Category Archives: restaurants

Little things: butter pats

butterpat921

There are many ways to handle butter service in restaurants. Toast may be buttered in the kitchen, doing away with the establishment’s need to decide among curls, balls, rosettes, wrapped servings, pats or, whipped butter put in tiny ramekins. Alternatively, olive oil may take the place of butter on the table.

butterpat923Over the decades butter has given restaurant managers plenty of headaches, whether due to its cost, its scarcity, and or complaints from patrons that they didn’t get enough. Not to mention that it melts when it gets warm and turns hard when it’s cold.

What form butter usually took when diners received it in the 19th century is not clear, maybe in lumps, possibly piled in a communal bowl on each table, a habit that customers would reject in the 20th century.

Bread and butter was viewed as a necessary complement to a meal in the early 1800s, and it often served as an entire meal for those with little to spend. Some restaurants charged separately for bread and butter, while in others it came along with a regular meat or fish order. A good restaurant or tavern might have fresh butter, but others did not. Even if they struck it rich, the early California gold diggers had to wait for Eastern butter to travel around Cape Horn before it reached San Francisco in poor shape. But soon California had dairies that supplied fresh butter, as an 1856 advertisement boasted, “From this date we shall use none other than California Butter, fresh from the best Petaluma Ranches, daily.”

Melting butter became a problem in the summer. The sickening description of “butter the consistency of salad-oil, dotted with struggling flies” can only inspire pity for summertime patrons of Chicago restaurants in the 1880s. To prevent melting, restaurants often placed butter pats upon chipped ice, making it a bit difficult for patrons to butter their bread, but still clearly preferable to the alternative.

butterpat1915HotelMonthlyAlbertPickButter making was rapidly becoming industrialized in the late 19th century, at which time inventors began working on butter cutters that would produce neatly cut chips for use in restaurants and hotel dining rooms. Although many eating places bought butter pre-cut into pats and stamped with their logo by a large dairy, others used mechanical cutters that permitted them to buy butter in bulk and cut it themselves, “untouched by human hands.” All-new-improved models came on the market in the early 20th century, such as the American Butter Dispenser that held 9 pounds capable of being turned into “clean, firm, equal” butter pats in only 2½ minutes. Another feature was that the machine could produce from 28 to 54 pats per pound, permitting a restaurant to economize on butter as needed.

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The size of butter pats varied with national conditions and other pressures. During World War I the Food Administration advised serving no more than ½ oz. per person (actually a generous serving). After the war the dairy lobby in Minnesota tried and failed to push through legislation that would have boosted the standard restaurant serving to 2 oz. Butter pats grew slim once again due to shortages during World War II, and some restaurants began charging extra for butter as its cost rose. Customers complained bitterly.

Perhaps the most curious complaint about butter was that of a patron at a Denny’s restaurant in the 1970s. When served toast with a cold, right-from-the-refrigerator butter pat on top – rather than melted butter as advertised on the menu — Malcolm Douglas Stroud deducted 25 cents from his check. A Denny’s employee made a citizen’s arrest; Stroud countered with a suit for malicious prosecution and was awarded $10,600 in damages by an Oregon court.

© Jan Whitaker, 2015

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The dining room light and dark

lightingcongresshotel

Diners are not usually aware of lighting in restaurants but it plays an important role in making them comfortable – or not – and in conveying a sense of what kind of space they are in.

Although psychologists say that humans, like other animals, prefer to eat in a dim, safe space like a cave, darkness has not always been prized. The specific meaning of lightness and darkness in restaurants is encoded in history and has varied through the decades.

Here is the simplified version: In the 19th century darkness in an eating place usually signaled that it was disreputable, that it entertained the sort of guests who would not be welcome in polite society. But this equation changed in the 20th century as it became easier and cheaper to provide light. Places with bright lights, first thought attractive, became viewed by many as garish and cheap. Darkness, or at least a degree of dimness, now became associated with fashionability and “atmosphere.”

Through much of the 19th century darkness was associated with poverty and vice. The average oyster cellar was a below-ground dive possessing the three Ds: darkness, dampness, and dirt. A visitor to one of these places in New York in 1845 described rickety chairs and walls blackened with smoke. Overall, he wrote, it was “so dark and damp that the bivalves might have fancied themselves in their native mud.” By contrast a first-class oyster house was set apart from the rest by its bright gaslights, damask draperies, marble topped tables, crystal decanters, large mirrors, and paintings of scantily clad women.

The notion that dark equals dirty has not vanished even today. Unless a restaurant is in the luxury or upscale class, darkness is suspicious. Starting in the teens, inexpensive chain restaurants specializing in fast food were always bright, not only to prove to customers that they were clean but also because bright lights kept customers from lingering.

A few restaurants installed electric lighting in the 1880s, though it was unreliable. On Feb. 27, 1885, Edmund Hill proudly recorded in his diary that his Trenton NJ restaurant, “Had the electric light running for the first time.”

lightingPickensSC

Many more restaurants had electricity by the early 20th century though it had not yet achieved universal status. Some regions of the country still lacked electrification. Even in areas that were lucky enough to have electricity, a single naked bulb dangling from a wire might provide the only illumination in lowly rural cafes. Brightness continued to be equated with good times, especially if a restaurant hired musicians and catered to a late night crowd.

But as inexpensive “quick lunch” urban restaurants installed electric lighting, the glamour of brightness began to fade. Discerning customers at the forefront of taste trends rejected bright, noisy places, viewing them as vulgar. They preferred quiet intimacy in dining, with low lights, or shaded candles.

A widespread belief held that it was women who especially preferred dim lighting since it was more flattering. True or not, tea rooms, quintessential women’s haunts, often used candles. On the other hand, restaurants that advertised bright lighting, such as the 1960s chain Abner’s Beef House (“lighted brightly to let you see what you’re eating – like hunks of steak in a long fun bun”) pitched to male customers.

lightingfritzel's1950By the 1920s lighting had become an art. The best lighted restaurants were carefully designed using various types of illumination. Emphasis shifted from fancy light fixtures such as chandeliers to the quality of light that fixtures gave. The goal espoused by modern lighting experts and designers became to have adequately bright, but not glaring general illumination, with soft, warm lighting focused on the table. Around 1950 Fritzel’s in Chicago was designed using sophisticated lighting which combined ceiling and wall fixtures with recessed lighting from an architectural feature. [pictured]

Designers hated fluorescent lighting. As a lighting designer wrote in 1950: “Aesthetically, the worst development probably in the whole history of lighting is the fluorescent tube, which emits its eerie cold glare in unknown thousands of public rooms all over America.” Many small town cafes, however, continued to use fluorescent lighting since it was more economical. Equally common in 20th-century lunch rooms were plain white globes descending from chains.

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Although lighting experts say it’s all about the light, that has not stopped restaurants from using eye-catching novelty fixtures. Nothing stands out like the “light trees” used in luxurious dining rooms such as one in the Congress Hotel ca. 1915 [pictured above]. Wagonwheels also come to mind as one of the most overused examples, but there have been many others, such as Japanese lanterns, glass footballs, and battered brass buckets.

© Jan Whitaker, 2015

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Dining at sea

diningatsea911

When I look at this 1950 menu from the Ile de France I am struck by how simple the dinner seems to be. (Also very curious about Chicago Soup.)

I have just returned from a transatlantic voyage on the Queen Mary 2, and can report that the shipboard dining experience of today has been upscaled a great deal compared to the menu of 65 years ago. And there is a great deal more choice. But whether the food is superior in quality or flavor to what might have been served on the Ile de France is impossible to know.

The lunch menu below provides a good idea of the types of dishes served on the QM2.

Appetizers
Crab, Avocado and Tomato Salad with Espelette Chilli Oil
Sweet Potato and Cauliflower Parcel with Cauliflower Cheese Sauce
Asparagus and Chervil Velouté

Entrees
Poached Fillet of Salmon with Herb Pappardelle and a Tomato and Red Pepper Sauce
Roast Rack of Spring Lamb with Boulangere Potatoes, Crushed Minted Peas and a Mustard Scented Jus
Vegetable Wellington with glazed shalots and chive cream sauce

Desserts
Praline Mousse, Toasted Mashmallows, Carmelised Pecan Nuts, Fudge Sauce and Chocolate Shortbread
Hot Grand Marnier Soufflé with Anglaise Sauce
Continental Cheese Selection with Fig Chutney and Fine Biscuits

Passengers also had their choice of other dining options on the ship, as in the following list. The King’s Court is a self-service buffet with much longer meal times than the dining rooms. Also, significantly, passengers who chose to eat there were not required to meet the dress requirement for the three formal nights held on the ship. They were even allowed to wear denim after 6 p.m (provided they did not stray into other areas of the ship where they might give offense to their better dressed peers).

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There is also a Todd English restaurant on the ship for anyone who wanted to take a break from the Brittania Restaurant (or, if they were in the highest class, the Queen’s Grill or the Princess Grill). I did not find Todd English worth the extra price since the food and service were quite similar to the Brittania’s.

As for food quality, there was a great deal to choose from and yet I found little of it truly delicious or memorable. It looked much better than it tasted, undoubtedly because the meals served in the dining room were essentially banquet food provided by the food service industry, much of it in a frozen state, and prepared in advance of meal time. Top of the line banquet food, perhaps, but still banquet food. Salads and especially dressings were quite hopeless and often menu descriptions did not give much idea of what the food would actually look like when it arrived at the table. For example, I was expecting a caramelized pear dessert to look like a pear. Instead it looked like a little layered cake and had no discernible pear flavor.

diningatseaQM2

The self-service King’s Court (pictured) was in some ways more satisfactory. There you could assemble your own meal. But even with the many choices of hot and cold food on offer, there were striking absences. Cold drinks in dispensing machines were low quality, as was the too-weak coffee. Sodas, beer, or wine entailed running a tab which showed a strong propensity to mount up an impressive total. Should you crave one, you could get a true English breakfast but no decent toast. The sushi seemed to have pickles in it. Odd seasonings abounded. I could swear that some baked potatoes had been marinated in Kitchen Bouquet. And so on.

diningatsea913On the other hand there was no shortage of one of my favorite foods, cured salmon, which I ate a lot of. You could put it on a bagel for breakfast but not lunch and there was no cream cheese.

Most people seemed quite happy with the food. Only grumps like me or my tablemates who were gardeners and skilled home cooks complained – to each other – about how often meals were tasteless. Dessert eaters were deliriously happy because cakes, mousses, cremes, custards, soft-serve “ice cream,” and other sweets were readily available no matter where you chose to eat. Beautiful pastries and excellent scones were served each day at afternoon tea.

All in all, the food was undoubtedly as good as could be expected. Still, I was thrilled to get back to a diet of simple food — just-picked fruits and vegetables from farm stands, local cheeses, baked bread, fresh fish, and all the other wonderful food available in Western Massachusetts.

© Jan Whitaker, 2015

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Reservations

reservationsJPGtablejpgRestaurant reservations are mainly a 20th century innovation, and yet for the best of customers tables have always been available, no reservations required. A visitor to a Chicago hotel noted in 1888 that a nearby table had chairs tipped, a sign that it was reserved. A number of business men led by packing house magnate Philip Armour walked in and sat down. “Waiters scurried to serve them, and in a twinkling they were attacking their thick steaks as if the meal were a business problem to be solved immediately,” the onlooker recorded in her diary.

It was a common practice to save tables for prominent business men who gathered at the same table daily. In cities with numbers of German-American settlers, such as St. Louis and Washington D.C., the table was known as a Stammtisch and the diners as Stammgäste. At a restaurant in St. Louis conducted by Detlof von der Lippe, tables in alcoves were reserved for different professions. An inset in the 1906 postcard below shows an alcove named The Grind Stone. In the background is The Roost, reserved for tailors, while lumber men sat in The Hoo-Hoo. Which profession met in The Grind Stone is anyone’s guess.

reservationsLippe's

As late as 1957, Harvey’s and the Occidental restaurants in D.C. kept tables for regular groups, as did others in that city. A table at La Salle Du Bois was reserved on Saturdays for businessman Milton S. Kronheim and his “Saturday 12″ composed of Congressmen, civic leaders, and judges. Richard Nixon, then VP, reserved a table there during the week for cabinet members and White House staff.

Of course luxury restaurants such as the Colony automatically reserved tables for wealthy and celebrity regulars too. For them, as for business groups, the rule was that if the party did not arrive within 15 to 30 minutes of their usual schedule, the table would be given to someone else.

reservationsJPG1913Greensboro

If saving tables for the toffs is a longstanding practice, so is resentment by the public when told no tables are available even as they gaze upon a dining room with empty spaces. The problem intensified as taking reservations became more common in the early 20th century with the spread of telephones in restaurants. [1913 advertisement]

reservationsJPGNewYorker1940Reserved tables have often implied to people without them that they were being snubbed and regarded as inferior. And in the case of Afro-Americans this was literally the case. No matter how well dressed, how well mannered, how able to pay, they were likely to be told no tables were available.

Although many Northern states had enacted civil rights laws in the 1880s when the South was instituting segregationist Jim Crow laws, they were rarely enforced. However, an 1889 case in Michigan stands out because of the appeals court judge’s decision for the plaintiff who had been told he could be seated only at a table in the back reserved for Black patrons at a restaurant in Detroit. Usually things did not work out so well. In the 1920s a Chicago restaurant discontinued taking reservations by telephone after they discovered that a women’s club who had booked tables for 40 was Black. Even the federal Civil Rights Law of 1964 failed to eliminate discrimination. Activist Dick Gregory and others were turned away at an empty restaurant in Tuscaloosa AL in 1965 when the hostess showed them a reservations list with 1,000 names on it.

Whose interests do reservations  primarily serve – the restaurant’s or the guest’s? This is a tricky question, but on balance I’d say restaurants are providing a service that is mostly in the guest’s interests. Although it benefits restaurants to have an idea of how many are coming to dinner, in terms of staffing and provisioning, there are also drawbacks. A popular restaurant may actually lose money by taking reservations because tables are not constantly producing revenue throughout a busy mealtime. With reservations, tables are bound to sit empty between guests. What’s worse, a percentage of reservations will not show up nor call to cancel, despite a restaurant’s telephoned confirmation or penalty charges.

reservationsJPGrestaurantpagersThe no-show problem developed into a major headache for restaurants in the 1980s. Restaurants that normally got a lot of tourists and sporting event fans suffered the most, and some reported they went into the red on nights when up to 30% of reserved tables went unfilled. It comes as no surprise, therefore, that so many popular dinner-house restaurant chains take no reservations on busy nights. As long as there are plenty of guests willing to wait up to an hour and a half, the decision is 100% rational. Most of these restaurants – such as the Cheesecake Factory – hand out pagers that permit people to stroll around or go shopping until they are buzzed, a system that came into use in the late 1980s.

For those of us who prefer to go to restaurants that still take reservations comes the dawning realization that we are very likely paying a premium for the privilege. And soon we might be paying for the reservation itself, according to a recent story in the Atlantic.

© Jan Whitaker, 2015

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100 years of quotations

In addition to collecting restaurant menus, photographs, postcards, business cards, matchcovers, etc., I also collect words. Here are some choice quotations by, for, and about restaurants ranging from 1880 to 1980 that I’ve carefully selected to reflect the progression of American restaurants and customers’ relation to them.

In my opinion, they convey a richer and truer sense of restaurant history than would a conventional “timeline.” Funny too.

2lbSteak1880 “Whenever I feel possessed of an appetite that has any stability about it I go to a place where I find butchers dining. There order the juicy steaks and the mealy potato.”

1883 “The Restaurants and Cafes of Boston number nearly 500. Excepting those connected with hotels, there are not many worthy of particular mention.”

1893Bowerywaiter1884 “The waiters, with a dexterity which could only have been acquired through long practice, stood off and shied the dishes at the tables from a distance of three or four feet.”

1888 “Eating is a matter of business with Americans. They do it as they perform all other kinds of work – on the rush.”

1891 “No time for persuasion is as good as meal time, and so Mr. Close has hung the walls of his eating-house with texts from the Bible wherever the space is not needed for bill of fare placards.”

1894 “When a waiter shoves a bill of fare under a man’s nose nine times out of ten he will look it over and then say: ‘Gimme a steak and some fried potatoes.’”

1895 “The whizz of the big ventilating fans, the cries of the waiters, the clash of the heavy dishes and the clang of the cash register bell, all combine into a roar that has come to be the unnoticed and everyday accompaniment to the busy man’s lunch.”

1897 “Mr. Pundt, today or tomorrow, will place a 20-pound pig in front frozen in a block of ice, and that is something brand new in these latitudes, and is quite a credit to his fine taste.”

1901 “From Maine to California, from Florida to Wisconsin, the same choice of food is offered, all cooked and served in the same way.”

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1906 “One in twenty cooks and waiters may be counted upon as steady and worth while. The rest will come and go in any and all fashions.”

1909 “What sense is there in calling potatoes ‘Pommes de terre,” oysters ‘huitres,’ soups ‘potages,’ and so on through a lot of lingual fol-de-rol, when plain everyday English would tell the story comprehensively?”

PoodleDogwinelist1912 “Like all good things, it had imitators, and there have been no less than four Poodle Dogs and two Pups, each claiming to be a direct descendant of the original. Like ‘strictly fresh eggs,’ ‘fresh eggs’ and plain ‘eggs,’ we now have the Old Poodle Dog, the New Poodle Dog and the plain Poodle Dog.”

1915 “It’s an age of standardization, and one restaurant is now much like every other, barring minor differences.”

1916 “It was a typical New York courtship. They visited restaurants of all degrees.”

1917 “At the present time, to quote Professor Ellwood, the modern family performs scarcely no industrial activities, except the preparation of food for immediate consumption, and even this activity with the advent of the bakery, cafeteria, café, and hotel seems about to disappear from the home.”

waitressbeingkissed1920 “The men who patronize the cheaper restaurants look upon the waitress as a social equal and any man who comes in other than the rush hour expects a little visit with her.”

1922 “Places with old fashioned names and old fashioned furnishings should have waitresses in old fashioned costumes.”

1923 “A pronounced tendency of modern life is for people to eat out.”

1924 “All of the newcomers, the ‘Pig ‘n Whistles,’ the ‘Cat ‘n Fiddles,’ the ‘Lunchettes,’ the ‘Luncheonettes,’ the ‘Have-A-Bites’ and the What-Nots are now successfully bidding for the public favor.”

1927 “We serve the only real ‘Sho-nuff’ Down Home Plantation Dinner in Boston.”

1928 “Yet I have seen menus as tedious to read as a Theodore Dreiser novel. Beyond a certain number of well chosen dishes there is only distressing monotony.”

1929 “The little pink-curtained tea room that calls itself so disarmingly ‘Aunt Rosie’s Nook’ has bought its provisions on just such a system as Sing Sing employs.”

1932 “No lunch counter fails to add a leaf of lettuce to any sandwich that passes across the counter. No hotel or restaurant can do without lettuce. Lettuce is a habit.”

1934 “Cocktails at five o’clock used to be considered the privilege of the leisure class, but today in every white tile restaurant as well as the swankiest oasis men and women gather.”

sandwichshopWally'sNYC1937 “The peculiarly American contributions to restaurant types are establishments meeting the demand for speed combined with economy: the cafeteria, automat, fountain lunch, sandwich shop and drug store counter.”

1940 “I’m running a joint. It’s a good one, but it’s a road joint, started on a shoestring, called Kum Inn.”

1941 “A sure omen of a good tip is an order for scotch and soda before the meal.”

primex1941 “Tons and tons of Primex go into the frying kettles of The Flame each year. In fact, for eleven years this uniform quality fat has helped this famous Duluth restaurant build an enviable reputation for delicious fried foods.”

1943 “The days of ignoring lobster and hard to handle fish listed on restaurant menus are gone for the time being, and to help the perplexed diner we’ll list a few tips on tackling the denizens of the deep.”

1946 “Chromium may be all very well for an inexpensive place where your customers come for the most part from dull middle-class homes, so glitter and shine represent their escape.”

1951 “In whatever region he is traveling, the American tourist soon finds that good simple American cooking is an elusive myth.”

1952 “How to Do Simple Dish that Looks Fancy, Tastes Fancy and Costs Thirty-Eight Cents per Portion!”

Mcdonald'snearChicago1954 “Own Your Own Business – A Proven Investment – McDonald’s Speedee Hamburger – Franchises Available – A sensation in California and Arizona, showing profits well into 5 figures!”

1957 “Would you believe that in old Boston you could be transported to a native Polynesian Village surrounded by the lush, beautiful and exotic atmosphere of the South Pacific?”

Manhattan1959 “The much maligned cocktail has kept many a restaurant solvent.”

1960 “The Ark was built here in Wilmington in 1922 and has served as an army troop transport, a banana boat, a gambling boat and as a coast guard quarter boat until purchased by Eldridge Fergus in 1951 and converted into a floating restaurant.”

1961 “At present, the amount of space needed for rough food preparation is smaller than before, while the area needed for frozen and dry foods must be larger. This is the result of the growing popularity among restaurant owners of pre-portioned and frozen food.”

1963 “Tad’s plush decor offsets any machine-like atmosphere. Red velour wall coverings and globe lighting creates an 1890s setting for a 1970 operation.”

1966 “Historic decor, the chef who cooks his steaks on a bed spring or an anvil, and the place where ‘famous people dine there’ all offer that ‘something extra’ a man needs to draw him out.”

1967 “When you enter the Buckingham Inn it’s like stepping into a charming old English Inn. There’s a feeling that you have stepped into one of the inns from the Canterbury tales that you read about in childhood.”

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1968 “There is nothing complicated about roast beef. Its relatively high cost can be offset not only by volume sales, plus volume beverage sales, but by the ease with which employees can be trained to produce and serve roast beef.”

1970 “The Grand is an old-fashioned, slightly grubby, mildly tumultuous restaurant, but nonetheless pleasant. The food is often heavy, the waiters on the ancient side, the furnishings worn; but you come away with the feeling that you got your money’s worth and your day has been enhanced.”

1973 “Pre-prepared frozen beef slices, chunks or tips may be transformed into a variety of nationality dishes, such as Russian, Italian, Mexican, Hungarian and Oriental.”

1976 “Journey to prehistoric days via the stone-age decor and  hearty feasting on Unique Appetizers, Fresh Seafood, Steaks, Barbeque Ribs; all complimented by an elegant Silver Salad Bar.”

1978 “A new definition of fresh must take into account that the potato salad, coleslaw or chicken salad you were served at lunch may have been more than a month old.”

1980 “In an adjective count we made from about 100 menus, by far the most common items were hot and fresh, with fresh considerably in the lead.”

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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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