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At the same time, however, his arguments and conclusions are wedded to a simplistic opposition between democracy and snobbery. Rich people are caricatured as fatuous toffs who might as well be wearing top hats and sporting monocles, recalling the comedies of my s youth the non-American reader will forgive these parochial examples: Lodge from the Archie comic-strip.

Opposing them are bold middle-class diners presented as 'an unlikely group of cultural insurgents' p. The result is an indispensable but puzzling, even frustrating, history of restaurants in the United States between and Intriguing questions are posed in Turning the Tables: What cuisines were prestigious?

Under what circumstances have women been welcomed at restaurants? What settings and what degree of formality have tended to succeed commercially? Turning the Tables is new because the rise of what Haley calls the middle-class restaurant is indeed an important social-historical development, one which has never before been discussed in such detail.

Life In The Middle Class: Central Harlem

There had always been taverns and inns to cater to travelers, drinkers and others who did not regard dining as a destination experience. However, beginning in the s fancy restaurants, with gracious service, menus and choices, served well-off diners whose tastes were modeled on those of France.

Project MUSE - Turning the Tables

Before there was little in the way of mid-level eating establishments between elegant restaurants and bleak workingmen's cafes or oyster bars. The decades after saw the proliferation of options for the growing managerial and professional class whose members were uncomfortable in the over-refined atmosphere of Delmonico's, but who wanted something nicer than the rough and tumble of coarse eating houses.

The new types of middle-class establishments included what would now be called ethnic restaurants — notably German, Italian and Chinese eateries, but also steakhouses and light lunch spots especially favored by women or at least intended for them. Haley emphasizes the conscious choices made by the middle class, taking issue, therefore, with those such as Harvey Levenstein who see average Americans as easily manipulated by food corporations and nutritional experts.

Rather than attributing new tastes for lighter and more varied food to urbanization, gender roles, health campaigns or manufactured demand, Haley praises his middle-class diners for their egalitarian spirit and thoughtful opinions.

Other reviews

Haley's middle class is not the passive object of schemes of health experts or monopolistic food companies to change consumption patterns; rather it consists of canny and alert customers who change consumption and life-style according to their own desires. This is the major point of the book. Praising the American middle class and giving it more agency than other historians do, Haley presents its members as admirable but rather severe people who consistently want restaurants that are home-like, unpretentious and economical.

On the contrary, it seems to me, during the last years Americans of modest affluence have adored restaurants with flash and gimmicks including attractions such as pretentiousness, ostentation, dancing, music, and exotic decor.


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They have patronized Tiki restaurants; roadside establishments shaped like wigwams, coffee-pots or chickens; drive-ins served by car-hops on roller skates; so-called continental restaurants with huge leatherette menus; Benihana of Tokyo featuring comical tableside Japanese chopping and cooking ; Outback Steakhouse pseudo-Australian bonhomie ; Hooters scantily-clad waitresses The patrons of these restaurants are seeking not simplicity but spectacle at cheap prices and in a friendly, informal atmosphere. If the austere virtues of the middle class are exaggerated, so is the arrogance and Francophilia of the elite and their elegant restaurants.

In fact, by restaurant menus were almost always in English and the names of dishes were only vaguely French in the manner of Chicken fricassee. Prestige items such as oysters, terrapin or canvasback wild ducks were as forthrightly American as anything served at the new establishments. Fine restaurants may not have had a Walt Whitmanesque clientele, but the managerial and professional classes were already well represented among their customers before the Civil War.

It is also worth pointing out that however democratic the new middle-class eating places claimed to be, there were racial and other restrictions on equality that were very slow to change. According to Haley, the middle class regarded the tastes of the wealthy as antithetical to the values of family, civility and love of plain food. Haley devotes almost no attention to one of the great innovations of the turn of the century, the so-called 'lobster palaces' such as Rector's in New York.

The book explores the transformation of the American restaurant industry at the hands of the middle class between and Viewed through the transformations they wrought in American dining culture, Haley contends that the middle class emerged as a self-conscious entity that actively shaped American food culture and, more broadly, cultural life in the twentieth century. Turning the Tables begins with a chapter on the aristocratic restaurant, a likely antagonist and foil in this period of food history. Haley describes how these elite spaces grew in social importance during the middle of the nineteenth century as French food culture crossed the Atlantic and an increasing number of wealthy capitalists sought to distinguish themselves from the hoi polloi through conspicuous consumption in French-inspired restaurants.

Haley contends that some restaurants that catered to the middle class sought to imitate the cultural and culinary structures of these elite spaces, even while many middle class diners concurrently attempted to crack social barriers by dining at elite restaurants. Their food cultures were fundamentally incompatible. For one, the rebuke of the aristocratic restaurant helped birth a restaurant that catered to middle class desires for simple, unpretentious, and clean food; at the same time, it galvanized a movement among some in the middle class to colonize less ostentatious ethnic restaurants in urban America, thus creating a cosmopolitan food culture that represented a hallmark of middle class food desires.

Despite some underlying xenophobia, Haley argues that the middle class embraced German, Italian, and Chinese restaurants and the foods they served. In the process, middle class Americans took these marginalized social spaces and made them mainstream, all while making the elite French restaurant appear increasingly old-fashioned and uninspired.


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  • The Tang and Feel of the American Experience: Class, Culture, and Consumption pp. The Era of the Aristocratic Restaurant pp. Playing at Make Believe: The Failure of Imitation pp.

    Catering to the Great Middle Stripe: Beefsteaks and American Restaurants pp. Colonizing the Ethnic Restaurant pp.

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