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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Filed under food, menus, patrons, restaurant controversies, tea shops

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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Filed under family restaurants, food, patrons, Polynesian restaurants, proprietors & careers, restaurant industry, roadside restaurants, waiters/waitresses/servers, women

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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Filed under elite restaurants, food, patrons, restaurant customs, waiters/waitresses/servers

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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Filed under atmosphere, food, restaurant customs, women

Lunching at the dime store

Waves of nostalgia about lunch counter menus, low prices, friendly waitresses, and non-pretentious hospitality surged when dime stores began closing their counters in the 1970s and 1980s. [photo ca. 1930]

Nostalgia was mostly confined to former patrons who were white and not involved in the 1960s protests to integrate variety store lunch counters. In fact, some black activists still had criminal records on the books for participating in sit-ins.

It isn’t surprising that dime store lunch counters were chosen as sites of protest in 1960 and 1961 if you realize that they were among the top food service chains in the country then. A report from 1964 showed that F. W. Woolworth Co. and McDonald’s Systems, Inc. were neck and neck in the chain restaurant race. McDonald’s was ahead in sales with $114M while Woolworth was at $100M, but Woolworth dominated the landscape with 1,950 units across the country as compared to McDonald’s 611. And though not in the top ten, other dime store chains also had notable lunch counter sales, particularly Kresge, Grant, Newberry [shown below, 1940], and McCrory.


Dime store lunch counters dated back to the 1910s. The earliest lunch counters were probably the ones associated with the railroads, going back at least several decades into the 19th century. But dime stores added something new to their lunch counters – soda fountains — giving them wider appeal and the ability to attract customers between mealtimes.

Their installation involved significant capital investment. As dime store advertisements proclaimed, they were modern and sanitary. Through the first half of the 20th century, the stores constantly reminded the public that they were outfitted with the latest in modern gas and electric appliances for cooking, refrigeration, cleaning, and sterilization. [Kresge, Louisville, 1922]

When a new Woolworth store opened in Abilene TX in 1939, a lengthy story reported that “All utensils touched by food are of stainless, seamless steel.” Plus, it said, the food was kept at the correct temperatures at all times, dishes were washed and sterilized automatically, and the kitchen was lit by fluorescent fixtures.

I have no doubt that due to their expensive kitchen and counter equipment, dime store food service far exceeded the typical under-capitalized independent lunch room or restaurant of the same time in terms of sanitation.

Another modernizing feature was promoting women into lunch counter management. Although I’ve seen no numbers, Woolworth’s claimed that the majority of their lunch counters and bakeries had women managers. When a new Woolworth store opened in Butte MT in 1928, the opening of the lunch counter was under the supervision of a woman who managed a busy lunch counter in a Denver Woolworth store. This was surely a role not often played by women in the world of business then. She predicted that with 62 stools and quick service, the Butte store should easily be able to serve 1,000 persons at lunch.

Dime store lunch counters have been seen as early versions of fast food restaurants and to a degree this is true. They depended on fast delivery of food, high turnover of each counter stool, and price breaks for quantity buying. But there were also many ways in which they were not like the fast food chains that helped put them out of business.

Baking on the premises and selling baked goods in the store certainly set them apart from burger chains of the later 20th century.

So did using fresh produce and buying locally. When a new counter at the Newberry store was opened in Fremont OH in 1941, an advertisement stated, “Daily there arrives, fresh from the finest markets, a big assortment of garden vegetables and fruits; from the best local dairies come rich milk and cream and palate-tempting butter . . .” Local dairies and food purveyors often co-sponsored advertising when a new store was built or a new counter installed. A new Kresge store in St. Louis acknowledged its suppliers in 1919, “reliable firms, such as Freund Bakeries, Carpenter’s Ice Cream, Thomas L. Tierney Tea and Coffee Co., Sixth Street Grocery Co., Bentzen Commission Co., Harry E. Grafeman, Foerstel Bros. Meat Co., Herz-Oakes, Swift.”

Their menus included sandwiches and desserts, but also substantial hot meals. A remodeled Kress store in Fort Worth TX announced its menus for April 1931 would include a number of 25c plate lunches such as Roast Chicken with Dressing, Cranberry Sauce, Creamed Potatoes, Buttered English Peas, Lettuce and Tomato Salad, Corn Sticks, Butter, and Rolls. There was also a vegetable plate with Mustard Greens, Creamed Potatoes, Buttered English Peas, Lettuce and Tomato Salad, Corn Sticks, Butter, and Rolls. [Woolworth menu, 1959 — click to enlarge]

Woolworth had a love affair with turkey, serving it on plate lunches throughout the year. The explanation, according to Karen Plunkett-Powell in Remembering Woolworth’s, was that the store bought up farm surpluses for good prices – whether vegetables, dairy products, or turkey. Turkey seemed to appear frequently at Kress and Kresge also.

As dime stores experienced declines in business, their lunch counters were often the first sign of cutbacks, with the last ones closing in the late 1990s. Among the mourners were older patrons who took part in informal lunch counter coffee clubs. [Northampton MA, 1990]

© Jan Whitaker, 2019

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Filed under chain restaurants, food, lunch rooms, menus, popular restaurants, sanitation

Square meals

It’s likely that the term square meal originated in the restaurant culture of the California Gold Rush.

Most of the single men that were drawn to California then were temporary dwellers dependent on restaurants and hotels for their meals, so it is not surprising that “square meal” would first be applied to meals served in restaurants.

One of the earliest uses of the phrase I’ve found was in an advertisement for the What Cheer House in Marysville CA in 1858. The What Cheer said it offered three square meals a day for a moderate charge.

The term evidently was not known in the East. Most of the news about life in California was delivered by newspaper correspondents who wrote long stories about their experiences. One of those was J. Ross Browne, a frequent contributor to Harper’s magazine, who wrote in 1863 about a small shanty eatery called “The Howling Wilderness Saloon” that offered “a good square meal” for fifty cents. Browne explained that a square meal “is not, as may be supposed, a meal placed upon the table in the form of a solid cubic block; but a substantial repast of pork and beans, onions, cabbage, and other articles of sustenance that will serve to fill up the corners of a miner’s stomach.” [Above advertisement, California, 1861]

Other writers also felt it was necessary to explain to faraway readers what square meal meant. In the mid-1860s the term was often included in lists of colorful and unfamiliar Western slang such as shebang, grub, and muk-a-muk, plus sayings such as You bet, or Bet your bottom dollar.

By the end of the Civil War, the term had begun to spread across the country. A Union soldier from Wisconsin referred in summer of 1865 to enjoying his first square meal since joining the regiment. The reporter asked what he meant by that and he answered, “Four cups of coffee, all the ham I can eat, with bread, butter, pies, cakes, pickles and cheese . . .”

A few years later a restaurant in Memphis TN celebrated the opening of a new eating saloon where “A ‘square meal’ is served up smoking hot for fifty cents.”

What is most revealing about the slang term – suggesting what the mainstream American idea of a good meal was – is what did NOT qualify as a square meal.

For many diners, a meal in a Chinese restaurant did not qualify. Samuel Bowles, publisher of the esteemed Springfield (MA) Republican, who wrote of his travels to the West in 1865, explained that a square meal was “the common term for a first rate one.” He described a Chinese dinner he attended in San Francisco where the “the universal odor and flavor soon destroyed all appetite.” He was rescued from the situation by the chief of police who took him to an American restaurant where he enjoyed mutton chops, squab, fried potatoes, and a bottle of champagne.

Another New England paper ratified Bowles’ disdain for a Chinese dinner, stating, “An American generally has to go and get a ‘square meal’ after thus dining.” A possible reason for the rejection of Chinese food may lie in an editorial in 1872 in the New York Evening Post that referred to a political campaign amounting to a “dish of hotch-potch, instead of a square meal of honest viands.” In other words, people wanted chunks of meat [i.e., viands], not bits of food mixed together.

It was also clear that a square meal was not the same thing as a lunch. Back in 1858 the What Cheer House advised that in addition to three squares a day, regular diners there might also get “a lunch between meals, if they can keep on the right side of the Cook.” A lunch was regarded then almost as a snack. Boston’s Lindall “Dining & Lunch Rooms” had three departments, one “for the ‘regular square meals,’ one an oyster counter, and one “devoted to hot lunches of smaller orders of almost every dish.”

Guests from abroad were not always pleased with the squareness of American meals. The Londoner Walter Scott wrote in Our American Cousins (1883) about struggling with square meals in hotels where typically an enormous number of dishes of food were served, not in courses but all at once. As a waiter told another visitor, “What people want here is a good square meal; they are not particular about what they eat, if only they have a lot of things placed in front of them.” This style of service reportedly led to huge amounts of dumped food floating in the NY harbor.

In the 20th century some people began to mourn the loss of the good old pre-modern square meal – which was increasingly seen as the opposite of “fancy food.” A street reporter in Chicago in 1924 asked a woman whether she preferred home cooking to what was served in a “high class” restaurant and she answered that she preferred a good square meal with “fewer fancy frills.”

I think her answer would still resonate today, and I’d guess that many would say a diner was the best place to get a square meal.

© Jan Whitaker, 2019

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Filed under food, restaurant customs

Tea rooms for students

College and high school students of the 20th century led many eating-out trends and customs. Not only did they help make certain foods popular, they also influenced meal habits and adopted frequent restaurant-going as part of their social lives.

Drive-ins, coffee houses, and vegetarian restaurants were some of the types of eating places heavily shaped by student patrons in the middle and later decades of the last century. But a bit earlier, in the early 20th century, the eating places of choice for many college students were tea rooms that attracted women students. Not than men students didn’t also like tea rooms. An example was The Cactus Tea Room, built in 1917 with weird carvings of university types adorning its eaves, and serving both male and female students at the University of Texas in Austin.

Although tea rooms were more likely to be found near residential colleges, high school students also enjoyed them for after-school stops. In the 1920s students at Decatur High School in Decatur GA hung out at the Elite Tea Room, while Haverling High School students in Bath NY gravitated to the Chat-A-Wile Tea Room.

Rather than being stuffy and proper, many tea rooms that catered to students were relaxed and informal. They carried on college traditions such as midnight “spreads,” at which foods pilfered from the school’s dining halls were remade into chafing dish repasts. The feasts were occasions for casual attire, sprawling on the floor, and high spirits at the thought of evading detection while breaking college rules. [shown here is an Oberlin College dorm room spread, 1905]

Tea rooms also carried on the tradition of college dining clubs, which involved groups of friends joining together to hire a local woman to prepare their meals. The clubs adopted humorous names such as Vassar College’s Nine Nimble Nibblers, Grubbers, and Gobbling Goops of the late 19th century.

For example, a popular spot for students from Smith College was the Copper Kettle, which played a role much like the coffee shops of today. Students hung out there, read, chatted, and snacked on popcorn, ice cream, and tea. Its decor was cosy, shabby-chic style with mismatched furniture, wicker lounge chairs, posters, and window seats. Smith students were also enamored of the Rose Tree Inn, where full meals were served in a Bohemian atmosphere created by the intriguing Madame Anna de Naucaze.

Some colleges were almost surrounded by tea rooms. That was true in Western Massachusetts where both Smith College and Mount Holyoke College are located. Northampton, home of Smith College, was described in 1922 as having “more tea-houses than churches.” Not so far away, Mount Holyoke College was also well supplied with tea rooms, among them The Croysdale Inn, The Mary-Elin Tea Shop, and The Art Nook. I find it interesting that the Mary-Elin advertised in 1921 that it would stay open until 10 p.m., which was quite late for a tea room.

Parents did not always approve of their free-wheeling daughters’ behavior. In 1912, a mother wrote a critical article titled “One Disintegrant of Our Home Life,” about the typical college girl who socialized constantly, ignored rules of proper dress, and loved going to “the Green Coffee Pot or the Carnation Tea Urn.” “I tell my husband that college doesn’t breed home-building girls,” she wrote.

Among the most notable changes that tea rooms brought was simply that of providing a welcoming and friendly place for unescorted women to gather. This, of course, encouraged women and girls to spend more time eating away from home.

As for food, apart from popularizing eating cake and ice cream at any time of day or night, tea room food was a departure from typical lunch rooms and restaurants of the early 20th century that served fairly heavy meals based around meat. Although meat was certainly served in tea rooms, patrons also had many other choices. A 1920s menu from The Quinby Inn (shown above) — popular with students at Goucher College near Baltimore — offers Tenderloin Steak and Roast Pork, but also many other choices, with quite a few of them revealing the popularity of sweet food. Among them are 12 desserts, 22 salads, many of which involved mixed fruits and whipped cream, and 22 sandwiches, including Olive & Egg and Sliced Pineapple (no, not together!).

The list of specials clipped onto a 1920s menu from The Mary-Elin Tea Shop near Mount Holyoke College also shows its patrons’ fondness for sweets [thanks to Donna Albino for scans of the menu from her Mount Holyoke College collection].

A number of college women opened tea rooms of their own either as a summer project or after graduation. But that will be another post.

© Jan Whitaker, 2019

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