Who Killed These Girls?: Cold Case: The Yogurt Shop Murders by Beverly Lowry is the perfect book to read on a cross-country flight, especially a flight during the holidays in winter when you’re trying to leave Montana in a snow-storm and get severely delayed (when it’s time for the pity party.)
As the airline attendants related the crushing news in breezy monotones (we are delaying the flight for three hours!) as the kids roamed the airport in search of gum, magazines, bathrooms, and chicken, I was indeed lost. I mean mesmerized by this thick, ruminative book.
True crime. Not a genre I usually seek out, but why? After all, I love television crime (The Fall, The Killing, re-runs of Law & Order), but, I always thought of true crime novels as well…tacky. Perhaps (even as I sit here in my office, I try to cover the book and expose an innocent, never-read Tao of Pooh instead). I do not—and, at this moment—want to defend the book by calling it “literary.” What does that mean anyway? But, what I can say is that the writing is good—very good.
My husband who bought me the book (I guess he knows my taste better than I do) and reminded me that we had met the author at a party in Missoula many moons ago. But, I have to say that one grad school party slipped into the next, and I have no clear recollection of meeting Beverly Lowry. I wondered if she was considered a “Montana writer.” However, I cannot say based on a scant, superficial Google search whether the West claims her as its own. She lived in Montana, yes, but, was she influenced by the state’s most eloquent voices? I did, however, find hints of what I would call a western memoir style in this book.
William Kittredge was our guru, and his command of storytelling, personal narrative, philosophy, and environmental ethics coalesced into pitch-perfect prose. Likewise, Lowry weaves some of the elements in her book, such as the self-reflection that Kittredge includes in his work. But, I don’t want to oversimplify.
I write this in respect to a question I had before I even opened the book, a book framed by black and white photos of four pretty girls surrounded by gruesome (blood) red. Why on earth would someone want to write about this crime? In the book, Lowry explains that she wrote this book because of her son who died in a hit-and-run accident. The case was never solved, and Lowry had to learn to live with the uncertainty; an un-knowingness that was practically un-livable for her. The parents of the girls who died in the yogurt shop also had to learn to live with uncertainty. Their crime is never solved.
An uncommonly grizzly murder. That’s how the newspapers described it. December 6, 1991. Austin, Texas. Four teenagers (two are sisters) get murdered at an I Can’t Believe It’s Yogurt franchise. The case goes on to be known as the “yogurt murders.” I think the fact that the crime took place at a yogurt store is especially baffling and strange. It also just seems absurd. But, the crime itself is horrific, unimaginable even.
Not only are the girls shot, but they are also gagged, forced to take their clothes and tennis shoes off, and eventually they are burned practically beyond recognition. The crime shakes the community to such an extent that the growing city is never the same. Overnight parents become fearful for their children, and teenagers succumb to the reality that sleepy, laid-back Austin isn’t the calm, hippie town it’s supposed to be. The book delves into this change of perspective, as well as looks at multiple issues surrounding the crime.
The first suspects include teenage boys from Mexico. Connected to drug gangs and with a history of crimes, these boys are seen as potentially violent perpetrators, and Lowry discusses the fact that race plays into our perceptions. However, the boys are never convicted.
Who the state does decide to convict is what makes up the bulk of the book. Four teenage boys get accused of killing the teenage girls—Robert Springsteen, Michael Scott, Forrest Welborn, and Maurice Pierce. The police were under enormous pressure to find the murderers, and, unfortunately, these boys were easy scapegoats.
Two of the boys gave false confessions. In 2017, we are used to the idea of a false confession, but in 1991 this seemed almost inconceivable. But why were these boys singled out? The truth is they were “bad boys,” wild teenagers who liked a good time. They admitted to taking drugs, to drinking, to having guns, living sloppy lives where they skipped school and began to spiral into the realm of not caring. All of them had challenging home lives.
Lowry writes character sketches of all four of the boys. She begins with Springsteen: “Known in West Virginia as “Robby,” the boy had dark, darting eyes, a notable widow’s peak, devilish eyebrows and a habit of crocking his chin to one side, as if to indicate his readiness to take on all comers. Quick-tempered and boastful, he seemed too swaggery for his own good….”
These character sketches are one of my favorite parts of the book because Lowry describes their lives with such quick, deliberate deftness and skill. I feel like I know these losers. Or, are they really losers or just guys struggling hard, who want life to be better, but who can’t seem to get there? Lowry does not convince the reader fully that the boys did not commit the crime. Yes, the confessions seemed forced by a charismatic, overzealous cop, but, at the same time I felt (and Lowry admits) that they could be guilty (after all). This is the chilling and haunting refrain of the book.
Just as Lowry describes the boys, she also goes through the lives of the girls: Amy Ayers, Jennifer Harbison, Sarah Harbison, and Eliza Thomas. The girls were all active in agricultural events, sweet Texas girls with long hair and a western style. They are described as wholesome girls. For those readers who are looking for something sinister beneath the obvious happiness of the girls, they will be hard pressed to find any dirt. The girls appear as squeaky clean, which is fine because who really wants to drag them through the dirt—those girls who died long before their time?
However, for me, I missed cause. Lowry doesn’t want to deal with speculation. In fact, at times she quotes police and prosecutors, saying that motive is not what’s important; it’s action, it’s the narrative of the crime that’s significant. Yes, I buy this, but my mind can’t help recoiling to why? Why these girls? Why that night? At this yogurt shop?
These are not the questions that Lowry wants to ask. Instead, she wants to look at facts and the exhaustive court details. However, this genre is true crime, and perhaps I want to know what I shouldn’t. What sociopathic impulses would compel some people to commit this crime? What similar crimes have occurred? Why did the killers burn the yogurt shop down? I suppose I wanted a few more questions in the space of the minutely detailed book that looks critically at an impossible number of facts.
Or maybe Lowry is touching upon something deeper—facts, after all, cannot tell the full story. The full story will likely always be unknowable.
On the last day of a wildly erratic year that saw Britons pushing themselves a little further away from the continent, where during much of the last century they engaged in some of the bloodiest conflicts in history, and, across the Atlantic the United States is plunging into perhaps an even more uncertain future.
But, this book is about Istanbul, Turkey, a city that in many ways faces an even more uncertain future than either the U.S. or The United Kingdom. Recently, the historic city was blasted by the latest bludgeon of terrorism leveled on unsuspecting nightclub revelers. The Uzbek national arrested for the massacre had ties to ISIS.
Within hours of that terrorist attack, the Russians bombed Al Bab east of Aleppo, Syria, a joint operation with Turkey, ostensibly to rout out ISIS, but perhaps also to punish Turkey’s nemesis, the Kurds, who have been allied with the U.S. in the fight against Islamic terrorists….
Throughout its long history, Istanbul has been at the cusp of clashes between the East and West, and long before Turkey was a nation, the city-state of Byzantium, and then Constantinople, during Greek, then Roman times, loomed large as a power in the Roman Empire.
It figured with the birth of and rise of Christianity that it became the seat the Eastern Orthodox church; it was to become a center of Islamic power, and, finally, became the most populous city in Turkey, part of a quasi-secular nation bridging East and West, Islam and Christianity.
The geographical centrality of Istanbul in the clashes of civilizations over millennia inspired W.B. Yeats in “Sailing to Byzantium” to write of, “monuments of its own magnificence,” hearkening to “what is past, or passing, or to come.” Stretching back into antiquity it remains a place to be reckoned with even as the civilizations around it evolve and splinter through regime changes and eruptions that continue to reverberate around the world.
In The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Edward Gibbon says that ancient Constantinople “appears to have been formed by Nature for the centre and capital of a great monarchy. Situated in the forty-first degree of latitude, the Imperial city commanded, from her seven hills, the opposite shores of Europe and Asia; the climate was healthy and temperate, the soil fertile, the harbour secure and capacious; and the approach on the side of the continent was of small extent and easy defence. The Bosporus and Hellespont may be considered as the two gates of Constantinople; and the prince who possessed those important passages could always shut them against a naval enemy and open them to the fleets of commerce.”
The city has been periodically reviled, sacked, coveted and worshipped, with successions of rulers building mighty walls to protect it from successions of attacks from land and sea.
The walled city-state that was later to become Istanbul was for centuries impenetrable to invaders, its narrow Bosporus Strait and the Dardanelles affording the only connections from the Mediterranean to the west and the Black Sea to the north and east between central Asia and Europe. The city was and remains the gateway between East and West.
Given these geographical attributes it is little wonder that when Rome itself crumbled under its own weight, Byzantium, as it was originally called, became in the third century AD the capital of the Roman Empire. As Thomas F. Madden says in his indispensable new book Istanbul: City of Majesty at the Crossroads of the World (Viking: 2016), while the “eternal Roman Empire was in utter disarray,” by the end of the century Byzantion (Madden prefers the pre-Latinate spelling) “had only begun to flourish.”
At the northern lip of Turkey and linked to the ancient Greek world by a strait now known as the Dardanelles (formerly Hellespont), Istanbul was at the very center of the known civilization of the West, and because of its strategic position, even in modern times it has been a key player in NATO (the alliance called into question by the new president of the United States), which long stationed American-made Patriot missile batteries on Turkish territory. The Turkish ambassador to the alliance, said “NATO is one of the essential dimensions of Turkish foreign and defense policy,” and it ranks second to the U.S. in size of standing armies within the NATO alliance.
Now the fragility of the alliance has been thrust into the news, while the Turks themselves seem to have tested its mettle in the strongman Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the authoritarian Turkish leader and former mayor of Istanbul, who is being courted by NATO’s nemesis: Vladimir Putin. And, of course we now see that Putin has made a parlor game out of tinkering with carefully chosen and feckless leaders of Western democracies.
There has never been a time that Istanbul didn’t figure into civilization-shaking battles.
Founded as a Greek colony around 667 BC and coveted for its strategic geographical position, it offered lush pastureland, as well as abundant fishing—it was said that fish were so thick in the water that they could be grabbed by hand—and the protection of high sea walls. Though recent excavations have turned up rich new evidence for scholars, Madden says that there is scant information about early Byzantion until it figured prominently in the Persian Wars when in 512 BC the emperor Darius captured the city for Persia, only to revert to Greek domination when the Persians retreated in 478 BC.
The Greeks bound formerly independent clients including Byzantion into the protectionist Delian League. But, it wasn’t long before the Spartans overwhelmed Greece, forcing Athenian officials out of Byzantion and pulling it under its command.
When Athens ruled, there was a semblance of democracy, but the Spartans ran an oligarchic tyranny. Byzantion wouldn’t become independent again until 355 BC when the Athenians regained control. In the 330s BC, Philip and his son Alexander, waged a series of wars to pacify the wayward Greek city-states and subsequently formed what is called the League of Corinth for the chief purpose of invading Persia. Alexander, at the age of 20, after the assassination of his father, became the supreme ruler of Greece. The Byzantines feared even more oppressive control, but as it turned out Alexander’s army passed right by the city and, aligned with Macedonia, headed eastward to subsequently conquer Asia Minor and most of the territories up to and including Persia. (His armies deserted him as he pushed onward to India.)
The following era, known as the Hellenistic period, brought prosperity to the strategically situated Byzantion. By 323 BC, Madden says, the city’s influence “stretched far into Thrace to the West and into Bithynia in the East. The Byzantines, therefore, had a firm hold on the northern Sea of Marmara as well as both sides of the southern Bosporus Strait. This was an attractive position indeed.”
This was the beginning of the Byzantine power that Gibbon glorifies in his history, and though regimes would change, and the city would be challenged from East and West over the centuries, it would remain an outlying European powerhouse over the centuries until roughly World War I when Turkish leaders (called the Young Turks) made the strategic error of aligning the country with Germany.
Madden sets the fall of Rome in 476 AD, but he argues that the widely accepted date accounts only for the decline of the empire in West with its seat in Rome. Constantinople, as the city-state was named for the emperor Constantine in the third century, would flourish as the new capital of the territories to the East: Egypt, Syria and Asia Minor.
The magnificent Hagia Sophia, built by the Christian Emperor Justinian I in 537 would be of central importance to Orthodox Christianity and “the most important building in the Eastern Roman Empire,” Madden says. The cathedral would later become an Islamic mosque, and finally the secular edifice at the center of the modern city.
Madden marks the years 717-18 as epochal for the city and for the modern world. By 717, Suleiman, caliph of the Umayyad Empire based in Damascus, had long wanted to bring Constantinople into the Arab-Islamic orbit and to cut off the spread of the Christian empire. His brother Maslama led an attack on the city under the misapprehension that Byzantine Emperor Leo III would cave in exchange for a governorship in the new Arab government. As it turned out, many in Maslama’s own navy, who were mostly Christian, turned against him and threw in with the Byzantines. In the end, Constantinople preserved its independence and the Byzantine Empire.
Had the campaign gone the other way, Madden says, the caliphate would have pushed further west and met up with Spain, which was already Muslim ruled. The face of Europe would have surely changed and “the world would be very different today.”
By the 12th century, Constantinople had become a way station for the crusaders coming from the West to convert the Muslims in the east. And, Madden says, “The gates of Constantinople opened wide for the Crusaders, transforming the conquerors into tourists.”
This turned out to be deadly when the Crusaders turned on their hosts and after setting fire to an ancient mosque, then mounting several attacks at the heart of the city, Constantinople fell, bringing on nearly 60 years of Latin rule. The lofty Gothic cathedrals that Erdogan has transformed were a product of that time.
The city would be recaptured in 1261, but wrestled away from Rome until 1453, when Ottoman Turk forces battered the once thought to be impregnable walls of the city and declared it once more an Islamic state.
In one of the bloodiest passages of the book, Madden writes of the slaughter of the men and elderly and the selling of women and children into slavery. And then, like contemporary Islamic terrorists, the Ottoman forces tried to erase the culture, the history.
“Much was lost,” Madden says. “For centuries Constantinople had preserved the writings of Greek antiquity and still had a few libraries holding priceless worth. The imperial archives were destroyed, thus erasing the memories of more than a millennium.”
The architectural masterpiece, Hagia Sophia, was declared the imperial mosque for the Ottoman state. Constantinople would become the capital of the state, and eventually the capital of the state of Turkey (supplanted by Ankara in 1923).
The population and influence of Byzantion, then Constantinople, now Istanbul, has ebbed and flowed. It is the biggest city in Europe and the fifth biggest city in the world, with 15 million people. In modern times, it grew from just 1 million in 1950 to its present sprawling density for two main reasons:
After World War II there was a steady stream of migrants from the poor rural areas of Turkey looking for better jobs and living conditions—much as in the China today starving farmers have flooded Shanghai and Beijing.
Secondly, as these itinerant workers moved to the outskirts of the city there rose makeshift one- and two-room houses, called gecekondus, dwellings that hardly met the most rudimentary building standards. These clusters of houses formed villages that were eventually subsumed into Istanbul’s city limits and over time the houses were upgraded. “Squatter villages,” as Madden calls them, became the suburbs of greater Istanbul.
Madden’s masterfully comprehensive history of Istanbul ends with a brief chapter on present conditions in the country where he lived and studied for many years. He mentions Erdogan’s Islamic agenda, which many see as eroding the secular democracy of the last half century. During his decade in office he has brought Islam into greater prominence in public life and has overseen the reconstruction of Byzantine churches into mosques.
In March of last year his government police ransacked the offices of Zaman, Turkey’s biggest newspaper, accusing its corruption investigations of being a coup attempt. A real coup attempt in July was quickly crushed, and Erdogan proclaimed the defeat, July 15, a national holiday, calling it, Madden says, “the founding of a ‘New Turkey,’ one that embraced its modern democracy as closely as its Islamic, Ottoman past.” Concurrently, he has tightened the grip of his authority in ways that contradict his pronouncement.
Just a few days ago the New York Times announced that a veteran correspondent had been detained at Ataturk Airport in Istanbul and refused entry into the country. It was the first time a Times reporter had been denied entry into Turkey, but Erdogan has been closing in on journalists since July. More than 120 journalists have been jailed—making Turkey the foremost jailer of journalists, surpassing the China—formerly in first place for that dubious distinction.
During its nearly 3,000-year-old history Istanbul has weathered countless tyrannies from East and West, and still endures and thrives—albeit being treated as a backwater by the major powers. Madden calls it a city “at the crossroads of the world.” Perhaps living at the crossroads has given the people a special resilience. Madden says that Erdogan “in many ways remains the mayor of Istanbul.” Maybe he thinks cozying up to Russia will help make Istanbul great again.
Two hundred and fifty years ago, people didn’t go to restaurants. There was very little dining out, apart from taverns, lodging houses and stands selling street foods such as oysters. What was available was hardly luxurious. The main meal of the day, as was the custom on farms, was consumed around noon.
That’s why, with its fine French food, immense menu, efficient service and gracious atmosphere, America’s first real restaurant, which opened in New York City in 1839 by the Delmonico brothers, was such a revelation. Its eleven-page menu shows an astonishing mastery of French gastronomy: forty veal dishes ranging from sweetbreads to blanquette de veau, no fewer than eight preparations of partridge and four styles of venison, a ubiquity of French truffles, sorrel, endive, and more!
In Ten Restaurants That Changed America Paul Freedman has made a delightful contribution to our knowledge of how restaurants came to be an important part of American culture, from the elaborate French foods offered by Delmonico’s to fast foods and the faddish, health-conscious cuisines of our times….
Paul Freedman has made a delightful contribution to our knowledge of how restaurants came to dominate American culture, from the elaborate French foods offered by Delmonico’s to fast foods and the faddish health-conscious cuisines of our times, in Ten Restaurants That Changed America.
Perhaps some would suggest that restaurants, such as MacDonald’s or The Brown Derby, have had just as profound an effect on American culture as these. However, these are Mr. Freedman’s choices and he tells the story of each with an abundance of information.
An exploration of American cuisine, Ten Restaurants That Changed America is as much a history of American eating habits as it is a chronicle of ten restaurants over three centuries. Of the list, Antoine’s, Sylvia’s, and Chez Panisse are still going concerns, while the Four Seasons has just been ejected from its landmark modernist home of over fifty years. Delmonico’s closed in 1923, but there is now a successor Delmonico’s at one the restaurant’s original locations.
This is not about the ten best restaurants that ever existed—some served marvelous food; others changed how we eat. His selection is based on influence: the importance for setting trends in how we eat and in eating out. The Twentieth Century saw a proliferation of burgers, pizza, doughnuts and other fast-food items that are the same from one end of the country to the other.
The list includes ten very different establishments, each with its peculiar story and colorful history—their successes were usually due to a charismatic personality at the helm. The reader will recognize in it a history on how his or her family ate from the 1950’s to the present.
For example, during the 1950’s when I was a child growing up in Billings, Montana, when we went to one of the half dozen Chinese restaurants in town, we ate the rather bland Chow Mein or Chop Suey. We thought egg rolls and fortune cookies were novelties. But, by the time I was a young married woman living in San Francisco, one of the gastric capitals of the nation, we were introduced to the much spicier and elegant foods--Mu Shu Pork and wonderfully bland Cabbage in White Sauce. Then, there was Prawns a la Szechwan and Fried Dumplings. Yum. I remember going to a downstairs, cheap restaurant open all night to imbibe freshly baked pork buns. Now Chinese food has adapted to the modern tastes and offers tofu and other things, cooked in variety of ways.
It’s hard to exaggerate its influence, for it set a pattern for what fine dining meant for the Nineteenth Century and had many worthy and successful imitators. It maintained its reputation until it was killed off in 1923 by Prohibition: people just couldn’t imagine eating fine French food with also drinking wine.
American disdain for gastronomic pretentiousness influenced its politics. During the 1840 presidential campaign the incumbent Martin Van Buren ate the best of what Delmonico’s served while his opponent, William Henry Harrison, was extolled for his simple tastes, favoring raw beef without salt. Ugh! Odd it is that the eating habits of Clinton and Trump were ignored in our recent election, but, until he was forced to change his eating habits due to poor health, Bill Clinton could be often found eating hamburgers at MacDonald’s.
At any rate, Delmonico’s was frequented by the leading personalities of the time: Oscar Wilde, Alexis de Tocqueville, Anthony Trollope, Henry James, and such.
The Delmonico’s nephew Lorenzo joined the staff in 1831, and he would mold the restaurant into an unrivaled temple to gastronomy and a shrine to upper-class social status. Like all brilliant restaurateurs, Lorenzo was a restless innovator, not just a manager.
“He was at the Washington Market at dawn where he made his purchases for the day, then returned to the Citadel to await his orders, drink a cup of strong coffee, smoke a cigar or two, look over the accounts and reservation lists, and then, after a nap, he would go to the front of house to supervised the comings and goings of diners.”
The food style, French with American accents and ingredients, was in place before the arrival of Chef Charles Ranhofer in 1862, but his reign, until the 1890s, coincided with the height of the restaurant’s prosperity and distinction.
Hardly any of the restaurants explored in this book, other than Chez Panisse, has remained in one location as they often opened new branches or relocated for various reasons.
At Delmonico’s a premium was placed on ostentation and excess. It was expected that at an elegant meal too much food would be served. Delmonico’s did not offer doggie bags. Wasteful as these meals must have been, they show a degree of enchantment and enjoyment that should challenge the common assumption that our age current is unique in its food obsessions, or that we eat far better than people did in the past.
Antoine’s is by far the oldest grand restaurant in continuous existence. Over its long history, the restaurant has been run by a single family, descendants of founder Antoine Alciatore. Established in 1840 in the French Quarter of New Orleans, close to its present location on St. Louis Street, with fifteen dining rooms, Antoine’s size is surpassed only by Mamma Leone’s and the Rockefeller Center branch of Schrafft’s.
Antoine was only 18 years old when he opened his restaurant. He would establish a dynamic restaurant that would endure for over a hundred years and create innovative new dishes against a background of traditional French cuisine.
In 1803, to finance his European wars, Napoleon sold the Louisiana Purchase, a huge swath of land stretching from the Mississippi delta up through the middle of the United States for a mere $11 million (about 4 cents an acre.) New Orleans was destined to become a great American city for its strategic position receiving goods shipped down-river and sending goods, such as rum and coffee, upstream as far as Minneapolis. New Orleans also had the greatest slave market in the United States, until slavery was abolished with the Emancipation Proclamation of 1865. All of which gave New Orleans also one of the most diverse populations in the country: French, Spanish, Caribbean’s, Italians, African blacks, Indians—all flocked to this unique city, and some mixtures of the above formed what came to be called a Creole elite class of people.
Creole cuisine emerged from this mix. Its basics include roux (flour and butter cooked together), celery, onions and bell peppers, spices, tomatoes, local ingredients, such as Gulf shrimp and oysters, and rice, to make dish called gumbo.
When Antoine Alciatore died his son, Jules, took control of the restaurant. Jules is attributed with innovating Oysters Rockefeller, first served in 1899. Jules’s second son Roy took control after Jules died in 1934. Roy, who was a famous host and welcomed virtually every celebrity of the 1930s through 1960s, died in 1972. Hurricane Katrina devastated much of New Orleans, sparing the French Quarter due its being on higher ground. Antoine survived it and today has its doors open to whoever wants to sample its creations. Some of its recipes are over a hundred years old.
Schrafft’s was a chain of economical but gracious restaurants in the New York area during the 1920s that catered to ladies who wanted to dine alone or with other women in a pleasant setting. The demands of female diners coincide with women’s agitation for the right to vote and the campaign to ban alcohol. The passage to Prohibition in 1919 meant the end of bars that served free lunches and the demise of fancy French restaurants (as it was hard to entice customers without serving wine.) In this new environment, middle-class dining options, like coffee shops, luncheonettes, automats, cafeterias and ethnic restaurants flourished.
Schrafft’s was open all day, serving breakfast, lunch, and dinner, but was primarily it was thought of as a place where women too busy or too far from home to return could come for lunch. Ice cream salons were the ancestor of Schrafft’s. The famous foods it served were salads buttressed with canned fruit and cottage cheese, Chicken á la King, chopped egg sandwiches, and banana splits, foods generally considered appealing to feminine taste.
Although Schrafft’s lasted until the Regan era of the 1970s, its decline is attributed to the rise of fast food chains like MacDonald’s and Burger King. Diners are a holdover, but control of the urban lunch market has passed to salad bars freighted with bacon bits, baby spinach, and bleu-cheese dressing and to quick-service chains including Dunkin’ Donuts.
I remember mourning this passage until someone pointed out to me that part of the success of the ubiquitous chains is that wherever you are in the country you know exactly what you will get. Nevertheless, our nostalgia for Schrafft’s is, I think, warranted.
Howard Johnson’s began at a single establishment in suburban Boston but its relentless entrepreneur, Howard Johnson, expanded it into a chain of roadside dinners, famous ice cream—all 28 flavors—and rather bland American food. It especially appealed to a middle-class clientele for whom cleanliness and consistency were all important. It especially welcomed women and families with children. Its motto was, “To serve the finest food on the America highways at reasonable prices to a large volume of family and medium-income Americans, and serve it in an attractive atmosphere.”
Howard Johnson was certainly a marketing genius—he pioneered franchising. Most of its restaurants were easily recognized from a distance with their orange roofs, octagonal steeples weathervanes, and blue-green accents, a color scheme repeated inside, and even on the menus.
Though the second world war was disastrous for business, Howard Johnson’s survived into the 1960s when it too was surpassed by MacDonald’s and blitz of fast food chains. In their early incarnations, the fast-food business were not the corporate behemoths they have become, but were the creation of obsessed perfectionists in the mold of Howard Johnson, men like Colonel Sanders, and Ray Kroc, the founder of MacDonald’s.>
Mama Leone’s, an Italian restaurant in New York City, flourished for nearly a century, from 1906 to 1994, and is a sample of the “ethnic restaurants” that have become popular: relatively inexpensive places to eat that serve international cuisine; the forerunners of these were Italian and Chinese, but Mexican, Japanese, Indian and Thai have also achieved prominence. They are a natural evolution of the many immigrant populations that have come here.
The fare from some of these—lager beer, hot dogs, hamburgers, pickles, coffee cakes, catsup, potato salad—have been so absorbed into the culture that they are thought of as American.
Mama Leone’s began simply as Leone’s, but when its founder Luisa Leone, died in 1944, it was renamed. Until it was torn down in 1988, it always made money.
Leone’s was originally located on 39th Street and Broadway. On its first night, April 27, 1906, it served antipasto, minestrone, ravioli, scaloppini, salad, cheese, spumoni and coffee. Mama’s dictum was, “I can cook good Italian good, and I’ll give the people plenty. They’ll come.” And, come they did. It usually served 4,000 a night and was as much a must-visit site in New York as Antoine’s was in New Orleans. In 1890 there were about 100,000 Italians immigrants in New York, and 100 cafés and restaurant serves their needs.
Rich and poor, famous, infamous and unknown—all came to Leone’s. Like it but on smaller scale, Sardi opened in the theatre district and became, as was Mama Leone’s, a favorite haunt of celebrities.
In the 1930s Chinese restaurants started to expand beyond chop suey, yet their menus didn’t vary far from standard Cantonese food. The establishment of the Mandarin was accidental, and its success was paradoxical. Cecilia Chiang, a woman of upper-class background, and raised in northern China—as such, she didn’t learn to cook until after she opened her restaurant. The Japanese invasion and the Communist rule caused many well-born Chinese to flee; Cecilia’s family fled to Japan, where they were introduced to American culture, and then they found their way to San Francisco. A 65-seat restaurant on Polk Street became hers because of a debt, and she was determined to make a go of it and to not serve the gooey Cantonese food. (It eventually moved to Ghirardelli Square.) Spicy Chinese cuisine proliferated in the 1970s, and Szechwan restaurants opened in shopping malls.
Sylvia’s opened in Harlem in New York on Lenox Avenue in August of 1962. The restaurant’s reputation was built on a tradition of African American cuisine, a rural, Southern, “down-home” style marketed to a Northern clientele as “soul food.” Sylvia Wood’s signature dishes included African American culinary classics such as fried chicken, barbecued spareribs, cornbread and collard greens. Sylvia’s is near Harlem’s main thoroughfare, 125th Street, and around the corner from the Apollo Theater. It created a welcoming atmosphere to celebrities without shutting out the people of the neighborhood.
Mr. Freeman points out that soul food largely originated on plantations in the South where black slaves had to forage and hunt in the woods and fields to supplement the oft-time merger fare of cornmeal, bacon and lesser cuts of pork.
In the north, long before the Civil War, blacks established restaurants to serve a more urban society than that of the South. Though soul food wasn’t especially healthy, the causes of obesity, diabetes and hypertension, are the modern fast foods, processed foods, large portion sizes, sodas and a largely sedentary lifestyle.
Le Pavillon was also founded by accident. Originally, it was part of the French exhibit at the 1939 World’s Fair, but when the fair closed, France was at war with Germany. In 1940 France fell to Germany, and the restaurant personnel decided not to return to France so they re-opened Le Pavillon at 5 55th Street in Manhattan.
Henry Soulé, its manager, known as “le petit tyrant” for his small size and his insistence on professionalism and politeness, ruled his kingdom with such authority that it would seem foolhardy to challenge him.
La Côte Basque opened with great fanfare and immediate success in 1958 and would have a longer life than Le Pavillon, which closed in 1975. (La Côte Basque closed in the aftermath of 9/11 in 2007.)
Of the restaurants portrayed in this volume the Four Seasons is one of my favorites. When it opened in 1959 it was something of a sensation, for it had taken $4.5 million to build (Frank Lloyd Wright’s Guggenheim Museum, built at the same time, cost $3 million.) Everything, from flatware to bathroom faucets was custom-made. The glasses used cost $2, not much by today’s standards but then seemingly unheard-of. Space was used extravagantly, from a marble-lined pool to the ample room between tables. Everything changed exuberantly with the seasons—the menus, the waiters’ uniforms, the ashtrays, the indoor landscaping, and so forth. What I most like about this museum of a restaurant is that its owners saw fit to purchase and hang in prime locations excellent specimens of the paintings of Picasso, Miró, and Rothko. (I often see poor examples of actual art or prints in the restaurants I frequent.) Look magazine entitled its treatment, “New York’s New $4.5 Million Dollar Restaurant.”
Reports are that the food at the Four Seasons was very good, but perhaps one wouldn’t be picky, as just to sit in this elegant environment would be a pleasure enough. Perhaps its contribution to the evolution of restaurants is heralding the way for restaurants to locate themselves in fabulous environments.
My friend Saundra, a connoisseur of fine food, introduced me to Chez Panisse in 1980. One could have almost walked by and missed it, as it was hidden behind some wooden doors in a non-descript part of the Berkeley flats. I have no recollection of what we ate, only that it was different and quite delicious.
Chez Panisse arose from modest origins and soon enough became a restaurant of distinction in Berkeley, California, known for serving innovative quasi-French and new American food. It’s proprietor, Alice Waters, sums up its precepts: “Primary ingredients must be of high quality, quality must be defined in terms of freshness and naturalness, freshness and naturalness are to thought of in terms of seasonality, location, and small-scale, non-industrial agricultural practices.”
Sometime in the 1970s, with the inspiration of Chef Jeremiah Tower, it moved away from French cuisine to the preparation of seasonal ingredients in a more simple and vivid manner than allowed by French orthodoxy.
Finally, during the past two hundred years, American restaurant cuisine has moved away from serving fancy French food to fast foods, but also to serving foods fresh from farms, touting celebrity chefs (often preparing their signature dishes on television food channels), incorporating Asian influences.
As a footnote, there is an emphasis in today’s restaurants in cosmopolitan places such as San Francisco, New York and Los Angeles on healthy foods such a kale and quinoa. These items are very much subject to what is in vogue. (Recently, I attended such a restaurant in Santa Monica and didn’t know some of ingredients on the menu.) Something revered today may fall out of favor tomorrow
Meanwhile, I still prepare many of the same dishes that my mother made per the season—for example, as soon as summer comes I make her macaroni salad with tiny shrimp, chunks of cheddar cheese, scallions and green peas.
I heartily recommend Ten Restaurant that Changed America to anyone interested in food, restaurants, and how they have changed in the last 200 years.
One of the literary highlights of the recently concluded Age of Obama was the gradual and then sudden renaissance regarding the legacy of James Baldwin.
In recent years, Baldwin’s famously searing essay-collections (Notes of a Native Son and Nobody Knows My Name) have been alluded to, quoted from, rediscovered, and enshrined anew in all sorts of categories: Social History, Race Relations, African-American History, Gender Studies, World Literature, American Studies, and so on.
Two of James Baldwin’s book-length essays (The Fire Next Time and The Devil Finds Work) have also been excavated like the long-lost treasures they are, and amid all the arguments and debates about everything from the Black Lives Matter movement to the meaning of the Age of Obama, the mind of James Baldwin has been celebrated.
But, the missing link in this much-needed rediscovery of Baldwin’s varied works is his 1972 book-length essay No Name in the Street. That work, written and published in the aftermath of the 1960s, is a post-revolutionary lamentation. It is also a template for Cindy Brown Austin’s CINDERS: Stories of an Inner-City Survivor.
In addition to being a remarkable writer, Cindy Brown Austin shares another trait with the late, great Baldwin. She is steeped in what is known as “street ministry,” and her commitment to her perennial efforts to help others who are down and out (in manifold ways) is a living, breathing form of faith – not a once-weekly exercise.
Hartford, Connecticut, is the red-hot center of this memoir. It’s where Cindy Brown Austin has lived and worked for decades. And, it’s where she’s witnessed a type of chronic indifference to the deprivations of the black community that most of white, wealthier Connecticut can afford to look away from. The infamous 2012 Newton massacre of 20 elementary schoolchildren (mostly Caucasian) earned the attention of the world press and especially American media, for weeks on end. Months, even.
But as CINDERS makes clear, from beginning to end, such unspeakable violence and mayhem have been occurring incrementally in Hartford to mostly African-American children for a long, long time. Yet, little attention has been paid to their tragic fates.
The power and precision of Cindy Brown Austin’s prose merits lengthy quotation. Here’s how she draws in readers to her grim, troubling subject matter:
“You had to be there, in the thick of it, to really understand what happened to us poor urban kids, growing up in an affluent place like Connecticut. The third wealthiest state in the country after Maryland, New Jersey, and Hawaii, there were forty-six other states with fewer resources, less income than Connecticut. But growing up, I always imagined they’d be far more humane in the way they took care of their children and in the dignity they accorded their poor. I definitely couldn’t imagine any place being worse.
“For myself and many of my comrades who came of age in my era, growing up black in Connecticut was like being a stranger in your own land, a guest who had overstayed his welcome in someone else’s home. And although they didn’t necessarily say it, you could feel the restless hostility, the sullen impatience of the host family, anxiously waiting for you to pack up and leave. But where was home if not in the place you were born and raised—and where were we expected to go?
“These are our stories, Connecticut Stories from the Underground. They were written not to accuse or blame anyone. They were written because forgetting about what happened to us would be like forgetting the Nazi war camps and other atrocities of history. Telling our stories is the only way I know to explain what racism and poverty can do to children, to people.”
The very first anecdote that CINDERS presents comes straight from the author’s own Sunday-afternoon experience. We read of a Sunday back in 2014, when after church services and a light lunch, it comes to the attention of Cindy Brown Austin that the young children playing upstairs are, in fact, not at play with toys or dolls or Legos. Instead, some 3-year-olds are using a stuffed animal to act out what they call “Bury.” A stuffed rabbit is being waked and buried as if it were a neighborhood kid.
In short: Children not yet old enough to attend Kindergarten re-create funerals for other children, who they all know, at any time, might be killed by a stray bullet.
From that stunner of a true-life tale, CINDERS then evolve into a book-length narrative that is equal parts story collection, meditation, indictment, and most of all a grievous lamentation for lost hopes, shattered dreams, and perpetual urban blight.
Cindy Brown Austin is a former staff columnist for the Hartford Courant and also a licensed Apostolic minister. Her language soars with vibrant Biblical cadences and vivid incantations worthy of Jeremiah; and her memoir combines autobiographical scope (recapitulating the author’s coming of age in the 1960s and 1970s) with devastating testimonials, one after another.
Here’s another example of her pulverizing style:
“But like many of the other kids in the project, my public interactions with whites outside the neighborhood were not usually pleasant. As a little girl, I grew up sensing their icy hostility, the vibe that let me know I wasn’t welcome in their stores. And how many times had I seen them yank their children back and away from us if we happened to share a public space? It was as if we were infected with some kind of lethal contamination or virus, as if breathing the same air would kill them.
“As a little girl, I was afraid of white people and saw them the way they’d wanted me to at that time; as a special breed best left to themselves.
“When my mother took my sisters and me out of the project for day trips downtown, white people stared at us as if we belonged in cages, like it pained them to be near us, like we were trespassers in our own country.
“Our faces, our clothes, our banter, seemed to always meet with their disapproval, and white sales people were always trailing us closely in department stores as if they wanted us to decide what we wanted quickly so that we could leave or as if they expected that we had come in to steal something.”
It is a tribute to the author’s indomitable spirit and faith that the fifth and final part of her memoir is titled “Hope.” And yet, Cindy Brown Austin is no Pollyanna.
Even at the end of this impressive, engaging, and deeply unsettling work, there is nothing but conflict, tension, and distress to report. Wherever she goes, the author notes how fiscal policies (especially in the higher education rackets, where endless fees and extra charges for required courses leave her, at age 50, just shy of finally receiving her diploma) and tangled bureaucratic obstacles are always in place.
Nonetheless, it is both hope and a transcendent kind of fortitude that makes Cindy Brown Austin vow to go on. She walks her talk; lives her faith; and does all that she can to enhance the lives of those for whom she practices her “street ministry.”
If there is any justice beneath the moon, one hopes that this blistering memoir will not only shine a light on Cindy Brown Austin (who was once the subject of a New York Times feature), but also lure readers to her 2007 debut novel, appropriately titled By the Rivers of Babylon. As a writer and as a witness, she is luminous.
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