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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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Eating Chinese

lynn1937KingJoy

While paging through a 1922 Massachusetts business directory I was struck at first by how many Chinese restaurants there were in various towns. But when I went back to the directory to take a closer look I realized there weren’t really so many except, perhaps, in manufacturing towns such as Fall River and Lowell.

I wondered who patronized Chinese restaurants in Massachusetts in the early 20th century – and then I remembered recently buying a diary that mentioned a place called King Joy.

After I managed to identify the family whose doings were chronicled in the diary (not easy!), I discovered a surprising and intriguing little story.

The diary, mostly written in 1935, was about three generations of a family living on the North Shore of Massachusetts. It was kept by the grandmother of the family who I will call Gertrude, age 76. Her husband Arthur was a retired dentist a few years older. They headed a socially prominent family with two homes, one in the affluent community of Hamilton and the other in the nearby resort town of Nahant.

Living with Arthur and Gertrude were their daughter Opal, age 49, and her son Jamie, age 5. Opal’s brother Perry, a 40-year old engineer, and his wife Ellen, also lived in Hamilton.

hotelvendomeThe overwhelming focus of the diary is the health of family members, who seem to be under the weather for much of 1935. There are large stretches of blank pages where nothing is recorded, but restaurants are mentioned six times, all but one of them Chinese. The exception was the time that Gertrude, Opal, and Jamie went to Boston and stayed overnight in the Hotel Vendome, a Back Bay hotel for the gentry that dated to 1871. While grandmother and grandson retired early, Opal had a late-night supper in the hotel’s Nippon Room. Gertrude, a woman of few words who loved to abbreviate, hints in the diary that the purpose of the trip was for Jamie to visit his estranged father.

WsEatChinese

Twice that year Gertrude records that someone, usually Opal and Jamie, went to King Joy in nearby Lynn MA. Another time Opal went to Lynn to bring back chow mein for her father, Arthur, who had fallen down the stairs at home. Once the family went to the Far East Restaurant in Lynn and once they went to the Canton Restaurant in Worcester, riding in Perry’s car.

OWP1904Opal’s liking for what must have been a fairly exotic cuisine to a Massachusetts native in the 1930s might be explained by her world travel as a young woman. In 1904, at age 19 [pictured], she was adopted by a wealthy retired Boston lawyer with real estate holdings. Divorced and thirty years her senior, he was a renowned animal rights advocate, free thinker, and globe-trotter. (Amazingly enough, Opal’s parents reportedly approved of the arrangement.) Shortly after the adoption, Opal and her new father set off for a visit to the World’s Fair in St. Louis followed by a trip to Brazil and winter in Egypt. It was the first of many trips she would take with him.

Opal married around 1921, at age 36, giving birth to Jamie nine years later. Her adopted father gave her his house in the Boston area as a wedding present and some time later moved to Los Angeles.

PGP1934By the time Opal’s paternalistic benefactor died in 1934 at age 77 [pictured], he had crossed the Atlantic 145 times, visited Russia 16 times, Egypt 13 times, and the Arctic 13 times. In his will he left all his money to animal protection and free-thinking societies and just $1 to Opal. She contested the will, probably without success.

© Jan Whitaker, 2014

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For the record

SamWoRestaurantRecently I read an amusing story about “Edsel Ford Fong,” a legendary waiter at Sam Wo (aka Sam Woh), a former restaurant in San Francisco’s Chinatown, who yelled at guests, ordered them around, and often refused their requests. For this outrageous behavior he earned lasting fame and is still remembered fondly long after his premature death in 1984.

As is usually true of  legends there are a few errors. In this case they encourage a somewhat distorted view of Americans of Chinese descent.

His name was not Edsel Ford Fong. It was Edsel Fung. His army, marriage, and divorce records give his middle initial as Y. The insertion of “Ford” – reproducing the name of Henry Ford’s son — must have been either an irresistible bit of showmanship on his part or someone else’s joke. How Fung became Fong I’m not sure.

According to R. B. Read’s The San Francisco Underground Gourmet, published in 1969, Edsel was commonly known as Eddie in the 1960s, his name not yet ossified into Edsel Ford Fong. Read wrote that the restaurant’s dining room on the second floor “is the province of Eddie, the archetypal Chinese waiter, so famous for his rudeness that he cultivates it. For Eddie, every Caucasian diner is a challenge and he moves in, barking, before you’ve sat down. If you don’t order within two minutes, you get a relentless verbal prodding which reduces many customers to the jellied state Eddie prefers, where they allow him to order for them. He shouts all orders down a dumbwaiter in a voice of heroic size. If Eddie doesn’t like you (he doesn’t like anybody, at least until the fifth visit), you have to ask for tea while awaiting your food.”

As the photograph shown above reveals, the restaurant was quite small despite its three stories. It readily comes to mind that Eddie’s performance tended to speed up diner turnover in this tourist-attraction spot which often had guests waiting to be seated.

Although it’s true that Edsel was a waiter in a Chinese restaurant, he was not a “Chinese waiter” as he is often described. His parents were born in China but he and most of his siblings were born in California. He served in the U.S. Army in World War II.

Often the legends quote his quips and remarks in broken English. Given that he was an American I have no doubt he spoke English like the native he was, not like a 1930s Hollywood character. He was no Charlie Chan, but he may have used broken English as part of his act. He was an actor. In fact, he had a role in the 1981 Chuck Norris movie An Eye for an Eye. It’s quite possible he was one of the legion of Californians who wait tables while trying to make it as an actor.

He may not have gone far in Hollywood but he was a smash hit at Sam Wo’s.

© Jan Whitaker, 2014

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Fortune’s cookies

fortunecookiecolorThey’ve been used in political campaigns, as a method of publicizing new movies, and as a clever way to announce engagements, but most people have encountered fortune cookies in Chinese restaurants.

Searching for their origins in old Chinese customs is pointless because the fortune cookie was almost certainly “invented” in America, in California to be more specific. And probably by Japanese confectioners as a variety of senbei wafers.

Yet, even with their probable Japanese origins, there is nothing particularly Asian about them. The idea of embedding charms or slips of paper with fortunes on them in pastries and candies is an old idea in Western culture. The Victorians loved such things. Halloween was a popular time for fortune cakes and cookies and even fortune popcorn balls. A 1903 book suggested fortunes such as “You are going to marry and live abroad.” and “Thy flour barrel shall never be empty.”

fortunecookiesConfuciusRestOaklandCAPrecisely why they were adopted by Asian restaurants remains a mystery. Could it have been that restaurant proprietors knew finding fortunes was popular with their non-Asian customers? Or was it the need to supply some kind of dessert to Western customers with a sweet tooth? A 1939 menu from San Diego’s Chinese Village restaurant shows Mixed Candy and Oolong Tea as finales to $1.00 and 75-cent meals but tea and Fortune Cookies with a 50-cent dinner.

As to when fortune cookies made their debut, there is general agreement that it was in the early 20th century, before World War I. Certainly they are never mentioned in stories about Chinese restaurants in the 19th century. Many have claimed to be the cookie’s inventor, but Jennifer 8. Lee, author of The Fortune Cookie Chronicles, thinks it likely that around 1910-1914 Makoto Hagiwara introduced them as accompaniments to tea at the Japanese Tea Garden in Golden Gate Park in San Francisco where he was the concessionaire.

fortunecookieArchieThe cookies came into widespread restaurant use across the United States after WWII. For some inscrutable reason they also became frequent topics of gags in comic strips, newspaper gossip columns, and comedians’ routines. The fictive message “Help, I’m a prisoner in a Chinese cookie factory,” is one that falls flat with Asian-American cookie producers. But if you ask me most of the jokes are remarkably unfunny including the one from Archie comics.

Writing fortunes was a part-time job for somebody’s cousin or a freelance writer, Asian or not, who would come up with a fresh batch of several hundred at a time. Supposedly beginning with translations from much-abused Confucius, eventually anything – anything at all – provided inspiration. Occasionally they are offensive to patrons, as exemplified by the 1942 lulu, “Every woman like to be taken with a grain of assault.”

By the 1970s production of cookies was fully mechanized and they were turned out in huge batches by Japanese and Chinese makers who supplied restaurants all over the country. Today they are an unquestionable part of American restaurant history, one that has spread around the world.

© Jan Whitaker, 2012

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Anatomy of a restaurateur: Chin Foin

In the early 20th century Chin Foin was considered Chicago’s foremost Chinese restaurateur, being affiliated with four of the city’s leading Chinese restaurants: the King Yen [above] and King Joy restaurants and the Mandarin Inn and New Mandarin Inn. His exact degree of ownership and management of the four over time is difficult to determine but it’s clear that his participation was significant. He also ran an import business in Chicago called Wing Chong Hai & Co.

His first restaurant King Yen Lo began inauspiciously in 1902 upstairs from a saloon, the notorious establishment of alderman Michael “Hinky Dink” Kenna on the corner of Clark and Van Buren. Operating above or behind a saloon was not uncommon for Chinese restaurants and may reflect difficulties the Chinese encountered in renting property. Additionally, having a restaurant nearby or physically connected may have served the interests of saloon keepers who wanted to evade early closing laws by funneling drinks through an eating place.

Whatever the case, the King Yen restaurant was better than it had to be. Like the other restaurants Chin Foin would run, it appealed to the non-Chinese after-theater crowd and featured orchestral music and steaks and chops alongside chop suey and “Mandarin” dishes. The kitchen was open for inspection and a special section was reserved for women unaccompanied by men, important since women shoppers were known to be fond of Chinese food. It’s not clear how long he was actively involved with King Yen but he was still an owner in 1907 when a Chinese envoy attended a formal dinner held there for the christening of Chin Foin’s infant son Theodore.

The King Joy restaurant on W. Randolph [pictured, ca. 1910] was a much bigger venture. It was a component of an international Chinese organization meant to raise funds for political and economic modernization in China. Investors included Chinese living in China and America as well as non-Chinese Chicagoans who supplied $125,000 [more than $3M today] to build the thoroughly modern restaurant. It opened in December of 1906 with Chin Foin as manager.

The investors in China must have heard that running restaurants in America was very profitable because little more than a year after the restaurant’s opening they began to complain about not receiving any dividends. I don’t know how all that was sorted out but clearly Chin Foin’s personal wealth was growing, enabling his family to move to a posh neighborhood in 1912. The newspaper reported he was a wealthy Yale graduate, which brought a grudging acceptance from a non-Chinese woman who said she could hardly object to a Chinese neighbor since, she observed, “We have Negroes out here now, and a few Goths and Visigoths.”

The very Americanized Chin Foin had ambitions of running a type of restaurant that was scarcely Chinese at all. After opening the Mandarin Inn in 1911 and the New Mandarin Inn in 1919 [pictured], both on South Wabash, he announced he had taken a 25-year lease on a Wilson Avenue property formerly occupied by a car dealer. To be called the Mandarin Gardens, the restaurant was supposed to open in 1921 but never did as far as I can tell. Reflecting on the upward arc of his restaurant career, he said in 1920, “Now we’ve cut out the far east features and operate a strictly American restaurant, and that’s what the Mandarin Gardens will be.”

The New Mandarin Inn had also shed some of its Chinese-ness. Since its opening in 1911 it had broken with Chinese restaurant tradition by using linens on the tables and serving European wines. Although it served Chinese dishes, it also offered Sunday chicken dinners and, in 1921, served a high-priced Easter dinner with choices such as Blue Points on the Half Shell, New Orleans Gumbo, Lamb with Mint Jelly, Whipped Potatoes, and Strawberry Shortcake.

Sadly, Chin Foin’s plans were abruptly terminated in 1924 when he stepped into an empty elevator shaft at the New Mandarin Inn. The subsequent owner of that restaurant, Don Joy, added “Chinese” features such as dragons on the front and a simulated temple roof. Don Joy’s Mandarin Inn closed in 1928, later to become a nightclub (Club Royale) and, eventually in 1959, Jimmy Wong’s Cantonese restaurant. The building occupied by King Yen was razed in the teens for a new location of the John R. Thompson’s lunchroom chain, while King Joy became the Rialto Gardens (Chinese), and then one of Dario Toffenetti’s cafeterias.

© Jan Whitaker, 2011

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Between courses: a Thanksgiving toast

As I wrote last year – and as everyone knows — Thanksgiving is not a big day for most restaurants and they tend to be closed. This holds true especially for ethnic restaurants which don’t ordinarily serve anything resembling the traditional American-style turkey dinner.

For those who work in Chinese restaurants the day is a grand romantic holiday. Jennifer 8. Lee, author of The Fortune Cookie Chronicles: Adventures in the World of Chinese Food, explains why. Few Americans eat Chinese food on Thanksgiving and for this reason, writes Lee, “it’s the only day that the nation’s Chinese restaurant workers can consistently get off.” And this means they are able to plan weddings for this day. Lee continues, “Each year, tens of thousands of people, almost all Chinese restaurant workers or former workers, flood into Chinatown on Thanksgiving for hundreds of weddings. Banquet halls are booked more than a year in advance, instead of just a month or two, as is standard for the rest of the year. The marital marathon of multiple simultaneous seatings starts before noon and stretches well into the night.”

I highly recommend Lee’s book. She explores the history of restaurant staples of Chinese restaurants in America, past and present, such as chop suey, General Tso’s chicken, fortune cookies, and soy sauce — even take-home cartons. What I found of greatest interest, though, were her stories of Chinese Americans and newly arrived Chinese who operate restaurants, and who work long days cooking, serving, and delivering Chinese food.

This Thanksgiving I am going to toast the Chinese restaurant workers who are enjoying their wedding day or their anniversary, or just a rare day off.

© Jan Whitaker, 2010

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Restaurant-ing on Thanksgiving

As a meal Thanksgiving dinner is steeped in agrarian values and customs that do not thrive in restaurants, which are primarily urban inventions. It is also incongruous to celebrate what has become a domestic festival in a commercial setting. Neither gourmet restaurants nor fast food eateries present the homeyness considered conducive to celebrating the holiday.

Nor is restaurant cuisine quite right for Thanksgiving. Thanksgiving dinner represents the ne plus ultra of comfort food. According to consumer researchers Melanie Wallendorf and Eric Arnould (“‘We Gather Together’: Consumption Rituals of Thanksgiving Day,” Journal of Consumer Research, June 1991), the typical dishes served are like baby food in that they are “baked, boiled, and mashed” foods which are soft in texture and prepared without much seasoning. The emphasis is on the presentation and consumption of abundance, which for participants implies almost compulsory overeating. Few people are interested in culinary innovation which, for most, threatens the essentially infantile pleasures of the occasion.

Despite restaurants’ apparent inadequacy in meeting the challenge of this American national gustatory ritual, there is some evidence that Thanksgiving restaurant-going has increased over the course of the past century. The tendency, though, is to see this more as symptom than innovation. The sentiment expressed in 1892, that Thanksgiving dinner in a restaurant is a “rather melancholy thing” has not been eradicated.

One would think that the restaurants best positioned to capture the Thanksgiving trade would be those with Early American decor, or venerable restaurants that can reference tradition, such as Brooklyn’s Gage and Tollner, or those that stress home-based values, such as tea rooms. In the Los Angeles area, which seems to have had a fair amount of Thanksgiving restaurant trade in the 1920s, diners could choose from Ye Golden Lantern Tea Room or the Green Tea Pot of Pasadena, among others. Harder to understand, though, was the appeal of restaurants serving chop suey to the strains of Hawaiian music. About the same time Indianapolis was well supplied with dining out choices for the holiday, ranging from traditional Thanksgiving fare at the Friendly Inn to barbecue at Ye Log Cabin to a “Special Turkey Tostwich, 25c” at Ryker’s. The city’s Bamboo Inn offered two styles of Thanksgiving dinner, one with turkey and the usual trimmings and the other a Mandarin Dinner with Shrimp Egg Foo Young and Turkey Chop Suey.

Although the president of the Saga Corporation, a restaurant supplier, insisted in 1978 that eating out on Thanksgiving and Christmas had lost its stigma, events such as turkey dinners given by churches and soup kitchens for the poor and homeless, as well as explanations given by restaurant patrons in surveys, would indicate otherwise. They seem to suggest that dining in a restaurant on Thanksgiving is frequently a compensation for some sort of lack on the homefront rather than a positive attraction in its own right. Wallenberg and Arnould reported that only 1.8% of the people they surveyed said they would prefer to spend Thanksgiving in a restaurant than at home.

© Jan Whitaker, 2009

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