Restaurants almost feel indigenous to American landscape, whether you’re weaving past them by the thousands when you’re driving through a metropolis on the East or West Coast or whether, like me, you find yourself in a small town in the middle of the Midwest, which still manages to boast one Indian restaurant, two Middle Eastern restaurants, and a handful of Mexican and Chinese restaurants. But did you ever wonder just how someone living in Athens, Ohio, could end up eating seaweed egg drop soup on a Tuesday night in September? How exactly did we, as Americans, come to embrace such a rich and ethnically diverse restaurant culture?
This is one of the many fascinating questions that Andrew P. Haley explores in Turning the Tables: Restaurants and the Rise of the American Middle Class, 1880-1920 (University of North Carolina Press, 2011). Haley’s book tells the story of a middle-class revolution, one that changed American restaurants from aristocratic establishments in the thrall of French culture and French food to democratic places where middle-class Americans with a few extra dollars could enjoy a night out without worrying about whether they had on the right evening gown or knew the correct pronunciation of “menu.” Along the way, Haley makes insightful observations about subjects that range from the rise of middlebrow culture in America to the practice of tipping.
A winner of this year’s James Beard Award for scholarly work, Turning the Tables is that rare book that’s satisfying to read if you’re interested in academic ideas like the history and origins of class consciousness or if you’re just curious about why that stereotype of the snooty French waiter remains with us.