Saturday, December 26, 2015

The Eating-Houses

George G. Foster (1814?–1856)
From American Food Writing: An Anthology With Classic Recipes

Detail from Politics in an Oyster House, 1848, oil on fabric by American artist Richard Caton Woodville (1825–1855). Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Earlier this year various news sources reported that—for the first time ever—Americans are spending more in restaurants than in grocery stores. Although these statistics were soon followed by skepticism (the numbers compiled in the original report didn’t take into account the trend of buying groceries in big-box stores), there is little argument that restaurant receipts have increased: “Especially now that the recession has ended for the most part, consumers are looking to splurge a little bit,” remarks the president of the Food Institute.

The idea of sitting among strangers for the sole purpose of eating a meal was regarded as a rare and awkward experience—usually confined to the inn or the tavern—until the appearance of the American restaurant in the middle of the nineteenth century, particularly in New York City. Putnam’s Monthly in 1853 disapprovingly observed (with some exaggeration) that “the male members of the family are eating their little dinners at Delmonico’s, Frederick’s or Sweeney’s, as the case may be, [and] the female members are solacing themselves with fricandeaus, meringues, and ices at Thompson’s, Taylor’s, or Welter’s; so that it may be said that nearly half of the people of New-York dine out every day in the week but Sunday.” By the end of the century, the novelist Edgar Fawcett would look back in wonder: “Few New Yorkers ever pause to consider what mighty changes the past thirty years have wrought in all our modes of eating.” For the most part, he recalled, “eating houses predominated whose atmosphere would now be defined as vulgarity itself.”

New York Tribune journalist George G. Foster was an early chronicler of these new establishments. Between 1848 and 1854, he published four books (and an instantly forgettable novel) detailing the everyday lives of New Yorkers, ranging from lurid portraits of outcasts to humorous sketches of the upper crust. Several chapters described the new trend for eating in public and, on the whole, Foster was appalled. In a short piece on the various oyster houses that were cropping up around the city, he wrote:
The oyster-cellars, with their bright lamps casting broad gleams of red light across the street, are now in full tide, and every instant sees them swallow up at one entrance a party of rowdy and half-drunken young men on their way to the theater, the gambling-house, the bowling-saloon, or the brothel—or most likely to all in turn—while another is vomited up the other stairway, having already swilled their reeking mouths each with an atrocious cigar, which the bar-keeper recommended as “full-flavored.”
Foster’s attitude towards the new “eating-houses” was hardly more appreciative, but his colorful and harsh judgments are supported by other surviving reports. He divided the new public eateries into three categories: six-penny houses that dispensed quick and cheap midday meals to workers in the financial district; the more expensive chophouses, usually little more than glorified taverns offering slabs of meat with side dishes; and, still in a class by itself, the European-inspired Delmonico’s, which had been established during the 1830s.

Although Foster made his name with sensational accounts of the seedier elements in New York, his preference for high-society haunts like Delmonico’s ultimately caused his downfall. (He delighted in satirizing society swells, but Foster “does seem to have been a bit of a dandy himself,” remarks his biographer Stuart M. Blumin.) Assuming the identity of a New York theater owner, Foster was caught forging a check for upscale clothing in Philadelphia. He spent the better part of 1855 in jail, awaiting trial for phony payments of several hundred dollars—although, according to his victims, the forgeries totaled in the thousands. Rufus Griswold, Foster’s childhood friend (and the late Edgar Allan Poe’s literary nemesis) reluctantly helped bail him out and the case was eventually dropped, but Foster died the following year of a flu-like illness.

Notes: For nearly two centuries the Croton River has supplied Manhattan with its water supply via the Croton Aqueduct. Foster’s joking reference to Taylor at Bueva Vista evokes the military skills exhibited by General Zachary Taylor, who led 5,000 troops to turn back a Mexican army force three times the size at the Battle of Buena Vista, February 23, 1847. “Above Bleecker” was a common phrase for New York’s residential neighborhood north of Bleecker Street. In the eighteenth century, Carl Linnaeus established the system for classifying organisms. The Astor refers to the Astor House Hotel, which opened in 1836 in lower Manhattan and which featured fine dining in an elaborate courtyard surrounded by alcoves.

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