Road trip restaurant-ing

PostluggageFor New Yorkers even today a lengthy car trip can raise concerns about letdowns at the dinner table, but all the more so in 1915.

That was the year that two writers, Theodore Dreiser and Emily Post, separately set out across country [Post pictured above, about ready to embark]. Although novelist Theodore Dreiser is often credited with writing the “first road trip” book, the publication of his Hoosier Holiday in 1916 was in fact matched by Post’s By Motor to the Golden Gate that same year.

Dreiser’s trip took him back to his boyhood state of Indiana, while Post daringly continued westward to the Panama-Pacific Exposition in San Diego and San Francisco. Both were in their 40s, lived in New York, and had failed marriages behind them. Both traveled with a companion and a chauffeur, in Post’s case her son.

Each made interesting observations about places where they ate. Dreiser, on a sentimental journey into his past, tended to see most restaurants as symptomatic of the identity-less mediocrity of American culture. Post experienced the journey with a liberating sense of adventure and was less judgmental than Dreiser, but only to a point.

As much as possible the Post party stuck to respectable hotels for their meals, for which they spent a fair amount of money for that time. An appendix in Post’s book provides a rundown of expenses. The joint dinner check for all three travelers usually came to between $4 and $5 plus a 10% tip even though Post reports they were light eaters.

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Though she encountered some very bad meals in dingy lunch rooms, including a barroom in New Mexico where no plates were provided, Post was most critical of the dining room of Chicago’s much-ballyhooed Blackstone Hotel. She compared it unfavorably to Cleveland’s Statler Hotel [pictured] where she found the food and service “extraordinary.” Dreiser saved his greatest praise for a quick lunch eatery in Princeton IN and another restaurant in Vermilion OH where he enjoyed cherry pie provided by a Japanese-born proprietor (misidentified in his book, but almost certainly named Mamoru Okagi). He aimed his criticism at more pretentious places.

It’s safe to say that Dreiser, from a much humbler background than Post, disliked the hotel dining rooms of the sort Post preferred. He ridiculed their fake European elegance which aped the “Palace of Vairsigh,” as he mockingly put it.

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Despite, or because of, her higher social standing, Post had to juggle gender issues. She avoided hotels of the “saloon-front-and-ladies’-entrance-in-the-back variety.” Whereas Dreiser sneered at then-trendy grills and rathskellers [grill in Scranton PA pictured], Post could not even get into them. Dreiser found these types, which were so popular with men, dull and silly – “made to look exactly like a western architect’s dream of a Burgundian baronial hall”. But Post was disappointed when she was turned away from the men-only grill room of the Fontenelle Hotel in Omaha.

Dreiser’s discomfort was induced by stuffy dining rooms where haughty head waiters fauned over rich men — and by country lunch rooms where local “wits” hung out. The following photograph illustrates what I imagine he saw walking into some of the places he encountered on his trip.

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Both cast a cold eye on the attire of other guests in upscale dining rooms. Post shuddered at the casual, wrinkled outfits worn by the wealthy, as well as at how freely California women combined colors such as “an emerald-colored fan with a sage-green frock!” But, although Dreiser was horrified by “the upstanding middle class American with his vivid suit, yellow shoes, flaring tie and conspicuous money roll,” the socialist-leaning author nevertheless said he wanted to “compose an ode” to this sort of common man of democratic society.

Summing up her travel experiences, Post reflected, “It is your troubles on the road, your bad meals in queer places, . . . , in short, your misadventures that afterwards become your most treasured memories.” Dreiser wondered, “how long will it be before we will have just a few good [restaurants] in our cities?”

© Jan Whitaker, 2013

2 Comments

Filed under food, history, restaurants

2 responses to “Road trip restaurant-ing

  1. You just gotta love a “Road Trip”! This one…had my imagination going for sure! The picture was painted!

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