Is “ethnic food” a slur?

This question has come up over the past few years among those who write about food and restaurants. The gist of the complaint is that the term “ethnic food” implies it is inferior to European-based cuisines, and sometimes even to pseudo-ethnic fast food. The issue is entwined with the question of whether patronizing restaurants run by immigrant or other non-white proprietors demonstrates or promotes multicultural understanding.

The terms “ethnic food” and “ethnic restaurant” did not really show up to any significant extent until the 1960s. Before that references would have been to foreign restaurants or to “food of the world.” Until the 1860s, French restaurateurs were the main departure from the English-influenced norm.

After the Revolution of 1776, there were a number of French eating places in this country. For example, Michael Marinot advertised in 1789 that he ran a Traiteur Francois in Philadelphia. And of course, there was Julien in Boston, and as of 1823 the Swiss-Italian confectionery of Delmonico in New York. From the start French restaurateurs were appreciated for producing delicate cuisine and following a higher standard than other eating places.

Much more common were the eating houses that served food similar to what would be found in England, consisting mainly of meat and game, simply prepared, with little in the way of sauces or seasonings. [see NYC Bowery restaurant, 1887] Oyster cellars provided the fast food of the day.

Things began to change in the 1850s. When gold was discovered near San Francisco, men (mostly) from all over the world converged there. An account published in 1855 notes, “There were American dining-rooms, the English lunch-houses, the French cabarets, the Spanish fondas, the German wirtschafts, the Italian osterie, the Chinese chow-chows, and so on . . . There were cooks, too, from every country; American, English, French, German, Dutch, Chinese, Chileno, Kanaka, Italian, Peruvian, Mexican, Negro, and what not.” In 1854 New York City boasted of having restaurants representing the food of America, England, Scotland, France, Germany, Italy, Holland, Hungary, Denmark, Spain, and Cuba.

In the last quarter of the 19th century, people living in cities who had refined tastes but little money sought out small restaurants run by European immigrants known as “table d’hotes.” They offered a complete meal for a low fixed price, wine included. In these places, it was said, patrons could avoid the clatter, sloppiness, bad food, and complete lack of aesthetics associated with cheap American eating places. Europeans understood “the art of living,” according to a story in the Boston Globe in 1877. Only “foreigners” ran good restaurants in San Francisco, wrote the city’s chronicler Hubert Howe Bancroft. “American restaurants are invariably second, third, or fourth rate,” he pronounced.

With the large number of immigrants arriving in the late 19th and early 20th century, it is hardly surprising that many of them took up restaurant keeping. But this did not necessarily mean that they offered anything other than standard American fare. World War I revealed an undercurrent of prejudice against foreign eating places that had earlier been aimed at Asian restaurants on the West Coast. The negative attitudes may have driven some non-natives to “Americanize” their names and menus. Other restaurant owners, probably of American birth, played to nativist prejudice. [See 1918 ADV; Turner’s chef was born in France but naturalized shortly before the advertisement appeared.]

The 1920s through the 1950s saw the proliferation of restaurant types that were definitely non-ethnic such as tea rooms, cafeterias, steak houses, hamburger and hot dog stands, fried chicken places, lunch counters, diners, drive-ins, and chain restaurants. Many Greek-American proprietors avoided putting any remotely Greek dishes on their menus until the 1960s. Other restaurants serving “foreign” food added sections with American dishes to their menus [menu above, Chicago, 1941], while others dished up a stereotyped version of ethnicity [see Milwaukee’s Schwaben-Hoff shown above].

During the all-American era, a few “foreign” dishes were naturalized, among them chili, tamales (in the West), spaghetti, and pizza. [re Simon’s Sweet Shop, Salt Lake City, 1917] Even chop suey could sometimes be found on drug store menus. Some cities had especially few foreign restaurants. In 1940s Atlanta restaurant goers wanted fried chicken, while in Omaha they demanded steaks, according to the National Restaurant Association. In fact chicken, steak, and chops dominated dinner menus throughout the U.S.

It is scarcely surprising there would be a reaction to the blandness and lack of variety in restaurants. In 1961, even Chicago — where prime rib was No. 1 — presented alternatives, among them European, Middle Eastern, Oriental, Polynesian, and South and Central American restaurants. Still, a Chicago restaurant reviewer revealed in 1971 that she got letters complaining she was “preoccupied” with ethnic restaurants and ignored the steak and potato fans.

Nonetheless the ethnic restaurant trend continued to grow. Neil Simon’s 1963 play (and 1967 movie) Barefoot in the Park featured a newlywed wife who wanted to break free of convention. One scene showed her jumping up to join a belly dance at an Albanian restaurant hidden away on Staten Island. Her character prefigured the hippies to come — young people eager for new experiences. In the 1890s or 1910s she would have been called a bohemian and would have dined in the backyard of a French table d’hote. Another sign of change was the 1966 publication of The Underground Gourmet that listed inexpensive restaurants in NYC, most of them representing a cuisine from afar.

For those critics of the term ethnic restaurant who object to it only being applied to non-European restaurants of dark-skinned people: that has not always been true. The Underground Gourmet noted nationality restaurants that were Belgian, Dutch, Hungarian, Norwegian, and Ukrainian. San Diego, a city not known for its ethnic restaurants earlier, in 1979 counted among them ones that were Swedish, Hungarian, Russian, Serbian, Basque, Portugese, Irish – and British! And cultural geographer Wilbur Zelinsky classified Jewish, New England, Pennsylvania German, and Southern U.S. restaurants as ethnic in 1985.

The trend intensified in the 1970s. By the 1980s, a major city lacking diversity in its restaurants was considered culturally deficient and of lesser interest to gourmets and tourists. The counterculture, too, was an important factor in the rising popularity of ethnic restaurants. As Warren Belasco explained in a 1987 issue of Food and Foodways, the counterculture preferred “peasant or ‘folk’ cuisines to the ‘junk food’ found in . . . fast food restaurants. . . . The countercuisine’s infatuation with ethnic foods linked the personal and political . . . eating un-American dishes could be interpreted as a protest against American cultural imperialism.”

It could also be taken as a status marker – which has become more evident over time. It can be proof of extensive foreign travel, a spirit of adventurousness, a discerning palate, esoteric knowledge possessed by the few – and sometimes a degree of haughtiness about mainstream American tastes.

Nonetheless, a fondness for non-American cuisines is not usually linked with xenophobia and nativism. On the other hand, it by no means guarantees respect for other cultures nor does it overcome prejudices of various kinds. A 2008 article, “‘Going for an Indian’: South Asian Restaurants and the Limits of Multiculturalism in Britain,” made this clear. But I think I’ll save that argument for another time.

© Jan Whitaker, 2017

6 Comments

Filed under alternative restaurants, ethnic restaurants, food, proprietors & careers, restaurant controversies, restaurant customs

6 responses to “Is “ethnic food” a slur?

  1. Bunny Watson

    Hi. I really enjoy your fascinating blog!

    I stumbled across this article on the history of tipping and thought it might be of interest.

    http://splinternews.com/the-racist-history-of-tipping-1798704699

  2. This was a really fun read! I remember growing up in a small town in the 80s and we considered it a huge deal when the Italian restaurant opened on the corner. I didn’t realize that the development of ethnic food restaurants happened so late in the 20th century. Thanks!

  3. Good morning Jan and thank you for a wonderful piece of writing. I hope this will eventually be the beginning of a book: it is so all-encompassing and insightful. Thanks for getting what will be a hectic day off to a calm and refreshing start.

  4. The taste bud is mightier than the brain.

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