Early California Epicures Omit not the Beer
Dr. Marcus E. Crahan (1901-1978) was a psychiatrist and long-time Medical Director of 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 of a prominent California family, established for generations in the State. He was a bon vivant, bibliophile, and key early member of the Wine and Food Society of Southern California (originally, the Wine and Food Society of Los Angeles).
This group was one of the first American branches of the London-based International Wine and Food Society, established in 1933 by French-born culinary writer and wine expert André L. Simon.
Simon was the President and the Briton A.J.A. Symons, the Secretary. Simon edited the Society’s influential Wine and Food Journal.
The New York, Boston, and Chicago chapters of the WFS were all established between 1933 and 1935. This was a product of Simon’s indefatigable missionary efforts which ranged around the world. Many more chapters, in the U.S. and on other continents, followed in subsequent decades.
The Southern California branch continues today and unlike many branches has a somewhat exclusive aura. Many newer branches – California has about 20 in total – accept new members on application but the Southern California branch still vets new members.
The website of the International Wine and Food Society explains that each branch has its own traditions, which permits a degree of autonomy in the selection of members. Nonetheless, all branches follow general IWFS policies which include the promotion of gastronomy, wine culture, and food education.
In 1955, 20 years after the Southern California branch was founded, Crahan prepared a comprehensive history of the group, which you can read here. It is an invaluable record that describes many early branch dinners and other information on its activities, and the IWFS in general.
The early Los Angeles branch counted many socially prominent Californians, an elite if you will. Key members included W.I. Converse, Sr., from the wine industry, and Dr. Phil Hanna, another medico.
Nonetheless their culinary and wine adventuring showed a questing spirit, one rather in tune with today’s world cuisine ethos. The members tasted and drank – early on I stress – from a wide geographical and cultural range of gastronomy.
By 1955 the group had held no less than 155 sessions. Even by 1937-1938 Crahan writes that the group had reached a pitch of its activity, engaging in every kind of tasting and dinner it ever would. These included a prophetic Chilean wine tasting and dinner, an Armenian dinner, Swedish and English dinners, and a foray into Peruvian cuisine and pisco brandy.
Among the drinks tasted at events, stand-alone and with meals, whiskey and certain well-known spirits spirits are not (in the book) represented. But Crahan included only representative dinners, so the group may have held some early spirits tastings for whiskey, rum or tequila. Wines of all sorts were extensively sampled including from the restored American wine business (i.e., post-Repeal), one still in gestation in the 30s, 40s, and 50s.
The onset of the Nazi era in Germany seemingly did not deter the group from sampling German wine. In April 1938 German (and Alsatian) wines were included in tastings.
Andre Simon even published a book, German Wines, in 1939 that apparently was supported by Germany’s Ministry of Agriculture. Until the war directly engaged America such activities were not viewed askance by public opinion then. Perhaps the epicureans came to regret these dubious actions, yet this is part of L.A. branch history.
Crahan’s book includes a bibliography of Simon’s writings, it is a lengthy and comprehensive listing of works by the prolific writer. It is especially impressive for someone who not only left school at 17, but was writing in his second language. A letter from Simon to Crahan is included that itself constitutes an important review of the International Wine and Food Society.
Bruiting the Beer and Wine of the Country
Did the Los Angeles group ignore beer? Not at all. It held at least one full-scale beer tasting on September 7, 1938. Nowhere in the book does Crahan give any indication that he or fellow-members considered beer inferior to their more typically indulged wine interest.
At the time this approach to beer was unusual, certainly in upper echelon society. Perhaps California by its nature – the later pattern of settlement, the multi-cultural cast, the climate, favoured a more expansive approach to beer than many American branches would have abided.
The branch conferred an award each year for the best non-wine beverage, i.e., spirit or beer. Acme Bock, brewed in California, consistently won. Clearly the Society was willing where appropriate to place domestic brewing on a par with reputed, international brands.
Carlsberg beer, from Denmark, won the award in 1939, an example of its longstanding eminence. (Whether merited today is another question, in our view).
Is it any surprise that modern craft brewing arose in 1970s California? One can credit in some small part Dr. Crahan’s group for the beer revival, as it viewed the subject in a serious way decades before the small brewery revival. One way or another such attention seeps into the larger culture.
California wine figured almost from the beginning in the group’s activities. As quality and availability grew so did the Napa and other Californian wines in their tastings. The group also organized tours of newly re-born wineries, for example in Santa Clara, CA.
Crahan published a separate book on California wines. Another member, Maynard McFie, published a California wine commentary in 1941, perhaps the first to appear after commercia winemaking restarted in 1933.
The book makes clear that during WW II the group ceased most activities but it still held small gatherings. As I discussed earlier, the New York branch of the IWFS continued its tasting programme between 1942 and 1945.
This gave its members the opportunity to examine American viticulture from a new angle – necessity – as foreign wines from traditionally favoured nations were not available. The situation seems broadly comparable for the L.A. group in this period.
Surely the enforced focus on local, and also hemispheric, wines by prestige American gastronomers helped foster the positive image American wine increasingly gained after WW II.
Below appear a couple of pages from Crahan’s prologue. He eloquently explains how mingling Yankee and Spanish cultures in California produced a unique gastronomy. It’s a phenomenon that later was repeated for many other cuisines in many places.
In general the L.A. group approached food and drink in a way similar to today’s podcasts, the Food Network, and the other media that publicise and augment our modern food and wine culture.
What’s changed is, simply, the democratization factor: what was once a hobby or networking tool for the privileged, the well-heeled has gone mainstream, or at least, to a much greater extent than the 1930s-1970s.
The New York branch of the IWFS, indeed all the U.S. branches, were important in this total picture but none more so than the L.A. chapter in our view, given its location in the epicentre of quality American wine culture, California, and the larder the state has always been especially for fruit and vegetables.
Note re images: all images above are via the HathiTrust digital library, from the book linked in the text. 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.