Tag Archives: dairy lunches

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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Between courses: masticating with Horace

fletcherismlargeteethCaption

Having made a lot of money in the importing business early in life, Horace P. Fletcher [1849-1919] retired and became a popular health guru known as the “Great Masticator.” He let people know how they could eat less and reduce their food budget, have better digestion, and get more enjoyment out of eating. His ideas attracted quite a bit of attention in the early 20th century.

Not that everyone agreed that chewing food to pulp – at least 30 chews according to the scientific system of Fletcherism — was how they wanted to experience the joys of degustation. Nor would everyone want to witness someone Fletcherizing.

Take oysters. Who would want to go to a restaurant with someone who chewed oysters until all that remained was pulp? And then see him remove the residue from his mouth saying, “The juice is all out of this. The stomach does not need it.” This uncomfortable moment might well take place in an elegant dining room such as at New York’s Waldorf Astoria.

fletcherismhoraceDairy lunch rooms — with their simple a la carte menus of cereals, milk, potatoes, and other starches – were his favorite places to eat. But, he often stayed at deluxe hotels and ate in their dining rooms. Throwing aside their sumptuous menus, he had no qualms at all about ordering highly irregular – not to mention cheap — meals, often omitting meat or anything resembling a main dish.

In 1904, in a hotel dining room, he ordered hash brown potatoes, which he ate with a spoon, and half a French roll. He used the other half for dessert, after pouring over it a mixture of cream and sugar he whipped together. His waiters undoubtedly got small tips but at least he gave them something to talk about for months afterward.

A lunch room repast might be something such as a leaf of lettuce with only oil for dressing, two pancakes, and a cup of custard. He drank coffee slowly, taking a sip and holding it in his mouth for 30 seconds.

In 1912 he ate nothing but potatoes for 58 days. Testing by scientists showed that his strength and endurance did not suffer as a result of his diet.

Despite his extremism – and his fondness for potatoes and candy – his stress on eating less meat, eating more slowly, and not swallowing barely chewed food may have served  his followers well. He was a hero to many people, particularly dentists who were overjoyed with his appreciation of teeth.

© Jan Whitaker, 2016

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Early chains: Baltimore Dairy Lunch

baltimorelunchDetroitAPeople liked to say that the names of lunch room chains in the early 20th century offered a lesson in geography. There were Baltimore, Boston, Buffalo, Chicago, Denver, Detroit, Hartford, Iowa, Manhattan, Maryland, Milwaukee, New York, Pennsylvania, Pittsburg, St. Louis, and Utica Lunches, or Dairy Lunches as some were known. Los Angelenos patronized a New York Lunch in 1905, while customers in Duluth MN, Lexington KY, and San Francisco enjoyed their sandwiches in a Boston Lunch. Detroit had its Manhattan Lunch, while Manhattan had a Detroit Lunch. And so on.

baltimorelunchDetroitBBut before the 1920s no lunchroom chain was as popular as the Baltimore Dairy Lunch which at that time outnumbered Childs. Founder James A. Whitcomb began the business in the late 1880s in Washington, D.C., where he was a federal postal clerk, then opening a lunch room in Baltimore. Along with four quasi-franchisers, he controlled about 140 units by 1920. The largest branch, under the ownership of Harry Bowles in Springfield MA, consisted of a couple dozen units. Few large cities were without a Baltimore Dairy Lunch, as Whitcomb’s were named, or a Baltimore Lunch, the name used by Bowles.

baltimorelunchDetroitCWhether they belonged to large or small chains or were independents, Baltimores or Buffalos,  all Lunches were similar. As someone put it, “It’s an age of standardization, and one restaurant is now much like every other, barring minor differences.” A humorous story in Everybody’s Magazine in 1914 featured a cranky elderly man who went around from lunch room to lunch room asking the local wits, “What is the difference between a Hartford Lunch and a Baltimore Lunch.” Their answer was always the same, “Search me.”

Regardless of their similarity, dairy lunches were regarded as characteristically and proudly American, so much so that during battle in World War I, after U.S. soldiers took control of an improvised clubhouse used by German troops, they tore down a sign the Germans had posted over the door that said “Hindenburg Rathskeller” and replaced it with “Baltimore Lunch.”

baltimorelunchDetroitBaltimore Lunches shared many features in common with the fast food chains that arrived in the 1960s. Their offerings were simple and inexpensive. No alcohol was served. Customers got their food at a counter and carried it to their seats. Seating – one-armed wooden chairs — was uncomfortable and did not encourage lingering. Patrons didn’t mind, though, because they were interested in expediting the entire getting and eating process so they could go about their business.

baltimorelunchDetroit710Unlike fast food architecture of the 1960s, though, Baltimore Lunches were built as solidly and luxuriously as Grecian temples. Interiors used marble lavishly for counters and fixtures. Was it because both Whitcomb and Bowles were natives of Vermont, the state where so much marble is quarried? Maybe, but I think that marble was an expression of cleanliness and investment in a growing economy’s ability to efficiently mass produce affordable, nutritious meals. A standard feature of the Baltimore Lunch – a large marble bowl filled with sugar set on a marble pedestal — can easily be seen as a representation of democratic abundance.

© Jan Whitaker, 2014

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