The American Plate: 1900’s

Oysters and Champagne For A New World Power

“When the decade started, America was recognized for the first time as a world power. “The Wright Brothers took flight, Henry Ford took to the road, travelers took the rails aboard luxury trains, and those who had one listened to the radio. The first feature film (The Great Train Robbery) provided entertainment, and Einstein provided a relative theory. “

There was not much progress in the home kitchen. Housewives still slaved over a hot stove fueled by wood, coal or petroleum. Restaurants (both low and high end) often segregated their rooms by sex and/or race, and boasted they were fireproof. Restaurants ranged from oyster houses to exclusive dining rooms that offered both French and English cooking that often only included high society gentlemen.

Fine Dining

In 1902, Horn & Hardart, the first automat was introduced as the first “automatic restaurant” concept in the U.S. along with cafeterias and soda fountains that launched the fast-food industry, “a whole new style of “eating out”. Train dining was an elegant affair in its early years. Airline food would only appear three decades later.

Meet Me in St. Louis: The World’s Fair

Peanut butter, ice cream cone, the hamburger, and iced tea had not been on the American Plate in 1904 until introduced at the St. Louis World’s Fair that ushered in a new era in American dining.

Novelist, Upton Sinclair, whose 1905 best seller, The Jungle covered, among other topics, the unsavory practices of American meat-packers. The book was so shocking that Congress passed the Meat Inspection Act of 1906.

Diamond Jim and Lillian Russell

Financier, Jim Brady, aka Diamond Jim lived a life with food abundance along with his companion, actress Lillian Russell. It was considered at the time that being overweight was a sign of affluence and success. Dinner, his main event featured three dozen oysters, a dozen crabs, six or seven lobsters, terrapin soup, a steak, coffee, a tray of pastries and two pounds of candy. He died at 56, his stomach was said to be six times larger than the average.  Lillian was known to match Brady “ forkful for forkful.” The fair Lillian was hefty (considered the ideal for the times.)  She was reported to have smoked 500 cigars a month. Grove’s Tasteless Chili Tonic made in St. Louis not only claimed to cure everything, but also adds much-admired heft to the figure.

In 1912 “Immigrants pour into the country ” – between 1910 and 1924, 12 million come through Ellis Island. All are screened for communicable diseases and overall health status. This event began the beginning of a myriad of ethnic restaurants.

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