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The Culinary Entrepreneurs of Colonial America -Part 2 Cato Alexander

The Culinary Entrepreneurs of Colonial America -Part 2 Cato Alexander

Courtesy of the New York Public Library

Courtesy of the New York Public Library

In an effort to help Americans recover from the Great Depression US President Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR) launched his Works Progress Administration (WPA). WPA officials at the state level hired workers and scholars to travel throughout the country collecting stories that focused on various subjects including food traditions. A WPA administrator interested in food decided to publish a collection called America Eats. Here's the second in a series on New York City culinary entrepreneurs that draws on the knowledge found in these documents. Central questions that guides what follows are who were the entrepreneurs and what made their businesses profitable?

Cato Alexander was a culinary entrepreneur who owned and operated a renowned nineteenth century tavern.  Born enslaved in Virginia, Alexander used his gift for preparing and presenting food and mixology to purchase is freedom. He then moved to New York City where he opened and operated his first tavern which he called Cato’s on East 54th Street and 2nd Avenue. His signature dishes included fried chicken and roast duck. Alexander also coined the term cocktail, the act of personalizing alcoholic beverages such as a julep—bourbon, fresh mint, and sugar served over a bed of shaved ice and a gin-toddy—hot gin over a teaspoon of honey dissolved in water. In addition to alcoholic drinks, Alexander’s Virginia eggnog made from scratch attracted large numbers of customers and served as a cash cow for the tavern because of its low overhead to make.

White elites from prestigious New York City families such as the Beekmans and Van Courtlandts served as his most important customer base. The members of the Belvedere Hunting Club, a prestigious sporting organization, also served as another lucrative source of revenue. Another important client. An important factor that contributed to Cato’s success had been its ability to attract some of the wealthiest customers in 19th century New York City.

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