A Pioneer of the Modern Food Scene

A key figure in the revival and promotion of American food culture after National Prohibition was Jeanne Owen.

She was a longtime senior officer of the Wine and Food Society of New York, from 1934 until 1965. In that period she was the motivating force for its taste events and dinners. Her great knowledge of cookery, wine, and the New York hotel and restaurant scene proved invaluable for the job.

She knew James Beard well, among many other New York food luminaries, and helped promote his career. She also published on cookery, including A Wine Lover’s Cook Book (1940), and wrote for food and wine magazines around the country.

A detailed profile of Owen by journalist Naomi Jolles appeared in the New York Post in August 1945. It started this way:

Some seven times a year a group of approximately 500 New Yorkers gather at one or another of the city’s swankier hotels to give their taste buds a workout. In an atmosphere of esoteric gourmandizing, they sip at Madeiras, stouts, champagnes, rums and brandies (depending on the occasion) and nibble away at smoked fish and exotic cocktail biscuits.

Lady Make-It-All-Possible of these affairs is Jeanne Owen, a fluffy white-haired woman with a face that really expresses what she tastes. As secretary of the Wine and Food Society, Inc., Mrs. Owen serves as a liaison between the wine, liquor and food companies and that portion of the public that really cares about food and drink.

The numbers attending these events speak for themselves, bearing in mind too the war in Europe had just ended and the Pacific War was still ongoing. Despite the travails and sacrifices of the war consumer America was reviving, and looking to the future.

The story described some of the high and occasional low points of the Society’s work. A high point was its Long Island oyster-tastings, which I’ve described earlier.

Owen was French-born, which clearly assisted working with the International Wine and Food Society in London. Its founder André Simon was a Frenchman who had transplanted to Britain after World War I.

Before moving to New York Owen had lived in northern California, a centre of food innovation through the 20th century into our own. In the late 20s and early 30s she worked in New York theatre and on radio, and became an accomplished amateur chef. This diverse background made her perfect for the Wine and Food Society job.

She quickly became its driving force and wrote its monthly newsletter as well.

Jolles wrote:

The bill is $10 a year [to join the Society], $15 for a couple, and is an excellent investment for those who are not so well off, according to Mrs. Owen. “When you are not too rich, but still want a bottle of good wine, you can’t afford to make a mistake,” she says. “You can’t sample brands and stocks in a shop, but through the tastings, you always know what pleases you the most.”

Social media today operates in much the same fashion …

In 1958 the New York press again profiled Ms. Owen, see herein the New York Times. The second treatment is more sophisticated, but what comes through in both is the intention to popularize what had been an elite activity: food and wine for their inherent enjoyment, vs. mere sustenance or as received tradition.

This implies as well a learning opportunity, viz. cultures and experiences different from one’s own.

In 1958 Owen noted that young people were the most enthusiastic members of the Society. In the early days (1930s-40s) event programmes were cast on the floor when people left. By the 50s, people took them home: they wanted to learn.

1945, 1958. Food and wine in New York. What looks like distant times, distant preoccupations, is very much a piece of where we are today.