Sunday, June 19, 2011

Andrew P. Haley's "Turning the Tables"

Andrew P. Haley is assistant professor of American cultural history at the University of Southern Mississippi.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Turning the Tables: Restaurants and the Rise of the American Middle Class, 1880-1920, and reported the following:
In Turning the Tables, I tell the story of a nascent American middle class that found cultural power by reshaping how we dine. In the late nineteenth century, fine dining was dominated by French food, archaic manners, and formal folderol. High-class restaurants catered to American aristocrats and although nothing formally barred the middle class from joining their social betters at the public groaning boards, the high cost and rarified traditions of the aristocratic restaurant intimidated the middle class. Frustrated, middle-class diners began to patronize working-class and immigrant restaurants, and through their patronage they created a new restaurant culture that celebrated middle-class, democratic, and cosmopolitan dining.

Page 99, in some ways, marks the turning point in this tale. Made uncomfortable by the aristocratic restaurant, the middle class ventured into ethnic restaurants in the 1870s and 1880s. At first they were wary. Theories of race and taste in the nineteenth century discouraged white, native-born Americans from sampling the culinary offerings of cultures that were viewed as less civilized. As a critic of Chinese restaurants wrote in 1886, "few western palates can endure even the most delicate of their dishes." Nor, it seems, did many initially want to. A few years earlier a writer for Harper’s described German food as “greasiness in various degrees.”

But the tables were turning. On page 99 (and to be honest, on pages 100, 101, 102, etc.) we see the middle class facing up to their fears and experimenting with new cuisines. They increasingly ate in ethnic restaurants and came to celebrate immigrant food—German, Italian, Chinese, Syrian, Japanese, and a host of other ethnicities—as cosmopolitan alternatives to the French food so enamored by the upper classes. By the turn of the century, boosters in New York, Chicago, and San Francisco squabbled over which city offered the most diverse culinary fare.

In time, the middle class did more than just embrace ethnic food. Through their patronage, they encouraged immigrant restaurateurs who, recognizing the collective purchasing power of the nascent middle class, modified their menus and moved uptown to woo their new clientele. Then, emboldened, middle-class diners went on to demand changes in upper-class restaurants as well. The cosmopolitan dining they championed, with menus in English and more opportunities for women to dine out, helped to reshape public dining even in the snootiest establishments and the middle-class emerged as America’s arbiters of taste. The restaurants we eat in today are a legacy of this change. (Oh, and by the way, page 99 also includes a very early reference to Americans’ fondness for hamburgers that provides a glimpse at what the future would hold.)

Selection from Page 99:
German restaurants were initially located in working-class neighborhoods where, in order to secure cheap rents, they “generally occup[ied] the basements of stores and dwelling-houses, and from the exterior [did] not, therefore, present as inviting an appearance as they would were they located on ground floors.” Reflecting the stereotype that German food smelled foul, reporters who visited these restaurants invariably commented on the “smells from the kitchen,” but they generally pronounced the establishments clean and inexpensive. Recounting a visit to a German restaurant in the 1870s, a reporter for the New York Times noted that the "table furnishings are simple but clean, and the floor generally sprinkled with fresh white sand.” For thirty-five cents, he observed, you could get a five-course meal: “Though the meat is not always of the best quality, it is sure to be good, and well-cooked, though in a distinctly national manner.”

Extolling generous portions and low prices, newspaper accounts of German restaurants cautiously encouraged middle-class diners to try the new cuisine. “So entirely German are the dinners in this latter particular, that Americans can, by partaking of them, become acquainted with dishes of whose existence they had never before dreamed, though in this respect much that is served may be distasteful to the native palate.” Lentil and bologna soup, beef à la mode with macaroni (“a very peculiar but highly satisfactory way of eating it”), Wiener schnitzel (“a tremendous name, which, however, when bought, is only veal cutlet with the bone removed”), and Hamburger steak (“simply a beefsteak redeemed from its original toughness by being mashed into mince-meat and then formed into a conglomerated mass”) were deemed particularly suited to American tastes by a New York Times reporter in 1873. The reporter also assured readers that many German restaurants offered—“for the Americans only”—“roast beef, as well as the odd things that foreigners love, and ... pumpkin pies and dumplings baked.”
Learn more about the book and author at the University of North Carolina Press website and Andrew Haley's blog.

--Marshal Zeringue