Food in America has really gone through some amazing changes. Europeans who traveled here in the 19th century wrote that America had the best variety and freshest food in the world. What the hell happened?! Author Tyler Cowen explains it all pretty well in his book titled An Economist Gets Lunch: New Rules for Everyday Foodies.
It goes basically like this: American food turned to shit (paraphrasing here) based on many factors and important points in history. We were also essentially victims of our own success as we left the rest of the world behind by being first to develop new innovations in agribusiness, commercialization of food and technology in storing and shipping food long distances.
We’ve gone from being considered the best, into a period of 70 to 80 years now of being the worst food in the developed world. The worst of the long, bad period for American food was from about 1910 through the 1980’s in what became the age of the sugar doughnut, fast foods, chain restaurants and frozen TV dinners.
In the mid 1920’s laws were passed to further restrict immigration to the U.S., which if you can imagine what our food would be like without any immigration, it’s easy to tell that choking off that outside influence would naturally kill the quality of our food.
The depression and prohibition also both contributed greatly to the widespread closing of the best restaurants which in turn caused cheaper alternatives such as diners and fast food businesses to triple in number from 1919 to 1929.
American food became kids’ food and everybody knows kids are stupid and have horrible taste. Family friendly places sprang up much more so than in any other country during this time.
Then World War II came along. Meat was in shorter supply, especially that of the fresh variety. Solution? Spam. Production of everything during the war needed to be faster and we needed the ability to store food for longer periods of time. We industrialized and figured out how to transport food long distances. The war also meant much more women joined the workforce. Processed and frozen foods surged. We needed convenience what with women spending less time in the kitchen and all. Television and marketing became big business and companies like Swanson let us know how much they care about our family and we believed them.
Subsidized farming led to the over production of easily stored crops such as soybeans and corn. What to do with all that corn? How about using it to make high fructose corn syrup and put it in just about fucking everything?
We’re just now beginning to recognize and crawl out of this horrible food rut we’ve been in for 80 years, although most people still don’t know that microwave dinners were developed by bacteriologists, not chefs.
As we become more aware of what we are eating, more and more great food and restaurant options are slowly becoming readily available again. We’re seeing much more restaurants using locally grown ingredients and putting emphasis on taste. But even with these exciting new options springing up more and more, I still hold a nostalgic, greasy place in my heart for the genuine American diner. Sure, the food is not great. It was never meant to be. It was meant to be cheap comfort food and whenever I stumble upon an authentic greasy spoon, I just can’t resist opening that door and hearing that bell ding.
I have this affinity in part due to my childhood. My aunt owned the Right Way Café in a tiny town in Oklahoma for many years. My mom worked as a waitress and a cook in many diners as I grew up and one of her best customers actually later became my stepfather. When I was about 7 years old, she would often take me to work with her. I would usually hang out in the back somewhere, my clearest memory being of me helping make the French fries by pressing the potatoes through the big cast iron wall mounted French fry press. Beyond the obvious psychological reasons for my fondness of a good lunch counter, I also am a big fan of the mom and pop business. Probably the only thing I’m more passionate about is my hatred toward the commercialization of EVERYTHING. In a genuine diner, the owner will be working everyday be it cooking, cleaning, serving or all of the above. Their business pays the mortgage and puts kids through college; it doesn’t buy vacation homes for board members. The food is fast, cheap and tastes pretty good but what keeps a patronage is their friendly, personal service. With the commercialization of everything it’s harder than you may think to find a genuine American diner in the city. IHOP, Denny’s and such would like to keep it that way. Luckily, it is still possible to bypass those houses of corporate greed and enjoy an authentic diner experience as if you were on the set of the old sitcom “Alice” if you just know where to go. Once again, I’m here to help.
Near downtown Dallas, specifically in the design district, located at 940 Riverfront Blvd is an authentic American diner named Riverside Grill. As with most great cafes, they are super cheap. They have terrific breakfasts of eggs, bacon, sausage, hash browns, grits, biscuits and gravy, waffles, French toast, etc just as you’d expect. Lunches such as steak, chicken and dressing, chicken fried steak, chili, meatloaf, burgers and sandwiches can all be washed down with good ole’ coffee, sweet tea or sodas. You can finish it all off with a variety of pie slices from the case. The service is 100% owner operated friendly with special attention placed on making the customer want to come back. Every man likes to be called “honey” or “sugar” by down home ladies in aprons.
Riverside Grill is not a diner themed restaurant. It is a no frills, cheap, solid comfort food cafe that takes me back to the late 70’s when those places were all the rage. So turn the way back machine to 1979 and go. They’re open 7 days a week and serve breakfast all day on both Saturday and Sunday.
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