Category Archives: food

“Wop” salad?

People living along the Gulf of Mexico are probably familiar with this designation but I remember being quite surprised the first time I came across it. Given that “wop” is an offensive slang name for Italians, my first reaction was, Please don’t tell me it means that!

It does. It’s another way of saying Italian salad.

“Wop salad” could be found on menus from the 1930s even into the 1980s in certain regions. Its use was frequent in Louisiana, Texas, and Mississippi, especially along the Gulf. It was most closely identified with New Orleans, but was also used in Baton Rouge, Shreveport, Corpus Christi, Galveston, San Antonio, Biloxi, and to a lesser extent Little Rock, Arkansas. I have also found the term in use by restaurants in various other states, but quite rarely.

The salad had many variations. Among the possible ingredients [some pictured above] are iceberg lettuce, endive, escarole, white onions, tiny pearl onions, shallots, garlic, boiled eggs, black olives, green olives, pickles, celery, radishes, sweet peppers, pimientos, avocados, artichoke hearts, tomatoes, asparagus, anchovies, and grated cheese. Dressings could contain combinations of some of the following: olive oil, vinegar, mayonnaise, Worcestershire sauce, and lemon.

Even a single restaurant might not always compose the salad in quite the same way. Larry Platt’s Italian Village in Corpus Christi TX advertised wop salads with differing ingredients in 1954. In one ad the salad had “pimientos, olives, anchovies and sauce, Italian peppers and sauce, pickles, eggs, garlic, onions, fresh lemons and salad dressing” while in another it contained “anchovies, olives, lettuce, tomatoes, Italian pepper, radishes, celery, with our Famous Dressing.”

An indication of the popularity of the salad, however construed, is its inclusion in the American food section of a 1950 Chinese menu from The Chinese Dragon in New Orleans. [pictured here]

Despite my negative response to the name, the general reaction today seems to be mild amusement coupled with dismissal of the notion that it could be taken as truly offensive. Most defenders will quickly point out that Italian-Americans in New Orleans used it too and it could be found as often on the menus of Italian restaurants as any others.

I have read the claim that Joe Brocato’s restaurant in Shreveport LA – which advertised it was “Home of the Wop Salad” — was the owner of the term and that anyone else who used it had to pay royalties.

Call me skeptical. I’ve heard similar arguments about how Afro-Americans didn’t mind dressing up like mammies, loved working and eating at Sambo’s, etc.

Historically New Orleans had more residents of Italian origin than other cities in the South. It was a port of entry into the United States in the 19th and early 20th centuries, and many Italians disembarked there. One day in October 1907, for instance, 1,300 Italians arrived, some of them wives and children of men in various parts of the country, but others migrants who came to work in Louisiana sugar cane fields; taking jobs once held by slaves and poor Blacks, they were very much looked down upon. And how long did Italians in New Orleans remember the lynching of eleven Italians there in 1891? The murders brought condemnation nationally and internationally and caused riots in Italian communities in NYC and Cincinnati.

Yet Italians who settled in New Orleans went on to found successful businesses and become professionals and civic leaders there. Quite a few opened restaurants.

To many people “wop salad” began to sound wrong in the 1980s. Journalists writing about restaurants in Southern papers became rather squeamish about using it, distancing themselves by putting it in quotation marks or referring to the term as “unfortunate.” But I cannot help but wonder how others, particularly those of Italian ancestry, felt about it during the decades it was commonly used. Did they think nothing of it? Did they find the name annoying but not worth making a big deal about? Did they feel insulted by it?

I have found very little evidence of protest. Someone calling themselves “Italian-American” wrote to a columnist of the New Orleans Times-Picayune in 1961 complaining of her use of ‘wop salad,’ and stating, ‘There is no such thing as ‘wop salad.’ Did you mean ‘Italian salad’?” The columnist defended her usage, concluding, ‘Everybody loves ‘wop salad.’ We English-German-Scandinavians all try to copy it.” In 1972 the paper received a complaint from a New Jersey Italian-American man who had visited the city and found “wop salad” on menus everywhere, including “better restaurants.” Perhaps Commander’s Palace was one of them. [see ca. 1950s menu fragment] He was especially offended by a sandwich shop with a sign in front saying, “Bigga Woppa Sandwich.” He concluded that New Orleans was only pretending to be “a genuinely cosmopolitan city.”

With the present cultural climate I halfway expect “wop salad” to resurface.

© Jan Whitaker, 2017

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Filed under ethnic restaurants, food, menus, proprietors & careers, restaurant controversies

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

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

The food gap

Last week I spent some time doing library research, an increasingly rare activity for me in the age of digitized sources. Looking at early 1980s issues of a major restaurant trade journal I was struck by how unappetizing the food looked. The problem may have been partly due to poor photography but it was also due to the way food was presented, including how it was discussed. My reaction was so strong that I began to wonder briefly why I had ever been attracted to eating in restaurants.

It wasn’t the first time I experienced distancing from how restaurant trade magazines approach food. It has often seemed to me that there is a deep gulf separating how home cooks think about food as compared to how the restaurant industry – as reflected in trade journalism – does.

Here’s an example. What do you see in the image above of an excessively grill-marked steak accompanied by geometrically arranged onion rings and a yellowy triangle of Texas toast? The photo was part of an advertisement for portion-controlled steaks, accompanied by the text below. I have italicized the words that I find bizarre and alienating.

“Our luscious Longhorn shown above is a mildly marinated USDA Choice steak that provides consistently plump plate coverage at a slim cost. Like our Black Diamond, Sunset Strip and Steak for 2, it offers minimal cooking shrinkage, no waste and is highly merchandiseable as a steak you’ll proudly call your own.”

Nice silverware though.

© Jan Whitaker, 2017

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Filed under food, restaurant industry

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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Filed under chain restaurants, food, restaurant customs, sanitation

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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Filed under food, guides & reviews, Offbeat places, popular restaurants, proprietors & careers

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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Filed under food, guides & reviews, menus

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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