Friday, March 31, 2017

Freedman Explains His Top Ten

In Scarsdale, Mar. 30, Yale professor Paul Freedman, author of "Ten Restaurants That Changed America," described how he came up with his list. (YWAA photos)
 Yale history professor Paul Freedman's new book, Ten Restaurants That Changed America, has spawned lively discussion among food circles around the country.  What restaurants made the list? What restaurants didn't?  How did he select the top ten? What were the criteria? And how does a history professor in New Haven, an expert in medieval studies, carve out time to write about the history of eating habits in this country over the past century and a half?

Freedman, a guest lecturer at the Scarsdale Library, Mar. 30, as part of the YWAA speaker series, explained his favorite hobby to an audience of about 100 Yale alumni, friends and Westchester residents.  The book, he reminded all, "is not about the best restaurants," but about those that had the most influence on where Americans eat out, why they choose to do so, and what they eat when they venture beyond home dining. 

His list includes familiar names (Delmonico's in Downtown Manhattan, the recently closed Four Season in Midtown, Antoine's in New Orleans, and Sylvia's in Harlem).  It contains puzzling selections, until Freedman explained carefully (in his book and in Scarsdale) why they must be included:  Schrafft's of New York lore, national chain Howard Johnson's, and Mama Leone's, the lone Italian restaurant on his list. 

Critics have praised the book and applauded his diligence and research. He approached culinary history in the manner of, yes, a medieval historian by studying archives, examining tattered menus, roaming the country, interviewing food experts, and analyzing original sources. Freedman presents a story of Americans deciding at some point in history to indulge in eating by simply going outside the home. 

Freedman observes the "amalgam" of ethnic cuisines, thanks to immigrants from all global corners or thanks to African-Americans migrating to the North and bringing southern recipes and tastes with them (Sylvia's, e.g.).  The panoply of ethnic cuisines in America, he showed, has been around longer than we know. In Scarsdale, he showed a New Yorker cover from 1938 with a cartoon drawing of several ethnic-restaurant settings (Chinese, Middle East, Italian, French, etc.).

He said Delmonico's, where menus in the mid-19th century included Maryland turtles as a high-end offering, was likely America's first restaurant that was a "gastronomical destination." It was America's first high-end French restaurant without being a real French restaurant.  Howard Johnson's, he said, makes the list because it's the first restaurant where the menu and cuisine were the same at every Ho-Jo site. Howard Johnson's offered Americans familiarity and consistency. 

Freedman described New York's Schrafft's as a destination for "respectable New York women," who would often order a rich banana split after sampling a light green salad, where his grandmother frequented, but his own mother avoided.  With Schrafft's, he discussed the possibility of women having unique eating preferences or the likelihood that women of long ago chose foods differently when not accompanied by men. 

He highlighted the cozy, low-back seating arrangements at the Four Seasons, a purposeful design to ensure faithful (and famous) followers could see and be seen. 

Freedman's list is about history and influence and not a forecast of trends and fads. No restaurant in the book was founded after the 1970's.  Mama Leone's has closed.  The Four Seasons will reappear in varying (and uncertain?) incarnations. Schrafft's disappeared in the Reagan era, and Howard Johnson's is but a tiny shell of its once expansive self. 

His Scarsdale audience rushed to follow his presentation with questions or their own observations about food history, habits and trends.  

Freedman noted his list resulted in no Mexican or Japanese restaurants.  There were also no steak or barbecue places.  He said the French Laundry in Napa Valley might have been no. 11 or 12 on the list, if he were permitted to extend the list.  

Audience members asked why the 21 Club in Midtown and Windows of the World in the old World Trade Center were not considered (for influence, if not cuisine).  He said "21 was mostly about atmosphere and networking," where the Four Seasons had already established a foothold. The 21 Club, he added, was the among first to get away with selling a very expensive hamburger. Windows of the World, he remembered, was a "style pioneer with good wine."  

Others asked his impressions about commonplace eateries in hospitals, airports and museums.  (He suggested a museum restaurant in Chicago was a favorite.) Others solicited his views of favorite New York deli haunts, such as Carnegie Deli and Katz's Deli.  "Katz's is celebrated," Freedman said, "like Strand Bookstore (in Greenwich Village), the last book store standing."

Someone asked why certain restaurant types have never gained popularity in the U.S. Hungarian restaurants and food, he replied, have an "undeserved image of heaviness."  Philippine restaurants have been "a hard sell," while Indian restaurants thrive, but are frequently run by immigrants from Bangladesh. 

Freedman, identifying a Yale tie at a mostly Yale event, noted Alice Waters of Chez Panisse fame (and included in his top 10) sent her daughter to Yale and helped revolutionize how Yale Dining cultivates ingredients and prepares food in the residential colleges.  

And Danny Meyer, best known these days for igniting the hamburger sensation that is Shake Shack, also a Yale parent, wrote the introduction to the book. 
In Scarsdale, audience members wanted to know about restaurants that didn't make the list, about current trends in eating, and about why certain cuisines are more popular than others. (YWAA photos)

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