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What do women want…to eat? Historian Paul Freedman writes that this question began to interest restaurant operators in the nineteenth century thanks to some dramatic shifts in the gendered culture of dining.

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Prior to the Civil War, Freedman writes, there’s little evidence that Americans were very concerned with differences in male and female taste in food. It was only in the 1860s that some cookbooks began identifying particular foods as suited to ladies’ lunches or gentlemen’s suppers—and even then there wasn’t a big gap between the kinds of foods suggested. Cookbooks didn’t begin arguing that certain dishes were suited to pleasing a man until the twentieth century.

Meanwhile, the first modern restaurants in the US—as opposed to inns, taverns, and coffee houses—opened in the 1820s and ’30s. They provided men of the growing professional class with public places to relax, socialize, conduct business, and network. Some offered wealthy men opportunities to entertain “disrespectable” women, often in private rooms, but most focused on serving an all-male clientele. Women might be permitted only in the company of men, or groups of women might be allowed to lunch together but only in a private room.

To accommodate women shopping in a neighborhood far from their home, Freedman writes, some restaurateurs opened female-focused restaurants known as ladies’ ordinaries. For women traveling alone, some hotels offered separate ladies’ parlors with their own entrances—a way to ensure that they wouldn’t be confused with women of ill repute accompanying men in the main area. Men weren’t completely excluded from women’s restaurants, but they typically could only dine there if they were accompanied by a woman.

When it came to the actual food served, ladies’ ordinaries offered almost the same choices that the men got, heavy on mutton, kidneys, and other hearty options. But in the 1840s and ’50s, another type of establishment popped up to cater to what they identified as women’s tastes: “Ice cream saloons” that specialized in tea, sandwiches, light meals and desserts. These spots served men as well as women, earning them some bad press as places for clandestine dates. One popular novel warned that the ice cream at the saloons was “drugged with passion-inciting vanilla.”

Following the Civil War, Freedman writes, more restaurants began serving women as well as men. Often, they signaled this by promising ice cream on the menu, and they might not serve alcohol or permit smoking. By the end of the century, the rise in women working in stores and offices made them into a lucrative market for restaurateurs, who started offering more dishes perceived as appealing to feminine tastes.

“While women are not all light eaters, most of them are partial to dainty tid-bits, pastry and ice cream,” the New York Times explained in 1890.

Women’s equal access to fine dining would remain controversial for decades. But the notion that feminine tastes gravitated toward light meals and sweet treats was here to stay.

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Journal of Social History, Vol. 48, No. 1 (Fall 2014), pp. 1–19
Oxford University Press