How intimate do Americans want to get with their food? I’d say that restaurant-goers do not want to get too close to their food’s origins, nor to its preparation – and certainly not to kitchen cleanup. After all, getting away from it all is a big part of the attraction of eating out.
And yet . . . there are striking exceptions. Not only today when customers are able to harvest their own lettuce or vegetables that are growing on restaurant walls, but far back into the 19th century. Getting close to your food can range from assembling or selecting semi-prepared raw ingredients to choosing ones that are still alive. Allegedly, a Brooklyn NY restaurant around the end of the 19th century used to invite customers to go to their back yard where the chickens were kept, select the one they wanted, and watch it be killed.
The more common example of the latter, however, is lobster, which were – and are — often presented live to restaurant guests prior to their delivery to the table. Especially in the 19th century, live turtles played a similar role, being displayed in a restaurant’s window before their descent into the kettle. Not everyone was comfortable with these practices. In 1870 a Cape Ann MA newspaper expressed a hope that the Humane Society would look into the practice of boiling lobsters alive. And in 1881 a Boston paper commended a Chinese man in San Francisco who rescued a turtle on display in front of a restaurant by buying it and having it released into the ocean.
But “fresh” lobster and turtle remained highly valued. Some restaurants would even deceive customers with a living display turtle or lobster that was never cooked. The customers believed it had been served on their plates, while in reality the creature would return to the display later. A St. Louis restaurant man admitted he had used the same lobster for three months, returning it to a tank in back after it was shown to a customer. “Sometimes I put him in the window,’ said the restaurateur, adding, “He regards the window as his stage and dances about for the public. Whenever he sees a hungry-looking man coming down the street he begins squirming to attract his attention.” Supposedly the customer left the restaurant happily unaware he had eaten canned lobster. This was 1900, and Truth in Menu legislation had not been introduced.
Fish swimming in tanks have had fewer rescuers. The custom of choosing or netting a fish in a tank may have originated in eating places set up in city markets such as New York’s old Fulton Market. By the 1930s if not earlier the setup had migrated to restaurants.
To a great extent the selection of living creatures by hungry diners arose from a distrust of restaurants as well as poor food preservation measures in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Diners, particularly those who were epicures, felt they needed to see with their own eyes that their food was fresh. There were good reasons for their skepticism. Meat, fish, and poultry served in restaurants could be canned, spoiled, or stale from many months spent in cold storage warehouses.
Setting up lobster tanks in which fresh lobsters could be held was not such an easy task for restaurants far from the oceans, and did not occur in many inland cities until the 1950s, about the same time lobster tanks showed up in supermarkets. A news story in a Milwaukee paper gives the idea that dining on fresh lobster flown in from Maine was a fairly new activity there in 1953. Not only did the story detail how the new glass tank at the Cape Cod Inn worked, as well as its measurements and how water was aerated and filtered, it furnished readers with drawings that showed how to eat whole lobsters. In 1956 Pittari’s in New Orleans claimed to have the only live lobster tank in the South.
A later iteration of the pick-your-raw food angle concerned raw beef. It doesn’t appeal to me to select a steak from a cooler or a rotating display, much less to broil it myself, but the idea gained popularity in the 1950s and has continued to some extent. In the 1980s, at the Meat Market in Peoria IL, whose motto was “Dedicated to the Illinois Farmer,” patrons took their steak, potato, and Texas toast to “do yourself over the massive grill.” Reportedly patrons enjoyed a tribal feeling as they gathered around the glowing fire.
In 1974 the president of the National Restaurant Association predicted that do-it-yourself activities in restaurants would become quite popular in the future, leading patrons not only to cook steaks, but make their own pizza and mix their own drinks. “What is involved,” he said, is that people are placing greater emphasis on the total sensory experience – touching, feeling and smelling.”
Mixing your own drinks . . . hmmm.
© Jan Whitaker, 2017