Category Archives: proprietors & careers

Street food: tamales

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.

© Jan Whitaker, 2021

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Filed under alternative restaurants, food, outdoor restaurants, proprietors & careers, restaurant controversies

Women chefs before the 1970s

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?

© Jan Whitaker, 2021

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Maitre d’s

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.

© Jan Whitaker, 2020

 

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Filed under elite restaurants, proprietors & careers, restaurant customs, Uncategorized, uniforms & costumes, waiters/waitresses/servers

Lunching in a laboratory

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.”

© Jan Whitaker, 2020

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Filed under alternative restaurants, cafeterias, lunch rooms, proprietors & careers, women

Themes: bordellos

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.

© Jan Whitaker, 2019

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Filed under atmosphere, family restaurants, proprietors & careers, restaurant decor, theme restaurants

Franchising: Heap Big Beef

The 1960s was the decade when franchising frenzy began. Franchising was hailed as a chance to be your own boss and make a comfortable income with a moderate investment.

Fast food drive-ins and other low-priced eateries with limited menus were in the forefront of the franchised businesses springing up everywhere. As is typical with franchised restaurants, owners needed no particular experience, or even interest, in food or food preparation. Because, in a sense, someone might just as well choose a franchise in wigs or roto-rooters as chicken or hamburgers.

One of the interesting franchising business careers was that of the originator of Bonanza and Heap Big Beef. The principal creator of both was an ambitious man named Don Pruess. He was a true believer in a franchising formula that paired a celebrity name with a chain of small businesses run by people who put up the capital. In 1956 he signed up Esther Williams to lend her fame as a movie star and champion swimmer to the sale of backyard in-ground, vinyl-lined pools. However, as has often been true of businesses with celebrity figureheads, the company was soon in bankruptcy.

A few years later, in 1963, Pruess began licensing local distributors to sell franchises for Bonanza Sirloin Pit Steak Houses. An advertisement for franchise applicants proclaimed, “It’s America’s hottest food franchise,” saying net profits ranged from $2,500 up to $7,000 a month with a $20,000 cash investment. The following year the first restaurant in the chain opened in Westport CT with Dan Blocker, who played ‘Hoss’ Cartwright on the TV show Bonanza, enlisted as the chain’s celebrity mascot.

As it developed, Preuss’ business was more than simply a franchisor of restaurants. As a 1973 law brief put it, his corporation, Franchises International (F. I.), “was the ultimate in franchising” because it “franchised the right to sell franchises.”

Serious expansion of the Bonanza chain actually did not happen until its acquisition by a Texas company in 1965. The following year F. I. began seeking franchisors and franchisees for Heap Big Beef. The first units in the HBB chain opened in 1967, with a menu of “giant” beef sandwiches for 59 and 99 cents.

In addition to franchising for Heap Big Beef, F. I. did the same for a beauty salon chain named Edie Adams’ Cut & Curl and Mary’s Drive-Thru Dairies. At one point F. I. revealed plans to move into franchising for more than 50 other types of businesses including nursing homes and diet centers.

At the same time, F. I. was seeking capital from a large investing company called City Investing Co. Starting in 1967, Heap Big Beef franchising advertisements identified F. I. as a subsidiary of City Investing. But the relationship was fraught from day one. The president of City Investing did not approve of F. I.’s sales tactics, including misrepresenting how many units had been opened. For example, City Investing objected to the false implications of F. I.’s claim that Heap Big Beef #32 had opened, suggesting that the number was not in fact a tally of how many had been opened. City’s subsequent failure to supply F. I. with enough capital led to the resignation of Pruess and the other officers of his corporation.

Beginning in 1969 there was a die-off of Heap Big Beef outlets. Though it had been advertised as the hottest thing going, it turned out the chain had never exceeded 60 units nationwide. The latest date I could find one in operation was 1971.

Maybe there are fans out there that still sorely miss Heap Big Beef, but I doubt it. Given its theme, it was a chain that could not exist today. The American Indian theme had no relevance, having been adopted solely because of the popularity of western TV shows at the time. The A-frame buildings were meant to suggest tepees, although they were used by other chains, including Der Wienerschnitzel. There was little about the menu that differed from 19th-century lunchroom fare except for the paucity of items and the offensive “Hollywood Injun English” used. Consider: “You’ll let out a war whoop” when you eat a Heap Big Beef (or Ham, Fish, or Corned Beef) sandwich. How about a Warrior Burger, a Shawnee Shake, or a Pawnee Pie?

File Heap Big Beef under failed restaurant chains.

© Jan Whitaker, 2019

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Filed under chain restaurants, menus, proprietors & careers, roadside restaurants

Coffee and cake saloons

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© Jan Whitaker, 2019

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Filed under alternative restaurants, food, Offbeat places, patrons, popular restaurants, proprietors & careers

Anatomy of a restaurateur: Woo Yee Sing

While looking for something else one day, I came upon Yee Sing [full name: Woo Yee Sing], a Chinese-American who ran a restaurant in Minneapolis in the late 19th century and early decades of the 20th. In 1902, he was interviewed by a reporter from the Minneapolis Journal in which he revealed an anti-racist perspective that was sadly uncommon among white America at the time.

Chinese restaurants were some of the very few spaces in the United States where the “races” mixed. The reporter observed that at the four Chinese restaurants in Minneapolis at that time a black patron “gets just as cordial a greeting from the proprietor as is accorded to a white man.” Woo asked, “And why shouldn’t they? They are men like you or me. They have got to eat and there must be some place for them to do so.” He looked around his restaurant, observing, “They are all brothers, and there is no room for race prejudice.”

The story made me want to know more about Woo Yee Sing.

He arrived in the United States in 1882, evidently just before the United States prohibited the immigration of Chinese laborers with the signing of the Chinese Exclusion Act. He was admitted – but scarcely welcomed. He reported years later that when Chinese came to America “their baggage is turned topsy turvy and probably stolen, they are locked up as if they were criminals and are sent back many times without any kind of a show.” It is likely he experienced something like this himself.

He established an import store in Minneapolis in 1882, and the Canton restaurant in 1883. A brother arrived in 1884 and joined the businesses, and they opened a couple of laundries. Woo cut off his long braid, joined a Protestant congregation, and embraced his new country. He set about to acquire citizenship, which proved not an easy process (although he said he was naturalized, he is identified as an Alien on U.S. censuses and was not allowed to take an oath of allegiance in 1898).

He evidently made quite a favorable impression on a number of people in Minneapolis. He was often quoted or interviewed in the newspaper and his minister defended him against those who physically assaulted him in 1890, saying he was “a thorough business man, a gentleman and a Christian, and one of the best members of my church. In my opinion he is better than 90 per cent of those [who] are so vindictively persecuting him.”

As the minister’s remarks reveal, Woo experienced hostility in Minneapolis. In 1892 Congress extended the Exclusion Act with the Geary Act which required Chinese to carry resident permits or be deported. Although Geary was supposed to apply only to laborers and not to merchants, in practice it became necessary for all Chinese to carry permits or risk deportation — based on the widely accepted belief that it was impossible to tell one Chinese person from another.

The Canton restaurant was picketed by the cooks’ union in 1902, which asked union members to boycott it and other Chinese restaurants in Minneapolis. The union charged that Woo and the others underpaid their Chinese cooks and this made it impossible for white-owned restaurants to compete with equally low prices. Woo responded that he paid his cook well. He rejected the union’s claim that powerful Chinese in San Francisco furnished money for others to open Chinese restaurants all over the country, calling this “the old California cry [i.e., propaganda].” Note that a Chinese cook could not join a union, nor be paid at the same rate as others when cooking in a white restaurant.

The head of the cooks’ union disliked hearing Woo claim that he was a citizen. During the boycott he complained to a reporter, “It is silly to hear him talking of being a naturalized American citizen. All know why a Chinaman gets naturalized – not for love of the country, but for the lust of gold.”

Woo and his brother did not let discrimination keep them from progressing. In 1905 they opened a new restaurant named Yuen-Faung-Low Chop Suey House [see 1916 advertisement above], but popularly known as “John’s Place.” It was damaged by a bomb in 1909, but reopened. In 1916, the restaurant advertised the addition of a second-floor tea room “for ladies” that catered to “a strictly high-class clientele.”

Woo Yee Sing died in 1925. His funeral, attended by 700 people, was accompanied by a 25-piece band playing a Chopin funeral march. He left an estate valued at $41,200, and his was said to be the first “Chinese” will filed in Hennepin County probate court. Woo Yee Sing’s brother Woo Du Sing continued to operate John’s Place, and opened another, The Sea Food Grill, in the early 1930s.

© Jan Whitaker, 2019

For more about the Woo family and photos of Yee Sing and the Yuen-Faung-Low restaurant, see the article about his socially prominent wife in Minnesota History. Some of the dates in that story are discrepant with those I found.

 

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Restaurants in the family: Doris Day

I’ve often been struck by how many American families have some relationship to restaurants other than as patrons. It’s not at all unusual to have a family member who has worked for a restaurant or has owned one.

Reading the lengthy obituary for Doris Day in the NY Times this week I discovered this was true for her also. Both her father and one of her husbands worked in or owned restaurants and related businesses.

For most of his life her father, William J. Kappelhoff, had a career in music, whether as a church organist, piano teacher, or choral director in Cincinnati where Doris and her family lived. But by the late 1950s he was operating a place in Cincinnati called the Mound Café, and in 1960 he owned the Melburn Bar. Exactly what was served in either place is unclear but, like many taverns, their menus may have included light food along with drinks.

Kappelhoff divorced Doris’ mother in 1935 and then married the woman he had been having an affair with when Doris was growing up. After his second wife died he married his tavern manager, Luvenia Bennett, in 1961. Because he was Doris Day’s father, and was white, the fact that his new wife was a Black woman was considered unusual and newsworthy and reported widely across the USA.

In 1976 Day married her fourth husband, Barry Comden, who had worked in various aspects of the restaurant business. In the 1960s he was involved with a restaurant dining club which sold coupon books enabling buyers to get two dinners for the price of one at member restaurants. Called Invitation Dinners, in 1965 it operated in nineteen cities around the U.S. including Los Angeles, San Francisco, New Orleans, and Boston.

In the 1970s Comden was hired to open the Old World Restaurant in the Westwood neighborhood of Los Angeles. He also supervised the building of Tony Roma’s, a rib place in Palm Springs CA.

He was also maître d’ or manager (or both) of the Old World Restaurant in Beverly Hills, which was dedicated to serving fresh natural foods without preservatives. Day met him at the restaurant, after she went there on a recommendation from her dentist who was part owner. The Beverly Hills location was the second in the Old World chain which at one time had locations on Los Angeles’ Sunset Strip, as well as in Beverly Hills, Westwood Village, Newport Beach, and Palm Springs.

In a 1976 interview Comden said that Day disliked sauces of any kind. “She likes plain hamburgers, vegetables, plain fish!” he said. It is true that Day was often described as a down-to-earth, no frills woman who rejected glamour, for instance wearing no makeup in public. She said in the interview that one of her favorite dishes at the Old World was the round-the-clock Belgian waffle special, a popular selection that included a whole wheat waffle with sausage, bacon, Canadian ham, or vegetables, plus cottage cheese, two eggs, and a Mimosa cocktail – all for $4.50.

As Day said in her 1976 as-told-to autobiography (Doris Day, Her Own Story, by A. E. Hotchner), when she visited the Old World, Comden would give her scraps to take home for her dogs. The two tried to create a pet food brand that would raise money for an animal foundation she wanted to create, but that project failed as did the marriage. Day and Comden were divorced in 1981.

An interesting footnote: The original Old World, on Sunset Strip, was begun by Jim Baker, creator (with his wife) of a natural-foods restaurant, The Aware Inn, and later The Source, a vegetarian restaurant. Known as Father Yod, he became leader of a commune that eventually moved to Hawaii. Coincidentally, like Day, Baker was born in Cincinnati in 1922.

© Jan Whitaker, 2019

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Anatomy of a restaurateur: Ruby Foo

Is any proof needed that restaurants are show business to a high degree – given that they are enveloped in mystique made up of names, signs, logos, lighting, decor, artistically arranged food, and costumed and scripted personnel?

And sometimes restaurateurs themselves are not the people they appear to be but are creations as carefully crafted as the stars of the entertainment world.

After extensive research I’ve begun to wonder if the public persona of Ruby Foo was largely fictitious.

She is often seen as a rare example of a Chinese woman who defied convention by creating a chain of stylish, nightclub-style Chinese restaurants that appealed to non-Chinese customers. It seems to me that however wealthy she became from the Ruby Foo restaurants, she had a turbulent and difficult life with three marriages and legal troubles that belied her vaunted glamorous life of jewels and furs, shopping in Paris, and flying her own plane.

To begin, note that she was indeed of Chinese ancestry but was born in California as were both her parents, who gave Ruby and her three siblings American first names. This casts doubt upon lore cranked out by gossip columnists who made much of her exotic identity. Their Ruby Foo seemed to have been born in China and had a mother who could not speak a word of English.

Some accounts say she opened her first restaurant in 1923. But she was married to an herbalist and living in Boston’s Back Bay in a house valued at $11,000 [pictured 2018], which was quite a lot at that time. She had a one-year-old and gave birth to her second child that year. Hard to believe that under those circumstances a woman would open a small lunch room for manual workers, as it has been described. I have been unable to find any trace of it.

According to other tales, she opened her first restaurant in 1929, which is more believable, though I think it might have been a bit later. In publicity she is always represented as the sole proprietor, but when her brother George died in the 1960s, the Boston Globe reported that he had opened the “original” Den with Ruby. It could not have been called Ruby Foo’s Den then, because she had not yet divorced her first husband, Dr. Shong, and married Mr. Foo. A story in a New York City paper said that Ruby opened a restaurant in 1930 upon the death of Dr. Shong; actually, he died in 1933, by which time she had remarried. [Ruby Foo’s Den, Boston, ca. 1950]

Her second husband, Tam/Tom Foo, who she married sometime between 1930 and 1932, was a bookkeeper when they married and soon fell into big trouble when he embezzled $20,000 from his employer in 1932. Stories in the Boston Herald said the Chinese community regarded him as a scrupulously honest man who became money hungry when he married Ruby and adopted a more expensive lifestyle. Remarkably, by the time he died at age 47 in 1940 he had redeemed himself in the eyes of the community and was, indeed, an importer.

Around 1941 Ruby married William Wong. Wong sued for divorce in 1948, after being shot in the neck the previous year by Ruby’s son Earl/Earle Shong. Earl’s defense was that he was defending his mother from Wong’s attack on her with a hammer. Earl was acquitted, but later had several run-ins with the police. Wong claimed in his divorce proceedings that Ruby drank heavily and had assaulted him on three occasions, one resulting in a hospital stay. He was granted an uncontested divorce on the grounds of cruel and abusive treatment.

During the 1930s, with the end of Prohibition, Ruby Foo’s Den grew into a popular nightclub and expanded into New York and Miami, each with two locations, plus another at the 1939 New York World’s Fair. But it isn’t at all clear to what degree Ruby owned and operated the 11 Ruby Foo’s that existed at one time or another (not only in Boston, New York, and Miami, but also in Providence, Philadelphia, Montreal, and London). She was in poor health in the 1940s, when William Wong managed the Boston restaurant. It’s likely that by the time of her death in 1950 she held a financial stake in four of them and the others were licensed to use the copyrighted name “Ruby Foo’s Den.” A woman named Florence Pike partnered with Ruby to create and run the New York Ruby’s at 240 W. 52nd street near the theaters that was often featured in 1930s gossip columns. [pictured at top, ca. 1940] According to an obituary for Foo, Pike became owner of the restaurants after Ruby’s death.

One role that Ruby did honor as a restaurateur was to visit her restaurants regularly and to give interviews to columnists.

A Ruby-Foo’s Den was recreated in New York’s Times Square in 2000 and closed a few years ago.

© Jan Whitaker, 2019

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