By changing the way Americans eat out, Fred Harvey changed the way we eat, period. As founder of America’s first interstate restaurant chain, the English-born entrepreneur filled bellies all along the westward-expanding Atchinson, Topeka & Sante Fe railroad at the turn of the 20th century.
Not only were Harvey House meals of consistent quality and value, they were served up by the refined, morally upright, and danged cute Harvey Girls – quite possibly the Platonic ideal of what it means to be a waitress. They even inspired a “gay and lusty” 1946 Judy Garland musical. (Watch the trailer.)
Harvey also had a major impact on Kansas City. In 1914, Union Station opened and became a nerve center for the American railroad. With the Fred Harvey company headquarters located in the building, alongside a 525-seater Harvey House, Harvey's enterprise was feeding the growth of Kansas City and the West. (Harvey died in 1901, but his name lived on through the company and its owner, his son Ford Harvey, who helped shape KC in his own right.)
Journalist Stephen Fried is the national authority on Harvey. This Thursday, May 19, at 6:30 p.m., he returns to the Kansas City Public Library to discuss his biography, Appetite for America: How Visionary Businessman Fred Harvey Built a Railroad Hospitality Empire That Civilized the West. (Admission is free; please RSVP to attend.)
And while Harvey is endlessly fascinating, he’s not the only culinary entrepreneur who’s made a mark on Kansas City.
Gearing up for Fried’s presentation, we thought it would be interesting to see what other books have been produced chronicling the gastro-history of Kansas City. Turns out there are quite a few:
The Grand Barbecue: A Celebration of the History, Places, Personalities and Techniques of Kansas City Barbecue by Doug Worgul
An expert in KC’s most renowned dish and author of the recent, meat-themed novel Thin Blue Smoke, Doug Worgul traces the evolution of KC BBQ, from greasy-fingered godfather Henry Perry in 1907 through today’s tailgaters at Arrowhead Stadium. Recipes and cooking techniques included.
Hometown Beer: A History of Kansas City’s Breweries by H. James Maxwell and Bob Sullivan Jr.
In its early 1900s heyday, beer baron George Muehlebach’s brewery produced upwards of 100,000 bottles a year, most famously Muehlebach’s Pilsener. Muehlebach is just one of the local brewers in this book, which also includes a chapter on today’s well-loved Boulevard Brewing Co.
The Harvey Girls: Women Who Opened the West by Lesley Poling-Kempes
From the early days of the Harvey House in the 1880s through serving the troops on the World War II homefront, the Harvey Girls set the standard for the American service industry for decades to come. Poling-Kempes’ work is an ideal complement to Fried’s book.
The Harvey House Cookbook by George H. Foster and Peter C. Weiglin
Curious to taste the hot strawberry sundae served up at Union Station back in the day, or sample the Chicken Poulette from the Harvey House in Chicago’s Riverside Plaza? You’ll have to cook them up at home, as the restaurants are all gone. Fortunately, the recipes live on in this book.
Italian Gardens: A History of Kansas City through Its Favorite Restaurant by Carl DiCapo
From 1933 to 2003, Italian Gardens was a gathering place for politicians, athletes, celebrities, and the occasional wiseguy or two. DiCapo (also a noted local nonprofit fundraiser) worked as greeter at the Gardens for 50 years, and he has quite the memory. (See pictures and hear audio from his talk at the Central Library last August.)
Sanderson’s Lunch by Art Lamb
Art Lamb was broke, trying to kick alcoholism, and smarting from a failed run for public office when he “impulsively” bought Sanderson’s Lunch at 104 East 8th St. in 1978. Chapter headings from this quirky memoir include “Street People,” “Operation Disaster,” “The Hookers,” “Bulldog Bob Brown,” and “Crazy Betty.”
Jasper’s Kitchen Cookbook: Italian Recipes and Memories from Kansas City’s Legendary Restaurant by Jasper Mirabile
Every night at 5 p.m. in the office at Jasper’s Restaurant, owner Jasper J. Mirabile Jr. plays a tape of Frank Sinatra’s “My Way.” Why? Because that’s what his father did. Let that story of family connection (courtesy of Fat City) set the tone as you delve into chef Mirable’s book of recipes and memories.
What’s your favorite story of eating out in Kansas City? Do you know of any other local books highlighting our local cuisine? Or perhaps you remember eating at a Harvey House of yore? Share your memories in the comments.
-- Jason Harper