When did Americans, raised on the food of the Puritans — some meat or fish, some potatoes, some corn — start eating the food of immigrants who came after them?
Author and Hampshire College literary journalism professor Michael Lesy takes up that question in one chapter of his latest book, written with his wife Lisa Stoffer, “Repast: Dining Out at the Dawn of the New American Century, 1900-1910.”
The chapter “Other People’s Food” begins with the story of President Theodore Roosevelt having two dinners in New York — one with members of high society at the Waldorf Astoria, and the other with Jewish Republican immigrants at the Little Hungary restaurant. The contrast between the dinners is significant.
Lesy joins Here & Now’s Robin Young to talk about dining out on the wild side.
Interview Highlights: Michael Lesy
On the two different restaurants where Pres. Theodore Roosevelt ate
“The two menus are different and the two emotional experiences are different. The emotional experience that’s provided by going out and eating with people who are not white Anglo-Saxons, but who are Mediterranean, or Eastern Europeans, or Germans, or Chinese, and that experience, the ability to occupy an emotional landscape, an emotional way of being, and the food was the way in, because food is always the way in.”
On the evolution of sitting and drinking on Sundays
“Yes, it was called continental Sundays. The idea that German immigrants had was the idea that walking into a bar, throwing back a shot of whiskey, while you’re standing, was absolutely savage. They understood that the way to drink was to drink and eat at the same time, to drink slowly, to become mellow and happy, to have some music, to have some food, and to enjoy yourself. Sundays … not a day to go to church, but a day to – maybe go to church, and then sit in a beer garden.”
On New York residents enjoying Bohemian restaurants
“The Bohemians are the edgy people, and these middle class New Yorkers follow the Bohemians into what they call red ink restaurants – red ink is red wine – it’s what the journalists, the writers, would call it. Very little money, very nice food, and you could sit around and laugh – my God, in some places the proprietors understood why the people were there and they started behaving like Italians or at least what they thought the people who were eating there thought were Italian.”
On upper middle class trends during that time
“Americans were quite content to go ‘slumming’ — slumming was a very, very popular past time of the upper middle class. And in fact, the aristocracy would walk on the wild side. For example, an Irish hoodlum named Chuck Connors conducts tours of Chinatown with groups of innocent but easily excited tourists from Connecticut or Iowa. And Mr. Connors would walk into the group and say, “Now please don’t look around, that that that laundry ov- don’t look over th- don’t look, please don’t look, that laundry over there is actually an opium den. Please, they’re watching us,” and then all of a sudden, two guys who were paid by Mr. Connors would come out of an alley, both dressed in chain mail — one guy had a very, very big flat sword and a revolver and the other guy was running for his life, and they were screaming and one man chased the other. What astonished the tourists was that none of the people on the sidewalk — the Chinese people on the sidewalk — would even look up. Well they didn’t look up because this show went on every two hours.”