Posted by: acooksca | 06/18/2009

Feeding L.A. in the Great Depression

Broadway at 7th in Los Angeles, 1930

Broadway at 7th in Los Angeles, 1930

Here’s a recipe for failing in the restaurant business: open during The Great Depression. Hang flashing neon signs inviting customers to “Pay What You Wish”, and “Dine Free Unless Delighted”, or pay nothing if you are unable. Then open the doors in Downtown Los Angeles to thousands every day. That was the business plan of Clifford E. Clinton, son of missionaries and a man with his own mission: see that no one goes hungry. During one 90-day period during the depression, 10,000 people ate for free at his cafeterias.
Los Angeles was hit particularly hard in the 1930’s. Not only because of the loss of jobs in California due to the depression. But more because of the tidal wave of destitute families arriving every day with their meager possessions packed in an old car. They drove to Southern and Central California looking for work and a way to feed themselves.
From 1930 to 1936 great ecological and agricultural damage occurred to the American and Canadian prairies. The causes were multiple. Decades of farming without regard to sustaining the topsoil collided with a drought that turned much of the great plains into The Dust Bowl. Intense wind storms swept across 100 million acres of the Texas panhandle, Oklahoma and adjacent states. Clouds of dust called “black blizzards” reduced visibility to a few feet as they swept across the East Coast and out into the Atlantic. By 1940, 2.5 million people had moved out of the Plains states. A million people migrated to California. So many license plates had the OK of Oklahoma they became known collectively as Okies.
Conditions deteriorated in California where the sudden influx of so many out-of-state poor stressed resources already made slim by the depression. Every agricultural job would attract hundreds of eager workers. The Okies worked for starvation wages, forcing California farmhands out of a job. Cities, over-run with needy families, began to pass laws prohibiting recent arrivals from receiving public aid, squatting on public lands or loitering about downtown.
Hunger was a very real threat for the Okies. But there was always a wholesome meal and friendly service at Clifton’s Cafeterias … whether you could pay or not. Founder Clifford Clinton was greatly moved by the poverty and hunger he saw in China while a child. When his family returned to California in the 1920’s he worked in his father’s cafeteria in San Francisco. But he was compelled to open his own cafeteria in Los Angeles with the humanitarian mission of never turning away a hungry soul. In 1931 he opened the first of several large dining halls built on the concept of self-serve wholesome food in a welcoming environment.
Clifton’s Cafeterias not only survived the depression but today serve 1800-2000 meals a day. Clifton’s Brookdale sits on Broadway near 7th  in the tawdry remnants of the once thriving jewelry district. The neighbors are cheap notions and clothes shops sandwiched between closed movie theaters and flop houses. The real jewel is Clifton’s, the oldest surviving cafeteria in Los Angeles and, with 600 seats on 3 floors, the largest public cafeteria in the world.
You enter the front door and are directed down a seemingly endless cold table with individual dishes of macaroni salad, marinated vegetables, coleslaw…all freshly plated. An immense steam table offers bean soup and oxtail stew, fried chicken, roasted turkey and lasagna, constantly refreshed by staff. A large roast beef is carefully tended by a carver. Slide your tray past drinks and classic house-baked desserts to cashiers who greet everyone as a welcome guest.
Clinton wanted to ease one’s sense of a troubled reality while dining in his establishments. The Clifton’s Brookdale is a

Poster for Clifton's, 1960's

Poster for Clifton's, 1960's

theatrical recreation of Clinton’s favorite childhood retreat in the Santa Cruz Mountains. Your faux-wood topped dining table sits next to a meandering stream that starts as a waterfall 2 floors above. Life-sized stags gaze out from a forested wall and redwood trees support the ceiling. Look for raccoons amidst the ferns. Or just admire the peacefulness of this setting while noticing the cross section of Angelinos still finding comfort in Clinton’s vision. And as always, you “Dine Free Unless Delighted”.
In addition to feeding L.A. during the Great Depression, Clifford Clinton is remembered for forming Citizens Independent Vise Investigating Committee (CIVIC) intent on ridding the city of corrupt politicians. CIVIC was composed of 500 outstanding church, business and public organizations. The investigations and subsequent Grand Jury trials were so unpopular with the Los Angeles Mayor and Police Chief that they used influence in Sacramento to block all funding. Clinton paid them out of his own pocket.
In October of 1937 dynamite blew off the back of Clinton’s home. Soon after, violence struck the chief investigator, Harry Raymond, and he was almost killed when a car bomb exploded demolishing his car and throwing him clear. The head of the vice squad and two of his officers were convicted of planting the explosive and public outcry finally erupted. There were political recalls and the expelling of racketeers and gambling bosses, many who moved to Las Vegas.
Clifton’s Cole Slaw (from Clifton’s brochure)
One of our longest surviving and still most popular recipes is Clifton’s Cole Slaw. We estimate we have sold more than 20,000,000 orders.
Shredded cabbage                          ¾ lb.
Granulated Sugar                            2 Tbsp.
Salt                                                ½ tsp.
Mayonnaise                                     ½ cup
Vinegar, cider                                  1 ½ Tbsp.
1. Toss together cabbage, sugar ans salt.
2. Let stand 5-10 minutes to allow cabbage to bleed. Don’t drain off juice.
3. While cabbage is “bleeding” combine mayonnaise and vinegar. Mix well. Fold this thoroughly into the cabbage.
4. Refrigerate until needed.     Serves 4-5
Clifton’s (Brookdale) Cafeteria
648 South Broadway, ( at 7th st) L.A.  90014 
Open 7 days, 6:30 – 7:30pm
Little Known Tales in California History by Alton Pryor : 1997 Stagecoach Publishing, Roseville, CA


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