Who Invented Fine Dining in America?

A new book explores the lives of our first chefs and restaurateurs

By Chris Cohen

Published on November 15, 2017

The Culinarians by David Shields

"We have not honored the masters of the culinary profession by keeping their memories," writes University of South Carolina food historian David Shields in the introduction to his new book The Culinarians (The University of Chicago Press). "In a strange way, the memory of cooking has condensed around recipes, dishes that are performed in a general kitchen repertoire," like vichyssoise, deviled lobster, or oysters Rockefeller, while "their creators have vanished into the ether." The book is Shields' attempt to correct that, through 176 profiles of the most important (and mostly little-known) cooks, chefs, caterers, and restaurateurs of the 19th and early 20th centuries, who laid the foundation of American cuisine.

The book profiles chefs like Othello Pollard, a black man born some 10 years before the Revolutionary War, who was considered among Boston’s finest in the first years of the Republic. “He was styled a genius and ‘the erratic comet of cookery,’ ” writes Shields. “His forte was pastry and confections. His winter cheesecakes were famous; and he became a familiar figure on Boston’s streets in the summer, wheeling a vehicle dispensing ices … He was considered the politest man in the city, famous for his dandyism and fastidiousness. He was all about show, and his attraction to museums and exhibitions led to side ventures and to the restaurant business, including, in 1802, the displaying of the first leopard shown in North America, imported from Bengal.”

In another entry, Shields details the biography of Jules Arthur Harder, who he considers the greatest chef of the 19th century. After stints at the best restaurants in New York—Delmonico’s, the Maison Dorée—Harder ran the kitchen at San Francisco’s Palace Hotel, where he was so accustomed to distinguished guests he developed strong feelings on the relative eating habits of the presidents. “I consider President Arthur the best liver of any President we have had,” the chef is recorded as saying. “Grant dines well now,” he goes on, but “I remember ... when he was first made President, and he did not know much about dining then. President Hayes never drank any wine at his dinners, and therefore did not know how to dine.” You have to wonder what he would think of our current teetotaling commander in chief.

Nineteenth-century African-American chef Othello Pollard was celebrated for combining culinary and intellectual rigor; he used "all the invitations which the politest palate may require, with all the wit inspiring ingredients of intellectual festivity," according to an admirer. In one case, that took the form of a menu so high-concept it would barely look out of place in a Portlandia sketch.

Shields is a passionate chronicler of Southern food culture, and he came to the idea of the book while working on the history of Low Country cooking. “When I was doing that research, I found out that there are no books on the history of the cooking profession in the United States, at all,” he says. “The names of the great cooks, what their dishes were—it was entirely missing. I couldn’t grasp that, especially today, living in the age of the celebrity chef. Why didn’t such a history exist? Who were the great chefs?” So he decided he had to do it himself.

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