All the salad you can eat

The salad bar most likely developed from the Americanized version of the smorgasbord which, by the 1950s, had shed its Swedish overtones and turned into an all-you-can-eat buffet. The smorg concept lingered on for a while in the form of salad “tables” holding appetizers and a half dozen or so complete salads typically anchored by three-bean, macaroni, and gelatin. Eventually someone came up with the idea of simply providing components in accordance with the classic three-part American salad which structurally resembles the ice cream sundae: (1) a base, smothered with (2) a generous pouring of sauce, and finished with (3) abundant garnishes. Or, as a restaurant reviewer summarized it in the 1980s, “herbage, lubricant and crunchies.”

Whatever its origins, the salad bar as we know it – with its hallmark cherry tomatoes, bacon bits, and crocks full of raspberry and ranch dressings — became a restaurant fixture in the 1970s. Introduced as a novelty to convey hospitable “horn-of-plenty” abundance and to mollify guests waiting for their meat, it became so commonplace that the real novelty was a restaurant without one. Though strongly associated with steakhouses, particularly inexpensive chains, salad bars infiltrated restaurants of all sorts except, perhaps, for those at the pinnacle of fine dining. Salad bars were positively unstoppable at the Joshua Trees, the Beef ’n Barrels, and the Victoria Stations, some of which cunningly staged their salad fixings on vintage baggage carts, barrels, and the like.

Although industry consultants advised that a salad bar using pre-prepared items could increase sales while eliminating a pantry worker, restaurant managers often found that maintaining a salad setup was actually a full-time task. Tomatoes and garbanzos had a tendency to roll across the floor, dressings splashed onto clear plastic sneeze-guards, and croutons inevitably fell into the olde-tyme soup kettle.

The hygienic sneeze-guard came into use after World War II, first in schools and hospital cafeterias. Although a version of it had made its appearance in commercial restaurants in the early 20th century with the growth of cafeterias, many restaurants served food buffet style into the 1950s and 1960s without using any kind of barrier. The Minneapolis Board of Health required that uncovered smorgasbords either install sneeze-guards or close down in 1952, but it seems that their use did not become commonplace nationwide until the 1970s. Eklund’s Sweden House in Rockford IL thought it was novel enough to specifically mention in an advertisement in 1967. Massachusetts ordered them to be used in restaurants with buffets or salad bars in 1975.

On the whole salad bars went over well with the public – and still do — but by the late 1970s professional restaurant critics were finding it hard to hide their disdain. Judging them mediocre, some blamed customers who were gullible enough to believe they were getting a bargain. Others were wistful, such as the forbearing reviewer in Columbia, Missouri, who confessed, “It would be a nice change to get something besides a tossed make-it-yourself salad, and to have it brought to the table.” The trend at the Missouri college town’s restaurants, however, was in the opposite direction. In the 1980s Faddenhappi’s and Katy Station ramped up competition by offering premium salad makings such as almonds and broccoli while Western Sizzlin’ Steaks pioneered a potato bar.

© Jan Whitaker, 2017

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Find of the day, almost

Over the weekend I went to Brimfield to see what the postcard dealers had to offer. As usual I was determined to come home with a “find.” But, no. The card that I thought might qualify turns out to be that of a tourist café in Montmartre that is enmeshed in dubious lore and still in business today just down the street from a Starbucks.

The Mère Catherine [Mother Catherine] looks so unpretentious on the ca. 1950s postcard that I wanted to believe it was a relatively unknown little café. I doubted I could learn much about it through research. However, instead I found many stories, most of them glorified puff pieces starting in the late 1920s.

The stories I rounded up are full of contradictions. Mère Catherine was established either in 1793 or in the 1830s. Mère Catherine herself was either the restaurant’s founder in 1793 and died in 1844 or she was the owner in 1939.

As I continued to search for Mère Catherine’s history the more confused I became. It appears that for much of its history Mère Catherine was more of a drinking place than the eating place it became in the 20th century. One article said it hosted impoverished singers who were allowed to bring food there to eat.

An image of the restaurant from 1897 shows the name then as Maison Catherine Lamothe. Might its founder have been the same Catherine La Mothe who was born in 1766 in Bourges, France? Or was there ever an actual Catherine Lamothe at all? An 1897 publication about Montmartre’s history suggested that Catherine and Lamothe were two different women, both wine merchants on Rue du Tertre once upon a time. After I read that I started to think I could make out a nearly invisible hyphen between the two names on the sign shown on the ca. 1897 photograph above. But maybe I was seeing things.

A brief mention of the restaurant at the end of the 19th century described it as an “ancient”, low-ceilinged cabaret that was popular with artists. The same paragraph reported that Mère Catherine left the business to her son who then sold it to someone else. At one point it was owned by a man nicknamed “Gros Guillaume.” In the late 1920s, when it was first publicized by newspaper columnists in the U.S., it was known as Chez Lemoine, and was popular for its billiards tables. [image] During the German occupation of World War II and into the 1960s it was owned by people named Meriguet.

The restaurant appeared in a 1928 Swedish film by the name of “Sin” (Synd), directed by Gustaf Molander who also directed Ingrid Bergman in Intermezzo. The two movies have remarkably similar plots. In Sin, Mère Catherine is living in the 1920s and running a Montmartre restaurant with the same checkered tablecloths as are visible in my newly acquired postcard. She tries to prevent a young playwright with a wife and daughter from falling for a femme fatale who seduces him while she is starring in his play. [see above]

In the end, I am skeptical of the legend of Mère Catherine, but don’t know what the real story is either.

At least I have one small consolation. The postcard I bought at Brimfield for $2 is being offered on e-Bay for 79 Euros ($86.80). But I’ll be surprised if it gets a bid at that price.

© Jan Whitaker, 2017

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Famous in its day: The Bakery

Louis Szathmary’s restaurant, The Bakery, opened in Chicago at a time when restaurant going in that city was not a very exciting proposition. Amidst the steak and potatoes of 1963, its pâté, bouillabaisse, Wiener schnitzel, and Viennese tortes stood out as exotic. Despite its storefront location in a run-down neighborhood – and no decor to speak of — the 25-seat neighborhood restaurant became an instant success. A little more than a year after it opened it was given a distinguished dining award by Holiday magazine. Reservations became hard to get.

The first review of The Bakery described it as a table d’hôte offering a set dinner that began with pâté, possibly followed by celery soup, shredded celery root salad with handmade mayonnaise, and Filet of Pike with Sauce Louis. By 1975 the number of entree choices for the then-$12 five-course dinner had extended to ten, with Beef Wellington and Roast Duckling with Cherry Glaze [pictured] among the most popular. Even as Beef Wellington lost its fashionability in the 1970s and 1980s, it continued as a Bakery mainstay. In 1989, as the restaurant was about to close, Szathmary said that although current food writers made fun of it, “they all raved about it once, and I know 50 percent of our sales after 26 years is still beef Wellington.”

Szathmary, who claimed a Ph.D. in psychology from the University of Budapest, had learned to cook in Hungary during WWII when he was conscripted into the Hungarian army. He arrived in the US in 1951, working as a chef in several institutional settings in the Northeast before moving to Chicago in 1960 to join Armour & Co. in product development. As executive chef at Armour he helped launch the company’s Continental Cuisine line of frozen entrees for the home and commercial market that came in polybags that could be immersed in boiling water and served.

Among the first eating places to serve entrees from Armour’s Continental Cuisine and American Fare lines were Holiday Inn motels and the Seagram Tower at Niagara Falls. Dishes available in the two lines included beef burgundy, chuck wagon beef stew, turkey and crabmeat tetrazzini, chow mein, shrimp creole, and barbecued pork fried rice. Only months before opening The Bakery, Chef Louis (as he was popularly known) had been training the staff of a Michigan gas-station-restaurant complex aptly named The American Way how to heat and serve Armour’s bagged entrees.

After he left Armour to concentrate on The Bakery, Chef Louis continued to praise the use of convenience foods in restaurants. He published a column titled “Use Psychology on Your Customers” in a trade magazine in 1965 in which he urged restaurant managers to be honest about the food they served. He conceded that because he knew many of his guests were suspicious of frozen foods, he did not apologize when he took them on a tour of his storage areas. Although he sometimes used frozen foods, he said he always revealed that on his menus. In a July 1968 column for the trade magazine Food Service, he insisted that the restaurant industry should welcome factory-produced food because of the shortage of help at a time when restaurant patronage was on the rise.

That column brought forth a protest from fellow Hungarian-born restaurateur George Lang of the elegant Four Seasons in NYC. Lang wrote, “I would very much like to preserve the level of cooking and the niveau [peak] of gastronomy that we practice at the Four Seasons.” To this Chef Louis replied that he was simply trying to be provocative. Not much later he boasted that he had the distinction of being fired as a consultant to Restaurant Associates (owner of the Four Seasons) – as well as caterer to Playboy founder Hugh Hefner.

With his fingers in many pies, Chef Louis was assisted by his wife Sada and a contingent of relatives, not to mention quite of few of his compatriots from Hungary who served in The Bakery’s kitchen and dining room (one going so far as to grow his own handlebar mustache). No doubt it was his loyal staff who made it possible for him to run a restaurant while producing books and copious newspaper and magazine articles, appearing frequently on TV and radio, teaching and lecturing at colleges, and conducting sideline restaurant consulting and cooking school businesses [shown above training waiters]. Always a showman, the flamboyant Chef Louis gave talks with titles such as “The Naked Ape and the Frying Pan,” and another in which he compared his ex-wives unfavorably to a bottle of Angostura bitters that had lasted longer and never got spoiled.

In addition to The Bakery, he owned or co-owned two other restaurants managed by his wife’s sister and brother-in-law, the Kobatas. The Cave, in Old Town, opened shortly after The Bakery. Its interior of papier mache simulated the walls of a cave covered with prehistoric drawings as researched by Chef Louis. In 1970 he opened Bowl & Roll, another family-wide venture drawing in not only the Kobatas but also the mothers of both Louis and Sada, plus Louis’ brother and sister-in-law. In an opening advertisement Bowl & Roll promised a range of unusual soups such as Hungarian sour cherry soup, Scandinavian fruit soup, and kohlrabi soup.

In the mid-1970s The Bakery’s reputation began to sag somewhat along with “continental cuisine” generally. Critic John Hess, in 1974, questioned the high regard that Holiday magazine bestowed on The Bakery and declared its Beef Wellington “the quintessence of the pretentious gourmet plague.” Patrons sent letters to Chicago newspapers saying the Roast Duckling was as “tough as an auto tire,” and charging that the restaurant’s acclaim was based on “mass hysteria” whipped up by Chef Louis himself. Chicagoans were sharply divided into lovers and haters. For two years in the 1970s readers polled by Chicago Magazine voted The Bakery as one of both the city’s 10 favorite and 10 least favorite restaurants. Still, in 1977 Cornell University named it one of the country’s six great restaurants, and, despite its loudly banging front door, too-brisk service, lack of decor, and awkward layout, its loyal patrons stuck by it and it remained profitable to the end.

At the 1989 closing Chef Louis said that the restaurant business had changed so much he could not have successfully created a restaurant such as The Bakery then, partly because of the public’s growing preference for lighter food. He declared he was proud that he “never served one kiwi fruit.”

Chef Louis stayed busy in retirement and donated his vast cookbook and culinary arts collection to libraries at the University of Iowa and Johnson & Wales University.

© Jan Whitaker, 2017

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Training department store waitresses

It is said that department stores of the 20th century offered “luxury for the masses.” This was nowhere as evident as in the stores’ tea rooms.

A shining example was the tea room at Younkers Department Store in Des Moines, Iowa. Although residents of large coastal cities might imagine that their stores were the most luxurious and elegant, this was not strictly true. Department stores in smaller cities often had much higher status and influence in the eyes of their customers. In the case of Younkers, the flagship store was located near the middle of the state, making the store accessible to the entire population of Iowa. It is hardly surprising that it adopted the motto “Iowa’s Foremost Mercantile Establishment.”

And so the store’s tea room absolutely had to be a superior eating place, one that drew countless individuals, clubs, families, sororities, and professional organizations from every point in the state.

Although a tea room was first opened in 1913 in the original Younkers building, the one familiar to Iowans living today was opened in the mid-1920s after Younkers acquired the neighboring Wilkins Department store and built a narrow 4-story bridge between the two buildings in 1924. The new tea room on the 6th floor of the Wilkins building had ceilings over 18 feet tall, chandeliers, grand columns, and large arched windows. Patrons sat on federal-style urn-back chairs at tables with white tablecloths and stemmed water glasses. In addition to the main tea room seating 350 persons, there were several party and meeting rooms. A lounge outside the main tea room was decorated in Spanish revival style.

Recently I found a Tea Room Waitress Service Manual for Younkers, probably dating from the 1930s. [part of page 1 shown] It reveals the high standard of service expected from the staff, despite the fact that prices were moderate. Though undoubtedly predominantly white and culturally homogeneous, Younkers patrons represented a cross-section of ordinary Iowans. Yet in many ways the tea room aspired to the quality of appointments and service only found in certain expensive restaurants today.

The manual instructs waitresses that they must wear plain black shoes without “fancy stitching” or buckles. Uniforms were colored and came with a white apron, white collar, cuffs, and headband. Perfect alignment was required in all things. When dressing, for example, the “collar must fit in exact V in front, black bow straight at point of V.” The servers were to stand straight, “never . . . with hands on hips.” Light makeup was permitted but no jewelry other than a wedding ring.

Alignment in setting the tables was equally critical. The two creases of a tablecloth had to “come together in center of table.” Knives were to be placed to the right of the plate with the sharp edge facing inward, “one inch from edge of table.” Salt and pepper shakers were to be “placed straight with lines of table.” When doilies were used for parties, servers were to “Be careful to place linen straight, if round doilies, thread of linen should run parallel to edge of table.” The tip of a slice of pie had to point “directly to customer.”

Of course great care was demanded in all things. Fingerbowls were to be presented on a saucer. Dishes were to be served holding a folded towel underneath. After filling water glasses before guests arrived for a party, the waitress was instructed to “Check the chairseats for any drops of water.” And of course, “Make as little noise as possible in handling silverware, dishes, and trays at all times.” To insure silence, trays were to be set down upon pads, particularly in the evening.

It is easy to see why so many Iowans were sad to see Younkers flagship store close in 2005.

© Jan Whitaker, 2017

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Chocolate on the menu

Chocolate concoctions have always been found in the dessert section of restaurant menus. Right? You’ve already figured out that I’m going to say no. But, naturally, it’s a bit more complicated than that.

Until the later 19th century the main form in which Americans consumed chocolate in public eating places was not as a dessert but as a hot beverage.

Confusion arises over the meaning of dessert, which is used in various ways on American menus. In the 19th century, dessert often was the very last course, coming after “Pastry,” which included pies, cakes, puddings, and ice cream. In this case dessert meant fruit and nuts. But sometimes ice cream was listed under dessert. For example, the Hancock House hotel in Quincy MA displayed the following on a menu in June of 1853:

Puddings & Pastry
Sago Custards, Apple Pies, Mince Pies, Rhubarb Pies, Custards, Tarts
Dessert
Blanc Mange, Oranges, Almonds, Raisins, Strawberries, Ice Cream

In cheaper eating places, there was no fruit or nuts and dessert came closer to what we mean  today, which is how I will use it for the rest of this post – referring to sweet dishes that come toward the end of the meal and are rarely nuts and usually other than simple fruit.

The absence of anything chocolate on the Hancock House menu was not unusual for that time. I looked at quite a lot of menus – of course only a fraction of those still existing – and the first instance of chocolate other than as a beverage that I found was chocolate ice cream in the 1860s. It was not too unusual to find chocolate eclairs on a menu in the later 19th century, and chocolate cake turned up in the 1890s. According to an entry in The Oxford Companion to Food and Drink, however, chocolate cake in the late 1800s could refer to yellow cake with chocolate frosting.

By the early 20th century chocolate appeared on menus in various forms: as pudding, layer cake, devil’s food cake, ice cream, eclairs, and ice cream sodas and sundaes. In the 1920s, chocolate shops appeared and were similar to tea shops. They offered light meals, desserts, and chocolate as a drink or as candy, and other desserts. They were popular with women, as were department store tea rooms, another type of eating place that was heavy on sweet things. In the case of Shillito’s department store in Cincinnati, a 1947 menu offered quite a few chocolate treats.

Toasted Pecan Ice Cream Ball with Hot Fudge Sauce 35
Apple Pie 20
Black Raspberry Pie 20
Banana Cream Pie 20
Pineapple Layer Cake 20
Shillito’s Special Fudge Cake 20
Chocolate Doublette with Mint Ice Cream and Fudge Sauce 35
Chocolate Luxurro 35
Hot Fudge Sundae 25
Vanilla Ice Cream with Nesselrode Sauce 25
Fresh Peach Parfait 30
Pineapple or Orange Sherbet 15
Vanilla, Fresh Peach, Chocolate or Mint Ice Cream 20

Starting in the 1970s and reaching a high point in the 1980s began a chocolate frenzy that continues today. With the help of restaurant marketing, millions of Americans discovered they were “chocoholics.”

If you stepped into San Francisco’s Pot of Fondue in 1970 you could do Cheese Fondue for an appetizer, Beef  Bourguignonne Fondue as a main dish, and Chocolate Fondue for dessert. But the Aware Inn in Los Angeles pointed more forcefully at dessert trends to come with its 1970s “dangerous Chocolate Cream Supreme” costing $2 and described as “somewhere between chocolate mousse and fudge.”

Adjectives such as “dangerous” continued the sinful metaphor conveyed earlier by “devil’s food.” Soon “special” chocolate desserts were named for immoral inclinations (“decadence”) or perhaps fatal pleasures (“death by chocolate,” “killer cake”). All this led at least one journalist to protest against the unsubtle marketing of chocolate desserts in the 1980s. She pleaded with servers: “Do not expect me to swoon when you roll back your eyes in ecstasy as you recite a dessert list that offers nothing but chocolate, via cheesecake, chip cake, profiterols, madeleine, mousse, bombe, eclair, napoleon, torte, tart or brownie.”

From restaurant reviews from the 1980s it’s noticeable that most reviewers jumped on the chocolate bandwagon with descriptions along the lines of “scrumptious” chocolate desserts “to die for.” But quite a few were critical, especially of chocolate mousse, which was readily available to restaurants powdered or wet, even “pipeable.” After a 1978 visit to a restaurant expo overflowing with convenience food products, the Washington Post’s restaurant reviewer Phyllis Richman observed, “The final insult of your dinner these days could be chocolate mousse made from a mix, but that is only another in the long line of desecrations in the name of chocolate mousse.” Often critical reviewers deplored chocolate mousse that tasted as if made of instant pudding mix combined with a non-dairy topping product, which very likely it was.

“Chocolate Decadence” cake took a beating in a review by Mimi Sheraton who in 1983 no doubt irritated many chocolate lovers when she referred to the prevalence of “dark, wet chocolate cake that seems greasy and unbaked, the cloying quality of such a sticky mass being synonymous with richness to immature palates.” More recently, what I call a “fantasy escape” restaurant in upstate New York was cited unfavorably for serving a boxed cake provided by a national food service that it merely defrosted, sprinkled with fresh raspberries, grandly named “Towering Chocolate Cake,” and placed on the menu for a goodly price.

Let the buyer aware, but no doubt many restaurant patrons do in fact realize that they are willing co-conspirators in fantasy meals. Along these lines, nothing can be too chocolate-y, triple obviously outdoing double. Decorations of some sort are de rigeur. Along with whipped cream, ultra-chocolate desserts might be adorned with orange rind slivers, raspberry sauce, or dripping frosting. In 1985 the Bennigan’s chain brought their “Death by Chocolate” into the world, consisting of two kinds of chocolate ice cream, chopped up chocolate candy bars, a chocolate cracker crust, with the whole thing dipped in chocolate and served with chocolate syrup on the side.

One theory about what brought about restaurants’ chocolate dessert blitz relates it to declining sales of mixed drinks in the 1980s as patrons became aware of the dangers of drinking and driving. Then, according to a 1985 Wall Street Journal story, elaborate, expensive desserts offered a way to make up for lost cocktail sales. Fancy desserts are undoubtedly higher-profit items than many entrees, but I suspect that another major factor favoring the rise of ultra-chocolate desserts was the culture of consumer indulgence that increased restaurant patronage in the 1970s, 1980s, and beyond.

© Jan Whitaker, 2017

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Restaurant-ing with the Klan

To some degree, a discussion of the Ku Klux Klan’s relationship to restaurants in the early 1920s follows a familiar path that includes KKK members as restaurant owners and patrons. Not such a big deal.

But then there’s how the KKK influenced restaurants — a more disturbing topic, particularly when it gets into threatening restaurant owners, running them out of town, and destroying their businesses.

In the 1920s, the resurgent Klan had a number of targets, not only Blacks, but also Catholics and immigrants. Greek restaurant operators were often singled out. In Goldsboro NC two Greek restaurant operators were chased out of town because they served Black customers, and a similar fate befell a restaurant keeper in Pensacola FL. In that case three carloads of men dressed in long robes and hoods came into the restaurant one night, handing the restaurant man a letter advising him to leave town right away, which he did. A police captain in the restaurant at the time made no effort to arrest them for wearing masks in public, excusing his inaction by saying he thought they were members of a “Greek-letter fraternity.” In St. Louis MO a Greek restaurant operator was threatened with violence if he and his friends — called “low-class immigrants” — did not leave the country.

In Jonesboro AR the Klan called a boycott of businesses owned by Catholics and Jews, which included mills, stores, and restaurants. Anticipating a similar action in Little Rock, many businesses suddenly posted signs advertising they were “100 per cent” or “strictly” American. After a patron left, an “all-American” restaurant owner might have found a card had been left behind similar to the one shown here.

The presence of the KKK in an area, as well as a generally heightened level of intolerance throughout the country, inspired imitators. It was apparently a non-Klan group in Chester PA, who entered a Greek-run restaurant and chased out the customers. Then they formed a circle in the middle of the restaurant, launching their attack upon a signal from the leader. They smashed furniture and crockery and threw a large coffee urn at a worker, resulting in damage running into the thousands of dollars.

The Klan was only one of a number of pre-WWII terrorist groups focused on defending the rights of native-born whites and asserting social and economic control through force. Also, there were irregular mobs that rose up spontaneously in response to perceived assaults on their values and interests. Race riots took place in numerous cities and towns in the early 20th century and especially after WWI. Restaurants were often smashed and burned.

For example, a restaurant owned by Harry Loper in Springfield IL did not survive a race riot in 1908 in which many homes occupied by Blacks were burned. Loper was white, native born, an Elk, and a major in the National Guard. His offense? He loaned his car, one of only two in town, to authorities to spirit two Black prisoners in the city’s jail to safety under threat of lynching. His car was set on fire, and white rioters broke out the restaurant’s windows and smashed the interior furnishings. (see photo at top)

In Muncie IN, a crusading newspaper editor took pains to document all local KKK activity and name the businessmen, police, and other ostensibly respectable citizens who were members. He printed the letter (see above) delivered one night by two black-robed Klansmen on horses warning a white woman not to serve Blacks. He also noted that a number of Klansmen ran restaurants, among them the Blue Bird Inn and another “100% place.” He gloated as they and others failed, concluding that “klucking as business does not pay.”

As for Black-owned restaurants, who knows how many of them went out of business or relocated following mob attacks. There is no comprehensive record, but there are examples. Atlanta had a large number of Black-operated lunchrooms in 1907, the year of its race riot. Charles W. Mosley,  a restaurant owner in Atlanta at the time of the riot, moved his business to Richmond VA a few months later, where he expanded into a hotel, café, and entertainment center with movies, roller skating, and vaudeville performances. During Tulsa’s race riot of 1921, the entire Black Greenwood business district and most residences were destroyed by white rioters, including several dozen eating places.

After looking at the effect of the KKK and their ilk, it seems to me that even after they faded in the late 1920s, they left behind a legacy for decades evident in restaurants that adopted names such as the ever-popular Kozy Korner Kafe and the like.

© Jan Whitaker, 2017

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Diet plates

Dieting for weight loss began to attract attention in the 1920s, reversing the preference for somewhat chubby bodies that preceded it. Before World War I, the word “diet” could equally well refer to a plan of eating designed for gaining weight. Then — and now — the notion of dieting contained contradictions.

A 1905 newspaper story described the phenomenon of the “jiu jitsu girl,” a modern being who took a rational attitude toward her food, either for the purpose of adding or losing pounds. If she wanted to lose weight she drank a lot of water, did gymnastics, and ate only fish, poultry, fresh vegetables, and fruit.

But the weight-losing version of the jiu jitsu girl must have been a rarity in 1905 because restaurant menus took no notice of her. Most of their offerings were more likely to add pounds. Which must be why, when she went into a restaurant, JJ girl tossed aside the menu as she gave her order.

In the 1920s and 1930s, when the so-called Hollywood Diet became the rage, restaurants made a few concessions to dieters by providing the regimen’s staple food, grapefruit. But few if any provided diet menus or special low-calorie dishes.

Whether restaurant patrons tried to cut calories with grapefruit, salads, or zwieback in the 1920s and 1930s, European chefs deplored the trend. Critics said dieting was one of the causes of the downfall of restaurant cuisine in those Prohibition years. Alas, they sighed, art had gone out of restaurant cooking and weight-conscious women were largely to blame.

However, those who took a more businesslike attitude toward restaurants, such as industry publisher J. O. Dahl, recommended that restaurants get with the times. Look through popular magazines, he counseled, and see how very often dieting is discussed. He urged progressive restaurateurs to develop diet menus for their women guests – whose numbers were drastically increasing.

Yet, it wasn’t until the 1950s that dieters received widespread recognition with the arrival of the restaurant diet plate. Shown in all its glory at the top of this page, it was stereotypically a hamburger patty – sometimes referred to as chopped steak – accompanied by cottage cheese topped with canned peach and a limp lettuce leaf on which reposed a wan slice of tomato.

Slight variations happened. Gelatin might accompany or replace canned fruit. Steak houses such as Bonanza and Golden Corral added toast to the plate. Woolworth tucked in saltines (see 1971 Woolworth advertisement below).

To be absolutely fair, some restaurants were a bit more creative in designing diet plates. The National Restaurant Association, recognizing that about 10% of customers were on diets at any given moment in the 1950s, helped develop menus. Perhaps a menu of consommé, celery hearts, 4 oz. minute steak, green beans, and unsugared fruit was one of their suggestions. In 1962 the Town Room in the Sheraton-Dallas relieved diet boredom with “hefty” slimming lunches of Goulash and Shrimp Hawaii.

Putting everything into perspective, even the dispiriting classic diet plate was superior to the liquid diet products that some restaurants put on menus in the early 1960s. For 50 to 75 cents a glass dieters could sip Metrecal (a product of the same company that made Drano and Windex). “Some drugstores find it is giving the hamburger competition,” reported a 1960 story.

By some bizarre logic, places that seemed as though they were havens for non-dieters also offered diet plates. Such as pancake houses and sweets shops. The DoNut Shop in Edwardsville IL had a Weight Watchers Diet Plate and Farrell’s Ice Cream Parlour in Seattle advertised a Low Calorie Diet Plate. Were these nothing but conscience-soothers for customers prepping for ice cream and doughnut binges?

Although I have no doubt you can still find the occasional classic diet plate on a menu today, the hamburger-cottage cheese-peach lunch fell into deep disfavor in the 1980s. Long regarded as boring, by the mid-1980s they were commonly referred to as “old style,” “so-called,” or “1950s diet plates.” Critics argued that in most cases they were not only insipid, but also contained more calories than other menu items.

But it was not the critics who sunk them as much as it was changes in restaurant culture of the late 20th century. Many restaurants upgraded their menus with fresher and lighter food that (usually) had the virtue of being lower in calories. Restaurants specializing in salads became popular.

A sign of changing times was the Chapman Sisters Calorie Counter on Chicago’s Miracle Mile. With a decor that signified “natural,” the casual restaurant had a brick floor, hanging plants, butcher block tables, and walls painted with large apples. Calories were given for each dish on the menu. Even the highest-calorie item, a Spinach and Mushroom Quiche, topped out at about 200 fewer calories than the classic diet plate, and a Tostada Salad came in at 395.

Another example was the 1980s “Light Balance” menu at Tumbledown Dick’s in Cos Cob CT  where no dish had more than 380 calories, whether it was a Vegetable-Stuffed Pita, Chicken Florentine, or Pasta Primavera. The Light Balance menu gave not only calories but also fat, sugar, and sodium content.

In retrospect, as unappetizing, calorie-rich, and unbalanced as the 1950s diet plate was, the irony is that the average American was slimmer during its time.

© Jan Whitaker, 2017

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