George G. Foster, The eating-houses (Review)
Some of you will know that Mr Gums and I love to eat out. So, when I saw a Library of America (LOA) Story of the Week titled “The eating-houses” by one George G Foster appear in my in-box at the end of last year, I knew I had to read it. I just had to find the time to slip it in. I eventually did, and here I am.
The first thing to say about it is that those of us who thought our era of conspicuous dining-out was a new thing are wrong. Foster writes in the opening paragraph of his article that:
We once undertook to count these establishments in the lower part of the City, but got surfeited on the smell of fried grease before we got half through the first street, and were obliged to go home in a cab. We believe, however, that there can’t be less than a hundred of them within half a mile radius of the Exchange. They are too important a “slice” [see publication details below to understand this reference] of New York to be overlooked …
This reminded me of my return last year to the little suburban shopping centre of my teen years – Wahroonga, in Sydney. I looked across the street, from where I was standing, to the local supermarket on the corner and ran my eyes down from it to the other corner. Just a short distance. And it was wall-to-wall cafes with nary another business in between. That was just that little side of that street. There were a couple of cafes on my side, and around both corners, and across the other street as well. Amazeballs as the young would say! Clearly Mr Gums and I are not alone in our predilection for eating out.
Anyhow, back to Foster. You might have gathered from my excerpt that he was not much in favour of these establishments, and you’d be right. He satirises them, and their denizens, pretty mercilessly. He clearly thinks home-cooked meals are better – “the fare is generally bad enough — not nearly equal to that which the cook at Home above Bleecker* saves for the beggars”. He ridicules their lack of style and taste:
It is really wonderful how men of refined tastes and pampered habits, who at home are as fastidious as luxury and a delicate appetite can make them, find it in their hearts—or stomachs either—to gorge such disgusting masses of stringy meat and tepid vegetables, and to go about their business again under the fond delusion that they have dined.
He categorises the three main styles of eating-houses – satirically referencing the great Swedish botanist and taxonomist Linnæus – and satirises the diners. He describes a journalist ordering “rosegoose”: “when goose leaps suddenly in front of a poet of the Press, who ordered it probably through a commendable preference for a brother of the quill”.
At the cheap Sweenyorum “sixpenny eating-house” style of place, you only get a spoken menu which, he says, “does away with lying in print, to which bills of fare as well as newspapers are too much addicted”. Still, beware here, he advises, of added extras, or your sixpenny cut will suddenly be “seven shillin'”! Just order “a small plate of roast beef mixed, (this means mashed turnips and potatoes in equal quantities)”, add some bread perhaps, and a glass of free water. Then you will “pay one shilling for the whole, and go about your business like a refreshed and sensible man”.
He briefly mentions the cake and coffee shops which are open all night, and therefore frequented by journalists, firemen, and the like. He reserves special praise for the latter:
They are generally far more moderate than politicians and less noisy than gentlemen. At the first tingle of the fire-bell they leap like crouching greyhounds, and are in an instant darting through the street towards their respective engine-houses—whence they emerge dragging their ponderous machines behind them, ready to work like Titans all night and all day, exposing themselves to every peril of life and limb, and performing incredible feats of daring strength, to save the property of people who know nothing about them, care nothing for them, and perhaps will scarcely take the trouble to thank them.
Oh dear – I do hope their “plate of biscuits with a lump of butter in the belly for three cents, and a cup of coffee for as much more” provided them with enough sustenance! And did you note the reference to politicians?
His final paragraph is reserved for the “expensive and aristocratic restaurant of which Delmonico’s is the only complete specimen in the United States”. I was rather intrigued by this because he argues that, at a place like this, you will get
a dinner which is not merely a quantity of food deposited in the stomach, but is in every sense and to all the senses a great work of art.
“A great work of art” is how many of our top chefs like to see their food today. Paying large sums for food like this seems, in one sense, insensitive. And yet, does art have to last forever, or can it be enjoyed in the moment before we move on? I’m still pondering this.
The interesting thing is, as LOA’s notes tell us, that Foster’s “preference for high-society haunts like Delmonico’s ultimately caused his downfall”. He was imprisoned for forging cheques, and spent 9 months in prison the year before he died. His obituary in the New York Times described him as
a remarkable example of the worthlessness of a brilliant talent unguided by a moral purpose, or a decent regard for the proprieties of civilized society.
Do consider reading this article. It’s short and entertaining – and is a fascinating piece of 19th century social history.
George G. Foster
First published: In New York in slices, by an Experience Carver, 1849.
Available: Online at the Library of America
* A residential area of New York.