Category Archives: food

Behind the scenes at the Splendide

Ludwig Bemelmans, well known author and illustrator of the Madeline books for children, began his life in the United States in hotel food service. In the book Life Class (1938), he reveals how perceptive an observer he was of the workings of a deluxe hotel’s dining operations in the early decades of the 20th century.

With a few strokes, he paints a vivid portrait of the “Hotel Splendide,” otherwise known as the Ritz-Carlton on Madison Avenue between 46th & 47th streets in New York. The hotel was part of a worldwide chain of luxury hotels that defined “ritziness” by providing fine food and service that attracted people of wealth and social status, some with aristocratic titles that dazzled wealthy Americans. [shown above, Palm Court, 1914]

Bemelmans arrived in this country from Rotterdam in December, 1914, with letters of introduction from his European hotelier uncle. He was only 16 years old, but with a troubled past. Had he been from a family of lesser stature he might well have been classed as a juvenile delinquent. He had a rocky start in New York, too; he was fired by the first two hotels that hired him in New York, the Astor and the McAlpin. But, despite some perilous incidents at the Ritz, he managed to hang on there for years, working in the restaurant, the café, and the banquet department before leaving for a career as an artist and author around the late 1920s.

In Life Class he frequently observes how the hotel’s gatekeepers sorted out patrons by social class. The hotel’s restaurant manager, Monsieur Victor, “knew who was in Society, who was almost in Society, and, what is most important, who was not” and treated them accordingly. Those with the highest status gave him no tips or honor, but at the other end of the social spectrum he collected handsome tolls from those who wanted a decent table. Bemelmans judged that Victor took in a fabulous sum for that time, about $40,000 a year.

However, those who slipped Victor a too-small bill found themselves among the “untouchables” seated at an awkward table near a service station or in a drafty corner. Although Bemelmans can be warmly egalitarian about the hotel’s staff, he can be as dismissive as Victor when describing guests. Among the untouchables are “Westchester housewives in gray squirrel coats and galoshes on rainy days. They order an oeuf Bénédict and a glass of milk before going to a matinee.” A woman who he imagines is “the wife of some street-car magnate,” he writes, is “dressed with costly despair.”

Faring worse than the untouchables were “innocents” who didn’t understand how things worked at all, such as those who “just walked in off the street, thinking that this was a restaurant.” They were soundly humiliated and turned away with great haughtiness by Monsieur Victor who then watched them depart “with the detachment of a bullfighter who has done his routine work and waits until the horses have dragged the animal out, ready to start on the next.”

Since I have always thought that hotels were among the most likely businesses to follow Prohibition laws, I was surprised how much trade the Ritz did with bootleggers in the 1920s. Bemelmans explains that banquets were furnished with high quality alcohol from the “most reputable bootleggers” who delivered cases clearly marked Champagne and Whisky during the daytime while the police blandly looked on. More surprising, the police did not demand a payoff, settling instead for a few late-night drinks and leftover food after banquets ended, along with maybe a couple of bottles at Christmas.

The serving staff was expert at squirreling away food and drinks in their own private icebox for later use. In some cases they cleverly “rescued” cases of booze during parties, yet still received lavish tips from satisfied guests who had paid for far more wine than they consumed. As the manager remarked, the banquet business at the Ritz was a “goldmine.”

Even while in the midst of serving, waiters managed to enjoy delectable snacks. They snatched “little fried things” such as scallops, frogs’ legs, and fried potatoes from serving platters and ate them in the middle of the dining room without anyone noticing. According to Bemelmans, they had “learned to eat so that their cheeks and jaws do not move.”

After he left the Ritz-Carlton, the epicurean Bemelmans stayed closely connected to fine food and restaurants. He painted murals for several restaurants, illustrated menus and wine cards, depicted them in advertisements and on New Yorker covers, and owned or was closely associated with four places (all of which may be the subject of a future post).

© Jan Whitaker, 2019

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Filed under elite restaurants, food, patrons, restaurant customs, waiters/waitresses/servers

Take your Valentine to dinner

Dinner in a romantic restaurant is a popular way to celebrate Valentine’s Day. But that would have been far from true in the nineteenth century when going to what was known as a romantic restaurant meant something entirely different. Something disreputable.

It took decades before a romantic restaurant dinner became part of an evening primarily meant to please the woman rather than the man.

As late as the 1920s young single women had to guard their reputations closely when they went out in public, especially in restaurants in the evening. Emily Post advised in 1923 that “It is not good form for an engaged couple to dine together in a restaurant, but it is all right for them to lunch, or have afternoon tea . . . They should take a chaperon if they motor to road-houses for meals.”

Things loosened up not long after Emily’s edict, and celebrations in romantic restaurants increased in the 1960s. Yet it wasn’t until the 1970s that the typical Valentine’s Day restaurant experience we know today with its wine, candlelight, and soft music became popular. [see London House, Fort Worth TX, 1971] In the late 1970s and 1980s February ads for candlelit dinners “for lovers only” appeared frequently.

But earlier, when many married women were primarily homemakers, it was enough just to get a night off from cooking, even if the destination restaurant was nothing more than a cafeteria or a drive-in. How odd now to see a 1930s advertisement saying, Take Your Valentine to Dinner at Mrs. Adkins’, a cafeteria where “we never embarrass your pocketbook!” What? no service, no splurging, no Champagne, no tableside theatrics?

Even that pedestrian cafeteria meal was a celebration of sorts then. Being taken out for a Valentine’s dinner was still fairly unusual in the 1940s and 1950s. For many women, the day meant more cooking, not less. Newspaper food columns of the 1950s and even the 1960s gave the impression that mothers were expected to show love for their families by making special dinners for them.

But by the late 20th century, newspapers had changed their focus from family dinners at home to romantic couples-only dinners in restaurants. Even readers living in a city less blessed with romantic restaurants could find a hotel that filled the need. A writer in the Huntsville Times admitted that “the selection of truly romantic restaurants . . . is limited in Huntsville,” but at least there was a Radisson, or a Marriott offering a Sweetheart Dinner for Two consisting of Chateaubriand, Champagne, and Strawberries Romanoff.

In 1979 a Cleveland journalist convinced his wife to travel with him all over the U.S. to verify the romantic value of ten of the country’s restaurants as recommended in an airline magazine. Several failed the test, but they were delighted with Maxim’s de Paris in Chicago, with its “beautiful wall sconces and tiny, rose-colored table lamps, all imported from Paris, and gold service plates that were originally designed for Sarah Bernhardt.” They ate Rack of Lamb that “looked like a picture from a gourmet magazine.”

Guess what kind of food was deemed most romantic – at least by those newspaper food writers who assembled lists of best places to celebrate the day? It certainly wasn’t beef stew or mixed vegetables. Better to be served something sauced, stuffed, or puffed. Many restaurants, in fact, stuck to the old standbys, steak and prime rib, but they didn’t score as high on the romance scale as did those purveying food with French names. Ah, bisque, terrine of lobster, pommes duchesse, tournedos de beef, and Grand Marnier soufflé!

Champagne and long-stemmed roses aside, could it be that the ladies especially enjoyed that their dinners had been fretted and fussed over by male chefs?

© Jan Whitaker, 2019

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Lunching at the dime store

Waves of nostalgia about lunch counter menus, low prices, friendly waitresses, and non-pretentious hospitality surged when dime stores began closing their counters in the 1970s and 1980s. [photo ca. 1930]

Nostalgia was mostly confined to former patrons who were white and not involved in the 1960s protests to integrate variety store lunch counters. In fact, some black activists still had criminal records on the books for participating in sit-ins.

It isn’t surprising that dime store lunch counters were chosen as sites of protest in 1960 and 1961 if you realize that they were among the top food service chains in the country then. A report from 1964 showed that F. W. Woolworth Co. and McDonald’s Systems, Inc. were neck and neck in the chain restaurant race. McDonald’s was ahead in sales with $114M while Woolworth was at $100M, but Woolworth dominated the landscape with 1,950 units across the country as compared to McDonald’s 611. And though not in the top ten, other dime store chains also had notable lunch counter sales, particularly Kresge, Grant, Newberry [shown below, 1940], and McCrory.


Dime store lunch counters dated back to the 1910s. The earliest lunch counters were probably the ones associated with the railroads, going back at least several decades into the 19th century. But dime stores added something new to their lunch counters – soda fountains — giving them wider appeal and the ability to attract customers between mealtimes.

Their installation involved significant capital investment. As dime store advertisements proclaimed, they were modern and sanitary. Through the first half of the 20th century, the stores constantly reminded the public that they were outfitted with the latest in modern gas and electric appliances for cooking, refrigeration, cleaning, and sterilization. [Kresge, Louisville, 1922]

When a new Woolworth store opened in Abilene TX in 1939, a lengthy story reported that “All utensils touched by food are of stainless, seamless steel.” Plus, it said, the food was kept at the correct temperatures at all times, dishes were washed and sterilized automatically, and the kitchen was lit by fluorescent fixtures.

I have no doubt that due to their expensive kitchen and counter equipment, dime store food service far exceeded the typical under-capitalized independent lunch room or restaurant of the same time in terms of sanitation.

Another modernizing feature was promoting women into lunch counter management. Although I’ve seen no numbers, Woolworth’s claimed that the majority of their lunch counters and bakeries had women managers. When a new Woolworth store opened in Butte MT in 1928, the opening of the lunch counter was under the supervision of a woman who managed a busy lunch counter in a Denver Woolworth store. This was surely a role not often played by women in the world of business then. She predicted that with 62 stools and quick service, the Butte store should easily be able to serve 1,000 persons at lunch.

Dime store lunch counters have been seen as early versions of fast food restaurants and to a degree this is true. They depended on fast delivery of food, high turnover of each counter stool, and price breaks for quantity buying. But there were also many ways in which they were not like the fast food chains that helped put them out of business.

Baking on the premises and selling baked goods in the store certainly set them apart from burger chains of the later 20th century.

So did using fresh produce and buying locally. When a new counter at the Newberry store was opened in Fremont OH in 1941, an advertisement stated, “Daily there arrives, fresh from the finest markets, a big assortment of garden vegetables and fruits; from the best local dairies come rich milk and cream and palate-tempting butter . . .” Local dairies and food purveyors often co-sponsored advertising when a new store was built or a new counter installed. A new Kresge store in St. Louis acknowledged its suppliers in 1919, “reliable firms, such as Freund Bakeries, Carpenter’s Ice Cream, Thomas L. Tierney Tea and Coffee Co., Sixth Street Grocery Co., Bentzen Commission Co., Harry E. Grafeman, Foerstel Bros. Meat Co., Herz-Oakes, Swift.”

Their menus included sandwiches and desserts, but also substantial hot meals. A remodeled Kress store in Fort Worth TX announced its menus for April 1931 would include a number of 25c plate lunches such as Roast Chicken with Dressing, Cranberry Sauce, Creamed Potatoes, Buttered English Peas, Lettuce and Tomato Salad, Corn Sticks, Butter, and Rolls. There was also a vegetable plate with Mustard Greens, Creamed Potatoes, Buttered English Peas, Lettuce and Tomato Salad, Corn Sticks, Butter, and Rolls. [Woolworth menu, 1959 — click to enlarge]

Woolworth had a love affair with turkey, serving it on plate lunches throughout the year. The explanation, according to Karen Plunkett-Powell in Remembering Woolworth’s, was that the store bought up farm surpluses for good prices – whether vegetables, dairy products, or turkey. Turkey seemed to appear frequently at Kress and Kresge also.

As dime stores experienced declines in business, their lunch counters were often the first sign of cutbacks, with the last ones closing in the late 1990s. Among the mourners were older patrons who took part in informal lunch counter coffee clubs. [Northampton MA, 1990]

© Jan Whitaker, 2019

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Filed under chain restaurants, food, lunch rooms, menus, popular restaurants, sanitation

Square meals

It’s likely that the term square meal originated in the restaurant culture of the California Gold Rush.

Most of the single men that were drawn to California then were temporary dwellers dependent on restaurants and hotels for their meals, so it is not surprising that “square meal” would first be applied to meals served in restaurants.

One of the earliest uses of the phrase I’ve found was in an advertisement for the What Cheer House in Marysville CA in 1858. The What Cheer said it offered three square meals a day for a moderate charge.

The term evidently was not known in the East. Most of the news about life in California was delivered by newspaper correspondents who wrote long stories about their experiences. One of those was J. Ross Browne, a frequent contributor to Harper’s magazine, who wrote in 1863 about a small shanty eatery called “The Howling Wilderness Saloon” that offered “a good square meal” for fifty cents. Browne explained that a square meal “is not, as may be supposed, a meal placed upon the table in the form of a solid cubic block; but a substantial repast of pork and beans, onions, cabbage, and other articles of sustenance that will serve to fill up the corners of a miner’s stomach.” [Above advertisement, California, 1861]

Other writers also felt it was necessary to explain to faraway readers what square meal meant. In the mid-1860s the term was often included in lists of colorful and unfamiliar Western slang such as shebang, grub, and muk-a-muk, plus sayings such as You bet, or Bet your bottom dollar.

By the end of the Civil War, the term had begun to spread across the country. A Union soldier from Wisconsin referred in summer of 1865 to enjoying his first square meal since joining the regiment. The reporter asked what he meant by that and he answered, “Four cups of coffee, all the ham I can eat, with bread, butter, pies, cakes, pickles and cheese . . .”

A few years later a restaurant in Memphis TN celebrated the opening of a new eating saloon where “A ‘square meal’ is served up smoking hot for fifty cents.”

What is most revealing about the slang term – suggesting what the mainstream American idea of a good meal was – is what did NOT qualify as a square meal.

For many diners, a meal in a Chinese restaurant did not qualify. Samuel Bowles, publisher of the esteemed Springfield (MA) Republican, who wrote of his travels to the West in 1865, explained that a square meal was “the common term for a first rate one.” He described a Chinese dinner he attended in San Francisco where the “the universal odor and flavor soon destroyed all appetite.” He was rescued from the situation by the chief of police who took him to an American restaurant where he enjoyed mutton chops, squab, fried potatoes, and a bottle of champagne.

Another New England paper ratified Bowles’ disdain for a Chinese dinner, stating, “An American generally has to go and get a ‘square meal’ after thus dining.” A possible reason for the rejection of Chinese food may lie in an editorial in 1872 in the New York Evening Post that referred to a political campaign amounting to a “dish of hotch-potch, instead of a square meal of honest viands.” In other words, people wanted chunks of meat [i.e., viands], not bits of food mixed together.

It was also clear that a square meal was not the same thing as a lunch. Back in 1858 the What Cheer House advised that in addition to three squares a day, regular diners there might also get “a lunch between meals, if they can keep on the right side of the Cook.” A lunch was regarded then almost as a snack. Boston’s Lindall “Dining & Lunch Rooms” had three departments, one “for the ‘regular square meals,’ one an oyster counter, and one “devoted to hot lunches of smaller orders of almost every dish.”

Guests from abroad were not always pleased with the squareness of American meals. The Londoner Walter Scott wrote in Our American Cousins (1883) about struggling with square meals in hotels where typically an enormous number of dishes of food were served, not in courses but all at once. As a waiter told another visitor, “What people want here is a good square meal; they are not particular about what they eat, if only they have a lot of things placed in front of them.” This style of service reportedly led to huge amounts of dumped food floating in the NY harbor.

In the 20th century some people began to mourn the loss of the good old pre-modern square meal – which was increasingly seen as the opposite of “fancy food.” A street reporter in Chicago in 1924 asked a woman whether she preferred home cooking to what was served in a “high class” restaurant and she answered that she preferred a good square meal with “fewer fancy frills.”

I think her answer would still resonate today, and I’d guess that many would say a diner was the best place to get a square meal.

© Jan Whitaker, 2019

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Tea rooms for students

College and high school students of the 20th century led many eating-out trends and customs. Not only did they help make certain foods popular, they also influenced meal habits and adopted frequent restaurant-going as part of their social lives.

Drive-ins, coffee houses, and vegetarian restaurants were some of the types of eating places heavily shaped by student patrons in the middle and later decades of the last century. But a bit earlier, in the early 20th century, the eating places of choice for many college students were tea rooms that attracted women students. Not than men students didn’t also like tea rooms. An example was The Cactus Tea Room, built in 1917 with weird carvings of university types adorning its eaves, and serving both male and female students at the University of Texas in Austin.

Although tea rooms were more likely to be found near residential colleges, high school students also enjoyed them for after-school stops. In the 1920s students at Decatur High School in Decatur GA hung out at the Elite Tea Room, while Haverling High School students in Bath NY gravitated to the Chat-A-Wile Tea Room.

Rather than being stuffy and proper, many tea rooms that catered to students were relaxed and informal. They carried on college traditions such as midnight “spreads,” at which foods pilfered from the school’s dining halls were remade into chafing dish repasts. The feasts were occasions for casual attire, sprawling on the floor, and high spirits at the thought of evading detection while breaking college rules. [shown here is an Oberlin College dorm room spread, 1905]

Tea rooms also carried on the tradition of college dining clubs, which involved groups of friends joining together to hire a local woman to prepare their meals. The clubs adopted humorous names such as Vassar College’s Nine Nimble Nibblers, Grubbers, and Gobbling Goops of the late 19th century.

For example, a popular spot for students from Smith College was the Copper Kettle, which played a role much like the coffee shops of today. Students hung out there, read, chatted, and snacked on popcorn, ice cream, and tea. Its decor was cosy, shabby-chic style with mismatched furniture, wicker lounge chairs, posters, and window seats. Smith students were also enamored of the Rose Tree Inn, where full meals were served in a Bohemian atmosphere created by the intriguing Madame Anna de Naucaze.

Some colleges were almost surrounded by tea rooms. That was true in Western Massachusetts where both Smith College and Mount Holyoke College are located. Northampton, home of Smith College, was described in 1922 as having “more tea-houses than churches.” Not so far away, Mount Holyoke College was also well supplied with tea rooms, among them The Croysdale Inn, The Mary-Elin Tea Shop, and The Art Nook. I find it interesting that the Mary-Elin advertised in 1921 that it would stay open until 10 p.m., which was quite late for a tea room.

Parents did not always approve of their free-wheeling daughters’ behavior. In 1912, a mother wrote a critical article titled “One Disintegrant of Our Home Life,” about the typical college girl who socialized constantly, ignored rules of proper dress, and loved going to “the Green Coffee Pot or the Carnation Tea Urn.” “I tell my husband that college doesn’t breed home-building girls,” she wrote.

Among the most notable changes that tea rooms brought was simply that of providing a welcoming and friendly place for unescorted women to gather. This, of course, encouraged women and girls to spend more time eating away from home.

As for food, apart from popularizing eating cake and ice cream at any time of day or night, tea room food was a departure from typical lunch rooms and restaurants of the early 20th century that served fairly heavy meals based around meat. Although meat was certainly served in tea rooms, patrons also had many other choices. A 1920s menu from The Quinby Inn (shown above) — popular with students at Goucher College near Baltimore — offers Tenderloin Steak and Roast Pork, but also many other choices, with quite a few of them revealing the popularity of sweet food. Among them are 12 desserts, 22 salads, many of which involved mixed fruits and whipped cream, and 22 sandwiches, including Olive & Egg and Sliced Pineapple (no, not together!).

The list of specials clipped onto a 1920s menu from The Mary-Elin Tea Shop near Mount Holyoke College also shows its patrons’ fondness for sweets [thanks to Donna Albino for scans of the menu from her Mount Holyoke College collection].

A number of college women opened tea rooms of their own either as a summer project or after graduation. But that will be another post.

© Jan Whitaker, 2019

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Filed under alternative restaurants, food, menus, patrons, restaurant customs, restaurant fads, tea shops, women

Basic fare: meat & potatoes

Meat and potatoes were so characteristic of eating places in the 19th century we could call it the Meat and Potatoes Century. But of course that title could apply to most of the 20th century as well.

In 1829, the Plate House, a cheap New York City eating hall, offered steaks with potatoes by the dish and half dish, 4 cents for the latter.

Chop houses of the 19th century were also based on meat and potatoes. They could be considered forerunners of today’s steakhouses, with their dark interiors, male patrons, and baked potatoes as accompaniments to meat. One difference, though, was that in the 1800s patrons were as likely to order mutton as beef.

The chop house was regarded as an antiquated type of eating place in 1873 when a journalist wrote that Farrish’s and others were “sought out by Britishers who like places off the beaten track and humble, dark and without glitter.” Old fashioned or not, it was still loved for its “mealy” baked potatoes, probably even in the 1930s when this postcard was produced.

Little surprise that “meat and potatoes” became a metaphor for no-frills reliability. To call someone a meat-and-potatoes “man” – always a man — was more than a commentary on his diet; it also meant he was a regular guy. Similarly for a meat-and-potatoes town. As Chicago columnist Bob Greene would put it in 1983, as the world capital of meat and potatoes, his hometown was “tough, brawling, no-nonsense, rugged.”

The metaphor – that came into use after World War II — could extend to almost anything. Business success relied upon sure-thing “meat and potatoes” products and services. For Gloucester MA, odd as it sounds, the town’s meat-and-potatoes industry was ground fish. For a symphony orchestra their meat and potatoes might be a popular Beethoven sonata.

Nineteenth-century restaurants featured potatoes either mashed, boiled, baked, stewed, fried, Lyonnaise, scalloped, mousseline, or au gratin. In the 20th century the choices tended to narrow down to mashed, baked, and French fried. Meat meant mostly beef in the 19th, but extended to chicken in the 20th.

In 1885 it was standard for potatoes to come free with a meat order. As noted then, “An unordered boiled potato, with the skin on, is the second grand characteristic of an American dining saloon. It matters not what meal it is, the boiled potato will always appear, if the establishment is truly legitimate.”

But this “legitimate” entitlement was about to end. Where would fast food restaurants be today if they didn’t charge extra for French fries? As far back as the early 20th century, restaurant operators realized there was additional profit to be made by charging separately for potatoes.

In the 1950s and 1960s, fast food burger chains, hotel rib rooms, and chain and independent steakhouses began to proliferate. Steakhouses proved popular with lunching business men while families chose economy cuts at Bonanza or Ponderosa. “Advances” took place, such as foil wrappings that allowed the potatoes to remain under infra-red lamps longer without drying out. By the early 1960s sour cream and chives were considered essential additions to baked potatoes. By that time, the favorite All-American meal was shrimp cocktail, followed by steak, baked potato with sour cream, an iceberg lettuce salad thickly coated with Thousand Island dressing, and cheesecake for dessert.

In 1971 a Gallup survey measuring the popularity of “international cuisine” confirmed the timidity of most American palates. The strangest aspect of the survey were the dishes Gallup offered up as international. Among them were Beef Stroganoff (ranked highest), Swedish Meat Balls, Lasagne, Veal Parmigiana, Chili Con Carne, and Hungarian Goulash. A full 10% of respondents found nothing among the 22 selections that they liked.

Nevertheless . . . around the late 1970s the whole meat-and-potatoes dining complex began to be questioned. Increasingly it ran against new notions of health and fitness. The cholesterol, the heaviness! Also, it was such a limited diet. Did its fans have no interest in other cuisines? Meat-and-potato towns – Chicago, Cleveland, Kansas City, St. Louis, Denver, Fort Worth – were shamed and ridiculed even though, occasionally, someone admitted there were plenty of steakhouses on the coasts too — New York, San Francisco, even New Orleans.

In the next phase, not surprisingly, many meat-and-potatoes towns struggled to refurbish their reputations by boasting of restaurants of all kinds. Omaha touted its seafood, Japanese, Korean, and French restaurants. Minneapolis was still conservative, wrote Jeremy Iggers and Karin Winegar in John Mariani’s 1986 Coast to Coast Dining Guide, yet they identified seventeen Vietnamese restaurants, three Thai, two Ethiopian and many other nationalities represented as well, along with examples of “yuppies” taking fresh approaches to American cuisine.

Plus, pizza had actually become the new meat and potatoes.

How are steakhouses doing today? Although there are still many around and some Americans nurture a wish to return to the 1950s, I’m guessing that it’s unlikely the golden years of the steakhouse will return. Burgers and fries, too, may have seen their better days.

© Jan Whitaker, 2018

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Dining with Chiang Yee in Boston

Chiang Yee was a travel writer, born in China but a resident of London since 1933. In 1953 he came to the U. S. to research his book The Silent Traveller in Boston (1959). In 1955 he immigrated to the U.S. and taught at Columbia University for 16 years.

While in London he had published 21 books, many of them which he illustrated with paintings and drawings. Some were about travel but all of them interpreted aspects of Chinese culture for non-Chinese readers, reflecting upon similarities and differences with Western culture. In the travel books, for which he adopted the persona of Silent Traveller, he avoided political criticism and controversy while presenting himself as a serene, meditative man who walked slowly, looked closely, and enjoyed the simple pleasures of life.

Of course his visit to Boston involved quite a few restaurants, including a number of well-known places. He made influential friends — intellectuals and cultural elites — who took him to clubs and fine restaurants such as the Parker House, Locke-Ober, and the hidden-away 9 Knox Street, then run by two men in their antique-filled home at that address.

He went to popular spots such as Durgin-Park, Purcell’s, Jimmy’s Harborside, and Union Oyster House where he made a drawing of himself with a lobster and bib [shown above]. He was eager to sample local dishes such as cod, baked beans, and clam chowder. He never criticized the restaurants he patronized, though he admitted he was not fond of raw seafood.

A darker and far less serene Chiang Yee was revealed in 2010 with the publication of Chiang Yee: The Silent Traveller from the East – A Cultural Biography. Its author, Da Zheng, examined Chiang’s correspondence and interviewed friends and family, painting a complex portrait of his subject. In the Foreword, Arthur Danto reminded readers that “the Silent Traveller itself is a mask he wore that enabled him to survive under skies very different from those under which he was born.” Danto related that after visiting China in 1975, Chiang proclaimed to a group of friends, “Nobody knows who I am!! Nobody! I am a REVOLUTIONARY!!!!.”

Chiang had left his wife and four children behind when he went to London at age 30, confessing to his closest associates that his marriage was unhappy. Born into a wealthy family, he was trained in the classical arts as well as science which he studied in college. He had been a magistrate in China but in the West he built his career around Chinese art and high culture.

According to Da Zheng, when one of his sons immigrated to the U.S. in 1960, Chiang advised him to expect hardships and to be forbearing. His son observed that his father’s New York apartment was filled with signs saying “Forbearance,” suggesting that his father had much need of his own advice.

Chiang Yee told his son to stay away from Chinatown or he might end up running a restaurant there, advice he had earlier given his older son in London. Given the prejudice against Chinese in the U.S. and England – of which he was strongly critical — Chiang told them it was wise to cultivate relationships with non-Chinese.

In the light of revelations in his biography of Chiang’s strong feelings about politics, society, and the vicissitudes of his own life, I interpreted some of his words in a different light than on my first reading of The Silent Traveller in Boston. It is interesting how suggestive his stories of restaurants are in particular.

Although he admired Chinatown residents’ determination and drive, he did not share their language or cultural background. He showed some irritation that his non-Chinese friends and acquaintances in Boston expected him to be an expert on American Chinese restaurants. He wrote that a Frenchman would not “be asked to suggest which French restaurant in Boston is the best as I was asked to do in the case of Chinese restaurants almost as soon as I had arrived in the city.”

He also told of experiencing his first clam chowder in San Francisco but being greeted with silence when he told his Boston friends about this. At first he did not realize why, but later, when they asked if he thought food in Chinatown restaurants was genuine, he reminded them of their reaction to his story of eating Boston clam chowder in San Francisco. I now see this as a kind of mild dig at them, a subtle reminder that the food of American Chinatowns was as foreign to him as it was to them.

I also find it interesting that he tells of a dinner with the family of Harvard professor Yang Lien-sheng at the Old Wright Tavern. He was pleased that the waitress complimented the good behavior of the Yangs’ 5-year old son, but also wrote, “Neither the manageress nor the waitress bothered to tell us the history of the inn . . . Perhaps the people of the Wright Tavern had no time to spare from catering. Or they took for granted our knowledge of Concord history.” I suspect that he felt they had been slighted.

He must have experienced numerous “microaggressions.” Surely experiences such as the one he related about Durgin Park accounted for at least some of his Forbearance signs. Given a huge plate of food that he could not finish, a waitress addressing him as “young man” (he was 53), loudly commented, “Can’t you finish your plateful? If you can’t you should not have come here to waste your money; if you don’t like the food, we want to know why. We don’t like people who don’t like our food.” He said that when she laughed he realized she was joking, but admitted to feeling embarrassed. I’m certain that he knew that the “joke” contained a jibe about his being a foreigner.

It is a shame he had to travel silently and could not be as frank about his estimations of American culture as the Soviet authors of Little Golden America.

© Jan Whitaker, 2018

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