Category Archives: restaurant controversies

“Wop” salad?

People living along the Gulf of Mexico are probably familiar with this designation but I remember being quite surprised the first time I came across it. Given that “wop” is an offensive slang name for Italians, my first reaction was, Please don’t tell me it means that!

It does. It’s another way of saying Italian salad.

“Wop salad” could be found on menus from the 1930s even into the 1980s in certain regions. Its use was frequent in Louisiana, Texas, and Mississippi, especially along the Gulf. It was most closely identified with New Orleans, but was also used in Baton Rouge, Shreveport, Corpus Christi, Galveston, San Antonio, Biloxi, and to a lesser extent Little Rock, Arkansas. I have also found the term in use by restaurants in various other states, but quite rarely.

The salad had many variations. Among the possible ingredients [some pictured above] are iceberg lettuce, endive, escarole, white onions, tiny pearl onions, shallots, garlic, boiled eggs, black olives, green olives, pickles, celery, radishes, sweet peppers, pimientos, avocados, artichoke hearts, tomatoes, asparagus, anchovies, and grated cheese. Dressings could contain combinations of some of the following: olive oil, vinegar, mayonnaise, Worcestershire sauce, and lemon.

Even a single restaurant might not always compose the salad in quite the same way. Larry Platt’s Italian Village in Corpus Christi TX advertised wop salads with differing ingredients in 1954. In one ad the salad had “pimientos, olives, anchovies and sauce, Italian peppers and sauce, pickles, eggs, garlic, onions, fresh lemons and salad dressing” while in another it contained “anchovies, olives, lettuce, tomatoes, Italian pepper, radishes, celery, with our Famous Dressing.”

An indication of the popularity of the salad, however construed, is its inclusion in the American food section of a 1950 Chinese menu from The Chinese Dragon in New Orleans. [pictured here]

Despite my negative response to the name, the general reaction today seems to be mild amusement coupled with dismissal of the notion that it could be taken as truly offensive. Most defenders will quickly point out that Italian-Americans in New Orleans used it too and it could be found as often on the menus of Italian restaurants as any others.

I have read the claim that Joe Brocato’s restaurant in Shreveport LA – which advertised it was “Home of the Wop Salad” — was the owner of the term and that anyone else who used it had to pay royalties.

Call me skeptical. I’ve heard similar arguments about how Afro-Americans didn’t mind dressing up like mammies, loved working and eating at Sambo’s, etc.

Historically New Orleans had more residents of Italian origin than other cities in the South. It was a port of entry into the United States in the 19th and early 20th centuries, and many Italians disembarked there. One day in October 1907, for instance, 1,300 Italians arrived, some of them wives and children of men in various parts of the country, but others migrants who came to work in Louisiana sugar cane fields; taking jobs once held by slaves and poor Blacks, they were very much looked down upon. And how long did Italians in New Orleans remember the lynching of eleven Italians there in 1891? The murders brought condemnation nationally and internationally and caused riots in Italian communities in NYC and Cincinnati.

Yet Italians who settled in New Orleans went on to found successful businesses and become professionals and civic leaders there. Quite a few opened restaurants.

To many people “wop salad” began to sound wrong in the 1980s. Journalists writing about restaurants in Southern papers became rather squeamish about using it, distancing themselves by putting it in quotation marks or referring to the term as “unfortunate.” But I cannot help but wonder how others, particularly those of Italian ancestry, felt about it during the decades it was commonly used. Did they think nothing of it? Did they find the name annoying but not worth making a big deal about? Did they feel insulted by it?

I have found very little evidence of protest. Someone calling themselves “Italian-American” wrote to a columnist of the New Orleans Times-Picayune in 1961 complaining of her use of ‘wop salad,’ and stating, ‘There is no such thing as ‘wop salad.’ Did you mean ‘Italian salad’?” The columnist defended her usage, concluding, ‘Everybody loves ‘wop salad.’ We English-German-Scandinavians all try to copy it.” In 1972 the paper received a complaint from a New Jersey Italian-American man who had visited the city and found “wop salad” on menus everywhere, including “better restaurants.” Perhaps Commander’s Palace was one of them. [see ca. 1950s menu fragment] He was especially offended by a sandwich shop with a sign in front saying, “Bigga Woppa Sandwich.” He concluded that New Orleans was only pretending to be “a genuinely cosmopolitan city.”

With the present cultural climate I halfway expect “wop salad” to resurface.

© Jan Whitaker, 2017

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Filed under ethnic restaurants, food, menus, proprietors & careers, restaurant controversies

Reading the tea leaves

Although “gypsy” tea rooms could be found in the 1920s, and occasionally even now, their heyday was in the 1930s Depression.

They represented a degree of degeneration of the tea room concept in that they built their allure on tea leaf reading as much as – or more than — food. The menus in some of them consisted simply of a sandwich, piece of cake, and cup of tea, typically costing 50 cents. A drug store in New Orleans reduced the menu to a toasted sandwich and tea for the low price of 15 cents.

Gypsy tea rooms were often located on the second or third floor of a building, reducing the rent burden. Downtown shopping districts were popular places to attract customers, with about twenty near NYC stores located in the 30s between 6th and 7th Avenues. Los Angeles had a Gypsy Tea Room across the street from Bullock’s department store, while Omaha’s Gypsy Tea Shop, affiliated with another one in Council Bluffs IA, was across from the Brandeis store.

Times were hard, and Gypsy, Mystic, or Egyptian tea rooms, as they were known, offered a diversion from the concerns of the day and a way to prop up tottering businesses.

Usually it was all in fun. Gypsy tea rooms dressed waitresses in peasant costumes with bandana headdresses and adopted brilliant color schemes such as orange and black with yellow candles, and red tables and chairs. Such decor was a formula worked out by a New York City woman who by 1930 had opened 25 such places all over the country. Evidently after opening each one she sold it to a new owner.

Most customers, almost always women, saw the readings as light entertainment suitable for clubs and parties. Sometimes, though, an advertisement suggested that patrons’ reasons for having their tea leaves read were not so happy. A 1930 advertisement for the Mystic Tea Room, in Kansas City MO, asked “Have You Worries? Financial, domestic or otherwise? Our gifted readers will help you solve your problems.”

Many tea leaf readers had names suggesting they were “real gypsies” but that is unlikely, despite the Madame Zitas, Estellas, and Levestas. In fact, the reason that tea rooms advertised free readings was because many states and cities had laws prohibiting payment for fortune telling so as to keep genuine gypsies from settling there. A Texas law of 1909 declared “all companies of Gypsies” who supported themselves by telling fortunes would be punished as vagrants.

New York state passed a law in 1917 that made fortune telling in New York City illegal. In the 1930s police conducted raids of tea rooms advertising tea leaf readings. The raids did little to reduce their ranks and tea rooms continued to announce readings. A “gypsy princess” on site was an undeniable attraction — “Something New, Something Different,” according to an advertisement for Harlem’s Flamingo Grill and Tea Room on 7th Avenue.

In 1936 an attempt was made to organize tea leaf readers but it didn’t seem to amount to much. Members of the National Association of Fortune Tellers were required to be “scientific predictors,” just as good at forecasting as Wall Street brokers. The group’s organizer said she wanted to professionalize fortune telling. Because 32 states had laws against it, she said, tea room readers were forced to work for tips only, to the benefit of tea room owners.

Tea leaf readers seemed to move around quite a bit, perhaps because tea room proprietors wanted to keep things interesting. It was supposed to generate excitement when a “seer” from abroad or a larger city visited a small town tea room. A male clairvoyant such as Pandit Acharjya of Benares, India, was bound to enliven the atmosphere at the Gypsy Tea Room in New Orleans in 1930. And to the River Lane Gardens in Jefferson City MO, even the week-long appearance of “Miss Ann Brim of St. Louis, Famous Reader of Cards and Tea Leaves” was worth billing as a major attraction.

In Boston, the Tremont Tea Room has been doing business in sandwiches and tea leaf readings since 1936. Proving, as if proof is needed, that no “restaurant” concept ever totally dies away.

© Jan Whitaker, 2017

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Filed under alternative restaurants, atmosphere, decor, Offbeat places, restaurant controversies, tea shops, uniforms & costumes, women

Is “ethnic food” a slur?

This question has come up over the past few years among those who write about food and restaurants. The gist of the complaint is that the term “ethnic food” implies it is inferior to European-based cuisines, and sometimes even to pseudo-ethnic fast food. The issue is entwined with the question of whether patronizing restaurants run by immigrant or other non-white proprietors demonstrates or promotes multicultural understanding.

The terms “ethnic food” and “ethnic restaurant” did not really show up to any significant extent until the 1960s. Before that references would have been to foreign restaurants or to “food of the world.” Until the 1860s, French restaurateurs were the main departure from the English-influenced norm.

After the Revolution of 1776, there were a number of French eating places in this country. For example, Michael Marinot advertised in 1789 that he ran a Traiteur Francois in Philadelphia. And of course, there was Julien in Boston, and as of 1823 the Swiss-Italian confectionery of Delmonico in New York. From the start French restaurateurs were appreciated for producing delicate cuisine and following a higher standard than other eating places.

Much more common were the eating houses that served food similar to what would be found in England, consisting mainly of meat and game, simply prepared, with little in the way of sauces or seasonings. [see NYC Bowery restaurant, 1887] Oyster cellars provided the fast food of the day.

Things began to change in the 1850s. When gold was discovered near San Francisco, men (mostly) from all over the world converged there. An account published in 1855 notes, “There were American dining-rooms, the English lunch-houses, the French cabarets, the Spanish fondas, the German wirtschafts, the Italian osterie, the Chinese chow-chows, and so on . . . There were cooks, too, from every country; American, English, French, German, Dutch, Chinese, Chileno, Kanaka, Italian, Peruvian, Mexican, Negro, and what not.” In 1854 New York City boasted of having restaurants representing the food of America, England, Scotland, France, Germany, Italy, Holland, Hungary, Denmark, Spain, and Cuba.

In the last quarter of the 19th century, people living in cities who had refined tastes but little money sought out small restaurants run by European immigrants known as “table d’hotes.” They offered a complete meal for a low fixed price, wine included. In these places, it was said, patrons could avoid the clatter, sloppiness, bad food, and complete lack of aesthetics associated with cheap American eating places. Europeans understood “the art of living,” according to a story in the Boston Globe in 1877. Only “foreigners” ran good restaurants in San Francisco, wrote the city’s chronicler Hubert Howe Bancroft. “American restaurants are invariably second, third, or fourth rate,” he pronounced.

With the large number of immigrants arriving in the late 19th and early 20th century, it is hardly surprising that many of them took up restaurant keeping. But this did not necessarily mean that they offered anything other than standard American fare. World War I revealed an undercurrent of prejudice against foreign eating places that had earlier been aimed at Asian restaurants on the West Coast. The negative attitudes may have driven some non-natives to “Americanize” their names and menus. Other restaurant owners, probably of American birth, played to nativist prejudice. [See 1918 ADV; Turner’s chef was born in France but naturalized shortly before the advertisement appeared.]

The 1920s through the 1950s saw the proliferation of restaurant types that were definitely non-ethnic such as tea rooms, cafeterias, steak houses, hamburger and hot dog stands, fried chicken places, lunch counters, diners, drive-ins, and chain restaurants. Many Greek-American proprietors avoided putting any remotely Greek dishes on their menus until the 1960s. Other restaurants serving “foreign” food added sections with American dishes to their menus [menu above, Chicago, 1941], while others dished up a stereotyped version of ethnicity [see Milwaukee’s Schwaben-Hoff shown above].

During the all-American era, a few “foreign” dishes were naturalized, among them chili, tamales (in the West), spaghetti, and pizza. [re Simon’s Sweet Shop, Salt Lake City, 1917] Even chop suey could sometimes be found on drug store menus. Some cities had especially few foreign restaurants. In 1940s Atlanta restaurant goers wanted fried chicken, while in Omaha they demanded steaks, according to the National Restaurant Association. In fact chicken, steak, and chops dominated dinner menus throughout the U.S.

It is scarcely surprising there would be a reaction to the blandness and lack of variety in restaurants. In 1961, even Chicago — where prime rib was No. 1 — presented alternatives, among them European, Middle Eastern, Oriental, Polynesian, and South and Central American restaurants. Still, a Chicago restaurant reviewer revealed in 1971 that she got letters complaining she was “preoccupied” with ethnic restaurants and ignored the steak and potato fans.

Nonetheless the ethnic restaurant trend continued to grow. Neil Simon’s 1963 play (and 1967 movie) Barefoot in the Park featured a newlywed wife who wanted to break free of convention. One scene showed her jumping up to join a belly dance at an Albanian restaurant hidden away on Staten Island. Her character prefigured the hippies to come — young people eager for new experiences. In the 1890s or 1910s she would have been called a bohemian and would have dined in the backyard of a French table d’hote. Another sign of change was the 1966 publication of The Underground Gourmet that listed inexpensive restaurants in NYC, most of them representing a cuisine from afar.

For those critics of the term ethnic restaurant who object to it only being applied to non-European restaurants of dark-skinned people: that has not always been true. The Underground Gourmet noted nationality restaurants that were Belgian, Dutch, Hungarian, Norwegian, and Ukrainian. San Diego, a city not known for its ethnic restaurants earlier, in 1979 counted among them ones that were Swedish, Hungarian, Russian, Serbian, Basque, Portugese, Irish – and British! And cultural geographer Wilbur Zelinsky classified Jewish, New England, Pennsylvania German, and Southern U.S. restaurants as ethnic in 1985.

The trend intensified in the 1970s. By the 1980s, a major city lacking diversity in its restaurants was considered culturally deficient and of lesser interest to gourmets and tourists. The counterculture, too, was an important factor in the rising popularity of ethnic restaurants. As Warren Belasco explained in a 1987 issue of Food and Foodways, the counterculture preferred “peasant or ‘folk’ cuisines to the ‘junk food’ found in . . . fast food restaurants. . . . The countercuisine’s infatuation with ethnic foods linked the personal and political . . . eating un-American dishes could be interpreted as a protest against American cultural imperialism.”

It could also be taken as a status marker – which has become more evident over time. It can be proof of extensive foreign travel, a spirit of adventurousness, a discerning palate, esoteric knowledge possessed by the few – and sometimes a degree of haughtiness about mainstream American tastes.

Nonetheless, a fondness for non-American cuisines is not usually linked with xenophobia and nativism. On the other hand, it by no means guarantees respect for other cultures nor does it overcome prejudices of various kinds. A 2008 article, “‘Going for an Indian’: South Asian Restaurants and the Limits of Multiculturalism in Britain,” made this clear. But I think I’ll save that argument for another time.

© Jan Whitaker, 2017

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Filed under alternative restaurants, ethnic restaurants, food, proprietors & careers, restaurant controversies, restaurant customs