Food is a basic human need, yet nothing about it remains basic, as we learn in the new book, Ten Restaurants that Changed America, by Professor Paul Freedman of Yale University. Food is both a necessity and a commodity; at its lowest level it is sustenance, at its highest, an extravagance. Using food as a lens, Professor Freedman delves into the United States’ restaurant history of the last 200 years. Readers are invited on an elegant crawl: Mamma Leone’s and the Mandarin tell of food and immigration, Schrafft’s and Chez Panisse give insight into women’s rights, American homogeneity through Howard Johnson’s, and the regionalism of Antoine’s and Sylvia’s.
Like a master taster, Freedman is able to sniff out the subtleties in each restaurant that influenced culture, society, industry and politics in America. With each dish, Freedman explores how to best define the ingredient-mashed melting pot that is American cuisine. As if each chapter were not already a treat, the book is sprinkled with delightful historical menus that capture the eye and entice the appetite (though unfortunately only four of the 10 restaurants discussed are still open). Paste caught up with Professor Freedman, gaining further insight into restaurant’s flavorful past, and how social media factors into food’s future.
Paste: At Yale you teach Medieval History, with a focus on peasantry. How did you go from studying the Middle Ages to modern dining?
Paul Freedman: I’ve always been interested in class and markers of class, and when I worked on Medieval peasants I was interested in types of the lowly food that they ate—gruel, dairy products, root vegetables – which were held in contempt by the aristocracy. Then I wrote a book on spices, which were the quintessential prestigious food of the Middle Ages. That was the bridge to Medieval Food. I became interested with what people of different classes eat, what people of different ethnicities eat, and even more the stereotypes they make of what other people eat. When I was working on the spice book, I had a fellowship in the New York Public Library Cullman Center and I saw an exhibit of their menus—they have this huge menu collection—menus from New York City, going back to 1840. They entranced me.
Paste: In the book, you explore the mystery of how to define American food. Did you come up with a definition?
PF: I think so. There are several forces that interact to form the kind of food that we eat today. One is a love of variety, and you see that in the popularity of “ethnic” food. In the proliferation of brands, even of not all that great mass-market industrial product, they always come in flavors and variety. Another characteristic is regionalism and the waning of regionalism. There are American regional cuisines, but they tend to become homogenized into a national standardized pattern. And that national standardized pattern is what I think of as modern cuisine – when people stop making their own bread, when bakeries become uncommon, when people buy Wonderbread or the more sophisticated version – whatever it is, it’s a packaged product. If I were to go on with this investigation of American food, I think I’d divide it into what used to be called “ethnic” cuisine, regionalism, and modernity standard.
Paste: How would the current “foodie” culture fit into your study?
PF: It does not get rid of class, prestige, competition, social capital, social position. Being a “foodie” can mean two things, it seems to me. Some despise foodies. That is, they define foodies as people who want to go to the latest restaurant that some famous chef opened. Whereas foodies also want to seek out the authentic. I certainly wouldn’t say the fashion for food creates a more just society, but I would say the fashion for food is not just a hipster or affluent “let me visit the chicken phenomenon,” like in the show Portlandia. Are you familiar with that episode?
Paste: The one where they dine at the restaurant and they keep asking about where the chicken came from?
PF: And they keep on asking more and more questions about the chicken, and the waiter takes each question very seriously, then ultimately they visit the chicken. I don’t think foodie is confined to that, I think there is a content: discriminating between food that is being grown, versus food that is part of global industrial trade. Thinking about agriculture, sustainability, climate change. These are real issues that are creatively and constructively addressed through the fashion for food.
Paste: In the lecture you gave to the Culinary Historians of New York, you likened the high-end restaurant scene in America in the 19th century as the continuation of the European court. How does court culture continue in fine dining?
PF: The restaurant and the rise of the restaurant is associated with the rise of the 19th century bourgeoisie. These are people who are wealthy, but don’t have palaces or country estates. While they’re trying to position their family with new alliances or as new aristocrats, they don’t have the kind of court orientation of aristocrats either holding the court themselves or being part of a royal court with rules of hierarchy. So the restaurant allowed people of this sort to hold ostentatious events, to entertain people who were not just social contacts but business contacts. The restaurant then became the stage of bourgeois deal making, like playing golf together, it became a form of confirming social status.
Paste: Moving into current times, what role do you see Instagram playing in society and the food scene?
PF: Instagram is in continuity with social positioning in restaurants of 150 years ago, but it’s more personal. The elite, while they met at Delmonico’s in the 19th century, many of them were not particularly interested in being in the newspapers. They were Vanderbilts and Astors, they were already prestigious. Instagram creates a kind of democracy of people talking about you. Even if you’re not an important person, you take pictures of the food that you’ve been eating, and people are supposed to be impressed by this. And even if they’re not necessarily all that impressed, you’re putting yourself out there as someone who has been to Osteria Francescana, or 11 Madison Park.
Madina Papadopoulos is a New York-based freelance writer, author, and regular contributor to Paste. You can follow her adventures on Instagram and Twitter.