Preserving Food’s Social History

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    La Segunda Bakery in Tampa, Florida, got one of the grants from the National Trust for Historic Preservation this year. (AP/Business Wire)
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    Pedestrians pass the Maneki restaurant in Seattle, Washington. (AP/Ted S. Warren)
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    A cook prepares charbroiled oysters at Antoine’s Restaurant in New Orleans, Louisiana. (AP/Gerald Herbert)
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    A waiter serves lunch to a group at Antoine’s Restaurant. (AP/Gerald Herbert)
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    Baker’s Keyboard Lounge in Detroit, Michigan, opened in the 1930s. (Dwight Burdette/CC BY 3.0)
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The National Trust for Historic Preservation has put its money where its mouth is—literally! In partnership with American Express, this nonprofit organization is helping to preserve dozens of restaurants across the United States.

The National Trust exists to protect important historical sites. It has preserved places like the home of artist Jackson Pollock and a cottage once occupied by President Abraham Lincoln.

Last year, the National Trust launched its most delicious endeavor yet: the Backing Historic Small Restaurant Grant Program. The program has provided one-time $40,000 grants to 50 restaurants.

When communities gather around a table to share food, culture flourishes. America’s oldest restaurants provide more than tasty food. They serve up a slice of American history. Their stories tell us about the diversity of experiences in American culture.

In 2021, the grant supported Maneki Restaurant in Seattle, Washington. This Japanese-owned restaurant has cooked up dishes like sukiyaki and shrimp tempura rolls since 1904. Even when the United States sent many residents and citizens of Japanese descent to internment camps during World War II, including the restaurant’s owners, the restaurant survived.

Last year’s round of grants also supported the world’s oldest jazz club, Baker’s Keyboard Lounge in Detroit, Michigan. The Lounge has hosted performances by legendary musicians such as John Coltrane and Louis Armstrong.

This year, the program supported Antoine’s Restaurant in New Orleans, Louisiana. It was founded in 1840. The popular dish Oysters Rockefeller was invented in Antoine’s kitchen.

Every restaurant on the list has its own story like these.

These historic businesses also face a modern threat. COVID-19 hit restaurants hard. In the face of a pandemic, many eateries switched off ovens and shuttered. That’s one reason the National Trust stepped in to help.

Sometimes, the U.S government financially aids businesses in crisis. But this leads to questions. How does the government decide which businesses to help? Where does the money come from? Should taxpayers be forced to support businesses?

But with the National Trust for Historic Preservation, the United States did something different. Congress created the group in 1949 through a congressional charter.

Congressional charters allow the federal government to create non-government groups with individual purposes and activities. Instead of using federal funds to protect historic sites, Congress established the National Trust to operate as a privately funded, non-profit organization. Rather than making taxpayers support the work, the organization allows donors to volunteer their support.

With that support, these restaurants just might dish out history in the future. 

Why? Like all other good art, good food is part of the creation of culture. When that culture needs protection, people can work together to help.