History of the American restaurant, bad table manners, and regionalism in cuisine

The Carolina Burger Contest and the History of Southern Cooking:  Part 2.5

Last night, in writing for my Carolina burger contest, I researched the history of regional cooking as a focus for restaurants, trying to discover when “Southern cooking” became a style promoted on menus or for a type of restaurant.   I found one excellent little study on American restaurant offerings in a journal article that includes first-hand accounts from diners in the 1800s and menus from restaurants at that time.  The author notes that as America expanded in the 1800s and as cities from coast to coast began to grow, restaurants became very popular.  The most common menu items, even in the finest dining establishments, were baked beans and pork, macaroni with cheese, oyster patties, and all sorts of fritters.   Calf’s head, mutton, and oysters dominated the meat entrees.   The study specifically looks at the development of restaurants beyond taverns and travel inns (generally places not frequented by the wealthy and which often attracted drunkards and thieves.  There are some bars in Raleigh that still attract that sort.  I frequent them).

No matter what the meal, during the 19th century, many foreigners commented on the fact that American’s possessed unseemly modes of eating and a penchant for ice in their drinks:

“Lord Acton’s ‘American Journal,’ which describes a dinner at the St. Nicholas Hotel in New York in 1853, shortly after its opening, piques curiosity. The dining room was impressive, with fine, large mirrors. Forty waiters were on hand to serve one hundred guests, and the meal was luxurious. A printed, ornamented menu was given to each diner. The price of the meal was $1.00. Acton reports that on this occasion men and women dined together, which was not the common practice in the United States. Acton was not the only foreigner to observe that Americans like ice with their drinks. The food was plentiful, he said, but “unremarkable,” and it was eaten with unseemly haste, even voracity.

The maniacal speed with which Americans consumed their food in public places was observed by many others, from J. E. Alexander’s hilarious account of a Nashville hostelry in his Transatlantic Sketches (1833) to Kipling’s observation at the end of the century that Americans have no meals but rather stuff themselves for ten minutes three times a day. Even the peerless chef Charles Ranhofer at Delmonico’s rushed diners despite, or perhaps because of, the elaborateness of his meals. He normally expected a fourteen-course meal to be served in two hours and twenty minutes (figuring ten minutes per course), but occasionally he accelerated the pace to one hour and fifty-two minutes (allowing just eight minutes of eating time between each service).”

It was also unusual for women to dine alone or even in groups.  Though many hotels did cater to women who were traveling alone and would have separate entrances, parlors and dining tables so they would not have to “endure the gaze of the sort of men who congregated in the public spaces.”

The article goes on to note that in the mid-1800s, Delmonico’s “did not allow women in their public dining rooms unless escorted by a man.”    Half a century later, when women were the majority in attendance at lunch at Delmonico’s, women were given menus with lighter fare and men chose from plates that were “more substantial” and had little “in the way of ornamentation.”

Focus on Regions

The author notes that recognition of regionalism on menus didn’t happen until the mid-1800s but the focus wsd primarily on the “basic ingredients (animals, fish) rather than styles.”  One early menu for a ball held at the Willard Hotel in Washington D.C. makes mention of some Southern food items, but these are specific ingredients – “reed birds from Savannah, wild turkeys from Kentucky…venison from North Carolina, and ‘other native American dishes’. ”  (Note that “native” is not uppercase – so this is an early reference to regional specialties from the South).


Note that terrapin and canvas back duck were featured for the menu at this ball held at the Waldorf in 1896. These two entrees were all the rage in high-end establishments at the time. (from the Museum of the City of New York)

In the 19th century, there was a popular focus on two “particularly prestigious” dishes, derived from animals from Maryland and the Chesapeake Bay – canvasback ducks and diamondback terrapins.  The ducks were  reputed to obtain their flavor “from feeding on wild celery growing by the Bay (but also along the Potomac, Susquehanna, and Delaware Rivers).”

The author ends the article stating that regional food only began gaining prominence as a style at the end of nineteenth century, when “urban experimenters’ and “Bohemians, such as artists and journalists” began trying Chinese and Italian restaurants and extolling their virtues.   Other sources indicate an occasional dalliance with Indian cuisine and an up and down fascination with French.  No word in this article on the national recognition of Southern cuisine as a distinct style in restaurants (of course, restaurants did exist in the South serving Southern cuisine).  The South in general had the fewest restaurants per person in that time period, the West having the most.

Though Southern cuisine doesn’t appear to have been a gastronomic “destination” at that point, I did read through the menu of entrees served at the 5th Avenue Hotel in New York n the mid-1800s and found on offer calf’s brains fried in batter, calf’s brains in pickle sauce, calf’s brains in turtle sauce, and stuffed pigs feet.  I could see my plump Southern grandmother getting a second helping of all of those.  And while, I didn’t find specifically what I was looking for in this article, it gave me a basic and broad sense of the American palate in the 1800s when it came to dining out.   No mention up to end of the 19th century of coleslaw, chili con carne or hamburgers but there are plenty of mentions of beefsteak.  I’m on the right track.

*The journal article referred to throughout: Paul Freedman, “American Restaurants and Cuisine in the Mid-Nineteenth Century”, The New England Quarterly, March 2011, Vol. 84, No. 1, Pages 5-59








Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s