Before the controversial Research Works Act of 2011, there was another RWA — one lost in the sands of time. Reflecting a bitter controversy between American farmers and American restauranteurs, the Restaurant Welfare Act sought to make free to all Americans foodstuffs subsidized by taxpayer funds.
Digging into the archival news coverage of the time, the parallels are eerie. A group of gourmands in what one journalist called “fancy-pants East Coast eateries” argued that they shouldn’t have to pay for tomatoes, potatoes, corn, wheat, barley, lettuce, and myriad other foods grown thanks to taxpayer subsidies — after all, they had already paid for these foodstuffs once, and all the chefs were doing was taking these, stirring them about with a few other cheap ingredients, and serving them back to them, the taxpayer who had paid for them in the first place.
Mortimer Mauny, called “Mo” by his friends, led this movement, the Open Eating (OE) movement. Due to their connections with well-placed politicians in the Eisenhower Administration, the OE movement gained traction on a Capitol Hill exhausted by McCarthyism and braced for the Cold War. For many politicians of the day, having a domestic squabble with easy talking points proved too appealing to resist.
“The Open Eating movement seeks to give back to the taxpayer the vegetables, grains, and meats they have already paid for and which nature has provided us,” roared Wayne E. Day (R-KS), who ran on a pro-farm platform. “Not only have the taxpayers paid for these foodstuffs, but the free labor of the farmer, their children, and their horses should not be exploited by chefs and cooks, who do nothing more than add spice, mix ingredients, and put things on plates.”
Citing a study showing that a plate of spaghetti with marinara sauce cost a New York restaurant a total of $1.05 for the raw ingredients, the same plate of pasta could sell from between $3.50 to $22.50 in local restaurants, Day railed against what he called “dining rooms exploiting taxpayer-funded crops.”
“Every American citizen has a right to good food,” Day declaimed at a rally in Albany, NY. “We paid for it once. We shouldn’t have to pay for it again.”
Chefs and others in the food industry were naturally put on the defensive.
“We make food safe and delicious,” said one chef who remained nameless in reports from this period. “Who wants to eat an old tomato over a pile of dry, flavorless semolina? We turn these things into a delicious sauce, delicate pasta, and serve it in an environment the patrons enjoy. There is a status in eating at our restaurants, there is romance, there is identity. Is it wonton or pierogi or dumpling? Only the restaurant and the chef can tell you by how we prepare it. We choose our ingredients carefully, and we prepare it so everyone is happy and safe.”
The OE movement hit some stumbling blocks early on, however. Because farmers could only get to participating OE restaurants by traveling great distances, the movement soon became known as a way for East Coast elites to get more for less. According to press clipping from the period, the OE movement was most popular with university professors, who had proximity to restaurants but salaries they struggled to stretch.
At one point, OE advocates began creating a system in which farmers could use their government subsidies to pre-pay for meals in restaurants who agreed to provide OE meals. These meals would then be free to any patron who ordered them. Because this would have redirected funds from food production, farmers didn’t participate at the level OE boosters had anticipated.
Reacting to their members’ concerns about the RWA, the Culinary Institute of America (CIA) went to battle, introducing the Food-chain Reset Point Authorization Act (FRPAA, pronounced “frappé”). This countermanding bill would have cast into law the requirement that all taxpayer subsidies of farm-grown foods be considered ended at the point of receipt — the farmer — and not carry over into the extended food chain. The argument was that once farmers received the subsidies, the obligation and contract with the government was fulfilled, and no carry-over obligations could be imposed on restauranteurs, chefs, or household cooks.
“Imagine what insanity might erupt if a single taxpayer subsidy or grant were allowed to create a chain of obligations throughout any segment of our economy,” a White House spokesman was quoted at the time. “The Federal government enables many economic engines by providing foundational funding. The foundational funds are exhausted once their intent has been met. There is no subsequent obligation or Congressional intent. The proposal that one-time funding created ongoing systemic pre-paid statuses is preposterous.”
Ultimately, the RWA and FRPAA debates (called toward the end “a food fight”) stalemated in Congress as more important national issues surfaced — Sputnik, the space race, and the Cuban missile crisis, just to name a few.