Turning the Tables: Restaurants and the Rise of the American Middle Class, 1880-1920

Harvey Levenstein has sympathy for the diners in the battle of the cuisines in pre-Prohibition US

April 28, 2011

It was rather heartening for an old lefty like me to read this lively, well-written book about "class warfare" in late 19th-century America. So what if it describes a war that was fought not in the mines, mills and factories of the rapidly industrialising nation, but in its restaurants, and that those waging the war were not its underpaid, overworked masses but the prosperous new middle class of managers, professionals and white-collar workers? After all, their enemy was the same - the bloated class of self-styled "aristocrats" who controlled the grossly unequal new industrial order - and the moral economy they rallied behind was an egalitarian democratic one.

But how did restaurants become battlegrounds? Andrew Haley describes how the super-rich used their mastery of the intricate codes and language of French haute cuisine to help establish their dominance of US culture and society. Although having a skilled French chef ruling the kitchen of one's mansion was de rigueur, its most public manifestation was in the high-class French restaurant.

Middle-class novices trying to breach these bastions had to pass muster, with haughty maitres d'hotel screening out undesirables sporting the wrong outfits or manners. Those who gained entry would be shunted to remote tables, where waiters with foreign accents sniggered condescendingly at them as they struggled to order a seven-, eight- or nine-course dinner from a vast menu written entirely in French. Even after the meal was finished the humiliation continued, as they were pressured to tip munificently for such awful treatment.

By the turn of the 20th century, though, the urban middle class was numerous enough and self-confident enough to challenge the system. Menus written entirely in French were criticised as un-American, and the practice of translating the names of common American dishes such as brook trout and shad roe into truite de rivière and oeufs d'alose was ridiculed. Upper-class restaurants' refusal to allow "respectable" middle-class women to dine alone or with other women was assailed, as were their bans on women smoking. Even tipping was challenged, albeit not very effectively.

Mostly, though, the challenge came from competition. In the late 19th century, affordable restaurants with English menus serving a few courses of straightforward fare such as chops and beefsteak began to attract the middle class. At the same time, some of the more daring were venturing into modest restaurants in immigrant neighbourhoods serving Italian, German and other ethnic foods. When diners emerged with effusive praise for some of the dishes they discovered there, middle-class restaurants began adapting these dishes to Anglo tastes, creating what Haley calls "cosmopolitan" restaurants that challenged the notion that French cuisine was supreme.

Their success in attracting the middle classes of both sexes prompted hotel restaurants to follow suit and discard their French menus and manners. Finally, even the elite restaurants were trying to change. By 1920, "aristocratic" dining and French haute cuisine were all but dead in the US.

My problem with all of this is that being an old lefty does not preclude me from being an old foodie, which makes it difficult to sympathise with Haley's winners. The fact is that after the First World War, the old kind of haute cuisine was dead or dying everywhere in the Western world, including France. In France, however, its practitioners simplified their menus and adopted dishes from the many fine restaurants featuring bourgeois cuisine. In the US, on the other hand, Prohibition (whose impact - I think Haley pooh-poohs rather unjustifiably) sounded the death-knell for fine dining after 1920 by depriving restaurants of the cushion provided by alcohol sales.

Haley credits "cosmopolitanism" with paying enormous gastronomical dividends in the form of today's plethora of restaurant choices, yet it was really a very thin veneer, centred in New York City. After 1920, most middle-class American restaurants quickly reverted to variants on the default cuisine of that class - the British-American cooking of so many of their ancestors.

The result was that until the 1960s, most of the US, like its "mother country" the UK, remained a middle-class diner's wasteland. When fine dining finally did return, it owed practically nothing to those early 20th-century middle-class egalitarians who crushed the French tradition of relishing fine food prepared with obsessional care.

Turning the Tables: Restaurants and the Rise of the American Middle Class, 1880-1920

By Andrew P. Haley

University of North Carolina Press

376pp, £34.95 ISBN 9780807834749

Published 15 May 2011

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