Thursday, February 18, 2016

Most people may think of cake mixes when they hear the name Duncan Hines, but the entrepreneur was America's first roving restaurant critic. Read on for a look at how he changed road trips and eating out for today's diners.

"The fried chicken in this establishment makes a man wish for a hollow leg."

Most of us hear the words "Duncan Hines," and the words "add egg, oil, and water" come to mind. But Hines, who wrote the memorable sentence above, was more than a cake mix: He was America's original roving restaurant critic, and arguably he changed the shape—and safety—of dining for years to come, especially for travelers on the road.

The "hollow leg" quote hails from a Tin House essay Rick Moody wrote just more than a decade ago, about a then-new Hines biography. At the time, I was working at a fancy, stressful literary agency in midtown Manhattan for $24,000 a year—my first job in New York. Moody's profile was so flush with color and pop that I knew I both needed to write about food for a living and plot a trip to eat my way through the fried chicken shacks of the South … some day.

This March, I'll finally have the chance, wending my way through North Carolina, Tennessee, South Carolina, and Georgia, en route to a writers' colony. To help me plan the last leg of my itinerary, which has been confounding for this Yankee, I plunked down $10 for a copy of Duncan Hines's bright red book "Adventures in Good Eating" (1952) on a whim.

Although Craig Claiborne of the New York Times often is credited with founding modern restaurant criticism, Hines predates him. A salesman by trade, he began scribbling his opinion of various restaurants in a little notebook he kept as early as 1905, sharing his reviews with traveling salesman friends. As his biography author, Louis Hatchett, told me, "Before Duncan Hines came along, more people died from restaurant food poisoning than they did from hit-and-run accidents."

Hines and his wife, who liked to accompany him on his sales trips, would walk into a restaurant and make an unusual request, which he reiterated to his readers: "Go into a restaurant and first, demand to see the kitchen and inspect it," Hatchett says. "Then eat in the restaurant. If they won't let you into the kitchen, just leave."

The idea of doing that today, when restaurants must adhere to stricter health guidelines, is incredible. Nowadays, we regularly look for good restaurants but often don't consider their health effects. But for travelers in the early 20th century, Hines's book must have been a lifeline. "Let's say you're out in the middle of nowhere. Let's say you're a traveling salesman in a strange town," Hatchett says. "You don't know where to eat." Eventually, as Hines's notes became popular, he started publishing out of his own home. By 1936 he'd published his first bound pamphlet. Voilà. "You reach for Duncan Hines's book, and you know where to go."

In his introduction, Hines writes, "There is no accounting for tastes in food any more than there is in clothing, printing, or marriage." This sort of inscrutable wisdom populates the pages of his book. Reviews are often so brief that they read as tweets: "Get the lobster. Yum-yum." But when he likes a place, as he did the J.L. Hudson Tea Rooms in Detroit, Michigan, he becomes downright loquacious: "This splendid department store has devoted the greater part of a floor to the tea rooms. The food is at all times very tempting and the service has that quality of quiet elegance which adds so much to the pleasure of dining."

It's purple prose, but it's charming. And you can't disregard Hines's journalistic standards: "No place listed in this book has paid one cent directly or indirectly for what is said about it." That's more than can be said of many food publications today.

Hines was not a perfect human by any stretch—his review of a now-defunct Japanese restaurant in New York City includes mockery of the waiter's non-native accent—reflecting the cultural biases and racism of the times to an extent that can make the reader cringe. So what could a modern traveler learn from this man, who has visited thousands of (now-closed) hotels and restaurants?

Hines was perhaps our first locavore critic

"One thing that he was really really big on was to eat according to the geography," Hatchett says. "If you're near the Atlantic you want to eat fish, if you're in Baltimore you want to eat crabs, in Louisiana you want to eat crawfish and gumbo, and in the south you want to eat fried chicken."

Try new things

Looking at listings—even for defunct restaurants—tipped me off to the existence of local specialties called "mountain honey" and "chicken Tetrazzini," a popular noodle casserole.

Appreciate local history

As I Googled places to see if they were still open—maybe I should stop in Chattanooga along the way?—I learned that the legendary Fehn's Restaurant on Georgia Avenue just shuttered two years ago, after a move to Dayton, where the grandchildren of the original owners reopened it as "Fehn's 1891 House."

I'm currently in New Orleans, where Galatoire's has long been on my must-go list. Hines gifted it with a rare exclamation point: "Specialties: sea foods, of course, with trout Amandine, trout Marguery, oysters a la Poulette and a very special dessert, 'Princess cup' (fruit salad, vanilla ice cream, Port wine)—it's delicious!" The menu may have changed, but because Galatoire's is still renowned, this was a welcome reminder to revisit the old-school standard bearers.

Go off the grid

Flipping through these pages, especially in the Maine and Massachusetts sections, is to note that Hines took the off-the-beaten path method to finding great food. It's an approach echoed by some modern critics, too, but it can be tricky to remember to do in an era dominated by Yelp and Foursquare.

Be more open

Hines posted his address, along with a photo of his estate, right at the beginning of his books: "Home-Office, Duncan Hines, Author: 2 Miles N. on Highway 31-W, Bowling Green, Kentucky." He encouraged his readers to stop by and say hello. "People would come in and visit; he was very open about it," Hatchett says.

Though I'm not likely to be quite such an open book in my travels, it's a nice reminder to this reserved Yankee to be a bit more hospitable—some might say Southern—as she drives.

Most people may think of cake mixes when they hear the name Duncan Hines, but the entrepreneur was America's first roving restaurant critic. Read on for a look at how he changed road trips and eating out for today's diners.

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