Who In­vented Fine Din­ing in Amer­ica?

A new book ex­plores the lives of our first chefs and restau­ra­teurs


A new book’s ex­plo­ration of culi­nary leg­ends

We have not hon­ored the masters of the culi­nary pro­fes­sion by keep­ing their mem­o­ries,” writes Univer­sity of South Carolina food his­to­rian David Shields in the in­tro­duc­tion to his new book The Culi­nar­i­ans (The Univer­sity of Chicago Press). “In a strange way, the mem­ory of cook­ing has con­densed around recipes, dishes that are per­formed in a gen­eral kitchen reper­toire,” like vichys­soise, dev­iled lob­ster, or oys­ters Rock­e­feller, while “their cre­ators have van­ished into the ether.” The book is Shields’ at­tempt to cor­rect that, through 176 pro­files of the most im­por­tant (and mostly lit­tle-known) cooks, chefs,

cater­ers, and restau­ra­teurs of the 19th and early 20th cen­turies, who laid the foun­da­tion of Amer­i­can cui­sine.

The book pro­files chefs like Othello Pol­lard, a black man born some 10 years be­fore the Rev­o­lu­tion­ary War, who was con­sid­ered among Bos­ton’s finest in the first years of the Re­pub­lic. “He was styled a ge­nius and ‘the er­ratic comet of cook­ery,’ ” writes Shields. “His forte was pas­try and con­fec­tions. His win­ter cheese­cakes were fa­mous; and he be­came a fa­mil­iar fig­ure on Bos­ton’s streets in the sum­mer, wheel­ing a ve­hi­cle dis­pens­ing ices … He was con­sid­ered the po­litest man in the city, fa­mous for his dandy­ism and fas­tid­i­ous­ness. He was all about show, and his at­trac­tion to mu­se­ums and ex­hi­bi­tions led to side ven­tures and to the res­tau­rant busi­ness, in­clud­ing, in 1802, the dis­play­ing of the first leopard shown in North Amer­ica, im­ported from Ben­gal.”

In an­other en­try, Shields details the bi­og­ra­phy of Jules Arthur Harder, who he con­sid­ers the great­est chef of the 19th cen­tury. Af­ter stints at the best restau­rants in New York—del­monico’s, the Maison Dorée—harder ran the kitchen at San Fran­cisco’s Palace Ho­tel, where he was so ac­cus­tomed to dis­tin­guished guests he de­vel­oped strong feel­ings on the rel­a­tive eat­ing habits of the pres­i­dents. “I con­sider Pres­i­dent Arthur the best liver of any Pres­i­dent we have had,” the chef is recorded as say­ing. “Grant dines well now,” he goes on, but “I re­mem­ber ... when he was first made Pres­i­dent, and he did not know much about din­ing then. Pres­i­dent Hayes never drank any wine at his din­ners, and there­fore did not know how to dine.” You have to won­der what he would think of our cur­rent tee­to­tal­ing com­man­der in chief.

Shields is a pas­sion­ate chron­i­cler of South­ern food cul­ture, and he came to the idea of the book while working on the his­tory of Low Coun­try cook­ing. “When I was do­ing that re­search, I found out that there are no books on the his­tory of the cook­ing pro­fes­sion in the United States, at all,” he says. “The names of the great cooks, what their dishes were—it was en­tirely miss­ing. I couldn’t grasp that, es­pe­cially to­day, liv­ing in the age of the celebrity chef. Why didn’t such a his­tory ex­ist? Who were the great chefs?” So he de­cided he had to do it him­self.

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