Category Archives: food

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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Early vegetarian restaurants

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As early as the 1830s in the U.S., the Graham Journal of Health and Longevity espoused a regimen called “Nature’s Bill of Fare.” It advocated meatless meals that contained no more than three different articles of food, and no desserts, condiments, or beverages except water. Diners were to eat at precisely the same time each day and chew very thoroughly. Needless to say, the “Grahamites” were very much at odds with the majority of Americans who expected to eat meat three times a day.

Some of the followers of Sylvester Graham lived in special boarding houses where no meat was served, but it wasn’t until the 1890s that the first public vegetarian restaurants appeared in this country.

The first was the well-named “Vegetarian Restaurant No. 1” opened on West 23rd Street in New York City in 1895. It was sponsored by the New-York Vegetarian Society, which did not tolerate either taking life for food or drinking alcohol.

One of the co-founders of No. 1 was its manager Louise Volkmann, a remarkable 50-year old German-born woman who was active in the women’s suffrage movement, the labor movement, and the peace movement, as well as being a music teacher and a volunteer in prisons and hospitals. However, not even such a force of nature as Louise could make the restaurant succeed. It closed due to insufficient patronage in less than a year.

vegetarianrestOutWest1902

VegetarianCafeteriaLA

By 1899 a few more vegetarian restaurants had opened around the country. In Minneapolis a restaurant operated by two partners, Peterson and Mataumura, made the concession of supplementing the menu of Vegetable Turkey and a roast made of crushed nuts with a few meat dishes for non-vegetarians. Detroit and Boston also had restaurants catering to vegetarians, while San Jose actually had two, one of which also accommodated meat eaters. Detroit’s vegetarian café evidently was vegan; its macaroni was served with nut paste rather than cheese and its eggs were made of cereal or nuts and served boiled, curdled, or scrambled with lemon or, presumably fictitious, “cream.” [illustration of Los Angeles’ Vegetarian Cafeteria, ca. 1910]

Many of the early vegetarian restaurants served nut and grain-based food products – Granose, Nuttose, Wheatose, and others made by the Battle Creek Sanitarium Health Food Company in Michigan. Well-off people, not necessarily all vegetarians, would sign up for a stint at the Sanitarium to improve their health. A vegetarian dinner there in 1900 featured items with remarkably unattractive names such as Gruel, Dry Gluten, and Protose Salad.

vegetarian1912Cleveland

The vegetarian movement and its restaurants got a boost from rising meat prices and stockyard scandals shortly after the 20th century began. A 1904 directory listed 57 vegetarian restaurants nationwide, and the passage of the Pure Food and Drug Act in 1906 encouraged more to open. New customers mobbed vegetarian restaurants while eating places of all kinds added meatless dishes such as spaghetti and omelets to their fare, an exercise they would repeat under the austerity measures of World War I. Up to and during the war, vegetarian cafes flourished and chains began to form, such as the Physical Culture Restaurants in New York, with branches in Boston, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Buffalo, and Chicago. In addition to the Battle Creek connection, a number of pre-WWI vegetarian restaurants were connected to the Seventh-Day Adventist religion.

Often going under names such the Hygienic Restaurant or the Pure Food Restaurant, a typical vegetarian restaurant menu of 1902 or 1903 might have included selections such as these from Chicago’s Mortimer Pure Food restaurant:

Asparagus on toast, 15
Roosevelt [vegetable] cutlet, with mushroom sauce, bread and butter, 20
Poached eggs, with rice and currie sauce, bread and butter, 25
Spinach, with poached eggs on toast, 25
Broiled new potatoes on toast, 20
Spaghetti a la Mortimer, 10
Broiled fresh mushrooms on toast, 25
Baked beans, 10

Burl's1950sLA2How well vegetarian restaurants fared in the 1920s is unclear. The Childs restaurant chain, by then a public corporation, embraced vegetarianism briefly but changed its policy after its stock prices dropped in response. On the other hand, restaurant industry leader Myron Green, a Kansas City cafeteria proprietor, claimed in 1928, somewhat unbelievably, that meat eaters constituted less than 25% of food service patrons. In the early 1920s Los Angeles added two raw food restaurants and a Sephardic Kosher café to its list of meatless eating places. Also in this decade, a chain of vegetarian cafeterias appeared in the South, including one in Knoxville TN. In New York City Herman and Sadie Schildkraut operated a vegetarian hotel in the 1920s and by 1933 were directors of Schildkraut’s Vegetarian Food Emporiums, headquartered at 225 W. 36th.

Although meat rationing during World War II would bring back menus featuring vegetable plates, the vegetarian movement would not experience another boom until the counter-culture-inspired food revolution of the 1970s.

© Jan Whitaker, 2008, revised 2015

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Blue plate specials

blueplateDuring the 1920s and 1930s the blue plate lunch and dinner thrived. The first blue plate special reference I have found is in 1915. A railway running between Bradenton FL and Washington D.C., the Seaboard Air Line Railway, announced that year that they would begin offering a daily special of either meat or fish served on one plate with two vegetables.

The simplicity of the meal, with fewer food items on fewer pieces of china, turned out to be  highly congruent with suggested government cutbacks that arrived with World War I urging restaurants to conserve on all aspects of their operations.

After the war the blue plate special continued to be popular because it was a workable compromise between the needs of a fast-paced urban society and the legions of consumers accustomed to eating a meat-and-potatoes “dinner” at noon. Though resembling a home-style dinner, the blue plate meal was lighter and faster to serve up than its predecessors. Consisting of less food, it required less time for digestion and kept office workers from getting that “siesta” feeling in the afternoon.

blueplatespecialSpfld1930

Its billing as “home cooking” communicated that it was not ethnic cuisine as were meals in table d’hote restaurants run by immigrant Americans. Beef and gravy, pork chops, ham, mashed or fried potatoes, carrots, and green beans were typical on blue plates. [June 1, 1930, special at the Merry Eating Luncheonette, Springfield MA]

In previous eras a “regular dinner” or table d’hote restaurant meal would have arrived parceled out on many plates, saucers, and side dishes. Cutting down both on china and dishwashing as well as server time, the blue plate dinner or lunch was usually offered as an economy meal typically costing about 35 to 50 cents, a moderate price in the post-WWI inflationary economy. Blue plate specials were attractive to restaurants because they permitted them to make use of a good buy or get rid of food stocks on the verge of going bad. The tradeoff was that often the diner had little choice regarding the meal’s composition.

blueplatespecialBoston1940Since the meals’ components were cooked prior to lunch and dinner rushes and kept warm on steam tables, they could be served quickly, saving time for patrons and increasing turnover for the establishment. Of course steam tables took their toll. That one-plate specials were not always the finest is suggested by a 1930 guidebook which commends The Alps restaurant in NYC by noting that their blue plate dinners “are more than mere collections of edibles, served en masse.”

One-plate meals continued into the 1940s and after WWII  but the term “blue plate” was beginning to sound old-fashioned and was used mainly in smaller towns. Stodgy one-plate meals became material for humorists. In 1952 columnist Hal Boyle lampooned the blue plate luncheon “engulfed in gravy,” characterizing it as an “all-America culinary nightmare.” “I take it to the hotel I am staying at and use it instead of soap for a shower,” he wrote. “I rub it on my head as a shampoo.”

© Jan Whitaker, 2008, revised 2015

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Basic fare: club sandwiches

clubsandwichCOLORAmong sandwiches, the club sandwich stands out by having a strong association with restaurants for more than a century. It was not often eaten at home and probably still isn’t. It is unusual, too, in that it was considered both delicate and hearty, making it a favorite with men and women alike when it became popular in the 1890s.

Its versatility included being appropriate for almost any time of day. It was considered an excellent late-night supper, good with beer, healthful, refreshing in hot weather, and perfect for ladies’ luncheons. The sandwiches appeared widely on menus – in hotel and department store dining rooms, after-theater restaurants, men’s grills, railroad dining cars, and tea rooms.

clubsandwichADVSpfld1913

The origin of the word club, which still gives it a certain cachet, is a mystery. One account attributes the creation of the sandwich to an engineer who introduced it to his “lunch club” cronies on a day when they were suffering from hangovers, but the occasion seems to have taken place years after the sandwich had achieved recognition.

For instance, at least five year earlier, shortly after the Palm Tea Room opened in New Haven’s Edward Malley store in 1898, an advertisement notified customers that in addition to ham sandwiches and chocolate eclairs, several items “New to New Haven” were available, among them Club Sandwiches at 15 cents each.

clubsandwichADVBatonRouge1914By 1900 the sandwich’s form and composition were largely standardized. It was made with three slices of toasted white bread, spread with mayonnaise, layered with thinly sliced chicken, bacon, tomato, and lettuce, and cut twice diagonally into wedges. Fresh tomatoes were not always available inexpensively year round, so the full-scale club sandwich may have been a seasonal specialty until after WWII. Other variations included ham instead of bacon and turkey instead of chicken; crusts could be trimmed off for a daintier appearance.

clubsandwichADV1934Over time almost anything could be used to fill a club sandwich, but few variations on the classic combination endured. In 1935 Walgreen’s offered one made of liverwurst, perhaps reflecting that it was the Depression.

Club sandwiches recommended themselves to lunch rooms by their good profit margin. The Childs’ restaurants, the largest chain of the early 20th century, found in 1910 that it could prepare a double-decker club for 4.6 cents and sell it for 20 cents. It went for the same price at drug stores which began adding it to their soda fountain menus. Its popularity at soda fountains was also reflected in the creation of an ice cream club sandwich made in a special mold. The trade journal National Druggist reported in 1911 that in terms of sales the novelty was “a wonder.”

The club sandwich was given a reprieve during the government’s food prohibitions of World War I. Initially targeted along with meat pies and liver & bacon because it contained more than one kind of meat, the ban was quickly lifted.

Another obstacle club sandwiches faced seems truly quaint today. Judging from the number of times women sought advice from newspaper etiquette columns on how to eat them in the 1920s and 1930s, many of them found the club sandwich embarrassing to eat in public. Should they pick it up or eat it with a knife and fork? Strangely – and unimaginably – the latter method was advised.

ClubSandwichwoolworth67But it overcame these minor problems. In the 1920s commercial bakers produced a bread specially made for club sandwiches in restaurants. It was a square “cream bread” with a thin crust, meant for toasting, and sized a bit larger than the smallest sandwich loaves.

Though scarcely considered exciting today, the club sandwich has become a menu classic that can be ordered almost anywhere.

© Jan Whitaker, 2015

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Taste of a decade: 1840s restaurants

1849Marden'sEating places began to show a French influence as places called “restaurants” and “cafes” replaced “eating houses.” Many hotels adopted the European plan which allowed guests to choose where they would eat instead of including meals in the hotel in the room charge, a change that encouraged the growth of independent eating places. A “restaurant culture” had begun to develop, yet with stiff resistance from many who associated restaurants with vice and immorality.

Menus, particularly those of cheaper eating places, contained mostly meat, pastry, and ever-popular oysters. Meat production was still local; NYC had 200 slaughterhouses in operation. Out-of-season fresh produce was beginning to come North by steamboat from the South, but still not in large quantities. Harvey Parker’s well-known eating house in Boston was celebrated for acquiring peas from Virginia in 1841, but strawberries remained a seasonal delicacy in the Northeast later in the decade.

U.S. territory grew substantially when Texas became a state. Oregon territory was acquired, along with a big chunk of what had been Mexico (New Mexico, Colorado, Arizona, Utah, Nevada, and California). Gold was discovered in California and almost overnight San Francisco became a city of 25,000. San Francisco’s Tadich Grill, still around today, was one of the many restaurants that opened to serve the newcomers. The restaurant business was also doing well in New Orleans, home of generous “free lunch” buffets.

Among the middle classes in the Northeast the movement to discourage heavy drinking – or any at all — resulted in the establishment of “temperance restaurants” that served no alcoholic beverages.

1848Milliken'sBostonEating away from home remained a male activity mostly, as was true at The Alhambra in Richmond VA and Taft’s near Boston, but women sometimes made an appearance. Although an advertisement for the popular and inexpensive Milliken’s in Boston pictured men, it also advised it had  “apartments [dining rooms] for ladies exclusively.” (As the illustration shows, a stout figure was admired then.)

Highlights

1840 If a diner wants to leave his waiter a tip in a cheap eating house, the standard amount is 1 cent, which usually amounts to about 5%.

1841 The Colored American, a weekly newspaper dedicated to elevating the moral and social stature of free Blacks, declares it will accept no advertising for restaurants because they mostly dispense not “wholesome food for the body” but “liquid death, both for body and mind.”

1842 The Franklin Café and Restaurant, located in Philadelphia’s elegant Franklin House (hotel) announces it is serving Ice Cream, Sherbets, and Roman Punch made by a graduate of the world-famous Café Tortoni in Paris.

1843 When a group of temperance advocates visits the Eagle Coffee House in Concord NH to convince the proprietor to give up the sale of intoxicating drinks, he tells them that he would feel “very mean” if he had to refuse a visitor from Boston a drink.

1844 P. B. Brigham announces he has hired the best French and Italian “Artistes” for his Restaurant, Ice Cream, and Oyster Saloon in Boston and has a Ladies’ Saloon newly “fitted up in the Parisian style.”

1845Harvard

1845 Harvard forbids its students, all male then, from going to Cambridge eating and drinking places without a guardian.

1846 In an era when Black men occupy an important role in the catering business, NYC society caterer George T. Downing opens a summer branch of his business in Newport RI.

1846 A journalist travels somewhere “way out west” and eats at a small town tavern where the fare consists of ham and eggs fried in lard, hog jowl and greens (called corndoggers), and brains with greens, washed down with corn liquor or sassafras tea.

1849NYC

1847 Luxury comes to Baltimore with the opening of the Parisian Restaurant with a “French Cook.” As in Europe, Ladies (accompanied by Gentlemen) are to be honored in a private parlor “where it is hoped that they will be able to enjoy the luxuries of Oysters, Game, etc., from which they have been heretofore excluded.”

1848 In his vivid newspaper series New York in Slices, George G. Foster writes that about 30,000 persons who work in mercantile and financial occupations eat daily in the restaurants of lower Manhattan, and most of them “gorge . . . disgusting masses of stringy meat and tepid vegetables.”

1849 The Home Journal is convinced that the presence of restaurants, cafes, refectories, and oyster saloons, “on almost every corner of the streets” in cities is certain to lead young men to lives of “sensual excesses.”

© Jan Whitaker, 2014

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Eating Chinese

lynn1937KingJoy

While paging through a 1922 Massachusetts business directory I was struck at first by how many Chinese restaurants there were in various towns. But when I went back to the directory to take a closer look I realized there weren’t really so many except, perhaps, in manufacturing towns such as Fall River and Lowell.

I wondered who patronized Chinese restaurants in Massachusetts in the early 20th century – and then I remembered recently buying a diary that mentioned a place called King Joy.

After I managed to identify the family whose doings were chronicled in the diary (not easy!), I discovered a surprising and intriguing little story.

The diary, mostly written in 1935, was about three generations of a family living on the North Shore of Massachusetts. It was kept by the grandmother of the family who I will call Gertrude, age 76. Her husband Arthur was a retired dentist a few years older. They headed a socially prominent family with two homes, one in the affluent community of Hamilton and the other in the nearby resort town of Nahant.

Living with Arthur and Gertrude were their daughter Opal, age 49, and her son Jamie, age 5. Opal’s brother Perry, a 40-year old engineer, and his wife Ellen, also lived in Hamilton.

hotelvendomeThe overwhelming focus of the diary is the health of family members, who seem to be under the weather for much of 1935. There are large stretches of blank pages where nothing is recorded, but restaurants are mentioned six times, all but one of them Chinese. The exception was the time that Gertrude, Opal, and Jamie went to Boston and stayed overnight in the Hotel Vendome, a Back Bay hotel for the gentry that dated to 1871. While grandmother and grandson retired early, Opal had a late-night supper in the hotel’s Nippon Room. Gertrude, a woman of few words who loved to abbreviate, hints in the diary that the purpose of the trip was for Jamie to visit his estranged father.

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Twice that year Gertrude records that someone, usually Opal and Jamie, went to King Joy in nearby Lynn MA. Another time Opal went to Lynn to bring back chow mein for her father, Arthur, who had fallen down the stairs at home. Once the family went to the Far East Restaurant in Lynn and once they went to the Canton Restaurant in Worcester, riding in Perry’s car.

OWP1904Opal’s liking for what must have been a fairly exotic cuisine to a Massachusetts native in the 1930s might be explained by her world travel as a young woman. In 1904, at age 19 [pictured], she was adopted by a wealthy retired Boston lawyer with real estate holdings. Divorced and thirty years her senior, he was a renowned animal rights advocate, free thinker, and globe-trotter. (Amazingly enough, Opal’s parents reportedly approved of the arrangement.) Shortly after the adoption, Opal and her new father set off for a visit to the World’s Fair in St. Louis followed by a trip to Brazil and winter in Egypt. It was the first of many trips she would take with him.

Opal married around 1921, at age 36, giving birth to Jamie nine years later. Her adopted father gave her his house in the Boston area as a wedding present and some time later moved to Los Angeles.

PGP1934By the time Opal’s paternalistic benefactor died in 1934 at age 77 [pictured], he had crossed the Atlantic 145 times, visited Russia 16 times, Egypt 13 times, and the Arctic 13 times. In his will he left all his money to animal protection and free-thinking societies and just $1 to Opal. She contested the will, probably without success.

© Jan Whitaker, 2014

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Thanksgiving quiz: dinner times four

TDaymenuBeefIn 1921 a café in Kalamazoo, Michigan, advertised that it would offer a selection of Thanksgiving dinners at different prices. The most expensive was 85 cents, then came a 65-cent dinner, one at 60 cents, and a 50-cent dinner. In today’s dollars, they would range in price from a high of $11.10 to a low of $6.51.

TDaymenuChicken

All dinners began with tomato soup. They featured four types of roast meat: beef, pork, turkey, and chicken, with accompanying dishes that were not fancy. Strangely the menus made no mention of dessert. Perhaps it was not included in the price of the dinner. Since selling alcoholic beverages was illegal in 1921, it’s likely that Thanksgiving diners would have had coffee.

TDaymenuPorkThe name of the restaurant was the Bon Ton. Its proprietors were the Thenos brothers, Nicholas and George, of Greek heritage. The small restaurant advertised that it was “open all hours” and had moderate prices. It employed women as servers. I have not been able to find a photograph of it, but undoubtedly it followed the typical café configuration of its time with a counter running down one side of a narrow storefront space and tables on the other side, with the kitchen at the rear.

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Can you identify the most expensive dinner? Study the four Thanksgiving menus (which I have re-created using menu blanks) and decide which you think was the 85-cent dinner, which the 65-cent dinner, etc.

Answers in the Comments, on Thanksgiving Day.

© Jan Whitaker, 2014

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