Yale historian Paul Freedman on the history of American restaurants and the ‘paradox’ of food

How we eat is both ubiquitous and semi-invisible — it is everywhere around us, but we usually don’t think about it as a social marker. Food, however, lets us see who we are and who we are in the process of becoming, according to Yale historian Paul Freedman.

Freedman, the Chester D. Tripp Professor of History, teaches a course on the history of food at Yale, and recently authored a book titled “Ten Restaurants That Changed America.”

Freedman was inspired to write this book in part by seeing an exhibit of restaurant menus at the New York Public Library. “I was struck by how beautiful many of them were in terms of design, as fantasies, and as ways of communicating something more than just a meal as a necessity. I was also amazed at how different the food served at restaurants was in the 19th century from today’s — how many wild game items there were, what seemed to be the most expensive or prized items or the specialties, and how much organ meat was offered compared to now,” says Freedman.

Freedman, who focuses his teaching and research on medieval history, wrote his book on American restaurant history partly due to his interest in food as a way of talking about society and stratification. He based the book on the   ten most influential  restaurants, not in all cases those that had the miost sophisticated food. .

One of the restaurants that Freedman highlighted in his book is Schraffts, a small chain on the East coast of not very expensive restaurants that catered to women by serving light food and elaborate desserts. Freedman decided to include Schraffts in his book not only because its menu was designed to appeal to female customers, but also because the restaurants were “pleasant, gracious, and safe in the sense that in the 1900s women could come by themselves or in a group without a male escort and not be taken for unrespectable women.” Unfortunately for Schraffts, the women’s movement in the 1970s led to its eventual demise, in part because the movement discredited the type of restaurants that catered to an unfavorable and stereotypical image of a female customer.

“Schraffts was trapped in a niche,” says Freedman.

Restaurants on both coasts that served a wide variety of foods were featured in Freedman’s book, and, despite all of his research, he found it difficult to pinpoint what exactly, is American cuisine. Freedman says that he came to the conclusion that American cuisine “is not so much a collection of canonical dishes, in the way that one can think of menu offerings in France or Italy. American cuisine is more than that, says Freedman, noting that answering the question “what is American cuisine” is a project that he would like to undertake next. “I’d like to write a book that encompasses cookbooks, and what people on the frontier or on plantations cooked and ate.”

Freedman sees three interconnected trends that characterize American cuisine: regionalism, the standardization and industrialization of the food supply, and variety. One example of enduring regional cuisine that he cites in the book is the Creole and  Cajun food of southern  Louisiana. Because of the standardization and industrialization of the food supply, “food has tended to be the same coast to coast — think of Howard Johnson’s, eating fried clams in Nebraska, Yankee Pot Roast being a featured item on a menu in Portland Oregon, or lasagna being served in restaurants coast to coast,” says Freedman. “Despite the standardization and the same dishes being served everywhere, they come in a lot of different varieties, and variety is a way of distracting attention from industrial standardization and a de-emphasis on quality.”

Every trend that affects American society has an impact on restaurants and customers, beginning with the first restaurants in the early 19th century, Freedman says. Immigration, he notes, has had a tremendous impact on the variety of restaurants that were — and are — available in America. “In 1880, just like in 1980, just like now, the majority of people who work in and own restaurants are foreign-born,” Freedman says. Other societal changes that he says have influenced restaurant trends include: changing gender roles, a decline in the consumption of meat, a greater consciousness of marketing healthy food to children; the migration of African Americans from the South to the North beginning almost exactly 100 years ago during World War I; industrialization; railroads; and post-war suburbia.

Considering how societal changes have impacted the nation’s restaurants “really is a new way of looking at the history of America,” says Freedman.

Of the restaurants in his book, Freedman had the most fun with the Mandarin, a Chinese restaurant in San Francisco, and Antoine’s Restaurant, which is located in New Orleans and serves French-Creole cuisine. “The Mandarin’s owner, Cecilia Chang, who is now 97 years old, is a wonderful character who gave me a lot of time. She has had a very adventurous life and there are a lot of stories connected with her,” says Freedman, adding, “New Orleans is so marvelous, and Antoine’s has such a sort of storied — or to use the hackneyed word, iconic — history and they, too, were extremely nice to me and very forthcoming and helpful.”

One of the most surprising things Freedman uncovered while conducting research for his book, he says, was the different business histories of restaurants and the variety of ways that businesses make — or lose — money. There is not a single formula for success, Freedman says, pointing to Howard Johnson’s model of the “efficient task master” as one successful approach, and the “irresistible model of the welcoming and wonderful personalities” found at Sylvia’s in Harlem and the Mandarin as another. “Both Sylvia Woods and Cecilia Chang were very good cooks and served fine food, which was perceived as better than the average of other soul foods and Chinese cuisine. But their success was very much due to their personalities,” he says.

“Another surprising element — and something that happened by accident — is that 4 of the 10 restaurants were owned and founded by women,” he notes. In addition to Sylvia’s and the Mandarin, Chez Panisse and Mama Leone’s were founded by women who also were chefs at their respective restaurants, Freedman notes.

The study of the history of restaurants, says Freedman, “has been regarded as somehow not a serious topic of inquiry by many historians — or more accurately, historians have seen famine or nutrition as serious topics, but restaurants and food choice as frivolous .” Freedman says that he would certainly like for students to see his course on the history of food “not just as a fun course, but as a something that reveals a more complicated world than they expected when they started it.”

“I hope my students learn that that food is a marker of culture, and that it is not always a happy marker of culture,” says Freedman, whose research interests also include discrimination and hierarchy. “Food is full of paradoxes. The fact that people eat at Mexican or Chinese restaurants does not mean that their cultural horizons have expanded. There are plenty of people right now who like eating Mexican food but who are afraid of Mexican immigration.”