- - Wednesday, October 12, 2016



By Paul Freedman

Liveright, $35, 560 pages illustrated

In these days of ever-increasing specialization in the academic world, with its micro-courses and all too narrow focus, it is a delightful surprise to encounter someone like Yale’s professor Paul Freedman. A specialist in medieval history with a special interest in Spanish cultural history and trade in that pivotal time, he also chairs the university’s program in the history of science and medicine. But it is probably his longtime engagement with the history of cuisine that led him to leap forward several centuries to give us this look at a basket of restaurants which each really did change the way this country ate.

One of the more positive developments in historiography in recent times has been its increasing attention beyond the narrow confines of political economy into diverse areas of culture. And, without this sea change, I doubt that we could have had a book like this by a distinguished professor on such a topic, bringing with him all the research, beautifully footnoted and otherwise annotated, which make this such an impeccable work of scholarship.

Equally apparent, though, is Mr. Freedman’s intense engagement with — and genuine feeling for — food in all its glorious variety. He has the capacity to make our mouths water at glorious dishes no longer available to us, even as we feel his must have done when writing about them. The first restaurant here — that 19th century icon, New York City’s Delmonico’s, founded in 1831 — “always claimed to be a French restaurant, but it was especially known for American specialties such as oysters, diamondback terrapin, and canvasback duck.”

We may still have oysters, but those other two, which the author tells us Victorian novelist Anthony Trollope visiting Baltimore from England, hailed as “the city’s twin glories” are gone with the proverbial wind. The Trollopean reference, along with pointing out that Alexis de Tocqueville visited the United States the same year Delmonico’s opened, are hallmarks of this historian’s sweep. And as we move from the glorious past to the current locally sourced food fashion started by Californian Alice Waters, whose Bay Area restaurant Chez Panisse concludes this tour d’horizon, we see how tastes and — yes, even fads — both reflected and shaped American society.

Don’t think, though, that Mr. Freedman only restricts himself to temples of haute cuisine. He certainly pays due attention to Henri Soule’s restaurant at the New York World’s Fair of 1939-40’s French Pavilion. Prevented from returning home by the Nazi occupation of his homeland, “Le Pavillon” came, along with the other restaurants it spawned, to define French food on this side of the Atlantic.

A few notches down the culinary scale, Howard Johnson’s, with its fried clam feasts and all those flavors of ice cream, owed a lot to the development of highways. An urban restaurant like Manhattan’s Schrafft’s started off catering to the tastes of ladies who lunched, with its Jello and cottage cheese salads, creamed dishes in patty shells, and ice cream sundaes. But, as a restaurant wishing to reach the middle class as a whole, heartier dishes calculated to appeal to the male palate like corned beef hash started to appear. As Mr. Freedman perceptively writes:

“To those of a certain age, the dishes on Schrafft’s menus will seem almost boringly familiar. What is interesting is that many of these cliches are all but unavailable today. Once ubiquitous items such as baked apples, stewed fruit, coconut cream pie, stuffed tomatoes, or pot roast are rare . Just try to find a banana split. It may seem as if many of these endangered foods fall into the Salisbury steak category — dishes that are difficult to find now on menus because they were bad in the first place — but this is not really even true for Salisbury steak. Their fall from favor has more to do with dietary opinions, random fashion, or, more particularly, the demise of a certain kind of genteel dining . Schrafft’s fall, as with its rise, had less to do with food than with social change.”

If this book has a central insight, this last sentence encapsulates it. But there are many others as well, from eaters’ mores that evolved from fine dining to fast food to the enduring importance of regional and ethnic cuisine.

Inevitably, a book like this will induce a feast of delicious nostalgia in most readers, a longing for all those good — and even some not so good — menus and dishes past. But the culinary and cultural journey Mr. Freedman has taken us on demonstrates the abiding qualities in our society — its openness to new sources and sourcing, its diversity, its restlessness with the same old thing, its capacity for reinvention and assimilation — all of which bode well for the future of America’s restaurants and its cuisine.

Martin Rubin is a writer and critic in Pasadena, Calif.

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