Professor writes book on dining culture

Lisa Herdman

Kelly Erby’s new book highlights how changes in dining have shaped the way that Americans interact outside of the home by explaining eating habits from the nineteenth century to now.

Kelly Erby, assistant history professor at Washburn University, published her first book, “Restaurant Republic: The Rise of Public Dining in Boston,” on Sept. 1, 2016.

The book primarily focuses on the changes in eating culture in America, how eating outside of the home has become a more frequent practice and the contrasts between the classes and eating habits over the years.

“I’ve tried to tell the story in an entertaining and accessible way,” Erby said. “Americans invent our culture and then we reinvent it and it is constantly changing.”

“Restaurant Republic” covers the constructions of masculinity and feminine roles created in eating houses in the nineteenth century. The main themes include gender, home versus public and class structure.

An article written by Erby in graduate school, “Worthy of Respect: Black Waiters in Boston before the Civil War,” sparked her interest in writing a book and started as a dissertation and has been adapted into the book. The “Worthy of Respect” article covers the culture of waiting tables, and the fight against the stigma against the work within the dining industry.

Erby said her interest in the subject came from her curiosity in the question of when Americans stopped cooking and started going to restaurants. Other films and books dicussed the new dining culture in America, including “Supersize Me.” The market revolution had just begun, a forming hierarchy and growing segmentation created and was fueling the questions about how dining cultures had changed. She kept asking what America would do with these ideals as the market revolution starts.

“Part of my book focuses on the elite restaurants,” Erby said. “They were a public stage for the elite to demonstrate cultural power and to justify their economic superiority through their consumer choices.”

Erby said that by the upper class showing they had manners and knowledge of etiquette, they would try to claim that they deserved their success. Work became separated from the home.

“Writing is a process, and you write and rewrite, and scrap it and start over,” Erby said. “That is okay. You learn a lot in doing that. Everyone does that.”

Erby’s advice to students is to immerse themselves in the sources, know your primary sources and be dogged in the pursuit of information. Leave no stone unturned.

“If you decide to go down the graduate school road and do research, it will be difficult,” Erby said. “You have to be ready to work hard, like to write and do research. Don’t take no for an answer.”