Meat and potatoes were so characteristic of eating places in the 19th century we could call it the Meat and Potatoes Century. But of course that title could apply to most of the 20th century as well.
In 1829, the Plate House, a cheap New York City eating hall, offered steaks with potatoes by the dish and half dish, 4 cents for the latter.
Chop houses of the 19th century were also based on meat and potatoes. They could be considered forerunners of today’s steakhouses, with their dark interiors, male patrons, and baked potatoes as accompaniments to meat. One difference, though, was that in the 1800s patrons were as likely to order mutton as beef.
The chop house was regarded as an antiquated type of eating place in 1873 when a journalist wrote that Farrish’s and others were “sought out by Britishers who like places off the beaten track and humble, dark and without glitter.” Old fashioned or not, it was still loved for its “mealy” baked potatoes, probably even in the 1930s when this postcard was produced.
Little surprise that “meat and potatoes” became a metaphor for no-frills reliability. To call someone a meat-and-potatoes “man” – always a man — was more than a commentary on his diet; it also meant he was a regular guy. Similarly for a meat-and-potatoes town. As Chicago columnist Bob Greene would put it in 1983, as the world capital of meat and potatoes, his hometown was “tough, brawling, no-nonsense, rugged.”
The metaphor – that came into use after World War II — could extend to almost anything. Business success relied upon sure-thing “meat and potatoes” products and services. For Gloucester MA, odd as it sounds, the town’s meat-and-potatoes industry was ground fish. For a symphony orchestra their meat and potatoes might be a popular Beethoven sonata.
Nineteenth-century restaurants featured potatoes either mashed, boiled, baked, stewed, fried, Lyonnaise, scalloped, mousseline, or au gratin. In the 20th century the choices tended to narrow down to mashed, baked, and French fried. Meat meant mostly beef in the 19th, but extended to chicken in the 20th.
In 1885 it was standard for potatoes to come free with a meat order. As noted then, “An unordered boiled potato, with the skin on, is the second grand characteristic of an American dining saloon. It matters not what meal it is, the boiled potato will always appear, if the establishment is truly legitimate.”
But this “legitimate” entitlement was about to end. Where would fast food restaurants be today if they didn’t charge extra for French fries? As far back as the early 20th century, restaurant operators realized there was additional profit to be made by charging separately for potatoes.
In the 1950s and 1960s, fast food burger chains, hotel rib rooms, and chain and independent steakhouses began to proliferate. Steakhouses proved popular with lunching business men while families chose economy cuts at Bonanza or Ponderosa. “Advances” took place, such as foil wrappings that allowed the potatoes to remain under infra-red lamps longer without drying out. By the early 1960s sour cream and chives were considered essential additions to baked potatoes. By that time, the favorite All-American meal was shrimp cocktail, followed by steak, baked potato with sour cream, an iceberg lettuce salad thickly coated with Thousand Island dressing, and cheesecake for dessert.
In 1971 a Gallup survey measuring the popularity of “international cuisine” confirmed the timidity of most American palates. The strangest aspect of the survey were the dishes Gallup offered up as international. Among them were Beef Stroganoff (ranked highest), Swedish Meat Balls, Lasagne, Veal Parmigiana, Chili Con Carne, and Hungarian Goulash. A full 10% of respondents found nothing among the 22 selections that they liked.
Nevertheless . . . around the late 1970s the whole meat-and-potatoes dining complex began to be questioned. Increasingly it ran against new notions of health and fitness. The cholesterol, the heaviness! Also, it was such a limited diet. Did its fans have no interest in other cuisines? Meat-and-potato towns – Chicago, Cleveland, Kansas City, St. Louis, Denver, Fort Worth – were shamed and ridiculed even though, occasionally, someone admitted there were plenty of steakhouses on the coasts too — New York, San Francisco, even New Orleans.
In the next phase, not surprisingly, many meat-and-potatoes towns struggled to refurbish their reputations by boasting of restaurants of all kinds. Omaha touted its seafood, Japanese, Korean, and French restaurants. Minneapolis was still conservative, wrote Jeremy Iggers and Karin Winegar in John Mariani’s 1986 Coast to Coast Dining Guide, yet they identified seventeen Vietnamese restaurants, three Thai, two Ethiopian and many other nationalities represented as well, along with examples of “yuppies” taking fresh approaches to American cuisine.
Plus, pizza had actually become the new meat and potatoes.
How are steakhouses doing today? Although there are still many around and some Americans nurture a wish to return to the 1950s, I’m guessing that it’s unlikely the golden years of the steakhouse will return. Burgers and fries, too, may have seen their better days.
© Jan Whitaker, 2018