Wisconsin Death Trip
My first introduction to the work of Michael Lesy was a chance encounter many years ago with his classic photography book Wisconsin Death Trip. Flipping through the images of children in coffins and grim-faced Midwesterners, I wasn’t entirely sure what I was seeing. A straightforward document of madness, crime, disease, and urbanization in Black River Falls, Wisconsin? Or, perhaps, an invented fiction? It seemed too horrific to be real, and yet the photos, newspaper clippings, and book’s introduction proved otherwise.
This is the power of Lesy’s photographic masterpiece: it is unsettling in its strangeness and blunt reality. Its brutal honesty hits you like a punch in the stomach.
It was 1973 when Wisconsin Death Trip, Lesy’s first book, was published. This was before the internet, before cable television, video and DVD players, before serial dramas like The Walking Dead, Boardwalk Empire, and Deadwood, before any and everything was available with the click of a button. In other words, we hadn’t yet reached visual overwhelm. Books and movies were primary methods of storytelling, and both had the power to hold our attention for a sustained period of time.
Wisconsin Death Trip emerged in the final years of the Vietnam War—a war that brought many shocking, violent images into American households through television and magazines. It was also a time when movies like McCabe & Mrs. Miller, Badlands, A Clockwork Orange, The French Connection, Deliverance, The Exorcist, and The Godfather wormed their way into the public’s consciousness. Photographers like Larry Clark, Diane Arbus, and Ralph Eugene Meatyard published seminal books during this period, and Danny Lyon’s 1971 photo book Conversations with the Dead revealed how distressing life could be inside of Texas’ prisons.
It was in this age of New Journalism, gritty realism, and Gothic horror that Lesy’s book was born. And with its arrival, the myth of the American pioneer finding freedom and happiness on the Midwest plains was shattered. As the book’s photographs and news clippings proved, the past was as full of death, hardship, and violence as the present.
Wisconsin Death Trip has rightly earned its reputation as a cult classic, inspiring everything from Stephen King‘s story “1922,” to an opera by Conrad Susa, to Todd Haynes’ Bob Dylan biopic I’m Not There, to a film adaptation by James Marsh.
But the impact of Wisconsin Death Trip was felt beyond the world of thrash-metal bands and gothic fiction writers. The book remains a milestone in photo book publishing, and was even included in Andrew Roth’s fabulous The Book of 101 Books: Seminal Photographic Books of the Twentieth Century, published in 2001.
Lesy plucked these previously unknown photographs by Charles Van Schaick from obscurity and used them to tell a story about the hardships of rural Midwestern life. He recognized the value of such images when few people did. Lesy understood that photographs, as well as newspaper articles and other ephemera, are one of the best portals we have into the lives of everyday people–what they ate, what they wore, how they lived and suffered.
If history is written by the winners, as writers like Walter Benjamin and George Orwell claim, then Lesy’s method turns traditional historical narrative on its head. Lesy’s creative approach is to offer a counter-narrative through found images and ephemera, a unique narrative told from the bottom up. Lesy has spent his career unearthing invisible histories like these, examining everything from Depression-era photographs to Chicago murders in the Jazz Age. As William Gass wrote in the New York Times, “the result is an impressive example of the poetry of history.”
Repast: How Americans Ate 100 Year Ago
Using the New York Public Library’s quirky, but engrossing Buttolph Menu Collection as the cornerstone of their book, Lesy and Stoffer have written a fascinating account of the American dining experience at the beginning of the 20th century.
Repast is a look at American cuisine before Julia Child, Alice Waters, and Wolfgang Puck. In fact, as I learned from Lesy and Stoffer, we can thank Delmonico’s French-born chef, Charles Ranhoefer and his 1893 book, The Epicurian, for enabling chefs across America to copy Delmonico’s specialties—a wave of influence that would eventually inspire Alice Waters and the chefs at Chez Panisse to create French-inflected California cuisine.
Repast is the story of tea rooms, automats, and conspicuous consumption. Food labels, restaurant menus, cookbooks, newspapers, magazines, and archival photographs all reveal the intriguing story of why Americans ate what they ate between 1900 and 1910. As Ira Glass says in his blurb on the book, the Lesy and Stoffer “make the people of 1900 seems simultaneously very similar to us and so very different.”
Safety, health, and entertainment were concerns a century ago, just as they are today. Home economists of the time fretted about the unhealthy American diet, which relied heavily on quick lunches and take-out food. Their advice was to make salads from leftover baked beans, and casseroles from processed cheese (a new invention at the time). A 1899 Pure Food Investigation shocked the public with its revelations of ground red lead being sold as cayenne pepper and “fresh ground beef” mixed with an antiseptic routinely used to preserve cadavers for medical schools.
Italian and Chinese restaurants gained a following, not only for the unique food, but also because of the lure of the exotic. Americans found it thrilling to dine in “bad neighborhoods” and to come into contact with bohemians, opium dealers, and women of questionable virtue. And the cheap chop-suey didn’t hurt either.
Michael Lesy and Lisa Stoffer have graciously agreed to give Gwarlingo readers an exclusive look at their new book. I loved reading about Frances Buttolph, the woman who obsessively collected menus from all over the country, the challenges of finding a quick lunch while on the job, and the struggles of women to find acceptance in restaurants.
With 21 black-and-white photographs from the era and 67 color images, Repast is the perfect gift for yourself or any food lover on your holiday shopping list.
Dining Out at the Dawn of the New American Century, 1900-1910
From the Introduction of Repast
by Michael Lesy
I clicked and followed the prompts. Curators had grouped menus according to the year they’d been printed. I clicked on “1908.” The beauty of the first set of menu covers that came into view, twenty to a page, dazzled me. They were as opulently colored, as elegantly designed, and as precisely rendered as postage stamps. I scrolled through page after page of them, hundreds and hundreds of them, lithographed or engraved, stenciled, hand-colored, or embossed. Some were as fanciful as cartoons, some were as stark and graphic as family crests.
Garlands and beautiful girls, Father Time and Mother Goose, banners and flags, racing sloops and locomotives, animals and automobiles decorated them, one after another.
I looked and looked and looked, hoarding the images in my mind as if they were pieces of candy, or toys, or prizes. Then I remembered something: The menu covers were like the covers of books. Instead of a table of contents, they opened onto bills of fare.
The covers and the bills of fare could be read—but they could also be experienced as sensory documents. In the same way that a photograph of a man dozing in the sun on a park bench in 1905 could transmit, at the moment someone saw it in the present, the sight of something long past￼, so those menus could conjure up the taste, smell, and sight of food (as perishable as that moment in the park) that had been prepared, served, and eaten more than one hundred years ago.
As I clicked and scrolled from year to year, many of the bills of fare I saw were American banquet menus, souvenirs of gatherings of men; some were daily breakfast, lunch and dinner (or after-theater supper) menus from high-end, big city restaurants and hotels; some were menus from modest restaurants—nice places with no pretensions and reasonable prices that served breakfast, lunch, and dinner to businessmen and travelers in one room and women in another. Now and then, I saw menus from restaurants that served German, French, Italian, or Chinese food to people who could only speak English.
There were dishes on the bills of fare that were as strange as the custom of serving the genders separately. Breakfast choices—for example—of “Graham bread” or crackers and milk, or lamb kidneys; lunch choices of oxtail ragout; “Hasenpfeffer” (rabbit stew), or cod cakes with fried salsify (oyster plant); desserts that in different price ranges included “wine jelly,” Nesselrode pudding, Charlotte russe, apple tapioca, or something called “snowballs” (a boiled, sweet dumpling made of flavored egg whites). Some of the food on those menus wasn’t strange: buckwheat cakes, or bacon and eggs for breakfast, a dish of baked beans with a slice of brown bread or a ham and cheese sandwich for lunch, turkey with cranberry sauce and gravy or braised beef with cabbage (or mashed turnips) for dinner. Some of the banquet menus had ten tor twelve courses; some of the fanciest dinner menus listed one hundred different entrees, from fish to fowl, from roasts to wild game; some of the simplest lunch menus were written and illustrated by the hand of the proprietor.
But just as the menu covers led to the food, so, in my mind, the food led to the people who had prepared it, served it and ate it. Not just to the people themselves but to the places they had sat and stood, worked and were nourished, and then beyond those places—the banquet halls and modest hotels and plain little lunchrooms—to the cities where those places did business. And then beyond them—to the country itself and the stretch of time it inhabited, the era of Teddy Roosevelt, trusts, muckrakers, the Great White Fleet, W.E.B. Dubois, and the Wright Brothers.
What happened next became the book that you’re reading.
The woman who signed her name “Miss Frank Buttolph” had begun life as Frances Buttles. She’d been born in 1844 in a little town in northern Pennsylvania, the daughter of a local eccentric—an inventor, grave digger, and carriage builder—whom people addressed as “Doctor.” As a young woman, she’d done something unusual: she’d graduated from the local high school (called a “normal school”—equivalent to a private secondary school).
After that, she’d spent years traveling and teaching in the U.S. and Europe. She’d teach English in Germany, then return to the U.S. and teach school here, then leave again. By the time she’d begun collecting menus, she’d become a little sparrow of a woman, with close-cropped, dark hair. By then, she lived alone in an apartment on Fifth Avenue, less than a block from what was then known as the “Astor Library.”
In 1899, she walked into the library and asked to speak to the director. She said she was prepared to offer the library her extraordinary collection—on the condition that she and her menus were inseparable. The director agreed. The Library gave her a desk, an alcove, shelf space, and a mailing address. For the next thirty years, Miss Buttolph added to her collection. She sent letters to hotel and hospitality trade journals; she walked into restaurants and hotels and asked for menus herself. Restaurant professionals sent her menus from all over the country—and all over the world. She’d stamp each menu with her acquisition stamp, make an index card for her catalog, then file the menu under one of seven categories (“Complimentary Banquets; Military and Naval; Political; Greek Letter Fraternities; Medical Groups; School and Educational; Railroad Specials, Atlantic Steamships; and Daily Menus.” She included menus from ethnic restaurants in her “Daily Menus” file).
The New York Times took notice of her. In 1904, 1906, and 1909, the Times interviewed and wrote profiles about her.
What follows is an excerpt from the first article (“When Royalty Dines”) the Times wrote about her:
“Miss Buttolph seems to have made a practical improvement on the old idea that ‘the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach.’ With her it is…
To document “History in Food,” not the “History of Food” seems to have been her purpose.
According to the Library’s website, the bulk of her collection dates from 1890-1910, but as I clicked my way back and forth through it, the years 1900-1910 appeared to have been her most active. Those years were the beginning of what historians call “The New American Century.” They were the best of times and the worst of times—a decade of glory, wealth, and ambition—and degradation. Their outcomes—anticipated and unanticipated—shape our present, for better and worse…
Miss Buttolph didn’t just love beautiful menus, she collected them as documents of the social, economic, demographic, and cultural tumult that she saw around her. This book travels the path she marked.
Since I knew more about the history of this country than its food, I asked Lisa Stoffer to collaborate with me. One reason I asked her was because of her family history. Her grandfather and great-grandfather had been chefs. Her great-grandfather had been a chef in resort hotels in Florida and the Bahamas. Her grandfather had been a chef on a yacht, and then, for thirty years, ran the kitchens at Amherst College. After he died, one of the things Lisa inherited from him was his red leather bound copy of The Chef’s Reminder, a vest pocket reference book of menus, recipes, and techniques that professionals carried with them at work. Its index began with “Banquet Luncheon Menus” and ended with “Yorkshire Buck, chafing dish.” Lisa’s copy of the Reminder was a tenth edition, published in 1904 by the Hotel Monthly Press of Chicago—the same company whose Hotel Monthly magazine published letters from the Astor Library’s Miss Frank Buttolph soliciting menus (only in spotless condition!) from the magazine’s readers.
I knew all this about Lisa because she and I are married. I also knew that the moment I’d showed her Miss Buttolph’s menus, her eyes had lit up. Lisa read cookbooks the way other people read novels. At dinner she’d talk about the things that people usually do—work, family, the fate of the human race—but, invariably, she’d talk about food, and not just the food we were eating. One ingredient would lead to another; one way of cooking would lead to the next. She had a palate as sensitive as the ear of a professional musician. Compared with her “perfect pitch,” I was tone deaf. Best of all, she knew, and could tell, “chef stories.” One of her favorites was about a chef named Jeremiah Tower, who’d worked at Alice Waters’ Chez Panisse in Berkeley in its seminal, early days. The story came from Tower’s own memoir, California Dish. It was a story about menus. Lisa told Tower’s story wonderfully, but Tower tells his own story even better:
“To me,” Tower wrote, “menus are a language unto themselves… I have been collecting them and acting them out since I was a teenager. They spoke to me as clearly as any childhood fantasy novel. Reading an old menu slowly forms in my mind’s eye its era, the sensibility of the restaurateur or the chef, even the physical details of the dining room. I can picture the guests, even when I don’t know who they were. Sometimes I can conjure up an entire evening, a three act play, orchestrated around food… I have used the language of menus as the basis of dialogues with mentors, colleagues, and friends… I [have] always assumed that this language is universal.”
Lisa knew how to speak and understand that language fluently.
Together we set off to investigate the food Americans ate, where they ate it, and why they ate it at the beginning of the 20th century.
The chapters “Pure Food” and “Splendid Food” serve as counterpoints, one to the other.
“Pure Food” is about the canned meat American corporations sold to ordinary people in this country and in Europe. The revelation (spread far and wide by The Jungle’s publishers—the same publishers who’d just released the astonishingly racist best-seller, The Clansman) that the “meat” in those cans was either adulterated, ersatz, or toxic sounds all too familiar today.
Upton Sinclair, the author of The Jungle, had intended his book to serve as an Uncle Tom’s Cabin for wage-slave, immigrant workers. Instead, as Sinclair said, “I aimed at the public’s heart…but hit its stomach.” The self-protective,self-serving reaction of the American middle-class, then (in the shape of whole-grain diets and “pure food” restaurants) and now (in the shape of Whole Foods supermarkets, community supported agriculture, farmers’ markets, and locavore restaurants) was to think of itself before it thought of the people who’d been used as tools to feed it. In the U.S., the political outcome of the “poison meat” scandal was the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906. In Europe, the scandal led to government bans, public boycotts, and the near total collapse of American processed meat exports to Europe.
Splendid Food” describes the potlatch ceremonies of conspicuous consumption indulged in by the very rich (and not so very rich) at their banquets.
Today, the staggeringly complicated recipes, developed and published by the great chef Charles Ranhoffer in his iconic The Epicurian, can be seen as precursors to the complex and arcane procedures practiced and promulgated by Ferran Adriá in his “molecular gastronomy.”
Lengthy courses, sumptuously caloric dishes, food-based, but inedible, table decorations, exotic ingredients obtained from afar, domestic ingredients obtained out-of-season, wild game, hunted to extinction to serve as appetizers or entrees, balls and entertainments that were willful displays of “wealth and taste”—all these potlatch ingredients were used to 1) confirm the ruling class’ supremacy to itself, 2) advertise its aristocratic way of life (copied from 18th century European courts) to an audience of newspaper readers, and 3) attract less wealthy aspirants and imitators to the dining rooms and palm courts of luxury hotels,places that pandered to people who wanted to be seen as richer and more prominent than they were.
These two counterpoint chapters serve as bookends for Repast’s central chapters.
The first of these chapters, “Quick Food,” describes “the problem of lunch” and the innovative solutions that, though developed more than one hundred years ago, are part of our lives today.
Early solutions to the tyranny of “the lunch hour” were places called “quick lunches.” They were crowded, poorly lit, and poorly ventilated places, often with plate glass windows at sidewalk level. Men—clerks and office workers—were served at counters where they sat, jammed shoulder to shoulder, wolfing their food. In some places, the men served themselves, grabbing sandwiches and wedges of pie, stacked on countertops. With their food in hand, they’d push past others, looking for unoccupied chairs. Those chairs had single, broad arms where the men could set their food and eat, hunched down, while other men, as hungry and impatient as they were, milled around. The result was “dyspepsia,” a nationwide, gastrointestinal epidemic, a disease characterized by indigestion and constipation, aggravated by anxiety and anger, that doctors—and newspaper editors—believed was caused by modern city life.
Two evolutionary/revolutionary restaurant chains owed their success to solving “the lunch problem.” One, a national chain, begun in New York City by two brothers who’d grown up on a well-run New Jersey dairy farm, was called Childs. To a public that was upset by indigestion and still nervous about impure foods, Childs offered scrupulously clean, well-lit, well-ventilated, spacious restaurants that consistently served simple, wholesome food in cities all across the country. Big windows, marble and white tile floors and walls, and waitresses whose uniforms fused the dress codes of maids with those of nurses, sent reassuring messages to hungry office workers, male and female.
The other restaurant chain, based on the east coast, was founded in Philadelphia by two partners—one a hard-working, quick-lunch cook named Hardart, the other the son of a prosperous family of surgical instrument makers named Horn—was a self-service operation that replaced waiters and waitresses with “Automats”—big, Swiss-German machines that dispensed cold or hot food from little window boxes (much like glass-fronted U.S. Post Office boxes) that customers could open with coins (cashiers made change for customers as they entered the restaurant)….
Her Food,” the companion chapter of “Quick Food,” describes the problem of finding work, and then finding places to eat, that confronted women as the entered the workforce in greater and greater numbers during the decade.
All too many of the youngest and most inexperienced women—whether they (like Theodor Dreiser’s heroine, Carrie) were from American small towns and farms or from villages in Central, Southern, and Eastern Europe—had to choose between chronic malnutrition and sex work (the phrase “white slavery” was the way the era’s newspapers and magazines described such work) when they came to the city, looking for a job. Even when they found work, “starvation wages,” predatory male coworkers, and bosses “looking for company” trapped them in situations whose walls kept closing in on them.
The fortunate roomed with relatives or sought help from aid associations or developed friendships with older women who worked where they did. Those who could, brought leftovers to work and ate them hurriedly.
Less improvised—or morally compromised—solutions developed over the course of the decade:
- Candy stores sold sweets and “soft-drinks” that were cheap, quick to eat, and easy to carry back to work. Sweet-shops (“Schraffts,” for example) began adding soda-fountain, quick-lunch counters that catered to “working girls.” Over time, some of those places evolved into table-service restaurants for women office-workers and shoppers.
- Women-only, cafeteria-style “lunch clubs”, founded by women philanthropists or entrepeneurs, sold hot, inexpensive meals to office workers. The clubs’ low prices were the result of their self-service dining and their low-rent, second-floor locations.
- Enlightened employers with mostly female office or factory workforces—Sears’ home offices in Chicago; the National Cash Register Company in Dayton—built in-house cafeterias and dining rooms. Such employers believed it was in their best interest to keep their workers healthy—and close to their work.
- Big-city department stores—Marshall Field’s in Chicago, Wanamaker’s in Philadelphia, Siegel Cooper in New York City—opened tea rooms, often on their upper floors—that served soups, sandwiches, salads, entrees, and deserts to genteel women shoppers and their children, and sometimes to women workers from nearby offices.
- Smaller, owner-operated tea rooms—modest, cozy places, sometimes located at street level, sometimes one flight down—served refreshments and offered respite to single women and small groups of female friends. Sometimes, after graduation, college girls opened tea rooms as first-time, pioneering business ventures near their alma mater.
- At the top of the tea room hierarchy were grand and glittering palm courts, adjacent to the lobbies of big city luxury hotels. Palm Courts served decorative food to well-to-do, fashionable ladies who went there with their friends (and sometimes their lap dogs) to see and be seen. On request, for special guests, palm courts provided cocktails demurely hidden in teapots.
Finally, as women took jobs in offices and stores—retail,clerical,managerial and professional jobs men had long done— they pressed against the conventions of “separate but equal” restaurant and hotel dining rooms. During the day, the quality of the food, service, location, and convenience of the “women only” dining rooms rarely matched the quality of the men’s. Worse yet: In the evening, single women or groups of women who came to a hotel for dinner were routinely turned away. Even women hotel guests were expected to have the good sense to dine in private dining rooms, hidden from public view. Unless, of course, they were escorted by men. A woman in the company of a man was, by definition, “a lady.” A woman alone had no polite definition.
Confrontations followed by lawsuits erupted throughout the decade. Customs changed when high-end proprietors discovered that they had more tables, more waiters, more cooks, more kitchen capacity—and more bills—than they had revenue. Women, dining alone or in groups, were known not to tip as well as men, but by the end of the decade proprietors understood that their dining rooms would remain half empty without them. Money, not manners, the power of the purse, not enlightened thinking and lawsuits, brought an end to gender-segregated dining.
Finally: “Other Peoples’ Food” is neither the last nor the least of Repast’s central chapters. The stories it tells, based on the same, original, primary source research as all of Repast’s other chapters, offers a counter narrative to the historical cliché that early 20th century Americans were as xenophobic and anti-immigrant as some of their descendants are now. Though xenophobic anger and fear were historical facts, “Other Peoples’ Food” documents the way many Americans living in cities across the country frequented immigrant restaurants and beer gardens for emotional and psychological reasons—reasons as important to them as the cost and the taste of the food, wine, and beer they enjoyed. In addition, “Other Peoples’ Food” provides a new explanation for why Chinese restaurants—restaurants that some of our more unconventional ancestors valued as edgy, intriguing, and unpredictable places—spread and then, seemingly overnight, proliferated outside the ghettoes of Chinatowns.
In Conclusion: Repast tells new stories, uncovers new facts, and provides new insights into what and why our ancestors ate what they ate. Repast reveals how our eating habits, food fears, food fads, and diets bear a striking resemblance to theirs. Though much of what we think and do appears to have changed—and, in truth, has changed—a great deal remains the same.
By combining newly available, online databases, newspapers, and magazines with cookbooks, recipe guides, diaries, and memoirs from an era that was as food-obsessed as our own, Repast answers the challenge made three hundred years ago by the French philosopher and gourmand, Brillat-Savarin: Tell me what you eat—and I will tell you what you are.
About Michael LesyMichael Lesy is a Professor of literary journalism at Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts. He received a B.A. in theoretical sociology from Columbia University, an M.A. in American social history from the University of Wisconsin, and a Ph.D. in American cultural history from Rutgers University. He has published eleven books of history, biography, and narrative nonfiction. Many of his books have been based on historic photographs, gathered in archives; several have been based on oral histories, gathered during fieldwork
Lesy has contributed essays to The Jewish Museum’s The Radical Camera, Harvard University Press’ A New Literary History of America, and the Free Press’ Killing the Buddha. His reviews, columns, and critical essays about the use of archival photographs as historical documents have appeared in Aperture and DoubleTake magazines, and in The Journal of American History.
Michael Lesy’s first book, Wisconsin Death Trip, has remained in print since 1973. His latest book, Repast: Dining Out at the Dawn of the New American Century, 1900-1910, is based on the New York Public Library’s Buttolph Menu collection and was written in collaboration with the essayist Lisa Stoffer.
In 2013, Lesy was awarded a Fellowship by the Guggenheim Foundation. During his Guggenheim Fellowship term, Mr. Lesy will conduct research for Looking Backward, a book and companion exhibition based on the 500,000 stereographic images in the Keystone-Mast Collection at the California Museum of Photography, University of California-Riverside.
His books have been made into operas, plays, dance performances, and films. They have served as inspiration for novels, short stories, and albums of popular music.
In 2006, the United States Artists Foundation named Mr. Lesy its first Simon Fellow. Prior to this, Mr. Lesy was awarded grants and fellowships from the American Council of Learned Societies, the National Endowment for the Arts, the Graham Foundation, the Wilbur Foundation, and the Kaplan Foundation’s Furthermore fund.
About Lisa StofferLisa Stoffer was born in Northampton, Massachusetts. She has a bachelor’s degree from Haverford College and studied Russian History in graduate school at the University of Michigan.
She is currently Director of Foundation and Corporate Relations at Amherst College.
Stoffer comes from a family of chefs and inherited a collection of menus and cookbooks from her grandfather and great-grandfather.” In the early 1900s her great-grandfather was a chef in resort hotels in Florida and the Bahamas, and her grandfather and grandmother (to whom Repast is dedicated) met when they were working as a cook and a waitress at Amherst’s Lord Jeffery Inn several decades later.
She and her husband, Michael Lesy, live in Amherst, Massachusetts.
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All excerpts of Repast © Michael Lesy and Lisa Stoffer courtesy of W.W. Norton & Co. (2013). These excerpts were published with express permission from the authors. All Rights Reserved. This excerpt has been edited for length and the book’s footnotes were not included.