I’ll never forget a meal I once had at a local inn – where I went against my better judgment to entertain a visitor entranced by New England quaintness. To accompany whatever it was I ordered I received a little side dish with two whole boiled potatoes ladled with tomato sauce. As they would have said so eloquently in the 19th century, what an abomination!
Observations about bad food in restaurants span the ages. But in gathering together these comments I noticed a curious thing. Despite the incursion of frozen food and other shortcuts into 1950s restaurant kitchens, that decade’s reviews were strangely upbeat. Not totally surprising to me because I consider the 1950s the “Everything is ok!” decade. For instance a newspaper review in 1959 noted that Tad’s Steak House in Chicago featured “low price steak on assembly line basis,” but removed all the negative implications by immediately asserting “you seldom find a toughie.” Yet, as diners from every other decade reveal below, eating out has always been chancy.
1790 “Whether you call for breakfast, dinner, or supper, it is all one; the constant fare is bacon and eggs.”
1823 “In vain you ask for French soup – a basin of thin water-gruelly kind of admixture is served up, with scarcely any flavour of meat … and the ghosts of carrot slicings, with rice nearly raw…”
1832 “All the food was of the cheapest kind, and cooked in the most atrocious style. The steaks were burnt leather, the sausages were hard, and in gravy like tallow; the potatoes were cold and watery, and bit like an apple…”
1843 “The dressed dishes were decidedly bad, the sauces being composed of little else than liquid grease, which to a person like myself, who has an inherent detestation of every modification of oleaginous matter, was an objection altogether insuperable.”
1865 “All the articles they parade on their bills of fare, from pork and beans to meringues and Charlottes, have a peculiarly mauvais gout … many things look good to the eye but do not taste good, as their odor reveals, and if the eater shut his eyes he would not know what he was eating at all…”
1872 The average hotel dinner at an American-plan resort hotel “is an unwholesome mass of ill-cooked and indigestible abominations … greasy soup, the tasteless meats, the sodden vegetables, the thousand and one unsavorinesses with French names.”
1880 “[The oyster pie] is like a small cart-wheel, of pale complexion, and most uncertain age. When one is called for it is steamed a little to take the rheumatism out of the oysters, and then, after being drowned in a milky compound, is placed in a condition of fragrant hotness and pliability before the devourer.”
1885 “An unordered boiled potato, with the skin on, is the second grand characteristic of an American dining saloon. It matters not what meal it is, the boiled potato will always appear…”
1897 “The potatoes are mostly soggy boiled or salvy mashed, the corn and peas are overripe and overdone, and may properly be described as ‘fodder.’ The eggplant is greasy. If the turnip and squash get misplaced no one can tell them apart.”
1903 “We are now in the season when the discreet diner shudders at the thought of the typical table d’hote, with its greasy soup, its fragment of doubtful fish, its over-rich entree submerged in thick gravy, its choice of roast chicken or roast beef – which taste exactly alike – its impossible pudding, equally impossible pie or cubic inch of factory ice cream, its microscopic fragment of crumbly Brie, dry Swiss, or leather-colored Camembert cheese, and its demi tasse of black coffee.”
1908 “Most of the restaurants in which I’ve cooked have a stock pot. All the bones and scraps of meat that are left on the plates are thrown into this pot. … Every day [the cook] takes out enough to make the soup and whatever dirt and filth has gotten into the mass of bone and meat is skimmed off while the soup is boiling. For instance, when you scatter cigarette ashes over the remains of a steak and throw the butt in the plate, you can congratulate yourself on having helped to flavor the next day’s soup.”
1914 “I had a sandwich that was made of dry bread, cut so thick at one end that a man would break his jaw trying to bite it. … The meat was evidently cut with a rip saw and when I tried to eat it, the bread broke, leaving the meat hanging from my mouth, at which a couple of [women] gave me the laugh.”
1922 “On one vast surface [of the “platter dinner”] the jumble is made ready …, an offense to the eye and, more serious, to the palate. To eat so many things together is to taste nothing. Most serious of all, the jumble must be eaten at top speed or else it grows stone cold, reduced to a loathsome swamp of grease before the platter can be cleared.”
1932 “It is safe to say that a combination of caviar, tuna fish, canned shrimps, mayonnaise, whipped cream and lemon juice might puzzle anyone who survived the eating of it.”
1947 “Most Chef’s Specials are ground-up leftovers. … I steer clear of hashes and meatloaves with fancy names, and from dishes disguised with French names that don’t mean anything in a Mid-west hotel. I always dodge chicken a la king, if it is offered at bargain prices…”
1965 “The menu is a genuine jumble of dishes including egg roll, antipasto and the Reuben sandwich. … The Mexican dishes are not recommended. They taste for all the world like TV dinners.”
1974 “Food for the chain is assembled by technicians in Cleveland. … The ‘gourmet’ menu that day featured a veal-crabmeat-and-whipped-cream concoction, and in the absence of pastry, the most popular dessert was orange sherbet with chocolate sauce.”
1988 “The salad was soggy, as though it had been premade in large batches. The rigatoni was overcooked and came with thin sauce, tasteless sausage and good rib meat. The steak was bizarre — a good piece of sirloin thinly breaded for no apparent reason and covered with what tasted like a nutmeg sauce.”
© Jan Whitaker, 2011
2 responses to ““1001 unsavorinesses””
Do you have any pictures of Toffenetti’s Restaurant? My Father was a manager there for many years. It would be nice to see pictures. Thank you very much… Doreen 🙂
New York or Chicago?