“Gastro psychologist, doctor of roasts” was the honorary title bestowed on House Restaurant proprietor Tom Murrey by the Washington Post in an 1894 article. The reason for this accolade was Murrey’s theory on the relationship between what a Member would eat at lunch and what legislative work he accomplished—or rather, didn’t accomplish—afterward.
In the 19th century, the proprietorship of the House Restaurant—now called the Members’ Dining Room—was appointed by the Speaker, and the position was an honor given to accomplished chefs and restaurateurs. Tom Murrey was in charge from 1892 until 1896, at the behest of Speaker Charles Crisp, and he was a man of not inconsiderable repute. Nicknamed “Terrapin Tom” for his signature recipe for terrapin stew, Murrey was also a prolific cookbook author. His titles included One Hundred Recipes for Preparing Eureka Salmon for the Table (1885), Cookery for Invalids (1887), Luncheon (1888), and Good Things from a Chafing Dish (1890). The ideas posited in the latter two books came to bear during his time with the House, and were refined into his theories on the relationship between diet and legislative action.
Murrey expressed his culinary theories in his earliest publication, Cookery for Invalids, which supplied recipes and general guidelines for housekeepers caring for the sick. The book includes considerable detail regarding the medical properties of many foods, and the absolute necessity of good nutrition, generally. Buttermilk, for example, is declared both “excellent for weak and delicate stomachs,” while also having the ability to “neutralize the effects of nicotine.” Its utility is compared to “the clearing out of a cook stove that has been clogged up with ashes that have been sifted through every crevice and crack.” Fruits of all kinds are cooling and therefore far more effective in reducing fevers than “the abominable doses of salts and oil usually given for fevers.”
The chef’s love of food-related theorizing did not stop with physical health, but soon expanded to mental health as well. In Luncheon (1888), Murrey states that “the utilization of the culinary odds and ends, which accumulate in the ice-box and pantry, deserve the highest consideration; for without this it would be impossible to please the palates of the men-folks, who, if fed on a continual diet of fresh meats which were but once cooked, would become unbearable. Their nerves would be shattered; and happiness, under such a condition of things, would be impossible.” Running the House Restaurant—with its luncheon-only service and numerous regulars—gave Tom Murrey an unprecedented research opportunity to observe this theory in action. Murrey promoted the idea in the press with great relish. His “library of diaries showing just what each Congressman ate on the day that he did any remarkable thing,” Murrey believed, “will be a guide to intelligent legislation.” The publication was intended to show “what dish led to a magnificent forensic outburst” as well as “what infernal compounds led to dam-fool legislation. Whoever dreams that a little thing like putting charlotte russe on top of pickled lambs’ tongues could produce an idiotic financial measure, or that progressive legislation that made the fame of its author followed close upon an artistic luncheon?”
Murrey was a popular individual, known as a “great talker,” and an enthusiastic fisherman, often organizing “piscatorial excursions to the upper waters of the Potomac” with Members of Congress. However, personality was no match for a party change, which came to pass in 1896, meaning a new Speaker was in charge of naming the proprietor of the Dining Room. After leaving the Capitol, Murrey returned to New York, running a boarding house and working as an agent for a brand of Scotch whiskey. After a bout of alleged poor health, Murrey committed suicide in 1900. With newspapers—“King of the Chafing Dish Dead”—the promised volume on the lunch-legislation connection was never completed.
Sources: Cookery for Invalids; Luncheon; Washington Post, March 19, 1894; San Francisco Chronicle, May 23, 1900Follow @USHouseHistory