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Turning the Tables Author Andrew Haley on How the Middle Class Changed Restaurant Culture

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Andrew Haley's fascinating book Turning the Tables: Restaurants and the Rise of the American Middle Class, 1880-1920, is nominated for an upcoming James Beard award and was also a 2012 International Association of Culinary Professionals finalist. He teaches at the University of Southern Mississippi at Hattiesburg and spoke over the phone in between classes about how the rich fought to keep restaurants to themselves, believed any unaccompanied female was a potential prostitute and why Europeans are bad about tipping.


How did the American middle class change restaurant culture?

The kind of food you choose to eat and where you eat says a lot about the person you want to be. My book argues that in the late 19th century this group of people felt excluded from upper class restaurants that were predominantly in hotels in large cities. They served French food often cooked by French chefs, with menus in French, and prices were pretty high. For the middle class this meant these restaurants were largely inaccessible. In today's dollars it would cost them $200 and that was if you skimped and shared appetizers and avoided alcohol. I found a piece in the New York Times in the 1890s on how to go to one of these fancy restaurants and keep the bill reasonable. Also, what made it expensive was that unmarried couples had to bring chaperones and pay for them as well. With urbanization, by 1902 or 1904, it was no longer assumed a chaperone would come along to dinner.


So how did the middle class break in?

Part of what happened is that, since they were unable to experience these upper class restaurants, they looked around for alternatives. They started to go to short-order working men's restaurants and ethnic restaurants, slumming in undesirable parts of town. In the 1880s and 1890s there was a chop suey craze in New York that spread to the Midwest and the South. People would go to family-oriented German restaurants, which then started to hire more professional servers and put down tablecloths. This transformed them from an immigrant restaurant to a working class restaurant.


What was the oddest thing about dining in a restaurant before 1900?

Chaperones were a big one. Etiquette dictated that oftentimes the same rules of home entertaining applied to restaurants. If you were invited out to a restaurant you had to return the favor by inviting them to your home or to another restaurant. Dining in restaurants also changed fashion. Before 1900, women wore ballroom gowns when they went out. Then, in the early 1900s to the 19-teens, we started to see less structured 'restaurant dresses.' Corsets went away. The emergence of cabarets where you might have a meal and a drink and a stage show, with an open floor for dancing, really changed fashion. The influence of jazz changed the way people danced. It was much more energetic than a waltz and required looser clothing.


As a former waitress who still has friends in the industry, I wonder why Europeans don't know how to tip. How did it end up developing in America as a practice but not in Europe?

Americans got the idea of tipping from Europeans. When rich Americans were visiting someone else's house in Europe they were advised to leave a gift for the servants as a tip. It wasn't entirely obligatory but tipping did take place in European cities at restaurants. What happens is that upper class Americans picked this up and were becoming incredibly wealthy so they tipped lavishly. Around 1900 the American economy was booming. Europeans were shocked by the way Americans were tipping. They were appalled that Americans came over and out-tipped them.


Over 100 years have gone by and there's still a backlash with Europeans refusing to tip like vulgar Americans?

It may have played a role.


The American middle class learned to tip from the upper class?

The American middle class was horrified by tipping. Just as they were getting their foot in the door and finally able to afford restaurants, the upper class could still out-tip them and receive better service. Once you had the reputation of being a good tipper you would get a better table. The middle class was incredibly upset about this and called tipping un-American. It went against the idea of democracy. They were getting bad service because they couldn't tip as much. This led to legislative efforts in seven states to ban tipping. All of the anti-tipping laws were repealed in the 1920s. They were unenforceable.


Waiters must have been middle class themselves so it's interesting that the middle class was against them getting tips.

It wasn't that they resented their servers. They wanted a strong, standard wage for the wait staff, for it to be a fairer system. The middle class believed tipping created a kind of slavishness.


Has all this research influenced the way you tip?

Yes, but I think the larger influence on how I tip is being aware how poorly waiters and waitresses are paid today. Plus, I have a wife in the industry -- she's a chef -- so we take tipping very seriously. When I was young I was a host at a Howard Johnson's in Portsmouth, New Hampshire and we had a lot of French-Canadian tourists come in. They did not tip. They left amounts that were insulting by American standards, which engendered a lot of animosity from the wait staff. Americans are more committed to tipping than most cultures but the Americanization of the world suggests tipping is becoming more prominent elsewhere.


In the early days of restaurants service seemed deliberately stuffy, but now there's such an emphasis on being nice.

If you look around today, restaurants are designed to welcome everybody. Restaurant culture is much more democratic and I believe it's rooted in this restaurant revolt of the early 20th century. The American middle class created pressure on upper class restaurants to let them in. The owners recognized there was a giant spending public out there and they changed for them. They got rid of the menus in French and used English and began to allow men and women to dine together.


How did women break the barrier to be allowed into restaurants?

One of the most fascinating things I learned about 19th century restaurants was that they didn't cater to women at all unless they had a separate room for them. It was like something you'd see in the Middle East today. Some of them bent the rules and allowed a woman into the dining room if her husband accompanied her. Restaurateurs were fearful of loose women, prostitutes trying to attract male patrons and get them to buy them dinner. Middle class couples, who married for love, began to make a point of dining out in restaurants and we see these policies restricting women begin to change. Working women became much more respected in that world.


When were women allowed to start dining out when not accompanied by a man?

I came across a couple of really interesting controversies. In the book I tell a story about a woman named Harriet Stanton Blatch, a suffragist who sued a restaurant in 1908 for being refused service because she had arrived with a woman friend. She went to court and lost. The magistrate said that by going into a restaurant and disregarding the rules, she was a disruptive woman. This was at a restaurant called the Hoffman House in New York. Taking it to court was an extraordinary thing.


Was she kind of a Rosa Parks?

It appears that this restaurant did allow women to dine in the afternoon and she and her friend got there later and did not intend to cause trouble. Harriet Blatch wrote a biography about the women's movement and her losing in court seems to have been enough of an embarrassment that she left it out of her book. I found a reference to it in a newspaper and dug into the story. Women's groups at the time were championing her case and it eventually led to signs of change. The distinction became that restaurants reserved the right to not seat a woman who did not appear ladylike. There was an assumption that if you were rich it was perfectly acceptable for a woman to drink or smoke in public. Not for the middle class. But once they got their foot in the door they began to test the limits. In the 19-teens middle class women started going into restaurants and lighting up cigarettes and challenging the rules.


Do you see a clash today in restaurants between the upper class and middle class?

It's blurred a little bit now. An upper class person might go to an ethnic restaurant. The cost of going to an Olive Garden is not that different from going to a more upper class restaurant. The barriers that existed before were much more absolute. And Yelp is an amazing thing that gives everyone a voice.

Turning the Tables: Restaurants and the Rise of the American Middle Class, 1880-1920 is out May 16th via the University of North Carolina Press.

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