Angelenos, ales and Aristocrats

I’ve learned a lot about this subject matter but have less time to write it up, so am compressing. Dr. Marcus E. Crahan (1901-1978) was a psychiatrist who was Medical Director of the Los Angeles County Jail. Apart from his considerable gastronomic importance, he is remembered for his work involving investigation 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 very literate gastronome, a 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 that London-based, French-born André Simon established after 1933. Others included the New York, Boston, and Chicago chapters. This group were 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 website states in its regard that each branch has its own traditions while all generally follow IWFS policies (promotion of gastronomy, wine culture and education).

This means in part that accession to the Southern California branch is by invitation only. Many of the newer branches – California has some 20 alone – accept members by 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 many other facts and figures pertaining to its operation and the IWFS in general.

Clearly the L.A. wing were composed or at least directed by a social elite, some of the other key early members were Messrs. Converse, from the wine industry, and Hanna, another doctor. However, the extent of 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 does not appear in the book but Crahan states only a representative description of 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 its activity, had engaged in every kind of tasting and dinner that it ever would. Some of the 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 in Germany did not deter the group from essaying German wines, and in April,1938 German (and Alsatian) wines were tabled for the group’s 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 that is remembered to this day. 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 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 especially considering the early date.

It is no surprise craft beer took flight from the 1970s in the same state. One can credit in part the Wine and Food Society of Southern California for the beer revival, as of course for the steady growth of interest in American wines after WW II.

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

During WW II the book reports the group largely ceased its activities, holding only small gatherings. As I’ve mentioned earlier, the New York branch continued some tastings which gave it an opportunity to explore American viticulture with new attention, so the situation seems broadly comparable.

Below I also include a couple of pages from the book’s prologue. Crahan eloquently explained how the mingling of Yankee and Spanish cultures in his state produced a unique environment for the epicurean spirit to flourish, 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 wines 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 in 1941, it is mentioned in the extracts below.

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

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

Acme Brewery, which originated in San Francisco, was probably “the” Southern California brewery from the 1930s-1950s. It is a sign of the Society’s unsnobbish gastronomy that it awarded this prize consistently to a local dark beer.




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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