Volume IX, Number 2, Fall 2013

"America Eats Out: An Interdisciplinary Study of American Eating Habits from Colonial to Modern Times" by William Aspray, Melissa G. Ocepek and George Royer

William Aspray holds the Bill and Lewis Suit Professorship in Information Technologies in the School of Information at the University of Texas at Austin. His principal research interests involve the social, political, and historical study of information and information technology. He has written or edited more than twenty books, including most recently Food in the Information Age and Formal and Informal Approaches to Food Policy, both published by Springer Verlag. Melissa Ocepek and George Royer are both doctoral students in the School of Information at the University of Texas at Austin, and both are co-authors of the two books mentioned above. Melissa is trained in political science and is preparing her doctoral research in the area of everyday information behavior. George is trained in English literature and holds a law degree, and he is one of the founders of the successful game company White Whale. He is preparing his doctoral research in the area of interactive design of information artifacts. Emails: , ,

Americans love to eat out. According to Restaurants USA Magazine, during the year 2012, the average resident of the United States of America (hereafter “America”) ate more than 200 meals outside the home (Ask.com 2013). This paper studies the history of eating outside the home in America from Colonial to modern times. The account given here falls in the intersection of three interdisciplinary fields: American studies, food studies, and information studies.

The first half of the paper is devoted to synthesizing scholarship from food studies in particular, from food history and food geography―to identify how eating out in America has changed over time, throughout the entire course of American history. General works of food history we draw upon include Belasco (1989), Beriss and Sutton (2007), Brenner (1999), Civitello (2011), Counihan (2002), Cummings (1941), Kamp (2006), Kiple and Ornelas 2000, Levenstein (2003a, 2003b), Mariani (1991), McIntosh (1995), Nestle (2007), Root and de Rochemont (1995), Schenone (2003), Stacey (1994), Taylor (1982), and Visser (1986). More narrowly focused studies are mentioned in passing. Drawing upon the approach used by sociologist Andrew Abbot (1988) in his study of professions in America, this account focuses on identifying exogenous forces (e.g. the demographic movement to the cities, the rise of progressive political ideas, and the wide dissemination of the automobile) and endogenous forces (e.g. the creation of new types of eating institutions such as automats and fast-food restaurants) that, over time, have shaped the nature of eating out in America.

The paper considers not only how eating out has changed over time, but also the informational aspects of eating out and how they have changed over time. Information issues include not only questions a person who wants to eat out might ask as part of their everyday life (such as when, where, and what is available to eat and how much it will cost), but also considers what sources are available to answer these questions (such as advice of friends and family, reviews and guidebooks, and various kinds of advertising). As such, this paper contributes to an existing literature in the subdiscipline of information studies known as everyday information behavior. In particular, the account here adopts an historical model of everyday information behavior developed by William Aspray and Barbara Hayes (2011). The second half of the paper investigates these informational questions and sets this particular piece of scholarship in the larger context of food studies, information studies, and American studies.

Colonial and Federal Period

The United States was overwhelmingly an agrarian economy in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries; and even throughout the nineteenth century more people were employed in farm labor than in all other occupations combined. As a result, the Americans overwhelmingly ate their meals at home during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, mostly made from products they grew themselves or bought from other local farmers and prepared at home. On most occasions when Americans did not eat at home, they consumed their meals at the homes of friends or families or at weddings, funerals, or church socials. Most towns had their own bakers, butchers, and millers by the end of the eighteenth century; but most other products continued to be produced at home. Only travelers―of which there were not so many until the rise of passenger rail service in the late nineteenth century and the rise of middle-class automobile culture in the 1930s―and some of the relatively small number of people who lived in cites such as Boston, New York, and Philadelphia needed a place to eat other than at home (McWilliams 2005; Oliver 2005).

The restaurant was an institution known in the 19th century not only by the name we commonly use today, but also under the following names: eating houses, restorators, dining rooms, dining halls, or victualizing houses. It is surprisingly difficult to define what a restaurant is, but the definition generally includes most of the following characteristics: a business establishment at which a person can go at a time of their choosing (within some constraints) and order a custom-made meal from a menu, which they can consume while seated at their own private table. One food scholar (Ray 2008, 265) adds to the definition individualized table settings, printed menus, refined décor, and attentive service. Restaurants in the sense we speak of here had existed in China for centuries. But restaurants only opened in the Western world for the first time, in Paris, in the 1760s. By 1800, there were more than 500 restaurants in the City of Lights. A French chef opened a restaurant in Boston in 1794 and there were oyster houses in some of the large east-coast cities at the turn of the nineteenth century, but generally the restaurant era began in America only in the 1830s and 1840s. Of course, food is a basic human need, and prior to the emergence of restaurants in America, people still had to eat. When they could not eat at home or at the home of friends, they took repast in taverns, inns, boardinghouses, tea houses, or coffee houses, and at a later date in hotels. Sometimes they would pick up foods to eat on the street from street vendors. Typical street food included peanuts, baked goods, lemonade or root beer, oysters and clams, and sausages.

The first institution established in America where a visitor could obtain a meal was the tavern. By the late 1640s, taverns existed in Manhattan and in the Virginia and Plymouth colonies. By 1800, Philadelphia, at the time the second largest city in the United States with a population of 40,000, had approximately 250 taverns. The food offered in early American taverns tended to be simple (often a stew in a pot warmed on the fireplace). While it was generally abundant, it varied greatly in quality. There was usually no choice in what one ate; one sat around a common table to eat what the tavern owner was eating. There was often a fixed price for the meal, independent of how much or how little one ate. The eating was secondary to the drinking in most cases. While taverns could be found in the large cities, the traveler sometimes had trouble finding a place to eat while on the road. Thus it was common for travelers to carry with them pocket soup (a jelly of concentrated veal or sometimes chicken broth to which hot water was added) and journey cake (later called Johnny cake, made from cornmeal) (Booth 1971).

Sometimes the food served in New England taverns was as simple as dried salt cod. The traveler would pull a strip off of the large fish, and the tavern owner would be happy to supply it because its saltiness encouraged further drinking. In the south, the same effect was achieved by serving salted ham. Another reason for the salted food was to preserve it at a time when there was not yet refrigeration. Most of the meats and fish were either salted or pickled. The diets in these taverns tended to be heavy on meats and fish, potatoes and bread, butter and cheese; and light on fruits and vegetables. Most of the customers in taverns were men, but in at least one case of a late-18th century tavern in Vermont, there was a separate room for women. The absence of female patrons is interesting because many tavern proprietors in Colonial America were women, presumably because they could carry out these duties while simultaneously running their home. There was typically no advertising of taverns, other than word of mouth and a sign―occasionally elaborate―that hung outside their doors.

The first coffee houses appeared in Boston and New York City in 1670. They served not only coffee, but also food and alcoholic and chocolate drinks. They were seen as higher-class places than the taverns, and many eighteenth-century businessmen frequented them. They could be elaborate places. One, the Tontine Coffee House in New York City, offered various facilities for gentlemen—giving it the air of the gentlemen’s club as found in Britain. Tontine’s was the place where plans for the New York Stock Exchange were drawn up, and later the stock exchange was built on that site. Coffee houses, which had served as a principal meeting place for gentlemen, began closing in the 1830s and were mostly all gone by the late 1860s.

Tea was introduced into America by the Dutch East India Company in the 1670s. The first tearoom opened in Boston in 1690. At first a luxury item, tea became increasingly popular in eighteenth century America and was a common drink in America by the 1720s. In both England and the United States, tea became popular because it was less expensive than coffee on account of cheap, untaxed imports of tea. However, as part of the colonial trading system, the British government forced the colonies to import all of their tea (grown in China) through Britain; and when the British government needed extra revenue, it chose to tax heavily all tea exported to America (the Townshend Act of 1767). During the 1760s and 1770s the colonists defied the British government in various ways, including the famous Boston Tea Party of 1773 during which taxed tea was thrown into Boston Harbor. After the Revolutionary War, tea was affiliated with American patriotism, leading to an increased consumption as well as the production of tea sets emblazoned with patriotic symbolism such as the eagle, imported from China and, amusingly, from Britain. This era of tea ended with the War of 1812, when the cost of tea skyrocketed because of its scarcity. After the war, good, inexpensive coffee beans were available through newly established trade with Brazil; and although tea prices came down, the quality of tea being imported also declined. Tea was not consumed in large quantities in America again until the Victorian era; America had returned to being a nation of coffee drinkers (Siegel 2008).

Thus during the Colonial and federal period, most Americans did not face questions about eating outside their homes. Those who did were the small number of travelers and city dwellers who did not cook at home. Information was needed by visitors about where to find food and temporary lodging. There were also questions about the clientele one would find in different kinds of places where one could find a meal: what kind of people patronized the taverns as compared to the coffee house, for example?

Boardinghouses, Hotels, and Farmer’s Markets

The number of boardinghouses in American cities grew rapidly in the nineteenth century with the increase in industrialization, as workers needed a place to live when they moved off the farm to work in factories. There were already boardinghouses in American cities in the eighteenth century; as of 1800, Philadelphia had approximately 200 boardinghouses. These houses were primarily intended to provide long-term housing to factory workers, but they also opened their doors for shorter periods of time to middle- and upper-class business travelers. The food tended to be worse on average in the boardinghouses than in the taverns, but the two kinds of establishment served similar foods in the "American style," which involved common tables, family-style serving bowls instead of individual plates of food for individual guests, and fixed meal times (typically breakfast at 9 a.m. and lunch at 2 p.m.). It was common for people at meals in these boardinghouses to focus on eating rather than talking or socializing, and food was often consumed within a few minutes of being placed on the tables (Echeverria 1999; Gamber 2007; Pillsbury 1990).

Hotels, that is, places designed specifically to house people on a short-term basis, did not come into existence in the United States until the late 18th century. One of the first fancy hotels was City Hotel, opened in Manhattan in 1794. Hotel guests needed a place to eat, and most hotels provided food service together with a room for a single bundled price, whether or not the guest ate the meal. This practice became the standard way in which most hotels catering to the business traveler’s needs operated during the first quarter of the nineteenth century. As in the boardinghouses, hotel food was served at communal tables, family style, at fixed times.

Beginning in the early Colonial period, vendors sold food on the street and sometimes went door to door. The food included locally grown excess produce as well as cooked and baked goods. The informal selling of food on the streets in early Colonial times evolved over the 18th and 19th centuries into formal farmer’s markets, often held adjacent to the town hall because the town would typically regulate the operation of the market. By the middle of the 18th century, a group of professional produce suppliers emerged; they purchased produce from the local farmers and sold in increasingly formalized central marketplaces. Both legal and extralegal means were used by these professionals to control selling by unofficial vendors, including farmers with excess produce. The control measures were imperfect however, and in the early 19th century one could find Mexican women selling tamales on the streets of San Antonio, slave women selling cooked and baked goods on the streets of Charleston (sometimes a means to buy themselves out of slavery and set themselves up as caterers), or oysters on the street in Buffalo (once the Erie Canal was completed in 1825) (Hamilton 2002).

The housing and feeding needs of travelers and city workers were met by boardinghouses, hotels, and city markets through the early 19th century. Visitors needed to know about the location, cost, reputation, and meal hours of the hotels and boarding houses. City dwellers who did not own their own homes needed to know about their choices in boardinghouses and the availability of food from farmer’s markets and food vendors.

Organizational and Technological Innovation in the Nineteenth Century

The period from 1830 to 1860 witnessed a rapid growth in the number and type of restaurants in America. Manhattan was a leading innovator in the restaurant industry, so consider what happened there. High-end restaurants emerged that catered to the upper class. The leading example is Delmonico’s, which first opened as a small café and pastry shop in 1827 and as a French restaurant in 1830, and relocated nine times to new locations in Manhattan throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries as the restaurant followed the migration patterns of the business and upper classes, before finally closing in 1923. Oyster cellars served oysters inexpensively on the street or from cellar-level establishments where the rents were low. There were various other kinds of eating houses and dining rooms, often located near the market places, such as Fulton Market in New York, to serve the workers and customers at the market. In the 1840s, plate houses emerged, with short-order cooks making a simple fare of foods to order, while customers sat on benches at long tables. These were the progenitors of the modern lunchroom. One scholar, Richard Pillsbury, argues that the rapid growth of restaurants occurred in this period because of the movement of affluent middle class people into suburbs, making it too far for them to go home for lunch and perhaps also for dinner if there was evening business or entertainment in the city. Boarding houses and hotels began to abandon the American plan (room and meals bundled together) for the European plan (room only), which gave hotel guests and long-term renters an incentive to patronize restaurants not associated with the hotel.

Delmonico’s was widely regarded as America’s best restaurant of the time. Although it opened earlier, it is emblematic of America’s Gilded Age of the 1870s and 1880s—the age of the enormous wealth and conspicuous consumption typified by the Carnegie, Mellon, Rockefeller, and Vanderbilt families. Delmonico’s, as well as some of its competitors such as Louis Sherry’s and the Waldorf-Astoria in New York, Antoine’s in New Orleans, and Le Poulet d’Or in San Francisco (but San Franciscans could not pronounce the French name, so they called it The Poodle Dog), controlled their environments through both economic and cultural means. The food was cooked exclusively in accord with the highest French standards. The cost of a single dinner was roughly equivalent to a month’s salary for a middle-class businessman. Even if he had the funds, he might not be welcomed to eat in these high-class restaurants if he did not dress in the right way, carry out the right kind of conversation, express the right set of behaviors towards the hired help, or order his meal in the highly idiosyncratic food-French idiom of the time. The management established rules and engaged in rigorous screening to ensure that these restaurants were the preserve of the upper class (Rorabaugh 1987).

Historian Andrew Haley (2011) argues that the demise of these high-end restaurants resulted from the rise of the middle class and the demand for a more democratic kind of eating experience. Other reasons include the economic recession in the mid-1890s, which reduced the number of paying customers; the presidential election in 1896 of William McKinley, whose policies supported businessmen, professionals, and skilled factory workers over the titans of industry; the rise of the political reform and social activism during the Progressive Era from the 1890s to the 1920s; and the passage of the 18th Amendment to the Constitution and the Volstead Act, which ushered in Prohibition in 1919. The lack of alcohol limited both the ability to cook many of the French dishes and the opportunity for a total eating experience that matched good wines with the food.

Various technological advances also affected the restaurant industry prior to the Civil War of the 1860s. One line of development included refrigeration which enabled foods to be kept fresh longer and enabled more variation to appear in the American diet, including for example the import of oranges and bananas from the Caribbean. Refrigeration technologies included methods for sawing ice and storing it in special-purpose insulated buildings, the development of cold-storage warehouses for food goods, tools to harvest ice efficiently and in uniform blocks that fit together to reduce melting, the home icebox with a drip box to catch the melted ice, and compression methods to manufacture artificial ice. A second important technological advance of this era was transportation, which enabled food materials to be shipped further than could be delivered by horse and wagon in a day or two. Transportation advances of this era included the development of the steamboat, which could travel rivers swiftly against the tide; the completion of the Erie Canal, which connected the interior of the country to New York City; the introduction of the railroads in the 1820s, leading eventually in 1869 to the first transcontinental railroad; and the introduction of speedy, ocean-going clipper ships. Improved transportation had various impacts on restaurants, for example restaurants in Buffalo, New York could serve fresh oysters gathered on the east coast; fresh tropical produce from the Caribbean and South America became available in American markets for the first time; and beef was more tender because it could be shipped by railroad rather than being driven on the hoof to the slaughterhouse.

A secondary effect of the rise of a transcontinental railroad was the rise of new, high-quality forms of democratic eating. These included the superior food served in the railroad dining cars introduced by George Pullman in 1868; and the rise of clean, dependable, affordable depot restaurants organized in the west by Fred Harvey for the Santa Fe Railroad. Earlier, high-quality dining had emerged as a competitive advantage on the steamboats that plied the Mississippi River. A third important technological innovation of this era was industrialized food production, to replace the home canning, salting, pickling, and other artisanal means of food preservation that had been common up until that time. These advances included the growth of industrial-scale vacuum packing of food using the Appert method in the 1840s, the development of machinery to automatically make tin cans in 1849, the invention of condensed milk in 1856, and the invention of the Mason jar in 1858. Industrialization of the food industry continued unabated in the last third of the nineteenth century, including the development of massive production lines by Swift and Armour for the processing of meat.

The nineteenth century saw many institutional innovations in dining, such as high-end French restaurants, oyster houses, plate houses and railroad dining establishments. People wanting to eat out needed to know about the foods served, the types of people who were welcomed at each of these kinds of establishments, where they were located, and how much they cost. There were also significant technological advances in the nineteenth century, including refrigeration, transportation, and industrial food production. These advances enabled new foods and foods out of season to be available to American diners; and they led to concomitant questions about what these foods tasted like, where they were to be found, and how they were to be used.

The Role of Immigration

Immigration was one of the most important exogenous factors shaping restaurants in America from the 1830s until the beginning of the First World War. Between 1836 and 1914 more than 30 million Europeans immigrated to the United States, and in the peak year of 1907 more than a million people arrived. In the first half of the 19th century, the immigrants came mostly from Ireland and Germany. The Irish opened a number of taverns, but they did not have much influence on the particular foods served in American households. German beer gardens started to appear in the United States in the 1820s and 1830s. While there were German communities in New York and other east coast cities, the main influence of German immigrants occurred in Chicago, Milwaukee, and smaller cities and towns across the upper Midwest.

The Chinese immigrated to the United States in large numbers in the 1850s, first to work in the gold mines in California, then to work on the transcontinental railroad. Jobs held typically by whites were not generally open to Chinese workers, so many Chinese ended up working in laundries, restaurants, and agriculture. The Chinese immigrants were tolerated while there were labor shortages, but when there became a surplus of workers in the 1870s, strong anti-Chinese sentiment and some violence emerged. This attitude was codified in the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which essentially put a halt to further Chinese immigration. Those Chinese who remained in the United States often used the railroad to relocate to small towns along a railroad line; thus the railroad became a pathway for Chinese cuisine in America (Coe 2009; Liu 2009). It was only in the late 1960s that there was again a major immigration from China—mostly to New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco. Until that time, many Americans held strong prejudices against Chinese food, were put off by the belief that the Chinese cooked rats, dogs, and other unpalatable ingredients, and worried that the Chinese were unclean. From the late nineteenth century until the 1960s, most Americans identified Chinese food with chop suey, an American concoction prepared in a vaguely Cantonese style of cooking. Around the turn of the twentieth century, chop suey became an inexpensive late-night staple, available not only in Chinatowns across America, but also in other areas where middle-class people would be out in the evening, such as theater districts. In the 1920s, chop suey became a popular lunch choice for working class women in New York and other cities. It was also particularly popular in the Jewish and African-American communities between the two world wars. That chop suey had entered into American culture is canonized by the popular song of the 1920s by jazz musician Sidney Bechet, "Who’ll Chop Your Suey (When I’m Gone)?" It was not until the 1960s and 1970s that other, less bland regional Chinese cuisines, such as Hunan and Szechuan, were introduced into the United States.

The second wave of immigration occurred after the Civil War, in the late 1860s and 1870s. Large numbers of Scandinavians immigrated to the upper Midwest, where they had a regional influence on food and restaurants. Another wave of immigration peaked between 1890 and 1915. It included large numbers of immigrants from Italy, Poland, Russia, Greece, and the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Poles immigrated primarily to the Midwest, especially Chicago, but also Pittsburgh, Buffalo, and several other smaller cities. Their influence on food was mostly felt in these locales. Greeks tended to settle in southern New England, where they worked in the shoe and textile industries. They opened numerous mom-and-pop businesses in the late 19th and 20th centuries, including many restaurants. However, the Greek restaurants often served traditional American foods. It was not until the 1960s that many Greek restaurants serving Greek-style foods opened in America.

The European immigrant group that most impacted the American restaurant scene was the Italians. Many Italian immigrants started food businesses in their homes, making bread or pastas for single workingmen who were homesick for the foods of Italy. When they first launched their restaurants, it was generally to serve this local community. But a number of the Italian restaurant proprietors changed their menus and décor (e.g., to depict Italian village life) as a means to appeal to a wider set of patrons than just the immigrant Italians. By the 1930s, Italian restaurants were popular in the United States. Compared to food prepared in Italy, America’s Italian food was less spicy, meat constituted a larger part of the portions served, and the menus were populated with dishes more familiar to Americans in order to attract this wider clientele (Elias 2009).

After the First World War, Congress passed legislation (the Emergency Quota Act in 1921 and the Immigration Act of 1924) limiting overall immigration numbers by country. These laws were targeted particularly at immigration from Southern and Eastern Europe, the Middle East, and East Asia. Not until the 1960s was there a resurgence of ethnic food in America. This came in part with the loosening of immigration quotas, beginning in 1965. But it also had to do with a more worldly population of Americans, given the large number of Americans who had served overseas during the Second World War or the Viet Nam War, and because of the increasingly inexpensive and readily available opportunities for international leisure and business travel (Brown and Mussell 1984).

Ethnic restaurants in twentieth century America tended to be of one of two types. Some focused on serving a local ethnic community, others on serving a more general market drawn from a larger geographic region. The local places tended to be small mom-and-pop places that an immigrant with limited entry funding available could afford to open. These restaurants offered home cooking and made few concessions to American tastes, other than possibly to use locally available ingredients. There was typically no concern about dining atmosphere. The other type of ethnic restaurant, serving a more general population, Americanized the food dishes and spent money on décor to make eating out an exotic experience while at the same time offering something on their plates that was familiar enough to satisfy patrons. The menus tended to be Americanized―offering an exotic experience but a familiar taste. For example, Americanized Mexican restaurants served larger and choicer cuts of meat, cheddar cheese, sour cream, and fewer and milder peppers (Bentley 2004). As Americans became better educated and better traveled, there was an increasing allure to this exoticism. Food scholar Wilbur Zelinsky captures this sense of exotic experience particularly well:

We enter a restaurant whose name, exterior design and signs promise a reprieve from our workaday environment. The furniture, china, cutlery and table-linen speak to us of alien delights, as do the wall decorations, paintings, maps or photographs. The host or hostess, as well as the waiters, are natives of the foreign country, or reasonable facsimiles thereof, and are suitably costumed. Their English, if they speak it at all, is charmingly accented. The menu, which is frequently multilingual, displays what may pass for authentic artistic motifs. And, as we wait for the unfamiliar food and drink to arrive, we may be entertained by recordings or live performances by imported musicians and dancers, even while our nostrils are atremble with the astonishing aromas floating out from the mysterious kitchen. As we depart the premises after the meal, we may be tempted to purchase some mementos of this brief excursion at a gift counter or the satellite gift shop. (Zelinsky 1985, 54)

In some cases, restaurants started as indigenous ethnic restaurants and remained that way their entire histories. In other cases, such as with some of the restaurants in Chinatowns of New York and San Francisco or the Italian North End in Boston, restaurants started as indigenous ethnic restaurants but evolved into mainstream American ethnic restaurants as these neighborhoods attracted increasing numbers of tourists. In some cases, the restaurant spent its entire history providing a mainstream American ethnic experience (Camillo 2006; Denker 2003; Gabaccia 1998; Smajda and Gerteis 2012).

If one focuses on the ethnic restaurants as a whole in a geographic region rather than on individual restaurants, one can see interesting patterns. Dillon, Burger, and Shortridge (2007) trace the growth of Mexican restaurants in Omaha, Nebraska in the years from the 1920s through the 1970s. They observed a four-stage pattern. In the first stage, small mom-and-pop Mexican restaurants opened in the parts of town with large Mexican populations, mostly serving men living alone, away from their families, working in the meatpacking and agricultural industries. Next, other recent immigrants (Czechs, Poles, Russians, Irish) began to slowly explore these restaurants. As the children of these eastern European immigrants entered adulthood, there was increased exploration and the beginning of cooking Mexican dishes in their homes (often, Americanized versions). Finally, Mexican food (especially Tex-Mex varieties) was accepted by the population at large as a mainstream American ethnic food, and Mexican restaurants opened in neighborhoods of Omaha that did not have large Mexican populations.

Immigration in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries led to the opening of many ethnic restaurants along the east and west coasts and in the upper Midwest. During the middle twentieth century ethnic restaurants became more mainstream and were patronized by other than ethnic populations. This led diners to questions whether they will like the food? Will it be too spicy or use unpalatable ingredients? Is it sanitary and healthy to eat? In what part of town can I find this cuisine? Will the ethnic restaurant be a fun place for an evening out? (Gvion and Trostler 2008; Ray 2007)

Healthy Eating

At the same time that immigration was growing, there was a drive to make eating more healthy and scientific. The 1830s saw the first serious efforts to serve more healthy foods, such as Sylvester Graham’s call for the use of whole wheat in place of white flour. In the years before the Civil War, this interest in healthy eating was closely tied to the domestic science movement, which called for new scientific cooking practices and professional housekeeping. The name most closely associated with this movement is Catharine Beecher of the famous abolitionist family. Her books, Treatise on Domestic Economy (1841), Miss Beecher’s Domestic Receipt-Book (1846), and American Woman’s Home (1869) were widely read and influential. By the middle of the century, cookbooks were being published that offered information about nutrition, but they were not based in scientific evidence and were often incorrect. After the war, domestic science departments were formed in colleges across the United States, targeted at teaching women. These were opened primarily in the land-grant universities, such as those in Iowa, Illinois, and Minnesota, created by the Morrill Act of 1862.

The interest in healthy eating continued in the late nineteenth century. One influential figure was John Harvey Kellogg, who lost the disagreement with his brother over whether to add sugar to their breakfast cereals. Kellogg opened the high-profile Battle Creek Sanitarium in Michigan to promote healthy eating and wellbeing. The sanitarium served a vegetarian menu, including peanut butter and other health-food creations, to a wealthy clientele that included Amelia Earhart, Johnny Weismuller, and Henry Ford. A perhaps even more important figure was Ellen Richards, an industrial chemist trained at MIT, who was a leading scholar in the late 19th century on sanitation and nutrition. Her book, The Chemistry of Cooking and Cleaning (1881), was highly regarded. Richards was a leader in the home economics movement, serving as the first president of the American Home Economics Association. The passion for sanitary cooking―with its emphasis on nutrition, sterile foods, and the value of industrialized food production—was taught in the late nineteenth century in cooking schools and cooking clubs as well as in the curricula of public schools and colleges. The best-selling cookbook of all time, by Fanny Farmer, first appeared as a by-product of the Boston Cooking School, a leading organization within the sanitary cooking movement.

None of this interest in nutrition during the nineteenth century was grounded in good scientific evidence. The U.S. Department of Agriculture, created in 1862, began to fund research on nutrition in 1893. In the coming two decades, researchers began to learn the scientific bases of nutrition. Wilbur Atwater identified the concept of calories burnt in the body to produce energy and the relationship between calories and weight loss. Ernest Starling co-discovered the first hormone, secretin, in 1902 and made public the concept of hormones and their role in the functioning of the human body in 1905. Casimir Funk introduced the concept of vitamins in 1912. Three years later, the USDA established an office of Home Economics to further the study of nutrition.

At the beginning of the twentieth century, concerns about nutritious eating were joined by concerns for food safety. Pasteurization of milk had been commercially possible since the 1890s, but it was not until the late 1910s that most cities pasteurized the majority of their milk. Upton Sinclair’s 1906 novel, The Jungle, based on his undercover work in the Chicago meatpacking industry, made the public familiar with the severe sanitary problems and inhumane working conditions there. As a result of the public outcry, Congress passed the Pure Food and Drug Act the same year, which regulated the meatpacking and patent medicine industries. Local chapters of the National Housewives League, founded in 1915, provided vigilant monitoring of the sanitary conditions of grocers and foodmakers in their communities. In 1928 the National Consumers League published an influential report on unsanitary food production, entitled Behind the Scenes in Chocolate Factories.

The nutrition and safe food movements in nineteenth and early twentieth century America had several impacts on American restaurants. These movements were consonant with the social activism of the Progressive Era, and thus it is not surprising that they emphasized safe food production in restaurants. Types of restaurants in which it was apparent to patrons that meals were being created in a sanitary manner, such as in the luncheonettes (sometimes known as sandwich shops), where one could see one’s sandwich being made, received public approval. Luncheonettes appeared in large numbers in the 1920s. Partly it was because they were clean and inexpensive, but their numbers were also driven by the wide distribution of a new technology, the electric toaster. The Progressives were also in favor of efficiency, so they were supportive of cafeterias. The modernization offered by automats, in which customers would put coins in machines and open windows built in the wall to acquire their food, also appealed in the Progressive era. These food movements helped to undermine the high-end French restaurants, with their high-calorie sauces and heavy drinking. Indeed, many of the supporters of these new food movements were also supporters of Prohibition. Another outcome of this era was the homogenization of food styles, which rejected the specialty foods of immigrant populations and adopted a bland, American style.

The coming of the nutrition and safe food movements in nineteenth and early twentieth century led people wanting to eat out to ask several questions: will the food served in this restaurant be healthy and nutritious for me? Are the portions served reasonable for my lifestyle? Can I watch what they are doing to assure that the conditions for preparing the food are sanitary? Are the nutritious foods offered in these sanitary restaurants affordable? Where can I find them?

Eating for the Masses

There was an increasing need for places to eat for lower-middle and middle class workers after the turn of the 20th century―a place where office workers and shop employees, both male and female, could eat during their short lunch breaks, especially as the cities grew and it was too far to go home for lunch. One response was the rise of the quick-service restaurant in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Among the earliest such places was the saloon, which was primarily a drinking establishment but which offered quick and simple lunches for little or no cost to attract workers to drink at lunchtime. Saloons were common in the nineteenth and early twentieth century but disappeared with the establishment of Prohibition in 1919―never to return once Prohibition was repealed in 1933. Another early place for quick meals were hotel coffee shops (not the main dining rooms of the hotels, which served heavy and more elaborate meals that were generally too expensive for worker lunches).

As far back as the late eighteenth century, Protestant churches in America had supported regulation of the sale and distribution of alcohol because of the presumed destructive effects it had on family life and its common association with political corruption. The American Temperance Society was formed in 1826, but it was not until after the Civil War that the temperance movement rapidly advanced, especially through the efforts of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (formed in 1873) and the Anti-Saloon League (formed in 1893). Progressives were particularly opposed to the political power of the saloons. In part as a result of anti-German sentiment emerging during the First World War, the Volstead Act was passed in 1919 making illegal the manufacture, sale, and distribution of alcoholic beverages. Prohibition was aimed at the saloons and their free lunches, but it also had a major impact on the fancy hotels and restaurants, which had to abandon their French cooking with its accompanying alcohol-dependent sauces and pairings of wine. Prohibition had a positive influence on the rise of restaurants for lower and middle classes, and it made restaurants more welcoming to women. Only males had visited the free lunch saloons, and mostly males (and certainly no unaccompanied women) appeared in the fancy French restaurants. The close association of restaurants with alcohol made them appear to be driven by the alcohol trade. The lunchrooms had received strong competition from the saloons with their free lunches, but once Prohibition put these saloons out of business, the lunchrooms began to thrive. A number of the saloon buildings were repurposed as lunchrooms or soda fountains (Funderberg 2002).

Several other types of quick-service restaurants originated from soda fountains. Soda drinks, made of carbonated water and flavoring, were invented in 1839; ice cream sodas were invented in 1874. During the 1870s a number of drugstores installed soda fountains to take advantage of a market opportunity as the temperance movement gained momentum and states began to restrict liquor sales. By the 1880s, these soda fountain establishments began to serve light food. When counters and stools were added, these soda fountains evolved into luncheonettes, where the emphasis was more on quick meals than on sweets. The next stage in the evolution was from luncheonettes to lunchrooms. The latter were purpose-built restaurants (not just lunch counters within other establishments such as drugstores, railroad stations, or department stores) that incorporated the lunch counter as an integral part of the design. By the 1920s, there were chains of lunchrooms in large cities, such as Thompson’s in Chicago and Schrafft’s in Boston and New York. There also continued to be many mom-and-pop lunchrooms across America.

Another variety of quick-service food was the cafeteria. The Exchange Buffet in New York, opened in 1885, was perhaps the first place to serve customers who walked along a cafeteria line to assemble their meal. The YWCA operated buffets in the late nineteenth century in east coast cities. Cafeterias spread rapidly through the United States, especially across the south, southwest, and California. A number of cafeteria chains opened as early as 1906, notably Morrison’s, which opened in 1920. Cafeterias, which offered faster service and were less expensive, put the tearooms out of business. The cafeterias, in turn, lost some of their business to lunchrooms with their lighter-fare offerings as Americans became more calorie-conscious, partly in response to the lessened need for large meals now that most people were not working on farms. Nevertheless, cafeterias remain a part of the restaurant scene even today. Closely related were the all-you-can-eat buffets or smorgasbords, which originated in the 1950s and had a revival in the 1990s.

As part of the middle-class aversion to tipping and haughty waiters, there was a movement at the beginning of the twentieth century toward self-service as a means to eliminate the need for waiters. To some degree, the cafeterias reduced the need for waiters. The most famous development along these lines, however, was the automat, introduced in America by the Horn and Hardart Company in 1902 in Philadelphia and found in east coast cities throughout the first half of the twentieth century. In these automats, a customer would place a token in a machine in order to obtain a particular food item showing through a window. Building on the vending machine, which became popular for candies and sodas after the Second World War, the White Tower hamburger chain introduced its Tower-O-Matic all-vending machine restaurants in the 1960s. However, they never caught on with customers and quickly disappeared.

Cafes evolved from lunch wagons. In particular, the mass manufacture of lunch wagons beginning in the 1890s led to the mass manufacture of diners, often in a streamlined, modular format that became popular in the 1930s. At first, diners were located at streetcar stops outside factories, but during the 1930s they began to appear along highways as automobile traffic increased. The term "diner" was introduced to make the dining experience in these establishments seem more upper class, akin to the experience on Pullman railroad dining cars. Out of the diners emerged the first quick-food restaurant chains, such as White Castle hamburger chain, which was founded in the 1920s (Gutman 1993; Hogan 1997; Hurley 1997).

In the early twentieth century, there was an increasing need for places for the masses to eat, often quickly on their lunch breaks from work. The restaurant industry created new forms of eateries such as saloons, soda fountains, luncheonettes, cafeterias, buffets, and diners. Patrons were interested in such questions as: which of these types of rapid-dining places would I most enjoy? Which is located close enough to work that I can use it for a quick lunch? Do they serve alcohol? Would I feel welcome and comfortable eating there? Is the cost of the meal within my budget?

The Role of the Automobile

The automobile had various shaping effects on dining in America. Although there had been roadside inns in Colonial and Federal America, by the early twentieth century most restaurants were located in cities and towns. So there was a need to build new restaurants out of the city centers and along the highways to accommodate the new automobile traffic. The first effect, beginning in the early years of the twentieth century, was toward upscale eating. Prior to the introduction of the Ford Model T in 1908, cars were a luxury item. Tearooms and upscale roadside restaurants were opened―often in attractive bucolic settings―to serve those early adopters who took car tours to see the country or for whom a special meal at a particular upscale restaurant was a destination―the reason for a trip itself. Women felt particularly welcome in these tearooms.

As the automobile became a mass-market item and road trips became a standard middle-class vacation beginning after the introduction of the Model T in 1908, and especially in the 1950s (after the Depression and the war), there was a new stimulus for quick-service restaurants. The first restaurants serving ordinary automobile travelers were mom-and-pop roadside stands, often simple, hand-constructed sheds that had a service window and a counter or ledge. Customers would eat standing at the shed or sitting at a picnic table nearby. There were thousands of these stands along American roadsides by the 1920s. In 1905 Harold Fortune offered the first known car service, for the soda fountain attached to his drugstore in Memphis. In the 1910s soda fountains began to be located along highways and offer curb service to drivers, who would park outside and honk for service. Creating traffic jams as they became more popular, these soda fountains eventually added their own parking lots, where the sodas were served. One of the most important of these soda fountain chains in the 1920s was A&W Root Beer, which became especially popular during Prohibition. The first Pig Stand restaurant, opened in Dallas in 1921, was probably the first restaurant purpose-designed for serving people food in their cars. These various developments evolved into the drive-in restaurant, especially prevalent in the 1950s but falling out of favor in the 1960s in part because customers and owners were unhappy with the unruly teenagers who would hang out and ogle the scantily dressed carhops. Other reasons included the rising cost of real estate, the freeway system (which reduced traffic on the thoroughfares along which drive-ins were located), and the lower cost of fast-food restaurants. The term "drive-inn” was introduced in 1938, when the first Sivils Drive-Inn restaurant opened in Houston, using this term instead of the former term "hamburger stand", which had become regarded as declasse (Heimann 1996; Witzel 1994).

Cafes, which already existed in the centers of towns, were now opened at the edge of town, on highways, often co-located with gas stations and motels to provide one-stop service to the budget traveler. Highway coffee shops opened to serve family travel. Perhaps the most important example was Howard Johnson’s, which started as a soda fountain on Cape Cod in 1925, became a regional chain in the 1930s, and grew rapidly into a national chain of restaurants after winning the restaurant concession for the Pennsylvania Turnpike in 1941. Walk-up restaurants, such as the early McDonald’s restaurants, were opened in the 1950s with speed and economy in mind, consisting of only a walk-up window, kitchen, and restrooms. In the 1960s, McDonald’s and some other chains added indoor seating although one still walked up to the counter to order a meal. The Texas-based Pig Stand chain simplified the drive-in concept and kept costs low when it built one of its restaurants in the 1930s with no parking lot, walk-up window, carhops, or eat-in seating; the restaurant consisted simply of a kitchen and drive-up windows (Fishwick 1983).

The appropriation of the automobile by the middle classes in the mid-twentieth century led to the creation of new restaurant types such as destination tea rooms, roadside stands, drive-in restaurants, cafes, and fast-food restaurants. It also caused the opening of many new restaurants of various types along the highway and away from the center of town. This led to questions for potential diners: would the food be affordable enough if we are feeding the entire family on vacation? Is it quick enough that it won’t slow down our trip? Will there be a place to park the car? Will the kids find the food edible? Will there be restaurants along the route of our automobile trip? Will there be a place to eat near our motel or near the gas station when we fill up?

Restaurants in the Twentieth Century

While much of the restaurant development in the first three decades of the twentieth century involved the lunch business, middle-class families did go out to dinner. It was a time to socialize and lessen the household burden on women; and often the social experience was more important than the food. In the 1920s themed décor began to appear in restaurants, such as nautical themes or recreations of Italian village life, even when the restaurant was serving bland American food. Hotels and fancy restaurants that remained in the restaurant business began to adopt smaller, less expensive menus featuring simple American food—with the menus written in English rather than French. The health- and calorie-conscious movement that came with the move of people off the farms and into the cities led to a reduction in meat portions and an increase in the number of fruit and vegetables side dishes served (Barbas 2002).

Today, America’s restaurant scene is dominated numerically―and perhaps culturally as well―by chain restaurants such as McDonald’s, Denny’s, and Pizza Hut. The rapid growth in chain restaurants after 1955 came about largely through franchising. The first major uses of franchising in the restaurant business were by White Castle (1922), Howard Johnson’s (1925), and White Tower (1926). Other early chains include Friendly’s Ice Cream (1935) and Foodmaker (owner of Jack-in-the-Box) in 1941. In the 1950s some of the largest chains such as McDonald’s, KFC, and Burger King were formed. Although recession in the 1970s hit chain restaurants hard, the budget steakhouse chains―Bonanza, Sizzler (Collins’ Foods), Ponderosa, and Rustler (Gino’s)―and some other chains such as Wendy’s emerged as major players in the fast-food field. Postwar expansion was driven by the entry of the food conglomerates into the franchised, quick-service restaurant industry through acquisitions (such as Pillsbury’s purchase of Burger King and Ralston Purina’s purchase of Jack in the Box) or creation (such as PepsiCo’s creation of Pizza Hut and General Mills’s creation of Olive Garden). Specialty management companies, such as Collins Foods and Horn and Hardart, also spurred the development of chain restaurants by developing efficient systems that enabled a single owner to operate hundreds of franchise restaurants. The complexity of the restaurant industry increased, with some national chain trying to fill any conceivable niche market (Belasco 1979; Dixon 2002; Emerson 1979; Jakle and Sculle 1999; Kraig 2005; Luxenberg 1985; Stewart and David 2005; Wyckoff and Sasser 1978).

Part and parcel of the rise of fast-food chain restaurants was the development of processes to streamline cooking in restaurants. Examples include soda machines with sensors so that a single push of a button would fill a drink cup to the right level while the employee did other tasks, and Burger King’s moving flame-broil conveyor belt for cooking buns and meat patties. The fast-food chain restaurants also developed assembly lines by dividing and sequencing tasks, which enabled them to deskill labor and control prices. One example of this is the computerized cash register, which reduced ringing up a sale to pushing a single button for each item ordered (Ritzer 2008).

The restaurant industry continued to grow rapidly during the twentieth century, with restaurant chains driving out much of the single proprietor restaurants – less so for high-end and ethnic restaurants. There became a national uniformity to the food served, and speed of service and customer turnover became buzzwords in the restaurant industry. Patrons wanted to know answers to such questions as: is there parking? Does the restaurant serve alcohol? Is there table service or do you have to order at the counter? Is the restaurant kid-friendly? Is there uniformity in customer experience across the restaurants in a particular chain?

Other Exogenous Forces

Other exogenous forces shaping the American restaurant scene in the twentieth century were war and economic depression. Soldiers returned from the two world wars with a different, more global awareness of food options. Shortages of food and the concomitant sharp increases in food prices caused by the First World War resulted in riots, led by housewives, in New York and other east coast cities during 1917. Coping with the shortages of meat, eggs, butter, sugar, and flour came to be regarded as patriotic acts. The federal government globalized and enlisted women in food conservation campaigns under future president Herbert Hoover, who was given the title of Food Czar by President Woodrow Wilson. Although the 1920s were generally a time of bounty, serious food shortages returned in the 1930s, during the Depression. During the Second World War (1941-1945), there was forced civilian rationing of and price controls on sugar, coffee, and other staple foods. These shortages affected the foods offered by restaurants and food trucks during the wars. Restaurants generally lost clientele during the Depression and many went out of business.

While immigration significantly affected restaurants in America, so did population movement within the country. Particularly important was the migration of African Americans from the south to the north (known as the Great Migration) after 1915, but especially after 1950, to steel and automobile manufacturing cities where there was high-paying work available―notably Chicago, Detroit, Gary, Pittsburgh, and Cleveland. Restaurants serving southern black cooking, which became known in the 1960s as "soul food", opened in black neighborhoods. Only a few of these restaurants served a wide customer base (Bower 2007).

After the Second World War, and particularly during the 1950s, a number of rapid changes occurred that affected eating out in America. There was significant economic growth, meaning that families had more money to spend on eating out. The baby boom created a new demand for family restaurants. Suburbanization occurred rapidly, meaning that there were new communities needing to be served by restaurants, and also that the distance from home to work had grown greater, thus increasing the need to eat out. Women entered the workplace in large numbers, creating both a need for restaurants to serve them at lunchtime and a market for fast-food restaurants to feed the families of working moms. To serve the growing suburban communities, malls began to appear and they included restaurants as well as shops. The first mall to open in America was the Southdale Mall―opened in 1956 in Edina, a suburb of Minneapolis. The mall movement reached its apotheosis in 1992 with the creation of The Mall of America, in Bloomington, another suburb of Minneapolis. This mall covers almost 100 acres of land, leases 2.5 million square feet of retail space, serves more than 4 million visitors per year, and includes 22 sit-down restaurants (not counting the numerous fast-food emporia).

Because of suburbanization and women in the workplace, the number of cars on American roads grew rapidly, redoubling the impacts of the automobile on the restaurant industry. Food became more homogeneous during these years, with fewer regional differences, in part through the rise of chain restaurants that were supported largely by the suburban crowd and travelers on interstate highways. This homogenization was also bolstered by the increasing role of national food processors, which provided to restaurants not only ingredients but also finished products that had only to be heated and served (Avakian and Haber 2005).

There was a resurgence of French cooking during the 1960s. The French chef that Jacqueline Kennedy hired to run the White House kitchen, Rene Verdon, had a public impact. Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking, published in 1961 and her cooking show on television, which began in 1962, introduced millions of Americans to French cooking. The writings of New York Times food critic Craig Claiborne promoted these efforts. These events led in turn to the opening of many new French restaurants across American cities in the late 1960s and early 1970s. These French restaurants often replaced steak or seafood restaurants as the place to go for a special dinner (McNamee 2012).

There have been a number of new forces shaping eating over the past forty years. The countercultural movement created a new demand for organic food, beginning in the late 1960s. Over time, concern about pesticides in foods and the reaction against the industrial food producers’ predilections for products that are efficient to manufacture and ship, that have long shelf lives, and that attract baser tastes of consumers by being particularly sweet or salty, have led to a mainstreaming of organic foods. Interest in the environment has led to a movement to support locally grown and sustainable foods. The goal is to develop locally based food economies that use methods that are sustainable and ecologically sound, and that avoid industrial food production methods and petroleum-intensive, long-distance shipping of foods. Concerns about diet and body weight have led to numerous specialized diets, such as the no-fat diet of Nathan Pritiken in the 1980s. The establishment of specialized food channels on cable television, such as The Food Network in 2001, has created millions of viewers more interested in imaginative food that resists the homogenization of American food represented by the chain restaurants (Nabhan 2002).

Immigration began to grow again in the 1970s. First there was immigration from Viet Nam. More recently there has been major immigration from Mexico and other parts of Latin America, China, and India. Over a million immigrants a year have been entering the United States each year, in recent years. This has led to the increase in the number of Vietnamese, Indian, and various kinds of Latin American restaurants. Differentially higher birth rates in the Mexican and some other immigrant populations in the United States mean that there is growing interest in Mexican and other Latin foods.

More controversially, two Canadian sociologists JoAnn Jaffe and Michael Gertler (2006) have argued for another exogenous force: consumer deskilling by which consumers have lost the ability to make informed choices about foods and restaurants that take into consideration larger issues about health, sustainability, and local economic development. This deskilling is consciously achieved through the suspension of home economics as a required course to teach food preparation; the sameness of processed foods or fast-food meals, which causes consumers to lose the ability "to discern true quality, freshness, or the genuine article with respect to flavor, texture, look, and smell" (146); and the advertising of the corporate food industry, which focuses more on superficial issues such as the ‘bite’ of a root beer or the ‘crunch’ of a snack food or breakfast cereal" (157) than on issues of the family’s and the planet’s health.

These additional exogenous forces have led to additional questions: Will the restaurant have satisfying foods to offer in this time of wartime shortages or rationing? Where can I find comfort food or southern regional cooking? What food options are available during our shopping trip to the mall? Is there anything more interesting than bland Cantonese food at the local Asian restaurant? Does the restaurant serve foods consistent with my diet regimen?

Forces and Questions in This Everyday Activity

The sections above have identified a number of exogenous and endogenous forces that have shaped eating out in America from Colonial to modern times. They have also indicated some typical questions that people might have raised about eating outside the home at various times in American history. Some forces are listed in Table 1 and some exemplary questions are listed in Table 2.

Agrarian Society
Consumer deskilling
Countercultural movement
Creation of the hotel as an institution
Economic Depression
Food Safety Movement
Gilded Age
Healthy Food Movement
Industrialized food production
Media (newspapers, cable television)
Progressive Era
Shopping Malls
Mass Transportation Technologies (steamboats, railroads, canals, trolleys)

New types of food institutions such as automats, buffets, cafes, cafeterias, coffee houses, diners, drive-in restaurants, fast-food restaurants, hotel coffee shops, luncheonettes, lunchrooms, lunch wagons, roadside stands, saloons, smorgasbords, soda fountains, taverns, tea houses, white-tablecloth restaurants

Table 1: Some Forces Shaping Eating Out in America from Colonial to Modern Times

Colonial and Federal period – 17th to 19th centuries

§  where to find food and temporary lodging
§   different kinds of places one could find a meal
§  what kind of people patronize the taverns compared to the coffee house

Boardinghouses, Hotels, and Farmer’s Markets – 18th and 19th centuries

§  location, cost, reputation, and meal hours of the hotels and boarding houses.
§  choices of boardinghouses
§  availability of food from farmer’s markets and food vendors

Organizational and Technological Innovation – 19th century

§  foods served, types of people who are welcomed at each of the new kinds of eating establishments
§  where they are located
§  how much they cost
§  what newly available foods taste like and how they are to be used in cooking

The Role of Immigration – late 19th and early 20th centuries

§  will I like ethnic food
§  will it be too spicy or use unpalatable ingredients

§  is it sanitary and healthy to eat
§  in what part of town can ethnic food be found
§  will the ethnic restaurant be a fun place for an evening out

Healthy eating – late 19th and early 20th centuries

§  will the food served be healthy and nutritious for me
§  are the portions served reasonable
§  can I watch what they are doing to assure that the conditions for preparing the food are sanitary
§  are nutritious and sanitary foods affordable
§  which restaurants serve them

Eating for the masses – early 20th century

§  which types of rapid-dining places would I most enjoy
§  which is located close enough to work that I can use it for a quick lunch
§  do they serve alcohol
§  would I feel welcome and comfortable eating there
§  is the cost of the meal within my budget

The role of the automobile – 20th century

§  is it affordable enough to feed the entire family
§  is it quick enough that it won’t slow down my trip
§  will there be a place to park the car
§  will the kids find the food edible
§  will there be restaurants along our highway route
§  will there be a place to eat near our motel or near the gas station when we fill up

Restaurants in the 20th century

§  is there parking
§  does the restaurant serve alcohol
§  is there table service or do you have to order at the counter
§  is the restaurant kid-friendly
§  is there uniformity in customer experience across different restaurant in a particular chain

Other exogenous forces – 20th century

§  will the restaurant have satisfying foods to offer in this time of wartime shortages or rationing
§  where can I find comfort food or southern regional cooking
§  what food options are available during our shopping trip to the mall
§  is there anything more interesting than bland Cantonese food at the local Asian restaurant
§  does the restaurant serve foods consistent with my diet regimen

Table 2: Some Questions About Eating Out in America

One final comment about the questions one asks in undertaking the everyday information-seeking activity of finding a place to eat – namely, that these questions depend not only on when, but also on where and who. The search for a restaurant in a rural community is different from the search in New York City. To select where to eat as a black person in the south prior to the civil rights movement of the 1960s was different from the selection process of the white southerner. The selection process for the poor person has been different from that of the wealthy person.

Sources Consulted

Let us now turn to the final element in the historical study of everyday information behavior: the sources consulted as part of this behavior. From the seventeenth through the nineteenth century, the two most important sources of information about eating out were word of mouth and location. Even in the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries these two sources of information remain important. Friends, family, local tradesmen, people at one’s church, and business associates often have recommendations about places to eat. As far back as Colonial taverns, there were painted signs hung outside of eating establishments, but one had to be going by in order to notice them. Taverns appeared along main roads between cities, near the central markets within cities, and in places where there were high concentrations of workers such as near the central business district, large factories, or subway stops. Not only did workers become familiar with places to eat by traveling past them on a regular basis as they went to work or did their shopping, but also these people developed a general tacit knowledge of the built environment. If they were to visit a new city, for example, they would already have an intuition about where they might find a quick working lunch. If they were on a highway they had never travelled before, they would already have an intuition about the kinds of restaurant they would find along the road.

In closing this paper, we will briefly discuss four other sources of information about eating out in America, taking them in their chronological order of appearance: guidebooks, advertising, reviews, and the Internet. The first American guidebooks appeared in the early nineteenth century, at a time when more people were traveling because of increased wealth and improved transportation. However, these guides said little about American food habits or particular restaurants. The coming of the automobile as a middle-class technology was a stimulus for the creation of new guidebooks. The first major restaurant guide published in America was Adventures in Good Eating (1936), written by the Kentucky traveling salesman Duncan Hines. His guidebook reviewed a select few restaurants on the road, rating cleanliness and value for money as well as the quality of the food. After the Second World War, there was an explosion of guidebooks, including bestsellers from Arthur Frommer and Eugene Fodor. In recent years, the four most important guidebooks have been Michelin (published in France since 1900 but only covering US restaurants since 2005), Mobil (guides published by the oil company beginning in 1958, licensed by Forbes since 2009, and available only online since 2011), the American Automobile Association since the 1950s, and Zagat since 1979. The Michelin and Zagat guides are highly selective and focused on reviewing high-end restaurants. The Mobil and AAA guidebooks are more mainstream and focused on restaurants the typical business or leisure traveler by automobile might encounter (Chappell 1925; Davis 2009).

Restaurants advertise through the use of many media: billboards, newspapers, magazines, radio, television, product placement in films, coupons, fliers delivered on foot, and direct mail, among others. Advertising began to professionalize in the late nineteenth century and what we would today regard as modern advertising began in the 1930s with the use of psychology and design to enhance its effectiveness. While the processed food industry was one of the first advertisers (mainly because food products were among the first products to be nationally branded, such as Quaker Oats and Campbell’s Soup); and it remains one of the largest advertisers in America today. However, restaurants were not heavily advertised until the 1960s, concomitant with the growth of franchised fast food. This timeline of restaurant advertising is true, whether one considers television, billboards, or coupons (Gudis 2004).

The first mention of a restaurant in The New York Times appeared in 1830, but throughout the 19th and first half of the 20th century the typical newspaper article’s coverage of a restaurant focused on crime or an event that occurred there. The first regular reviewing of restaurants in the modern sense occurred with the hiring of Craig Claiborne as the Times’ food critic from 1957 to 1986. He visited restaurants several times before writing his reviews, always paid for his meals so as to not be beholden to the restaurant, and provided ratings on a four-star scale. His reviews were read by millions of Americans. Soon, newspapers all across the country were publishing restaurant reviews on a regular basis (Ray 2008).

The Internet has become a major source for restaurant information in at least three ways. Individual restaurants and restaurant chains advertise in traditional ways about their products. New social networking oriented sites such as Chowhound, Foursquare, and Yelp provide user-generated reviews online. Traditional guidebooks such as Mobil and Zagat have also moved online, first producing online equivalents of their printed products and then slowly incorporating social networking capabilities that are available online, such as user reviews and user forums. Apps for have made both restaurant reviews and restaurant location information available on mobile phones. (For more on this topic, see Aspray, Royer, and Ocepek 2013, Ch. 3, 4).

How American a Story is This?

For the past several decades there has been criticism of studies that reflect American exceptionalism and essentialism. It goes far beyond the scope of this paper to do a comparative national analysis of eating outside the home over time. But even without these formal comparisons, we can draw a few general observations.

In many ways, the story told here about America is not unlike that of many other industrialized Western countries. For example, immigration led to new foodways that shaped the ethnic restaurant scene in many countries. Consider the appearance of Indian food in England or Middle Eastern food in Germany, for example. To take another example, prohibition was a shaping force on American eating habits. There have been temperance movements in many countries―not only in Islamic countries, but also in largely Christian countries including most of Scandanavia in the late 19th century and early 20th centuries, tied to revivalist religious beliefs. So in various respects the American story is not very different from those in Northern Europe, for example.

There are some examples where exogenous forces on the eating environment were similar in many countries but where there was nevertheless something special about the American situation because America had the earliest or most concentrated presence of this force. Consider several examples:

·         Industrialization of food occurred in all of the industrialized countries in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, but nowhere else does it occur to the extent that it did in the United States. Food safety is an issue faced by numerous countries, but the strong concern about food safety in early twentieth century America (as epitomized by Sinclair Lewis’s The Jungle and the passage of the Food and Drug Act) was unmatched elsewhere. This reaction was partly a result of the high concentration of industrialized food production in the United States, and especially the graphic nature of industrialized meat production, together with Progressive Era attitudes.

·         Transportation was a force in many countries that served to disseminate particular foods and new types of restaurants to different regions of the country, but there are two peculiarities about the American story. First, the United States is geographically more spread out than many other countries (e.g. certainly more than Western Europe) and thus the United States had a greater dependence of advance transportation to spread new types of restaurants across long distances. Second, the fact that Chinese immigrants were brought in large numbers to the United States to build the railroad system and then summarily dismissed when the system was completed meant that there was a ready group of immigrants who were familiar with both a new cuisine and a particular transportation technology, and in fact the Chinese did use the railroad to relocate around the United States. The first Chinese restaurants outside of the major cities on the east and west coasts were in cities on main railroad lines. The authors do not know of a parallel story in other countries.

There are some examples where the authors are unaware of similar stories in other countries, at least until many years later. The domestic science movement is primarily a US movement. It received a major stimulus from the land-grant universities formed in the United States beginning in the 1860s. This was predicated on both the presence of large plots of available land in many parts of the country and a federal government interested in expanding development in some of the more recently settled states. Media empires, advertising, franchising, shopping malls, and suburbanization all occurred in many industrialized countries but at a later date and to a significantly lesser degree than in the United States; all of these affected the eating out experience in America.

The story of French food in America is an interesting one. The first wave of French food in the United States came in the first decades after the French revolution and had an egalitarian social dimension associated with it, to provide hearty foods to the masses. The second wave of French food, during the Gilded Age of the late nineteenth century, had a totally different cause and character; French restaurants became a place for upper-class Americans to escape from the waves of immigrants and American farm workers who were relocating to the American cities. The third wave of French food in America came in the 1960s, partly as a result of style issues and partly as a result of a new-found international awareness in the American public based in inexpensive air travel and WW2 soldier experience in Europe. All of these causes seem particularly American.

Food Studies, Information Studies, and American Studies

Given the obviously important cultural role of food in every society, it is obvious that there are important ways in which food studies can inform American studies. There is already a well developed line of research by food scholars on foodways, which uses social, cultural, and economic analyses to analyze how food production and consumption migrates and becomes adopted and adapted in particular places. There is much that American studies scholars can learn from the foodways scholarship. This paper only touches on a small piece of that line of inquiry.

There was a movement in food geography that was especially active in the 1980s and 1990s with the work of Richard Pillsbury (Pillsbury 1987, 1990, 1998). While there continues to be additional scholarship in this area (e.g., Dillon, Burger and Shortridge 2007; Smajda and Gerteis 2012), it is not as active as it once was – and there many more things that can be done in this scholarly area that will contribute to the American studies scholar’s sense of the importance of place. The authors of this article are currently working on research about tacit knowledge of the built environment and how it informs decisions such as where to eat (but also many other everyday activities). A sense of how America is structured geographically informs the behavior of individuals.

There is a small literature within food studies that examines information-seeking behavior of people eating out (Iglesias and Guillen 2002, 2004; Pedraja and Yague 2001). However, this literature does not seem to be informed by the theoretical studies in everyday information behavior within the information studies literature.

This paper provides an application of history to an area of information studies known as everyday information behavior. Research by information studies scholars on everyday information behavior (sometimes called "everyday information-seeking behavior, although there is more to it than conscious, goal-oriented information seeking) often takes the contextual environment as given and looks for patterns in the observed behavior of those "seeking" information who are placed in that environment. The scholarship might report, for example, the observations of an ethnographer or the statistically significant findings from a group of users who self-report on how they are carrying out a particular line of information seeking. This type of study may identify particular questions that are raised or sources that are consulted in their information quest, or other aspects such as the order in which a search is carried out, the time allocated to various search strategies, or which sources they trust for what purposes, but they do not generally reflect on the forces that shaped their particular search environment or how the search might have been conducted differently at different times.

Aspray and Hayes’s book on Everyday Information (2011) presents an historical approach to studying everyday information behavior that is complementary to the existing lines of scholarship. The basic rubric involves four steps. First, identify an everyday activity (e.g. making a particular purchase, pursuing a hobby, informing a future decision such as selecting a school for your children, or gathering background information on a topic such as the symptoms and treatment of a disease). Second, identify an era of time in which to study this information behavior. The time frame should be long enough (often measured in decades) so that the information practice experiences significant changes during the period studied. Third, identify the questions asked and the sources consulted at different points in time during this era. Fourth, identify endogenous and exogenous forces that shape the questions asked and sources consulted at each point of time studied. This historical approach has been applied to a number of everyday activities, such as buying a car, making philanthropic donations, airline travel, and family genealogy. It has twice been applied to other aspects of food studies: gourmet cooking as a hobby (Hartel 2011) and grocery shopping (Wimberley and McClean 2012). The historical approach of Aspray and Hayes is only one of a number of approaches and theories in everyday information behavior that could inform American studies scholarship. Much of the literature in this field is given toward building theories of everyday information behavior, based on observation, focus groups, or experiments. For one leading scholar’s perspective on the field of everyday information behavior, the American studies scholar should look at Savolainen (2008). For a more general account of information studies scholarship on information behavior, see Case (2012). For a distillation of the various theories of information behavior―some but not all of which are relevant to everyday information behavior―consult Fisher, Erdelez, and Mckechnie (2005).


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