The menu shown here caught my eye as I was browsing the internet. Of course, I wanted to know more about it. The first thing I discovered was that it is available as a reproduction.
Evidently the Trebor Dinner was a specialty menu for complete dinners of multiple courses. Three dollars was a steep price for the Depression when this menu was introduced, at least double what a comparable meal would have cost in a moderately-priced good restaurant then.
The illustrated menu shows 14 entrees. But the restaurant almost certainly did not have all the exotic items available at all times. Another fish & chips, inc. menu from 1937, for example, offered one appetizer, one soup, and only four entrees.
The menu could date any time from the opening of the restaurant in 1936 into the 1940s. Its clever design may have been due to owner Bob Winter’s background in advertising. Why the menu is named “Trebor Dinner” is a mystery. It’s possible that Trebor is a play on the owner’s name Robert.
Fish & chips, inc. was conveniently located in the Loop, across the street from the central Chicago library, now the Chicago Cultural Center. It was a handy location for a 1943 dinner of the literary members of the Boswell club, admirers of Doctor Samuel Johnson. In their honor the restaurant posted one of Johnson’s quotations over their table in which he criticized French menus, requesting “thy knaves to bring me a dish of hog’s pudding, a slice or two from the upper cut of a well roasted sirloin, and two apple dumplings.”
It was a popular restaurant, said to be especially well liked by male patrons. In 1944, during World War II, lines formed at the door. The following year it was enlarged to seat 300. [1949 advertisement shown]
With no meat on the menu, the restaurant would have had the advantage of escaping wartime food restrictions and shortages.
Advertising that it had 50 varieties of fish on hand daily, a lunch or dinner could include sunfish, crappies, smelts, cod, brook trout, sea bass, shrimp, and lobster among many others. The restaurant advertised heavily during the Lenten season.
Bob Winter died in 1953 and the entire contents of the restaurant were auctioned, including groceries.
Appetizers became a prelude to a meal when many Americans suffered digestive problems in the 18th and 19th centuries. The idea was that appetizers were various items of fare that would help stimulate an appetite in those who were out of sorts. They could be foods, medicinal tonics, or alcoholic drinks.
Due to the strong influence of English customs in early America, the notion of taking something before a meal as a digestive stimulant more often than not meant an alcoholic drink rather than food. So the English term most often used – whets – referred primarily (though not exclusively) to drinks before dinner. The French equivalent of whets would be aperitifs.
As a term, however, “whets” did not appear on printed menus as far as I’ve discovered.
Drinks that usually served as whets/appetizers/aperitifs included rum, brandy, sherry, vermouth, champagne, and Dubonnet. In the 20th century especially, cocktails became a favorite pre-dinner drink.
While many diners began their restaurant meals with a cocktail, the drink itself was rarely referred to as an appetizer or whet after the 19th century. So I was quite surprised to find a Louisiana roadhouse restaurant listing Martinis, Old Fashion[ed]s, and Manhattans as appetizers in a 1956 advertisement!
As food, appetizers were usually lighter things consumed before the heavier Fish, Entrées, and Roasts courses typical of formal meals of the 19th century.
The word “Appetizer” itself though does not seem to have come into common use in American restaurants until the early 20th century. The term “Hors d’Oeuvres” was also used, as was “Relishes.” The French “Hors d’Oeuvre” tended to be used by higher-priced restaurants, such as New York’s Cafe Martin , that sought to create an aura of continental elegance and sophistication.
Relishes initially referred to light vegetable foods, sometimes sauces. In the mid-19th century they were sometimes served just before the sweet courses, but by the early 20th century the category had risen to near the top of menus. Over time, the foods that had once appeared separately as Relishes tended to become included under the heading Appetizers.
But it’s almost impossible to firmly settle the question of what kinds of foods are found in the various categories – Relishes, Hors d’Oeuvres, Canapes, Appetizers, etc. The categories are loose and highly variable. One restaurant’s Relishes are another’s Hors d’Oeuvres.
A distinction is often made between Hors d’Oeuvres and Appetizers, stressing that the latter are eaten at the table in restaurants while Hors d’Oeuvres are one-bite morsels offered by servers to standing guests before they are seated. This distinction may hold for catered events but not for restaurants where there is no hesitation about using Hors d’Oeuvres as a general category.
Also confusing are the menus listing “Hors d’Oeuvres” as a selection under the headings Appetizers or Relishes. In 1917 a menu from San Francisco’s Portola Louvre actually put Hors d’Oeuvres under the heading Hors d’Oeuvres, along with caviar, sardines, celery, etc. Imagine a waiter asking, “Would you like some Hors d’Oeuvres for your Hors d’Oeuvres?
Until the 1960s and 1970s, the food items that were most commonly offered as beginnings to restaurant dinners were prepared simply and usually served cold. They have included: Fresh vegetables such as celery, radishes, artichoke hearts, and spring onions. Fresh fruits, including grapefruit and melons. Pickled and preserved vegetables, whether olives, beets, peppers, or traditional cucumber pickles. Preserved fruit combinations such as chutney and chow chow. Juices of tomato, grapefruit, pineapple, sauerkraut, and clams. Fresh seafoods — oysters, shrimp, lobster, scallops, and crab. And cured, smoked, pickled, deviled, and marinated meats and seafood/fish, including Westphalia ham, sausages, prosciutto, caviar, paté de foie gras, eels, herring, sardines, salmon, anchovies, and whitefish.
I am impressed that celery – en branche, hearts, a la Victor, a la Parisienne, Colorado, Kalamazoo, Pascal, Delta, stuffed, etc. – stayed on menus from the 19th century until long after World War II.
Heavier, more substantial, and often heated Appetizers seem to have been introduced post-WWII mainly by restaurants designated as Polynesian, Cantonese, and Mexican/Latin. In 1960 New York’s La Fonda del Sol offered appetizers such as Avocado Salad on Toasted Tortillas, Little Meat and Corn Pies, Grilled Peruvian Tidbits on Skewers, and Tamales filled with chicken, beef, or pork. A 1963 menu from a Polynesian restaurant called The Islander dedicated a whole page to its “Puu Puus (Appetizers)” that included ribs, chicken in parchment, won tons, and fried shrimp. The assortment was quite similar to the offerings at Jimmy Wong’s Cantonese restaurant in Chicago shown above.
By the 1980s, many restaurants featured appetizers that would now likely be called “Small Plates” or items for “grazing.” Two or three were substantial enough to make up a dinner in themselves, as demonstrated here by a rather expensive Spago menu from 1981.
If grazing was a form of “light eating,” that could not be said of the appetizers introduced in the 1970s and 1980s by casual dinner house chains such as TGI Friday, Chili’s [1987 menu above], and Bennigan’s. Now the idea of an appetizer was completely turned on its head. Far from a light morsel that would induce appetite in someone with digestive issues, it became a digestive issue in its own right — deep fried and loaded with fat. The menus of leading casual dinner chains overflowed with “Starters” such as deep-fried breaded cheese, “loaded” potato skins, cheese fries [pictured at top of post], and heaping piles of nachos laced with pico de gallo and cheese. Diners might need a 19th-century digestive tonic after dinner.
It’s hard to say just how long french fried onion rings have been on restaurant menus. But it’s likely that they were served at the Grove Park Inn, in Asheville NC, shortly after it opened in 1913. A few years later politician William Jennings Bryan’s recipe for them appeared in a Boston newspaper in which he said that the inn was the first place he – a frequent traveler – had ever encountered them.
Women had been preparing them in their homes before that. A recipe appeared in Women’s Home Companion in 1905, but I’m sure they were known earlier.
Bryan’s recollection as well as the 1905 recipe settle the question of whether french fried onion rings were the 1920s invention of a Pig Stand in Texas as frequently claimed on the internet. They were not.
In the 1930s onion rings became more common in restaurants, probably aided by improvements in cooking oil (though many used lard) and deep fryers. Then, and for several decades later, they were usually featured as an accompaniment to a steak. In the heart of the Depression Schrafft’s advertized its Sizzling Steak Combination, saying, “With it you get generous helpings of French fried potatoes, onion rings or a fresh vegetable, a green salad, and a pot of Schrafft’s coffee, $1.50.” It ended with the tagline, “A Man’s Meal.”
They were often specifically marketed to men. Whether women shied away from them because of fear of breath contamination or some other stigma is unclear. Or maybe they enjoyed them just as much as men did, but were less likely to order steak because of price.
Despite the fact that men liked onion rings, onions in general carried a stigma. At various times in the last century they were characterized as “ordinary and even common,” as breath contaminators, and as food that restaurant kitchen workers did not like to handle. A 1966 handbook recommended that restaurant operators drawing up menus “shun” onions, along with lamb kidneys, pig’s knuckles, parsnips, turnips, and rutabagas. In 1969 a Gallup Poll found that potatoes were Americans’ favorite vegetables, followed by green beans, asparagus, corn, and tomatoes. French fried onions were ranked as slightly more popular than broccoli, lima beans, and peas.
Prejudices aside, onion rings grew more popular over time.
The arrival of pre-breaded frozen onion rings, which saved kitchen labor, was almost certainly part of their rising popularity. Their production began in the early 1950s when food companies contracted with fish processors who had learned the art of breading and freezing. Contra the Gallup poll, in 1969 one writer acknowledged that, after french fries, onion rings “must be the all time favorite accompaniment to hamburgers.”
Use of the ready-to-heat rings increased in the 1970s when fast food chains began to serve them. Some, such as those sold at Burger King, were made of ground onions that had been extruded through tubes in factories. Their uniform size and shape, suited for “portion control,” did not sit well with a restaurant reviewer in 1977. He complained that a Burger King in Seattle served onion rings that were “those pressed-onion jobs that come out all one size and lacking a great deal of onion taste.” What an ingrate! Didn’t he realize that extrusion meant he could count on always receiving the exact same number of grams of breading and ground onion as the next customer?
In 1978 McDonald’s began test-marketing their own version of deep fried onions, using chunks instead of rings and calling their “french fried chopped onion product” Onion Nuggets. But the nuggets didn’t make it past the test stage, reputedly because they got cold too quickly. Restaurant onion rings, in general, were often criticized for being served cold – as well as for being limp and greasy.
Overall, the historic trajectory of onion rings in restaurants seems to be:
Beginning in the early 20th century primarily as a garnish or accompaniment to a steak
Especially as onion prices rose, becoming a separately priced side order, often where hamburgers were popular such as drive-ins and fast food outlets.
Ascending to the top of the menu — with inflated prices — as appetizers at dinner-house chains such as TGI Friday.
Though not ring-shaped, Outback Steakhouse’s “Bloomin’ Onion” may have propelled deep fried onions to their historic pinnacle both in terms of fat and calorie load as well as price.
Odd – often humorous – names for simple restaurant orders were long associated with cheap eating places such as hash houses, beaneries, and lunch wagons. In addition to inexpensive food, patrons got free entertainment, while newspaper reporters never ran out of light copy.
In cheap restaurants it was customary through much of the 19th century and early in the 20th for servers to convey orders to the kitchen by shouting them out from the dining area. It’s highly likely that many, maybe most, of the servers as well as the cooks, were unable to read and write.
The colorful stories began to fill papers’ pages in the 1880s. In 1881 U.S. President Chester Arthur was reported to have visited a “coffee and cake saloon” in lower Manhattan – probably Hitchcock’s — where waiters shouted out his order of coffee and rare corned beef to the kitchen in slang.
Judging by how often it was repeated in the press, the public was endlessly amused by the tale of the clever Bowery hash house waiter who bested the patron who tried to confuse him by asking for two poached eggs on toast by adding that he wanted the yolks broken. Without a pause, the waiter shouted out “Adam and Eve on a raft. Wreck ‘em.”
Eggs merited the most jargon of all foods, probably because there are so many ways of preparing them. Two terms remain in almost universal use today and are so commonly used that probably no one suspects they were once regarded as unfamiliar waiter slang. I’m sure you will spot them easily in the list of egg orders.
Many of these terms make no sense at all, and some have more than one reference. Why were they used? Clearly they are not necessarily shorter or easier to yell than if they were straightforward. According to the 1945 article Soda Fountain Lingo, “An exclusive language – racy, picturesque, humorous – understood only by the initiate, adds zest to the monotony. Further, it lends pride to the job and provides an esprit de corps. It gives incentive to the new waiter, mystifies the general public, and furnishes satisfaction to the enlightened professional hasher.”
Eggs Ham and eggs – Kansas City chicken and Adam and Eve Scrambled eggs — Adam and Eve shipwrecked; Agitated eggs; Storm tossed eggs; Eggs around the curve; Wreck Noah Scrambled eggs with chili sauce – Ship wreck in the Red sea Scrambled eggs on toast – Wreck on a raft Fried eggs unturned — With eyes open; Sunny side up; Straight up; Two white wings turned down Fried eggs turned over – In the dark; With a black eye; Over easy; Eyes closed Fried eggs scalded in hot grease — Blindfold two Poached eggs – Sleeve buttons Poached eggs on toast – Two ladies on horseback; Adam and Eve on a raft Soft boiled eggs – A light on the ocean wave; In the sea/ocean Hard boiled eggs – A light under the waves; Two in the water like a brick
Meat/fish/main dishes Dozen oysters stewed plain — Drown a dozen Dozen oysters in the loaf — One in the coffin Oyster stew – Two in a bowl; Stew-o-o-oo Chicken stew — Springer in the mud Corned beef hash – Brownstone front (can also refer to pancakes); Mystery Wienerwurst and sauerkraut — A Dutchman’s paradise Ham and beans – Ham an’ Beef and beans – Beef an’ Beans – Plate of Bostons; Thousand on a plate Baked beans without the pork — Brass band without the leader Beefsteak – Patent leather; One sole without a shoe Mutton chops – Whiskers Codfish ball – Sinker (also refers to doughnuts and to pancakes) Spring chicken on toast and boiled potatoes — Foul tip and a hot grounder Fried catfish (quickly) — Railroad a hot swimmer
Other Macaroni — A son of Italy; Put up the flag Buttered toast — Butter the gash Pancakes — Brownstone front; Brown the wheats; String o’ flats; Stack ‘em up Pancakes and coffee – Bootleg and sinkers Buckwheat cakes – Brown the buck Hot biscuit — Order of the boat heels Doughnuts – Sinkers; Life preservers; Fried holes Shredded wheat biscuits and a glass of milk – Couple o’ bales of hay & squeeze the cow Milk toast – Cemetery stew Chicken soup – Hen in the bowl Slice of watermelon — The Red Man Mince pie with powdered sugar on top — Indigestion in a snowstorm Pie a la mode – Freeze out; Snow on the open face No gravy – Make it dry Keep it hot – In a hot box
Beverages Hot tea — Cup of China; On the Chinaman Tea without milk – Hong Kong on crutches Iced tea — One in the mountains Cup of coffee — One in the dark; Draw one Glass of milk — One in the light; Squeeze the cow Ice water – One Arctic
Customers often contributed to the lingo by inventing their own, both for ordering and asking someone to pass something. Pass the sugar – Give the sand box a kick down this way Request for butter – Pass the dope Milk – Drive the cow down this way Beans and molasses – Short and sweet Fried pigs’ feet – A Trilby foot [Trilby was a popular 1894 novel about an artist’s model with beautiful feet] Coffee and doughnuts – Slop and sinkers Sandwich with a liberal allowance of ham – One boxing glove with plenty of lining
Hash house lingo died a slow death in the 20th century with the arrival of automated eating places, cafeterias, and other serve-yourself places, and was pretty much gone by the 1930s. It has been artificially revived here and there as a novelty attraction, the former Ed Debevics diners being a prime example.
In their restaurant career sandwiches came from humble beginnings. They could sometimes be found in eating places as far back as the early 1800s, such as at the Ring of Bells, a porter and oyster house in New York. But they became more popular when they teamed up with beer joints after the Civil War. They also flourished in Boston’s “sandwich depots” of the 1880s — bean sandwiches included. And they were among the edibles offered by lunch wagons, saloons, and stand-up buffets in the late 19th century.
But it was the trend toward lighter mid-day meals in the early decades of the 20th century, spurred by the growth of cities, that gave sandwiches their big boost. Then, as light meals replaced hot dinners at noon, they found their niche, furnishing a quickly prepared menu item available in a variety of styles and combinations. Sandwiches of all kinds – named after celebrities, toasted, clubs, St. Paul’s — continued to flourish until after WWII when hamburgers began to take center stage.
While some eating places stuck with hot meals at noon in the early 20th century, others were quick to embrace sandwiches, particularly lunch rooms, tea rooms, drug stores, and delis. The sandwich shop was declared the winner among fast food restaurants. To critics the proliferation of this slapped-together fare was a sign of cultural decline. “The postwar decade might be known as the era of the sandwich,” declared cultural observer Eunice Fuller Barnard in a New York Times article of 1929 with the mournful headline, “We Eat Still, But No Longer Do We Dine.”
Among new developments was the formation of sandwich chains such as the Tasty Toasty and the Hasty Tasty. The B/G System was one of many in that category, which also included R&C, C&L, S&S, and no doubt other alphabetical combos across the USA. In 1924, the “Purely American, Meal in a Minute, No Tipping” B/G chain claimed to pay wages allowing their workers to “live according to American standards.” It had outlets in 16 large cities and was about to spread further. Was St. Louis the champion host of sandwich shops? Included among the city’s 52 sandwich shops in 1938, there were at least 6 “sandwich systems,” the Continental, Hollywood, Nickel Plate, Night Hawk, Ure-Way, and Yankee.
The sandwich selections on the menu shown here are from the Huyler’s confectionery-based chain. Tongue and Cream Cheese sandwiches, rarely (ever?) seen today, were quite popular in those early years (1921 menu above).
Polly’s Cheerio Tea Room’s Ham and Jam on French Toast would seem to be unusual, though perhaps Los Angelenos would have disagreed (1932 menu above).
I can’t account for why Schrafft’s in New York City felt the need to indicate which sandwiches were made with mayonnaise (1938 menu above). I’ve found one other tea room, located in St. Joseph MO, that included the same annotations.
Among the other interesting sandwich combinations I’ve found are Cucumber & Radish (25c at The Cortile in NYC in 1928); Egg and Green Pepper with Mayonnaise on Whole Wheat Gluten Bread (25c at Schrafft’s in 1929); “Chef’s Pride,” Smoked Tongue, Sliced Chicken, and Deviled Eggs double decker (50c at Townsends, San Francisco in1933); Peanut Salad (10c at The Candy Box in Winona MN in 1935); Peanut Butter, Sliced Tomato, Bacon, and Lettuce triple decker on toast (25c at The Little White House in NYC in 1936); and Marshmallow and Peanut Butter (15c at The Bookshop Tearoom in Springfield MA in 1946).
I prefer my BLTs without peanut butter. Hold the marshmallows, please.
(This post is a footnote to Robin Caldwell’s fine essay on Black grocers in the Greenwood community – my attempt to give some sense of the community by sketching a little about the area’s many restaurants.)
Before the Greenwood district’s destruction in 1921 – evaluated at $536M in property damage in today’s dollars — the area had become home to a prosperous Black business district filled with brick buildings, many of them housing eating places. Its leading citizens had done very well and a Black newspaper, the Tulsa Star, had begun publishing in 1913, with its office located near the heart of the business district at N. Greenwood and E. Archer avenues.
Nonetheless, like all of Tulsa, the area had its share of problems, no doubt due in large part to its rapid growth and the city’s attractiveness to transients and people on the make in both a good and a bad sense. Though generally striking a positive note, The Star complained of inadequate city services reflected in a failure of police to shut down gambling, prostitution, and bootlegging, and the lack of sewers in some parts of the community. Shortly before the massacre area residents petitioned the city, urging annexation of that part of the Black community outside the city limits and lacking modern improvements such as water, street lights, railroad crossings, fire stations, sidewalks, and paved streets. [Shown above: ca. 1915 photo of flooding in the 300 block of N. Frankfort street; Russell & Co. was a black-owned business.]
One of the most successful Black restaurant proprietors was Texas-born Joe Lockard who moved to Tulsa from his farm in Muskogee Indian Territory (Oklahoma). In 1914 he opened The People’s Café near Tulsa’s Frisco train depot. In 1920 he became president of the board of directors of a newly created investment company. That same year a white customer got into an argument with Lockard’s cook, shooting and killing the cook in the cafe’s dining room. Lockard’s café was destroyed by white rioters in 1921, but he continued in the café business into the 1930s, possibly later.
In contrast to Lockard, another Texan, Al Floyd, operator of the Cosy Corner [shown at top, 1915 advertisement from The Tulsa Star], was in business for at most a few years before relocating to Oklahoma City where he managed a railroad café.
The Busy Bee Café was run by Texas-born Savannah Elliott, also known as ‘Mother Elliott” despite only being in her 30s. In 1918 the newspaper mentioned that she entertained groups, such as teachers, and birthday dinners with as many as 17 guests. She sold the 112 N. Greenwood location at the end of that year, and moved to a new place that she operated briefly before again moving to Kansas City MO. In KC she and her husband ran a café called the Blue Goose. [1917 advertisement]
L. W. Wells ran a café in Okmulgee OK in 1914. The following year he moved to Tulsa, working in a white-owned restaurant called the Ever Eat Café. By 1918 he was running two quick-lunch cafes of his own in the Greenwood area where he provided “classy lunches” according to advertisements. It was wartime and business was booming, possibly because soldiers were passing through on the railroad. As the above advertisement indicates he was unable to keep his second location open because of the business crunch which probably meant increased patronage and a simultaneous shortage of help. In 1918 he had a dangerous brush with a drunken customer, engaging in a fist fight with him and pulling a gun. Like Lockard, he owned a farm in Oklahoma and was considered well off. The Star paper noted that for Christmas 1918 he presented his wife and daughter with a piano costing $475. His restaurant on Greenwood Avenue was destroyed in the 1921 attacks. [1918 advertisement]
Most of the cafes in the Greenwood district were basic, pricing meals reasonably, often charging 25 cents for a plated hot dinner. Many were open day and night. Their advertising stressed cleanliness. Most went by their owners’ names but there were also plenty of colorful names such as Busy Bee, Cosy Corner, Crystal, Ideal, Liberty, Little Pullman, Lone Star, Minute, Olympia, Palace, People’s, Red Rose, Square Deal, Star, and Sunny Side. (Because Tulsa was a Jim Crow city, it’s easy to identify which were Black restaurants – they were marked (c) in the city’s business directories.)
The greatest number of restaurants over the years 1913 through 1920 were on North Greenwood avenue. It intersected with East Archer to form the heart of the area’s business district, as well as bearing the brunt of destruction in 1921. East Archer had the second largest number of restaurants. I counted about 30 on North Greenwood during the 8-year period and 15 on East Archer, with another couple dozen on other streets.
Overall, the cafes went through a great deal of turnover and geographical churn – as was common throughout the US. They changed hands or moved to new addresses with some frequency. For example, Susie Bell’s cafe suffered fire damage when the Waffle House next door caught on fire in 1920. Although she had already moved several times, she was not defeated. She went out scouting for a new location early the next morning, confident she would be back in business by evening. In all likelihood she had “regulars” who counted on her to provide their daily meals. Her cafe was destroyed in the massacre. [1913 advertisement]
I had hoped to get an idea of what foods restaurants served, but that turned out to be difficult. Many advertised “home cooking” but almost never mentioned specific dishes. Usually when applied to basic cafes, home cooking referred to plain meat-and-potatoes dinners of the sort preferred by people who relied on restaurants for most of their meals. It’s likely that a fair number of residents of the Greenwood area lived in rooming houses and residential hotels with no cooking facilities. According to the 1920 federal census, about a tenth of Tulsa’s Black population were lodgers.
Though advertising did not offer much idea of what was served in the cafés, two foods were mentioned fairly frequently: Barbecue and Chili. Aside from the Black population born in Oklahoma, the next largest percentage were transplants from Texas, so it isn’t at all surprising that these two foods would be staples. There was also frequent mention of confectionery, pies, and cakes.
The one and only menu I discovered was for a 1918 Christmas dinner, billed as home cooking, at the Sunny Side Café. An advertisement also referred to it as a “Conservation” dinner, reflecting wartime rationing. In addition to a “Christmas Oyster Loaf,” the dinner included: Baked Turkey with Roquefort Dressing; Baked Chicken with Corn Dressing; Roast Goose with Sage Dressing; Smothered Duck with Brown Gravy; Cream Potatoes; Cream Peas; Griddle Corn; Macaroni; Stuffed Tomatoes; Stewed Prunes; String Beans; Cream Cabbage; Cranberry Sauce; Cherry Cobbler and Whip Cream; and the following pies: Pumpkin, Potato Custard, Mince Meat, Lemon Custard, Apple, and Cocoanut Custard.
Despite the enormity of the disaster in which possibly more than 300 Black lives were lost and there was extensive property destruction, survivors went to work almost immediately. Cafes that had been turned into rubble were rebuilt and reopened, and new locations were found. The area rebounded.
Is tableside service the kind of glamour that doesn’t stand up to scrutiny? It may be a noble tradition in French restaurants, but in the United States it’s another story. Depending upon how you look at it, it can be fun — or it can be understood as a way to charge more for lower quality food.
I haven’t been able to determine how common tableside service was in 19th-century America. But clearly chafing dishes were employed long ago, especially where oysters were served. A widely circulated story from 1843 described a man staying at a fine hotel in New Orleans who was outraged that he should “cook his own victuals” when he ordered a venison steak and the waiter brought a chafing dish for him to prepare it in.
How times change! By the mid-20th century, restaurant guests were delighted to prepare food themselves with a hibachi or fondue pot.
One of the most flamboyant sorts of tableside service is the presentation of food on flaming swords. It represented the consummate display of tableside theatrics, particularly at Chicago’s Pump Room of the late 1930s and 1940s. Master of ceremonies Ernie Byfield asserted that he preferred to host “laughing eaters” rather than “grim gourmets.” He was quite frank about the degree of pretense involved with tableside service at the Pump Room, implicitly acknowledging that formal French service was out of step with mainstream American culture. [Pump Room flaming swords, 1943]
Tableside service as entertaining floorshow got a foothold in American restaurants in the 1930s. By then, according to an essay by A. J. Liebling, Prohibition speakeasies had introduced middle-class New Yorkers to “a pancake that burned with a wan flame,” a reference to Crepes Suzette.
The popularity of flames at the table and other forms of tableside food preparation grew in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s. The full show was described by the proprietor of the Bubble Bar in Akron OH in 1952: “Just as your Flaming Sword Dinner is about to be served, the Rajah (that’s my assistant) and I dim the house lights and approach your table, sword in hand aflame with choice morsels of lamb, beef tenderloin or chicken. . . . And of course, following such an adventure in dining, you wouldn’t think or dare to order any dessert but our Flaming Cherry Jubilee or Flaming Crepes Suzette.”
Alas, a look behind the scenes quickly dissolves whatever magic adheres to tableside drama. The 1974 how-to book Showmanship in the Dining Room leaves little doubt that tableside service in all its forms — whipping up sauces, tossing Caesar salads, serving beef from shiny rolling carts, flaming things — is all about money. The book builds upon the wisdom articulated in a July 1966 issue of Cooking for Profit that asserts that, for “the table-cloth operation,” service is the prime merchandiser. Tableside service, goes the thinking, makes customers feel important and willing to pay more for what is often food of lesser quality or quantity.
Here are some of the magic-dissolving points made in the Showmanship book: – The rolling cart has a virtually unique benefit. It allows the restaurateur to sell items he could not otherwise sell. – Wines on a cart allow the waiter to push particular bottles. Few people can resist when a bottle is held before them with the waiter’s recommendation. – Coffee can be served by a specialist. For some inexplicable reason customers accept an individual dressed like an Indian maharajah much more readily than a native of a coffee-producing country. – A casserole item with a low food cost, such as curry made from turkey thighs, which could not be readily sold otherwise, can be merchandised from a self-service chafing dish on the table. – As a general rule, carving in the dining room gives the operation a better yield; The carver becomes proficient at making less meat look like more; the waiter can divide a piece of meat that is less than the sum of two individual orders. – If flambéing is done properly, the customers enjoy it and willingly pay for it. In most instances, it does not harm the food very much at all. – Any waiter who can light a match can flambé a dish. – Nothing about the perennial flambé favorites, crepes Suzette and cherries Jubilee, is exciting except the showmanship. – But people like sweet tastes, and people like flames. The combination is seemingly irresistible, as it sells at menu prices so exceeding the cost that they would make a desert water vendor blush. – The matronly waitress might be able to flambé successfully . . . but she may look domestic making a steak tartare and resemble a washerwoman when tossing a Caesar salad.
In the 19th century it was common for eating places to offer breakfast, along with dinner and supper (as the meal sequence ran then). That was because so many of their patrons were travelers or people (mostly men) who did not have households and ate all their meals away from their lodgings.
A Baltimore coffee house proprietor advertised in 1812 that from 7 until 10 in the morning he would have “every sort of cold Breakfasts, a la Parisienne, or warm ones, such as Chocolate, Coffee, Tea, &c. served up in the best style.” Unlike most, he specialized in “elegance,” with food produced by a French cook.
All kinds of things were eaten for breakfast then. An Englishman traveling around the country in the early 1840s was surprised by the wide range of dishes available. Beyond a selection of meats, he listed rolls, toast, eggs, chicken, gravy, and “cakes of buckwheat and Indian corn.” He was disgusted by a favorite do-it-yourself concoction at one hotel he stayed at — a raw or near-raw egg whipped with butter and condiments and spooned or drunk from a wineglass.
Breakfast all day, in the form of bacon and eggs, was not unknown. And it was also common to offer the same dishes for breakfast and supper, particularly outside the East. At San Francisco’s Popular Dining Saloon, in 1887, patrons had many choices, including quail on toast, a “family porterhouse,” eggs and oysters, hot cakes, corned beef hash with an egg, waffles, boiled corn in cream, and more. [pictured is a somewhat similar menu from St. Louis, 1875]
Oysters for breakfast? Why not? Anyone living today might gasp at the breadth of offerings on an 1880 advertisement for a Portland OR restaurant bill of fare: Codfish balls, Family Porterhouse, Salmon bellies, Brains, German Pancakes, Oysters, Waffles, etc. What might “etc.” even mean?
Some of the most elaborate breakfasts were those served to butchers by Mme. Begue after closing time of the big New Orleans market. Breakfast one day in 1905 included successive courses of shrimp salad, oysters a la Newberg, omelette filled with sweetbreads, cauliflower with egg dressing, broiled mutton chops and peas, and fruit and cheese. All accompanied by wine and coffee aflame with brandy. Those were truly the olden days. By contrast, the 20th century would be known for the light breakfast, nothing like Madame’s (though maybe the popularity of brunch comes closest, regarding both the variety of foods and the alcoholic beverages).
Cereals played a role in lightening breakfasts. Branded cereals had their start in the later 19th century, but were not heavily promoted until the early 20th. Marketing campaigns featured eating places. In 1902 Hotel Monthly noted that promoters of shredded wheat had been successful in getting it onto menus in “hotels, restaurants, clubs, dining cars, steamships and lunch rooms,” to the point where an estimated 5,000 hotels and restaurants were serving it to patrons. The rising demand for cleanliness in food launched the popularity of single-serving cereal packages. Counter seating in lunchrooms meant that display shelves offered opportunities for promoting branded products. It didn’t take long for companies such as Post and Kellogg to begin providing handy display cases. [Kellogg’s ad in American Restaurant Magazine, 1946]
Despite the trend toward lighter and more standardized breakfasts, as late as 1921 Boston stood out with breakfast menus that catered to local demand for oysters, baked beans, and pie. Another oddity was the breakfast item that appeared in the 1926 Edgewater Beach Hotel Salad Book. Named “Eight-Fifteen,” it was lettuce and watercress with ham and hard-boiled eggs.
By the 1930s light breakfasts had beaten out the old favorite, ham & eggs. Also, time spent eating the morning meal was on its way down from half an hour to ten minutes. Breakfast was looking like a losing deal for restaurants, even with the additional lures of waffles and pancakes. Although restaurant patronage was on the rise in 1960, a survey by the National Restaurant Association and General Foods showed that 61% of meals eaten out were lunch, 28% were dinner, and only 11% were breakfast.
However, in the 1960s and 1970s the number of restaurant breakfasts seemed to be on the rise and by the middle of the 1970s McDonald’s had begun trying out breakfast items. Breakfast menus became widely popular at fast food outlets in the 1980s, driving up the number of breakfasts eaten out. Among breakfast menus’ other advantages for burger chains then was relief from the rising price of beef. [McDonald’s postcard, 1979]
Another interesting breakfast development that spread across the U.S. in the 1980s was the so-called power breakfast. An occasion for an informal meeting of power brokers and business executives, it was said to have begun with those in the world of finance who gathered in the late 1970s at the Regency Hotel’s Le Restaurant in NYC. More meeting than meal, power breakfasters ate little and drank even less, in striking contrast to the legendary but largely fictitious three-martini lunch. Though often hosted by hotels, an interesting effect of the power breakfast was to induce some elite restaurants to open for breakfast.
As a recently excavated site in Pompeii has demonstrated so beautifully, street food is ancient. Both sold on the street and usually consumed on the street, it is food that is inexpensive, easy to handle, and aligned with popular tastes.
For many years tamales occupied a prominent role as street food in the U.S., starting in the 1880s in parts of the country where many Mexican-Americans lived such as California and Texas. [above photo, Sacramento CA, 1937]
While Mexicans remained prominent in the tamale trade, both producing and selling them, people with a range of ethnic backgrounds joined in. Sellers might also be U.S. born or recent immigrants of Irish, German, even Danish ancestry. A NY Tribune story described a NYC tamale vendor with red hair and a brogue. Italian immigrants seem to have been particularly prominent among street sellers. And, a story in Overland Monthly reported that in the copper region of Idaho in the early 20th century “the Syrian quarter . . . is the seat of the hot tamale industry.”
Chicken was the favorite tamale filling, though critics often wondered if that was what they were eating. The filling was surrounded by a corn mush mixture that was rolled in a corn husk and steamed. Most tamales were sold in cities and towns where finding a supply of corn husks could be a problem. But by the early 1900s, a market in husks had developed, with some farmers finding them quite profitable.
The corn husk specialty grew as companies got into the canned tamale business, beginning around in the early 1900s. Some, such as the X. L. N. T. Company of Los Angeles, delivered tamales to homes [above, 1908]. A publication of the California State Federation of Labor claimed that by 1916 canned tamales had become so popular that the leading packing company was selling 4,000,000 cans of its I. X .L. brand annually. In Mexico, tamales were wrapped in the white inner husks; the packing industry, by contrast, bleached the green husks. Still, bleaching was better than unsanitary tamale production such as that uncovered in Ohio in 1900 where the corn husks were obtained from old mattresses. As might be expected the canned tamale business cut into street trade.
Certainly there were people who regarded tamales sold on the street as unsanitary, acceptable only to drunken men (no doubt revealing a bias against immigrants). Sellers were criticized for disrupting the peace at night as they called out their wares. Cities and towns tried to regulate them out of existence, sometimes succeeding. It was not an easy business overall. Selling tamales on the street was a rough job, conducted mainly after dark. Vendors risked frequent encounters with attackers and robbers, and it was not unusual for them to be seriously injured or killed.
During their peak popularity extending from the 1890s up to WWII, tamales spread across the U.S., but they were always most common in the West. Originally sold out of kettles in which they were kept warm by a separate hot water basin at the bottom, they soon migrated to lunch wagons and stands. [above, Brownsville TX, 1938] Unlike chop suey, spaghetti, chili, frankfurters, and hamburgers, they did not quite win full American “citizenship,” and were not often found on restaurant menus outside of the West and, to a lesser extent, the Midwest and South.
Tamales figured on menus a bit differently than they would today when a restaurant serving them is almost certainly run by someone of Mexican descent or is a corporate Mexican-themed chain. In either case, the menu is dominated by what are regarded as Mexican dishes. It wasn’t always this way. Although proprietors with ties to Mexico have always been prominent, the owners of many earlier tamale grottoes, parlors, shops, and stands were, like the street peddlers, a diverse lot. I have found proprietors named Mohamed, Truzzolino, and Stubendorff. Menus could also be diverse and include lobster tails, oysters, or banana cream pie. A Klamath Falls OR tamale parlor combined Mexican dishes with those of Italy and China [advertisement pictured above, 1921]. Tamales turned up in unexpected places, such as the California Pig ‘n’ Whistle confectionery chain and, in 1909, the Marshall Field department store tea room in Chicago.
The custom of selling tamales from kettles, carts, and stands might have largely died out sooner if it hadn’t been for the 1930s Depression, when many people were desperate for even a trickle of income. The 1937 Roadman’s Guide, a little booklet full of ideas for money-making schemes that could be launched out of the home, gave a detailed recipe for making tamales.
Not that tamales have entirely disappeared today. They can be found as part of family holiday celebrations, at Western tamale festivals, and for sale by street vendors here and there.
Usually I avoid topics that others have written about repeatedly. The origin of Eggs Benedict is certainly one of those.
I have a problem with origin stories in general because usually they are too neat. But that’s not actually true of Eggs Benedict (a poached egg and ham slice on a toasted English muffin with Hollandaise sauce poured over). The stories about how it appeared in the 1890s are contradictory. There are variations about who it is named after and which famous, usually New York, restaurant produced it first. Among the contending dining spots are Delmonico, the Waldorf-Astoria, and Sherry’s. Of course for an origin story to work, it almost has to involve a well-known, prestigious person/place.
An essay from American Food by Rachel Wharton discusses the numerous conflicting reports of the dish’s origin. It concludes with “Maybe it doesn’t matter who the first Benedict really was. The real point, as has been said by many others in the past, is that this was a rich dish devised for rich people . . .”
With all the butter and egg yolks in Hollandaise sauce, it is certainly a rich dish but was it really devised for “rich people”? That would be, of course, another significant factor in giving the dish panache.
My version of the dish’s fame doesn’t focus on its origin but on its later status and how it became well known long after the 1890s. I suspected that Eggs Benedict was marketed as having an elite past so that it could become a “special” dish. Is it necessary to say that a restaurant could charge more for Eggs Benedict than they could for ham and eggs – and use less ham to boot?
The early days of Eggs Benedict do not seem to have been especially glamorous. At the start of the 20th century the recipe for the dish was featured in newspapers’ “women’s pages.” It seems it was more of a home dish than a restaurant dish. A 1906 woman’s column deplored the food served by society women and wished they would instead serve things such as good old scrapple, mincemeat pie, or Eggs Benedict. During World War I Eggs Benedict appeared on menus as a patriotic meat-conserving dish. A low point in its glamorousness may have occurred in the 1920s when a Beaumont TX newspaper recommended a casserole of baked tomato on toast with cheese sauce and breadcrumbs as “a nice change from eggs Benedict.”
When Eggs Benedict was listed on restaurant and hotel menus in the teens and 1920s it was usually as a breakfast or lunch entree. An early example was at a Boston restaurant that featured luncheon specials in a 1915 advertisement [shown here]. As can be seen below, Du Pont of Paris was a white tablecloth restaurant, certainly fancier than the average working men’s lunch room but a long way from the deluxe world of the Waldorf.
The dish’s fame and fortune began to rise after World War II when the middle class grew larger and more people began to go to restaurants for recreation. In 1946 the New York columnist Gaynor Maddox introduced readers to a creation tale of Eggs Benedict which had a hungover Waldorf guest coming to breakfast in 1894 and asking for toast, bacon, two poached eggs, and a pitcher of Hollandaise. The famed Waldorf host, Oscar, came into the story too, by later substituting ham and English muffin for the bacon and toast.
A year after Maddox’s column, the dish appeared on the brunch menu of San Francisco’s Fairmont Hotel for the high price of $2.50 (the average daily gross income in 1947 was about $12).
Its reputation continued to be burnished by others. Chef Pierre Franey retold the Waldorf origin tale, while Duncan Hines had it coming from France via New Orleans. Chef Louis Szathmary credited a wealthy Bostonian and a chef at the Ritz Carlton. But all seemed to agree it was indeed a ritzy dish.
For some reason – maybe to make Eggs Benedict sound even ritzier – some restaurants renamed it Eggs Benedictine. They were probably unaware that Benedictine refers to an entirely different egg dish of the almost 500 egg recipes that have been recorded. It is a poached egg on a puree of salt codfish with cream sauce and truffles.
Even though it had formerly been served mainly for lunch or supper, Eggs Benedict found its true calling in the 1960s and 1970s, when it became the classic brunch order. [Molly Maguire’s, 1977, New Orleans] Perfect for Mother’s Day and best accompanied by a glass of champagne followed by Crepes Suzette.
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