There was a time, avocado sherbet, when people avoided eating “out”. They dined at home or, like my grandmother, packed large lunches when a trip might require being on the road over lunch time. Fast food did not exist, local inspection of dining establishments did not exist, and people tried to avoid any meal which took place outside the home. (Picnics didn’t count, as this involved food prepared or at least purchased by those who ran the household, like the cold Spam sandwiches and storebought potato chips my mother remembered so fondly from her childhood road trips. And even then…cold Spam sandwiches? Well, SHE liked ‘em.)
One social historian explains why men’s clubs proliferated in the late nineteenth century by explaining that men who worked in the city, farm from home, eventually had to find a place to eat. A private club, where one could vote on the sort of menu offered, allowed for an alternative to the bare possibilities of dining in the big city. A person could pay a hefty price at a restaurant in a fancy hotel. This involved cigars, different wines with each of usually five courses, and (in Chicago, anyhow) Scotch as the main beverage of choice. This left one in a very bad state to go back and work in the afternoon.
Alternately, if one didn’;t mind eating with the labor force, one could go to a bar, put down a nickle for a pint of beer, and help oneself to the free lunch, plates standing out all day in all weathers, laden with foods that were pickled, boiled, and likely marked with the thumbprints of whoever had been there ahead of you.
There was also the boarding house, where one could buy a week’s worth of meal tickets for whatever meal one would be there for, sit down family style with whoever else had paid for a ticket, and grab what grub was put on the table, eating as fast as possible so one could grab more, if desired. As boarding houses were in business to make a profit, the food was notoriously cheap and often just a wee bit past its prime. This was welcomed by young people with tight budgets and strong digestions.
When the restaurant owners decided to try appealing to the growingly mobile middle class, therefore, there was a lot of back publicity that had to be counteracted. Many tried to point out that they were staffed by proud, happy, hard-working chefs.
Postcard cartoonists took some convincing. Food in these new drop-in dining establishments could still be unpredictable. (Anyone who can explain his entrée is welcome to do so. I DO like the optimism of the dog, waiting for table scraps.)
In the days when stray dogs roamed the streets of the city at will, by the way, and before the screen door became a must-have for your neighborhood diner, these were a regular feature of the eating experience. (I don’t know if this dachshund is stealing food, or trying to rescue a fellow sausage.)
Soup covered a multitude of sins, often including whatever leftovers had already been in the hash twice and were looking for a new job. (Hey, if you want a soup joke that does NOT employ a fly, here’s one which goes back at least to the days of vaudeville. “How did you like the soup, sir?” “To tell you the truth,. I’m kind of sorry I stirred it up.”)
The quality of the eggs served in a restaurant was another constant source of humor.
And for more than one generation, at that.
Meat was tough, fish and butter were likely to be too old to be bought by a boarding house, and if all that was not enough to worry about, the wait staff, as usual, consisted of the veteran and the novice, and fraught with similar perils.
All in all, it was just safer to eat at home. (Usually.)