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A five-star feast for the book connoisseur: 'Turning the Tables' July Fourth

This July Fourth learn how the middle class has been "Turning the Tables" when it comes to fine dining.
This July Fourth learn how the middle class has been "Turning the Tables" when it comes to fine dining.
Courtesy of UNC Press

On a recent trip, one Examiner writer experienced a five-star meal in a five-star setting with five-star service. It didn't cost her a penny, and she knows for a fact she will not gain a single pound from the dining experience. But what amazed her the most is that it all took place in her mind--thanks to a book.

It happened on June 30, 2014, when the Atlanta Top News Examiner received a new book for review titled "Turning the Tables: Restaurants and the Rise of the American Middle Class, 1880-1920," written by Andrew P. Haley.

Haley, an assistant professor of American cultural history at the University of Southern Mississippi, was mentioned on a recent Freakonomics Radio podcast, when Stephen Dubner, one of the authors of "Think Like a Freak," was discussing dining and the habit of restaurants to provide free chips and bread to customers in America.

Dubner referred to Haley's book in the once-a-week broadcast, since it describes American restaurant history from a bygone era. He wanted to compare that history to current trends and discuss how things have evolved--or not evolved, as the case may be. And he obviously felt Haley was the go-to guy for that, and his "Turning the Tables" book was the go-to resource. So he referred to parts of it in the broadcast.

Out of curiosity (and because I like to compare my opinion to those espoused by others), I wrote and requested the book to review it. And slap me silly (Southern slang for 'oh my gosh'!), I cannot express the way this book has already impressed me, personally, and I have only read the three pages of its Acknowledgements section. But those three pages already offer a wealth of backstory about the book itself. And if you take a look at the cover, you will get an inkling of what is between the 236 pages still to come.

That said, I can hear the unspoken skepticism from my readers from where I sit typing, understandably confused about how a book on historical dining in America could be such a fascinating read, especially the acknowledgements section, no less. And to that I say that unless you pick up a copy of this book for yourself, you will never really know of what I speak. And that will be your loss, as even the 'think like a freak' guys realize its value.

Author and historian Andrew P. Haley has created a masterpiece if the rest of his book is anything like his letter of thanks to those who helped him create it. But given the lengthy list of noteworthy names mentioned in his section of thanks, it is no wonder this exceptionally well-written book is going to be such a page-turner.

At every pivotal turn in the writing of this book on dining in America, professor Haley either seeks out (or is blessed to come into contact with) a plethora of the most knowledgeable, detailed and dedicated academics familiar with the subject matter (or at the very least, they are familiar with the publication process to bring such a book to the consumer). That's why it was inevitable this book would become such a fascinating look at something the average American takes for granted every day: dining out.

So if learning all about the middle class dining habits from 1880 to 1920 interests you (trust me, it should), then pick up your own copy of this highly interesting book. It would make a great July Fourth read, as dining out is often part of that celebration, and you could participate this year with some facts about the past your friends and family might not know.

For those still on the sidelines about whether a book on historical dining could be as riveting as this Examiner claims, then just stay tuned, as a complete review will soon follow. And I promise not to disappoint you. After all, the University of North Carolina Press, which published this 236-page feast of words, has said that this book was a finalist in the 2012 International Association of Culinary Professionals Book Award in Culinary History. My only question is: Why in the world didn't it win?

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