Category Archives: food

Fish on Fridays

As early as the 1860s cheap eating houses in New York City were featuring fish on Fridays for their Catholic patrons. By then, one out of seven people living in the U.S. was Catholic and many of them lived in NYC.

By the next decade demand for fish by Catholics in New York largely oriented the city’s seasonal fish trade. According to an 1876 Herald story, the trade geared up at the start of Lent (the period of penitence preceding Easter), when the sale of fish reached a yearly peak. Hotels in New York and Boston – and no doubt cities elsewhere – used tons of fish in Lent and on Fridays year round.

It’s likely that many of those not of the Catholic faith also ordered fish on Fridays since it was offered as a special in restaurants in many cities and towns and was also likely to be at its peak of freshness on that day. In the early 20th century, for example, restaurants in towns as far flung as Victoria TX, Holyrood KS, and Mansfield MO advertised fish on Fridays. When meat prices rose in 1916, even more fish was sold. The country’s largest restaurant chain, Childs – which had previously only put fish on its Friday menus – began offering it every day.

Fish could be baked, of course, but in the 1930s many restaurants began to advertise Friday fish fries. Judging from the number of advertisements, fish fries were especially popular in Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, and Wisconsin. In Milwaukee WI, tavern fish fries were particularly popular. There the Haller Inn in 1935 advertised a fish fry for only 15c with music by the Melody Boys.

Fish was also a popular menu item during World War II when meat was rationed. By the war years, it had become such a Friday menu staple that many operators decided that since so many people ordered fish on Fridays anyway they would promote eating fish on Tuesdays to save their meat ration points.

Fish on Friday was so popular that in the early 1960s a Cincinnati man who operated a McDonald’s persuaded Ray Kroc to add a fish sandwich to the chain’s menu. Kroc resisted the addition, preferring to keep the menu restricted to hamburgers, but in 1962 began to introduce the Filet-O-Fish sandwich. It became a permanent menu item around the country within a couple of years. [McDonald’s ad, 1992]

In December 1966, the Vatican released Catholics, now numbering 45 million in the U.S., from the ban against eating meat on Fridays. For a couple of years the fish industry suffered significant losses, particularly with cheaper frozen fillets whose use had been growing since the 1950s. The industry responded by encouraging the public to eat fish on any day of the week. Fast food chains appeared featuring fish and chips. Fish once again became a notable part of the American diet, despite the fraction of Catholics who had come to dislike it. Rather surprisingly, at the end of 1969 the head of the Commercial Fisheries Bureau of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proclaimed that fish was very popular and that lifting the no-meat ban was “the best thing that ever happened to us.”

But the fish on Fridays custom lived on in some places, especially during Lent (when the no meat on Friday ban still held). But not only in Lent. Although nowhere did the custom remain as popular as across the Midwest, restaurants with Friday fish fries and fish specials could even be found in North Carolina, which historically had the fewest Catholics of any state in the U.S. [Uncle John’s, Greensboro NC, 1970]

Milwaukee deserves special mention for Friday fish fries. In the 1980s even Greek and Vietnamese restaurants in that city held Friday fish fries. In 2000, a Milwaukee Sentinel poll revealed that readers ranked fish fries among their favorite restaurant choices, citing 320 different restaurants by name, and showing a strong preference for neighborhood places. Most often mentioned was Serb Hall, which will probably enjoy a lot of business over the next few weeks.

© Jan Whitaker, 2020

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Image gallery: breaded things

In the 1960s restaurants became seriously interested in portion-controlled entrees. Suddenly any restaurant that aspired to be regarded as sophisticated could have Chicken Cordon Bleu on their menu. Even in the middle of the Arizona desert a teenage employee in a Polynesian restaurant could pop a frozen Cordon Bleu into the microwave, add a slice of orange and some parsley, and – voila! – there you were, dining continentally.

Breaded products that could be dropped into a vat of cooking oil or microwaved were particularly popular with restaurant operators. They were advertised in full color in trade magazines, shown plated just as they might be served to guests. The images that follow were all from 1960s ads.

Steak seems to me an odd choice for breading since its appeal is usually based on representation in a more natural state, often with grill marks on the outside and juicily red insides. Breading turns it into mystery meat. But for the money-conscious entrepreneur it made a kind of sense. A 1968 advertisement for Durkee Food Service Group showed a 4 oz. “polarized” Chuck Wagon Steak which cost only 24c. Add a #10 scoop of mashed potatoes (1½ cents), 4 oz. of mixed vegs (6½ cents) and ½ cent worth of parsley and the meal came to 33½ cents. The advertisement suggested charging the customer $1.25.

As much as I’ve searched I’ve failed to discover what “polarized” meant, but I suspect it may have been a disinfecting method or some kind of process that made cheap reheated breaded meat more acceptable to diners.

Swift & Co.’s hotel and restaurant division also offered a breaded Chuck Wagon steak, shown here with corn sticks, baked beans with chopped onions, and banana peppers. Not only did Swift give its steak the same name as Durkee, it looked equally unappetizing. I suppose there was a degree of honesty in the name Chuck Wagon in that both were probably constructed out of inexpensive chuck steak.

Chicken a la Kiev evidently wasn’t sufficiently elegant sounding to Durkee which renamed their product Empire Chicken Kiev. Its selling point, according to the 1968 advertisement in Food Service Magazine, was that it offered “year-round banquet quality chicken without seasonal price fluctuation.” The dish, whose sadly wilted watercress garnish cost ½ cent, had a total cost of 82 and 1/4 cents. The paper frill is hilarious. I have to keep reminding myself that professionals were paid to design dishes like this.

And now to fish processed by Blue Water Seafoods. Here we see their “standard fish portion,” a severely rectangular industrial looking product. In the advertisement it is fancied up and given the name “Fish du Monde.” The serving suggestion is to “cap it with hot mushroom sauce – straight from a can of mushroom soup” (4 cents). Eleven cents for the fish, 4 cents for the boiled potatoes, and 7 cents worth of vegetables and it’s a full-scale dinner. Suggested menu price in 1961: $1.00.

Blue Water also offered “proportioned seafood,” such as the Custom Cut Fillet shown here. “Looks like a fillet, fries like a fillet,” proclaims the copy. A half-hearted try at looking natural.

But what if a restaurant operator really wanted their processed fish to look more realistic? Moore’s Seafood Products, Inc. offered a Cut Haddock Portion, assuring buyers that “even the most discerning gourmet would have a difficult time” distinguishing it from a natural haddock fillet. Called the Aberdeen Cut, it was a patented shape whose “thin, beveled portions . . . develop[ed] the crisp, flaky edge characteristic of the natural fillet.” And, assured Moore’s, an added bonus of the new 1968 shape was that “on a platter or plate, it looks larger than ordinary portions of the same weight.” Are the tiny bits of parsley also meant to make the fish look larger?

© Jan Whitaker, 2020

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The puzzling St. Paul sandwich

Despite a cloud of confusion surrounding the history of the St. Paul sandwich, I think I can add some interesting dimensions to the story.

For a long time it hasn’t been clear where the sandwich came from or even exactly what it is.

In recent decades St. Louis has claimed the St. Paul as its own, even though most St. Louisans probably never ate one. Supposedly it cannot be found in its namesake city of St. Paul (Minnesota), where it is said no one ever heard of it.

It’s not entirely certain how – or if – it is different from a Denver or a Western sandwich. One thing is certain: It’s an egg sandwich, based either on an omelet or egg foo yong. The sandwich would also have some combination of the following ingredients: chopped onion, chopped green pepper, tomato slice, lettuce, dill pickle chip, parsley, scallions, mushrooms, mayonnaise, chopped beef, chopped ham, deviled ham, sliced chicken, pork, shrimp, or crab.

Whatever goes inside is placed between two pieces of white bread – or double-decked on four pieces of white bread — or a roll.

The St. Louis version, found in unpretentious Chinese chop suey restaurants, consists of egg foo yong with mayonnaise on white bread, with the possible addition of a tomato slice, dill pickle chip, and lettuce. Its unlikely combinations make it ripe for ridicule. And, yet, . . . despite its utter failure to satisfy health or authenticity standards, its critics seem to agree that it tastes quite good.

Accounts of the sandwich’s history often cite Chinese cooks who provided food for Western railroad construction workers in the mid-19th century. The story goes that the cooks improvised the sandwich with what they had on hand, including egg foo yong.

A 2006 story in the St. Louis Riverfront Times attributes the city’s St. Paul sandwich to a St. Louis Chinese restaurant operator of the 1970s who named it for his home town of St. Paul MN.

After a lot of looking, I found the sandwich on a St. Paul MN menu in 1904. In an advertisement it is referred to as “the new and popular St. Paul sandwich.” Along with many other puzzling sandwich names, the Mills Lunch and Sandwich Room offered both a St. Paul sandwich and a Denver sandwich, indicating they were not the same thing as is sometimes argued. That same year lunch wagons in Kansas City MO were selling St. Paul sandwiches described as chopped ham, chopped egg, and onions. They also offered a Minneapolis sandwich made of chopped ham and chopped egg, but without the onions. The St. Paul also turned up in Ottawa KS in 1913 and in 1915 at a restaurant in Columbia MO popular with students at the University of Missouri.

In 1916 and again in 1933 a St. Louis newspaper published recipes for the St. Paul sandwich, which showed no connection with egg foo yong. In both recipes the sandwich was made with scrambled eggs, chopped ham, and onions and parsley.

Evidently the St. Paul was known in the East also. In 1933 a NYC paper ran a short story on how artists were making a living in the Depression. One painter was also a short order cook whose specialty was making St. Paul sandwiches.

The earliest connection with a Chinese restaurant I’ve found was in Minneapolis, run by Woo Yee Sing but popularly referred to as John’s Place. In 1937, a newspaper column recommended the restaurant’s “Egg Foo Yung sandwich” served with French fries, beverage, and dessert for 40c. How long the restaurant, established in 1905, had been serving that sandwich is unknown. The fact that it was not called a St. Paul sandwich is not too surprising since a Denver sandwich was called a Denver in Chicago but a Western in Denver.

By the 1940s and 1950s St. Paul sandwiches could be found in many places, including Seattle WA, Amarillo TX, and Greensboro NC, though exactly what they consisted of is obscure. Finding Chinese restaurants advertising them is harder, though I did find one in Canton OH in 1954 which referred to the sandwich as Egg Foo Yong [Sue Ming, shown above]. I find it interesting that the restaurant also advertised a Chop Suey sandwich. According to Haiming Liu (From Canton Restaurant to Panda Express), its cousin, the Chow Mein sandwich, became popular in Southeastern Massachusetts and Rhode Island in the 1930s.

If you like stories about odd sandwiches, see the amusing PBS documentary Sandwiches That You Will Like.

© Jan Whitaker, 2020

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Chinese for Christmas

Readers may be familiar with the custom among many Jews of going to a Chinese restaurant on Christmas Day. Hard as I tried I could not determine when this custom began, although based on advertisements I did get the sense that the tradition of going to the movies on Christmas Day may have begun in the 1920s.

That is the same decade for which I found the earliest advertisements by Chinese restaurants in Jewish newspapers. [Wong Yie, American Israelite, 1922, Cincinnati] I didn’t find any Chinese restaurant ads that invited readers to visit on Christmas Day, though I saw some that reminded them to make reservations for New Year’s Eve. Some also mentioned that they were near movie theaters. In the 1930s some wished readers of Jewish papers happy new year at Rosh Hashanah.

So, even though I don’t know when Jews began going to Chinese restaurants on Christmas Day, I suspect that the affinity between Jews and Chinese restaurants became notable in the 1920s.

While the 1920s may have marked the blossoming of Jewish patronage of Chinese restaurants, I did find one earlier example of a Chinese restaurant said to be patronized by Jewish businessmen. According to a New York Tribune story of 1907, Chinese Delmonico’s on Pell Street near the wholesale center was kosher. At “Kosher Delmonico’s,” as it was called in the story, a French chef prepared mushroom delicacies, lotus lily seed soups, and other dishes for lunch using no dairy products or “game of the kind that is shot.”

Bernstein-on-Essex, a deli that opened in the 1920s on New York’s lower East Side, is often credited with being the first restaurant serving kosher Chinese food – a 1959 addition to the menu [above menu fragment from a later date]. But it may not have actually been the first: Aside from Chinese Delmonico’s, there was said to be a kosher Chinese restaurant on Temple Street in the Jewish section of Los Angeles in 1929.

What Bernstein’s might have been an early example of, though, was a Jewish restaurant that served kosher Chinese food – in contrast to a Chinese restaurant that was kosher, which was rarer. Although Chinese restaurants generally did not feature dairy dishes, typically they would serve pork, as well as shellfish, meat that wasn’t from kosher butchers, and noodles cooked in lard.

For the most part Jews had to be willing to make whatever adjustments they found necessary in order to enjoy Chinese restaurants. This could mean not ordering pork, shrimp, or lobster dishes, or, as many writers have pointed out, accepting dishes with pork that had been minced and “hidden” in wontons. Nonetheless, not everyone was so careful. According to Haiming Leu, author of A History of Chinese Food in the United States, one of the most popular dishes with American Jews was moo shu pork. Such behavior brought an angry comment from a rabbi writing in Newark’s Jewish Chronicle in 1929: “The writer has seen families leaving an orthodox synagogue on Sabbath noon and taking the new Bar Mitzvah, who has just pledged his allegiances to Jewish tradition, into a Chinese restaurant for a salt-pork chop suey meal.”

While the topic of Jews and Chinese restaurants has been a popular one with scholars and journalists, it’s worth noting that historically Jews were not the only non-Chinese cultural group that heavily patronized Chinese restaurants. Even though in the early 1930s Jews were estimated to make up 60% of the white clientele of Chinese restaurants in Philadelphia and New York, the estimate was that white customers totaled a minority of patrons. The rest of non-Chinese customers were Black.

After WWII Jews began moving from the inner cities and into the suburbs. Meanwhile, most African-Americans stayed behind. Many Chinese proprietors courted their Jewish customers, often opening suburban restaurants with pleasant interiors. In Black neighborhoods often the facilities tended to be poorer, many for carry-out only, and some even outfitted with protective bars and orders taken and delivered through small hatches.

Another change in the postwar years was the increase in the number of kosher Chinese restaurants, some, such as Sabra and the popular Moshe Peking, with Jewish owners. The 1970s and 1980s saw a rise of kosher Chinese restaurants adhering to what appeared to be a stricter standard in how food was obtained and prepared and also in hours of operation, being closed on the Jewish Sabbath as well as holidays. Additionally, they had a rabbi on hand to inspect food preparation.

Happy Holidays to readers, whatever you may be eating on December 25!

© Jan Whitaker, 2019

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Turkeyburgers

If the turkey growing industry had one marketing mission in the early 20th century it was to get consumers to eat more turkey, and to eat it year-round.

So, during the Depression turkeyburgers arrived upon the dining scene.

In the mid-1930s humorists found rich material in California cuisine, notably in the range of burgers found at weird and fanciful roadside eateries. Among them chickenburgers, nutburgers, onionburgers, lobsterburgers, even mysterious huskyburgers. And on Los Feliz Boulevard in Los Angeles a commentator spotted a neon sign advertising “The Snack with a Smack – Our Toasted Turkeyburger.”

The stories that appeared in the press attributed turkeyburgers to California’s bizarre culture. But what they didn’t say was that in the 1930s California was becoming a major turkey producer. Production had moved westward from its East Coast home of origin. In California, dry weather conditions were more favorable for turkey raising. But in 1936 overproduction resulted in a serious drop in prices. This was bad for producers but good for Depression-era drive-ins and roadside stands. And now producers were more interested in increasing turkey consumption than ever before.

Gonzales, Texas, was another important turkey-raising area. A local newspaperman there had a product placement idea about how to stimulate turkey sales. He suggested that since the comic strip character Wimpy was known for his love of hamburgers, it would make sense to introduce turkeyburgers into the strip. Wimpy started eating them in December of 1939.

Meanwhile, in Corpus Christi, Texas, a drug store was offering a December holiday lunch of sorts, “Something New”: a Turkey-Burger with waffle potatoes and cranberry sherbet, for 19 cents. Also in 1939, someone in Phoenix registered the trade name Turkey-Burger with the Arizona Secretary of State. It’s interesting, too, that the Berkeley, California, menu shown below, possibly from the 1930s, says “copyrighted!” following “Turkeyburger Sandwich.” (Thanks to the reader who sent me a scan of this menu and inspired this post.)

With rationing of beef, pork, veal, and lamb in World War II more restaurants added turkeyburgers and other turkey dishes to their menus. In 1941 the magazine Chain Store Age tested recipes for turkeyburgers and turkey salads on behalf of in-store soda fountains and luncheonettes. It showed that turkeyburgers had high profit potential: if a turkeyburger on a bun was served with cranberry sauce, sliced tomato, and potato salad, the magazine reported, it could be priced at 25 cents while costing only 6.55 cents. A few years later Payless stores in Albany, Oregon, cashed in on the idea, boldly charging 40 cents for their sandwich.

In the 1950s drive-ins served turkeyburgers. In 1950 they were up to 65 cents at Vogel’s Drive-In in Ogden, Oregon, though only 30c a few years later at Moeby’s Hamburger Palace in Eureka, California. A Texas drive-in revived the idea of burger variety, offering sandwiches made of chicken, turkey, rabbit, shrimp, or pork, all for 40 cents. Somewhat surprisingly, in 1969 Ferdinand’s in Honolulu’s Coral Reef Hotel, which specialized in 16 kinds of burgers, offered a Turkey Burger Deluxe on Thanksgiving Day.

Starting in the 1970s and especially in the 1980s – and continuing today — turkeyburgers came to represent a healthier substitute for a hamburger, one with less fat and fewer calories.

Have a delicious Thanksgiving!

© Jan Whitaker, 2019

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Coffee and cake saloons

When it came to cheap ready-to-eat food that was available around the clock, butter cakes sold in coffee and cake saloons were king. By the mid-19th century they had become food of urban lore. They were said to be favorites of people of the night such as newsboys, newspaper printers, policemen, volunteer firemen, and prostitutes.

Until the 1880s when they widened their menus, coffee and cake saloons served nothing but those two items. Although called saloons, they were not drinking places. Saloon then simply meant a room.

There was no hint of elegance in these places. Many were run by Irish proprietors, at a time when the Irish were pretty much at the bottom of the class order. Usually they were in basements, but those were the more established coffee and cake saloons. Other sellers occupied market stands or peddled butter cakes on the streets with trays strapped over their shoulders.

The lack of niceties in coffee and cake saloons was celebrated in a joke that described a waiter’s shock when asked for a napkin in one of these places. He had a quick comeback, inquiring whether the patron wanted his napkin fringed or unfringed. (Surely there were no tablecloths as in this 1889 illustration.)

Among the well-known proprietors of New York City were George Parker, who opened a place on John street in 1832 and “Butter-cake Dick,” whose full name was Dick Marshall. Oliver Hitchcock took over from Dick, who turned to a life of crime. Pat Dolan, starting business in the 1860s, reputedly invested in real estate and had amassed a quarter of a million by his death in 1889, while a couple of the Meschutt brothers later opened hotels.

Lore surrounding these establishments grew as they became rarer in the late 19th century. By the early 1900s the memory of coffee and cake saloons was tinted with nostalgia. It was often said that proprietors retired with fortunes — an unlikely story in the majority of cases. Another notion was that they were “peculiar to New York.” This, too, is inaccurate. I have found them in St. Louis, Sacramento, New Orleans, San Antonio, and San Francisco. Undoubtedly they could be found in most large cities.

Just what was a butter cake? That isn’t totally clear. They are described differently, to the point where it’s anyone’s guess what they really were. Sometimes they sound like doughnuts, sometimes griddle cakes, sometimes like carnival-style fried dough – but without sugar. In St. Louis waiters referred to them as a “stack of whites.” Often they are referred to as biscuits. Sometimes they are called short cakes, as in the 1850s recipe shown here. I believe that initially they were made of little more than dough and were nearly indigestible, leading to the nickname “sinkers.” After bakers started adding yeast, they became lighter.

An 1890 story in the New York Sun explains that butter cakes could be either “wet” or “dry.” It said that the wet ones “were saturated with lard or grease of some sort, called butter for the purposes of trade.” But possibly some places really did use butter. A San Francisco restaurant advertised in 1856 that they used “none other than California Butter, fresh from the best Petaluma Ranches.” Their menu called them “New York Butter Cakes,” selling for the high price of 12 cents. In New York an order cost 3 cents. Butter-cake Dick was said to make his sinkers on the griddle and to store them in a kettle of melted butter until orders came in. The three Meschutt brothers sampled Dick’s but found a way to lighten them by adding yeast, splitting the cakes (biscuits?), and letting customers add the butter.

Although coffee and cake saloons were just about extinct by the 20th century, Lewis Hine managed to capture a view of newsboys exiting one in 1908. [shown at top]

© Jan Whitaker, 2019

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Lobster stew at the White Rabbit

On the menu shown here a bowl of lobster stew cost 70 cents and came with crackers, pickles, and chips. Oyster stew was 50 cents, while fried clams with french fries, cole slaw, and coffee cost 60 cents.

The menu is undated but is probably from the 1940s. Fried lobster was one of the White Rabbit’s most popular dishes, according to Duncan Hines’ 1947 guide book, Adventures in Good Eating. With a fruit cup, tomato, pineapple, french fries, rolls, dessert, and tea or coffee, it came to $1.35. And, of course, they threw in pickles and chips.

In addition to lobster fried, sautéed, or stewed, it was also available as a salad.

Admiring patrons quoted in the 1948 edition of Gourmet’s Guide to Good Eating explained that the reason the Rabbit was always mobbed with people on their way to and from Cape Cod was due to its high standards, excellent food, and, specifically, “plates of hot buttered rolls.”

On Saturday nights the White Rabbit offered a traditional Massachusetts dinner of baked beans for 50 cents. Other interesting dishes on the menu include a vegetable salad sandwich (35¢), a sardine and horseradish sandwich (25¢), and a side order of tomato and cucumbers (15¢).

The tea room got its start in 1931, in West Chatham on the Cape, about 37 miles from the Buzzards Bay location which became its long-term home. Prior to its beginning, owner Nate Nickerson was a taxi driver in Brockton MA, where co-owner Mildred Ring may have worked as a waitress.

Nickerson’s two sons were waiters at the restaurant which was open only from April through November.

In 1966, the final year in which I found advertisements for it, the White Rabbit had evidently abandoned the tea room theme. It then featured liquor and steaks. Nickerson had died in 1950 and it’s likely that it was under different management.

A few years ago I received a nice surprise when a stranger sent me this bowl by Syracuse china used in the tea room.

© Jan Whitaker, 2019

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