HERITAGE FOODS helpings from history
Some of the oldest restaurants in
America are still going strong.
By Alan Richman
A short list of “authentic” American foods includes avocados, chili peppers, chocolate, corn (or maize), papaya, peanuts,
pineapple, potatoes, tomatoes and vanilla. Apple pie is not
American—at least, not in the way people commonly think. “Every
ingredient, from apples to butter to nutmeg and cinnamon, comes
from somewhere else,” says Libby O’Connell in The American
Plate: A Culinary History in 100 Bites (Sourcebooks, 2014).
Noting that our nation has a diverse culinary heritage,
Amana Colonies, Amana, Iowa
O’Connell says, “Throughout America’s history, nature, economics,
technology, and immigration have played important roles in our
adaptation of indigenous foods, development of new ones, and
adoption of others from different continents.”
Virtually all these influences can be seen at some of the older
eateries still serving diners in the 21st century.
Like the Pilgrims who arrived about 220 years before them,
the original settlers of the Amana Colonies came to these shores
seeking religious freedom. Beginning in New York, but within
13 years moving to the heartland, these German followers of
pietism formed seven villages and maintained an almost totally
self-sufficient communal economy for nearly 80 years, until the
mid-1930s. Food was prepared in 55 kitchens responsible for
more than 7,500 meals a day.
“Community members would sit at long tables—not as a
family—and would be served by the kitchen staff,” says David
Rettig, executive director of the Amana Colonies Convention
& Visitors Bureau. “The kitchen boss would divide the meat so
everyone received a portion, but the vegetables and other side
dishes were put in bowls and passed around the table. These side
dishes were refillable, so individuals could eat as much as they
wished. This system has carried over to the restaurants in the
Amana Colonies today, with one exception. Each family or party
is now seated separately.”
Also, although family-style service still prevails, menu
selections have evolved. There is even a new restaurant offering
wood-fired pizza, Rettig says.
Typical Amana Colonies cuisine has roots in both German
and American traditions. Boiled beef and filled noodles are two
popular selections, says Rettig. The beef, usually a tougher cut,
is served with fried potatoes, cooked horseradish and creamed
spinach. The noodles are 4-inch-square packets stuffed with
ground meat and onions. Rhubarb pie is a favorite dessert.
Antoine’s �estaurant, New Orleans
Founded by Antoine Alciatore in 1840 and now approaching
its 177th anniversary, Antoine’s Restaurant is known as the
oldest French-Creole fine-dining establishment in the Big Easy.
Boasting 14 rooms and capable of seating 1,100-1,200 diners
simultaneously, the restaurant continues to operate under the
same family management, now in its fifth generation.
“We’re proud to have been included in Paul Freedman’s book,
Ten Restaurants That Changed America (Liveright, 2016),” says
OPPOSITE, CLOCKWISE FROM TOP: 1) The Freedom Trail room at Union Oyster
House, Boston. 2) McGillin’s Olde Ale House has been serving Philadelphians since
1860. 3) Hamburgers at Louis’ Lunch are still cooked in the original cast-iron,
gas-fired stoves used in 1900. 4) Pennsylvania Dutch cooking at Good ’N Plenty
Restaurant is served traditional family-style.