pompeii restaurants offered dormice, sea urchins, and giraffe -- 12/19/16

Today's selection -- from Ten Restaurants that Changed America by Paul Freedman. The history of restaurants:

"There was a time when there were simply no restaurants in the United States. Although restaurants might seem an inevitable part of urban civi­lization, most prosperous, commercial societies in the past managed quite well without them. It has always been necessary to have food available out­side the home, of course. Travelers were served by inns, and drinkers could have snacks or simple meals at taverns. Take-out food has always been a feature of markets, festivals, or any activity that gathers people together in public. In the ruins of Pompeii, destroyed in the eruption of Mount Vesu­vius in 79 CE, something on the order of 128 of the buildings that have been excavated were found to have had counters facing the street, and served food. The great international church council that met between 1414 and 1417 in the small city of Constance in what is now southern Ger­many on the Swiss border attracted food vendors from all over the region. Ulrich von Richental's illustrated chronicle of the council, which resolved a conflict that divided the Church among three rival popes, shows a mobile oven mounted on a wheeled cart that could make pies or other hot dishes. In the London of 1850 there were 4,000 people selling ready-to-eat food.

"Take-out spots and other necessary conveniences aren't restaurants, however. A restaurant is based on choice more than speed or necessity. Unlike inns or boardinghouses, which served meals at a single stated time, restaurants offered a range of times when patrons could show up and expect food. Rather than having to accept a set meal, the restaurant-goer could choose from a menu, and in place of the single communal table, customers ate with their own group in a public setting, but set off from other parties.

Council of Constance -- a mobile oven mounted on a wheeled cart

"Defined this way, most dining out in the past took place as an accompaniment to drinking, or a requisite for a journey or attending a market. Unlike the restaurant, the inn or take-out stand was not a culinary destina­tion. The contemporary fast-food stop is therefore only partially a restau­rant since more patrons eat in their cars than at tables, there is a limited menu, and the establishment is a convenience more than a designated place for dining and conversation. ... Almost half the meals eaten in the United States take place outside the home, and a majority of those are consumed in fast-food chains. ...

"Restaurants, according to this definition, may have existed in the United States only since [around] 1830, but there are much older historical precedents else­where for this kind of eating establishment. At ancient Pompeii on the eve of its destruction there were dining rooms upstairs at forty-six of the take­out places and a variety of food (reconstructed from the contents of drains and containers) was offered. These rooms above the kitchen functioned as what we would consider restaurants, where customers reclined on couches and could choose from a menu. Often restaurants feature dishes hard to prepare at home, and at Pompeii such exotic fare as dormice, sea urchins, and even in one case giraffe was on offer.

"Another early civilization that developed restaurants was imperial China. Beginning in about 1000 CE, frequent mention is made in descrip­tions of cities and in literary texts of elaborate teahouses and taverns that offered a wide choice of food as well as musical and sexual entertainment. Marco Polo, writing around 1300, described the passion of the people of 'Quinsai' (modern Hangzhou) for fish, and mentions large banquet­ing palaces on islands in the nearby West Lake. Chinese accounts of the same period show that there were restaurants in Hangzhou specializing in regional cuisines of distant parts of China such as Hopei and Sichuan.

"In its modern Western form, the restaurant first took shape in Paris before the French Revolution of 1789 at the dawning of an age of accel­erated urbanization. The restaurant developed out of the cafe, which was open more or less all day and had separate tables for conversation, or for individuals to read the newspapers or otherwise occupy their lei­sure time. Cafes might serve pastries or other small items, but nothing like actual meals. The 'restaurant' takes its name from the French restauration, meaning a kind of reviving hot drink such as broth or consommé taken for health. The first Parisian restaurants catered to people of a frag­ile or hypochondriacal constitution who would drink bouillon as a restor­ative. Because they might need this tonic at any time of day, restaurants remained open to serve them. Very soon such establishments started adding other delicate but complicated-to-prepare foods, such as stewed chicken or preserved fruit.

"This seems a rather feeble beginning for such an important institution, but the idea of obtaining a choice of food in gracious surroundings at dif­ferent times of day was so appealing that by 1770 diners with hearty appe­tites were shoving aside the sickly and restaurants responded by expanding their options and preparing hundreds of different dishes. By 1800, even in the midst of the political upheavals following the Revolution and the ascent of Napoleon, Parisian restaurants were a major tourist draw for people from the rest of Europe, where such institutions were unknown. Véry's, Au Rocher de Cancale, and Les Trois Frères Provençaux were among the dozens of famous places at first clustered around the Palais Royale and rue de Rivoli and later dispersed throughout Paris.

"The fact that patrons could choose what to eat from a large number of possibilities required the invention of the menu virtually simultaneously with the appearance of the first restaurants. Once competition became lively, restaurant reviews by self-described experts began to appear. As early as 1804 one guidebook estimated that there were 2000 restaurants in Paris. A more credible English observer in 1837 gave the number at 927."

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Paul Freedman


Ten Restaurants That Changed America


Liveright Publishing Corporation


Copyright 2016 by Paul Freedman


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