The book I recommend in this post is here for several reasons.
First, it helps fill a huge and inexplicable gap in our understanding of commercial history. There are few industries which have more impact on our daily lives than the foodservice and restaurant business. If you were to add food distribution, from convenience stores to supermarkets, perhaps no industry touches our daily lives more. No industry has more employees, and no industry is more important to our very survival. Yet there is almost nothing written (in book form) on the history of the supermarket, and not much on the history of restaurants. This book is one of the best books I have ever seen on the history of restaurants.
Second, I am always looking for good books on local and regional history. Whether trying to understand the economy or just nostalgically recall the places I shopped and ate at as a kid, knowing about the local past is important to many of us. And as the baby boom ages, nostalgia will only become a bigger and bigger business. (I give great thanks to the Arcadia publishing company, which has compiled thousands of titles about local American history – they likely have one or more books about your home city.) This book, by a state historical society, is a classic example of good local history.
Third, when people do cover commercial or industrial history, they often leave out the design and graphic elements. Postcards, illustrations, advertisements, packaging, architecture, logos, and other design elements are often what we most remember from the past. They add color and life to the subject. (One of the negatives of the Arcadia books is that they are generally not in full color.) This book does a great job combining the regional history of an industry with the right graphics to go along with it.
So … what is the book? It’s Minnesota Eats Out: An Illustrated History by Kathryn Strand Koutsky and Linda Koutsky (Minnesota Historical Society, 2003). This beautiful full color oversized hardcover book contains imagery – menus, postcards, photos, and illustrations – of the great and mundane restaurants of Minnesotan history. Chapters are devoted to hotels, department stores, roadfood and fast food, resorts, cafes, cafeterias, supper clubs, soda fountains, and other industry segments. While this book will likely trigger great memories for anyone who grew up in Minnesota, I loved going through it even though I have very few links with that state.
It is sooooo hard to find good books about the restaurant industry and how it evolved. There have been a couple of books about the history of the industry, but most of them are out of print, such as the Mariani book shown to the right. One excellent book still readily available is John Jakle’s history of fast food (see http://hooversworld.com/archives/2979). The lodging industry, also covered by a Jakle book, is also surprisingly under-studied. You can find plenty of books about how to develop and design modern restaurants and hotels, and books for students in the hospitality and foodservice industries, but very little on the history of the industry. And you know I believe that you cannot see the future without studying the past!
Richard Gutman, John Baeder, and others have written several books on the history of the diner as well as state guides to diners. Gutman runs an outstanding food industry museum at Johnson & Wales University in Rhode Island (http://www.culinary.org/), which I urge you to visit. Jane and Michael Stern do a wonderful job of supporting and recommending the best surviving “roadfood” establishments (www.roadfood.com or see http://hooversworld.com/archives/2829). And in recent years there has been a spate of books about the best Barbeques in America (or Texas or North Carolina).
Now, if the Minnesota Historical Society would just turn this book into a series on commercial history – the stories of the hotels and motels, of the stores, of the amusement parks and ballparks and racetracks, of the banks and savings and loans, of the railroads and airlines, … of Minnesota, then we’d really be onto something. And the other forty-nine states could follow that lead! This book would be an excellent one to use as a model for filling this strange gap in our understanding of our own history. One can only hope and dream …