Appetite for America: Fred Harvey and the Business of Civilizing the Wild West–One Meal at a Time
Destination: The Western United States
Book: Appetite for America: Fred Harvey and the Business of Civilizing the Wild West–One Meal at a Time by Stephen Fried (2010–New paperback edition in 2011)
The reader gets more than his/her money’s worth with the fascinating book, Appetite for America. A biography, a history of the western expansion of tourism in the early 20th century, an analysis of a unique business model, a travel guide for nostalgia buffs, a railroad book for “trainiacs,” AND recipes from the Fred Harvey kitchens–all told in amusing and highly readable style by Stephen Fried.
I have always been fascinated with the story of the influence of the Santa Fe railroad and Fred Harvey hotels and restaurants on the growth of tourism in the Western U.S. After all, I know that because the Santa Fe promoted the West as a destination of natural beauty, they were largely responsible for our National Park system. Likewise, they promoted Indian arts and built a market for potters and basket makers. This book reveals that the story is even more interesting than I imagined.
Ken and I recently took a road trip to one of the few Fred Harvey establishments being refurbished to its original, classy style. Mary Jane Colter designed La Posada in drab little Winslow, Arizona. (Ironically, when we last spent a night in Winslow–in the mid 1960′s–Winslow was thriving, but La Posada was a wreck.) Colter, probably the highest ranking woman in any company in the country in her day, worked for Fred Harvey for more than 30 years, starting with the company Indian store in Albuquerque, and moving on to designing buildings at the Grand Canyon, interiors and even dinnerware.But La Posada is her masterpiece, and we are fortunate that loving hands are bringing it back to life.
The Santa Fe railroad won the railroad jousting match to dominate the routes from Chicago to Los Angeles, back in the day when railroad travel was the most modern and classiest mode of transportation and competition between lines was cut-throat.
Did you know that before the turn of the 19th to the 20th century, each railroad had its own station, and separate ticket office? There were no “Grand Centrals” or “Union Station.” Did you know that each city declared its own time until the growth of railroads demanded standardized time zones in the United States? A meeting of representatives of the major railroads determined the four time zones we still have and clocks were reset on November 18, 1883.
It is this kind of reportage of detail that keeps Appetite for America fascinating throughout. That, and the fact that Fred Harvey is the kind of character that biographers dream of. He had a virtual rags to riches story, and left reams of notebooks, lists, letters and memorabilia scattered across the country. (Fried helpfully lists all the places that you can find the memorabilia today.)
From selling railroad tickets and newspaper advertising, Harvey progressed to building an empire that bore his name. And it was JUST his name–no “company”, or “and sons” or any other qualifiers. Even after he died, the sons and grandsons continued to run Fred Harvey, the business. Harvey’s dedication to high quality meant he dictated the exact uniform of each “Harvey Girl” who served food; he would not tolerate variance in the way coffee was made or cutlery arranged, and his company execs had apoplexy if someone reported that their olive oil was not as good as another eatery. When he paid a surprise visit to a restaurant, if the silverware was not properly aligned, he would yank the white linen (imported) tablecloth off the table to make a point.
The size of his empire is indicated by a statement that when the price of coffee (they used only Chase & Sanborn) went up two cents a pound, “That’s going to set us back five thousand dollars, just about.”…”We’re using twenty-five thousand pounds a month or more.”
I could go on with more great stuff from this book, but I’ve already talked enough. Just go add the book to your Traveler’s Library, and make your travel plans to visit La Posada Hotel or restaurant in Winslow on your way to the Grand Canyon and the great old Harvey Hotel, the El Tovar. According to Fried you can still visit 22 of the original 155 Fred Harvey establishments to dine or stay overnight, but the Fred Harvey company collapsed when automobiles replaced railroads in dominance of American transportation.
My heartfelt thanks to Random House for sending me this Bantam book for review. The La Posada and Harvey Girl pictures are mine, the Santa Fe locomotive comes from Flickr with a Creative Commons license, and the back book cover is from Stephen Fried’s web site.
The book title is linked to Amazon for your convenience. If you click through to Amazon and purchase anything at all, I get a few cents which helps support A Traveler’s Library. Thanks.
P.S. If you are tempted to find a copy of the movie, The Harvey Girls, with Judy Garland–DON’T. Trust me on this one. I suffered through it so you won’t have to. Besides, the one good number in the movie, The Atchison, Topeka and the Santa Fe, gets thoroughly stuck in your head and you won’t get it out for days. UPDATE, November 2013: A new documentary on The Harvey Girls is definitely worth watching.
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