It would be hard to claim that the 1970s and 1980s were great times for pop music, fashion, film, the theater or the culture in general. But in one area at least, Americans were enjoying something like a renaissance. The land of the automat and the greasy spoon, where good restaurants were once harder to find than Flannery O'Connor's proverbial good man, was being transformed into a foodie paradise. Bright young people who once might have rented studios to write or paint could often now be found honing their skills in the kitchen of a restaurant.
Although the first settlers who came to the New World marveled at the abundance of wonderful things to eat--fish, game, fruit and vegetables--throughout much of its subsequent history, America was not regarded as a bastion of fine dining. Nineteenth century visitors like Charles Dickens and Frances Trollope were horrified by greasy dishes and bad table manners.
By the beginning of the 20th century, there were some good restaurants but many more bad or indifferent ones. As Patric Kuh explains in his colorful account of America's culinary revolution, the kind of haute cuisine that reigned in Paris was little known in America until the 1939 World's Fair, where the restaurant at the French pavilion introduced tens of thousands of fair-goers to dining in the classic French manner. Soon thereafter, the man who had managed that restaurant, Henri Soule, opened the place that would come to serve as the paragon of haute cuisine in America: Le Pavillon in Manhattan.
Along with the high standards of cooking came a daunting air of exclusivity. At Le Pavillon, service was formal and elaborate. Favored customers--royalty, socialites, celebrities or tycoons such as Joseph Kennedy--were seated in a special area that waiters nicknamed "the blueblood station." But, as Kuh shows us, this kind of snobbery was just as much a feature of other ritzy New York hangouts like the Colony, the "21" Club and the Stork Club, where the food was not exactly a gourmet's delight: "At the Stork Club. . . " Kuh notes, "the kitchen could get away with dishes such as lamb chops Saint Hilaire, which, grand as it sounded, was actually an unappetizing lamb chop stuffed with chicken hash."
Kuh, a chef, food writer and novelist, trains his knowledgeable eye on more than the kitchen. In the days before credit cards, exclusive restaurants like Le Pavillon provided house accounts for favored customers. When credit cards became popular in the 1950s, some, like Soule, refused to accept them. American Express was so anxious to have its card accepted, it went into the business of actually financing restaurants.
For Joe Baum and his enterprising management company, Restaurant Associates, this was clearly the way to go. Starting out humbly but profitably with an eatery at Newark Airport, RA went on to create such cutting-edge watering-holes as the Four Seasons and La Fonda del Sol, which offered panache without the stuffiness. Less than a decade later, in 1966, the year Soule died, a politically engaged young woman in Berkeley, Alice Waters, began to think about opening a new kind of restaurant. By the end of the 1970s, California cuisine was definitely on the map.
Waters, Jeremiah Tower, Wolfgang Puck and Joachim Splichal are among the many chefs and restaurateurs who parade through these pages. And Kuh does not neglect the instrumental role played by writers like MFK Fisher, Elizabeth David, James Beard and Julia Child in awakening Americans to the joys of cooking and eating. Only the most dogged determination on the part of Child and her co-authors, Simone Beck and Louisette Bertholle, finally resulted in the publication of their magisterial "Mastering the Art of French Cooking" after years of rejection: "We must accept the fact," wrote a discouraged Child at one point, "that this may well be a book unacceptable by any publisher, as it requires work on the part of the reader."
Like a busy kitchen, Kuh's book has a lot going on: cooking styles, management styles, the rise of ethnic cuisine, the links between food and politics, food and philosophy, food and farming, food and finance. And like a busy kitchen, though at first glance it may seem a bit disorganized, all the thematic ingredients come together to produce a stimulating, satisfying and memorable experience.