Sorry I haven’t posted for a while! Life temporarily got in the way. I’ve been working on several items, however, and I hope to resume posting some new material within the next 2-3 weeks.
Meanwhile, you might want to check out the tumblr version of this blog. I reblog a lot of current food and restaurant news and views, and historical items that may be of interest.
By the way, we celebrated my Dad’s 98th birthday last Sunday. His actual birthday is July 23, but I think he’ll make it.
Dad broke his hip one year ago this week, and he’s been living with us since his recovery. The cooking challenge for me has been to come up balanced meals for a guy who hasn’t lost his appetite and always cleans his plate.
For his birthday dinner, in honor of our family’s Swedish heritage, I made Swedish meatballs, with mashed potatoes, peas in a honey butter sauce, and zucchini & carrots. The zucchini came fresh from our youngest son’s front-yard garden. For the last couple of weeks, he’s been keeping us supplied with lots of zucchini and collard greens.
We have four July birthdays in the family, and we celebrated all of them this last weekend. We let Pizza Hut cook on Friday evening for Ollie’s 7th. Then on Saturday morning, son Nick whipped up a tacos and fajitas feast for Reggie’s 2nd. Then on Saturday evening, for our daughter’s birthday, I smoked some ribs, along with collards, mac & cheese, bbq baked beans, and watermelon slices:
68: Coretta Scott King once said that Paschal’s Restaurant, in Atlanta, “is as important a historical site for the American Civil Rights Movement as Boston’s Faneuil Hall is to the American Revolution.“ Many of the most significant events of the civil rights movement in the 1960s, such as the marches on Selma and Birmingham, and the 1963 March on Washington, were planned at Paschal’s.
In 1959, a new Paschal’s Restaurant opened. In 1965, work began on Paschal’s Motor Hotel, behind it. The restaurant continues today at another location. The original restaurant, across the street, has been razed. This Google Street View is from Nov. 2016.
Paschal’s was the creation of the Paschal brothers, James (1920-2008) and Robert (1908-1997). They were born and raised in the small town of Thomson, Georgia. Though Robert was quite a bit older than James, their talents and passions were well-suited to a partnership.
James was the entrepreneur. Their parents were sharecroppers, and James hated picking cotton. He opened his first business, a shoe-shine stand, when he was 13. He saved his money, and by age 15, he had taken over a failing grocery store. He did so well that, a couple of years later, the owners reclaimed it on a technicality. James then opened “James’ Place,” a combination meat market, grocery, arcade and juke joint. But James had to sell it when he was drafted into the Army in World War II.
Robert, meanwhile, went to Atlanta when he was 15, and started working as a busboy in Vaughn’s Cafeteria, a white establishment. He worked his way up the ladder until he was Executive Chef. But, wanting something more secure, he started working for Jacobs Pharmacies, setting up soda fountains and training the staff. He did this for the next 21 years.
Then in 1947, the brothers teamed up and opened a 30-seat luncheonette, across the street from the site shown here. At first, their menu was limited to sandwiches and sodas, but soon moved up to hot dinners. Robert developed a secret fried chicken recipe that came to be considered one of the best in town. Neither brother had a car, and the restaurant didn’t have a stove anyway, so Robert made the hot food at home and delivered it by taxi. (James told the story in his 2006 memoir by Mae Kendall.)
Robert and James Paschal in their original luncheonette, 1947.
The business grew steadily, and by the late 1950s, they were ready to expand the restaurant (1959) and add a nightclub, the La Carousel Lounge (1960). The restaurant had a coffee shop and dining room, together seating over 200. The lounge hosted many top jazz names, including Aretha Franklin and Dizzy Gillespie. Dave Hoekstra’s 2015 book, The People’s Place, includes a chapter on Paschal’s, and provides much more detail.
From the start, the new Paschal’s was a white-tablecloth restaurant, serving standard southern/soul dishes in one of the only “classy” places where blacks could eat. Paschal’s also gained a white clientele, and the brothers openly violated the segregation laws by allowing blacks and whites to sit together. Then in 1965-67, they added a motel, Paschal’s Motor Hotel.
Dr. King and many other leaders lived on that side of town, and routinely gathered at Paschal’s. The brothers actively supported the movement. Fred Opie’s new book, Southern Food and Civil Rights: Feeding the Revolution, details the role of Paschal’s in the larger context of the civil rights movement in Atlanta in the 1960s. In addition to providing a meeting place,the Paschals often provided free meals, and extended their hours. They were even known to put up bond money for arrested protesters. James put it simply: “How could we refuse? We had the resources and the place. We believed we had been called to be part of the Movement.”
The Paschal brothers in their later years
In 1996, James sold the property to Clark Atlanta University. The school ran the restaurant for a while, and used the motel as a dormitory, but later closed the operation. Meanwhile, in 2002, a new Paschal’s was opened on Northside Drive. It continues as a thriving business, though as Rep. John Lewis has observed, the new place just can’t have the same “feel” as the old place.
The new Paschal’s continues to honor its civil rights era legacy
Another Atlanta restaurant that welcomed the civil rights leaders was the Busy Bee Cafe, just a few steps down the street from Paschal’s. Lucy Jackson, a self-taught cook, opened it in 1947.
“Mama Lucy” Jackson, 1943
There’s a dismal reason why Paschal’s and the Busy Bee were opened on the same street, apart from their proximity to the local colleges: At the time, Jim Crow Atlanta had severe restrictions on where black-owned businesses could locate. Hunter Street (now MLK Drive) was one of only two streets open to African American entrepreneurs.
The Busy Bee Cafe as it looked in the 1980s.
It is said that Martin Luther King, Jr. was especially fond of Mama Lucy’s ham hocks. But the Busy Bee isn’t just a living history museum. It’s well-known as a place to find good, traditional soul food. Emeril Lagasse featured the cafe in his 2011 “Originals” visit to Atlanta.
Emeril, with Tracy Gates, owner of the Busy Bee since 1985. Her fried chicken is especially loved.
Today, the Busy Bee has become a stop on a variety of historic Atlanta tours.
The Busy Bee continues to attract its share of politicians. In November 2015, the rapper Killer Mike took Sen. Bernie Sanders to the Busy Bee for their meeting on Sanders’ visit to Atlanta:
Is there a moral to our little story? This one is simple. In a time when goodness and justice seem up for grabs, it’s worth considering that in 2017, you can still have a meal at Paschal’s or the Busy Bee. You can’t do that at another famous fried chicken place in Atlanta:
In 1964, arch-segregationist Lester Maddox vowed that he’d close his Pickrick Restaurant before he’d serve African Americans. He lost. It closed. The following year, it was bought by Georgia Tech, and in 2011, it was bulldozed for a parking lot. End of story. As a fan of Paschal’s and the Busy Bee once said,
67. Salt is life. That’s not romantic hyperbole. If we have too little sodium in our blood (hyponatremia), all sorts of nasty things can happen to us, including seizure, coma, and death.
Of course, most folks worry about getting too much salt. The average American ingests about 3.5 grams of sodium a day. That puts us only in the middle of the worldwide pack. The world average seems to be about 4 grams. Some countries, from Central Asia to East Asia, eat much higher amounts. In Thailand, for instance, the average intake appears to be 13.5 grams per day, and in Kazakhstan, it’s 15.2 g.
Intake is much lower in sub-Saharan Africa. In some cases, it’s at or below the intake considered necessary. This may explain how High Blood Pressure (HBP) became a special problem for African Americans. According to the American Heart Association, more than 40% of non-Hispanic blacks are hypertensive. HBP seems to hit blacks harder, and it seems to start earlier in life.
It appears that African Americans may be genetically predisposed to be more sensitive to salt. Their ancestors were forced, through enslavement, to live in an environment that encouraged excessive salt intake, far beyond what was typical in sub-Saharan Africa. Salt pork or bacon was an essential part of the Southern diet for whites and blacks alike. But the ancestors of European Americans were accustomed to eating significant amounts of salted fish and meats, especially during the winter months. Before refrigeration, anything not consumed fresh was probably salted. Today, even with our concerns about sodium intake, we get only about half of the sodium that the average American consumed in 1800.
Many components of “soul food” dishes are high in sodium, from sausages, to fried bologna sandwiches, to ribs prepared with salty rubs. One teaspoon of Louisiana brand hot sauce equals 10% of your recommended sodium intake. A whiff (¼ teaspoon) of my favorite seasoning, Slap Ya Mama, provides 13%. Half a cup of Bush’s canned baby butter beans is 20%. It all adds up, and quickly.
Where does all that salt come from? It became a strategic issue in the Civil War. The Union’s Gen. Sherman declared that salt was as important as gunpowder. “Without salt they cannot make bacon and salt beef,“ he said, and thus, the Confederate “armies cannot be subsisted.”
It takes about one pound of salt to produce nine pounds of bacon, and even more to preserve beef. So Union troops attacked salt production points on the North Carolina coast, at Saltville, Va., and other spots, while the Union Navy’s blockade kept out a lot of the salt the rebels tried to import from Wales.
Salt was a strategic mineral. One important site of salt production was in the southern tip of Illinois, the Great Salt Springs along the Saline River, in Gallatin County, near the Kentucky border. The main springs were Half Moon Lick and the repugnantly-named “Nigger Spring,” which points to the issue at hand:
Salt from saline springs is extracted by evaporating brine. But of course it takes water a long time to evaporate on its own, especially in a temperate climate. So the water must be boiled off in large evaporation pans. That, in turn, required large amounts of firewood (and later, coal). The whole process was arduous and labor-intensive.
Before English settlement, the French, who had learned about the saline springs from the Native Americans, worked the saline springs using enslaved labor brought in from the Caribbean. By the end of the 1700s, the French were using enslaved workers all the way up the Mississippi valley, as far as northeast Iowa and the lead mines of Julien Dubuque.
The Northwest Ordinance of 1787 had forbidden slavery in the territory that included Illinois. But the enslaved held by the French who were already there were exempted. Meanwhile, slaveholding settlers from Tennessee and Kentucky had brought in their own enslaved people, and flatly refused to free them. In 1805, the Indiana Territorial legislature passed a law specifically allowing enslaved labor to be brought in to man the salt works. By 1820, the census showed 500 enslaved people in Gallatin and Randolph counties.
Slavery in Illinois finally became illegal in 1825, but a loophole was created for the salt works, which were leased from the state. The biggest salt works, covering 30,000 acres, were leased to John Crenshaw (1797-1871), who had more than 700 enslaved people working the salt furnaces and adjacent coal mines.
Crenshaw became incredibly wealthy, and the state of Illinois profited as well. At one point, the enslaved workers he held were generating one-seventh of the state’s budget.
Crenshaw’s mansion, Hickory Hill; now known as the Old Slave House.
In addition to the profits from the salt works being generated by enslaved labor, Crenshaw was also interested in generating more enslaved workers to be sold. His slave quarters included a room known as the “breeding room” or “Uncle Bob’s room.” Crenshaw had imported a enslaved man named Bob, who had a reputation for fathering strong and healthy babies, and would force enslaved women to have sex with him.
Hickory Hill was also a station on the so-called Reverse Underground Railroad. It is said that Crenshaw used the third floor to house captured escaped slaves, as well as kidnapped free blacks, before they were taken into the slaveholding states for sale. The small cells are said to have ring bolts in the floor, for shackling his prisoners. In 1848, Crenshaw lost a leg when some of the enslaved men attacked him while he was beating the women.
Crenshaw was indicted at least twice for his slave trading and kidnapping activities, but he seems to have escaped conviction. Under the notorious Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, northerners were legally required to catch and return escaped slaves, which essentially legalized Crenshaw’s slave trading activity. In that same year, he and his family moved into the nearby town, ironically named Equality. A German family was hired to move into the house and run the farm. Since then, it is said that some 150 visitors have reported that the third floor is haunted.
The house was given to the state in 2000, but it is closed. Its morbid historical significance is clear, but no one quite seems to know what to do with it.
It’s one of the sickening ironies of America’s slave-based economy that enslaved African Americans were forced to produce salt, a product that continues to shorten their descendants’ lives.
The Crenshaw House also raises questions of reparations and social justice. Salt production was a vital industry, and the State of Illinois profited directly and significantly from creating loopholes to legalize the use of enslaved labor, in violation of the spirit of the Northwest Ordinance of 1787.
Map of Minnesota Territory, c.1850. Minnesota Territory was created in 1849. It reached as far west as the Missouri River, including land that would become Dakota Territory in 1861. Wisconsin, to the east, became a state in 1848. Iowa, to the south, became a state in 1846. Nebraska Territory, to the southwest, was not created until 1854
Illinois was not alone. Many of Iowa’s earliest settlers in the 1830s came from slaveholding states. Some, including territorial officials, brought enslaved people with them, on grounds that they were “personal property.” Kidnappers and slave hunters from Missouri ventured into Iowa’s fledgling towns along the Mississippi.
Enslaved people were held by Army officers at Fort Snelling, in Minnesota Territory. The most famous enslaved Minnesotan was Dred Scott, of the infamous 1857 Supreme Court decision that declared, against Scott, that “Blacks had no rights which the White man was bound to respect.”
In Wisconsin, the French fur traders held enslaved workers as far back as the early 1700s. Later, in the lead mining district in the southwest corner of the state, the territory’s first white settlers, many from the south, brought enslaved workers with them. Even the Nebraska Territory, with only a small number of white settlers before the Civil War, nonetheless counted 15 enslaved residents in the 1860 Census. That same year, in November 1860, only months before the Civil War, the Otoe County sheriff advertised the sale of Hercules and Martha, apparently to settle the debts left by a slaveholder.
Resolving the legal problem of enslaved people living in free territory caused harm in other ways as well. Some slaveholding settlers did free enslaved people, but others tried to ship them back to the south for sale. Being “sold down the river” to the misery of the huge cotton plantations in the deep south was especially terrifying. An 1842 case against Illinois’ John Crenshaw concerned the fate of Maria Adams and her children, who had been shipped off to Texas.
Slavery in the Midwest was controversial, of course. After the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 became the law of the land, Missouri slaveholders stirred up trouble in the southeast corner of Iowa when they insisted that Iowans help them track down escaped slaves. The Texas Ordinance of Secession complained about Iowa as one of the states that was not upholding the “rights” of slave owners to their “property.” Many in the southern states were particularly angry that after the creation of Kansas Territory in 1854, Iowa’s Gov. Grimes had given aid and protection to Free Soilers crossing Iowa in order to enter Kansas.
Obviously, slavery was rare in the Midwest, but it did exist. And, as the case of John Crenshaw and his salt works reminds us, it could be every bit as cruel as the worst Simon Legree on a deep south plantation.
65. As we have seen in our earlier segments on George Crum and Emeline Jones, there is some general agreement that potato chips were invented in the Saratoga area, and probably in connection with an establishment known as Moon’s Lake House. But from there, the history gets murky.
The notion that Hiram Thomas (c.1834-1907) invented potato chips first popped up in an 1895 article in the New Orleans Times Picayune, which mentions an African American (definitely not the article’s original term!) who was serving potato chips at a Saratoga hotel. It doesn’t identify Thomas by name, but he was the man in charge at the time. The notion came up again in Thomas’ 1907 obituary, which was carried in newspapers across the country, even in distant towns like Salt Lake City.
Thomas’ association with Saratoga doesn’t go back far enough to allow for him to have done it c.1849, when the potato chip seems to have first appeared. Even if he had been there, he would have been a teenager, and it’s doubtful that any Saratoga cook would have let a teenager into a kitchen to do anything more involved that tote firewood or water.
So how did Thomas’ name get connected with the invention of Saratoga Chips?
Thomas had managed Moon’s Lake House restaurant in the 1880s, and then leased it from 1888-1894. It’s this association with the restaurant that popularized (and perhaps invented) the Saratoga Chips, that led to the notion that Thomas was the one who had invented them. But, as we have seen with George Crum and Emeline Jones, the real story about Hiram Thomas is more important than any mythology about inventing potato chips.
Thomas was born in Drummondville, Ontario, Canada c.1834. (The 1900 Census gives his birthdate as October 1834, but other sources suggest 1837-1838.) That means he was born free. In most of the census records, it says that both parents were born in Canada too, but in one of the 1880 census records (he shows up twice), it says that his father was born in Maryland, suggesting that his father could have escaped his enslavement and made his way to Canada via the Underground Railroad.
It’s not clear when Thomas came to the U.S. According to his obituary, Thomas was a steward at the Capitol Club, in Washington, D.C., where he served President Grant. Grant was President from 1869 to 1877.
No matter when it happened, Hiram’s stay in Washington may have been brief. We do know that by the 1870 Census, Hiram was working as a hotel steward in Manhattan. By 1870, he’d been married about five years. He and his wife, Julia Seaman, were living with her parents in Oyster Bay, along with the first two of what ultimately grew into a family of ten children.
Julia was also born free. I found the Seaman family in Oyster Bay in the 1840, 1850, and 1860 Censuses. Julia appears twice in the 1860 Census, once as living at home, and then again as an 11-year old servant in the home of William T. Frost. The Frosts were one of the old upper-crust families of Oyster Bay.
By 1880, Hiram had moved up to one of the top rungs on the ladder of restaurant success. The family was living in Manhattan, but Hiram was also spending the summer season in Saratoga Springs, where he was the head waiter at the Grand Union Hotel.
At the time, the Grand Union was probably the largest hotel in the world. It had 824 rooms and could accommodate 1800 or more guests. The average room was affordable, at around $120 in 2015 dollars, but some of the cottage rooms went for the equivalent of $2900 a night.
The dining room could seat from 1200-1400 guests. As head waiter, Thomas was in charge of a staff of 35 cooks, 200 waiters, and others. The daily feasts he had to oversee are hard for us to comprehend, as is suggested by an 1865 menu (before his time there), featuring a ten-course meal:
An indicator of Thomas’ success can be found in the fact that the Saratoga newspaper consistently referred to him as “Mr. Hiram Thomas.” It’s hard to imagine a southern paper, even well into the 20th century, using the Mister title for an African American.
From the Grand Union and the Moon’s Lake House, Thomas went on to the Lakewood Hotel, in Monmouth Co., New Jersey. Just as the upper crust of New York society spent their summers at Saratoga, The Lakewood was becoming an important winter destination.
One correspondent from Saratoga was delighted to find Thomas at the Lakewood, and wrote back to the local paper, “It is no small honor, you must understand, to have the dignified head waiter in a big hotel devote his time to you and even stop to talk with you.”
On the heels of all this professional success, Thomas rewarded himself in 1894 with a new house in Fort Greene Place in Brooklyn.
But he soon found out that his white neighbors didn’t want him there. The Brooklyn Daily Eaglereported, “Every householder was indignant and in the first heat of excitement many harsh things were said.” The bottom line was that they were afraid his presence would decrease their property values. The opposition was led by Emma Andiron, said to be the first woman doctor in Brooklyn. One would think a pioneering woman doctor would understand prejudice…but no.
A local pastor, who had once been an assistant to the abolitionist preacher, Henry Ward Beecher, stuck up for Thomas, and wrote that Brooklyn was behaving disgracefully. Thomas never moved in. After a couple of months, he sold the house, and the family settled in Shrewsbury, New Jersey. Hiram died in 1907. Julia was still there in 1910, along with most of her children, all adults by then, and unmarried.
Housing discrimination has never obeyed traditional North-South lines. Even in 2015, the Department of Housing & Urban Development estimated that there are over two million cases of housing discrimination each year, though less than one percent are reported.
The problem is that on an individual basis, discrimination is hard to prove. If your name is Shaniqua, and the landlord says he doesn’t have any apartments open, it’s hard to prove discrimination unless you call back and tell him your name is Hillary, and suddenly, you find out that half the building is empty.
A major provision of the Fair Housing Act of 1968 is the concept of disparate impact. In other words, we don’t have to prove we that can read someone’s mind and discern discriminatory thoughts. But we can look at the effects of housing practices and see if there’s a pattern of discrimination going on. In June 2015, the Supreme Court upheld this part of the law. Nonetheless, housing discrimination remains a problem, just as it was 120 years ago for one of the nation’s great restaurateurs.
60. We think of eating as intimate, private, personal. Most of us don’t like to have others watch us eat, and it makes us uncomfortable when they do. Politicians give up any sense of privacy when it comes to eating. Every public mouthful will be photographed, as if the fate of the free world depends on it, and it’s never a pretty sight.
But watching others eat involves more than snapping silly photos of politicians trying to eat corndogs at the Iowa State Fair. Some folks make moral and ethical judgments based on the food that others eat. Omnivores mock the pretentiousness of vegans and vegetarians. Vegans and vegetarians in turn accuse bloodthirsty omnivores of eating Bambi. A skinny mom may criticize every forkful that goes into her daughter’s mouth: “A second on the lips; a lifetime on the hips.” Health nuts may dominate dinner conversations with condemnations of your food choices, and then rummage through your garbage to see if your food includes GMOs.
We often have people watching what we eat. So maybe it’s no surprise that watching the eating habits of others was also part of the grisly process that brought enslaved people to the New World. Much of what we know about the eating habits of Africans during our colonial period comes from the observations of slave traders. They not only had to estimate the amount of food that would be needed to keep the enslaved alive during the infamous Middle Passage, but also to determine what kinds of food to bring along, i.e., what food the slaves would eat. (Jessica B. Harris gives a good summary.)
After all, every culture has its dietary taboos. Americans are generally horrified at the prospect of eating insects, larvae, dogs, or horses, even though these are enjoyed by other cultures, and, as in the case of insects, may even form an essential part of the diet. So too, the various African nations had their own taboos and preferences.
Slave traders had a financial stake in encouraging their human cargo to eat, however minimally. Half-starved slaves wouldn’t bring as much money at auction. When the winds were unfavorable and the voyages took longer than expected, it was not unknown for captains to feed the slaves the crew’s rations. The enslaved were worth money, and in a pinch, they could be trained to sail the ship. No one had any such investment tied up in the sailors, who could be replaced at the next port.
Depending on where the enslaved came from, their core diet might be corn, yams, or rice. On ship, that would be supplemented by British fava beans (”horse beans”), salt pork, fish, and palm oil, all in various stages of decomposition. Partially because of the foods themselves, but also because of the preparation methods available and the need to limit rations, Stephanie E. Smallwood says that rations on the voyage were not intended to “support health but rather simply to provide subsistence” on an “intake of nutritionally empty calories.”
All of this depended on close observation: The enslaved sometimes went on hunger strikes and had to be forced to eat. When they were brought up from the cramped lower decks to eat on the main deck, they were guarded by armed sailors, out of fear that the enslaved would seize that moment to try to overpower the crew and take control of the ship. So they had to be watched.
Of course, this obsession with watching what and how the enslaved ate increased by several orders of magnitude once they were sold off to homes, businesses, and plantations. Slaveholders saw rations as an expense reducing their profits, but they also wanted a public posture of paternal benevolence, maintaining that their enslaved workers were somehow well-fed. Even in 2016, Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly tried to claim that the enslaved people who built the White House were well-fed. But that’s a story for another time.
For Now…Fast-forward to 1976. Ronald Reagan was running for the Republican nomination against the sitting President, Gerald Ford. Since the 1930s, conservatives had been campaigning against the “New Deal” programs of the Roosevelt Administration. The federal government had tried various food support programs. Then in 1964, the Food Stamp program (now known as SNAP–the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) was passed as part of Lyndon B. Johnson’s “War on Poverty.”
Even though most Food Stamp recipients were (and are) white children, many conservative Republicans chose to racialize the issue, making it sound as though middle-class whites had to pay taxes so that “shiftless and lazy” blacks could eat without having to work. This was part of what Ian Haney López has called “dog whistle politics,” i.e., racial appeals in code language. It was part of the so-called “Southern strategy” for luring white voters to the Republican camp. Goldwater had stumbled onto it by default in the 1964 election, then Nixon embraced it explicitly in 1968 and 1972.
Food support remains a favorite target of right-wing social media, often steeped in racism
Then it was Reagan’s turn. While campaigning in the South in 1976, Reagan talked about “you” standing in line at the grocery, waiting to buy hamburger, while a “strapping young buck” uses food stamps to “buy a T-bone steak.” Reagan was criticized for his overtly race-baiting language, and in the northern states, he changed the “strapping young buck” to “some young fellow,” but the underlying appeal, the dog whistle, remained the same.
Note that Reagan’s appeal was purely anecdotal. In 2017, this would fall into the category of “alternative facts.” Reagan never presented any actual evidence that the Food Stamp program was rife with fraud, mainly because it’s not there. In fact, even with the increase in SNAP participation generated by the Great Recession, over the last 15 years the fraud rate in the program has dropped from 4% to 1%.
Instead, Reagan was inviting his followers to observe: Keep track of who is buying what with their food stamps. Monitor those food stamp rations carefully, and take it upon yourself to make sure that the moochers (Mitt Romney’s infamous “47 percent”) aren’t living too high on the hog with “your” money.
This has become an article of faith in conservative theology. In 2013, for instance, Fox News produced an interview with an annoying California surfer dude purportedly on food support while refusing to get a job. It was over-the-top ridiculous, and appeared to be pure fiction, but for many, it was merely a dramatization of what they already believed.
In 2015, the state legislatures took up the call. Most notoriously, in Wisconsin, Missouri, and Maine, bills were introduced to limit the kinds of food that people on SNAP are allowed to buy, even though it was unlikely that the USDA would give the states a waiver to override federal regulations.
For instance, Missouri state representative Rick Brattin claimed anecdotal evidence of his own in pushing for HB 813. He told the Washington Post, “I have seen people purchasing filet mignons and crab legs with their EBT cards. When I can’t afford it on my pay, I don’t want people on the taxpayer’s dime to afford those kinds of foods either” (my italics).
It’s possible that Brattin does in fact spend a lot of time doing the family grocery shopping, so we won’t question the veracity of his observation. The bill he introduced in response would have prevented Missouri SNAP users to buy “cookies, chips, energy drinks, soft drinks, seafood, or steak.”
In Wisconsin, AB 177 was passed. It made a special point of going after shellfish. “Under the proposal, people couldn’t buy crab, lobster or other shellfish with food stamps and would have to spend two-thirds of their benefits on produce, beef, pork, poultry, potatoes, dairy products or food available under the Women, Infants and Children nutrition program.”
In Maine, SP 195, a bill supported by the Governor, sought to ban a list of items including iced tea, vitamins, dietary substitutes, candy and confections, and “prepared food.“ Never mind that some fried chicken from the Walmart deli might be a pretty good, economical meal for a poor family. One state official complained, “Multiple Red Bulls in one purchase, Rock Star energy drinks, 1-pound bag of Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups and 3 gallons of Hershey’s Ice Cream in one purchase…. We have all seen these types of purchases occur – and it’s unacceptable.” (my italics)
Once again, the appeal is to anecdotal evidence, based on purported observations of what groceries other people are buying. In fact, in social media, there’s an entire sub-category of mean-spirited comedy devoted to photos ridiculing poor and/or fat folks buying groceries, usually at Walmart. Someone is watching what you eat, and how you pay for it.
Politics makes for strange bedfellows, and fretting about the food choices of poor folks also comes from “public health advocates” on both the left and right. These folks observethat poor people are fat, and of course, they think fat people are icky. So their solution is to restrict the types of food that poor folks can buy with their SNAP money. Poor people are thought to be too stupid to know the difference between “junk” food and “healthy” food, and so they must wait for the experts to decide what is “best” for them.
But random, unscientific observations are by definition unreliable. We may indeed see a purchase, but not the context. We have no idea of the multitude of other choices the buyer has already made. The one fact we do know with certainty is that the buyer on food support doesn’t have much to work with. The modern ration is controlled by the amount of money allowed. In 2015, the maximum monthly SNAP benefit for a family of four was $649, or $5.40 per person, per day. There’s just not a lot of money available for extravagant junk food feasts.
As the USDA chart above shows, poor folks eat about the same as rich folk. The poor just have to do it more cheaply, spending only about 40% as much. They’re not on a steady diet of Twinkies.
Many politicians and celebrities have tried the “Food Stamp Challenge,” trying to live on a typical $29 per week benefit. In 2015, Gwyneth Paltrow tried it, and published a photo of her shopping trip:
Any nutritionist would be thrilled by the choices here. In 2012, Fox News personality Sean Hannity declared that the poor can easily survive on a diet of beans and rice. Well, I suppose. After all, for many decades, the enslaved survived on a ration of cornmeal and salt pork. What’s the difference?
But Ms. Paltrow gave up the challenge after four days, perhaps because vitamins gleaned from “healthy” foods cannot replace missing calories. One observer calculated that the food shown above would provide only about 1000 calories a day. That would make for a great crash diet, but it’s less than two-thirds of what even a sedentary woman requires for normal functioning. It would be, technically-speaking, a starvation diet.
In short, the idea that people are using food support so they can graze all day on bon-bons while they sit in front of the TV watching cartoons is refuted by the very economics of SNAP. Of course, that doesn’t deter others from indulging their deepest paranoid fantasies. Any time someone sees someone else in the grocery line buying a food item that the observer finds objectionable, another call goes out to cut the program. Meanwhile, we don’t see the other 99% who have to improvise, scrimp, and wonder how to get by
Under legal slavery, slaveholders and traders alike kept a close eye on what the enslaved were eating, and were constantly meddling, seeking to control, define, and limit choices. That’s why a fundamental part of freedom includes the right to choose your food, even if you make “bad” choices from time to time.
Parents may try to instill positive food habits in their children, but at some point, wise parents step back and let their kids make their own choices. Why? Because we know instinctively that freedom and dignity require it. That same dignity of choice should be secured for the elderly, women, children, and others who must rely from time to time on the governmental nutritional safety net to survive. People receiving assistance are not slaves. Watching what others eat, especially within the tightly-limited budget imposed by SNAP, is simply none of our business.
59. In addition to being a master of his craft in the kitchen, New Orleans’ Austin Leslie was also a larger-than-life figure in the front of the house. He had a big, friendly personality, and was instantly recognizable in his captain’s cap, mutton-chop sideburns, and crab-medallion necklace. They were featured on the covers of the cookbooks he published in 1984 and 2000.
In the 1980s, that big personality caught the attention of Tim Reid and Hugh Wilson. Wilson had been the creator and executive producer of CBS’ acclaimed comedy, WKRP in Cincinnati (1978-1982). On that show, Tim Reid played a DJ named Venus Flytrap. Reid’s character was well-developed for a sitcom. We learned that Flytrap’s real name was Gordon Sims, a Vietnam vet (and a deserter), and a former high school teacher. The character’s on-air persona, a mysterious, smooth-talking “love doctor,” was quite different from the character’s gentle off-air self.
Tim Reid, in his WKRP “Venus Flytrap” character, is on the far right
After WKRP ended, Reid and Wilson started working on an idea for a restaurant-based show, and decided that it should be set in New Orleans. So it was inevitable that when they went to New Orleans for research, they crossed paths with Austin Leslie. They took his Chez Helene restaurant as their model, and reproduced it almost to the letter back on set in Hollywood as Chez Louisiane, a Tremé restaurant inherited by Tim Reid’s new character, Frank Parrish, an Ivy League professor.
In that sense, Frank’s Place was designed as a classic “fish out of water” tale. They also turned Austin Leslie into a character, “Big Arthur,” the cook, of course. The real Austin was also brought to Hollywood as both a consultant and a rather unique prop artist: He prepared the food that was seen on camera.
The cast also included Reid’s real-life wife, Daphne Maxwell Reid, who played a mortician, and Reid’s love interest.
The show debuted in the fall season of 1987, and seemed to hold its own in the ratings. But CBS started messing with their schedule, and moved the show around to various time-slots. It bounced around six times over the course of 22 episodes. That undermined its ratings. Viewers were having a hard time finding it.
The show was also not a typical ‘80s sitcom. The comedy was mixed in with dramatic moments, some quite dark. The characters didn’t follow the usual stereotypes. It also didn’t use a laugh track, which was unusual for network comedies at the time (and still is).
The ratings slipped. It ended up ranking Number 55 for the season. It had still outperformed other shows that went on to become hits, such as Seinfeld. Ratings or not, Frank’s Place was a critical success. It received ten Emmy nominations, and won three, along with a number of other nominations and awards.
Nonetheless, a few days before filming was to begin on the second season, CBS suddenly cancelled the show. CBS News’ Walter Cronkite later told Reid that Laurence Tisch, who had just purchased CBS with junk bonds, was enraged by the show’s last episode, which included a storyline about junk bonds. Reid believes that Tisch was personally responsible for burying the show. The episodes were rerun in the 1990s on BET, but haven’t been seen since. When one pops up on YouTube, it usually disappears quickly. Reid is still trying to get Frank’s Place released on DVD.
The show’s opening theme was Louis Armstrong’s “Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans.” Hopefully, this clip from the opening of the show will work for a while.
Tim Reid, with “Big Arthur,” played by Tony Burton.
…and the real-life “Big Arthur”– Austin Leslie.
By the way, if you google images of “Austin Leslie,” be prepared: You will be inundated by images of the late Leslie Cochran, a well-known homeless figure in Austin, Texas. Cochran has absolutely nothing to do with Austin Leslie.
58. In a city with a culinary history and reputation completely disproportional to its size, Austin Leslie (1934-2005) stood out as one of the iconic chefs of New Orleans in the late 20th century. Many claimed that he made the best fried chicken in the city.
He born in New Orleans, and lived almost all of his life there. He was the son of Glenn and Ruby (DeJean) Leslie, and grew up living at 704. N. Miro. Starting in middle school, he delivered fried chicken by bicycle for Portia’s Chicken Shack, on S. Rampart, in the French Quarter. The owner, Bill Turner, also taught young Austin about restaurants, and especially about seasoning, and frying chicken. (Turner also owned Portia’s Fountain & Grill, on Louisiana). In the 1952 City Directory, he’s listed as working at “Portise Poultry” (sic).
After a stint in the Army, which took him to Korea, Austin returned to New Orleans, and tried business school (in the 1954 City Directory, he’s listed as a “student”), and then worked in an assortment of jobs, including in sheet metal. Then in 1959, he got a job as an assistant chef in the popular restaurant at the D.H. Holmes Department Store, on Canal St.
The D.H.Holmes Dept. Store, in the early 1960s, around the time that Austin Leslie was an assistant chef there. The clock over the front door (between the L and the M) was a downtown landmark
At Holmes, Austin learned haute cuisine, preparing classic Creole dishes such as oysters Rockefeller and shrimp remoulade. In 1964, Austin’s aunt, Helen DeJean Pollock, moved her Howard’s Eatery restaurant to a new place in the Seventh Ward, and rechristened it Chez Helene. Austin soon joined her there. He incorporated some dishes he’d learned at D.H. Holmes to go along with Helen’s standard fare, and created what some have called “Creole Soul.”
Leslie’s signature dish was a simple but excellently-executed fried chicken, sprinkled with a garlic-parsley persillade and dill pickles
Unlike many soul food chefs, who can be very secretive, Austin wasn’t opposed to sharing his recipe. On the other hand, it appears that there are at least five different recipes floating around. James Cullen, chef at Trèo, has made an entertaining video showing his attempt to re-create the recipe. Leah Chase characterized Austin’s food this way: “It was just good old Creole food, good old-time New Orleans food, and he was good, damn good. You couldn’t fry a chicken better than Austin. You couldn’t stuff a pepper better than Austin Leslie.”
Austin Leslie, working on some turkeys.
When Helen retired in 1975, Austin bought Chez Helene, and his reputation continued to grow. But even a fictional TV show based on Chez Helene (see part 2, coming soon!) couldn’t save the little restaurant from the economic realities of trying to survive in a neighborhood white folks might describe as “sketchy” neighborhood. In 1989, Austin went bankrupt. The restaurant closed for good in 1994, and burned shortly thereafter. The concrete base can still be seen on the corner of what was 1540 N. Robertson–
The concrete base of Chez Helene can still be seen on the corner of what was 1540 N. Robertson
After that, Austin’s career took a lot of twists and turns. He worked at several restaurants, including the Basin Street Club.
At the Basin Street Club, with daughter Tracey
He also signed on as “fry cook” at Jack Leonardi’s Jacques-Imo’s. Jack became a disciple, and has continued to make Austin’s chicken.
Along the way, Austin opened a restaurant in Copenhagen, Denmark, where New Orleans cuisine was popular. Austin was back home working at Pampy’s in 2005 when Hurricane Katrina hit. Like thousands of others, when the levees broke on August 29, Austin was unable to leave his house, and was trapped in his attic for two days. The humid heat was stifling, estimated between 98º to 120º. He was rescued, and taken to the Convention Center. He became ill with a high fever, and was taken to a hospital in Atlanta, but died there on September 29.
On October 9, Austin was given the first post-Katrina jazz funeral, which led a march through the streets (and past considerable rubble) from Pampy’s, past the empty lot of Chez Helene, and ending at the Backstreet Cultural Museum in the Treme neighborhood. Many saw it as a sign of hope in the wake of the disaster.
There’s a lot more to Austin Leslie’s story, and we’ll take it up in our next post.