July 24, 2014  

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History Professor to Give Talk, Hold Book Signing in Hattiesburg Oct. 1

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Turning the Tables

Dr. Andrew Haley, an associate professor of history at The University of Southern Mississippi, will give an informal talk about and autograph copies of his latest book, Turning the Tables: Restaurants and the Rise of the Middle Class, 1880-1920 Saturday, Oct. 1 beginning at 1 p.m. at The Kitchen Table, located at University Mall next to Corner Market on Hardy Street. Light refreshments will be served.

In the 19th century, Haley said restaurants served French food to upper-class Americans with aristocratic pretensions, but by the 20th century, even the best restaurants dished up ethnic and American foods to middle-class urbanites. Turning the Tables tells the story of the invention of the middle-class restaurant.

“In the mid-nineteenth century, there were only two choices for those who wanted to dine out,” he said. “You could go to a greasy spoon that served steaks and alcohol to harried businessmen and laborers who had little money and little time or you could go to an upper-class, aristocratic restaurant where the food was expensive and French.  

“The emerging middle class found both options intolerable.  The first was masculine, rushed and hardly respectable.  The second not only cost a lot, but it required that you understood French language menus and the elaborate rules of etiquette that the upper-class demanded.”

Unable to intimate the wealthy, Haley said the middle class made the most of the greasy spoons and began to patronize small family-run restaurants in ethnic neighborhoods. Over time, they transformed these restaurants. The service improved, the restaurants accommodated American tastes, and many moved out of ethnic enclaves to middle-class neighborhoods.  

“By the end of the 19th century, the middle class had made these restaurants their own and were celebrating the cosmopolitan cuisine they ate - dining in 11 different languages, as one journal put it - as America's truest culinary accomplishment,” Haley said.   

Soon, these restaurants became a place for the nascent middle class to recognize themselves as having collected interests, and they began to exercise that new power. With greater numbers than the rich and great collective wealth, they were able to transform elite dining as well.  The best restaurants eventually embraced cosmopolitan dining, English-language menus, women dining alone, and a host of other changes in etiquette demanded by the middle class.

Ultimately, the middle class became the arbiters of how Americans ate and that has resonance today, Haley said. “From Olive Garden to our local Thai restaurant, the places we eat in today are a legacy of changes that took place at the turn of the century.”

Haley said he also wrote the book because he believes the middle class were often dismissed by historians, described as craven consumers or patronizing reformers, and not given proper credit for democratizing public culture.

“For the fairly low cost of a meal out - not cheap, but within most folks’ budgets, we can go to a nice place, have someone cook for us, and enjoy an evening out with friends.  Middle-class restaurants are places where people from all walks of life interact.  

“And although there are other books on the history of the middle class, little historical research has focused on the conflicts between the middle class and the wealthy, or how these conflicts shaped American culture,” he said.  

Krishnendu Ray, a food historian at New York University, wrote: "Many scholars have viewed the transformation in dining near the turn of the century as an inevitable result of modernizing attitudes, but Andrew Haley successfully argues that these changes instead represent a contest over cultural influence. Turning the Tables restores agency to the middle class, providing an insightful exploration of how middle-class consumers exerted collective cultural and economic power that shaped the commercial marketplace and the material culture of dining."

Turning the Tables has also been recommended by the New York Times Style Magazine, described as a “well-written book about ‘class warfare’” in Times Higher Education, and called an “engaging read” by LA Weekly’s food blog. 

Haley is also working on a project on Mississippi, cosmopolitan cuisine, and community cookbooks. For more information about this event or his research, contact Haley at andrew.haley@usm.edu.