He presided over Virginia's great political barbeques for the last half of the nineteenth century, taught the young Prince of Wales to crave mint juleps in 1859, catered to Virginia's mountain spas, and fed two generations of Richmond epicures with terrapin and turkey. This fascinating culinarian is John Dabney (1821-1900), who was born a slave, but later built an enterprising catering business. Dabney is just one of 175 influential cooks and restaurateurs profiled by David S. Shields in The Culinarians, a beautifully produced encyclopedic history of the rise of professional cooking in America from the early republic to Prohibition. Shields's concise biographies include the legendary Julien, founder in 1793 of America's first restaurant, Boston's Restorator; and Louis Diat and Oscar of the Waldorf, the men most responsible for keeping the ideal of fine dining alive between the World Wars. Though many of the gastronomic pioneers gathered here are less well known, their diverse influence on American dining should not be overlooked plus, their stories are truly entertaining.
We meet an African American oyster dealer who became the Congressional caterer, and, thus, a powerful broker of political patronage; a French chef who was a culinary savant of vegetables and drove the rise of California cuisine in the 1870s; and a rotund Philadelphia confectioner who prevailed in a culinary contest with a rival in New York by staging what many believed to be the greatest American meal of the nineteenth century. He later grew wealthy selling ice cream to the masses. Shields also introduces us to a French chef who brought haute cuisine to wealthy prospectors and a black restaurateur who hosted a reconciliation dinner for black and white citizens at the close of the Civil War in Charleston. Altogether, Culinarians is a delightful compendium of charcuterie-makers, pastry-pipers, caterers, railroad chefs, and cooking school matrons not to mention drunks, temperance converts, and gangsters who all had a hand in creating the first age of American fine dining and its legacy of conviviality and innovation that continues today.
David S. Shields is the Carolina Distinguished Professor at the University of South Carolina and chairman of the Carolina Gold Rice Foundation. He has been the recipient of the Southern Foodways Alliance's Ruth Fertel Keeper of the Flame Award, and his other books include Southern Provisions: The Creation and Revival of a Cuisine, also published by the University of Chicago Press.