August 5 2015 Recreation of Historic New York Beer Tasting

IMG_6947                                                                                                                                                                                                                                       (Image courtesy Rick Radell, Toronto)

INTRODUCTORY REMARKS OF GARY GILLMAN AFTER JOHN MAXWELL INTRODUCED ME TO INVITEES AT AUGUST 5, 2015 RECREATION OF HISTORIC (1944) WALDORF ASTORIA, NYC “TASTING OF BEERS, ALES AND STOUTS WITH COMPLEMENTARY FOODS”.

[Below is the printed version on which my speech was based, inevitably it wandered a bit from the strict text but not the spirit.  It was a great evening].

Thanks to everyone for attending this event, very much, and to John Maxwell for believing in this project and making it happen “on the ground”. No one could do it better, due to John’s unquestioned status as one of Toronto’s premier restaurateurs. John, also, has been a long-time supporter of fine beer, and fine local wines, in Dora Keogh’s, and Allen’s next door, in our fair city.

I am a full-time business lawyer in Toronto and research beer and brewing history as a pastime. I found the 1944 beer menu recently when perusing historical menus uploaded to the New York Public Library’s online menu archive. When I saw it, I realized we had to recreate that event as a time machine to enjoy some rare gastronomic history.

As John observed to me recently, beer was always part of gastronomy and always appreciated as such. But until recently, appreciation at the level of investigation and reflection was restricted to a few privileged groups, mostly in London and New York (the same applied to wine, for that matter). In addition though, to organize any kind of epicurean event at the height of WW II took some doing.  After all, wartime involved food shortages, rationing, and other privations both imposed and voluntary. Still, the organizers found a way to mount a very respectable tasting by any definition. Indeed, the same Society had organized a similar but even more lavish beer event in 1942, also at the Waldorf. That menu has twice the number of beers of the 1944 tasting and many more foods and taste notes. After two years and some of hard slogging in the war and countless sacrifices, I think the organizers of the 1944 event felt they should be more restrained. Still, the intricacy of their menu speaks for itself and once again, the mid-40’s was very early times for this.

Many of the foods presented at the 40’s beer tastings of the Waldorf were regional American specialties. They included Virginia ham, Mohawk Valley, NY Limburger and Swiss-type cheese, NY sharp cheddar, “Nova” Salmon, Smoked Black Cod, various smoked lake fish, whole-grain breads, Saratoga and Devonsheer biscuits and crackers, and the rather modern-sounding shrimp chips. Many of these were from New York State or prepared there. While these were cold foods, it is notable that many distinctive American dishes were featured. In the 1930’s and earlier, cuisine more typically was an imitation of French or other European cooking.

What of the beers (18) chosen for the 1944 tasting? Many were from the greater NY area, in particular Brooklyn, a brewing powerhouse until the 1970’s. Most were blonde lagers, but there was also dark lager, different types of ale, and two black stouts. Even the blonde lagers could be divided between the original Germanic, all-malt type and the Americanized, lighter version which used grain adjunct or sugars. The menu in its subject headings made an attempt at a logical style division but the actual listings didn’t follow it strictly, due probably to the haste with which the event was organized, or last minute changes to the selection. Well before the mid-1900’s, lager beer had become the dominant American style, acquired via German immigration in the 1800’s, and had displaced largely the ale and porter of the English colonists.

Some beers at the tasting were sourced from Pennsylvania and Maryland, and one or two other states. Guinness Stout, almost certainly Foreign Extra Stout, was the only import.

The strong focus on domestic beers and distinctively American foods may have resulted from sentimental or practical reasons, or both. Whatever the explanation, we can infer that, from these 40’s tastings, a new appreciation of “local” was gained. The “locavore” and food and wine scenes of today have their origins distantly in events such as the 1940’s Waldorf beer tastings and the other tastings (usually with wine) held by the pathbreaking Wine and Food Society, Inc. from the 1930’s through the 60’s. It was not alone of course but played a large role in the history, in my opinion.

I’d like to close by saying, one of the first people I sent tonight’s Program to said to me, “Gary, you say in here the Wine and Food Society, Inc. of New York in 1944 was instrumental in the tasting of beer as a, quote, ‘aesthetic’.  That may well be. But I’ll tell you one thing the Society was not instrumental in”.

I said, “What’s that?”

He said, “Tasting beer as an anaesthetic”.

Have a great evening.