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Historian Rebecca Spang on the strange origins of the restaurant

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KAYTE YOUNG: From WFIU in Bloomington Indiana, I’m Kayte Young, and this is Earth Eats.

REBECCA SPANG: The dominant vocabulary for talking about restaurants is what food do they serve, what are the good dishes. …people think that that’s the only thing  that’s important about restaurants. 

KAYTE YOUNG: Today on the show we talk with historian Rebecca Spang, about the origins of restaurants, and what they mean to us today.  

REBECCA SPANG: The experience just of knowing that there are other people and knowing that they have their own lives, they’re talking about their own things, but that you’re not completely alone.

KAYTE YOUNG: A conversation exploring the experience of dining out-- that's coming up on Earth Eats.


KAYTE YOUNG: Thanks for tuning in. I'm Kayte Young. Earth Eats is a show about food, obviously. And it's also a show about the culture that surrounds food. Today our guest is Rebecca Spang. She's a professor of History at Indiana University. I invited her for a conversation on the history of restaurants.

Her book, The Invention of the Restaurant, Paris and Modern Gastronomic Culture, was published in 2000 and reissued in 2020. The restaurant industry is in the midst of a dramatic transformation brought on largely by the global pandemic and the resulting restrictions on social gathering.

In our conversation today, we talk about how restaurants came to be and speculate on where they're headed.

REBECCA SPANG: Hello, my name is Rebecca Spang, I'm professor of history at Indiana University, where I also direct the Liberal Arts and Management program which is a bridge from the College of Arts and Sciences to the Kelley School of Business, and I direct the graduate student and faculty facing Center for 18th century.

KAYTE YOUNG: Welcome to Earth Eats. It's wonderful to have you and I really appreciate you taking the time to talk to us. I was wondering if we could start with just a little bit about yourself and your background and how you came to to doing the work of looking at the invention of the restaurant.

REBECCA SPANG: So when I was an undergraduate at the very end of the cold war .I had grown up in a small town in Maine I went to the local public school, nothing fancy. I managed to get myself into Harvard. There were all these people who had gone to private schools, and you know they'd had eight years of Latin and they'd been to Europe every summer, and I felt like I just really like I wasn't the smart kid anymore. Or maybe I was smart, but I wasn't very sophisticated, but I seemed to know things that they didn't know like about how to cook, how to clean, how to sew and you had to have an interview to get into a major.

So I went to be interviewed to be a history major and I said I was really interested in the history of everyday life, the history of food and eating, and the professor of Early Modern Religious History looked at me in shock and said :Miss Spang, this is Harvard. You can't study home economics" and I got a lot of that reaction. Now, of course, I would probably just have been a food studies major and you know, people would have known what to do with me and I wouldn't have been particularly new or trendy or different. But at that time in the 1980s, it was just like what are you talking about? There's no history here. This isn't serious. You're not being serious. So I went from that interest as an undergraduate and after a couple of years working on jobs, I decided to go to graduate school and was working with somebody who was actually well known for having written about the grain trade in 18th century France.

And this was also a period where historians and sociologists, it started to get interested in the new kinds of public spaces that emerged in European cities in the late 17th and the 18th century, places like the first public lending libraries, places like political clubs that had fairly low membership so people from different strata could join, and, crucially, cafes, so these were all the new spaces of the so-called bourgeois public sphere.

A public life built in cities and built around a growing middle class. But I thought, well, what about restaurants? So my intervention, which began as my PhD dissertation and then became my first book, the Invention of the Restaurant, went from me being interested in food to me still being interested in food but more interested in the kind of spaces where people interact around food and other scholars have done lots of fascinating work in the course of the last 20 years on markets as places of sociability, markets as places where people negotiate working class or gender identities.  I was sort of at the early stage of that working on the invention of the restaurant.

KAYTE YOUNG:P  That is such an interesting story to about.  I mean how bold to go into. You would say that that's amazing.

REBECCA SPANG: I always say to students I'm not any more clever than you are. I just may be more stubborn.

KAYTE YOUNG: Well it sounds like it's an interest in food, but like you said, also about space and about public space and about spaces within cities. So could we talk a little bit about those first restaurants or the first restaurant or what what these places were?

REBECCA SPANG: Sure, sure, I'd be happy to. So when I began my pH.d research the story that everybody knew about the first establishments called restaurants, and it's a French word, so everybody assumed they started in France, though of course there is a very very different, a much longer tradition.

If you were to look, say, at China under the Song dynasty, so we're talking here about a Western story, a European story, and the the history people thought they knew once that restaurants emerged in the aftermath of the French Revolution. The French. Revolution, it was said, destroyed privilege. It wiped out most of the major aristocratic households in France. The aristocrats either were beheaded, or they fled the country in the face of the revolution and their domestic servants, especially their chefs were therefore out of work and so they opened restaurants.  So that story about the invention of the restaurant is a story about the democratization of aristocratic privilege. You used to have to be the count of so and so,the Duke of whatever the Prince of such and such in order to eat food made by these people, but when the counts and the Dukes and the Princes go, then they're thrown into the marketplace, and they have to open restaurants.

So I thought that I was going to tell a version of that story and I was excited, shocked, confused and surprised when in going through, and at this point you went through it physically with a book. There was nothing digitized you paged through the pages and for reasons that are now lost to me, I was reading through a very obscure Paris periodical from the 1760s describing exciting new inventions, and there in 1767, so 20 odd years before the French Revolution, there was somebody advertising their new room of restoration, salle de restaurater.

Here was somebody running a restaurant, but it was before the French Revolution. So what was what was happening?  This became sort of the kernel of my research as I tried to figure out what was this person doing and how did this history that I was uncovering and that nobody else knew.  How did it fit in with the history I thought I knew about the democratization of aristocratic privilege, so to understand that we have to back up and think about what salle de restarater, so room of restoration meant. So restoration in French the verb restore suggest or a means to restore to refresh. Now what needed to be restored?  So at this point I went and I read cookery books, but I also read a lot of medical books and the wisdom in the late 17th into the 18th century was that a restorative bouillon was needed for people who had failing appetites, people who didn't feel like eating.

Perhaps because they were invalids, this first rested these first restaurateurs in the 1760s and early 1770s, when their serving restorative bullions.  They're restored.  The idea is that these are people who are not going out to eat.  If anything, they're going out to not eat because they're not hungry.  They don't have an appetite.  They're weak in the vocabulary of the 18th century. They suffer from quote unquote weakness of chest.

Now, before you imagine that there's this well quasi pandemic of and that strangely everybody's going out because of it, you need to understand that being weak of chest in an urban setting like Paris or London in the 18th century was also a marker of social status and cultural acuity. That you were too delicate to eat the brown bread and onions that were a peasant family daily fare. That somehow the pressures of busy city life or even the pressures of living in your very nice hotel particular were too much for you.

And so you couldn't be expected to actually digest dinner, and so because you couldn't digest dinner what you needed was your dinner in sort of pre digested form, and that's what a restorative bouillon was.  You cook a lot of meat over very high heat, so it sweats out the juices. Sometimes in fact restaurant recipes were subtitled waterless soup, which would seem a bit of a oxymoron, but the idea was to get as much meat extract from the meats as possible, serve it in a little consomme dish.

So while the quantities served are very different and some of the visual appeal is different, I really think the first restaurants are very much like the bone broth fad of the past five years or so.

KAYTE YOUNG: So what's sort of interesting to me about why would you go out to consume that, I mean it's a pretty simple thing to make, even if it does take a long time.

REBECCA SPANG: Right? But so why do people go out for bone broth? Why do people not make their own bone broth in part because if you are in the 18th century, weak of chest, this is a marker of being attuned to society.  You're not really so ill that you can't get out of bed but you're showing that how you feel about things is such that you couldn't possibly eat an evening meal, and that's something other people need to see, right?

You need people to know. So I do think that there are ways that the dietary limits that people impose on themselves, say today being vegan or gluten free, they may emerge from actual or very strongly self perceived biological needs, but there are also social statements about how I want to be in society and I think something very very similar is going on in the 18th century.

I mean, this sort of medicalized awareness of self is actually a real driver for commercial culture in the 18th century because it says you know well, we're not going to do just one style of orthopedic shoes because people are going to have different feet problems.  So we need a proliferation of orthopedic shoes, and similarly, we're not going to do just one restorative bullion, because people might need to be restored in different ways. So we'll have a chicken one. We'll have a beef one. We'll have a lamb, one. We'll have one that has a little vermicelli thrown into it.

And then maybe we'll also make some rice pudding so it's really when people are feel they have the leisure and the capacity to start thinking about their dietary needs as belonging to them alone and not just being common to everybody, then it's both as I said, a driver of market fragmentation and the proliferation of more goods. But it also is a social statement about the kind of person you are, and you want that statement to be something that's made in quasi public.

KAYTE YOUNG:  Well that's-- it's so interesting because I think you really have to understand what's happening socially in that time in place. Because wanting to put on display some kind of frailty does seem strange. So were sort of everyday common people or people who are laboring a lot are they eating an evening meal?  Are they eating a hearty evening meal? Is that part of?

REBECCA SPANG:  Right, so again, the main meal that laboring people are going to eat is more likely going to be in the middle of the day and they may very well go to sleep as soon as it's dark. Uhm, though I mean again with little artificial lighting people's sleep patterns are very different than they are today, much as their dietary patterns are. So part of what's happening here also is that among the social elite in the 18th century, they're not going to eat a big midday meal because that's what working people do, so you want to differentiate yourself, and so you're going to have increasingly elaborate late evening suppers.

So again, if you don't want an elaborate late evening meal, but you still want to be part of that social group of people who are not certainly, you know, working at a trade all day long. Then again, the restorative bouillon is something that you can have if you've been out playing cards all night at the Duchess Of Whoever's. And in fact, the first restaurateurs when the night watch goes around Paris, you know saying it's time to close the bars, time to close the taverns and they say got to close the restaurant.

And the restaurateurs say no, no look, the people I cater to, they're not rowdy and they don't have to get up and go to work in the morning.  You have to let me stay open later because you never know when they might have an attack of weakness of chest and they actually manage, you know to get that authorized and so they can be opened hours later than anybody else, which of course is going to bring them more clientele. Whether the people really are quote, unquote, weak of chest, it's just it's the place that's open.

KAYTE YOUNG:  So how does it then develop from that to offering more than just a restorative broth?

REBECCA SPANG: Right. So the key innovations are both what they serve, but also how they serve it. So the standard way that a caterer who might have, you know, 12 local people who come for lunch every day at 1:00 o'clock at his shop or that an innkeeper would have served a meal in the 18th century is what we today would call family style. You put all the food on the table at once, everybody sits down at the table at the same time and well, you have to know the people and feel comfortable with them to say ‘Can you pass that to me? I'd like some dark meat please’. At the restaurant because it's all about the individual. There are separate little tables. They don't put things on the table all at once. You know whenever you come in, you can order your restorative bouillon, which is easy to do because you can just keep it warm so it doesn't have to be ready at a particular time, right?

So the particular foods that they're serving are ideally suited to this new microtechnology of service. So separate little tables, open serving hours and from the very beginning a almost always printed list of these are the items available

KAYTE YOUNG: so the menu.

REBECCA SPANG: The menu. So all of those innovations are the key things that in the 1780s and 90s will distinguish an establishment called a restaurant from something still called an inn, a tavern, a caterer's house. So in a restaurant then once you've got the separate little tables. You've got service from 4 to 10. Then on the menu you can start adding in more items, but you still have restaurant style service. And then during the most radical period of the French Revolution, where to advertise that you catered only to the best people would be something of a violation of the revolutionary ethos of equality and fraternity, then the restaurateurs make sure to take that off all their advertising material and put in that they are the friend of humanity, the friend of the Republic. Catering to all the dedicated revolutionaries and then at that point the restorative bouillons, they don't disappear completely, but they become a very, very minor menu item.

KAYTE YOUNG: And so is there also something about kind of everyday people having the chance to be served in this kind of individual way?

REBECCA SPANG: Well, another thing that will happen is that as other people working in the food trade, so as I said, you know the caterers, the inns, the taverns see the success on restaurant style service, they will start trying to adopt it as well.

KAYTE YOUNG: Yeah, I'm just interested in what what these spaces were like and what they offered to people in terms of what you said about you know needing to kind of be on display and you know you're going out in public but it's not like a tavern, or it's not like a pub or


KAYTE YOUNG:  Where everybody is kind of talking to each other. You're at your individual table.

REBECCA SPANG:  Right. Yes, so you're sitting at your individual table, there's a passage in one of Denny Diderot, so French philosopher, one of the editors, or the FRENCH TITLE, man who wrote fiction plays was very, very well connected intellectually. For a while was the house philosopher to Catherine the Great of Russia. Then he goes back to France. He's in Paris, he's writing to his lover who's out of Paris and says, oh, and there are these wonderful new things called restaurants and you can go in and you sit at your own little table and nobody disturbs you. You're left alone to your own thoughts and he's really very enthusiastic about it.

So I think this was a novelty for people that you could be in any city and you could be in a space where there are other people but not interact with them. Not all be doing the same thing.  If you think about what the major public spaces are in the 16th, 17th century city, it's going to be, you know, the hub and bub of a market or of a public square. It might be the ritual of a church service, but it's not going to be the sort of we're all here doing the same thing side-by-side by ourselves.

Which then does get quite generalized I think in something like train travel where everybody is going the same direction, but you're much less likely to talk to each other so some of the distinctive features in the decor of the first restaurants which will remain hallmarks of quote unquote French restaurants as opposed to this day. Mirrors, so you can see yourself, but also again, we're in Paris. Spaces are small, right? So the mirror helps to create more space. It helps to get light in there because again, we're pre electric lighting, so anything you can do to increase the light is going to be good.  From the very beginning, the first restaurateurs stressed that these will be suitable places for ladies, so it's again not like a bar or tavern where if a woman is there without designated male escort there are going to be questions about what she's doing there and she's likely to be propositioned. The idea that these are suitable spaces for ladies. So again, a sort of delicacy of furnishing that goes, I suppose, with what we tend to think of when we think of 18th century French furniture.

KAYTE YOUNG:  Well, I think it's really interesting to think about these places that are public, but that you go to have a private experience around other people.


And I was thinking about those I call them bubbles, but like a a clear tent.


KAYTE YOUNG: 0r a dome or something that someone is eating in outside of the restaurants with one table in it.

REBECCA SPANG: That is really the sort of apotheosis, the extension of restaurant logic to the ridiculous extreme that I think we have seen as people try to hold onto some of that. When you were just describing a public place where people go to be private, but they do it with other people around, I just suddenly had a thought of that bumper sticker, coexist, and it does seem to me that restaurants are spaces where people learn to coexist and that well, perhaps even before the pandemic, we were seeing that in the United States people were less and less willing to coexist with people who were not exactly like them.

KAYTE YOUNG:  I think about it too, of like you know, when I had a toddler or a baby and the we would get together with another baby and we talk about parallel play.


KAYTE YOUNG:  They're together, they're social, it's a socializing, but they're doing their own thing.

REBECCA SPANG: Right right. But then, that makes me think of when you have a toddler or a small child and you want to go to a sit down restaurant. And very much depends on how the people around you feel about having a small child at the next table, right? So do you end up being one of those parents? Oh, I'm so embarrassed. I'm so embarrassed. I have to get my kid out of here?

KAYTE YOUNG: Or are you the one who lets your kid run up and down and chase them.


KAYTE YOUNG: Yeah, so so you expect to not be disturbed by the other customers. You expect to have some privacy. I mean, I know that you know when I go with friends and want to have a private conversation. You know, there's often a lot of looking around, you know to see, OK, who could be over? You know, if someone sitting alone, they're more likely to be listening and to where if they're sitting with other people, they'll be engaged in their own conversations.

So all of these kind of negotiations of that private public space. It's very interesting. And when I think about those bubbles or those you know, I think some were even using like small green houses. And I remember seeing it and just thinking, but how is that? How is that helping helping you? Why not just go get takeout and eat in comfort at your home? You know, like you're not getting the experience.


KAYTE YOUNG: Of interacting- of being in that bustle of voices and and shared space, yeah, if you're all by yourself. But then I'm thinking maybe it's some other kind of display


KAYTE YOUNG: I got this table. I'm so special I get me and my party get to sit here, you know in this transparent house.


REBECCA SPANG:  I think it's exactly what that is.

KAYTE YOUNG:  I'm speaking with Rebecca Spang, professor of history at Indiana University. We're talking about her book, the Invention of the Restaurant. We'll be back with more from our conversation in just a moment.


Kayte Young here. This is Earth Eats. If you're just joining us, my guest is historian Rebecca Spang and we're talking about the invention of the restaurant and the state of restaurant culture today. Let's return to our conversation.

Another thing I wanted to talk about in terms of the pandemic. And, you know, I hear a lot of stories about people. Maybe people who were used to eating out a lot suddenly this burden of cooking and just the kind of relentlessness of these meals that they had to prepare. Or maybe some people you know developed hobbies of baking or, you know, getting really into cooking, but you know, I've wondered if you know, especially once like at first it felt like even takeout wasn't really available. But like as restaurants adjusted and said, OK, the way we're going to do this is we're going to do take out, you know and once the food was available again, I wondered if really what people were so frustrated about was not about all the cooking they had to do, or about their lack of skills and making good food. If it was really the food they were missing, or if it really was that that social space.

REBECCA SPANG:  I think it was the social space. I think that's a very, very sharp observation that because the dominant vocabulary for talking about restaurants is what food do they serve? What are the good dishes? People think that that's the only thing that's important about restaurant. They don't actually know that what they're getting there is the experience just of knowing that there are other people and knowing that they have their own lives they’re talking about their own things, but that you're not completely alone.

I've just gone back to in person teaching and I realize that why it's so valuable even for you know, the frustration of teaching when we're all masked is I feel like I'm part of something again, whereas when I was teaching online last year, I just feel I had this weird freelance gig and I just wasn't connected to something.

KAYTE YOUNG:  Yeah, that makes a lot of sense because at a restaurant you know I don't go to a restaurant to socialize with the public I go to, usually to socialize with one or two people. But it's it's different than doing that at someone's house.


KAYTE YOUNG: It feels different. It's it's somehow more relaxing in a way, even though there is that tension of who could people over here, me? Or are we going to run into somebody we don't want to talk? You know what?

REBECCA SPANG: And is the waiter going to keep interrupting and

KAYTE YOUNG: Yes. Yeah, it's hardly ever really about the food, though it can be a mediocre restaurant or mediocre food as long as the atmosphere is good, you know.

REBECCA SPANG:  Yes, yes, I think that's right,

KAYTE YOUNG:  yeah, as long as you can hear each other.


KAYTE YOUNG:  Yeah, and when  you do run into someone and they might come over to the table, it's  going to be really brief. Nobody would, nobody would linger. It's  known that this is a private space.


KAYTE YOUNG: I don't want to disturb you, right? Just wanted to. `Say hi,

REBECCA SPANG: Yes, exactly yes.

KAYTE YOUNG:  Yeah, but there is but there's definitely that thing about being seen as well. Like you're, you're on display and.

REBECCA SPANG:  Right, and I think one feels just more sort of, sometimes my posture is different, like I feel more upright if I'm out, less slouchy.

KAYTE YOUNG: Yeah, yeah you might dress a little nicer


KAYTE YOUNG: than usual to go out. Yeah, and I'm just thinking about how different a restaurant role is compared to a bar--like I think those of us who go to bars know why we miss bars because it is about it's. It's not about the drinks you can get you can go stop at the liquor store like.

REBECCA SPANG: Right, right?

KAYTE YOUNG: That's not a problem, it's really about being, it's about that interaction. It's about socializing, but I think with restaurants it's more confusing 'cause you're like ‘Well, I just don't want to cook’, but that's not all that it's that.

REBECCA SPANG:  I think that's right. I think it is more confusing because it is straddling that you know it's a public place where you go to be private and that is just not part of the vocabulary we have. We tend to think in very sharp lines between public and private, and the reality is that there are all sorts of different permutations. And of course, people who work on data privacy are very alert to this so there are lots of different kinds of privacy to think about, but again, I think I think restaurants because something I do often think about too is that the beginning really of the civil rights movement in the United States.

I mean not obviously of the politics behind it, but the sit ins at a lunch counter like why a lunch counter? it's the claim I have the right to be part of this public. That's what you're saying. And it's not about the ham and cheese sandwich.

KAYTE YOUNG: Or the convenience of getting food at.

REBECCA SPANG: Or the convenience.

KAYTE YOUNG: Lunch or whatever, yeah.

REBECCA SPANG: Right, yeah?

KAYE YOUNG: Yeah, that makes sense. I also think about what it means to eat alone in a restaurant. I mean, you're talking about the origins of it. It sounds like eating alone was perfectly acceptable, and I know that it is still today, but I know that when I've gone out to eat alone in a restaurant, I feel very self conscious.


KAYTE YOUNG: Not in a cafe, but in a restaurant.

REBECCA SPANG: Right.  I think that is, in my experience that is partially gendered, I know many more men who are happy doing it than I do women. And when I think about it again, I think it's because we all know that women tend in our culture to feel that they are on display. And so if you're on display by yourself, yeah, that just adds to the anxiety. And again, we know the all the many myriad varieties of pressures that American women feel around food and eating, and so I think that just India makes it all the worse,

KAYTE YOUNG:  yeah, yeah, definitely. I mean, I definitely think it's completely acceptable happening all the time and especially with business travel and stuff like that, I feel like all genders are going to be out eating alone.

REBECCA SPANG:  Yeah, and again not that I've seen this in 18 months, but memory tells me that back when I used to go through busy airports a lot, you know airport restaurants, there's absolutely no stigma.


REBECCA SPANG:  To being by yourself.

KAYTE YOUNG: Definitely yeah, that makes sense. Yeah, I can remember when I was in high school once going out to eat at a restaurant. You know, sit down and get served by myself and just feeling like I was the most independent person in the world, you know. And like writing in my journal.


KAYTE YOUNG:  Like yes I have really, I can do this you know yeah yeah, it meant it definitely meant something, but I certainly felt completely self conscious.

REBECCA SPANG: Right, right, right, right. But that actually goes so wonderfully with the comments that again, some American travelers make in the 1820s, eighteen 30s, eighteen 40s about being served in a Paris restaurant and feeling like wow, this must be what it's like to be king.

KAYTE YOUNG:  Yeah, yeah. `I mean, when you described that person like writing about it to someone back writing to their lover, you know that they were--they were alone.


KAYTE YOUNG: And also that allows you that observation because you're not talking to someone else.

REBECCA SPANG: Right, right. You observe that in fact the whole establishment exists to serve you.

KAYTE YOUNG:  So the pandemic has definitely brought up  a lot of stuff about food. It's shined a light on many things, and in particular around restaurants and the restaurant industry in all levels. Food providers of all sorts were considered essential. And with restaurant labor I think a lot of things have changed or come to the attention of people who weren't previously thinking about restaurants in that way. Could you talk a little bit about that or make any observations?

REBECCA SPANG:  Sure, sure a couple of observations. One is that I think there is a real possibility that we are going to finally see and there's been agitation for this for decades. We may finally see the abolition of the you get paid $2.00 an hour plus tips and the recognition that tipped positions need to be replaced by actually salaried positions so I think that's one thing that may come out of this, and that would be great, I do worry and this has certainly been the trend so far, but of course we're still far from recovered from the pandemic that the eateries that survived through the pandemic are at either end of the spectrum.

So big chain franchises with drive-thru's. Not a problem. Bustling and at the other end, the places where there used to be a six month waiting list. They only had 17 tables. There was a prefix at $350.00 per person plus wine they got through, most of them on name recognition and what some of them did, was to pivot very quickly to preparing much less the food, labor intensive food, but that would still have their brand name on it and you know nice packaging. And doing that takeout so they both ends of the spectrum have sort of pulled through, you know, again, we've seen some interesting innovations in terms of the menus, in terms of styles of service, but both ends have survived.

What's really been hit are the stand alone, so not part of a franchise locally owned sit down restaurants. Whether they were, quote, unquote, ethnic, or something else, I mean I don't know what the other would be. Everybody got an ethnicity, but I mean, we've seen it in Bloomington, the sort of in between seems to be evacuated right now and it'll be interesting to see whether sit down restaurants move back into that space, because what has also been thriving are the so-called ghost kitchen restaurants. The restaurants that have absolutely no brick and mortar presence and exist only to be ordered from.

KAYTE YOUNG: Yeah, and I have been hearing that there have also been some kind of opportunities of more kind of pop up and small scale, kind of like I've always wanted to do this and now I'm selling my pies or whatever.

REBECCA SPANG:  Yeah, yeah, I think actually maybe there has been. And this is you know it depends county by county and state by state. Depending on what the legislation is, whether you can sell food that's made in your own kitchen and that isn't inspected. But yes, I think I think that that has been happening.

KAYTE YOUNG: Yeah, I think I heard in the Bay Area that they had loosened some restrictions to allow for that and yeah, so I feel like there is some some possibility there for even smaller scale. Even smaller scales.

REBECCA SPANG: Right. But what we’ll lose might be the shared public space to be private



Our guest today on Earth Eats is historian Rebecca Spang. I'm Kayte Young and we'll return to our conversation after a short break.

Kayte Young here. Thanks for tuning into Earth Eats. I'm talking with Rebecca Spang, author of the Invention of the Restaurant, Paris and Modern Gastronomic Culture. We've been discussing the origins of the restaurant and also what's happening today as the industry responds to the upheaval brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic. Let's return to our conversation.

REBECCA SPANG: Now I know a number of restaurants in Bloomington have been reducing their hours or reducing their menu because of the labor shortages.

KAYTE: Right. Right. So that's the next thing I wanted to talk about is just the labor shortages and what you were saying about the tipped the end of the tipped positions, and I feel like like you said, there's been a lot of complaints about restaurant work and what it's like and how grueling it can be and how low the pay is and all that stuff. And now it's finally, workers are in a position to make demands. It seems like it.

REBECCA SPANG:  Definitely seems that way yeah, right and again all the anecdotal evidence I've seen, and none of this is from Bloomington. But when restaurateurs say OK, I will guarantee that the servers are getting $15.00 an hour or, you know, I definitely did see several restaurants advertising .opening immediately for line cook $2000 signing bonus, just to get anybody in there who had the necessary skills.

KAYTE YOUNG:  Yeah, and I you know, I think it's hard to know exactly what is going on, I mean if you were able to stop doing that job and still getting unemployment and being able to live on that, maybe even getting paid more than you were getting paid at the at the restaurant and then having that chance to reflect, is this really what I want to do when I go back to work

REBECCA SPANG:  Right or maybe there are other jobs I can have...


REBECCA SPANG:  That might be better for staying out of situations that could turn into super spreaders.

KAYTE YOUNG: Exactly, yeah, like sure, I could go back. But is it worth the risk?


KAYTE YOUNG: Because the pandemic isn't over.

REBECCA SPANG: Pandemic isn't over, the pandemic is definitely not over and people are making those calculations


REBECCA SPANG: And if you think about that, something like one out of 500 people in the United States have died in the pandemic. And who knows how many more have a variety of long COVID such that they're not really part of the workforce anymore and how many people decided. Oh OK, maybe I'll retire at 61 instead of working until 66. the job openings are sort of everywhere and so getting people back into the really low paid, physically taxing jobs, there's gonna have to be something that changes

KAYTE YOUNG: Right and not just physically taxing. When you think about harassment in the workplace and when you think about the added harassment of trying to get customers to wear masks, and just being kind of on the front lines of that for what you know, it's one thing to be on the front lines as a.


KAYTE YOUNG: healthcare working and you're saving lives, but it's another to be like really yeah, for your burger? is this worth it?

REBECCA SPANG: Yeah, yeah.

KAYTE YOUNG: it's very interesting. It's a very interesting time. And of course you know we don't know what's going to happen.

REBECCA SPANG: We don't. I mean, one of my nephews whose in his early 20s is making more money than he ever imagined he could waiting tables at an extremely popular diner in New England and he thinks it's great, but you know he's a guy in his early 20s. He thinks he's invincible.

KAYTE YOUNG:  Right and a lot of people do enjoy restaurant life and culture and being in it. And if they could be getting paid well while doing that, then great they might do it a little longer.

I know that your book the Invention of the Restaurant is not your most recent book, but it was it was reissued?


KAYTE YOUNG: in 2020.

REBECCA SPANG: Yes, yes so 2020 was the 20th anniversary of the book. There had been some turnover at the top of the press that published it, and one of the new people who came in and said, you know, we can sell more copies of this book. This we just need to do it in a slightly different format. Make it a paperback, make it really look like Quote Unquote a trade book, uhm. And Adam Gopnik, from The New Yorker, wrote a preface for a forward. And so, my publisher was very excited. They were sure they were going to sell lots of copies of this, and I think the official publication date was January 26th, 2020. So we'd had about six weeks out in the world and then everything closed and people stopped being very interested in the invention of the restaurant and wanted to know what was going to happen next.

KAYTE YOUNG: Well, that surprises me. I would just think that there would be a renewed interest in the history of it because of looking at it as an industry

REBECCA SPANG: it's possible it's possible, we can only hope.

KAYTE YOUNG: In fact, I wondered if the reissue had something to do with where we found ourselves OK.

REBECCA SPANG:  No, it was planned. It was planned in advance and then it was Oops now. But it did actually mean that I was back into thinking about restaurants and doing restaurant research and so then I did do some research into what happened to food and restaurants in the course of the 1918 nineteen 19 flu epidemic and that was really interesting.

So the restaurants don't close because there is no take out. There is no drive through like working people who are living in like you know, a studio apartment in a city or basically in a tenement while they work in a factory. It's the only way they're going to get food. And so for the purpose of sort of labor management crowd control those kinds of restaurants stay open.

The places that were dining, drinking, dancing establishments they do close, and there are a number of cities that say you know all dancing establishments have to close. All music has to close. But the restaurants that are just serving food, they stay open and of course what really transforms the American restaurant industry in that period. It's not the epidemic. It's prohibition.

KAYTE: oh.

REBECCA SPANG: So a lot of forms of eating out that are pretty distinctive to the United States like sandwich shops, tea rooms, diners even these are all the product of a period when if your business model was tied to alcohol sales, you were doomed. So the need to invent a kind of eating establishment that didn't depend on alcohol.

KAYTE YOUNG: Finally I asked Rebecca Spang if she could talk about her most recent work and about the connections to her study of restaurants.

REBECCA SPANG:  When I try to think about the connection between having written a book called The Invention of the Restaurant and having written a book called Stuff and Money in the time of the French Revolution. And now teaching a course on the history of money. And I never have taught history of food. I think the through line is that I'm always interested in how consumption, commerce and exchange shape private individuals and public institutions.

And in a sense, working on the history of money is just another way to get at that. And restaurants aren't distinctive. Restaurants not take takeout are distinctive for their payment model, which is that you consume the product 1st and then you pay for it.

KAYTE: yeah

REBECCA SPANG:  Right, I mean, imagine if you had to wear out your clothes and then you paid for them.

KAYTE YOUNG: That is very interesting, yeah.

REBECCA SPANG:  So that's the connection I see.

KAYTE YOUNG: Great. I really appreciate  you spending.

REBECCA SPANG:  Thank you so much. That was really fun. 


KAYTE YOUNG:  Oh good good.

KAYTE YOUNG:  Rebecca Spang is professor of history at Indiana University, director of the Liberal Arts and Management Program and director of the Center for 18th Century Studies. She's the author of The Invention of the Restaurant, Paris and Modern Gastronomic Culture, published in 2000 by Harvard Historical Studies and reissued in 2020. And she's the author of Stuff and Money in the Time of the French Revolution, published in 2015 by Harvard University Press. You can find links to her work on our website,


That's it for our show this week. Thanks for listening to Earth Eats. I'm Kayte Young and we'll see you next time.

RENEE REED: The Earth Eats team includes Eabon Binder, Mark Chilla, Abraham Hill, Peyton Knoblock, Josephine McRobbie, Daniela Richardson, Harvest Public Media, and me Renee Reed.

KAYTE YOUNG:  Special thanks this week to Rebecca Spang.

RENEE REED:  Our theme music is composed by Erin Tobey and performed by Erin and Matt Tobey.  Additional music on the show comes to us from the artists at Universal Productions Music. Earth Eats is produced and edited by Kayte Young and our executive producer is John Bailey.


Rebecca Spang standing and smiling and gesturing forward towards a person seated at a table. A white board is in the background, two plastic water bottles and papers are on the table.

Rebecca Spang teaches the history of politics, culture and consumption, with a focus on eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Europe. She is Professor in the Department of History at Indiana University-Bloomington. (Rummer Bershstein)

"The dominant vocabulary for talking about restaurants is ‘what food do they serve, what are the good dishes?’ People think that’s the only thing that’s important about restaurants. They don't actually know that what they're getting there is the experience just of knowing that there are other people and knowing that they have their own lives, they’re talking about their own things, but that you’re not completely alone.”

Today on the show, we talk with historian Rebecca Spang, about the origins of restaurants, and what they mean to us today.

Rebecca Spang is professor of History at Indiana University, Director of the Liberal Arts and Management Program and director of the Center for 18th Century Studies. She is the author of The Invention of the Restaurant: Paris and Modern Gastronomic Culture, published in 2000 and re-issued in 2020. More recently, she’s the author of Stuff and Money in the Time of the French Revolution, published in 2015.

I invited her for a conversation on the history of restaurants. The restaurant industry is in the midst of a dramatic transformation, brought on largely by the global pandemic and the resulting restrictions on social gathering. In our conversation, we talk about how restaurants came to be, and speculate on where they’re headed. 


The Earth Eats’ team includes: Eoban Binder, Alexis Carvajal, Alex Chambers, Toby Foster, Daniella Richardson, Samantha Shemenaur, Payton Whaley and Harvest Public Media.

Earth Eats is produced, engineered and edited by Kayte Young. Our executive producer is Eric Bolstridge.

Music on this episode

The Earth Eats theme music is composed by Erin Tobey and performed by Erin and Matt Tobey.

Additional music on this episode from Universal Production Music.

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