America was booming in the Gilded Age, the era after the Civil War when robber barons hammered out vast empires and enormous fortunes were made overnight in New York, Baltimore and Philadelphia. At the same time out West, American chefs were refining their own contribution to international culture: Fast food.
Of course, they were drawing on a grand tradition: As with so much else, we can blame the ancient Romans for the original idea. As excavators have found in Pompeii, busy citizens would stand at stone counters called thermapolia and shovel down fried meat or rich stews ladeled out of in vats in the counter (an early form of steam table). Travelers even more pressed for time could order take-out from roadside inns scattered at regular intervals along the highway system. (One such ancient diner excavated in Germany has been nicknamed by archaeologists Big Maximus). This stop’n’go dining re-appeared centuries later in pre-revolutionary France, where some of the earliest restaurants provided long benches for customers to sit down in fifteen-minute shifts, just long enough to scarf a plate of steaming broth. Conversation was discouraged and guests would be chased out by the eagle-eyed proprietors if they lingered.
But it was the United States that really took the lead in high-speed dining, thanks to the boom in railway construction after the Civil War that culminated in the line across the Old West in 1869. The long-distance trains from Omaha to San Francisco had dining cars only for the first-class passengers. Everyone else had to wait until the trains stopped at specific stations for scheduled meal breaks, when hundreds of passengers would madly dash into cavernous dining halls on the platforms. Inside, cadres of white-aproned waiters were poised to splash meat and potatoes onto their plates and granular coffee into their cups. The whistle would blow and patrons would have to abandon their half-eaten meals and dash back to the moving train. The whole indigestion-inducing process, travelers complained, might last only ten minutes.
Strangely, this high-speed refueling wasn’t limited to travel. Even in the finest restaurants of New York, velocity was considered a big plus in the 1870s. At the famous Union Square venue of Delmonico’s, the legendary chef Charles Ranhofer boasted about his power lunches. Diners in a serious rush could choose to have an eight course meal in 64 minutes. While one course was being devoured, Ranhofer said proudly, another would already be coming from the kitchen, “so that the dinner can be served uninterruptedly and eaten while hot and palatable.” Although Ranhofer was French-born, this development distressed visiting Continentals, who had largely reverted to leisurely meals; some critics compared a meal at Delmonico’s to “the torture of Tantalus,” where the guest was faced with “a long stream of dishes which they never have time to touch.”
• 17 August 2009
Kaufman, Cathy K., “Structuring the Meal: the Revolutution of service à la russe,” in Walker, Harlan (ed.), The Meal: Proceedings of the Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery, (Oxford, 2002).