Restaurant-ing with Soviet humorists

littlegoldenamericaJPG1937coverNot that they found American restaurants especially funny.

Au contraire. On their car trip across the continent in 1935/1936 writers Ilya Ilf and Eugene Petrov, billed as “Soviet Mark Twains,” observed what they regarded a nation of joyless folks who ate tasteless food in restaurants designed for speed and efficiency. As they put it, “The process of eating was just as superbly rationalized as the production of automobiles or of typewriters.”

The acme of rationalization in their opinion was the Automat where a wall of metal and glass boxes filled with sandwiches and pie separated customers from staff. They preferred the Childs restaurant chain with table service. “At Childs one receives the same clean handsome food as in a cafeteria or an automat. Only there one is not deprived of the small satisfaction of looking at a menu, saying, ‘H’m,’ asking the waitress whether the veal is good, and receiving the answer: ‘Yes, sir!’”

littlegoldenAmerica1936AutomatBereniceAbbott

They did not visit luxury restaurants, preferring commonplace eateries where average Americans ate, such as cafeterias, drug store lunch counters, and roadside “dine & dance” halls. They also went to a football game, an Indian reservation, and other quintessentially American sites and events that they described in a book published in the Soviet Union, and then translated for Americans as Little Golden America (Farrar & Rinehart, 1937).

In Chapter 4 (Appetite Departs While Eating) they asked, “How does it happen that the richest country in the world, a country of grain growers and cattle raisers, of gold and remarkable industry, a country which has sufficient resources to create a paradise, cannot give the people tasty bread, fresh meat, real butter, and ripe tomatoes?” Not surprisingly, as dedicated socialists they located the cause of the problem in capitalism which reaped higher profits in shipping frozen beef and unripened California tomatoes cross country than in local food production.

By contrast, they cited Soviet Commissar of Food Anastos Mikoyan who was at that time spearheading a Stalinist reform campaign of joyous eating and champagne for everyone to replace the habitual diet of cabbage soup and mush. Mikoyan’s office produced a landmark cookbook with color photos of cosmopolitan meals (The Book of Tasty and Healthy Food, 1939). Sitting in an American cafeteria in 1935, Ilf and Petrov felt that a Mikoyan speech that declared food in a socialist country must bring joy to its eaters “sounded like poetry to us.” But the truth was that Soviet leaders, Mikoyan included, were admirers of the U.S. rationalized system of production, including its food.

During their American travels Ilf and Petrov learned to drink tomato juice – well-peppered to their taste — as an appetizer, but could not adjust to eating melon before dinner, despite its “place of honor among American hors d’oeuvres.”

LittleGoldenAmericaBartellDrugStoreSeattle1936

They frequently made fun of drugstore meals that were numbered #1, #2, etc., and whose prices were based solely on quantity. “If in Dinner #2 a course called ‘country sausage’ consists of three chopped off sausages, then in Dinner #4 there will be six chopped off sausages, but the taste will be exactly the same.” When they ate at Bernstein’s fish restaurant in San Francisco, they were happy that the dinner there made up for that day’s drugstore lunch #3.

Seriously, why did they keep eating in drug stores, especially in a city of restaurants such as San Francisco? They could have tried Chinese food, or gone to a tea room or any number of places.

littlegoldenAmericaTopsy'sRoost

In my opinion they hit bottom when they visited a palace of fun outside San Francisco known as Topsy’s Roost, a “dine and dance” joint whose corny racist theme was based on shacks, pickaninnies, and fried chicken. Were their Soviet readers envious when they read, “For fifty cents [a man of moderate means] gets a portion of chicken, and, having eaten it, dances until he is on the verge of collapsing. After he is tired of dancing, he and his girl . . . ride down a polished wooden chute placed in the hall especially for entertainment-seeking chicken eaters.”

The book was said to be popular in Russia. I’d love to know what readers thought about America after reading it.

© Jan Whitaker, 2015

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Heroism at lunch

greensbororecordfeb21960

Actually there was no lunch. But there was plenty of heroism when four college students sat at a Greensboro NC lunch counter in February 1960.

The students were told to go to the segregated snack bar in the back of the Woolworth 5 & 10 cent store, but they refused. And although the Woolworth staff would not serve them, the students also refused to leave until closing time and pledged to come back every day until they won the right to eat there.

greensborojosephmcneilIt was an honor to hear one of the organizers of the protest a few days ago at the 9th Annual Northeast Regional Fair Housing and Civil Rights conference in Springfield MA. Joseph McNeil told a room of 500 attendees how much had hung in the balance for him at the time. A first-year student at the North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University, he feared that he could end up in jail and disastrously interrupt his college career. (Fortunately, his fears were not realized and he went on to graduate and eventually to become a major general in the U.S. Air Force.)

In the Q & A after his talk, a woman in the audience asked what his mother had thought about his decision to hold a sit-in at the lunch counter. He said she had been uneasy about it but had to agree that it was the right thing to do based on the values she and his father had taught him.

The Greensboro protest grew as students from area schools joined with the initial four, then more student protests erupted at Woolworth stores around the South. In July 1960 Woolworth reversed its policy which had been to let local managers decide whether or not to serve Black customers based on local customs.

McNeil described how the sit-down protests served as “a down payment on our manhood and womanhood” for him and his fellow students, both men and women. The action, he said, was driven by their belief in the “dignity of men” and “the moral order of the universe.”

How odd it is to read the following letter to the editor of the Greensboro Record published a few days after the 1960 sit-in began. Writer Ruby Coble’s reference to the protestors’ “lack of race pride and personal pride” is totally baffling today. However it represents a long-held idea of the majority of white Americans in the 19th and much of the 20th centuries, that restaurants should only serve well-mannered people and that any Black people who demanded service in a white restaurant were clearly not well-mannered because they were barging in where they were not wanted.

greensboroRecordFeb51960

Coble was right about one thing though. It was indeed much later than she thought.

McNeil received repeated standing ovations from conference goers last week. Everyone laughed when he said that he had always wanted to order coffee and apple pie at a Woolworth lunch counter but when he did, “The apple pie wasn’t very good.”

© Jan Whitaker, 2015

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Caper sauce at Taylor’s

FannyFernWhen journalist Fanny Fern took up her pen, readers knew wicked pronouncements would flow. Her fans loved it. Of course she also had many detractors who disapproved of her bold opinions and her feminism.

For twenty years starting in 1851 Fanny Fern wrote about her favorite subjects, “Men, Women, and Things.” Her essays appeared in newspapers and were later collected in books. The first collection, Fern Leaves from Fanny’s Portfolio (1853), sold 80,000 copies in a matter of weeks. She was said to be the second highest paid woman writer in America after Harriet Beecher Stowe.

Fanny Fern was the pen name of Sara Willis, born in 1811 in Maine and raised in Boston. After her first husband died, she accepted an offer of marriage to a man who became abusive. Her literary career was launched by the need to earn a living for herself and her three children after she left him in 1851.

Food and dining out at dinner parties and restaurants were topics that occasionally appeared in her columns. Two of her collections were named for food – Ginger-Snaps and Caper-Sauce. She prefaced Ginger-Snaps with the following:

FannyFernGingerSnaps
Despite her acerbic style, even those who were its targets treasured her and over the course of her life she sold hundreds of thousands of books in the U.S. and England. An entry about her in American Women (1897), noting hers was “the most widely known and popular pen-name of the last forty years,” praised her for “wit, humor and pathos.”

Her style is captured in a short piece called “The Amenities of the Table” in which she described attitudes toward food as represented by three very different couples. Her depiction of the Joneses strikes a note today.

fannyFernJonesesp111AmenitiesoftheTable

In 1854 she moved from Boston to New York City where she wrote for the New York Ledger (and married author James Parton). No doubt she became familiar with Taylor’s, the glitzy, mirrored, pseudo-posh Broadway restaurant [pictured below] she featured in an essay called “Feminine Waiters at Hotels.” Always protective of women workers, she advised miserable seamstresses to throw their thimbles at their employers and rush to Taylor’s, which had just begun hiring women as servers. But she suggested that they take good care of themselves: “Stipulate with your employers, for leave to carry in the pocket of your French apron, a pistol loaded with cranberry sauce, to plaster up the mouth of the first coxcomb [“dude,” “masher”] who considers it necessary to preface his request for an omelette, with ‘My dear.’”

fannyfernTaylor's1853

The servers, she observed, would surely encounter all kinds of overdressed patrons trying to impress others and would “get sick of so much pretension and humbug,” But, she added, “Never mind, it is better than to be stitching yourselves into a consumption over six-penny shirts; you’ll have your fun out of it. This would be a horribly stupid world, if everybody were sensible.”

Sara Willis Parton died in 1872. Her life story is told in Fanny Fern: An Independent Woman by Joyce W. Warren (Rutgers University Press, 1992).

© Jan Whitaker, 2015

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Shared meals

comebacks1874AlaskaStPhil

There is a lot of interest now in menus designed for sharing. Groups of friends order a variety of dishes of intriguing appetizers, passing them around so that everyone gets a helping.

Sharing restaurant food has a long history, not all of it so appetizing.

In the 1890s stories appeared in the U.S. press about market stalls in France that sold food left over from the tables of restaurants and hotels. The buyers were those of scant means who needed a cheap meal. What the stories left out was that the custom was not unknown in this country. How common it was is hard to say, but an account in 1874 described an eating place in Philadelphia that sold table scraps from hotels to the city’s poor. [illustration above]

There are two kinds of leftovers in public eating places: prepared food that has not been served and food that has been served to patrons and returned on their plates to the kitchen. The latter is known as comebacks. To what degree food removed from plates was served again to other patrons or added to kitchen stews, hashes, and soups in the 19th century is unknown, but it began to receive attention from health departments in the early 20th century.

Americans became conscious of public health issues in 1906 with revelations about the meat packing industry in books such as Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle. One result of the uproar was that cities and towns that had not already done so expanded the duties of their health departments to include restaurant inspections.

In Los Angeles, inspectors in 1907 discovered that chicken, steak, or chop bones with meat still adhering to them were often added to kettles for stock, soups, or gravies. Somewhat surprisingly, this practice was not likely to happen at the cheapest restaurants. Those selling meals at rock-bottom prices (10 cents) claimed they rarely had any food scraps returned to their kitchens. In a 1908 exposé in a D.C. newspaper, a waiter “told all.” Among his advice to lunch room patrons was to order dry toast with butter rather than buttered toast because in the latter case it was likely to be comeback butter wiped off a plate by the cook’s dirty finger.

comebackshashAlso ranking high on the public’s list of restaurant mystery dishes was hash. Middle-class women, who were particularly distrustful of restaurants’ cleanliness, would only eat it in their own homes or in a genteel, woman-run tea room. Patrons often told the proprietor of a home-style tea room in Bangor ME, “I’m not afraid to eat hash here.”

comebacksADV1908EvanstonAt least one restaurant, the Pure Food Café in Evanston IL, was so concerned about public perception that it adopted the unfortunate slogan, “We Use No Comebacks.” Perhaps its patrons, mainly students at Northwestern University, needed this reassurance.

Another illicit use of food returned on patrons’ plates was for staff meals. Minnesota’s state hotel inspector declared he would put a stop to it. “We are going to stop the practice of making restaurant and hotel employes eat the ‘comebacks’ that the guests have already dallied with,” he pledged in 1917.

The re-use of comebacks was not a popular topic for public discussion so it’s impossible to gauge how often it occurred or to what degree the practice was halted by inspections. But the problem either persisted or recurred during the Depression, as evidenced by an article in a 1932 issue of the trade journal Restaurant Management.

© Jan Whitaker, 2015

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High-volume restaurants: Crook & Duff (etc.)

crook&nashADV1875Luxury restaurants are more likely to become memorialized by time, but often ordinary restaurants have a history that is equally rich and played a more significant role in the everyday functioning of society.

That was certainly true of a restaurant that opened in New York City’s “Newspaper Row” in 1858 under the name of its two proprietors, Crook & Duff. The popular restaurant persisted until at least 1906 under nine different names and with four different addresses. It was considered not only a fine place to eat — “a marvel of gastronomic entertainment” – but also a depot where ideas were exchanged.

crookNYT1874Proprietor John Crook was already an old hand in the restaurant business by 1858, having learned the business from his uncle who ran an eating stand in Fulton Market. Crook then went into business with a brother, and next ran several places on his own before he and theatrical manager John Duff opened a restaurant in the newly constructed New York Times building on Park Row. [Unfortunately no signs for the restaurant are visible in the 1874 photograph shown above.] It was an excellent location since City Hall, the main Post Office, a new court building, and many newspaper and periodical offices were located close by. Journalists and printers especially, with their odd hours and relative freedom to roam the city, were frequent patrons of eating and drinking places such as Crook & Duff, aka Crook, Fox & Duff; Crook, Fox & Nash; Nash & Fuller; Nash & Crook; Nash & Brush; George S. Brush; Brush & Foy; and Foy & Crook.

The people of prominence who ate at Crook & Duff and its successors were numerous, many of them lawyers, journalists, business men, and political figures. Feminist publishers of Woodhull & Claflin’s Weekly, Victoria Woodhull and Tennessee “Tennie” Claflin, were frequent patrons in the 1870s – probably eating in a room reserved for ladies (assuming they found  that acceptable). The restaurant was popular with women clerical workers in the 1880s when their numbers were on the increase.

The restaurant remained in the Times building, occupying the basement and much of the first floor for thirty years, while doing business under five different names, the best known and longest lasting being Nash & Crook. In 1888 it moved a short distance to 16 Park Place.

Nash & Crook (etc.) was known for good food, reasonable prices, and fast, expert service. Broiled oysters and corned beef hash were specialties. Fruits and vegetables came from the Oneida Community, a religious commune in upstate New York. The bar did a brisk business in gin slings and brandy smashes, especially during election season.

crook&NashSept51870Serving food from early morning until late at night, the restaurant was a high-volume business, dishing out up to 2,000 mid-day meals daily. In 1870 it claimed to have the largest dining room in the U.S. The lunch counter was 60 feet long. Even so, from noon to 3 p.m. it would often become so crowded that customers would stand and eat from plates in their hands. Many customers were regulars, including men who took all their meals there – and only there – for decades.

Reputedly it was the second restaurant in New York City to hire African-American waiters. During the Civil War draft riots of July 1863 when white mobs attacked Black men, the restaurant sheltered its staff in the basement. Many of the staff from both races were long-term employees. A Black waiter, John Thomas Cooper, worked at the restaurant from 1859 until his death in 1893, becoming a favorite for his sense of humor.

As late as 1927 a letter to the editor of the New York Times mourned the loss of Nash & Crook’s corned-beef hash.

© Jan Whitaker, 2015

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Famous in its day: Fera’s

fera'sfrontIn the second half of the 19th century wealthy families patronized Fera’s Confectionery and Restaurant in Boston, which had earned a reputation for high quality pastries and candies throughout the East. The business was established ca. 1855 in the basement of the Temple Club on West Street, and after 1876 was located on Tremont across from the Common and near the Boston Theatre. [The trade card shown front and back in this post is probably from the 1880s.]

At Fera’s, patrons could enjoy dainty luncheons or after-theater suppers or could arrange to have the firm cater their next dinner party, complete with table ornaments. Women shoppers might stop there for lunch or bon bons after a visit to the shopping district where, in 1866 for instance, they could consult a clairvoyant or pick up such things as freckle lotion, a new perfume from Mexico called Opoponax, potted meat, or library slippers. Fera’s was especially popular with female patrons, as was always the case with confectioneries in the days when many other kinds of restaurants were considered off-limits to respectable women. [see 1866 advertisement below]

fera's1866

Respectability in eating places was not easily achieved then and it’s surprising that Fera’s was able to rescue its reputation from a scandal it was caught up in not long after opening. It was constantly in the newspapers in 1857 because of a sensational divorce case in which a husband alleged that his wife had committed an “adulterous act” in Fera’s. Although the defendant’s lawyer argued that no such occurrence took place since the restaurant was “a wide hall” that was “open all the way through” (i.e., not divided into small private rooms or boxes), the divorce was granted, branding the defendant as an adulteress and leaving in doubt what had occurred where.

Somehow Fera’s survived the scandal, as well as George Fera’s own marital breakup, fires, robberies, changes of address, and a couple of bankruptcies.

At the Tremont address Fera’s was divided into two sections with the restaurant occupying space behind the confectionery and separated by an arched doorway. After redecorating in 1887, the restaurant was painted in cream and gold, with lower walls in marble and upper walls hung with large mirrors. Electric lights were installed, producing a  bright and glittering style that emulated a Paris café.

fera'sback

Like many Europeans in the culinary trades who came to this country, George Fera had traveled a prestigious career path before arriving on U.S. soil in his early 20s. Born in Lübeck, Germany, he compressed a lifetime into a few years. Starting out at a young age he had trained in confectionery in Paris, succeeding so well that he was appointed confectioner to the Czar of Russia in St. Petersburg, where he remained for a number of years. Upon his arrival in the United States, he went to work at a New Orleans hotel, moving from there to New York City where he was employed by the famed confectioner Henry Maillard. He was said to have made for Maillard’s the first caramels produced in this country.

George Fera retired around 1890 and his two sons, who had been working with him for years, took over. In 1892 Fera’s closed and the furnishings and equipment were auctioned, including in part: “30 marble-top saloon tables, 75 bentwood chairs, 5 nickel plated show cases, one show case with deck, one square [show case] with fancy chocolates, two large mirrors, candy jars, 50 doz. wine, cordial and hot water glasses, decanters, Eper[g]nes punch bowl, triple plated spoons, knives and forks, plated castors, water pitchers and cold water urn, 600 decorated French china plates, platters, compotes, pitchers, cups and saucers, &c., Jap. plates, fine lot candies, French wedding cake ornaments, fruits and marmalades in jars, costume crackers, candy machines, bon bons, ice cream apparatus, &c.”

© Jan Whitaker, 2008, revised 2015

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Why the parsley garnish?

parsleyNchicken

Nothing decorated more restaurant plates in the 20th century than parsley, most of it by all accounts uneaten.

Why use so much of what nobody wanted? The best answer I can come up with is that parsley sprigs were there to fill empty spaces on the plate and to add color to dull looking food.

Parsley was not the only garnish around, but it has probably been the most heavily used over time. It has shared the role of plate greenery with lettuce, especially after WWII when lettuce become readily available, and to a lesser extent with watercress.

Parsley has long been a favorite in butcher shops where it is tucked around steaks and roasts. As early as 1886 restaurants were advised to emulate butchers and decorate food in their show windows with “a big, red porterhouse steak, with an edge of snow-white fat, laid in the center of a wreath of green parsley.” By the early 20th century, almost the entire U.S. parsley crop, more than half of which was grown in Louisiana and New York, went to restaurants and butchers. By 1915 parsley sprigs were a ubiquitous restaurant garnish that many regarded as a nuisance. Diners sometimes suspected that the parsley on their plate had been recycled from a previous customer.

While European chefs use garnishes as edible complements to the main dish, Americans have focused primarily on their visual properties.

parsleyGuidetoConvenienceFoodscvrAround 1970 when convenience foods invaded restaurant kitchens, garnishes took on heightened significance in jazzing up lackluster, monochromatic frozen entrees. In the words of Convenience and Fast Food Handbook (1973),“The emergence of pre-prepared frozen entrees on a broad scale has revived the importance of garnishing and in addition, has led to innovative methods of food handling, preparation and plating. If an organization is to achieve sustained success in this field, emphasis must be placed on garnishing and plating. These are the two essentials that provide the customer with excitement and satisfaction.” [partial book cover shown above, 1969]

Excitement?

parsleyNOThe head of the Southern California Restaurant Association admitted in 1978 that he hated to see all the food used as garnishes go to waste in his restaurant, including “tons” of lettuce. But this was necessary for merchandising, he said: “We have to make food attractive. It’s part of the cost of putting an item on the table.” It was – and is – probably true that an ungarnished plate such as shown here looked unattractive to most Americans.

parsleyNfiletmignon

So many garnishes decorated food in American restaurants in the 1970s that food maestro James Beard got very grumpy about it, calling it stupid and gauche. He could allow watercress with lamb chops or raw onion rings on a salad, but put a strawberry in the center of his grapefruit half and he was outraged. Next to orange slices and twists, his most detested “tricky” garnishes were tomato roses and flowers. Funny that he didn’t mention radish roses such as the one shown above.

© Jan Whitaker, 2008, revised 2015

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