Category Archives: food

Cooking up Thanksgiving


The history of Thanksgiving is much more interesting than the mythical Pilgrims and Indians tale we all learned in grade school, even though restaurants actually have played only a small part.

For much of the 19th century Thanksgiving was considered a predominantly Yankee holiday, which to Southerners implied domination by the North, particularly when Abraham Lincoln declared Thanksgiving a national holiday in 1863 to honor the Union victory at Gettysburg.

Previously, Thanksgiving holidays were proclaimed by governors, who also set the date each year. In 1815, however, President James Madison declared a Thanksgiving Day to celebrate peace with England. Still, it retained strong association with New England and a Thanksgiving dinner in Philadelphia that year was composed of New Englanders “got up in Yankee style, and finished with a compliment of Yankee toasts and hymns.” In 1821 a state outside New England, New York, officially recognized the holiday.

Thanksgiving spread slowly in the 1820s and 1830s. By 1839 the holiday was celebrated in Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, New Jersey, New York, and Rhode Island. Homecoming was a popular theme, especially in Massachusetts where abandonment of rocky farms was a growing trend. By 1858 it was reported that in New York City alone at least 10,000 New Englanders had returned home for Thanksgiving.

pumpkinpieDave'stableThe holiday spread faster in the 1840s and 1850s. The New York Times reported that by 1859 all the Eastern and middle Atlantic states, and the Western territories, plus five Southern states celebrated Thanksgiving.

But the spread was uneven. Although the governor of Missouri proclaimed a day of Thanksgiving in 1843, it was observed only seven times over the next 20 years, and many citizens of that state knew nothing of Thanksgiving until after the Civil War, despite President Abraham Lincoln’s 1863 proclamation declaring Thanksgiving a national holiday to occur on the last Thursday in November.

So, although by 1890 Thanksgiving was officially recognized by 42 of 44 states and territories then part of the United States, it is unlikely that people of all regions, social classes, and religions celebrated it to an equal degree.

According to historian Elizabeth Pleck (“The Making of the Domestic Occasion: The History of Thanksgiving in the United States,” Journal of Social History, Summer 1999), many working class men regarded Thanksgiving as a holiday like any other, that is, a time to drink, parade noisily through the streets, and demand treats from the gentry. In 1859 the board of aldermen of the District of Columbia refused to set a date for Thanksgiving because it had become an occasion for widespread lawbreaking. In the late 19th century the rowdiness tradition was channeled into Thanksgiving Day football matches. In the West, Pleck writes, Thanksgiving dinner tended to be  simple and the day largely devoted to hunting.

pumpkinpie1874VirginiaCityNVNor was it a big restaurant day in the 19th century, though I have found a few advertisements for Thanksgiving dinner in the 1850s, and more after Lincoln’s proclamation [above, menu from Virginia City NV restaurant, 1874]. Restaurants also supplied cooked food to homes and catered philanthropic dinners for the needy. Edmund Hill, a New Jersey restaurateur and caterer, wrote in his diary: Thanksgiving, Thursday 30. 1882: Busy sending out orders all the morning. – Closed store at noon. Dinner at two. Mother improving, for which we give thanks. – We furnished a newsboys’ dinner – fifty at the reading rooms. The Trenton Times paid for it. Lots of fun.”

Pleck suspects that “Thanksgiving celebration was most common among the middle and upper classes in New England and the middle-Atlantic states, and among Protestants.” The job of integrating everybody else was a task for late-19th-and-early-20th-century patriotic societies, public schools, and popular magazines. Immigrants were subtly encouraged to see themselves as modern-day Pilgrims being welcomed by the natives. The strategy worked.

© Jan Whitaker, 2015

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Automation, part II: the disappearing kitchen

automatedJay'sdrive-in1966beltThe dream of a robotized restaurant is an old one, first focused on service, then on the kitchen. It culminated in a system that automated nearly the entire operation, both service and food preparation. Sounds futuristic, but the pinnacle of automation took place around 50 years ago.

If the first stage of automating the restaurant involved getting rid of servers, the second stage involved eliminating kitchen personnel while streamlining food preparation. Kitchen tasks were mechanized and geared toward producing predictable results with standardized portion sizes and speedy cooking.

The modern automated kitchens of the post-WWII period, were either (1) absent altogether in the case of machines vending frozen dinners, or (2) filled with equipment that needed only a few employees to trigger the slicing, mixing, pouring, and frying of a limited selection of burgers, fries, shakes, and sodas. Gathering steam, by the 1960s automation took giant leaps in a number of high-volume drive-ins, the restaurant type that foreshadowed the fast food restaurant.

A fully automated push-button kitchen was available for lease or purchase in 1964, a product of the American Machine and Foundry Co. (AMF), a large diversified company that developed and produced, among many other things, bowling alley pin spotters, power boats, guided missiles, and nuclear reactors for Israel, Iran, and Pakistan.

automatedJay'sdrive-insept1966OrbisconsoleDespite all the effort that went into its development, the fully automatic restaurant proved to be a failure. It was ridiculously expensive compared to how cheaply workers could be hired. And it broke down regularly, necessitating a well-paid, full-time technician on staff.

That full automation did not succeed should not obscure the fact that many restaurants today are highly automated compared to how they operated in the early 20th century. Plus in many chain restaurants tasks are so routinized and scripted that the humans who perform them might be considered quasi-robotized. As plans move ahead to raise hourly wages for workers in chain restaurants, it’s possible that restaurant automation will once again come into focus.

A sampling of projects:

1931 – Inventor H. Russell Brand’s automatic pancake machine is used at a Childs restaurant on West 34th St., NYC. Guests push a button on their table to start an automatic pancake machine that produces a stack of three pancakes which are, however, delivered by waiters. Possibly the earliest case of the automation of food preparation, nonetheless Childs removed the machines in 1938.

1939 – Meant to grow into a chain, a Roboshef restaurant with an automated cooker opens in San Francisco with the slogan, “Quality Food Cooked by Controlled Temperature, Not Temperament.” One employee can produce 120 meals per hour, producing perfectly timed steaks, seafood, fried potatoes, and biscuits.


1948 – With the debut of the WWII spinoff radarange that cooks instantly by molecule-agitating sound waves, Popular Science magazine imagines a restaurant of the future in which customers push buttons at their table that send frozen dinners to microwave ovens and then on conveyor belts to their tables.

1949 – In San Francisco, Ott’s, billed as the world’s biggest drive-in, turns out meals in 6 minutes on average in its modern kitchen in which a machine molds 800 hamburger patties an hour while another slices 1,000 buns in the same time.

automatedPopMech19581958 – Popular Mechanics magazine proclaims that a revolution has taken place in restaurants, due to infrared ray grills, electronic ovens, timing devices, precision slicing and cutting machines, patty extruders [pictured], compression steamers, soft-drink mixers, and other wonders. Quoting a restaurant consultant, the magazine declares, “Food service has become an exact science.”

1959 – According to the Washington Post, the nation’s three largest hamburger chains – then McDonald’s, Burger Chef, and Golden Point – are set to revolutionize food vending through standardization, menu simplification, and “a good helping of automation.”

1961 – The increasing use of pre-portioned frozen food in restaurants heated with sophisticated high-speed fryers, pressure cookers, and electronic ovens shrinks preparation areas in kitchens even as freezers grow larger.


1961 – Stouffer’s opens two short-lived automated vending restaurants with frozen food. The roadside restaurants are paneled with recycled wood from old barns to avoid a sterile appearance. Customers are unexpectedly confused about how to heat their meals, requiring an attendant to help them. Schrafft’s [pictured] and White Tower’s Tower-O-Matic, NYC, also experiment with vending machine operations.

1962 – The first of Pat Boone’s Dine-O-Mats opens, with coin-operated vending machines stocked with frozen dinners prepared off-site that are to be microwaved. The chain fails.


1963 – The first fully automated kitchen is installed at the La Fiesta Drive-In, in Levittown NY. A test case for “AMFare,” the drive-in uses a computer-driven order and billing system that launches refrigerated items on a 4-minute journey to be cooked and trayed “without any handling whatsoever by restaurant personnel.” Alas, a live worker is needed for matching completed orders with checks [pictured]. The AMF system is installed secretly in the basement while a false kitchen in back is added “to satisfy customers.”

1966 – AMFare testing complete, Jay’s Brookdale Restaurant in Minneapolis MN becomes the first fully automated restaurant in the nation. Second is the Mustang Drive-In in Lexington KY.

By 1968, when the system is being tested by the Breese Terrace Cafeteria at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, it is employed by five restaurants. Then it seems to vanish.

© Jan Whitaker, 2015


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Famous in its day: Partridge’s

partridgesTradeCardI began this post intending to present some of the history of Partridge’s restaurant that is advertised on many Victorian trade cards of the 1870s and 1880s, such as the one shown above. Despite their age, many of the cards still exist; those in this post are only a few of over a dozen different designs I’ve seen.

As is often the case, sorting out the story of that restaurant became harder the more I learned. In fact, the two restaurants on 8th street, operated by Edward Partridge and his son E. Frank Partridge, turned out to be only part of the story.

partridge'sdoubleIn the Philadelphia city directory of 1858 there are five different Partridges operating restaurants, Edward not included. At that time Edward apparently was a seller of cheeses in the city’s food market on the corner of Fourth and Market. He also sold “Cakes, Pies, and Beverages, such as will suit the most delicate and fastidious taste.” I suspect that most of the Partridges were related and had come from Medway in Massachusetts, but haven’t been able to substantiate this.

In 1862 or 1863 Edward moved to North Eighth street near Filbert and opened a restaurant in the heart of the shopping district. It occupied several stories, with a ladies’ dining parlor seating 100 on the second floor. In the early 1880s it acquired a fancy ceiling of Lincrusta wallpaper that mimicked molded decorations of game and fruit. It became one of the city’s best known first-class restaurants, serving three meals a day as well as catering weddings, receptions, and large parties on and off the premises. It also specialized in fancy cakes, ice-creams, and ices. Edward was a generous benefactor to his Presbyterian church, so I seriously doubt that alcoholic drinks were served at his restaurant.

partridges947Partridge’s was not a luxury restaurant but a respectable full-service restaurant with moderate prices and no French on the menu. In the second half of the 19th century American cities large and small had at least one such restaurant and Philadelphia undoubtedly had quite a few. In almost all respects it was nearly identical to Thomas Hill’s in Trenton NJ and Barr’s in Springfield MA.

partridges948As the back of this trade card states, Partridge’s was proud of its drinkable water, at a time when public water could not be trusted. A story in the Public Ledger said that the restaurant displayed two bottles of water in its windows, “one as clear as crystal, the other the color of weak coffee, due to the mud held in suspension in it.” The crystal-clear bottle, of course, held filtered water that Partridge’s served, the other water came directly out of the tap.

In 1893, the restaurant established by Charles D. Partridge, which had long operated in the old Eastern and Farmers’ Markets, opened as the Reading Terminal Restaurant, in a space attached to the new Reading Terminal Market. Charles, who may have been Edward’s brother, had died in 1877 and his restaurant was taken over by a longtime employee yet it retained the company name of C. D. Partridge & Co. (In much the same way, Frank Partridge retained the name Partridge & Son after his father’s death in 1896.)

When Edward died in 1896, no one knew that disaster was about to strike his landmark restaurant on North Eighth. On the day before Thanksgiving in 1899, a fire started in the neighboring Bee Hive dry goods store, aka Partridge & Richardson (co-owned by yet another Partridge). The massive fire swept through the block, destroying Partridge & Richardson, Strawbridge & Clothier, the J. B. Lippincott publishing offices, Partridge’s restaurant, and numerous other businesses.

partridgesJuly1900ADVPartridge’s restaurant was rebuilt on Market Street in “elaborate Renaissance style,” opening in July of 1900. But less than a year later Frank Partridge died, and his widow closed the restaurant a short time later. The like-new fixtures and furnishings, including electric chandeliers, Wilton carpets, and French mirrors, were sold at auction in 1902.

© Jan Whitaker, 2015


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Find of the day: Mrs. K’s Toll House Tavern


Over the weekend, at a vintage paper and postcard show in Boxborough MA, I found a charming diecut menu from a restaurant in Silver Spring MD. Established in 1930 by Olive and Harvey Kreuzburg, the landmark restaurant is still in operation today though no longer owned by the founding family.

Shown through the window is page 2 of the menu illustrated with a fireplace inscribed with a cryptogram. Can you figure it out? Hint: the riddle is said to have originated in England. (Click to enlarge. Answer below.)

MrsKs941Judging by the prices, this menu is from around 1950. A Tenderloin Steak dinner accompanied by French Fried Onions or Fresh Mushrooms, cost $2.25. It was served with soup, fruit relish, salad, three vegetables, a sherbet course, hot bread, dessert, beverage, and after dinner mints. By 1962, when the Kreuzburg’s son Richard ran the restaurant, that dinner had gone up to $6.00. Burgundy, Sauterne, Claret, and Blue Ribbon beer were available. All meals were served family style with bowls filled with enough for the entire table. Mrs. K assured guests that everything was prepared from scratch on the premises and under her supervision.

Olive Kreuzburg was not new to the restaurant business when she and her husband took over the old toll house that had previously been the home of two other failed tea rooms. In 1923 it operated as the Seven Oaks Tavern where sky high prices must have contributed to its demise. Olive’s prior experience included running the dining room of the Hotel Wellesley in Clayton NY, a tea room in Miami FL called Mrs. K’s, and two tea rooms in Washington DC, one named Mrs. K’s, and the other Mrs. K’s Brick Wall Inn. Clearly using her abbreviated name served her well.

At its opening in 1930 the Silver Spring Toll House was listed in a DC newspaper under “Where to Motor and Dine.” At that time development had not sprung up around Mrs. K’s; although only “a 30-minute drive from the White House,” it was in the country. The early advertisement read: “This old Toll House with its charming furnishings and Terraced Gardens marks a delightfully smart Country Dinner Place.”


Getting through the Depression was no doubt aided by Duncan Hines’ recommendation of Mrs. K’s in his very first list of his favorite restaurants that he sent out to friends in a 1935 Christmas card. Later he expanded the list and published it as a book. In the 1937 edition, he said of Mrs. K’s, “You dine in the past here – so far as furnishings are concerned. Nothing is changed apparently from the Revolutionary days when it was built. Even the pretty girls who wait on you in Colonial dress seem to have been miraculously preserved from a more leisurely age when dining was a rite not to be passed over casually.”

Whether or not the building dated from the Revolution, the quaint restaurant was filled with antiques collected by the Kreuzburg’s.

The cryptogram explained:
If the grate be [great B] empty (m t), put coal on [colon].
If the grate be full, stop [ . ] putting coal on.

© Jan Whitaker, 2015


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Automation, part I: the disappearing server

automacrestaurant1940How is it that the same culture that loves diners, with their friendly interchange between customers at a counter and cooks and servers on the other side, also idolizes the Automat, with food delivered in metal boxes that are filled by workers hidden from sight?

Through the years proponents of restaurant automation have argued that it’s more sanitary and efficient and results in lower prices for customers. Yet from the start — in the 19th century —  automating restaurants was motivated primarily by a wish to eliminate servers.

That this was a desirable goal was never debated. Servers were depicted as annoying, manipulative pests who demanded tips and grew angry if they were too small. As long ago as 1885 a New York Times story hailed a newly invented “waiterless” system that permitted diners to select dishes from a card, place it in a receptacle that wafted it to the kitchen, and be served their food via an overhead railway system. The customer, said the story, “is not preyed upon by the thought that the menial is hovering over him, watching his every movement, and ready to ‘size him up’ in proportion to the amount of his order.” Whether this automation scheme ever materialized is something I have not been able to determine, but it presumably would have looked like this.


There were two basic types of automated restaurants: with one the patrons came to the food, as in the classic Horn & Hardart Automat, and with the other the food came to the patrons. In the latter case, it came in a container/cabinet that arrived (1) from wires overhead, (2) on a conveyor belt, or (3) up through the center of the table. The systems were inventors’ dream projects, resulting in many patents, though actually used in very few restaurants and even fewer successful restaurants. Most of the projects to automate service proved unsuccessful after the novelty wore off.

A sampling of the projects:

1895 – Exhibits of automated “push button” restaurants begin to appear at international fairs in Holland and Germany; soon they are found all over Germany.

1897 – Rumors start that automatic restaurant apparatus from Germany will be installed in Philadelphia’s business district enabling business men to eat more quickly

1899 – An advertisement appears in the Philadelphia Inquirer by a New York man who is seeking backers for an Automatic Lunch Room invented in France.

1901 – Buffalo’s Pan-American Exposition is said to have an automatic lunch room.

1902 – A natural food company in Niagara Falls allegedly runs a restaurant with 600 tables served by “five hundred little electric cars” operated by a switchboard.

1902 – Horn & Hardart open an Automat in Philadelphia.

1902 – The Harcombe Restaurant Co. opens an Automat in New York City.

1907 – An automated quick lunch opens on F street in Washington DC where customers get sandwiches, pie, or coffee by depositing a coin and moving a lever.

1908 – An announcement is made that a waiterless restaurant with Assyrian decor will open in NY on Broadway between 43rd and 44th where guests will receive their meals from a dumbwaiter in the center of their table that will be serviced from a kitchen below.

1909 – A notice by a self-described “first-class man” appears in a Seattle paper seeking partners for a “first-class automatic lunch room.”

1912 – The first NYC Horn & Hardart Automat opens, in Times Square.

1913 – An article in Scientific American proposes that a corporation should be formed to run a central kitchen that can send food to homes throughout cities via pneumatic tubes.

1915 – At least seven saloons in Chicago’s Loop have “free lunch machines” in operation.

1917 – The Automat Company of New England runs three automats in Boston.

1917 – An article in The Hotel Monthly hails a newly invented “Cafetourner” in which food is delivered in “thoroughly clean,” sterilized steel boxes on conveyor belts.


Ca. 1917 – Bell Lunch operates three lunchrooms in New York City, at least one of which appears to be an automat.

1921 – The Automatic Lunch Corporation opens Automatic Lunch Room No. 1 in Detroit, with plans for more in other Michigan cities.

1922 – Horn & Hardart are operating two Automats and five Automat-Cafeterias in Chicago.

1925 – An exhibition in Seattle hosts a booth by the Quick Lunch Company with machines that deliver pie or sandwiches at the drop of a coin.

automaticILL1925cardsystem1925 – Rather than utilizing coins in a slot, The Auteria in St. Paul MN replaces them with a card that is stamped with the price after the customer removes the dish from the device.

1926 – After a couple years in business the National Autometer Restaurant Corp. that ran two automatic restaurants in Washington DC declares bankruptcy.

1928 – A New York hotel exposition features a waiterless dining room with tables equipped with dumbwaiters set into tables.

1929 – Hall’s Mechanafe No. 1, which delivers food in cabinets on a conveyor belt, opens on Main Street in Boise ID. Along with the Horn & Hardart Automats in Philadelphia and New York it survives far longer than most restaurants with automatic service.

1930 – The first Merry-Go-Round café, in which a conveyor belt circulates along a counter, opens in Los Angeles.

1931 – The Hotel Warren in Worcester MA installs “auto-magic” tables where food comes up on a dumbwaiter set into the table. [pictured at top]


1933 – NYC’s Ye Eat Shoppe installs a conveyor belt that serves orders to patrons seated at the counter.

Beginning in the 1930s, but mainly after World War II in the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s, the second stage of automating the restaurant began, focused on streamlining food preparation in the restaurant kitchen. By the end of this stage computers had changed the meaning of “automatic.”

As for the fabled Horn & Hardart Automats, when the nation’s original one closed in 1969, in Philadelphia, the new president of Horn & Hardart said the concept had reached its peak before and after WWII. With only ten left in business, he acknowledged, “They are not really automatic.” As a story in the Los Angeles Times said, the Automat had become “a museum piece, inefficient and slow, in a computerized world.”

© Jan Whitaker, 2015


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Find of the day: Moody’s Diner cookbook

moodysdinerbookAt a weekend flea market I found a copy of What’s Cooking at Moody’s Diner, a book of recipes and reminiscences published in 1989 (it was revised and redesigned in 2003). Although it is neither rare nor valuable in monetary terms, I consider it a “find” because of how I happened upon it when I was about to give up.

moodysdinercolor2The Route 1 diner in Waldoboro ME dates back to a small food stand built and operated by Percy Moody and his family in the early 1930s. After many additions and updates it is still going strong today as a substantial restaurant with a menu probably far more diverse than it was in the beginning, judging from a sample 1930s lunch menu included in the book. Then, hungry travelers on a budget might select plain sandwiches such as Bread & Butter (5c) or Fried Egg (10c). If they wanted something grander they could have Lobster or Crabmeat sandwiches at 20c apiece. Toasted sandwiches cost an additional 5c.

moody'sdinerjune1941Many people associate diners with prefab structures of stainless steel but Moody’s Diner is an example of a vernacular design constructed of wood. Before it was moved to Route 1, the initial Moody food stand accompanied Moody’s Cabins, a few of which had been built in 1927, a year when many a farmer in or near a vacation area decided to try to capture some of the tourist trade speeding by in their newly purchased cars. No doubt a roadside business helped offset some of the effects of the Depression.

The 1989 edition of What’s Cooking at Moody’s Diner, by Nancy Moody Genthner and edited by Kerry Leichtman, contains a wealth of recipes for “home-made” style dishes, desserts, salads, and breads. Twenty-five casserole recipes, many using canned soup, stand out for being far removed from routine restaurant fare.


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“To go”

TakeoutcolorSelling prepared food ready to be eaten off the premises, known as carry-out or take-out, is as old or older than the restaurant itself. In Colonial days, James Hearn of New York City advertised that “families may every day be provided with plates of any dish, that may happen to be cooked that day, by sending their servants for the same.” In addition to full meals, early “restorators” and restaurateurs were also happy to deliver oysters and sweets such as freshly made ice cream, sherbets, and pastries.

After the Civil War, advertisements appeared offering “lunches put up” for travelers and tourists. Such ads became more common in the 1920s as many first-time car owners took to the roadsides for vacations and Sunday outings. With relatively few restaurants outside cities, the service was a welcome one. The ads continued into the 1950s in areas that attracted seasonal fishers and hunters.

takeoutmetalsignFor most customers, carry-out was an added service meant to accommodate them. Not so if the customer was Black, though. Under Jim Crow in Southern states, Black customers were unwelcome in dining rooms and at lunch counters – and could only obtain food to go (if that).


The post-World War II era produced not only a baby boom but also a television boom. TV-watching suburban families with young children fueled the advance of a carry-out trend in the 1950s and 1960s. By the early 1950s the restaurant industry realized it had a “television problem” keeping people from going out to restaurants, but found a way to deal with it. A restaurant consultant offered 2-day seminars detailing how smart restaurateurs were actually increasing business volume through carry-out. He explained for the slow learners that “people telephone in orders, pick up their food at a set time, then go home to eat before their television sets.” [menu shown is from a Detroit restaurant]

The carry-out trend was well established by the mid-1950s. A restaurant in New York’s Grand Central Station offered a commuter’s dinner, while an inn in Nebraska was set up like today’s fast food restaurants with a speaker post in the driveway for dictating orders and packaged food ready to go at the check-out window farther along.

takeoutBoxIn the 1960s certain foods achieved greater popularity with diners on the dash than with sit-down restaurant customers, particularly fried chicken and pizza. Other favorites were Chinese, Mexican, and barbecue. Regular “meat and three” dinners did not fill the bill, it seemed, plus fast food chains were able to deliver the goods faster. Why take-out orders are so common in Chinese restaurants, which do offer full meals, is still something of a mystery to me.

takeout1962McDonald'sSo, little wonder that in the early 1960s before adding indoor seating, McDonald’s dubbed itself “McDonald’s Carry Out Restaurant.” In 1963 the chain released a report claiming that one-fourth of all restaurant orders nationwide were “to go,” with drive-ins at the top and pizza parlors not far behind.

The popularity of food to go, already well established in the 1950s, was undoubtedly one of the factors propelling the growth of fast food eateries in that decade and the next.

© Jan Whitaker, 2015

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