Tag Archives: convenience foods

Farm to table

farmtotableWashingtonMarket

We might imagine that in the past the food served in restaurants was grown or raised fairly close to where it was consumed, perhaps that it came from farm to table without delay. Undoubtedly this was true in much of the 19th century when sellers brought their produce as well as live animals to city markets. [NYC’s Washington Market above, ca. 1850s]

Also, some 19th-century restaurants obtained fresh foods directly from farmers and hunters. A Detroit proprietor solicited suppliers with an advertisement in 1861 that said, “Farmers, hunters and others with game of any kind will please call upon William Carson, Carson’s Dining Saloon.”

Yet people living in cities still longed for food grown and raised in front of their eyes. They loved vacationing at country resorts that grew their own food. In 1858, for example, a typical notice appeared in a Baltimore paper about The Seven Fountains in the Blue Ridge Mountains where “The Table is abundantly supplied with Vegetables, Butter and Milk fresh from our own Farm and Dairy.”

Dairy products were perhaps the least satisfactory foods for city dwellers who did not keep their own cows, mainly because of the threat of sick cows kept penned up in cities and fed with swill. Milk that arrived from afar also presented dangers since there was always a good chance it might not be fresh.

Dissatisfaction with the milk supply opened up opportunities for dairies near cities. In the 1870s some began to operate urban “dairy lunch” rooms which became quite popular in the following decades. Washington, D.C., was full of them. One near the Treasury building adopted a decorating scheme with hanging baskets of plants, cages of canaries, and papier mâché cow heads. In Boston, the new Oak Grove Farm café seemed almost too good to be true. A reporter admitted he thought at first it was “a con.” But the café was indeed supplied by an 800-acre farm with 150 cows, as well as hothouses where lettuce and tomatoes were grown.

farmtotableChildsBaltimore

Childs, the first sizable chain of restaurants in the US, built its reputation on its dairy farms in New Jersey. Started by six farm-raised brothers in 1889, three ran the lunch rooms while the other three managed the chain’s dairies and truck farms.

In the late 19th-century some Americans balked at the modern food system altogether. Food traveled great distances by rail, much of it ending up parked for indefinite periods in cold storage warehouses. In them it suffered from fluctuating temperatures that damaged taste and texture, as well as sometimes causing the growth of bacteria. A prominent NYC physician declared that when he ordered game in a restaurant, “I make the waiter interview the chef to make sure that no cold storage game will be sent to fill my order.”

As the century turned, people were paying more attention to where their food came from. Due to the growth of the meat packing industry, factory production of butter and cheese, improved transportation, and cold storage facilities, traditional farm industries had largely disappeared. Despite seemingly positive pronouncements such as, “It is to the modern methods for the preservation of foodstuffs that we owe in great measure the lengthy bills of fare provided by our hotels and restaurants,” many people felt food had lost something. Some had come to fear it.

The Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906 addressed impurities in food, but critics wanted more. A few years later efforts were mobilized to subject cold storage warehouses to periodic inspections, to label all food with the date it arrived, and to set limits on how long food could be stored. Foreshadowing the “Truth in Menu” laws of the 1970s, which wanted to bar restaurants from claiming that frozen food was fresh, some laws demanded that restaurants inform patrons if food had come from cold storage.

farmtotableAug1911DenverIn this context restaurants supplied by their own farms proudly proclaimed that fact. A restaurant operator in Harrisburg PA who used home-grown food hit upon a novel slogan: “Farm to face.” In Denver a café advertised that its farm food cost no more than food that had been stored. In NYC the Craftsman restaurant promised that patrons would enjoy “all the wholesome products people crave in a city” delivered daily from their farm.

During World War I, eating places linked to farms served all social classes — from the quick lunch in Flint MI that promised lower prices by “cutting out the middle man” to fashionably smart tea rooms such as “At the Sign of the Golden Bull” in Boston. Its tea room, grill room, and affiliated Deerfoot Farm store were designed by Tiffany Studios, and outfitted with Grueby tiles, Flemish oak tables, and leather benches.

FarmtoTableKolb'sSept111921Starting around 1915 and lasting into the early 1920s, a US Post Office-backed “Farm to Table” movement encouraged consumers to have farmers ship them fresh food via parcel post. Its goals were to lower food costs while aiding farmers. In November of 1919, the B. F. Goodrich company supported a Farm to Table week in which consumers were to drive to rural areas to buy provisions from farmers. At least one restaurant which ran a farm, Kolb’s in New Orleans, adopted the slogan. In the late 1920s the Miami FL chamber of commerce encouraged restaurants to buy local, arguing that it was not only healthy to serve more fruits and vegetables but good for farmers and the Dade County economy.

Although there continued to be some restaurants that grew their own food throughout the US, the movement petered out in the Depression. A 1932 correspondence course for those interested in opening a rural inn warned that growing one’s own food or buying it in the country did not pay. Instead, it advised, it was best to buy groceries, meats, and dairy products from city wholesale dealers. Greater status was attached to having foods available year round. According to Susanne Freidberg’s book Fresh: A Perishable History, in the 1930s the Schrafft’s chain listed how many miles the food they used traveled. Freidberg writes that “the makings of a vegetable salad together racked up 22,250 miles,” demonstrating “technology’s conquest of borders, distance, and seasons.”

After the Second World War, industrial food production grew rapidly as did the restaurant industry which turned increasingly to convenience food products made specifically for commercial and institutional meal service. By the 1960s frozen foods included pre-prepared heat-and-serve entrees.

farmtotablefarmhouserestaurantBanningCA

In the 1970s convenience foods became controversial as their use spread. The decade saw the advance of farm-themed restaurants using convenience foods, on the one hand, and, on the other, a growing number of restaurants and consumers rejecting factory food. In 1973 architecture critic Ada Louise Huxtable expressed displeasure with “the unfulfilled promise [of] the American way of life,” one symptom of which was “the oversize restaurant menu suggesting farm-fresh succulence and delivering precooked food .” Meanwhile, even as farm-theme restaurants hung farm implements on their walls of recycled barn siding, Alice Waters at Chez Panisse and other California restaurateurs were buying produce from local farmers, leading a movement that would burgeon in the 1980s and continue into the 21st  century.

© Jan Whitaker, 2016

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Why the parsley garnish?

parsleyNchicken

Nothing decorated more restaurant plates in the 20th century than parsley, most of it by all accounts uneaten.

Why use so much of what nobody wanted? The best answer I can come up with is that parsley sprigs were there to fill empty spaces on the plate and to add color to dull looking food.

Parsley was not the only garnish around, but it has probably been the most heavily used over time. It has shared the role of plate greenery with lettuce, especially after WWII when lettuce become readily available, and to a lesser extent with watercress.

Parsley has long been a favorite in butcher shops where it is tucked around steaks and roasts. As early as 1886 restaurants were advised to emulate butchers and decorate food in their show windows with “a big, red porterhouse steak, with an edge of snow-white fat, laid in the center of a wreath of green parsley.” By the early 20th century, almost the entire U.S. parsley crop, more than half of which was grown in Louisiana and New York, went to restaurants and butchers. By 1915 parsley sprigs were a ubiquitous restaurant garnish that many regarded as a nuisance. Diners sometimes suspected that the parsley on their plate had been recycled from a previous customer.

While European chefs use garnishes as edible complements to the main dish, Americans have focused primarily on their visual properties.

parsleyGuidetoConvenienceFoodscvrAround 1970 when convenience foods invaded restaurant kitchens, garnishes took on heightened significance in jazzing up lackluster, monochromatic frozen entrees. In the words of Convenience and Fast Food Handbook (1973),“The emergence of pre-prepared frozen entrees on a broad scale has revived the importance of garnishing and in addition, has led to innovative methods of food handling, preparation and plating. If an organization is to achieve sustained success in this field, emphasis must be placed on garnishing and plating. These are the two essentials that provide the customer with excitement and satisfaction.” [partial book cover shown above, 1969]

Excitement?

parsleyNOThe head of the Southern California Restaurant Association admitted in 1978 that he hated to see all the food used as garnishes go to waste in his restaurant, including “tons” of lettuce. But this was necessary for merchandising, he said: “We have to make food attractive. It’s part of the cost of putting an item on the table.” It was – and is – probably true that an ungarnished plate such as shown here looked unattractive to most Americans.

parsleyNfiletmignon

So many garnishes decorated food in American restaurants in the 1970s that food maestro James Beard got very grumpy about it, calling it stupid and gauche. He could allow watercress with lamb chops or raw onion rings on a salad, but put a strawberry in the center of his grapefruit half and he was outraged. Next to orange slices and twists, his most detested “tricky” garnishes were tomato roses and flowers. Funny that he didn’t mention radish roses such as the one shown above.

© Jan Whitaker, 2008, revised 2015

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Taste of a decade: 1970s restaurants

1979restaurantIn the 1970s the restaurant industry and the custom of eating in restaurants grew rapidly. The decade was the gateway to the present in many ways. Despite economic woes (recession and inflation), the energy crisis, urban decline, crime, and escalating restaurant prices, restaurant-going continued to rise.

The president of the National Restaurant Association proclaimed “Dining out is a significant part of the lifestyle of this great country,” noting in 1976 that one out of three meals was being consumed outside the home.

Restaurant patronage was encouraged by all kinds of things, including relaxed liquor laws in formerly dry states and counties, which brought more restaurants into the suburbs, the spread of credit cards, more working wives and mothers, youth culture, and a me-generation quest for diversion.

New York exemplified the problems faced by restaurants in troubled inner cities. Fear of crime kept people from going out to dinner. Restaurants closed, few new ones opened, and cash-strapped survivors began to trade vouchers for heavily discounted meals for advertising. But as New York struggled, California experienced a culinary renaissance as did other parts of the country. Still, much of the U.S. wanted only steak and potatoes, and hamburger was the most often ordered menu item nationwide.

A number of restaurant formats and concepts faced senescence, but new ones came on the scene at a rapid pace. Going, going, or gone were automats, coffee shops, continental cuisine, diners, drive-ins, formal dining, Jewish dairy restaurants, and Polynesian restaurants, not to mention the rule of elite French cuisine.

Fast-food chains continued to grow, with the number of companies increasing by about two-thirds. Growth was especially strong in the Midwest which was targeted as a region susceptible to their appeal. Toledo was bestowed with Hardee’s, Perkins Pancakes, a Mexican chain, and, in 1972, the arrival of two Bob Evans eateries. Another Ohio city, Columbus, was christened a test market for new fast-fooderies while Junction City KS, bordering Fort Riley, looked like a franchiser’s fast food heaven. By contrast, greater Boston had only one Burger King and one McDonald’s in 1970.

HamburgerFactoryAlong with the chains and a shortage of (cheap) kitchen help, came an upsurge in restaurants’ use of convenience foods and microwaves. In response, municipalities across the country enacted ordinances to protect consumers against false claims on menus, many of them centering on misuse of the words “fresh” and “home-made.”

Yet as the country was swamped with fast food, it experienced the flowering of restaurants specializing in ethnic, artisanal, and natural foods. Hippie and feminist restaurants stressed honest, peasant-style meals. Burgeoning interest in nutrition made salad bars popular. Bean sprouts, zucchini, and more fish showed up on menus. Diners learned that Chinese food was not limited to Cantonese, but might also be Mandarin, Szechuan, or Hunan. Once languishing behind luxurious decor, impeccable service, and famous patrons, food took center stage in deluxe restaurants as they purged Beef Wellington from their repertoire and took up the call for culinary creativity and authenticity.

Though not unknown in earlier decades, the restaurant-as-entertainment-venue came into full flourish with the proliferation of theme restaurants with unbearably cute names such as Orville Bean’s Flying Machine & Fixit Shop. To supplement a shrinking supply of old stained glass windows, telephone booths, and barber chairs, restaurant fixture companies began to manufacture reproduction antiques.

However crazy and mixed up the foodscape, America had become the land of restaurants for every taste and pocketbook.

Highlights

ChezPanissecookbook1971 – In Berkeley CA Alice Waters and friends found Chez Panisse, marking the movement of college and graduate students into the restaurant field, a career choice which is beginning to have cachet.

1972 – NYC’s Le Pavillon, considered the finest French restaurant in the U.S., closes. In Kansas City MO the first Houlihan’s Old Place, adorned with nostalgia-inducing decorative touches, opens, as does Mollie Katzen’s natural-food Moosewood Restaurant in Ithaca NY.

1972 –Dry since 1855, Evanston IL, home of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, grants liquor licenses to two hotels and six restaurants. Their business doubles in a few months.

1973 – Los Angeles County becomes the first jurisdiction in the country to enact a “truth in menu” ordinance. During the pilot program, the scenic Sea Lion Restaurant in Malibu is caught selling the same fish under five different names with five different prices.

1974 – A Chicago food writer throws cold water on arguments about which restaurant has the best lasagne, asserting that the debaters “might have found that same lasagne in restaurants all over the country” courtesy of Invisible Chef, Armour, or Campbell’s.

1974 – Restaurateur Vincent Sardi spearheads a campaign to get New Yorkers to eat out, claiming that the city’s major restaurants have lost up to 20% of their business in the past two years, thus precipitating the closure of 20 leading restaurants.

1976 – The CEO of restaurant supplier Rykoff says whereas his company once supplied whole tomatoes it now provides diced tomatoes “because the operator just can’t afford to pay someone to cut them up.”

RjGrunts1970s1976 – Richard Melman’s Chicago restaurant company, Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises, operator of RJ Grunts, Great Gritzbe’s Flying Food Show, and Jonathan Livingston Seafood, opens Lawrence of Oregano and prepares to take over the flamboyant Pump Room.

1977 –Industry journal Restaurant Business publishes survey results showing that, on average, husband & wife pairs eat out twice a month, spend $14.75 plus tip, prefer casual restaurants, and tend to order before-dinner cocktails and dishes they don’t get at home. Measured by sales, Lincoln NE is one of the country’s leading cities for eating out.

1977 – Once characterized by blandness, San Diego now has restaurants specializing in cuisines from around the globe, an improvement one observer attributes in part to the new aerospace industry there.

1978 – A reviewer in Columbia MO complains, “A brick floor and pillars, old photos, Tiffany lamps, stained-glass windows and trim on the tops of the booths as well as revolving single-bladed, old-fashioned fans [is] a familiar type of decoration these days and I’m getting a little weary of the sameness of so many restaurants.”

1979 – As the year ends restaurant reviewer Phyllis Richman observes that more people are eating out than ever before, transforming once-lackluster Washington D.C. into “what is known as a Restaurant Town.”

Read about other decades: 1800 to 1810; 1810 to 1820; 1820 to 1830; 1860 to 1870; 1890 to 1900; 1900 to 1910; 1920 to 1930; 1930 to 1940; 1940 to 1950; 1950 to 1960; 1960 to 1970

© Jan Whitaker, 2013

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Celebrity restaurateurs: Pat Boone

PatBooneDine-O-Mat

Few celebrities become deeply involved in the restaurants that bear their names. That was true of the singer Pat Boone, who was known to visit his namesake restaurants occasionally and to sing and sign autographs at openings. How much good his – or any celebrity’s – connection does for a restaurant is debatable. Neither Pat Boone’s success as a performer nor his pro-family, clean-cut, Christian image saved the ventures he lent his name and money to.

Pat Boone’s Dine-O-Mat appears to have barely gotten off the ground despite what publicity referred to as its “space age” design. “This . . . new type of fully automatic roadside restaurant is destined to be an important landmark on highways all over America,” boasted a 1963 advertisement aimed at investors. The initial plan was to build 100 of the restaurants by summer of 1964, but few seem to have been constructed.

PatBooneCountryInn1959An earlier disappointing experiment in restauranting, Pat Boone’s Country Inn, in Denton TX, closed a mere four years after opening in 1958, even though Boone was connected to the town because of attending North Texas State College there.

While the Country Inn was a conventional restaurant, Dine-O-Mats were designed to be “revolutionary.” Perhaps the New Jersey entrepreneurs who cooked up the Dine-O-Mat concept were inspired by Stouffer’s 1961 foray into selling frozen food from vending machines to Ohio turnpike motorists who reheated it in microwave ovens.

Little could Pat Boone and company know when they launched Dine-O-Mats in 1962 that Stouffer’s would announce less than a year later their intention to phase out the roadside restaurants after realizing that travelers only wanted “speed and price.”

Both Stouffer’s highway restaurants and Dine-O-Mats might be called automats. But unlike Horn & Hardart automats, coins put in a slot did not call forth ready-to-eat selections. Dine-O-Mats had only one employee on the premises, an attendant whose job was to keep the machines loaded with frozen food. Rather comically, the postcard above shows customers (and Pat) dressed in their Sunday best, yet they are “dining” in a dismal geodesic-domed hut surrounded by vending machines and two microwaves sunk into an imitation hearth.

Similar to Stouffer’s restaurants, Dine-O-Mats were to be located near “motels, service stations, shopping centers, bowling alleys, country clubs, amusement parks, factories, air and bus terminals and along major highways,” according to a 1962 prospectus. How many were ever built, other than the prototype on Route 46 in Little Ferry NJ, is unclear. There may have been a few additional ones in New Jersey and Georgia.

Since kitchenless Dine-O-Mats relied on cooked food supplied by an offsite commissary, the scheme made sense only if deliveries could reach multiple outlets easily. In 1964 construction was to begin on a unit in Augusta, Georgia, but the project was delayed because of company “reorganization.” It was to be part of a group of Dine-O-Mats in Albany, Macon, and Savannah, but whether any of the Georgia restaurants opened I cannot determine.

PatBooneDunkinDonutsNPlainfieldNJIn 1965, when the Augusta construction was slated to begin, a newspaper report announced, “The Pat Boone Restaurant Corp. has revised all plans and has just now completed reorganization with new, modernized plans for its restaurants.” Though it’s hard to imagine what could be more modern than “space age,” it’s possible the geodesic dome had been scrapped and that the North Plainfield NJ Dunkin Donuts pictured here was once a Dine-O-Mat as some people believe.

The company’s confusing advertisements for prospective investors required differing minimum investment amounts ranging from $2,500 to $10,000 for a “limited (inactive) partnership” in April of 1963, to $15,000 to become an “area controller” in October, then asking $10,000 for an “investment opportunity” in March of 1965. Did anyone ever get the 10% to 13% returns that were estimated?

© Jan Whitaker, 2013

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Basic fare: bread

BreadbasketBread has always been basic to restaurants ranging from the lowliest hash house to the most elegant French dining room. This was made evident in 1912, for instance, when Los Angeles drafted a city ordinance permitting no liquor to be served without meals. The ordinance defined a meal as “not costing less than 15 cents, to consist of bread, or equivalent, together with meat, fish, cheese or beans in sufficient quantity to go beyond the question of subterfuge for a meal.”

From the early decades of the 19th century, bread not only accompanied almost every meal, in many cases it was the meal. The most fundamental early eating house meal was bread and coffee or bread and hot milk. When ordering the typical cheap meal of a thin slice of meat accompanied by some potatoes, customers were consoled by the fact that their meal would be filled out with two slices of bread.

In addition to brown bread, i.e., whole wheat bread, restaurant customers could hope for other varieties to pair with their coffee. Waffles and pancakes tended to be classified as breads in those days. In San Francisco in 1858, the Empire State Dining Saloon also served “Mississippi Hot Corn Bread, Hot English Muffins, Hot American Waffles, Hot Hungarian Rolls, Boston Cream Toast, German Bread, and New York Batter Cakes.” After Vienna-style yeast bread was introduced at the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia, restaurants associated with bakeries scrambled to hire bakers who could produce this newest sensation.

In order to get their free bread, diners had to order something costing at least 10 cents, as recounted in the comical tale of the hapless diner who asked for bread with a too-small order. The amount of bread given with an order was limited. An 1849 bill of fare from Sweeny’s House of Refreshment in New York City shows 3 cents was the going rate for extra bread.

breadRollonplateBread – and butter – were often poor or deliberately adulterated in the 19th and early 20th centuries, so many eating places advertised that they observed quality standards. In the 1880s, cooking teacher Jessup Whitehead almost went apoplectic about the poor quality of baking-powder biscuits often found in low-priced restaurants. He wrote:

Such biscuits are yellow, dirty on the bottom, greasy to the touch; they have rough sides, no edges, for they rise tall and narrowing towards the top; they are wrinkled and freckled and ugly; they will not part into white and eatable flakes or slices, but tumble in brittle crumbs from the fingers, and eat like smoked sawdust.

BreadGingerbreadTeaRoomEven today it is commonplace to form a quick judgment about a restaurant by the quality of its bread. Historically patrons probably fared best if they went to a bakery restaurant that made its own baked goods. Or to a tea room in the early 20th century, many of which made a specialty of raisin, nut, or gingerbread, preferably served hot from the oven. In tea rooms, however, patrons often paid dearly for bread and rolls, usually on an a la carte basis.

By the turn of the century many habitual restaurant-goers had a habit of eating all the bread as soon as it was placed on the table. Etiquette minders disliked this behavior and owners preferred to serve bread only after other dishes were served. Waiters, on the other hand, liked the bread and butter set up because it enabled them to serve more guests who, with something to nibble on, were less impatient for their orders.

Not all eating places did their own baking even in the 19th century, and the number that did was drastically reduced by the mid-20th. As few as 6% of all restaurants did their own baking by 1952. However, the advent of frozen bread made “Doing our own baking” a common advertising claim in the 1960s. That decade also saw a spread in the novelty of individual loaves of bread served on a carving board, made possible by in part by frozen doughs, loaves, and rolls.

BreadADVPortlandOR1976As popular as the “cute” little loaves were for a time, discriminating patrons rejected them as mushy and tasteless. The counterculture preferred heavier whole grain breads, which soon made their way into restaurants such as Sausalito’s Trident. On a ca. 1968 menu, the rather high price charged for a basket of rolls was justified as follows: “Our rolls are hand baked for us daily using only the purest ingredients: finest organic grains, fertile eggs, organically grown onions & raisins, raw butter, oils & honey.”

© Jan Whitaker, 2013

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Basic fare: French fries

I suspect that in the 19th century more Americans ate French fried potatoes at home than in restaurants. Boiled, baked, and mashed potatoes were more common on restaurant menus than fried potatoes of any sort.

However there were probably a few restaurants that served French fries. Maria Parloa, whose New Cook Book of 1880 included a recipe for preparing French fried potatoes in a frying basket lowered into boiling fat, traveled around giving cooking lessons, and I know of at least one restaurant manager who attended them. The course of lessons she delivered in Trenton NJ in 1884 included how to make French fries, perhaps extending to the sweet potato fries that appeared in her cookbook. I have discovered at least one 19th-century restaurant menu with French fries, in Grand Forks, North Dakota, in 1894.

The reason why few restaurants served fries then was not that they weren’t popular but that they used too much cooking fat. According to Jessup Whitehead, a culinary advisor to restaurant cooks in the 1880s and 1890s, raw potatoes cooked in hot lard were the most expensive potato dish for an eating place to prepare, while baked potatoes were the most economical.

Perhaps things were starting to change in the 20th century. I’ve found a 1902 advertisement for a potato slicer for hotels and restaurants that cut “perfect French fries.” In 1911 another company produced a heavy duty model (pictured). Around this time there was a movement afoot among restaurants to charge separately for French fries rather than provide them “free” with meat or fish orders. This change could have made it possible to make a profit despite the high cost of cooking oil.

In France at this time – and probably much earlier – street vendors outfitted pushcarts with coke-fired kettles and prepared fries (“pomme frites”) on the spot for customers who ate them from  paper cones. Many American soldiers in France during World War I developed the French fry habit, probably increasing demand for them in this country upon their return. In the 1920s and 1930s they began to appear on more and more menus. During World War II potatoes were scarce but after the war returning GIs, sick of mashed potatoes because of the dehydrated ones they had eaten in mess halls, hungered for French fries. Through much of the 20th century restaurant operators believed that men loved fries more than women did.

French fries were prominent on menus of postwar drive-ins. By then they were available frozen or formed from moistened dried potatoes forced through an extruder (little did the vets know they were eating dehydrated potatoes in a new guise). By 1968 the restaurant industry considered it “archaic” to make French fries from fresh raw potatoes. It was so much easier to shake frozen fries out of a bag straight into the fryer, no muss, no waste. According to Jakle & Sculle in their book Fast Food, the consumption of frozen potatoes went from 6.6 pounds a year per person in 1960 to 36.8 pounds in 1976. In this same period French fries made the short hop from drive-ins to their successors, hamburger chains such as McDonald’s.

Perhaps because of their mid-century popularity as side dish to sandwiches, French fries were shoved aside in the white tablecloth restaurants of the 1960s and 1970s by the old-fashioned baked potato which returned to favor as the prestigious accompaniment to steak and prime rib, especially when served with sour cream and fresh, er, frozen, chives.

© Jan Whitaker, 2010

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Fast food: one-arm joints

The wooden one-arm chair was a characteristic feature of the “quick lunch” type of eating place which became the popular choice for businessmen around the turn of the last century. The chairs were unattractive and uncomfortable as the cartoon below depicts. But considering that prior to their introduction patrons seeking a speedy lunch often ate while standing at a counter, they offered relative luxury. Solitary seating made sense in a café where businesspeople usually came in alone and spent little more than 10 or 15 minutes at their meal before rushing back to the office or store. (Later, in fact, more attractive one-arm chairs were used in Lord & Taylor Bird Cage restaurants.)

As is true of the fast food restaurants of today, one function of uncomfortable seats in the quick lunch eatery was to discourage lingering. These restaurants were usually shoe-horned into tight quarters in high-traffic, high-rent business centers, so it was paramount that each chair turned customers rapidly. The one-arm chair was patented by a Vermonter named James Whitcomb who designed fixtures for the Baltimore Dairy Lunch and also manufactured portable typewriters.

The core cuisine of the one-arms, and quick lunches in general, consisted of coffee and pie, supplemented by sandwiches and doughnuts. Some of the big one-arm concerns were the Chicago-based companies of John R. Thompson and Charles Weeghman, and the Baltimore Lunch and the Waldorf System, both of which originated in Springfield MA. The companies eventually broadened their menus to include hot dishes, supplying their locations in each city from central commissaries. Though the chains kept prices low, Waldorf prided itself on grating lemons for lemon pies and avoiding manufactured pie fillings, powered milk, dried eggs and other cost-cutting ingredients developed for the military in World War I and widely used by chains in the 1920s.

Under the intense competition of the late 1920s and the depression, the Lunches replaced their one-arm chairs with tables and chairs and abandoned their utilitarian decor in favor of more colorful interiors in hopes of attracting more women.

© Jan Whitaker, 2008

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