- Tikis and Sombreros:Southern Restaurant Menus from the 1940s and 1950s
Duncan Hines, the Bowling Green, Kentucky native and traveling salesman who became America’s first national restaurant reviewer, was not, as a rule, a fan of Southern restaurant cuisine. Although his landmark guide Adventures in Good Eating included dozens of Southern restaurants that he deemed exceptions, in interviews given in the 1930s, Hines claimed that “most of the people who hang out [restaurant] signs” in the South “have been raised on side meat and dirty, greasy beans. They’ve never tasted good food.” In many Southern restaurants, he opined, “old roosters or tired arthritic hens” were battered, fried, and “served up unctuous and sizzling” (qtd. in Hatchett 137).
Hines’s indictment of Southern restaurant cuisine was not universally shared by those who lived in the region, but the tired menu of chicken, biscuits, and greens would undergo a significant change in the years following World War II. Cosmopolitan restaurant-goers in cities like Atlanta, immigrants in places like New Orleans and Mobile, and hundreds of thousands of soldiers who returned from World War II with a fuller appreciation of world cuisine, demanded more diverse dining choices than had been available before the war. The following five menus from Georgia, Mississippi, and Louisiana hardly create a comprehensive picture of Southern restaurant cuisine in the 1940s and 1950s, but they nevertheless remind us that Southern cuisine has long been more than greens, grits, and black-eyed peas. And yet, even as they [End Page 172] showcase the evolving and modernizing tastes of Southern restaurant-goers, they also demonstrate the South’s failure to address racial, ethnic and gender discrimination. By looking past the Mexican huevos rancheros and the Jamaican “Mai Toys,” we can also glimpse the social conditions that undermined change in the midcentury South.
Some of the oldest ethnic influences on Southern cooking found maturity in New Orleans, where Spanish and French colonial influences, Afro-Caribbean culture, and Native American culinary traditions came together to create Creole cooking. Long before the Cajun revival of the 1970s further expanded the culinary repertoire in New Orleans, the Blue Room at the Rockefeller Hotel, a nationally renowned cabaret, served a curious mix of modern American, French-inflected, Southern traditional, and Creole dishes. “Dinner DeLuxe” at the Blue Room featured American-grown avocados (referred to at the time as calavo) stuffed with lobster salad, a broiled T-bone veal steak with Béarnaise sauce and watercress, baked Tennessee ham, and well-known Creole dishes such as “Fresh Gulf Shrimp Creole” and “Pompano Papillote.” Crepes Suzette and brandied peaches were available for dessert.
Regional, seasonal, and eclectic, the front of the menu (Figure 1 on page 174) offered some of the best of American postwar cuisine, but the back of the menu (not pictured), in addition to listing various cocktails, high balls, and mixed drinks, served as a reminder that change did not come easy in the South. While the blue-ceilinged cabaret may have been designed by a Northern architect and regularly featured African American crooners such as Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald, it was still the bar that Huey P. Long made famous for Ramos Gin Fizzes, and the restaurant remained deeply committed to the segregation policies of its home city. A note on the back of the menu implicitly drew racial lines that both included and excluded by welcoming Latin American guests whose darker skin might otherwise have led to their segregation under Louisiana laws that discriminated on the basis of race: “A nuestros huéspedes y amigos de la American Latina: Estamos encantados tener a Vds en el Roosevelt.” (“Guests and friends from Latin America: We are happy to have you at the Roosevelt.”)
The Blue Room’s menu had deep roots in New Orleans’ Creole culture, but the postwar period introduced increasingly culturally diverse restaurant experiences to the South. In part, the emerging diversity reflected the more cosmopolitan tastes of a generation that had fought overseas or had traveled widely during World War II to work in munitions factories; however, it was not just the war, but also the military itself that promulgated multicultural dining. As...