Tag Archives: etiquette

Basic fare: club sandwiches

clubsandwichCOLORAmong sandwiches, the club sandwich stands out by having a strong association with restaurants for more than a century. It was not often eaten at home and probably still isn’t. It is unusual, too, in that it was considered both delicate and hearty, making it a favorite with men and women alike when it became popular in the 1890s.

Its versatility included being appropriate for almost any time of day. It was considered an excellent late-night supper, good with beer, healthful, refreshing in hot weather, and perfect for ladies’ luncheons. The sandwiches appeared widely on menus – in hotel and department store dining rooms, after-theater restaurants, men’s grills, railroad dining cars, and tea rooms.

clubsandwichADVSpfld1913

The origin of the word club, which still gives it a certain cachet, is a mystery. One account attributes the creation of the sandwich to an engineer who introduced it to his “lunch club” cronies on a day when they were suffering from hangovers, but the occasion seems to have taken place years after the sandwich had achieved recognition.

For instance, at least five year earlier, shortly after the Palm Tea Room opened in New Haven’s Edward Malley store in 1898, an advertisement notified customers that in addition to ham sandwiches and chocolate eclairs, several items “New to New Haven” were available, among them Club Sandwiches at 15 cents each.

clubsandwichADVBatonRouge1914By 1900 the sandwich’s form and composition were largely standardized. It was made with three slices of toasted white bread, spread with mayonnaise, layered with thinly sliced chicken, bacon, tomato, and lettuce, and cut twice diagonally into wedges. Fresh tomatoes were not always available inexpensively year round, so the full-scale club sandwich may have been a seasonal specialty until after WWII. Other variations included ham instead of bacon and turkey instead of chicken; crusts could be trimmed off for a daintier appearance.

clubsandwichADV1934Over time almost anything could be used to fill a club sandwich, but few variations on the classic combination endured. In 1935 Walgreen’s offered one made of liverwurst, perhaps reflecting that it was the Depression.

Club sandwiches recommended themselves to lunch rooms by their good profit margin. The Childs’ restaurants, the largest chain of the early 20th century, found in 1910 that it could prepare a double-decker club for 4.6 cents and sell it for 20 cents. It went for the same price at drug stores which began adding it to their soda fountain menus. Its popularity at soda fountains was also reflected in the creation of an ice cream club sandwich made in a special mold. The trade journal National Druggist reported in 1911 that in terms of sales the novelty was “a wonder.”

The club sandwich was given a reprieve during the government’s food prohibitions of World War I. Initially targeted along with meat pies and liver & bacon because it contained more than one kind of meat, the ban was quickly lifted.

Another obstacle club sandwiches faced seems truly quaint today. Judging from the number of times women sought advice from newspaper etiquette columns on how to eat them in the 1920s and 1930s, many of them found the club sandwich embarrassing to eat in public. Should they pick it up or eat it with a knife and fork? Strangely – and unimaginably – the latter method was advised.

ClubSandwichwoolworth67But it overcame these minor problems. In the 1920s commercial bakers produced a bread specially made for club sandwiches in restaurants. It was a square “cream bread” with a thin crust, meant for toasting, and sized a bit larger than the smallest sandwich loaves.

Though scarcely considered exciting today, the club sandwich has become a menu classic that can be ordered almost anywhere.

© Jan Whitaker, 2015

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Toothpicks

Although toothpicks have many uses in the home, their career as a tool for picking teeth is mostly associated with restaurants. And, like so many aspects of restaurant history, their story says a lot about social class. The short version is that when using toothpicks was viewed as a custom of European elites it was approved in the U.S., but when American working class men adopted it, it became taboo. Today the use of toothpicks after a meal is infrequent compared to what it was roughly 100 years ago when it was at its peak.

In the Quick Lunch era of the early 20th century, toothpicks became more than a means to loosen bits of food stuck in tooth crevices. They were assertions of masculinity, essential accessories for the male lunchroom crowd. A dangling toothpick sent a macho signal as speedily as a cigarette between the lips of 1960s filmstar Jean Paul Belmondo.

In the 1890s lunchroom patrons felt entitled to toothpicks just as much as to a paper napkin and a glass of water. When a distinguished Afro-American man was told by a Kansas City restaurateur in 1890 that he would be charged an exorbitant $1 for pie and coffee, he seemed to consent but later walked out saying “Sue me for the rest” as he tossed a dime on the counter. And he grabbed a handful of toothpicks on the way, staking a claim to equality in an unmistakable fashion.

Arbiters of etiquette deplored toothpicks. Starting in the late 19th century when the picks came into fairly common use in the United States, and for the next 100 years at least, a string of advice columnists from Mrs. John Sherwood to Ann Landers railed against them. All declared using toothpicks in public vulgar and disgusting. “Dear Abby” echoed her forebears when she roundly condemned public toothpick use in 1986, calling it “crude, inconsiderate, and a show of bad manners.”

Goose quill toothpicks had been acceptable in the early republic, furnished even at such elite places as Delmonico’s. But as mass-produced wooden picks made of birch and poplar became available in the 1870s, prices fell drastically until even the cheapest eatery could afford to dispense them. Their social status plummeted.

Toothpick haters frequently pointed out that providing toothpicks in restaurants was as ridiculous as handing out toothbrushes. It’s interesting that in the early 20th century another form of tabletop hygiene, the finger bowl, was also about to go under attack. Strangely, since toothpicks and finger bowls were intended for cleanups, they were criticized as germ spreaders. Because toothpicks were provided loose in a bowl or cup, restaurant patrons often grabbed them helter skelter, fingering many they left behind. Trains eliminated them in their dining cars and Minneapolis health authorities banned open containers of toothpicks in 1917.

Another solution to the germy toothpick bowl and the habit of grabbing handfuls was bound to occur to America’s legion of gadget inventors. Presto! One-at-a-time toothpick dispensers. [shown here and in restaurant above, the Dial-A-Pic]

Restaurant owners would have been just as happy to see toothpicks disappear altogether. A NYC restaurant owner confessed in 1904 that he disliked the sight of men picking their teeth at his tables as much as that of others sticking knives in their mouths. But he took a pragmatic stance, admitting that “we cannot conduct examinations in table manners before we admit persons to our dining-rooms.”

Today toothpick usage is reportedly unpopular with younger diners and has been dropping off since World War II. So I was surprised to see a little cup of wrapped toothpicks in an upscale restaurant in Kansas City this weekend. Now I’ll be on the lookout everywhere I go.

© Jan Whitaker, 2012

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Dipping into the finger bowl

Once upon a time finger bowls were routinely presented with the check in expensive restaurants. To the average American, who probably never went to this type of restaurant, they were a great source of humor. Jokes typically involved an unsophisticated restaurant patron drinking water from the bowl or eating the lemon slices floating in it. The funny stories demonstrated the joy Americans take in spearing pretentiousness, a quality which finger bowls epitomized to many.

Like salad forks and menus in French, using finger bowls was an esoteric social custom that was certain to befuddle the average person. How many fingers do you put into the bowl at once? What do you do after you get your fingers wet? Must you use it at all?*

These questions would soon fade from American culture because the finger bowl was about to run afoul of history in the World War I era.

Yet in the decade before finger bowls met their downfall, the number of restaurants providing them actually increased. Live music and finger bowls were two amenities put forward as competitive attractions over places that didn’t have them. Some observers believed that because so many restaurants adopted finger bowls, it deprived them of the eliteness they once enjoyed and that this was a factor in their downfall.

Further warning signs of the finger bowl’s decline in status surfaced as early as 1908 when a veteran waiter confessed to a reporter that wise patrons should demand to witness their waiter filling the bowl. Otherwise, he warned, it was likely they’d get one with wastewater from a previous user fermenting in it.

For reasons that are still mysterious to me, 1913 was a turning point in the fortunes of the finger bowl. The Buffalo NY health department launched an attack on brass bowls, which they claimed were in use in over half of the city’s restaurants. Glass bowls could be sanitized with boiling water but brass, said the health commissioner, could not. Omaha hotelier Rome Miller declared that modern guests were more germ conscious than ever before and wanted everything – tea, coffee cream, breakfast cereal – individually packaged. For guests desiring to wash their fingertips after dining, he recommended silver holders with disposable paper inserts.

Whether due to the influence of Rome Miller or not, the city of Omaha totally outlawed reusable finger bowls in 1915. The ordinance did make one exception – for finger bowls “made from paper or other substance which shall be delivered after being once used and not used or offered for use a second time.” The crusading Mr. Miller was further vindicated a couple of years later when he learned that a New Jersey paper company was supplying 263 leading hotels with sanitary paper finger bowls. “And so the finger bowl marches on,” he wrote, revealing a surprising dedication to its future.

But, for the most part, it was not to be. Glass, brass, or paper, all would be swept aside. World War I delivered the coup de grace when the Food Administration implored restaurants to do away with excess china, silver, and glassware, whether service plates, side dishes, salad forks, or finger bowls. The few straggler bowls that survived that era were wiped out by another such war order in 1943. Since then, high-end restaurants that serve food requiring a clean-up afterwards provide scented towels while lower-price establishments go with packaged towelettes.

© Jan Whitaker, 2011

*Dip one hand at a time and then dry your fingers on the napkin in your lap. Ignoring a finger bowl is a safe course.

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Etiquette violations: eating off your knife

While eating lunch at the Café Sabarsky in the Neue Galerie in New York last week what did I see but a well-dressed, “high-net-worth-individual” eating from her knife? She held a fork in her left hand and a knife in her right and delivered food to her mouth with both implements. She managed the operation unobtrusively and deftly, but still … I was amazed. I’ve read so many historical accounts by horrified witnesses of this behavior that I could not believe my eyes.

Foreign visitors before the Civil War were aghast to see American restaurant-goers convey food to their mouths with a knife and believed the habit was peculiar to the United States, which they regarded as a nation full of bumpkins. Some Americans retorted that it was not found solely in this country. They argued that the haughty visitors were accustomed to being sheltered by social class segregation in their own societies that prevented them from ever seeing their fellow countrymen who did this. Because the U.S. was more democratic, they said, all classes of people ended up eating together in the same restaurants and so a wide variety of eating customs were on display.

Evidently the habit was fairly common in the 1860s. Onlookers not familiar with this type of scene expressed nervousness that diners who appeared to be swallowing their knives might be in “imminent danger of ripping open their mouths from ear to ear.” That didn’t seem to happen but the mere idea was enough to put people with delicate sensibilities on edge.

In the 19th century eating off a knife was typically associated with cheap restaurants that had dirty tablecloths, uncouth waiters, and chipped dishes. Patrons at these places often exhibited other bad habits such as hunching over their plates. A Philadelphia restaurant keeper of the 1880s, hoping to attract better mannered patrons, went so far as to eject anyone who ate from a knife. He instructed waiters to tap the culprit on the shoulder and say that someone wanted to see them at the cashier’s desk near the door. The waiter then brought the person (usually a man) his coat and hat and asked him to leave. If he balked, a bouncer appeared.

No one reacted to the woman at the Café Sabarsky. Her companions seemed not to notice how she ate.

Up to last week I believed that eating from a knife had stopped back in the 19th century. Now I wonder: is the custom returning, or was it merely one person’s peculiar method of eating?

© Jan Whitaker, 2011

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