In 1919 two women opened a small tea room in Boston with just four tables. It was something of a lark. They had virtually no money to outfit it so they bought used furnishings. The location was a candlelit basement on Oxford Terrace in Boston, a romantic name for what would generally be known as an alley.
Anyone reading about their opening might have predicted they would fail spectacularly – especially after noting their rather boastful claims: “Such a place as we are about to open to the public is rare in New England. We are just trying out an idea and are seeking an answer to it by actual experiment rather than to obtain profits. If this is a success we will open others in large cities of the country.”
Despite being in an unpretentious building in a lowly area it turned out to be a very favorable location, in walking distance of the central Boston Public Library and Copley Square with all its hotels and nearby shops.
They named it Nan’s Kitchen after Nan Gurney, one of the founders. The two had met while in the Navy during World War I. Before that Nan had been married, but left her husband behind to join the service. Claiming desertion, he divorced her. Nan’s partner Thellma McClellan had worked as an astrologer before joining the Navy. Both enjoyed performing and were involved with vaudeville and amateur theatrics.
Nan’s Kitchen was an instant success, popular with members of the Professional Women’s Club to which they belonged. It also attracted fellow vaudeville performers. Publicity helped, particularly newspaper stories that made the tea room sound like a haven for romantic trysts at lunch and afternoon tea. They added more tables, but continued to specialize in one dish, chicken and waffles.
They must not have made much in the way of profits initially because they continued their side jobs as freelance teachers of music and elocution for several years. They were generous with the servers (who wore smocks, Oriental pantaloons, and artists’ caps), giving them a share of profits and paying them over the summer when the tea room closed.
In 1925 the pair seemed to become more serious about the restaurant business, opening a second tea room called Nan’s Kitchen Too at 3 Boylston Place. The next year the original Nan’s remained open all summer for the first time. The following year it was remodeled to resemble an outdoor garden containing a small cabin where a Black woman prepared the waffles, an arrangement also in use at the Boylston Place Nan’s. (Shades of Georgia’s Aunt Fanny’s Cabin? I would hope that Nan’s Black cooks were not costumed as Mammys!)
Although Nan and Thellma lived together in the 1920s, in 1930 they no longer did. In 1931 Nan went to New York where she worked as steward in an “exclusive Manhattan club,” according to an advertisement for Birds-Eye frozen foods. From 1934 to 1936 she ran Nan Gurney’s Inn, in her home town of Patchogue, Long Island, where she had grown up as Lettie L. Smith. After that, in 1937, she opened Nan Gurney’s Restaurant on Northern Blvd. in Flushing NY, specializing in “Long Island food.” [Flushing restaurant shown below later when it was Villa Bianca]
In 1932 Thellma, who had managed Nan’s Kitchen Too, was living in Connecticut. A version of Nan’s moved to the Motor Mart Building on Park Square and remained in business until 1935, but whether Thellma or Nan had any connection with it then is unknown.
(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.
In the 19th century and well into the 20th there was absolutely no doubt that Delmonico’s was the nation’s finest restaurant, for decades the only one with a worldwide reputation. It was one of the few places in this country that European visitors compared favorably with the glittering restaurants of Paris’s “super mall” of the 19th century, the Palais Royal. [above: cafe section of Fifth Avenue and 26th Street Delmonico’s]
Founded by two Italian-Swiss immigrants in 1823 as a small confectionery shop in New York City, it soon grew into a “restaurant Français” occupying various New York City locations over its nearly 100-year run under family ownership. The Delmonico restaurants of the 1830s and subsequent decades were favored by foreign visitors, but soon Americans came to appreciate them too as their fame spread. As a form of homage — sometimes tongue-in-cheek — restaurants high and low, all over the USA, christened themselves Delmonico’s.
During much of the 19th century, most of America’s restaurants were located in hotels; up to the Civil War most operated on the American plan. This meant that everyone sat at large tables with others not necessarily of their choosing while bowls and platters of whatever was being served that day were set on the table to be shared – or not — by the diners. The Delmonicos introduced the European plan which allowed guests to have their own table and order just what they wanted, prepared the way they wanted.
An 1838 menu revealed that fine preparation was only part of Delmonico’s appeal. It also offered a profusion of dishes including 12 soups, 32 hors d’oeuvres, 28 entrées of beef, 46 of veal, 22 of game, 48 of fish, plus 51 vegetable or egg choices, and 45 pastries, cakes, and other desserts. (That 11-page menu is replicated in Lately Thomas’s classic book Delmonico’s, A Century of Splendor.) [Beaver street location shown above]
The number of dishes offered at Delmonico’s is overwhelming proof that the abbreviated reproduction menu that is commonly displayed and offered for sale online is a fake.
The original Delmonico brothers’ mission was what one observer writing in The Nation in 1881 characterized as establishing “a little oasis of civilization in the vast gastronomic waste which America at the time of their arrival presented.” For many Americans, the enjoyment of food bordered on sinfulness. Not only was it viewed as a monetary extravagance, claimed the essay, but there was a feeling among reform-minded people “that all time devoted to the table must be subtracted from that dedicated to spiritual improvement.”
So lauded was Delmonico’s that it’s necessary to point out that it had its critics who disliked the extravagant balls and banquets it hosted. In 1865, a year in which the newly Civil-War-rich were pouring into Delmonico’s, Morton Peto, a British railway and real estate developer, held a banquet for 100 guests. The cost was an astounding $250 a head. For comparison, as much as sixteen years later, the restaurant paid its waiters $30 a month. Another banquet that drew public disapproval was the dinner for James G. Blaine, a Presidential candidate in 1884. His backers, wealthy men who stood to gain from his election, were mocked in a front page cartoon in The World, which named the event after a Babylonian prince who tried to engineer his ascension to the throne. [above: front page of The World, 1884]
For a long time the Delmonico’s menu was entirely in French, without translation, a problem for English-only guests. If a guest ordered badly he (only men were given this task) imagined he could hear his waiter snickering. As a New York Times reporter put it in 1859, “we are made nervous by the sneerful smirk of the waiter, if we order the wrong wine in the wrong place . . .” And he might end up with a dinner of pickles and brandied peaches as happened to one hapless patron. The solution was to throw yourself on the mercy of the waiter and ask for his recommendations. [above: Fifth Avenue and 14th Street]
It’s interesting to note that Charles Delmonico, who ran the family empire following the death of Lorenzo, was said to be fond of the Italian restaurant Café Moretti. There he ordered risotto, a favorite dish that his restaurant’s French cooks did not know how to prepare. [above: Delmonico’s, Fifth Avenue and 26th Street]
Over time Delmonico’s moved from their initial “society” restaurant on the corner of Beaver, William, and South William streets [shown above, third from top] to three successive Fifth Avenue locations. Like all wise businesses, they were following in the path of their wealthy patrons. In 1862 they moved into an elegant mansion at Fifth Ave and 14th Street and in 1876 jumped up to 26th. In 1897 they settled in their final Fifth Avenue location at 44th Street, facing off with arch-rival Sherry’s. [above: Fifth Avenue and 44th Street]
Through the years the Delmonicos always kept at least one other location farther downtown for businessmen and politicians. The restaurant at 22 Broad Street served Stock Exchange brokers and speculators. It was said that for them “not to go to Delmonico’s for one’s lunch or tipple was to lose caste on ‘the Street.’”
In 1897 Delmonico’s yielded to music and smoking in its hallowed halls, a sign many regarded as evidence of a downhill slide. By then the 44th Street Delmonico’s was the last one doing business. It closed in 1923, a victim of weak management, increasingly informal dining customs, and Prohibition.
Although he was English, it was John Dingle’s lifelong ambition to be regarded as a French chef. Ironically, it was while working at a Bronx roadhouse that he attained that recognition when he was dubbed “Monsieur Jean Dingle.” He expected his former co-workers in New York’s Ritz Hotel kitchen to ridicule him about it, but it turned out they were proud of him. [pictured: the roadhouse, ca. 1912]
His few years spent in New York capped what he regarded as on-the-job professional training. To help support his family, he had begun as kitchen boy at the Old Drawbridge Hotel in his home city of Bristol, England, at age 13. At 14, he resolved to become a first-class chef, even though he knew that it was an unusual aspiration for an Englishman. He knuckled down, working 12-hour days and teaching himself French. By the time he came to the U.S. nine years later, in 1911, he had worked in hotel and restaurant kitchens in London and throughout Europe. Despite facing ridicule because he was English — especially in France — he managed to work his way up. [Majestic Hotel, Paris, approx. when he worked there]
He tells his story in the book International Chef: Paris, New York, London, Monte Carlo, Lisbon, Frankfurt (1953).
He was recruited off the streets of London for a kitchen job at the soon-to-open NY Ritz-Carlton by an agent who offered him free passage and a wage of $27.50 a week. This was good pay contrasted with much of Europe where, he had discovered, the more prestigious the kitchen, the lower the wages. At the Ritz he was assigned to make hors d’oeuvres, but soon requested a move up: “I considered that I had already spent longer than was necessary in the cold department of the industry. I made my customary request to be transferred to the main kitchen and I was soon working in the sauce department, which is the most important in any kitchen . . .”
French was the language of the Ritz staff. Soon after he arrived his colleague “Monsieur Robert” showed him how to write out the daily supply requisition. Robert was surprised how well he did it, leading Dingle to reply, “I ought to be able to write it considering I’ve spoken it all my life.” Monsieur Robert (Trudge) was astounded, saying, “Well I’m blown, I thought I was the only English chef living.” Neither of them had ever met an English chef before. Of course, since an English chef had to masquerade as French, they might have been wrong. [pictured: Ritz dining room, ca. 1911]
Dingle decided to move on and, after a few short stints at summer resorts, landed a job at the Woodmansten Inn, on the Pelham Parkway in the Bronx. Adjoining a racetrack in its early years, it also had the distinction of being one of the roadhouses closest to Manhattan.
If everything was in order at the Ritz-Carlton, with its 70 chefs and well-equipped kitchens, that was far from the case at the Woodmansten Inn. Hired as chef, he immediately began correcting problems. He discovered that waiters had quite a few tricks such as substituting cheap wines for good vintages, and getting kickbacks from suppliers who were furnishing inferior foods while charging for higher grades. Refrigeration was supplied by three ice boxes located in the hot kitchen where the ice melted rapidly and dripped on the floor. He moved one to the cool cellar and used the others as storage cabinets. He rescued the inn’s vegetable garden and fruit trees which had been allowed to go wild. He converted abandoned, rundown stables and sheds into chicken houses. Another major coup was his introduction of broccoli onto the menu after he found an Italian neighbor growing it. It was not widely known outside of Italian communities – he referred to it as “green cauliflower.” He guessed that it would be a novelty to guests, who would tell their friends about it. Apparently he was correct because the next proprietor of the inn, well-known NY restaurateur Joe Pani, earned the title “broccoli king” by claiming he had introduced it to the U.S.
After a couple of years in New York, Dingle decided it was time to return to England, to his fiancé and his aging parents. He announced the decision to his boss, a man simply identified as “Mr. Roberts” in the book. Roberts then proposed that Dingle return after his marriage and become a co-proprietor with him. He convinced Dingle to hand over his savings, which amounted to $1,000 – equal to 70% of his annual income. After his return to Bristol, Dingle received urgent messages from Roberts informing him that the owner of the property was about to sell it and was demanding accumulated back rent. Roberts claimed he had paid off the debt and moved to Chicago.
I’ve come to suspect that Dingle was the victim of a scam by Roberts, who knew that the actual property owner – and the restaurant’s proprietor – was planning to sell, and who had no intention of going into business with Dingle. In fact, Roberts was also probably in on the various fiddles that Dingle attributed to the cooks and waiters.
Despite seeing his plans for the future ruined, and having lost his savings, the ever-determined Dingle went on to open two successful restaurants in Bristol.
As many readers probably already know, particularly if they’ve seen the Harvey Girls movie with Judy Garland, Fred Harvey was the prime architect of a company begun in 1875. Harvey ran what were once called eating houses serving passengers and workers along the route of the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe railroad. [above: staff of the Raton NM eating house, ca. 1900]
Largely due to the movie, Fred Harvey — the man and the company — has been turned into a myth about providing the first good meals for train passengers and, in the process, civilizing the West. The myth was crafted mainly in the 20th century, and has rarely been challenged. As such, the Harvey enterprise has also been hailed as an example of the first restaurant chain.
I have looked carefully at the company’s first 25 to 30 years and have found many ways in which the actual history challenges the myth. Almost certainly the meals provided by Harvey’s eating houses were superior to much of what was available in the West. Yet, this is an exaggeration in that it leaves out how often eating houses on other railroad lines were praised. [menu, Las Vegas NM, 1900]
And, although Harvey’s meals were better than average in the 19th century, “the Harvey system . . . represented a utilitarian approach to meeting the needs of travelers and railroad company employees” (History of the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway; Bryant, 1974). Some of the early dining spaces were far from elegant, located in simple frame buildings, or even fashioned out of train cars. [Deming NM lunch room, ca. 1900]
Viewed as a model of a successful modern restaurant chain, the Harvey case demands a closer look. Harvey had a close relationship with the vice-president, later president of the Santa Fe line, W. B. Strong, and enjoyed a sweetheart deal with the railroad. Essentially he could not fail, even in the early years when the number of patrons of his eating houses was small. Railroad passengers going West in the early years were of two classes. One was tourists who could afford to travel for enjoyment. The second, people moving West, were classed as “emigrants.” They were of lesser means and carried food with them because they could not afford to buy the meals, which were high priced.
The railroad’s primary business was freight; passenger traffic was light. The 44 Harvey houses then in business each fed an average of only 114 per day in 1891. It is striking to compare this figure to that of an admittedly very busy restaurant in NYC, which often fed 8,000 patrons a day in 1880.
In a number of ways the railroad operated like today’s cruise ships in terms of its relation to the surroundings, stopping briefly to refuel, get water, and let passengers off for meals. Using the railroad to transport food, supplies, and workers from afar by train – all at no cost – was what sustained the Harvey eating house business. Additionally, the beef used by Harvey eating houses was supplied from Harvey’s own ranch, and shipped for free (a practice known as deadheading) to slaughterhouses in Leavenworth KS and Kansas City MO and back to his kitchens. This drew the ire of local butchers and ranchers who had to pay high rates to ship their cattle. As Stephen Fried reported in his thoroughly researched Appetite for America, Harvey co-owned a ranch of 10K cattle with Strong and another railroad executive.
Newspaper editorials in several of the towns where Harvey did business railed against his practices. A paper in Newton KS called him “one of the worst monopolists in the State” because he brought supplies from Kansas City rather than buying from local merchants. Conflict about the same issues in Las Vegas NM was ongoing as the town struggled to prevent Harvey from supplying his own meat. Bitter complaints were made from people in Albuquerque as well, especially when two box cars were delivered and painted yellow to serve as a make-do restaurant. High prices for meals were widely criticized by local patrons.
Employees in the Harvey system included very few local people. Many were immigrants from Europe, especially the cooks, though the waitresses tended to be U.S.-born, and were selected by employment agencies in cities. Myths have celebrated how the “Harvey girls” married ranchers and helped populate the West (indigenous Indians and Mexicans aside). But in fact the servers were semi-indentured, with half their pay held back for 6 months to keep them from leaving the job. Not only was this meant to discourage resignations due to marriage but also to discourage the practice of working for a short time and then requesting a transfer farther west, all in the effort to finance travel through the West. [Photo of dining room server, ca. 1890s]
In terms of pleasing patrons, Harvey’s food was widely praised. But Santa Fe passengers were not really satisfied. What they disliked about the eating houses was basically that they existed at all. As an article in Scribner’s inquired, “Why . . . should a train stop at a station for meals any more than a steamboat should tie up to a wharf for the same purpose?” Passengers would have much preferred to eat on the train rather than to rush through their meal in 20 minutes – or, worse, to have mealtime delayed for hours when trains ran late. But the three largest railroads, including the Santa Fe, had made a pact not to introduce dining cars because they were huge money losers.
The pact began to break down in the late 1880s, but when the Santa Fe decided it wanted to run dining cars on through trains, Harvey got a court injunction preventing it, claiming it would violate his contract. After several years, the injunction was lifted when Harvey was awarded the contract to run the dining cars. [California Limited advertisement, early 20th century]
Despite many of the myth-challenging realities of the favorable circumstances Harvey enjoyed, he did introduce some practices common to modern chain restaurants. His was a top-down organization based upon standardization and strict centralized control. Each eating house was run like every other, with goods, employees, and services selected according to the same methods. In the early years, Fred Harvey personally visited and inspected all restaurants. Later supervision was taken over by managers, accountants, and a chef, who operated from the central office in Kansas City. By contrast, other railroads contracted with individual operators to run their eating houses as they saw fit and sourcing food locally, which produced excellent results in some cases, but limited menus and unappealing food in others.
It’s not surprising that the Harvey myth persists like so much of Western lore. Alas, it is extremely difficult to correct legends. When facts depart from a legend, John Ford, director of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, concluded with resignation, “. . . print the legend.”
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.
In the late 20th century women began to make serious inroads into restaurant kitchens, sometimes taking the top spot as chef. An account of women’s progress is given in Ann Cooper’s “A Woman’s Place Is in the Kitchen: The Evolution of Women Chefs” published in 1998.
But not a lot is known about women’s status in professional kitchens in earlier eras. In an appendix, Cooper lists a “sampling” of women chefs from the past. Though it is not intended to be complete, it includes only 11 women before the 1970s, beginning with Julie Freyes at Antoine’s in New Orleans in the 1840s. Four of the women worked with their husbands or took over after his or another family member’s death, a not-unusual route for many women in the past.
I wanted to see if I could find out more about women chefs in this country before the changes since the 1970s. Were there many women chefs in the past, I wondered, and what kinds of hotel or restaurant kitchens did they work in?
One problem crops up right away: what exactly is the meaning of chef, particularly in the U.S.? Does it refer to a formally trained person who handles procurement, hires staff and supervises them, and can take over any position in the kitchen in a pinch? Or does it simply mean head cook, with someone else with more executive power handling everything else?
What I have learned is that in the 19th and most of the 20th centuries women were actively involved with food production outside the domestic sphere. They were caterers, they taught cooking, and they worked in restaurant and hotel kitchens. Quite a few were not native born and had acquired their skills abroad.
A few notable women of the 19th century are profiled as chefs in The Culinarians (David S. Shields, 2017). Sarah Windust, a trained cook from England, worked with her husband in 1820s New York, running the kitchen of a coffee house that catered to actors and writers. Eliza Seymour Lee was trained by her mother, a freed slave who had been taught by Charleston’s top pastry chef of the 1790s. Eliza and her husband ran a dining room for boarders. When he died she continued in business as a restaurateur and caterer until the Civil War, specializing in pastries. Lucretia Bourquin also catered, supplying the Whig Party’s 4th of July dinner held in the woods outside Philadelphia in 1838. For those with “fastidious taste” her Philadelphia Eating House offered up such favorites as French soups, Beef a la Mode, Canvas Back Ducks, Terrapins, Snipe, and Partridges.
The confusion over who and what was a chef is illustrated in the career of Nellie Murray, a Black cook and caterer in New Orleans in the 19th century. At times she evidently worked as a cook in white households, but she also became known as the caterer to New Orleans society. She catered all sorts of events, parties, and fundraising dinners, providing dishes preferred by the upper class such as trout with oyster sauce. Almost certainly she supervised helpers for some of her clients’ events. This was certainly the case when she was invited to run a Creole kitchen at Chicago’s World’s Columbian Exposition in 1893. She did not have a restaurant nor work in one but she would seem to otherwise have exhibited the characteristics of a chef.
Despite the handful of women named above who are known to have had notable careers, the U.S. Censuses of the 19th century failed to record women in the role of chef. Often leaving out women’s occupations and uncertain of the meaning of occupational titles, the census does not present a reliable source on this subject. But it’s worth noticing that from 1900 through the 1940 the census shows a steady increase of women chefs from approximately 85 to nearly 2,400.
What accounted for the increase of women chefs in the first half of the 20th century? The short answer is war and decreased immigration. American-born men were not terribly interested in working in restaurant kitchens, but there were numbers of women available who had studied home economics, including dietetics. Many of them went into institutional kitchens, but from there some took jobs in restaurants. [Advertisement, Reno NV, 1905]
Two news items of the early century undoubtedly inspired American women to aim for chef positions. One was the widespread story of Rosa Lewis, “chief culinary artist” of London’s Cavendish Hotel, paid the then-enormous annual salary of $15,000. And, in 1907 the newly opened elite woman’s club in New York, The Colony, hired Sophia Nailer as chef. Like so many women cooks she had previously worked for wealthy families.
But despite the few women at the top, it seems that most women who held chef positions in hotels were hired mainly because they added homely dishes to the menu for guests, particularly residential guests, who were tired of typically routinized hotel menus. This seemed to account for the hiring of Anna Tackmeyer [pictured, 1919] as chef at New York’s Hotel Pennsylvania in 1919 to run the “home cooking department,” which operated separately from the main kitchen. In the 1920s some restaurants, cafeterias especially, proudly advertised they featured home cooking with only women in the kitchen. White men often refused to take orders from women, so it was common that restaurant kitchens with women chefs would be entirely staffed with women.
More typically, though, women chefs in the early century would work in the kitchens of small hotels in remote locations, such as in Baxter Springs KS with a population under 2,000. Others worked in urban tea rooms which were often women-owned and where the majority of patrons were women. [Advertisement, 1924, Springfield IL]
It was an established belief that women could not handle meat. Yet, a want ad in the trade journal Hotel World in 1921 defied this conviction. A woman chef sought “full charge” in a high-class place, claiming she could handle it all: “Meat, pastry, carving.”
The shortage of men in WWII opened up possibilities for women chefs. The American Hotel Association reported in 1943 that 330 hotels nationwide had women chefs. Working in Miami, one woman hired to replace a male military recruit retained his title as “second chef and broiler man.” She reflected the heady feeling this could give a woman, boasting in a letter to the editor that lifting heavy pots and crates was something she didn’t give a second thought to. [cartoon illustration, 1946]
Sociologist William Foote Whyte observed in 1948 that the French chef had lost control of kitchens and that “many of our modern American kitchens with women cooks and food production managers have completely lost the old distinctions of rank.” Of course this could be seen as the classic situation of women not getting into what had been male-dominated ranks until the positions had lost status. According to a spokesperson for the National Restaurant Association in 1952, the traditional “hat wearing, and artistic male chef” was being replaced by trained women dietitians who had a more modern outlook on how to run a kitchen.
Despite these advances, though, men still controlled most commercial kitchens through the 1960s and beyond, even into the 1970s when the Culinary Institute of America, which had admitted very few women since its creation in 1946 to train returning GIs, began to welcome women students. It would be slow going for women chefs for many years thereafter, but progress would continue.
After the pandemic, who knows what situation women chefs – or restaurants in general — will face?
As the name suggests, “maitre d’hotel” (hotel master) tended to be used most often in hotels. In a large enterprise a maitre d’hotel would supervise multiple headwaiters, each of whom had charge of service in one of its multiple dining spaces. Those could include a formal dining room, a supper-room, a grill room, banquet rooms, and/or a café lounge. Over time, the positions of maitre d’hotel and headwaiter were collapsed into one, yet both terms remained in use.
The man (99.9% of the time) playing that role became the public face of a restaurant or hotel dining room. Like celebrities, he was often known by one name only. A counterpart of the chef who ruled the kitchen, he ruled the front of the house. In addition to being completely in charge of the dining room and its service, he might hire, train, and supervise the entire waitstaff as well as plan private dinners and banquets, take reservations, admit and seat guests, make recommendations and take orders, and prepare special dishes at the table.
Whether called maitre d’hotel or headwaiter, historically the person filling this role was an imposing physical figure, large, tall, and very well dressed. In this country during the 19th century the role was most often filled by a Black man, usually working in an American-plan hotel where meals were included in the cost of lodging. [L. D. Houston, shown here in 1904, worked in New York and for a time in Hong Kong where he went to escape U. S. racism.] Dressing the part was essential. During the 1930s Depression a nightclub performer in Paris entertained his audience by describing a headwaiter as “The only man in the place whose clothes fit.”
The maitre d’hotel (shortened to maitre d’ over time) or headwaiter could have a wide variety of duties depending upon the size of the dining facilities. An expensive, full-service restaurant that was French or international might have captains, waiters, wine stewards, and busboys in addition to a maitre d’. In the 20th century, a popular maitre d’, having reached the pinnacle of the waiting profession while working for someone else, might look for partners or backers and become the host of his own restaurant.
A prominent example of someone who worked his way up from waiter to owner/maitre d’ was the late Sirio Maccioni of New York’s famed Le Cirque. Other well known maitre d’s — who stayed at their posts for about 50 years each — were “Oscar” and “Hoxter.” Oscar Tschirky of the Waldorf was said to be the first to rope off a doorway, while Stansbury Hoxter of Boston’s Parker House was known for his smile and his infallible memory. [Portrait of Stansbury Hoxter courtesy of his great, great, great nephew James Bell.]
Although some maitre d’s who had immigrated from Europe arrived with hotel school training, usually the headwaiter/maitre d’ reached his position after considerable time working his way up the dining room hierarchy. He may have begun as a busboy or waiter, then advanced to captain of a group of waiters, and finally to headwaiter. Along the way he would have proved his ability to judge a guest’s social status, underwritten by his astute understanding of human behavior. It was expected that he not only remembered regular guests’ names and faces, but also knew their favorite dishes.
Although many Americans probably never encountered a maitre d’, he became a figure in popular culture. In 1927 the debonair Adolphe Mange played one in a silent-era rom-com.
While it’s true that favored guests at luxury restaurants appreciate the services of a maitre d’ who saves them “their” table, treats them with great care, and knows their likes and dislikes, many Americans have not reacted well to what they regard as haughty judges of their social rank who may treat them poorly or even turn them away. Despite the geniality of well-liked headwaiters, to many people the overall impression created by this personage is a feeling of cold formality. According to a 1940 opinion piece in a restaurant industry journal, diners did not like bowing nor “that type of waiter service that constantly rearranges your bread-and-butter-plate and water glass . . . and then frequently walks by your table to see if you are eating properly.”
That may be why in more recent times even an upscale, expensive restaurant probably does not have a formally dressed maitre d’ greeting guests. That role is more likely to be filled by a younger person, frequently a woman, who probably does not run the entire dining room nor hire the staff. She may nod her head as she hands guests a menu but does not bow.
Bertha Stevenson was born at a time when a woman’s interest in chemistry, or any scientific field, could only be channeled into the limited confines of women’s realm. That was the same era in which Ellen Richards, the first woman admitted to MIT, became “the mother of home economics.”
Even though Stevenson was younger than Richards, she ended up directing her postgraduate study of chemistry to bread making. On the bright side, she was quite successful, not only at marketing bread but also in creating a string of high-quality lunch rooms with prices low enough that young working women could afford them.
She began making bread in Cambridge MA around 1902. Her shop was quite fashionable in a refined way. According to one description, “The furniture is of the hand made order, simple in line, artistic in design. A few big copper vessels, gleaming red, a few palms, a rug or two, good, but not extravagant, a Ruskin portrait in a black oak frame, one or two Millet pictures, numerous quotations from Ruskin, Tolstoy, Morris.” About a year later, stories appeared in newspapers around the country describing her Samore Bread Laboratory, and congratulating her and her female associates for finally showing the world that college-educated women were good for something after all.
The following year they moved the bakery to Boston. A lunch room was opened with it, sponsored by the Women’s Educational and Industrial Union (WEIU), a non-profit organization in Boston founded in 1877 to advance the well-being of women.
The lunch room, known as the Laboratory Kitchen, was on Temple Place in Boston’s shopping district where it could serve women workers and shoppers. It carried over the Arts & Crafts style of the former Cambridge bakery, with muted greens and browns and touches of copper and brass. Servers dressed in Puritan costumes with white caps and kerchiefs. In addition to producing bread and inexpensive lunches, the plan was to set up a hot dinner delivery service that would free homemakers from kitchen drudgery.
Problems cropped up almost immediately. The Laboratory Kitchen was located on the 2nd and 3rd floors of an elevator building. Unfortunately the elevator often was out of service. Next, another restaurant physically resembling the Laboratory Kitchen opened on the ground floor, causing many lunchers to patronize it thinking they were in the Laboratory Kitchen. Meal delivery turned out to be much more difficult than expected and the delivery zone had to be cut back. As far as I could determine the delivery project was abandoned after the three-year WEIU contract expired.
But the lunchrooms proved to be successful. When Temple Place started up, a second Laboratory Kitchen, not under WEIU sponsorship, was opened on Bedford St. It was operated as a cafeteria, a type of eating place popular in Chicago but then unknown to Bostonians. Ellen Richards and a group of Boston’s progressive women pioneers attended an opening luncheon there where they learned how to handle a cafeteria tray.
Subsequent lunchrooms of the chain – of which there were eventually five or six — were all based on self service or counter service and were less expensive than the full-service Temple Place location. Stevenson used technological advances to cut costs and speed service. At one address outfitted with a lunch counter [location shown above on Bedford St., viewed from Kingston St.], guests ordered by number. Waitresses then relayed the number to kitchen workers on the floor below by punching the number in a machine and the order was sent up via a dumbwaiter under the counter. At another of the lunch rooms, she employed a simplified “Automat”-style set of heated or cooled boxes that she patented. Workers filled them from the back while patrons lifted a glass window in front and removed what they wanted. [see patent illustration]
I stumbled across a story of someone who was a regular at one of the Laboratory Kitchens in the early days. She began working at the Filene’s department store at age 15, getting $4 a week, which barely allowed her to pay for a ride on the “T” and a 15-cent lunch at the Laboratory Kitchen. Eventually she became a department store buyer and a women’s rights activist.
As popular as the lunch rooms were with women, they also attracted men, particularly after one opened in 1919 on Washington Street in the stretch then known as Newspaper Row.
The dishes served at Laboratory Kitchens, such as vegetable plates, chowders, and beefsteak pies, were not fancy. Bertha Stevenson was dedicated to providing lunches that were hot, healthful, and hygienically prepared. In one of the articles she wrote for Good Housekeeping magazine she chided young office workers who ate sweets for lunch, asking, “How can a girl who feeds herself on cream puffs be anything but mercurial?”
She retired in the 1940s but the last Laboratory Kitchen, on Lincoln St., survived until the late 1960s, still advertising its “real lunch without frills.”
In the 1960s turn-of-the-century brothels inspired restaurant decor, even in some places pitching to the family trade.
Isn’t it strange that some restaurants with this type of decoration were meant to represent family good times? Mom and dad and the kids, for instance, eating burgers and fries while enjoying the songs of Lusty Lil and company at The Red Garter Saloon in a Shakopee MN amusement park. All in good fun of course, as if business in that venerable trade had been suspended long ago.
In the 19th century and the early 20th, the connection between certain restaurants and “the oldest profession” was a well-known fact and provided at least one reason why women who valued their reputations tended to be fearfully shy of night life. As late as 1923, guardian of manners Emily Post wrote, “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.” If they drove to the countryside for a meal, she recommended they be accompanied by a chaperone.
In 1881 The National Police Gazette, a sensational men’s tabloid, warned of Italian restaurants. “Ostensibly kept for the purposes of dealing out the culinary requirements of the inner man, they depend upon the sporting element for patronage, and in the lowest den in the vilest neighborhood, to the first-class restaurant in the heart of the business section of the city, the bawd and her ‘man’ may be seen.”
In 1907 a number of popular restaurants in San Francisco were named as participants in a scheme in which politicians, for a fee, made sure the police did not interrupt the non-food side of their business. Among these restaurants were both the Old Poodle Dog and the grandiose New Poodle Dog.
But by the early 1960s, the ambience of a brothel was considered not only proper but elegant, particularly for steakhouses. The hallmark of this decor had become red or red and black flocked wallpaper and lamps that looked like gas lights. There were various degrees of formality attaching to this theme, depending on whether it was interpreted as a “Wild West” dance hall or a “Gay 90s” Victorian parlor-style brothel. Another hallmark sneeringly remarked upon by critics was the overlarge pepper grinder, shown above standing erectly on a tray. Rather surprisingly, some respected restaurants such as Ernie’s in San Francisco adopted red-flocked decor [shown below].
Guess what happened when an actual “professional” of the trade opened a restaurant? Sally Stanford, as she was known professionally, had run a famed house of ill repute in San Francisco. When she retired in 1950 she opened a restaurant named Valhalla in Sausalito CA. From the start she was hassled by officials. First the police painted the street red in front of her restaurant, claiming it was to indicate a no-parking zone. Then, for several years the California Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control tried to take away her liquor license because she was a person of bad character. She fought back and eventually won and was declared rehabilitated. After many tries she was elected to the Sausalito city council in 1972, becoming mayor in 1976.
In 1977 it was revealed that the CIA had created a brothel in San Francisco to test “truth serums” on unwary men they recruited in bars. They gave them $100 and took them to the brothel where the prostitutes working there (perhaps unknowingly) supplied them with drinks that had been laced with psychoactive drugs, possibly LSD. The brothel was decorated with stereotyped red and black decor. When interviewed about the CIA’s decorating scheme by a reporter, Sally criticized their taste, saying, “That’s about the scope of their minds. . . . I’m surprised the tricks weren’t suspicious once they walked into a place that looked like that.”
Sally died in 1982 and Valhalla closed a couple of years later, but hackneyed brothel decor can still be found in restaurants today. It has become an American classic.
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