Food For Thought: 10 Restaurants That Shaped America : The Salt A Yale historian's new book explores America's changing tastes, and what they say about our culture — from class mobility to civil rights to women's changing status.
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Food For Thought: 10 Restaurants That Shaped America

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Food For Thought: 10 Restaurants That Shaped America

Food For Thought: 10 Restaurants That Shaped America

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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

When's the last time you ordered turtle for dinner? Turtle was a typical entree at the finest restaurants a hundred years ago. A new book documents our nation's changing tastes and what they say about our culture. It's called "10 Restaurants That Changed America." NPR's Neda Ulaby met the author at one of those restaurants in New York.

NEDA ULABY, BYLINE: The glamour of Gotham might have started at Delmonico's...

(CROSSTALK, LAUGHTER)

ULABY: ...With its clubby, red leather chairs, black and white tile floors and mahogany panels. It opened in 1837.

PAUL FREEDMAN: You can't have the modern American restaurant without Delmonico's.

ULABY: Historian Paul Freedman says Delmonico's was not America's first restaurant, but it raised the bar for the hash houses, oyster sellers and taverns that were then the only places in the country to sit down and eat.

FREEDMAN: Delmonico's is the first to have refined offerings, beautiful food, beautiful surroundings, well-mannered waiters, a bit of Paris in New York.

ULABY: Abraham Lincoln loved Delmonico's potatoes. Mark Twain threw a birthday party there. And when Oscar Wilde ordered the terrapin - that's turtle - he raved about it, Freedman says, in an 1885 essay.

FREEDMAN: The two greatest sites in America are Yosemite Valley and Delmonico's restaurant.

ULABY: Freedman picked this and nine other restaurants with the following criteria. The place had to be exemplary so lots of other restaurants copied it or it came to define a category.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ULABY: For example, an Italian place - Mama Leone's. It closed in 1994, but when it started almost a century earlier, Mama Leone's was a haunt for Italian immigrants and artists. Its main customer was Enrico Caruso when it was founded.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ENRICO CARUSO: (Singing in Italian).

ULABY: Over the years Mama Leone's would become a veritable Vesuvius of red sauce joint cliches.

FREEDMAN: Flirtatious waiters, lots of entertainment, naked statues, huge portions...

ULABY: Mama Leone's was also one of the first theme restaurants with a shtick beyond its food. Freedmen's chapter about it is also a mini history of Italian eateries in America. Eating out is how he explores class mobility, the civil rights movement and women's changing status.

Jane Kramer wrote about his social history "10 Restaurants That Changed America" in this week's New Yorker magazine. She remembers eating at Sylvia's, the famous soul food restaurant in Harlem in the 1960s and power lunching at the Four Seasons in the 1980s.

JANE KRAMER: He captured the Zeitgeist perfectly.

ULABY: Kramer adored the book partly because it's so knowing about the conflict between an elite food culture with beautiful dining out options.

KRAMER: And the high-fat, high-salt fast food restaurants to which the majority of Americans go. It sets the person who can read and absorb a book like that far apart from the mainstream.

ULABY: Kramer would have appreciated more original and ethnic diversity, so she loved a chapter about the Mandarin in San Francisco and Chinese restaurants and a look at one national chain - Howard Johnson's...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Hot dogs and hamburgers...

ULABY: ...Which changed how a broad swath of middle-class families dined on the road.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: ...And fried clams to eat.

FREEDMAN: You can't have fast food restaurants without Howard Johnson's.

ULABY: About half of the influential restaurants Paul Freedman picked are now out of business, some recently like the Four Seasons in New York. Delmonico's almost closed several times. Prohibition nearly killed it.

FREEDMAN: It declined precipitously. By the First World War, it had horrible things like turkey hash with fried bananas.

ULABY: The food has since improved.

WILLIAM OLIVIA: So this is the lobster Newberg. At the moment it's garnished with a little asparagus, pea shoots and lobster mushrooms.

ULABY: Lobster Newberg was invented here. Executive chef William Olivia says he constantly goes back to the Epicurean cookbook created by an early Delmonico's chef written in 1894 and containing almost 4,000 recipes.

OLIVIA: I look at them all the time. I'll actually take the book out - the Epicurean out, and I'll look at it. And I'll say, OK, is there anything that we can make work today?

FREEDMAN: Are you ever tempted to make terrapin?

OLIVIA: Terrapin - we haven't messed around with.

ULABY: Turtle - still out. The truth, Olivia says, is he feels a lot of Wall Street guys who like their steak and booze.

OLIVIA: And you know, when we start doing foodie stuff, these guys are a little, like, you know, what the heck is this?

ULABY: His job is to keep this restaurant maybe more profitable than influential. But he says...

OLIVIA: Hopefully in 175 years from now somebody will be writing about me.

ULABY: Neda Ulaby, NPR News.

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