The Spirit of ’55

Waiter Please Bring me my Blatz

There will never be a completely satisfactory definition of “American cooking”. I use this term for convenience but Canadian cooking is pretty much the same.

Cooking changes with the times, of course. In turn the times are shaped by many things: growth of certain ethnic groups or their rising prestige; concepts such as “clean” or green eating; new food technologies; and other factors not always easy to delineate much less forecast.

(New Yorker magazine three years ago contained a provocative cover story,“The End of Food”. It profiled a young San Francisco-based entrepreneur and his product Soylent. Inspired by lifehacking and other ideas prevalent in Silicon Valley he developed a “meal replacement”, a kind of paste designed to store well and deliver all essential nutrients. 

Soylent was designed as cost-effective feeding for those who work almost non-stop, who don’t have time to shop or cook, or much extra money: a kind of converse of the market-shopping and slow food notions popular for the last 20 years. An interesting idea but I don’t think it’s time has come, at least nationally).

Still, American cooking is easier to recognize than to describe intellectually: you know it when you see it, at least in different periods over the last 100 years.

American cooking describes to a “t” the food offered in the 1955 menu below from Barney’s Market Club in Chicago (1919- c.1990). Rick Kogan in 2011, of the Tribune Newspapers, wrote a good short profile of the restaurant here. He also describes the current use of the site, a happening brewpub called Haymarket Pub and Brewery.

Barney Kessel was a classic old-time American maverick, “a character” as the phrase goes. He started up in 1919 and in the 1930s moved to larger premises in the West Loop. It seems the place was basically a tavern to begin with but later became a restaurant proper due to Prohibition.

Throughout Prohibition Barney Kessel sold beer delivered by Al Capone’s men. Due to Barney’s good relations with local power-brokers he had no trouble with the law until, one fateful day, a shooting at his bar compelled the law to sanction him for running a speakeasy.

Kessel spent a few months in jail, which hardly slowed him down as his big success came after liquor was made legal, from 1933 until his death in 1950. The restaurant continued in business for another 40-odd years, run by his son-in-law.

Kessel was the personification of the place in its heyday, a style often seen in dining then in North America. A “personality” who had the gift of gab and was likeable attracted business. We have much less of this today. Today, restaurants are distinguished more by their chefs and the difference they make in the kitchen.

In Barney’s day, what drew you there was not so much that his “Special Sirloin Steak” was the best in the Windy City, but that Barney was there.*

Restaurants are still set up by famous people, Wayne Gretzky’s place on Blue Jay Way downtown is an example, but almost invariably the restaurant is professionally run and managed. In the old days, the man on the sign was there much of the time. Kessel was, with his ever-ready catch-phrase, “Yes sir, Senator”.

He couldn’t remember peoples’ names and addressed everyone like that, which they loved.

Kessel made himself famous, or locally famous, in a way you don’t see much now. He made sure the Catholic fathers had a special corner, the local machine politicians had their favourite tables, the White Sox, and on it went. This could only happen in a time of real community, of “locality” to borrow from EU-speak. In a time of globality, which has rather done locality in, it’s harder to develop the kind of local celebrity a Kessel achieved.

In Chicago of course beef was popular due to the stockyards, in fact Kessel grew up in their shadow. So steak in all its variety was well-represented on his 1955 menu but there is plenty of other Americana too.

Stuffed squab (originally at least this was young pigeon). Broiled ham steak, with a sweet potato in this case, no ham slice. That sounds like a southern touch, perhaps contributed by a visiting blues musician or a migrating chef in the kitchen.

Roast turkey. Shrimp cocktail. Broiled chicken. Numerous fish from the Great Lakes – there’s your market cuisine, as the beef was.

Roast duck, chicken à la king with its creamy swath of sauce. Spaghetti, long Americanized by ’55 and needing no explanation on the menu.

Broiled English mutton chops, a vestige of pre-Prohibition grills and mens’ clubs, the aura of Albion mingling with the scent of sheep fat. Swiss steak, probably never very Swiss – out of fashion for decades now, a pity as it’s good if well-prepared.

Read the rest for yourself. That’s classic American eating, or was for much of the mid-1900s.

What would we add to it today? Fajitas, probably. BBQ, which at the time was strictly regional and didn’t therefore make the grade for a quality, “national” menu. A bigger salad repertoire than “combination salad”. More vegetarian options.

More Asian influences, too – sushi! (We are with the English writer David Benedictus who once wrote that he didn’t favour Japanese food in general and sushi in particular.  We all have our taste…).

But if you could go out tonight looking for a good meal you could do a lot worse than Barney’s Market Club circa 1955.

The drinks were carefully chosen, note that Kessel made sure to include Ballantine India Pale Ale – another pre-Prohibition salute. Wines are handled in no-nonsense terms: a glass of Burgundy, French or domestic, a couple of other varietals, and that’s it, but there was more on a separate list.

The beer got good attention. Heineken was on draft, surely a novelty in America then. For local he gave you Van Merritt, brewed in Wisconsin but long a Chicago favourite. The action was in the St. Louis and Milwaukee brands but this made sense as they were regional selections, familiar to a wide audience in the Midwest (and beyond).

I wonder what draft Heineken was like in 1955 in America – all-malt probably, as it is again today. The long trip couldn’t have done it any favours though. Me, I’d have gone for Ballantine IPA and maybe a Budweiser or Schlitz, which were good beers then (I think).

So that’s Culina americanus, at least from c. 1940-1980. Yes sir, Senators. 

Note re images: The first and third images are from the www.nypl.org archival menu linked in the text. The second was sourced from Tavern Trove, here. Images belong to their sole owner, as applicable. Used for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.

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*Nonetheless Darnell’s “vest-pocket” restaurant guide, the Zagat of its day, rated Barney’s Market Club in America’s Top 10 restaurants – this is late 1940s. The quality was there too…

2 thoughts on “The Spirit of ’55

  1. This is fascinating. There are a few places in the Ozarks that feature a similar menu but not many left and getting fewer with each passing year. By the way, your blog is the best I’ve seen in a long time. Keep up the good work.

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