Tag Archives: restaurant cuisine

Basic fare: fried chicken

Actually chicken, however it was prepared, was not so basic until well into the 20th century. Only then were poultry raising and marketing streamlined to produce the tender, year-round, low-cost product which made chain restaurants such as Kentucky Fried Chicken and Chicken Delight feasible. Until after World War II chicken was not terribly popular in most restaurants, often being rather expensive yet tough and stringy.

The chicken found on the menus of most American eating places of the 18th and 19th centuries was not fried, but roasted, boiled, or broiled. Fried chicken seemed to be limited to the South for many decades. The first instance of fried chicken in a restaurant that I have found occurred at the 1876 Centennial fair in Philadelphia where one of the concessions specialized in Southern dishes such as fried chicken and hominy. Despite this, fried chicken did not catch on in restaurants for some time. It could be found mainly in small, down-home style cafés run and patronized by Afro-Americans. An example in the 1890s was a small cabin called the Café Du Chat Noir in Washington, D.C., run by a former slave who went by the name Madame Early. A bit later, in San Francisco, a black restaurant provided possum and yams in season, corn pone, watermelon and chicken, fried, boiled, or roasted. Another type of early 20th-century fried chicken venue was the Chinese restaurant.

The third kind of eating place that made a specialty of fried chicken was the country tea room. In fact chicken of all kinds – fried, in salads, or creamed on waffles – dominated tea room menus. It’s likely that the substantial increase of women restaurant patrons in the 20th century, tea rooms’ main clientele, was behind the rise in chicken’s popularity. Restaurateurs often noted that while men preferred steak, women favored chicken. Taking the family for a Sunday automobile ride into the countryside for a fried chicken dinner at a tea room or family-style inn was a major form of entertainment for millions of Americans well into the 1950s.

The reason that fried chicken became popular primarily in out-of-the-way places, whether Afro-American, Chinese, or tea rooms, may have been due to these places having access to freshly killed chickens at a time when so much poultry served in restaurants had been ruined by long stays in cold storage. Cold storage chicken –- i.e., frozen — so dominated the market that in 1909 California law required restaurants to inform patrons if their chicken came from that source. On the other hand, restaurants run by blacks and Chinese often kept live chickens in cages, while rural tea rooms had local suppliers.

© Jan Whitaker, 2008

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Eating kosher

It is impossible to say when the first kosher restaurant appeared in the United States. Jews were among the earliest settlers and it’s likely they established restaurants at the same rate as other ethnic groups, so there may have been inns and taverns following Jewish dietary laws as early as the 17th century. (Of course not all Jewish-run restaurants kept kosher.) By the 1860s, nearly a million Jews lived in Brooklyn and New York City. At least 50 restaurants catered to them particularly, though patronage included non-Jews as well. Among the restaurants chartered to operate at the Centennial in Philadelphia in 1876 was The Hebrew Restaurant run by a Charles Collman of Philadelphia.

Although New York’s lower East Side Jewish population included Austrians, Russians, Poles and Lithuanians in the 1880s, Rumanians kept many of the restaurants there. By 1901, the American Jewish Year Book estimated that there were at least “one hundred and fifty restaurants, two hundred wine-cellars, with lunch rooms attached, and about thirty coffee-houses kept by Rumanian Jews.” Late into the night their patrons would engage in passionate discussions of politics and the arts and the names Marx, Tolstoy, and Ibsen were sure to be heard.

New York was the largest center of Jewish life, but not the only one. All cities had their Jewish enclaves and cafés. In 1901 in Pittsburgh, the Hotel Sablodowsky ran a kosher delicatessen where they served “Everything Fresh, Imported and Clean. Smoked Tongue, Cured Beef, Summer Sausage, Servelot, Imported Cheeses of all kinds. Holland Herrings, Pickles, Olives, Etc.” In McKeesport, Pennsylvania, Max Schwartz’s Café Liberty provided “Strictly Kosher Meals.” Restaurants in Chicago’s Jewish neighborhoods around 1908 reportedly served a dish known as “Jewish chop suey” containing various vegetables, spices, and sour cream.

Notable and well-known historic Jewish restaurants are too numerous to list, but a few striking examples include the NY kosher restaurant on West 35th kept by Hyman Trotzky, brother of Leon*; Reuben’s, grown into a celebrity haunt from, in Arnold Reuben’s own words, a “shtoonky delicatessen store;” Chicago’s Gold’s; and Al Levy’s in Los Angeles.

* Was Hyman really Leon’s brother? My source said yes, but a reader’s research casts this in doubt.

© Jan Whitaker, 2008

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Fried chicken blues

The 1960s were a boom decade for marrying fast food to franchise businesses christened with celebrity names. Chicken seemed like the up-and-coming successor to hamburgers in a business more about marketing concepts and stock quotations than food or hospitality. Following the success of Harlan Sanders, whose 500-unit Kentucky Fried Chicken chain mushroomed to 1,700 when he sold to a corporate buyer, entrepreneurs looked around for other celebrities to hitch their schemes to. Performers Minnie Pearl, Mahalia Jackson, James Brown, and Eddy Arnold, along with many sports figures, were persuaded to lend their names, rarely assuming any further involvement.

Minnie Pearl’s Chicken System, Inc., was the creation of Tennessean John Jay Hooker whose political ambitions included becoming governor, then president. Minnie Pearl, a Grand Ole Opry comedien whose frumpy stage persona suggested down-home eating, covered the white market, while gospel singer Mahalia Jackson lent her name to the black-owned side of the enterprise aimed at black inner-city consumers. Around the same time, ca. 1969, “king of soul” James Brown figureheaded the Gold Platter soul food chain which failed to get beyond the pilot stage in Macon, Georgia. Minnie’s and Mahalia’s ventures, too, lasted only a few years. Hooker, chicken systems mastermind, did not make it into office, but Benjamin Hooks, co-owner of Mahalia Jackson’s Gloree-Fried chicken (carryout only), went on to become executive director of the NAACP.

Though hailed as a restaurateur, Jackson received royalties for the use of her name but did not choose to invest in the Mahalia Jackson Chicken System, Inc. Perhaps she did not approve of its slogan: “It’s Gloree-Fried, and that’s the gospel truth.” The Minnie Pearl system totaled several hundred locations at its peak but it’s not clear how many outlets the Jackson chain comprised, probably many fewer. Chicago had only two units, paired with gas stations. The chain also operated in Memphis, Cleveland, Jacksonville, and Detroit. In addition to chicken, menus included fish sandwiches, sweet potatoes, fried pies, and a ‘Soul Bowl’ of chicken giblets in gravy on rice.

Minnie Pearl’s chicken — and later roast beef sandwiches — business went bankrupt in 1970.

© Jan Whitaker, 2008

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Basic fare: toast

Toast wasn’t really new on restaurant menus around 1914 but it was beginning to enjoy a bigger vogue. The soda fountain, often located in drug or department stores, was expanding into a lunch counter and as it did it added electric toasters to its battery of equipment. Most Americans still lacked electricity in their homes at this time so toast was something of a treat to them. By 1923 a new type of sandwich place, the luncheonette, had caught on. At the Tasty Toasty Luncheonette in New Haven a diner could almost certainly order a toasted cheese sandwich, an item once found only in English-style chop houses way before the Civil War.

Considering that restaurants in the early 19th century laboriously toasted bread by turning it slowly over an open fire, it is surprising that it was offered at all in those days. And yet Mrs. Poppleton, a versatile New York restaurateur, pastry cook, and confectioner, advertised in 1815 that she would provide refreshments such as savory patties, mock turtle soup, and anchovy toasts between 11 a.m. and 3 p.m. each day. Beyond being an accompaniment to eggs, toast also did service in many an eating place as an edible prop for such foods as quail, creamed chicken, or asparagus. Buttered toast floated in oyster stews and bowls of milk (“milk toast”). World War I put a temporary end to its sidekick role when the Food Administration ordered restaurants to conserve wheat by not using bread as a garniture.

After the war toasters stayed perpetually busy in luncheonettes. An Omaha chain of lunchrooms advertised “National Toast Week” in 1923. The R and C Sandwich Shops boasted in 1925 that “Our big double-deck special toast sandwiches are the talk of Chicago.” The following year there was a special demonstration on how to make toasted sandwiches at the National Restaurant Association convention.

The novelty of toast wore off over time until the cheap steakhouses that sprang up in the early 1960s revived it. Their dinners of sirloin steak, tossed salad, and baked potato came with garlic toast (called Texas toast when made of double thick bread), all for the magic price of $1.19.

Today toast can still be found filling all its historical restaurant roles, with the exception of milk toast which has been replaced with milk and cereal. But its leading role is perhaps in the club sandwich. As a 1960 restaurant trade magazine observed: “The dry, crispy consistency of toasted breads improves flavor and appearance, and also makes the customer feel he is getting a more exclusive product.” This, the article noted, allows toasted sandwiches to be priced a bit higher than plain ones.

© Jan Whitaker, 2008


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Department store restaurants

In small cities – and some large ones too – restaurants in department stores were frequently the best places to eat. Often they did their own baking and made desserts from scratch. It was not unusual for them to whip up mayonnaise and produce their own potato chips. Their kitchens were often directed and entirely staffed by women professionally trained in restaurant management.

They invariably favored home-style methods of cooking. Dishes popular through the decades included chicken pot pies, tomatoes stuffed with chicken salad, club sandwiches, and frozen fruit salads. The dessert sections of their menus were lengthy — layer cakes, eclairs, and chiffon pies were always to be had. [see 1925 menu, Abraham & Straus, Brooklyn NY] If the diner wanted more sweets at meal’s end, she could always pick up a box of bon bons or chocolate pralines made in the store’s candy kitchen. In the 1950s and 1960s menus cropped up with diet specials such as vegetable plates and cottage cheese salads.

To list the most famous department store restaurants and tea rooms (as they were often called) would be an impossible task, but among those that leap to mind are: Marshall Field in Chicago (which ran 11 restaurants simultaneously at one point and might serve as many as 10,000 meals on an especially busy Saturday before Christmas); Wanamaker’s Grand Crystal Tea Room; Lord & Taylor’s Bird Cage in New York City (liverwurst and lettuce on rye); Altman’s Charleston Garden (“no tipping please”); Rich’s Magnolia Room; Higbee’s Silver Grille; and G. Fox’s Connecticut Room (which served Guernsey milk fresh from the store’s Auerfarm dairy).

By the late 1960s, modernity made department store restaurants obsolete. The times had changed and so had the pace of life. Women no longer had time to linger. Men who had once enjoyed eating in department store “grill” rooms reserved especially for them also moved on to quicker venues. Stores closed or revamped their large, elegant tea rooms, switching to speedier Bite Bars and Cafeterias. An era had ended.

© Jan Whitaker, 2008

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Rewriting restaurant history

In this 1965 guide to places to eat in Colorado, the following notice appeared for the tiny town of Fairplay, north of Denver: “Fairplay Hotel Miner’s Grub Shack. Serve yourself at the Miner’s Grub Shack in the dining area of historic Fairplay Hotel. Fifteen feet of delicious food. Eat as much as you want. Fixin’s for young’uns.”

Well, sure, that’s where old-timey miners ate, right? In a grub shack. After all they were unsophisticated fellers who just wanted chow and lots of it. Actually that idea might better apply to 1965, when restaurants in outlying areas such as the Fairplay Hotel’s loaded up their all-you-can-eat buffets with warmed-up trays of frozen prepared foods which were good enough for vacationers mainly interested in getting the children fed without too much fuss.

The diners of 1965 were no doubt flattered to think they lived in the most progressive of times, at a much higher standard than in mining days. But could the Fairplay Hotel of 1965 have competed with the Christmas feast the same hotel presented to miners in 1888? Included in the array of dishes served that day were blue points, salmon with parsley sauce, curried duck, quail smothered in claret sauce, plum pudding, and imported sherry. I’d call that quite an upgrade from chicken legs and gelatin salad!

© Jan Whitaker, 2008

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Basic fare: ham sandwiches

Because cured ham keeps for months at room temperature, it was always on hand in colonial and early American taverns. At any time of day and much of the night a hungry person could get the host to slice off a “cold cut” of ham. Ham and eggs was such a popular dish in eating places everywhere and at all times that many people have nominated it as America’s national dish.

Ham sandwiches were on tap at porter houses and went well with the dark brew as well as with ale (but what didn’t in those heavy-drinking days?). At New York’s Ring of Bells, host John Spencer advertised in 1807 that he furnished first-rate liquors, soups, and “Sandwiches, Anchovies and Relishes of every description.” Later many drinking places put out ham sandwiches as part of their free lunch spread.

Serve-yourself lunch counters of the 1880s were loaded with ham sandwiches, beef sandwiches, and pies. Customers grabbed what they wanted, often ate standing, and washed it all down with water or a hot beverage. At non-alcoholic dairy lunch bars, which featured fresh milk, coffee, and simple dishes such as beans, ham sandwiches cost 5 cents apiece. Wyman’s Sandwich Depot was famous throughout Boston for hefty sandwiches but a competitor in the 1890s claimed his sandwiches, on rolls 7 inches long and 5 inches wide, were larger. Also up and coming at the time were the lunch wagons that rolled onto city streets at night, vanishing in the daytime. They too specialized in ham sandwiches. But signs of change were on the horizon. Another lunch wagon specialty was the hamburger sandwich, destined eventually to trim the humble snack of ham between bread down to size.

© Jan Whitaker, 2008

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