Explore how restaurants became symbols of social success, even influencing diplomacy. Learn how American politicians harnessed food for public connection. Delve into the rise of fast food after World War II, transforming dining into convenience and culture. A historical journey of culinary evolution.
PEOPLE have always eaten on the go. For millennia, street vendors, roadside inns and taverns provided weary sojourners with food. Some of the world’s earliest restaurants catering to travelers who ordered specific, often regional dishes originated in China over 900 years ago. By the 16th century restaurants had emerged in Japan, as well.
The first modern restaurants serving local residents as well as other guests originated in France in the 1780s. The word restaurant itself comes from the rich “restorative” broths served at such establishments. Parisian chefs soon integrated aristocratic dishes and impeccable service into the dining experience and “haute cuisine,” or high cuisine, was born.
French food went on to define and dominate the highest echelons of global dining for the next two centuries. With access to a thriving urban restaurant scene, well-off Europeans were a bit spoiled when it came to eating out.
Author Charles Dickens, while traveling to the United States in 1842, was horrified by the lack of etiquette and dining options. He described the food he received in American boardinghouses and hotels as “piles of indigestible matter.”
By 1860, however, that had changed, at least in New York City, where several restaurants started to gain acclaim. The most famous of these was Delmonico’s, the first restaurant to be reviewed in The New York Times in 1859. Emphasizing the luxury of fine dining, the review gushed, “No nobleman of England – no Marqui of ancienne noblesse – was ever better served or waited on in greater style than you will be in a private room at Delmonico’s.”
Abraham Lincoln, who dined at Delmonico’s during the Civil War, was the first of a series of presidents to enjoy Delmonico’s dishes, especially the gratin potatoes.
Restaurants proliferated in mid-19th-century America as industrialization and urbanization transformed the economy and the landscape. Eating out became a reflection of social and professional success.
When Dickens returned to the U.S. in 1868, he feasted on no fewer than 40 courses at a Delmonico’s banquet in his honor. At its end he was moved to amend his earlier impressions of American fare by admitting “I have been received with unsurpassable politeness, delicacy, sweet temper, hospitality [and] consideration.”
Haute Dog Diplomacy
In the 20th century, American politicians enlisted simpler restaurant fare to bolster diplomatic relations and connect to the public.
On June 11, 1939 President Franklin D. Roosevelt, the first lady Eleanor, and the king and queen of England sat down to a catered event at Roosevelt’s family estate in Hyde Park, New York that would become known as the “Hot Dog Summit.”
No British monarch had until then set foot on American soil, but with Europe on the brink of war Roosevelt believed a public gesture of friendship could forge stronger bonds with England and bolster pro-British sentiment. So when he found out the royal couple planned to visit Canada in 1939 he immediately wrote to the king, inviting him to enjoy a few days of simple country life at their family home.
The president’s plan was to present royals as relatable, so he organized an outdoor luncheon at which the famous group enjoyed a classic American “take-out” meal, hot dogs and beer, in front of journalists, cameras and a charmed audience. According to witnesses, Queen Elizabeth ate her frankfurter with a knife and fork while King George VI followed the Roosevelts’ example and used his hands. He then asked for seconds.
The Hot Dog Summit seems to have been a turning point in how American politicians used food to identify with the masses and achieve their political aims. Historian David B. Woolner believed it “was an enormous PR success for both governments. I think a genuine warmth emerged between FDR and the king, and it marks a significant turning point in Anglo-American relations.”
The U.S. emerged as an economic and cultural superpower after World War II. Factories and industry turned away from war production and looked toward cultivating what Americans wanted, both at home and while dining out: convenience, entertainment, efficiency and a good deal. A new kind of restaurant, the “fast food” franchise, checked all of the boxes.
Increasing numbers of regular Americans now experienced the joy of dining out. A variety of chain restaurants proliferated across the country and then internationally, propelled by new innovations in technology, transportation and communication. By the 1970s the Golden Arches, the symbol of McDonald’s, had become one of the world’s most famous icons.
Hannah is a lecturer at the Department of History, University of Oregon. This article originally appeared on The Conversation and has been republished here under the Creative Commons Licence.