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 gastronomic importance, 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, and literate gastronome, a 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 of the International Wine and Food Society that London-based, French-born André Simon established after 1933. Others include the New York, Boston, and Chicago chapters, all set up about the same time – 1933-1935.

The Southern California branch continues today and retains an exclusive aura: the International Wine and Food Society’s website states in its regard that each branch has its own traditions (thus permitting a degree of exclusivity) but all generally follow IWFS policies viz promotion of gastronomy, wine culture, and education.

This means joining the Southern California branch is by invitation only. Many of the newer branches – California has some 20 alone – accept 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 much other data concerning its operation, and the IWFS in general.

Clearly the L.A. wing was composed of, or at least directed by a social elite. Some of the other key early members were a Mr. Converse, from the wine industry, and Hanna, another doctor. However, their culinary and wine adventures shows a questing, democratic spirit. They tasted almost everything in their day that could reasonably be found and considered of possible interest to those with a fin bec.

Truth be told the word whiskey, an interest of Beer et Seq, does not appear in the book but Crahan states only representative dinners was included, so the L.A. group may have held events for whiskey, and probably rum. After all by 1955 it had held 155 meetings.

Crahan also states that as early as 1937-1938 the group had reached a pitch of activity, and engaged in every kind of tasting and dinner that it ever would. Some of these events were a 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 essaying German wines. In April 1938 German, and Alsatian, wines were tabled for assessment.

Indeed Simon published a book, 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 contains a bibliography of Simon’s writings, a lengthy, comprehensive list remembered to this day. It is especially impressive for someone who left school in France at 17 and was writing in a second language. A letter from Simon to Crahan is included which itself is a short history of the International Wine and Food Society and is of interest on many accounts.

Did the Society in L.A. ignore beer? Not at all, and 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 lesser in relation to their more usual) wine devotions. This is commendable considering the early date.

It is no 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 beer revival, as for the steady growth of interest in American wines after WW II.

California wine figures almost from the beginning in the group’s tastings. As quality and availability grew so did the number of wines, and American focus, in their tastings.

During WW II, the book reports, the group largely ceased its activities and held only small gatherings. As I’ve mentioned earlier, the New York branch did hold wartime tastings which gave it an opportunity to examine American viticulture with new attention, so the situation seems broadly comparable to the L.A. group in this regard.

Below I set out a couple of pages from the book’s prologue. Crahan eloquently explains how the mingling of Yankee and Spanish cultures produced a unique environment for the epicurean spirit to flourish. It’s something that went national, finally.

The New York branch – indeed all the U.S. branches – were important in this regard but given Crahan and his fellow Angelenos were located in America’s premier wine state their early promotion of California wine is especially significant.

Indeed Crahan himself published a book on California wines in the 1940s. And L.A. Society member Maynard McFie published a commentary on significant California wines as early as 1941, it is mentioned in the extracts below.

Another example of prescient California wine interest – at a time when California was struggling to reset the wine business after Prohibition – is a joint visit to the Santa Clara vineyards with members of the San Francisco branch.

Finally, and viz. beer again, the L.A. group conferred an annual award for the best non-wine beverage. Acme Bock Beer consistently won, see pp. 44-45 for the listings. Carlsberg beer (from Denmark) won the award in 1939.

Acme Brewery, which originated in San Francisco, was probably the Southern California brewery in the 1930s-1950s. It’s a sign of the Society’s unsnobbish gastronomy that it awarded this prize consistently to a local dark beer. After all this is many decades before the craft beer movement flooded the state with breweries.

 

 

 

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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