Angelenos, ales and Aristocrats

Dr. Marcus E. Crahan (1901-1978) was a psychiatrist and Medical Director of the Los Angeles County Jail. Apart from his considerable importance in gastronomy, he is remembered for his investigations of the deaths of Robert F. Kennedy and Marilyn Monroe.

Crahan was from a prominent California family established for generations in the state. He was a bon vivant, bibliophile, literate gastronome, and key early member of the Wine and Food Society of Southern California (originally, the Wine and Food Society of Los Angeles).

The group was one of the first American branches that followed establishment of the parent group in London in 1933 by French-born culinary writer and wine authority André L. Simon (President) and A.J.A. Symons (Secretary). Simon edited the Society’s influential Wine and Food Journal.

The New York, Boston, and Chicago chapters were all set up in the same period, from 1933-1935, due to Simon’s indefatigable, world-roaming missionary efforts.

The Southern California branch continues today and retains an exclusive aura. The International Wine and Food Society’s website states that each branch has its own traditions. This permits a degree of autonomy in the selection of members by each branch. Nonetheless, all branches follow general IWFS policies regarding promotion of gastronomy, wine culture, and education.

Hence, membership in the Southern California branch is by invitation only. Many of the more recently-established branches – California has some 20 alone – accept new members on application.

20 years after the Southern California branch was founded, in 1955, Crahan compiled a history of the group, which you can read here. It is an invaluable record, one that contains not just numerous early menus but other data concerning its operation, and on the IWFS in general.

Clearly the early L.A. wing was composed of, or at least directed by, the socially prominent, an elite if you will. Some of the other key early members were W.I. Converse, Sr., from the wine industry, who knew Simon professionally, and Phil Hanna, another doctor.

But still their culinary and wine adventures show a questing, democratic spirit. The members tasted and drank almost everything in their day that could reasonably be found and considered of gastronomic interest, with a wide geographical and cultural scope.

Truth be told the subject of whiskey, an interest of Beer et Seq, does not appear in the book. Yet, as Crahan writes that only representative dinners were included, the L.A. group may have held early whiskey-tastings, and perhaps for rum or tequila. After all by 1955 the group had held no less than 155 sessions.

Even as early as 1937-1938 the group had reached a pitch of activity, according to Crahan, and had engaged in every kind of tasting and dinner that it ever would! These activities included a prescient Chilean wine tasting and dinner, an Armenian dinner, Swedish and English dinners, and a foray into Peruvian cuisine and pisco brandy.

The onset of the Nazi era did not deter the group from sampling German wines. In April 1938 German (and Alsatian) wines were tabled for assessment by members, for example.

Andre Simon published a book called German Wines in 1939 that apparently had support from Germany’s Ministry of Agriculture. Until the war directly entangled America, such activities were not viewed askance in general American society.

Craven’s book sets out a bibliography of Simon’s writings, a lengthy, comprehensive list of works by the prolific author. It is especially impressive for someone who left school at 17 and was writing in a second language. A letter from Simon to Crahan is included which itself constitutes a revealing short history of the International Wine and Food Society.

Did the Society’s activities in Los Angeles ignore beer? Not at all. Below I include details of a beer tasting it held on September 7, 1938. Nowhere in the book does Crahan give any indication he or others considered beer inferior to their (more usual) wine studies.

Today we take this relationship for granted but at the time the approach was unusual. Is it any surprise craft brewing took flight from the 1970s in the same state? One can credit in some small part the Wine and Food Society of Southern California for the West Coast beer revival, as certainly for the steady growth of interest in California wines after WW II.

California wine figures almost from the beginning in the group’s activities. As quality and availability grew so did the number of Napa and other state wines in their tastings. They also toured post-Prohibition wineries in the state, for example in Santa Clara.

During WW II, the book makes clear, the group largely ceased its activities, and only held small gatherings. As I’ve mentioned earlier, the New York branch continued its tastings during 1942-1945, on a modified basis. This gave it the opportunity to examine American viticulture with new attention. The situation seems broadly comparable for the L.A. group.

We can conclude that the enforced seeking of local, or hemispheric, wines helped set a new direction for wine in America after WW II.

Below you can read a couple of pages from Crahan’s prologue. He eloquently explains how the mingling of Yankee and Spanish cultures produced a unique environment in California for the epicurean spirit. It’s a phenomenon that went national, finally.

Think of our modern world of TV cooking competitions and food or wine-themed road shows, blogs or podcasts, and celebrity chefs. It descends in part from the thousands of food and beverage events held by Wine and Food Society branches in the decades following founding of the parent group.

What’s changed really, apart from the ephemeral nature of (many) food and drink trends, is the democratization of interest in these matters. What was once a hobby or social network for the privileged and well-heeled has gone mainstream, a tribute to American ideals and democracy in that specific context.

The New York branch, as indeed all the U.S. branches, were important in this development but given that California members were located in America’s premier wine state, their early explorations of California wine is significant.

Crahan himself published a book on notable California wines. L.A. Society member Maynard McFie published a commentary as early as 1941, perhaps the first of its type after restoration of commercial winemaking in 1933. See also pg. 44 of the book and the summary as of 1952 of the many awards Wente winery had won, including for its Pinot Chardonnay.

Turning to beer again, it is noteworthy that Crahan, Converse et al. conferred an annual award for the best non-wine beverage and that Acme Bock, brewed in California, consistently won. Carlsberg beer, from Denmark, won the award in 1939, an example of recognizing a famous foreign marque.

This shows the Society was willing, as applicable, to place domestic brewing on a par with reputed international names. Further, it evidently disregarded the commonly-held view that beer was a beverage for plebeian tastes.

The Society’s un-snobbish, prophetic, and non-discriminatory beer interest shows that keen attention to good local beer long pre-dated the craft beer surge in California from the 1980s until today.

 

 

 

Note re images: all images above except the Acme Bock image are via the HathiTrust digital library, from the book linked in the text. The Acme Bock image is from the Tavern Trove site, here. All intellectual property in the images belongs solely to their lawful owner or authorized user, as applicable. Images are used for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.

 

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