We might imagine that in the past the food served in restaurants was grown or raised fairly close to where it was consumed, perhaps that it came from farm to table without delay. Undoubtedly this was true in much of the 19th century when sellers brought their produce as well as live animals to city markets. [NYC’s Washington Market above, ca. 1850s]
Also, some 19th-century restaurants obtained fresh foods directly from farmers and hunters. A Detroit proprietor solicited suppliers with an advertisement in 1861 that said, “Farmers, hunters and others with game of any kind will please call upon William Carson, Carson’s Dining Saloon.”
Yet people living in cities still longed for food grown and raised in front of their eyes. They loved vacationing at country resorts that grew their own food. In 1858, for example, a typical notice appeared in a Baltimore paper about The Seven Fountains in the Blue Ridge Mountains where “The Table is abundantly supplied with Vegetables, Butter and Milk fresh from our own Farm and Dairy.”
Dairy products were perhaps the least satisfactory foods for city dwellers who did not keep their own cows, mainly because of the threat of sick cows kept penned up in cities and fed with swill. Milk that arrived from afar also presented dangers since there was always a good chance it might not be fresh.
Dissatisfaction with the milk supply opened up opportunities for dairies near cities. In the 1870s some began to operate urban “dairy lunch” rooms which became quite popular in the following decades. Washington, D.C., was full of them. One near the Treasury building adopted a decorating scheme with hanging baskets of plants, cages of canaries, and papier mâché cow heads. In Boston, the new Oak Grove Farm café seemed almost too good to be true. A reporter admitted he thought at first it was “a con.” But the café was indeed supplied by an 800-acre farm with 150 cows, as well as hothouses where lettuce and tomatoes were grown.
Childs, the first sizable chain of restaurants in the US, built its reputation on its dairy farms in New Jersey. Started by six farm-raised brothers in 1889, three ran the lunch rooms while the other three managed the chain’s dairies and truck farms.
In the late 19th-century some Americans balked at the modern food system altogether. Food traveled great distances by rail, much of it ending up parked for indefinite periods in cold storage warehouses. In them it suffered from fluctuating temperatures that damaged taste and texture, as well as sometimes causing the growth of bacteria. A prominent NYC physician declared that when he ordered game in a restaurant, “I make the waiter interview the chef to make sure that no cold storage game will be sent to fill my order.”
As the century turned, people were paying more attention to where their food came from. Due to the growth of the meat packing industry, factory production of butter and cheese, improved transportation, and cold storage facilities, traditional farm industries had largely disappeared. Despite seemingly positive pronouncements such as, “It is to the modern methods for the preservation of foodstuffs that we owe in great measure the lengthy bills of fare provided by our hotels and restaurants,” many people felt food had lost something. Some had come to fear it.
The Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906 addressed impurities in food, but critics wanted more. A few years later efforts were mobilized to subject cold storage warehouses to periodic inspections, to label all food with the date it arrived, and to set limits on how long food could be stored. Foreshadowing the “Truth in Menu” laws of the 1970s, which wanted to bar restaurants from claiming that frozen food was fresh, some laws demanded that restaurants inform patrons if food had come from cold storage.
In this context restaurants supplied by their own farms proudly proclaimed that fact. A restaurant operator in Harrisburg PA who used home-grown food hit upon a novel slogan: “Farm to face.” In Denver a café advertised that its farm food cost no more than food that had been stored. In NYC the Craftsman restaurant promised that patrons would enjoy “all the wholesome products people crave in a city” delivered daily from their farm.
During World War I, eating places linked to farms served all social classes — from the quick lunch in Flint MI that promised lower prices by “cutting out the middle man” to fashionably smart tea rooms such as “At the Sign of the Golden Bull” in Boston. Its tea room, grill room, and affiliated Deerfoot Farm store were designed by Tiffany Studios, and outfitted with Grueby tiles, Flemish oak tables, and leather benches.
Starting around 1915 and lasting into the early 1920s, a US Post Office-backed “Farm to Table” movement encouraged consumers to have farmers ship them fresh food via parcel post. Its goals were to lower food costs while aiding farmers. In November of 1919, the B. F. Goodrich company supported a Farm to Table week in which consumers were to drive to rural areas to buy provisions from farmers. At least one restaurant which ran a farm, Kolb’s in New Orleans, adopted the slogan. In the late 1920s the Miami FL chamber of commerce encouraged restaurants to buy local, arguing that it was not only healthy to serve more fruits and vegetables but good for farmers and the Dade County economy.
Although there continued to be some restaurants that grew their own food throughout the US, the movement petered out in the Depression. A 1932 correspondence course for those interested in opening a rural inn warned that growing one’s own food or buying it in the country did not pay. Instead, it advised, it was best to buy groceries, meats, and dairy products from city wholesale dealers. Greater status was attached to having foods available year round. According to Susanne Freidberg’s book Fresh: A Perishable History, in the 1930s the Schrafft’s chain listed how many miles the food they used traveled. Freidberg writes that “the makings of a vegetable salad together racked up 22,250 miles,” demonstrating “technology’s conquest of borders, distance, and seasons.”
After the Second World War, industrial food production grew rapidly as did the restaurant industry which turned increasingly to convenience food products made specifically for commercial and institutional meal service. By the 1960s frozen foods included pre-prepared heat-and-serve entrees.
In the 1970s convenience foods became controversial as their use spread. The decade saw the advance of farm-themed restaurants using convenience foods, on the one hand, and, on the other, a growing number of restaurants and consumers rejecting factory food. In 1973 architecture critic Ada Louise Huxtable expressed displeasure with “the unfulfilled promise [of] the American way of life,” one symptom of which was “the oversize restaurant menu suggesting farm-fresh succulence and delivering precooked food .” Meanwhile, even as farm-theme restaurants hung farm implements on their walls of recycled barn siding, Alice Waters at Chez Panisse and other California restaurateurs were buying produce from local farmers, leading a movement that would burgeon in the 1980s and continue into the 21st century.
© Jan Whitaker, 2016
6 responses to “Farm to table”
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This is such a great post. I am probably going to re-read it a few times to soak it all in!
What on earth is a frog saddle?
The saddle refers to a cut of meat, whether venison, mutton, lamb, etc. It includes both loins.
“Truth in Menu” could use a reboot here. An upscale Toronto restaurant has been misrepresenting its food for some time. Here is an article from a local newspaper: http://www.thestar.com/news/canada/2016/01/15/reality-didnt-always-match-the-menu-at-toronto-restaurant.html
Wow. Policing that menu requires an entire agency. Fake maple syrup!