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

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

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

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


Winner of the 2012 James Beard Foundation Book Award in Reference and Scholarship

In the nineteenth century, restaurants served French food to upper-class Americans with aristocratic pretensions, but by the twentieth century, even the best restaurants dished up ethnic and American foods to middle-class urbanites spending a night on the town. In Turning the Tables, Andrew Haley examines the transformation of American public dining at the start of the twentieth century and argues that the birth of the modern American restaurant helped establish the middle class as the arbiter of American culture.
Early twentieth-century battles over French-language menus, scientific eating, ethnic restaurants, unescorted women, tipping, and servantless restaurants pitted the middle class against the elite. United by their shared preferences for simpler meals and English-language menus, middle-class diners defied established conventions and successfully pressured restaurateurs to embrace cosmopolitan ideas of dining that reflected the preferences and desires of middle-class patrons.
Drawing on culinary magazines, menus, restaurant journals, and newspaper accounts, including many that have never before been examined by historians, Haley traces material changes to restaurants at the turn of the century that demonstrate that the clash between the upper class and the middle class over American consumer culture shaped the "tang and feel" of life in the twentieth century.


In 1842, Charles Dickens visited the United States and left unimpressed. He was received warmly; as Dickens admitted, “There never was a King or Emperor upon the Earth, so cheered, and followed by crowds, and entertained in Public at splendid balls and dinners.” the admiration, however, was not mutual. While Dickens’s feelings toward America ultimately soured over copyright law, in his autobiographical account of the trip, American Notes, and his subsequent novel, Martin Chuzzlewit, the great democracy’s eating habits were singled out for ridicule:

The poultry, which may perhaps be considered to have formed the
staple of the entertainment— for there was a turkey at the top, a pair
of ducks at the bottom, and two fowls in the middle— disappeared
as rapidly as if every bird had had the use of its wings, and had flown
in desperation down a human throat…. Great heaps of indigestible
matter melted away as ice before the sun. It was a solemn and awful
thing to see. Dyspeptic individuals bolted their food in wedges; feed
ing, not themselves, but broods of night-mares, who were continually
standing at livery with them. Spare men, with lank and rigid cheeks,
came out unsatisfied from the destruction of the heavy dishes, and
glared with watchful eyes upon the pastry.

Dickens, whose aspirations to respectability included a love of French cuisine, found the culinary life of America barbarous.

The American public was not amused by lurid descriptions of its dining habits, and a heated, transcontinental exchange of barbs ensued. Encapsulating the views of the harshest of Dickens’s American critics, editor and poet Park Benjamin Sr. wrote in The New World, “Mr. Dickens, whatever may be his merits as a writer, is, as will readily be admitted by those who . . .

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