Eye appeal

Long before the internet, color photography became a factor that restaurants had to take into account. In the 1974 book Focus on . . . adding eye appeal to foods, author Bruce H. Axler noted, “The dramatic four-color, full-spread photos of food appearing in magazines have set visual standards for the restaurateur.” Perhaps he was thinking of Gourmet magazine in particular.

Color photography began to be used for advertisements in magazines in the 1930s, and consequently became identified with commerce rather than art. It was used mostly in women’s magazines, frequently to advertise food products at a time when major brands and ad agencies were hiring home economists to oversee product promotion and photography.

After decades of viewing photos of brightly colored food arranged artistically in attractive settings, the American public, possibly women in particular, expected food to look as good as it tasted. With the increase in restaurant patronage in the 1960s and 1970s, restaurants began to realize they needed to focus more on the appearance of what they served.

Bruce Axler, building on considerable experience in the hospitality industry, set out to assist restaurateurs in dealing with vexing problems such as too much whiteness or brownness, shapeless blobs and piles, flat sandwiches, and the empty-plate look. Perhaps most important, he addressed the issue of commonplace food that didn’t look worth its high price considering how much cheaper it was at the place down the street.

Given patrons’ high expectations regarding visuals, Axler set out a depressingly cynical scenario on page 1: “If it [restaurant food] is any less luscious looking, it suffers by comparison to such photos; especially when the guest has had three ice-cold martinis and cannot really taste the difference between a prickly pear and a mashed rutabaga.” He seemed to suggest that restaurateurs couldn’t even count on taste and texture working for them anymore.

He also observed that some of the old-time fixes could no longer be relied upon. Broken potato chips couldn’t fill a void, he noted. Nor could food displays be enlivened by the old standbys parsley and paprika. “Buffets are loaded with mystery meats and salads similarly garnished with parsley and rouged with paprika like so many ancient chorines.”

He should have counseled against overuse of lettuce garnishes and potato borders too.

Axler’s suggestions included ladling soup from a tureen and serving sandwiches opened up, both to fill the plate and to display their innards. He advised that “Mounds are better than blobs, rolls better than slices, shingled layers better than piles,” and that vegetables should be portioned in odd numbers. To give the impression of increased worth, he recommended anchovy or grated cheese toppings.

At times his suggestions bordered on the desperate, such as “planting sparklers in food items” and floating small lit candles on soup croutons. I, for one, am not among the many customers he believed “would enjoy the visual appeal of a bright red tulip stuffed with chicken salad.”

Nonetheless, there is no doubt that restaurants were eager to adopt ideas such as his. Many have become standard practice, yet by now it has become clear that chefs have many more tricks up their sleeves, especially when it comes to making a dish look deserving of a high price. Some seem to go against the wisdom of the past. Who in the 1970s could have foreseen how powerfully miniature food artfully arranged on a king-size plate could signify a $$$$ restaurant?

© Jan Whitaker, 2019

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Writing food memoirs

I attended a wonderful panel moderated by Cara De Silva at the past weekend’s Food Writing Forum at the New School in New York. The panelists – all with rich careers in food and writing — had so many interesting things to say, a handful of which are excerpted below. Not exactly restaurant history, but close enough.

Elissa Altman

“I grew up in a home that was tied in knots over food.” Her mother, who was afraid of food, gave her diet pills while her father, a “fresser,” smuggled her off to secret meals at La Grenouille.

Among other books, she is author of POOR MAN’S FEAST and the upcoming MOTHERLAND: A Memoir of Love, Loathing, and Longing.

Mark Russ Federman

“A fish monger from the lower East Side,” he observed that when word got out that he was writing a book about his family’s famed business, “All the literary agents showed up and bought an eighth pound of lox.”

As the third generation of the Russ family to own and operate the family appetizing store, he published a combined memoir/history titled RUSS & DAUGHTERS: Reflections and Recipes.

Madhur Jaffrey

As a memoir writer, she realized that “When I looked back on my life it was all about food.” Reflecting that the name given to her at birth means honey, she commented, “God connected me to food.”

She is author of cookbooks and CLIMBING THE MANGO TREE: A Memoir of a Childhood in India.

Anne Mendelson

Writing a biography of the mother-daughter cookbook authors of The Joy of Cooking she admits, “I was flying blind.” But she considers this a “necessary condition” for writing a biography.

She has written STAND FACING THE STOVE about Irma Rombauer and Marion Rombauer Becker, as well as cookbooks and other food books.

Laura Shapiro

“You can tell any life if you know the food,” she observed. Working on her recent book, she knew she was onto something when she discovered that feminist Inez Haynes Irwin had once confessed that preparing Sunday dinners had “set a scar on my soul.”

Among her books are PERFECTION SALAD and the new one, WHAT SHE ATE: Six Remarkable Women and the Food That Tells Their Stories.

 

See my new-ish blog on childhood food memories, Archaeology of Taste.

 

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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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Soul food restaurants

Before the 1960s, the term “soul food” wasn’t used in reference to food. Until then the words had religious connotations for Protestants.

What became known as edible soul food, such as chitterlings, pigs’ feet, greens, black-eyed peas, cornbread, and cobbler (to name just a few), had been popular in the South long before the words soul food were applied. But the diet gained a charged meaning in the 1960s when proponents of Black Power affirmed eating soul food as a political statement.

By any name, soul food was not often found in restaurants outside the South until African-Americans began migrating northward before, during, and after World Wars I and II. Walker’s Café in Wichita KS advertised chitterlings and catfish in 1910. That same year the Gopher Grill in St. Paul MN claimed to be “headquarters for chitterlings and corn bread.” Similar menus were often found at dinners at Black churches and homes. Women belonging to the Social and Literary society of a Baptist church in St. Paul MN dressed in Colonial costumes and hosted a chicken and chitterlings dinner in 1916 to celebrate Lincoln’s birthday, an event where the identity politics were quite different than what would develop in the Black Power movement.

There were also numerous restaurants owned and patronized by Blacks in the North that did not serve soul food, or at least didn’t specialize in it. It’s difficult to find menus from restaurants of the migration periods, but when their advertisements mentioned specialties, they were often similar to dishes in white restaurants. A Chester PA restaurant specialized in oysters in 1910. In Black’s Blue Book for 1923-1924 — which listed Chicago’s prominent African-American citizens, along with recommended businesses — there were only four restaurants that advertised what kinds of dishes they served. Those dishes were Barbecued Chicken, Duck, and Squab; Chicken Salad; Club Sandwiches; Sea Foods; and Chili Con Carne (at two restaurants).

The spectrum of eating places found in New York’s Harlem, Chicago’s Black Belt, and Black urban neighborhoods across the North ranged from down-home, all-night eateries serving factory shift workers to elegant tea rooms lodged in old mansions that hosted patrons with more money and leisure. In Chicago, leaders of the N.A.A.C.P., the Urban League, and visiting foreign dignitaries were inevitably entertained with dinners at top Black tea rooms such as The Ideal, the Bird Cage [pictured, 2018], and the University tea rooms. In Spring 1923, the University Tea Room (“The Most Beautiful Spot in Chicago”) advertised the following menu:

65c – Special Table de Hote Dinner – 65c
Cream of Tomato Soup
Roast Chicken with Dressing
Spring Lamb with Peas
Snowflake Potatoes
June Peas in Cases
Salad
Head Lettuce and Tomatoes
French Dressing
Dessert
Apple Pie with Cheese
Rice Pudding
Coffee
Strawberry Shortcake, 25c
Ice Cream, 10c

Strangely enough, the 1966-1967 version of the Green Book failed to list some prominent Black restaurants with barbecue such as Arthur Bryant and Gates in Kansas City, and soul food places such as Soul Queen and H & H in Chicago. For New York City, it broke restaurant listings into the categories Steaks, American Specialties, Seafood, and Chinese – but not Soul Food.

While some Northern Blacks slowly accepted soul food, others were more resistant. This seemed to hold especially true for those higher in social status. Some of Chicago’s Bronzeville residents who held themselves superior to migrants expressed criticism of newcomers’ food customs, such as eating chitterlings. A journalist writing in the New York Amsterdam News in 1931 claimed that Harlemites rejected the “Fried Chicken, Pork Chop, Hog Maw and Chitterlings Theories” that assumed all Blacks liked rural Southern food. He also disavowed any special attraction to watermelon.

In 1945 another reporter from the Amsterdam News set out to find chitterlings in Harlem restaurants. He found only one restaurant serving them (Rosalie’s and Frances’ Clam House and Restaurant). He reported that Harlemites were just as likely to eat Chock Full O’ Nuts’ nutted cream sandwiches, Chicken Fricassee, Weiner Schnitzel, or Oysters Casino. At the same time, he observed that whites visiting Harlem enjoyed spare ribs with red beans, concluding, “there are no fundamental points of difference between eating habits of Harlemites and those of the lighter-skinned folk downtown.”

Most soul food histories note that some prominent Black leaders have rejected soul food, pointing to Eldridge Cleaver of the Black Panthers and Nation of Islam leader Elijah Muhammad. In his book Soul Food, Adrian Miller observed that Cleaver wrote in Soul on Ice (1968), “The emphasis on Soul Food is counter-revolutionary black bourgeois ideology.” Instead, wrote Cleaver, “The people in the ghetto want steaks. Beef Steaks.” Elijah Muhammad denounced soul food as a legacy of slavery that should be decisively rejected.

Miller laments the decline of restaurants that serve soul food, marked by the closure of landmarks such as Army and Lou’s and Soul Queen in Chicago. “Across the country, legendary soul food restaurants are disappearing at an alarming pace,” he writes, attributing it to health concerns and reduced business prospects due to the scattering of African-American communities and the popularity of fast food.

With a few exceptions, I don’t think the views of critics such as Cleaver are seen as valid now. And there seems to be a renaissance of interest in soul food among Black chefs and restaurateurs who celebrate it as part of a heritage of resilience and creativity under slavery. Somewhat surprisingly, even vegan soul food restaurants can be found now.

© Jan Whitaker, 2019

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Effects of war on restaurant-ing

This is such a big subject that I’m focusing only on the two world wars of the 20th century. Both wars made restaurants more central to modern life. The restaurant industry emerged larger and with a more diverse patronage. It was more organized, more independent from the hotel industry, more consolidated, more streamlined in its practices, and less European in its values and orientation.

World War I

● The effects of World War I were felt before the US declared war against Germany in spring of 1917. Americans living abroad, such as artists in Paris, returned to the U.S. Some of them returned to Greenwich Village to develop and nurture something quite foreign here, namely café culture.

● In Washington DC, wartime bureaucracy required more office workers, increasing the ranks of working women, a new and lasting restaurant clientele. As the female workforce grew nationwide, women’s restaurant patronage from 1917 to 1927 went from 20% of all customers to 60%, and became foundational to the future growth of modern restaurants. Around the country low-priced restaurants accustomed to male patronage were forced to add women’s restrooms.

● Many foreign nationals who had worked as cooks, kitchen help, and waitstaff in restaurants left to join armies of their native lands. The restaurant labor shortage worsened when the draft began in 1917 and foreign immigration ceased. Immigrants were replaced by Afro-American and white women who migrated to cities. Serving in restaurants became female dominated.

● The war brought women to the forefront of food service. Home economists rallied to the cause by opening restaurants. In Washington DC, a graduate of Cornell’s home economics program began a cafeteria for war workers nicknamed the “Dom Econ Lunchroom.”

● Wartime prohibition followed by national prohibition in 1919 dealt a blow to fine dining. The culinary arts of European-trained chefs fell into disuse as many elite restaurants closed after a few lean years.

● Immigrant tastes were reworked by WWI. Those who served in the US military became accustomed to the American diet of beef and potatoes, white bread, and milk, as did Southerners used to “hogs and hominy.” Meanwhile on the homefront, certain “foreign” foods, such as pasta and tomato sauce, were admitted into the mainstream middle-class diet, in this case because Italy was an ally.

● Wartime also stimulated a more business-like attitude on the part of restaurants which now had to work smarter to produce profits. They adopted principles of scientific management — for example, they began keeping books! And they standardized recipes to turn out consistent food despite changes in personnel.

● The decade after World War I saw the rise of sandwiches, salads, milk, and soft drinks replacing the heavy restaurant meals served before the war.

● During the Depression WWI veterans demonstrated and lobbied for their long-overdue soldiers’ bonuses. Many used the bonuses to open hamburger stands and other roadside businesses such as the Kum Inn on Long Island.

World War II

● Many of the same kinds of effects were felt after the Second World War, sometimes more strongly because of the increased duration of the conflict. Immigration came to a halt, furthering the “Americanization” of restaurants. Women trained in institutional management and home economics continued to enjoy expanded opportunities and prestige. Two home economists in Minnesota saw their quantity cooking manual adopted by the military.

● During the war, the average American patronized restaurants as never before. Southern California restaurants were overwhelmed as an estimated 250,000 workers in war plants who lacked housekeeping facilities turned to public eating places for their meals.

● Food rationing dramatically increased restaurant patronage. In January 1943 the Office of Price Administration announced that the public would not need ration coupons in restaurants. Within weeks after rationing began restaurants were mobbed. In Chicago, Loop restaurants experienced a 25% increase in business. By October of that year patronage in NYC restaurants had doubled.

● Also stimulating the eating-out boom were generous business expense accounts which, said the NYT, “grew into a fat-cat fringe during World War II.” These benefits were meant to compensate workers who could not be granted raises because of government-imposed wage and salary freezes and employers’ wish to avoid paying excess-profits taxes. To retain valued employees they instead gave pensions, medical care plans, stock options, and generous expense accounts. Expense accounts led to the creation of the first nation-wide credit card, sponsored by The Diner’s Club.

● Already in 1944 the National Restaurant Association was looking forward to augmenting short staffs with some of the estimated 300,000-500,000 military cooks and bakers to be demobilized at war’s end. Tuition under the GI bill lured thousands into further training as restaurant cooks, managers, and proprietors.

● After fighting a war against a “master race” ideology, returning black GIs strongly resisted racial discrimination in American restaurants. In Seattle the NAACP filed complaints when “white only” signs appeared or blacks experienced deliberately poor service. The signs were meant for Japanese returning from internment camps as well. [Ben Shahn photo, FSA]

● Unlike before the war, eating in restaurants was no longer an unfamiliar experience for most Americans. A manual issued by the New York State Restaurant Association in 1948 proclaimed that restaurants were serving more than 15.5B meals annually. A sociologist attributed the emergence of the sassy waitress to wartime’s broadening clientele which included a “new class of customers, who were considered particularly difficult to deal with.”

● Family patronage, encouraged by a wartime increase in employment of married women, continued to grow after the war. A trade journal counseled operators of suburban restaurants to “be especially nice to children.” In Denver, the average family was said to eat out three or four times a month, a rate unheard of before the war.

● Another lasting effect of wartime eating-out habits was increased restaurant patronage in the South, a region where there had been few restaurants and little restaurant culture. Northern industries were already moving south in 1941, but also, as the restaurant industry noted in May of that year, “most of the Army activity is in the Southern States,” a fact they believed made it the area with the “greatest opportunity for restaurant expansion.”

● A number of common menu items can be attributed to World War II. Restaurant patrons learned how to eat lobsters, which were plentiful because they were not rationed. Pizza parlors proliferated because pizza was also simple to serve. Conscripted country dwellers were introduced to sea foods in military service. Veterans who had served in the South Pacific discovered a liking for Polynesian food.

● War spurred the use of new food products by the military, including frozen food. In a remarkably short time, the restaurant industry, which had previously preferred fresh to processed food, adopted frozen foods and by 1955 they accounted for 20 to 40% of their supplies. With the rise of frozen food and other war-facilitated convenience foods came restaurant stalwarts of the 1960s: French fries, breading mixes, and cheese cake.

● Along with frozen foods came new technologies for their preparation, in particular microwave ovens and quick-recovery griddles, both military spinoffs. The RadarRange, presented at the National Hotel Exposition in 1947, was developed by Raytheon using principles of infrared technology developed during the war. It not only permitted food to be cooked lightening fast but also made reheating pre-cooked frozen entrees possible. Another marvel was the Rocket Griddle which featured fast heat recovery that enabled frozen food to be cooked without defrosting.

● The development of the air freight industry following WWII, stimulated by the availability of trained pilots and surplus airplanes, permitted restaurants to obtain foods from locations around the world. A restaurant called Imperial House in Chicago was approached by two former Air Force fliers who proposed to fly in king crabs from Alaska by freezer plane. By 1952 the restaurant was bringing strawberries from Florida and California, bibb lettuce from Kentucky, salmon from Nova Scotia, pheasant and venison from South Dakota, grouse from England, and paté from France.

● Last but not least, the ideal of organizational efficiency was stimulated by both wars. The World War II postwar period saw the rise of a much larger food service industry.

And, of course, this brief survey is far from complete.

© Jan Whitaker, 2019

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Behind the scenes at the Splendide

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© Jan Whitaker, 2019

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Take your Valentine to dinner

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© Jan Whitaker, 2019

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