Tag Archives: French fries

Basic fare: meat & potatoes

Meat and potatoes were so characteristic of eating places in the 19th century we could call it the Meat and Potatoes Century. But of course that title could apply to most of the 20th century as well.

In 1829, the Plate House, a cheap New York City eating hall, offered steaks with potatoes by the dish and half dish, 4 cents for the latter.

Chop houses of the 19th century were also based on meat and potatoes. They could be considered forerunners of today’s steakhouses, with their dark interiors, male patrons, and baked potatoes as accompaniments to meat. One difference, though, was that in the 1800s patrons were as likely to order mutton as beef.

The chop house was regarded as an antiquated type of eating place in 1873 when a journalist wrote that Farrish’s and others were “sought out by Britishers who like places off the beaten track and humble, dark and without glitter.” Old fashioned or not, it was still loved for its “mealy” baked potatoes, probably even in the 1930s when this postcard was produced.

Little surprise that “meat and potatoes” became a metaphor for no-frills reliability. To call someone a meat-and-potatoes “man” – always a man — was more than a commentary on his diet; it also meant he was a regular guy. Similarly for a meat-and-potatoes town. As Chicago columnist Bob Greene would put it in 1983, as the world capital of meat and potatoes, his hometown was “tough, brawling, no-nonsense, rugged.”

The metaphor – that came into use after World War II — could extend to almost anything. Business success relied upon sure-thing “meat and potatoes” products and services. For Gloucester MA, odd as it sounds, the town’s meat-and-potatoes industry was ground fish. For a symphony orchestra their meat and potatoes might be a popular Beethoven sonata.

Nineteenth-century restaurants featured potatoes either mashed, boiled, baked, stewed, fried, Lyonnaise, scalloped, mousseline, or au gratin. In the 20th century the choices tended to narrow down to mashed, baked, and French fried. Meat meant mostly beef in the 19th, but extended to chicken in the 20th.

In 1885 it was standard for potatoes to come free with a meat order. As noted then, “An unordered boiled potato, with the skin on, is the second grand characteristic of an American dining saloon. It matters not what meal it is, the boiled potato will always appear, if the establishment is truly legitimate.”

But this “legitimate” entitlement was about to end. Where would fast food restaurants be today if they didn’t charge extra for French fries? As far back as the early 20th century, restaurant operators realized there was additional profit to be made by charging separately for potatoes.

In the 1950s and 1960s, fast food burger chains, hotel rib rooms, and chain and independent steakhouses began to proliferate. Steakhouses proved popular with lunching business men while families chose economy cuts at Bonanza or Ponderosa. “Advances” took place, such as foil wrappings that allowed the potatoes to remain under infra-red lamps longer without drying out. By the early 1960s sour cream and chives were considered essential additions to baked potatoes. By that time, the favorite All-American meal was shrimp cocktail, followed by steak, baked potato with sour cream, an iceberg lettuce salad thickly coated with Thousand Island dressing, and cheesecake for dessert.

In 1971 a Gallup survey measuring the popularity of “international cuisine” confirmed the timidity of most American palates. The strangest aspect of the survey were the dishes Gallup offered up as international. Among them were Beef Stroganoff (ranked highest), Swedish Meat Balls, Lasagne, Veal Parmigiana, Chili Con Carne, and Hungarian Goulash. A full 10% of respondents found nothing among the 22 selections that they liked.

Nevertheless . . . around the late 1970s the whole meat-and-potatoes dining complex began to be questioned. Increasingly it ran against new notions of health and fitness. The cholesterol, the heaviness! Also, it was such a limited diet. Did its fans have no interest in other cuisines? Meat-and-potato towns – Chicago, Cleveland, Kansas City, St. Louis, Denver, Fort Worth – were shamed and ridiculed even though, occasionally, someone admitted there were plenty of steakhouses on the coasts too — New York, San Francisco, even New Orleans.

In the next phase, not surprisingly, many meat-and-potatoes towns struggled to refurbish their reputations by boasting of restaurants of all kinds. Omaha touted its seafood, Japanese, Korean, and French restaurants. Minneapolis was still conservative, wrote Jeremy Iggers and Karin Winegar in John Mariani’s 1986 Coast to Coast Dining Guide, yet they identified seventeen Vietnamese restaurants, three Thai, two Ethiopian and many other nationalities represented as well, along with examples of “yuppies” taking fresh approaches to American cuisine.

Plus, pizza had actually become the new meat and potatoes.

How are steakhouses doing today? Although there are still many around and some Americans nurture a wish to return to the 1950s, I’m guessing that it’s unlikely the golden years of the steakhouse will return. Burgers and fries, too, may have seen their better days.

© Jan Whitaker, 2018

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Deep fried

deepfriedfrymax1961As I read the morning newspaper a sentence by the head of a local restaurant dynasty caught my attention. “We all have fryolator oil running through our blood veins,” he said.

The speaker was Andrew Yee. His family enterprise includes a newly acquired retro diner, several popular bars & grills, a sushi restaurant, and a venerable Polynesian showplace, the Hu Ke Lau, begun by his father in the mid-1960s.

I was delighted to find the quotation because I was in the midst of researching deep-fried food in American restaurant history. Also because it is rare that topics such as cooking oil come up in reviews and discussions of restaurants. Yet nearly every restaurant kitchen contains a bubbling vat of it.

And always has.

deepfried1941PrimexADV

Think about how often you have been enveloped in a miasma of aged cooking oil fumes while passing a restaurant’s outdoor ventilating fan. In 1978 restaurant reviewer Phyllis Richman visited a regional restaurant expo filled with demonstrations of deep frying; she subtitled her Washington Post story “The smell.” Her experience was nothing new. In 1887 neighbors complained about the odor coming from a Cleveland OH “French fried cake baker” using cottonseed oil, which had recently come on the market as a replacement for high-priced lard.

Not that lard fumes would have smelled much better. In 1849 a journalist’s plan to survey the flourishing “eating houses” of lower Manhattan was cut short by the overpowering “smell of fried grease before we got through the first street.” Not surprising when you consider that fried oysters were a top menu attraction and had been for at least a century, probably longer.

The number of deep-fried foods eaten in the 19th century was extensive, including oysters, doughnuts, fish and fish balls, clams, potatoes, all kinds of fritters, “corn dodgers,” brains, chicken, and even parsley.

Deep fat frying in the home in the 1800s was frequent, as far as I can tell. But that changed as kitchens were transformed from rough workrooms to adjunct living areas. For some time now the restaurant industry has benefited from the fact that most home cooks dislike deep frying in their own kitchens and would rather have restaurants prepare their French fries and onion rings.

deepfried1929BostonWhen the Pitco Frialator was invented in 1918 it quickly became standard equipment in restaurant kitchens because it extended the life of cooking oil, reducing costs and improving food quality. Oils were developed that would not break down under high temperatures. Then frying kettles came out with built-in thermostats adjusted to type of food.

deepfriedprimex1938Profits from the value added to inexpensive foods by deep frying in the 1930s were a boon to  struggling restaurants. A 1938 article in The American Restaurant, a trade magazine, estimated that many deep-fried dishes – among them sole, potatoes, oysters, and croquettes – could be priced at four or five times their cost. A restaurant in Duluth MN, The Flame, boasted in an advertisement (to the trade, not the public!) that it had built an “enviable reputation” for fried food through using “tons and tons of Primex.”

deepfriedmelvoshortening1968The successful marketing of frozen foods in the 1960s expanded restaurants’ deep-fried selections. Breaded, frozen French-fried shrimp became a top seller. Once only available in Gulf Coast restaurants, by 1960 shrimp appeared on restaurant menus all over the U.S. In 1969 a Gallup Survey rated it America’s favorite deep-fried food in the fish category; in 1973 it ranked #1 among all deep-fried foods.

deepfriedchicken&potatoes1968Deep-fried chicken ranked third favorite, after shrimp and potatoes, to the disappointment of fans of pan-fried chicken, which was becoming a rarity in restaurants in the 1960s.

Drive-in restaurants relied heavily on deep frying. According to a 1961 Drive-In Magazine, “There was a time not long ago when a deep fat fryer and a neon sign were practically all you needed to put yourself in the drive-in business.” But competition was becoming fierce as fast food chains challenged drive-ins’ popularity with young diners, the customers most attracted to deep-fried food and least afraid of its dietary consequences.

Despite the profitability of deep-fried food, two perils faced restaurants: dark breading and sogginess. Both were due to incorrect frying temperatures, and frying kettles and oil that had not been maintained properly. Customers had a strong preference for fried food that was “golden brown,” but not too dark or hardened into a shell. As an article about “lethal” truck stop fare put it: “You strike a chicken leg and the crust falls away in a curved sheet to disclose a sight best forgotten.” The problem of greasy, limp French fries was cited by Gallup as customers’ second biggest complaint.

deepfriedappetizersFroggy'sCafe1980

But neither darkness, greasiness, nor calories dampened the popularity of deep-fried food. Deep-fried appetizers dominated menus of 1980s chain restaurants designed to appeal to a young adult demographic. At West Coast Froggy’s Cafés (specializing in “food and fun” – and fat) seven out of eight appetizers on a 1980 menu came out of the frialator.

It’s likely we all have oil in our veins.

© Jan Whitaker, 2016

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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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