- Turning the Tables: Restaurants and the Rise of the American Middle Class, 1880–1920 by Andrew P. Haley
Andrew Haley’s Turning the Tables: Restaurants and the Rise of the American Middle Class, 1880–1920 is like a good chocolate cake: rich, complex, and satisfying. The book explores the transformation of the American restaurant industry at the hands of the middle class between 1880 and 1920. Haley argues that urban restaurants provided a space for the emerging middle class to engage in identity politics, express their power through consumption, and challenge extant social hierarchies by confronting America’s elite on their own social turf. Haley’s book challenges current historiography of the period, which, according [End Page 236] to the author, too often ascribes agency to elite and working class Americans but too often assigns the middle class to the role of “pliant shoppers whose sad existences are filled with fruitless consumption . . . and who are] dupes in a corporate world” (10). In Haley’s rendering, middle class diners were neither dupes nor pliant consumers; rather, they were a group of citizens who vigorously pursued their own social and class objectives inside dining rooms across the country, and, in the process, made these spaces their own. Viewed through the transformations they wrought in American dining culture, Haley contends that the middle class emerged as a self-conscious entity that actively shaped American food culture and, more broadly, cultural life in the twentieth century.
Turning the Tables begins with a chapter on the aristocratic restaurant, a likely antagonist and foil in this period of food history. Haley describes how these elite spaces grew in social importance during the middle of the nineteenth century as French food culture crossed the Atlantic and an increasing number of wealthy capitalists sought to distinguish themselves from the hoi polloi through conspicuous consumption in French-inspired restaurants. Haley contends that some restaurants that catered to the middle class sought to imitate the cultural and culinary structures of these elite spaces, even while many middle class diners concurrently attempted to crack social barriers by dining at elite restaurants. According to Haley, these forays into elite dining culture ultimately failed, for the values embraced by America’s elite and middle class remained too far apart to find common ground. The middle class were bound to frugality, thrift, and simplicity, while America’s elite shunned such ideals. Their food cultures were fundamentally incompatible.
The failure of the middle class’s imitation and colonization of elite restaurants marks an important turning point in Turning the Tables. For one, the rebuke of the aristocratic restaurant helped birth a restaurant that catered to middle class desires for simple, unpretentious, and clean food; at the same time, it galvanized a movement among some in the middle class to colonize less ostentatious ethnic restaurants in urban America, thus creating a cosmopolitan food culture that represented a hallmark of middle class food desires. Despite some underlying xenophobia, Haley argues that the middle class embraced German, Italian, and Chinese restaurants and the foods they served. In the process, middle class Americans took these marginalized social spaces and made them mainstream, all while making the elite French restaurant appear increasingly old-fashioned and uninspired.
The final four chapters outline a series of culinary and institutional reforms—some successful, others not—initiated by middle class diners during the period of the study. In these chapters, Haley describes how these diners advanced gastronomic simplicity, endorsed new gender arrangements, waged an anti-tipping crusade, and battled to end the dominance of French language menus. Haley uses each of these episodes to shed light on the ways in which the middle class challenged prevailing power structures and, in turn, gained influence over a new type of dining culture that embraced broader middle class values.
Haley stakes out bold, original claims about the new world of food shaped by the middle class. But at the same time Haley could have addressed a few lingering issues that would...