Audio ©2010 Alabama Public Radio
m Steiner, 2009
Available at http://oldmobilerestaurants.com/home and in Mobile bookstores Malcolm Steiner is a lifetime Mobilian and food enthusiast. This volume, oversized and on glossy paper, is a kind of personal scrapbook with brief text, sometimes little more than cut lines. This is not a formal history.
Steiner has gathered information on Mobile restaurants, from the early 19th century to the present. There are entries on the most upscale eateries such as The Pillars or Constantine's and the most modest drive-ins such as Mack's or Johnny's and a host of hamburger joints. Most of the establishments covered are in Mobile proper but Steiner also discusses a few places on the causeway, over the Bay in Spanish Fort, at The Grand Hotel in Point Clear and south to Bayou la Batre.
This book is comprised of dozens of black and white photos of the exteriors and interiors, complete with staff, of these establishments. Eateries before photography are described. Many places or gone, closed, destroyed by fire or hurricane or, like Roussos', by the recent economic downturn. You can still visit the Dew Drop Inn, though, where we are told Jimmy Buffet's "burger lust" was born.
There are also huge numbers of copies of newspaper advertisements and of restaurant menus. The prices listed would break your heart. Supper at The Fireman's Restaurant on Conception Street was 37 ½ cents. But that was in 1839.
Steiner reminds the reader that the first Morrison's cafeteria opened in Mobile on September 4, 1920. T-bone steak with fries was 12 cents.
Steiner includes two Morrison's recipes, sweet potato pie and batter dipped shrimp. This volume has a total of thirty vintage recipes, ranging from Azalea cocktail to Delmonico potatoes to West Indies salad which, he says, may have been created in Mobile by William "Bill" Bayley.
The primary audience for this book will be those interested in the history of Mobile, but not entirely. There are a number of matters of general cultural interest.
For example, one can hardly believe the abundance and popularity of oysters. The Indians left piles of shells, and shells from restaurants in Mobile paved the roads. The dozens of oyster references in this book describe every imaginable way of cooking and serving oysters including the now-defunct method called "hot shell." Seasoned oysters would be placed on very hot shells and they would then absorb the red hot lime flavor of the shell. Unfortunately, Steiner adds, the "acrid fumes destroyed all of the paint work, paper decoration," etc. Restaurants had a small separate room to prepare this dish.
Also, restaurant windows once contained piles of ice to display seafood, including, at Schimpf's, "a monster jewfish, over seven feet in length and weighing close to 250 pounds."
In Schimpf's aquarium window were black bass, silver trout, diamond back terrapin, live lobsters in season and 48 dozen live frogs.
A few of the restaurants in Mobile were run by German- Americans, and the German influence was strong , with an emphasis on good beer, marinated meats, sour flavors, wursts, and rich pastries. Germans may have begun the preparation of barbeque in Alabama, and chicken-fried steak is probably a variant of Wiener Schnitzel.
Steiner includes chapters on a few soul food places, from Polly Collins' place in 1839 to Oliver's and especially The Best Grill, which served "food and comfort" to Jackie Robinson, Fats Domino, Mahalia Jackson, Thurgood Marshall, B.B. King, Sam Cook, Ray Charles and Roy Campanella.
Of course , as in most American port cities, a great many restaurants at every level were run by Greeks, but, interestingly to me, most were very American-style steak and chop houses, not Greek restaurants, having perhaps only a snapper dish or a Greek salad on the menu.
When a Chinese or Vietnamese family opened up in Mobile it was, as you might guess, Chinese or Vietnamese food.
Steiner includes a glossary of diner lingo which should be published separately. You may have known that "mud" is black coffee or "Adam and Eve on a raft" is two poached eggs on toast. But did you know that "First Lady" is spareribs, since Eve was made from a spare rib of Adam? Or that "Noah's boy" means a slice of ham, "Irish turkey" is corned beef and cabbage, while an order of "Murphy" is of course, potatoes?
I close with "zeppelins in a fog": sausages in mashed potatoes.
This review was originally broadcast on Alabama Public Radio on June 28, 2010. Don Noble's book reviews can be heard each Monday on Alabama Public Radio at 7:35 a.m. and 4:44 p.m.