Penn. “You grow up thinking the black experience is one way, but… These aren’t images you always see of black culture.”
You did see them in early 20th century Philadelphia. Throughout the early 1900s, the city was home to a flourishing African-American high society, in which Monroe’s ancestors figured prominently.
Dutrieuille, it turns out, was considered one of the last of the “great caterers of Philadelphia,” a cohort credited with kickstarting the modern American catering industry.
It’s a career he picked up from his father, P. Albert Dutrieuille — whom newspapers of the era called “world-famous” — and one he solidified by establishing dining standards for the Olde Philadelphia Club, which he helped found.
But fame in one era can turn quickly to anonymity in the next, and for the past several decades, Dutrieuille’s story remained mostly untold. It would take the death of Monroe’s father’s cousin last December to rustle the dust from the family legacy — via a trove of archives discovered in the family house at 40th and Spring Garden. The basement there had apparently served as HQ for the catering business, which operated from 1917 through 1967.
“They went down and everything was still there,” Monroe said, describing a room full of chafing dishes, pots and pans silverware and other artifacts. What she really wanted to know from her relatives who sorted through the stuff:
“Did you find any menus?”
Monroe, who works in communications in New York City, took the menus to Harlem chef Melba Wilson. Together, the women used them as inspiration for a Black History Month dinner at Melba’s designed to be both educational and delicious.
“If I, as a family member, didn’t know that blacks helped form the modern day catering industry — which is a huge industry these days — many others might also not know,” Monroe explained.
What’s being served? Wilson isn’t recreating one of Dutrieuille’s dinners exactly, but she’s pulling from some of the staples seen on the placards discovered in the Spring Garden house.
Over his half-century of cooking, Dutrieuille burnished his reputation for high-end fare, which he served at white-tablecloth banquets for elites both black and white, according to African-American Business Leaders: A Biographical Dictionary. He also reportedly had a special relationship with the Catholic Church, and catered many church-related affairs and celebrations.
One such event, held in November 1939 at St. Charles Borromeo’s Roman church in the current neighborhood of Point Breeze, featured no fewer than eight different courses.
Dutrieuille wowed his dinner guests with delicacies like exotic fresh fruits, sherbert palate cleansers, Parisienne-style potatoes, English rolled chops, crab-stuffed flounder, cheese plates, fresh lettuce and tomato salads, and “fancy ice creams” before the coffee service, with mints and salted nuts.
Guests at the Black History Month dinner in NYC should expect a riff on that style of food, per Monroe. “When I texted Melba these photos, she said ‘This is amazing!’ and immediately jumped on board.”
Though she’s thrilled to have this opportunity to spread the word of her family’s impressive culinary heritage, Monroe is sad the West Philadelphia home has been sold. “It was [my relative’s] wish to sell it, I’ve never even been there!” she explained. “I would go to Philly a couple times a year, and at no point did they say oh hey, let’s swing my this house that’s been in our family for 100 years.”
Since she’s been traveling back and forth to help donate materials to the Historical Society of Pennsylvania recently, she plans to try to connect with the new owners.
“I’ve been meaning to reach out…and see if they are aware of the deep history in that house,” Monroe said. “There’s so much there that’s relevant to our times.”