A Champagne New Year’s Eve, 1942

New York Celebrates Under Unusual Circumstances

Earlier I discussed wartime menus of the Wine and Food Society of New York. I reviewed menus that indicated once war was afoot, the wine-lovers avoided tabling German and Italian wines. After France was fully occupied, in the fall of 1940, French wine also disappeared from the menus, the odd exception of a minor nature apart.

The Society’s events were held at fashionable New York hotels. The Waldorf-Astoria was a favourite, indeed into the 1970s at least.  Because the hotel’s wine vaults were used (or so we infer) it occurred to me the policy of “no-Axis wines” was promoted, if not mandated, by the hotels themselves.

The gem discussed below is a wine menu from the Waldorf dated December 31, 1942, for a New Year’s Eve supper with musical entertainment. Hence it is an example of the hotel’s approach to offering wines in wartime outside the context of the Wine and Food Society.

The full menu can be read here, in the archives of The Culinary Institute of America, accessible via the estimable Hudson River Valley Heritage website.

The dinner was held, not in the Grand Ballroom where Guy Lombardo and his Royal Canadians serenaded New Year’s arrival for many years, but in the Waldorf’s Lounge, later known as the Bull and Bear, a bar and steak restaurant.

The menu is rather spare or informal. I am not certain if war conditions imposed this or it was more dictated by the nature of the entertainment. Such late-evening suppers were a second or deferred dinner for many, and the practice may have been to offer a less elaborate meal than a normal dinner service, even pre-war that is.

Yet the Champagne list is luxurious and – heavily French. There are a total of 22 Champagnes, and 10 domestic sparklers.

Indeed the champagnes are weighted to vintage bottlings (the wine of the named year’s harvest, not a blending of different years’), with prices to match. Domestic sparklers came from different regions including New Jersey. The Garden State’s Renault winery, still going strong, supplied a champagne. We profiled Renault some time ago in these pages.

The shimmering menu cover conveys traditional Waldorf elegance with a contrasting image of a society figure toasting a man in uniform. He could be an officer in the armed services, but the image also could suggest a service employee: doorman, bellman, chauffeur, or possibly a policeman.

My sense is the designer wanted to be inclusive in this sense, a democratic gesture in a time of national upheaval and the war economy.

The menu is a curio that demonstrates that despite the war civilized life carried on in the U.S., indeed to a greater degree than most other Allied nations. This was due not to any particular insouciance of the U.S. population. The U.S., and Canada too, suffered great losses fighting Hitler and Tojo although not on the scale of Russia or Britain.

I attribute the Champagne indulgence to the fact that the U.S. was comparatively wealthy: if it could drink wine of the type traditional for New Year’s, it would.

Wine writer Michael Broadbent has written (see p. 427) that despite fine postwar French vintages for Champagne, especially in 1945 and 1947, those wines when landed in London had a hard go of it. The reason was, he said, there was plenty of prewar stock to use up first.

So the notion that might be intuitive to many, that prewar French wines in London and New York were exhausted by 1945 was not the case for London certainly, and we see here a similar example for New York, part-way through the war. I suspect there was plenty of prewar French wine in the cellars of both London and New York hotels through the war years but high price or a disinclination of customers to buy wines of a German-occupied country, or both, prevented early depletion of stocks.

I’m not sure about German wines though, I’d guess hotels in Allied countries did not offer these on general menus in the war years. If so, there must have been plenty to sell after the Germans surrendered unconditionally in April 1945.

The eschewing of wines from Axis countries or nations under their yoke by the New York Wine and Food Society between 1940-1945 was probably, withal, a policy of the Society. Apart from being commendable if that was the case, exploring domestic and in some cases South American wine resources opened new fields of vinous interest to gastronomes, something that grew considerably after WW II.

Putting it a different way, had the war never happened, one wonders if domestic wines would be held in high esteem as they are today. As the old adage has it though, necessity is the mother of invention, and its onset often produces cultural changes of an enduring nature.

Note re images: the original 1942 menu, linked in the text from the Culinary Institute of America, is the source for the three images above. All intellectual property in the menu belongs solely to the lawful owner or authorized user, as applicable. Images are used for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.



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