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Book Report: Restaurant owner pre-dates Kroc

As a wee tad, I saw a movie called "The Harvey Girls," starring Judy Garland and a bevy of '40s beauties.

I thought it told the story of how a restaurateur named Fred Harvey recruited a bevy of '40s beauties to work in his restaurants along a railroad line called "The Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe," which won the Oscar for best song that year.

Later, when I first traveled the new interstate in Illinois, I ate in one of its overhead restaurants run by the Fred Harvey Company.

I thought I knew it all about Fred Harvey's operation. Turns out I didn't know the half of it. Now I've read a fascinating history, called "Appetite for America," by Stephen Fried (Bantam, $27), which tells the story from the beginning about how Englishman Harvey traveled for the new railroads springing up in the U.S. West after the Civil War. The tracks were new, the trains worked great, but there was a problem: Food.

The food was so bad it was a national scandal. Every hundred miles along these new lines was a hotel/restaurant, where passengers were let off and given half an hour to eat. They rarely finished the slop served them and so the slop was scraped back into the pots it came from and re-served to the next train that came along.

So Harvey started the first chain of restaurants in the U.S.

What irony! Fried points out that today's chains have dumbed down the food to the point where it all tastes the same and isn't very good at that.

Harvey's chain was just the opposite. He actually improved the food served in the west, in fact, Fried goes so far as to say he "civilized" the west with his fine recipes (many of which are included at the end of the book) and the inclusion of the Harvey Girls, one of the first instances of humane jobs for women in the U.S.

At its peak, the Fred Harvey organization owned 70 restaurants, several posh hotels, plus restaurants and bookstores and shops in most of the large train stations in America.

It all went south after World War II when people stopped riding on trains. One of the company's last gasps was the restaurant I ate at on the Illinois Tollway in 1960.

Fried says Harvey "...was Ray Kroc before McDonald's, Willard Marriott before Marriott Hotels and Howard Schultz before Starbucks."

It's a sad story and if you don't believe me, read the recipes at book's end. I think it's safe to say it's difficult to order some of Harvey's specialties, like Mountain Trout Au Bleu, Devilled Lobster or Chicken Lucrecio at your typical Hardee's.


A few years back, Atlanta author Pearl Cleage won the African-American Literary Award for Fiction with a novel called "Baby Brother's Blues." She also made an Oprah's Book Club selection for "What Looks Like Crazy on an Ordinary Day."

It's easy to see why after reading her latest "Till You Hear From Me" (Ballantine, $25).

Cleage is a skilled storyteller, coming at her plot from various characters' points of view. She's also picked a topic that should put her on all sorts of lists.

Her heroine Ida Wells Dunbar is a 30-something black who has worked hard on the Obama presidential campaign.

Now she's sitting in Washington waiting for a good job in the administration.

But it's not forthcoming and Ida figures it's because of her father, the Rev. Horace Dunbar, a prominent black leader in Atlanta. Back during the campaign, the old "Rev" sided with his friend the Rev. Jim Wright, the Chicago minister who put one of his parishioners -- Barack Obama -- in peril. So Ida's father is in trouble and she must return to Atlanta and protect him from the machinations of a black madman, one of Ida's old classmates, who has been employed by Obama's opponents.

Former Wisconsin state archaeologist Robert A. Birmingham has written a new book, "Spirits of Earth: The Effigy Mound Landscape of Madison and The Four Lakes" (University of Wisconsin Press, $24.95 paper), a beautifully put together elaboration of the Native American effigy earthworks constructed between 700 and 1100 A.D.

It interprets the mounds and also acts as a tourist guide to these memorable religious artifacts.

Poor David's Almanac: On this day in 1812, humorist, poet and artist Edward Lear was born near London. He will later quip: "How pleasant to know Mr. Lear!/Who has written such volumes of stuff!/Some think him ill-tempered and queer,/But a few think him pleasant enough."

Dave would like to hear from you. Call him at 426-9554.