Monday, March 19, 2012

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

Andrew P. Haley's Turning the Tables: Restaurants and the Rise of the American Middle Class, 1880-1920 (University of North Carolina Press, 2011) is a tightly integrated, culturo-historical look at the late 19th century-early 20th century war of prominence between a previously non-existent middle class dining culture and the dominant elite dining culture of the day.  The book, which is based on the author's Ph.D thesis, assiduously covers the forces that led to the birth and evolution of the middle class dining culture - and the impact on its aristocratic counterpart -- from a historical perspective but is equally thorough in enumerating and analyzing the cultural issues (power, class, gender, agency, and cultural change, among others) that arose during the course of this confrontation.  As the author sees it, "... modern restaurant culture was the product of a clash between the upper and middle classes."

At the highest level, this is a simple and straightforward story, especially when viewed from the perspective of the book's Table of Contents: (i) The aristocrats possess and hold the high ground of culinary standard-setting; (ii) the fledgling middle class seeks to emulate, but fails miserably; (iii) the middle class counters by creating their own battlefield and, because of their numbers, they change the dynamics such that the middle ground they occupy now becomes the strategic locus; and (iv) the aristocrats, and their support structure, are isolated on their now rocky outcropping.  But it is the numerous threads within this overall narrative that the author plumbs so magnificently that makes this book as interesting and rewarding as it ultimately is.

According to the author, in the mid-19th century, the aristocratic class in the US began to assert its dominance through the establishment of dining norms (cuisine, rituals, consumption locale) and consumed conspicuously according to those norms.  The American aristocracy had begun traveling to Europe and sought to copy the culinary habits and practices of their European counterparts.  In order to gain the patronage of these aristocrats, US restaurants began catering exclusively to their needs to the exclusion of all other groups.  The cuisine demanded by the elite was French; the chefs were French; the food was expensive and dispensed in courses; there was a set order in which utensils were used; the head waiter determined the seating arrangements; women could not eat alone; and tipping was required to ensure a good seat and meal.

On the other side of the fence, so to speak, stood the "nascent" urban middle class: managers, bureaucrats, small-scale entrepreuners, and professionals who lived in the suburbs and commuted in to the city daily.  The members of this group sought to imitate the practices of the elite but found themselves unable to do so.  According to the author, "... the middle class rejected the elite restaurant not only because the ... restaurant was expensive and inaccessible but also because they found that the values they were coming to see as their own ... were manifestly not the values enshrined by the elite restaurant."  This state of affairs led the middle class to avoid the elite restaurants -- where they were not welcome anyway -- and to colonize available non-elite eating places and associated (in many cases ethnic) cuisines and, through group dynamics, forced those restaurants to develop a style of cuisine, service, and environment that was suited to their tastes.  The author refers to this as the "democratization of dining" and the creation of a "cosmopolitan" cuisine.

This democratization of dining had significant implications for the restaurant industry as ownership of middle-class-type restaurants increased from 13,000 in 1880 to 165,000 in 1930 while:
  • The bastions of elite cuisine (Delmonico's in NY, for example) fell by the wayside
  • There was a movement from the elite meal courses to the middle-class plate dinners
  • English-language menus replaced French-language menus in elite restaurants
  • Menus were broadly simplified
  • Middle class women won the right to dine unaccompanied in a restaurant
  • French cuisine went from a position of dominance to being just another ethnic cuisine
  • The elites lost their positon as cuisine standard setters and the middle class donned that mantle.
The author drew on period newspaper articles, restaurant menus, restaurant journals, and culinary magazines as source material for his thesis and this book. 

The battle for culinary prominence was fought on many fronts and the author chose to treat these topically, rather than temporally, resulting in a slightly disconcerting duplication of assertions and hypotheses from chapter to chapter.  At the end of the day, however, this may have been the only way to do justice to this expansive subject and it only minimally detracts from the excellence of the tome.

The battle for culinary prominence was not an end in and of itself, according to the author.  By acting as cultural change agents in the culinary sphere, the middle class gained the confidence to make consumer choices and launched the consumerism that came to be the hallmark of middle classdom.  If this is truly the case, then the culinary batlle was more than a seminal event; it would have been the gateway to an era.

© Wine -- The View From Orlando

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