This article has been modified from the June 18, 2022 edition of the GASTRO OBSCURA Favorite Things newsletter. You can Register here.
On my first trip to Chicago, the only thing my mother wanted was to visit Macy’s on State Street. The entire store was bleak and stagnant. But we were there for a reason: Frango Mintes.
Once the calling card of Marshall Fields, the supermarket chain that ruled Chicago with a scented fist, Frango Minutes is but one example of how department store food has been impressing the American shopper.
What regional stores such as Filene’s, Wanamaker, Frederick & Nelson, Hutzler’s, and JL Hudson’s had in common, besides perfume counters and locker rooms, were elegant restaurants.
Our cultural need for speed has wiped most of these stores, and their restaurants, off the map. But many of their greatest disciplines have held out.
More than shopping
In the happiness of the ladies It is the title of Emile Zola’s novel about department stores, and it also sums up much of its attraction: Ladies’ Paradise. For white middle- and upper-class American women, the imported French concept of a department store was a step toward material and financial freedom.
Women can shop, socialize, watch fashion shows, write to their friends on paper from the store, and of course dine, all inside the stores. And by food, I don’t mean sandwiches wrapped in plastic and coffee made of Styrofoam.
The Crystal Tea Room at Wanamaker’s in Philadelphia, when it opened in 1911, advertised itself as a “great place to meet, relax, and have refreshments.” That means not just tea, but tea sandwiches, sweet and savory pancakes, salad-stuffed tomatoes, and elaborate desserts: foods that attracted mostly female customers and kept them in stores for longer shopping.
Menus often praise the familiar homey qualities of their in-house bakery and dessert dishes. But many department store restaurants also offer global excitement in the form of exotic fruit and continental-sounding recipes (sometimes combined, as in the Neiman Marcus mandarin orange soufflé).
For generations, department store restaurants have been the city’s elite, attracting customers far beyond the target ladies at lunch. My mom, who didn’t have the money to eat at these fancy places during the heyday of department stores, still thinks fondly of those green boxes of Frango Mints. “They made me feel like I walked into a neat secret,” she says.
Taste the past
Online recipes for supermarket specialties abounded in the past year. Oftentimes, people follow instructions from old newspapers, cookbooks, and even elderly chefs in old restaurants. Together, the following foods – pudding, pie, and chicken salad – are some of the most delicious store-bought classics.
“From our famous kitchens in broad daylight…a delicious dessert!” He bragged about a 1947 Marshall Field ad. Lauded as a “creamy chocolate mousse flavored with mountain-cool mint” covered in a “thick layer of rich milk chocolate,” Frango Mints has long been the calling card of Chicago.
But Frango Mints got his start far from Windy City. How Seattle Frozen Candy became a signature candy from Chicago is a long story, but for decades, the seventh floor of Chicago’s State Street store turned sweets by the million.
When Marshall Field began producing candy out of state in 1999, he appeared Chicago Tribune She noted that “the xenophobic assault was all-consuming.” This explains a lot why Macy’s, which acquired Marshall Fields in 2006, still produces the meekly loved candy.
The Recipe: There’s no need to make your own Frango Mints. You can buy it at Macy’s. But there are a number of treats that require it, like the classic Frango Mint pie.
Coconut Cream Pie
“The ladies at lunch are shedding ferocious tears. They will never again taste a heavenly coconut cream pie, soft and round like a cumulus cloud, white as a snowdrift,” Los Angeles Times in 1993. “Gone are Monte Cristo sandwiches, Bombay salad with sweet honey poppy seed dressing, bread pudding, tea scones, and hidden martinis.”
Bullocks Wilshire Restaurant, an Art Deco masterpiece on Los Angeles’ Wilshire Boulevard, was bustling with shoppers and shoppers. Bullock’s Tea Room has held a special place in the hearts of Angelenos, whose longing for the coconut cream pie still lingers, nearly 30 years after the Tea Room closed.
Recipe: So many recipes for this special pie. The filling takes an unlikely two hours to boil, but “if you don’t, you’ll get soup, not pie filling,” he warns. times.
During the heyday of department store dining, fresh fruit was still a luxury. Seasoned restaurants lure guests in with exotic and out-of-season fare, like fresh New Zealand strawberries at a ridiculous cost. Other restaurants have relied on canned fruits, but stock them with every seasoning available mid-century (usually mayonnaise).
Often times, this fruit ends up in a salad. That could mean anything from a fruity Waldorf to an elegant strawberry garnish, but more often than not the fruit is mixed into a chicken salad.
At the Rich’s Department Store in Atlanta, the Magnolia Room’s specialty was chicken amandine with frozen fruit salad. The chicken is standard enough, but the side salad was something else: several kinds of canned fruit, frozen with mayonnaise, powdered sugar and cream cheese, garnished with marshmallows and food coloring, and then frozen.
The Recipe: You won’t find this unique blend on a restaurant menu anymore, but here’s a recipe for making it, if you dare.
The multi-sectional kitchen is by no means dead. Many Nordstrom and Macy’s restaurants serve basic meals. For the sake of yesterday’s luxury, though, you have to research the following restaurants.
The Walnut Room, Chicago
This is one of two: Marshall Field was known for his chicken pot pie, which supposedly has been invented by a saleswoman and has been selling in the store since 1890. But this isn’t the only pie on the menu in Walnut Room, the restaurant inside the former State Street Marshall Fields eatery. There’s also Frango Pie, which is made with the popular mint candy.
Zodiac room, Dallas
Neiman Marcus got its start in Dallas, and the Zodiac Room circa 1953 offers a crash course in multi-section cuisine — pot pie, popovers, and pot roast are all on the menu, along with their specialty, Mandarin Orange Soufflé.
LS Ayres Tea Room, Indianapolis
When LS Ayres closed its tea room in 1990, angry fans of the vanishing store staged a protest. But a smaller but faithful replica opened in 2002 at the Indiana State Museum. Open for winter break only, the Tea Room serves yesterday’s specialties, including the famous velvet chicken soup.
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