Paul Freedman is a professor of medieval history at Yale University and wrote the recently released Ten Restaurants That Changed America. The book features New Orleans' 176-year-old Antoine's, which Freedman includes for its elegant dining aesthetic and the French-Creole regional cuisine. Freedman spoke with Gambit about the evolution of American dining.
What struck you about how dining in America has evolved?
Freedman: I originally was interested in the subject because I saw an exhibit of menus at the New York Public Library. ... I was amazed at how different the food was in the 19th century — a lot of organ meat, a lot of game, dishes with French names that seemed more like Victorian English dishes ... just things that were unfamiliar or that were missing. There was not much in the way of steak or vegetables ... no French Provencal dishes or seasonal dishes.
I'm a medieval historian, and I'm interested in social distinction ... the differences between knights and peasants and what the cultural attributes of those distinctions are, and not just how some people eat that are rich and some people eat that are poor, but of how people define socially prestigious dishes.
When I first lived in Nashville (Tennessee), poor people or country people would have a garden that they would get produce from, or where they would raise chickens in their yard. Now, well-off people want fresh and seasonal foods and shop at farmers markets, and it's the poor who have been stereotyped as subsisting on fast food. So, the social stereotypes changed more than I expected. What I also found is that what Americans really valued more than other people (did) is variety. You see this with ethnic restaurants and different international restaurants that only recently have taken hold in Europe.
For Italians, generally, you want what your grandmother made, and some people will make it better than others, but you're not really interested in experimenting with that food. New Orleans has always been somewhat of an exception, because New Orleans has its own cuisine. It has a repertoire. But that's not typical of America. American cuisine basically has been about variety, and now we're kind of rediscovering the intrinsic quality and the simplicity of certain ingredients, which requires a level of artisanal cultivation and sourcing.
What is Antoine's significance to American dining?
F: The book is about the 10 most influential restaurants, not necessarily the best. Antoine's is in there, because it is actually a wonderful restaurant and has a very long history of excellent food, but also to represent American regional cuisine, which is something that in most parts of America has become extinct because of the homogenization of the country and the standardization of taste. So in Louisiana, Cajun and Creole (cuisines) really are the most successful examples of that.
Part of this is that New Orleans' fame for food long outdates the current craze for food. ... I was very struck by the way in which Antoine's was most successful at a time when you would have said that American fine dining was almost extinct. In the '30s, '40s and '50s, it had lines outside the door.
There's a Bugs Bunny cartoon from about 1951 in which Bugs Bunny is in France, and chefs capture him and quarrel over who gets to cook him because the French are famous for eating rabbit. And he tricks them, in a kind of complicated cartoon way that begins with him saying he has a recipe for "back-bay bayou bunny bordelaise," as made at Antoine's. And the French chefs are very impressed, and one of them says, "Is that the Antoine's of New Orleans?" And (Bugs Bunny) says, "It ain't the Antoine's of Flatbush." The idea that in 1951 a restaurant would be so famous that it would be in a cartoon ... just the fame of a restaurant like that was important to me. That chapter in the book allows me to discuss more than Antoine's — the difference between Creole and Cajun, the emergence of Paul Prudhomme, the question of black and white interactions and the ownership of Creole cuisine.
(Antoine's) was pretty relentlessly Creole. They had gumbo, but didn't feature it. Historically, they (didn't) have jambalaya ... they were mostly very Frenchified dishes — things with expensive sauces, not a whole lot of game or things that were not fish of the standard Gulf sort, like redfish or pompano. It's an urban aristocratic cuisine and not a rural, anything-that-walks-across-the-yard cuisine.
How do Americans approach dining, and is it different in New Orleans?
F: Anthropologists define a cuisine as something that ordinary people talk about. In other words, there are many places all over the world where wealthy people dine out a lot, but a cuisine, properly speaking, is really something where regular people have opinions about the food. New Orleans is the closest thing to that, outside of a few rural (places) ... a place where lots of people who are not well-off ... have opinions about food and discuss it. It passes as subject fare. The other thing that is special is that dining is still a social scene, certainly at the high end. It's a place where people still boast about having their own waiters, or the Friday lunch at Galatoire's. New York has lots of scenes and (restaurants) are part of that scene, but it's hyper business-oriented, like the Four Seasons used to be; or it's something that moves from one place to another. There's nothing that resembles the stability of Galatoire's, Arnaud's and Antoine's, and that's true, really, for the rest of the United States.