#35 | Ten Restaurants That Changed America
Ten Restaurants That Changed America
By Paul Freedman
Suzy Chase: Welcome to the Cookery by the Book podcast with me, Suzy Chase.
Paul Freedman: I'm Paul Freedman. I teach at Yale University in the history department, and my latest book is entitled Ten Restaurants that Changed America.
Suzy Chase: How did you come up with this diverse list of 10 restaurants?
Paul Freedman: I wanted to have restaurants that were influential. Not the 10 best restaurants, the restaurants that served the best food ever in America, but 10 influential or exemplary. Influential meaning that the way we eat now can be traced to influences that these restaurants encouraged. For example, the latest chronologically of my restaurants is responsible along with some others for the farm to table local ingredients seasonal dining, that is the dominant pattern of restaurants today. Delmonico is in New York, the first chronologically of my 10 established a standard of fine dining. French, but with American ingredients that prevailed throughout the 19th century.
Then I've got examples of certain kinds of things. You can't write a history of American restaurants without a Chinese restaurant. In this case, the Mandarin, that was in San Francisco. You can't write a history of American cuisine without considering getting a big placed African-American origins of a lot of what we eat, so the restaurant, Sylvia's in Harlem is an example of that.
Suzy Chase: In the introduction, Danny Meyer wrote how 10 restaurants reveals how the most successful and influential types of restaurants are always rooted in some particular time and place. Talk a bit about societal trends.
Paul Freedman: Yes, well that was really my interest, was in how the way people eat shows who they are and how they want to be perceived. Certainly in some of these restaurants, for some of these restaurants social position, high social position was important and the restaurant was kind of a marker of status. That would be true for Delmonicos in the 19th century. Le Pavillon, a French restaurant in New York in the mid 20th century, the Four Seasons in the mid and late 20th century, also in New York. I was also interested in things like how restaurants present themselves to potentially new customers. Schrafft's, a small chain of middle class restaurants in New York succeeded by appealing to women who were not necessarily being accompanied by men. In other words, women who were alone or shopping, or in groups. They worked at the same place, or they were shopping together. It presented them with the kind of food they were thought to like, and in an atmosphere that was friendly to women.
Howard Johnson's is another example. A restaurant appealing to middle class people, appealing to people with children traveling often, people traveling on the road. The way that restaurants positioned themselves socially was different, exemplified different times, and was a crucial aspect of this project.
Suzy Chase: In an interview last year, Jacque Pepin told me that he came to Le Pavillon in '59 to work for Pierre Franey. Then they both left to work for Howard Johnsons. Two French guys. What was their influence on the middle class restaurant chain?
Paul Freedman: Well they worked for Howard Johnson having left Pavillon in disgust because of the dictatorial ways of the owner of the Le Pavillon, Army Soule. They liked Howard Johnsons partly because it was a good job, had regular hours, paid well. Had a lot of things that chefs don't ordinarily get, but they also improved the food of Howard Johnsons, putting butter instead of margarine, having the vegetables cut up at the restaurants instead of being cut up at a central commissary and then frozen. Obviously they weren't serving the kind of food that they had served at Le Pavillon, anywhere near it, but within the category of mass market middle class roadside food, they made Howard Johnsons excellent. When they left, and when Howard Johnsons started being more interested in cost cutting, people noticed.
Suzy Chase: Game, terrapin, pigs feet, organ meat, French sauces, et cetera. Why do you think these ingredients have fallen out of favor on restaurant menus?
Paul Freedman: Well, one reason is just depletion of species. While we actually have lots of game in terms of things like deer, and could serve it every day at hundreds of restaurants without any kind of ecological damage, things like terrapin or canvas back ducks, very kind of wild ducks, prairie hens are just not ... They're either extinct like passenger pigeons or they're endangered and not really marketable. The other reason is just changes in taste. I'm not sure why organ meats have fallen out of fashion, but that's a long term trend. Even my most food sophisticated undergraduate students, the idea of pigs feet or of even chicken liver makes them nervous.
Suzy Chase: Do you think modern restaurants, let's say like the ones in the Michelin guide have better menus these days because they're focusing on taste and not prestige?
Paul Freedman: Yes, I think that the standards of prestige in food have become oriented towards taste, and taste based on things like seasonality, or the intrinsic quality of the ingredients rather than on how exotic is this? How far did I have to fly this dover sole in order to serve it, or where does this caviar in a tin come from?
Suzy Chase: When I was little, I was convinced that Rice-A-Roni was from San Francisco. American cuisine, is it a real thing, or is it just McDonald's and Kentucky Fried Chicken?
Paul Freedman: I think it's a real thing, but it's not a very flourishing real thing, or hasn't been until maybe recently. The major influences on American cuisine are things like Rice-A-Roni, an industrial product, standardization of products, things that come in cans or are frozen, or that you can get exactly the same coast to coast, like Oreo cookies or McDonald's hamburgers. Behind that, there are some other influences, American regional food, which survives in places like Louisiana and is being revived in a lot of the south, and diversity. The international kinds of possibilities of restaurants, what has been called ethnic restaurants is unusual in America, and offers a lot of interesting promises. I've just been in Oxford, Mississippi, where I ate at a restaurant that has southern food, local ingredients, but the chef has put in a number of Indian touches. Originally his family is from India. Dahl hush puppies served with catfish, unbelievably good and spiced in an Indian manner. To me that's sort of American cuisine and crossover at its best.
Suzy Chase: Your deep dive into the history of food at the beginning of this book is fascinating. Now, when did the idea of a restaurant as we know it get started?
Paul Freedman: You would think that restaurants were always around or synonymous with urban civilization. In fact, although take out and places to pick up food outside the house have always been with us, restaurants as a destination, as a social place to hang out where you eat with the people you came in with, choose the time when you want to dine and above all, choose from a menu, these are only developed in the 18th century, and in France, and only brought to the US in the early 19th century. The restaurant is a kind of way of eating outside the home, but also a destination in itself.
Suzy Chase: Oscar Wild wrote the two most impressive sites in the US were Delmonicos and Yosemite Valley. Talk a little bit about the influence Delmonicos had in New York and the United States.
Paul Freedman: Now of course I think Oscar Wild is being humorous there, but it's a humorous with a point. He loved Delmonico's and it's not as if he didn't have access to interesting places to dine out in London. Delmonico's really had an international reputation and set the standard for elegance in the entire 19th century in the United States. Standard for elegance, meaning a kind of service, a gracious atmosphere, a combination of friendliness and formality, but also a very high standard of food. The food that they served was French inspired, the menu was usually in French, but they perfected not only American prestige ingredients like canvas back ducks, or the terrapin we've been talking about. They also invented some dishes like Lobster Newburg or Baked Alaska that became identified with the restaurant. Really only beginning around 1900 was Delmonico's supremacy challenged by restaurants that were a little less formal, more bubbly, kind of more fun, and then just by the proliferation of other kinds of restaurants that were not quite as old fashioned. At that point Delmonico's started to be perceived as a little bit over the hill.
Suzy Chase: It was interesting to me to see that the Delmonico brothers were Italian, so I was wondering in my head, "Why didn't they just go with Italian cuisine? Why French?"
Paul Freedman: Because French cuisine was the standard of prestige, not only in France or the United States, but around the world. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, and even up until the 1980's the most prestigious restaurant in almost any city, bet it Tokyo or New York would be a French restaurant. It wasn't that French cuisine was like an ethnic cuisine among many. It was the standard. When the Delmonicos came to New York in the 1820's, nobody knew anything about Italian food, and it was just regarded as the food of peasants if they did know anything about it.
Suzy Chase: On Saturday night, I made Schrafft's chicken a la king recipe on page 440. You wrote, "Invented in 1900 this dish was considered dainty and elegant." That made me laugh, because it calls for a whole stick of butter.
Paul Freedman: Ideas of dainty or particularly ideas of light food have changed. Buttery is considered light as opposed to something that is larded or with a heavy kind of flavored, strong flavored sauce like a wine sauce of some sort. My grandmother who used to take me to Schrafft's in the 1960's when I was a kid, would have considered her cottage cheese with fruit or some sort of macaroni and cheese dish light, because it's not really meaty. Then she'd follow it up with an ice cream sundae because she'd been so abstemious with the main course. Yeah, standards definitely change.
Suzy Chase: You don't see many dishes today that are served on toast. That took me back.
Paul Freedman: I think that's too bad. I love dishes served on toast, but yes.
Suzy Chase: I do too.
Paul Freedman: The Lobster Newburg in some places came with toast. Toast is great at absorbing various things and it's great as a kind of canopy. I think it's ready for a revival and any contribution you can make to that would be great.
Suzy Chase: I'm on it.
Paul Freedman: Great.
Suzy Chase: Where can we find you on the web?
Paul Freedman: I am at the Yale University history department website, and then random kinds of hits. I don't have a web page that I really am maintaining myself, but that's a project that I'm trying to work on.
Suzy Chase: I could talk to you for hours about this book. Thank you, Paul, for coming on Cookery by the Book Podcast.
Paul Freedman: Thank you for having me. I really appreciate it.