When did Americans, raised on the food of the Puritans — some meat or fish, some potatoes, some corn — start eating the food of immigrants who came after them?
Author and Hampshire College literary journalism professor Michael Lesy takes up that question in one chapter of his latest book, written with his wife Lisa Stoffer, “Repast: Dining Out at the Dawn of the New American Century, 1900-1910.”
The chapter “Other People's Food” begins with the story of President Theodore Roosevelt having two dinners in New York — one with members of high society at the Waldorf Astoria, and the other with Jewish Republican immigrants at the Little Hungary restaurant. The contrast between the dinners is significant.
Lesy joins Here & Now’s Robin Young to talk about dining out on the wild side.
Interview Highlights: Michael Lesy
On the two different restaurants where Pres. Theodore Roosevelt ate
“The two menus are different and the two emotional experiences are different. The emotional experience that's provided by going out and eating with people who are not white Anglo-Saxons, but who are Mediterranean, or Eastern Europeans, or Germans, or Chinese, and that experience, the ability to occupy an emotional landscape, an emotional way of being, and the food was the way in, because food is always the way in.”
On the evolution of sitting and drinking on Sundays
“Yes, it was called continental Sundays. The idea that German immigrants had was the idea that walking into a bar, throwing back a shot of whiskey, while you're standing, was absolutely savage. They understood that the way to drink was to drink and eat at the same time, to drink slowly, to become mellow and happy, to have some music, to have some food, and to enjoy yourself. Sundays … not a day to go to church, but a day to – maybe go to church, and then sit in a beer garden.”
On New York residents enjoying Bohemian restaurants
“The Bohemians are the edgy people, and these middle class New Yorkers follow the Bohemians into what they call red ink restaurants – red ink is red wine – it's what the journalists, the writers, would call it. Very little money, very nice food, and you could sit around and laugh – my God, in some places the proprietors understood why the people were there and they started behaving like Italians or at least what they thought the people who were eating there thought were Italian.”
On upper middle class trends during that time
“Americans were quite content to go ‘slumming’ — slumming was a very, very popular past time of the upper middle class. And in fact, the aristocracy would walk on the wild side. For example, an Irish hoodlum named Chuck Connors conducts tours of Chinatown with groups of innocent but easily excited tourists from Connecticut or Iowa. And Mr. Connors would walk into the group and say, “Now please don't look around, that that that laundry ov- don't look over th- don't look, please don't look, that laundry over there is actually an opium den. Please, they're watching us,” and then all of a sudden, two guys who were paid by Mr. Connors would come out of an alley, both dressed in chain mail — one guy had a very, very big flat sword and a revolver and the other guy was running for his life, and they were screaming and one man chased the other. What astonished the tourists was that none of the people on the sidewalk — the Chinese people on the sidewalk — would even look up. Well they didn't look up because this show went on every two hours.”
ROBIN YOUNG, HOST:
It's HERE AND NOW.
When did early arrivals to these shores, raised on the food of the Puritans - some meat or fish, some potatoes, some corn - start eating the food of the immigrants who came after them? At one time, social workers and home ec teachers in America tried to get immigrants to eat like Americans - more beef, more milk, more bread. When did that thinking reverse, with primarily white Americans venturing into immigrant restaurants?
Michael Lesy and his wife, Lisa Stoffer, take up that question in a chapter of their latest book, "Repast: Dining Out at the Dawn of the New American Century, 1900-1910." Michael is a literary journalism professor at Hampshire College. He joins us from member station WFCR in Amherst in Massachusetts to talk about other people's food. And, Michael, you tell the story of President Theodore Roosevelt and two dinners in New York - one with members of high society at the Waldorf Astoria, the other with Jewish immigrants at the Little Hungary Restaurant. These people had supported him. And you talk about the contrast between the two.
MICHAEL LESY: Well, the two menus are different and the two emotional experiences are different. The emotional experience that's provided by going out and eating with people who are not white Anglo-Saxons but who are Mediterraneans or Eastern Europeans or Germans or Chinese, and that experience, the ability to occupy an emotional landscape, an emotional way of being, and the food was the way in because food is always the way in.
YOUNG: So you give us these two dinners as almost metaphor. One, very formal and we have a formal Roosevelt. At the other, the cream of snail soup, cabbage and apple strudel, and you have a more emotional president who lets his guard down. And you say, you know, this is sort of one of the reasons people - and, again, we're talking about white Anglo-Saxon Americans - wanted to go into immigrant restaurants because it provided them with experiences that made them feel more alive.
LESY: Food is always a way toward memory or toward a state of mind and emotion. That's why they went and they ate this stuff.
YOUNG: Well, and take us through some of the different kinds of foods that Americans were experimenting with. First of all, huge German populations, huge German neighborhoods, and Americans, who were not German, love the fact that they could go there and drink beer on Sunday.
LESY: Yes. It was called continental Sundays. The idea that German immigrants had was that the idea of walking into a bar and throwing back a shot of whiskey while you're standing was absolutely savage. They understood that the way to drink was to drink and eat at the same time, to drink slowly, to become mellow and happy, to have some music, to have some food, and to enjoy yourself. And Sunday is not a day - and this increased over at the end of the 19th century - not a day to go to church but a day to maybe go to church and then sit in a beer garden.
YOUNG: Well, you're pointing out that these beer gardens grew and grew and grew to satisfy this appetite. You have the Schlitz Park, is it?
LESY: Yes. All these breweries build these parks with orchestras and with merry-go-rounds. So you can get on a trolley from the middle of some very close, packed city like Chicago or Milwaukee, and go out into the countryside and be with your family and be happy and then get back on the trolley.
YOUNG: Late 1800s also saw New Yorkers in particular going crazy over Bohemian restaurants. What did that mean to them? Yeah.
LESY: Well, the Bohemians are the edgy people. And these middle-class New Yorkers follow the Bohemians into what they call red ink restaurants. And red ink is red wine. It's what the journalists, the writers, would call it. Very little money, very nice food, and you can sit around and laugh. My God, in some places, the proprietors understood why the people were there, and they started behaving like Italians, or at least what they thought the people who were eating there thought were Italian.
YOUNG: Well, these Italian restaurants replaced the original Bohemian restaurants, which were French. But increasingly, these Italian restaurants started serving people who weren't Italian, which, again, was somewhat novel at the time. And when you say, it was, you know, for the atmosphere and to have fun, you write about one in which in a memoir of the restaurant - I believe it's Gonferone's(ph) - the daughter talked about how the staff was told to act Italian.
YOUNG: So what would they do?
LESY: Well, you have the chef with the mustache. Maybe he comes out with a knife and chases the waiter.
LESY: You know, the waiters sing and joke with one another. At any rate, you know, there's this German thing, which is a kind of good natured ease. And then there's this, as the Americans understood it, kind of Italian, Mediterranean, sunny happiness. And no one is dour or puritanical.
YOUNG: And that's what Americans wanted, and so Italian restaurant owners gave it to them. It reminds me a little bit, by the way, of Mama Leone's. I don't know if that's still in New York.
LESY: Oh, I remember that.
YOUNG: Yeah. Well, the same thing. You'd go in, and people would sing to you and everything.
YOUNG: But there was also the American who wanted the dark Italian experience. They wanted to feel something was dangerous.
LESY: Yes, the Godfather. But it wasn't the Godfather, who's the Black Hand. These are very, very serious organized crime people. And the counterparts, of course, were the tongs, the Chinese tongs in the Chinese neighborhoods. These are people who are fighting for very, very powerful parts of the economy.
YOUNG: Well, but there's a subset of Americans who wanted to go to a restaurant where they might get a sense of that really serious darkness. And so, again, restaurants would sell it to them.
LESY: Americans were quite content to go slumming. Slumming was a very, very popular pastime of the upper middle class and, in fact, the aristocracy, a walk on the wild side. For example, an Irish hoodlum named Chuck Connors conducts tours of Chinatown with groups of innocent but easily excited tourists from Connecticut or Ireland. And Mr. Connors will walk them in a group and say, now, please don't look around. That laundry over - don't look at the - please don't look. That laundry over there is actually an opium den. Please. They're watching us.
And then all of sudden, two guys, who were paid by Mr. Connors, would come out of an alley, both dressed in chain mail. One guy had a very, very big, flat sword and a revolver, and the other guy was running for his life. And they were screaming, and one man chased the other. What astonished the tourists was that none of the people on the sidewalk, the Chinese people on the sidewalk even looked up. They didn't look up because this show went on every two hours, you understand.
LESY: With that thrilling moment, Mr. Connors would say, now I have arranged lunch in authentic Chinese restaurant. And, of course, everyone was getting paid off. So these tours, whether they were conducted by New York City police detectives for visiting German princes or tours conducted by Irish hoods like Mr. Connors, they're very popular. The problem was these little show and tells with actors began to get very serious because the actors were actually members of rival tongs, rival gangs. And they were serious about money and drugs and prostitution as you can get. These tong wars, which began in 1900, made it very, very hard to get white people to show up.
So in New York, for example, and in Chicago, the Chinese restaurants went to their clients, and they served chop suey.
YOUNG: Well, you write that by 1910, that very active going out for chop suey made middle-class Americans feel pleasantly naughty.
LESY: Yes. Oh, absolutely.
YOUNG: But you also have quotes from Chinese restaurant owners who say, oh, all we're doing is this chop suey. Nobody's...
LESY: Right. And there are too many of us.
YOUNG: Yeah. And nobody's ordering, you know, dumplings. Well, all of this seems so quaint now and also a little bit racist because...
LESY: A little bit?
YOUNG: Yes. Because Americans were just, you know, buying into or placing certain stereotypes on groups through their restaurants. But ultimately, that early part of that, you know, 20th century lead to food tastes really changing.
LESY: It's not just food tastes. It's an attitude toward foreigners. There are food districts full of all sorts of restaurants, and Americans of every class go there, so there's this kind of small bit of benign happiness and acceptance.
YOUNG: That's Michael Lesy, author with his wife, Lisa Stoffer, of "Repast: Dining Out at the Dawn of New American Century, 1900-1910." Michael, thanks so much.
LESY: Oh, thank you.
YOUNG: And to think that at one time, we only ate cod.
YOUNG: From NPR and WBUR Boston, I'm Robin Young.
JEREMY HOBSON, HOST:
I'm Jeremy Hobson. This is HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.