Tag Archives: convenience foods

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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Taste of a decade: 1960s restaurants

Americans grew wealthier, traveled more, and demanded more exotic cuisine. Yet there were few trained restaurant cooks. Convenience food – in the guise of continental dishes (as in pineapple = Hawaiian) – offered the solution for many restaurants as the decade wore on. In other developments, old restaurant formats such as automats, diners, cafeterias, and drive-ins disappeared or shrank drastically in numbers. Fast food and dinner house chains, relatively scarce at the beginning of the decade, flourished by its end. Black Americans began to make headway in gaining civil rights in restaurants. By the middle of the decade signs of the counterculture could be seen here and there.

Highlights

1960 New Armour & Co. boiling bags filled with beef burgundy, lobster Newburg, and coq au vin mean that “Every drive-in can now be a Twenty-One Club, every restaurant a Maxim’s de Paris,” according to a trade mag. – In Columbus Ohio the opening of the Kahiki adds to the Polynesian restaurant boom, while in NYC La Fonda del Sol opens, offering exotica such as Empanadas, Grilled Peruvian Tidbits on Skewers, and Papaya Filled with Fresh Fruits.

1961 In Sherman Oaks the Wild Goose adds four dishes to its menu: Boned Pheasant Chicken Kahlua, Veal Cutlet Oskar, Fresh Gulf Shrimp Stroganoff, and Breast of Chicken Kiev. – Four-star Lutèce opens in New York, one year after La Caravelle.

1962 A café in Sioux Falls announces “microwave cooking,” while in New York’s Time Square a restaurant opens featuring frozen entrees which the customer is to pop into a tabletop microwave. – A new product for restaurants comes on the market: instant mouthwash in a sealed paper cup to be presented to customers after they eat heavily spiced dishes.

1964 Continental and Polynesian restaurants find they must add steak to their offerings. – Kelly’s steak house in Sherman Oaks announces it sold approximately 400,000 pounds of steak in the past year.

1965 Maxwell’s Plum opens in NYC with an eclectic menu that ranges from Pâté and Escargots Bourguignonne to a Foot-long Hot Dog with Chili. Rumors spread of a naked woman seen walking casually through the dining room. — Extra-thick Frymaster Jet Griddles are marketed to keep cooking temperatures stable even when “completely loaded with frozen food.” – Aggressively cheerful California-style coffee shops, which combine the features of drive-ins, coffee shops, dinner houses, and cocktail bars, spread across the country.

1966 After touring the US, a wine expert says that he believes 99% of licensed restaurants have no interest in promoting wine. He reports that not once did a server ask if he’d like wine with his dinner. Instead they asked if he wanted a cocktail, followed by “Coffee now or later?” – Alice Brock opens The Back Room in Stockbridge MA which will be made famous by Arlo Guthrie as “Alice’s Restaurant.”

1967 Students at the University of Washington, Seattle, boycott Aggie’s Restaurant because they believe it discriminates against students, especially if they are dressed in “funny clothes,” following an incident involving a long-haired “fringie.” – The adoption of frozen convenience foods increases in restaurants after passage of the Minimum Wage Act which raises kitchen workers’ pay.

1968 Countering the fast food trend, the menu at the Trident in Sausalito advises its patrons to be patient: “Welcome to Our Space. Positive energy projection is the trip. … Care in the preparation of food requires time especially if we’re busy! So please take a deep breath, relax and dig on the love & artistry about you. May all our offerings please you. Peace within you.” – In Fayetteville, Arkansas, a diner declares he is tired of an “unrelieved diet of chili dogs and waffle fries” and bemoans the lack of any “quality dining establishments.”

1969 The Scarlet Monk in Oakland advertises a “Topless Luncheon” Monday through Friday. – In Chicago, menu language has become more sophisticated, according to linguistic researchers. They report: “Du jour is an accepted form on menus and appears more often than of the day. Anything – pie, potatoes, sherbet, cake, pudding – can be du jour (or de jour, du jor, dujour, and du-jour), and the Florentine Room even has … potato del giorno.”

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; 1970 to 1980

© Jan Whitaker, 2008

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