Beer Joins Cuisine at Table
In discussing early beer and food menus, I’ve drawn attention both to pairings of beer and food and dishes using beer as an ingredient: the two often go together.
Certainly before about 1900 one does not see either form, not as planned offerings for a bill of fare. Of course folk custom always paired beer with some foods. In England ale (or other beer) was legion with meat pie, steak or other beef, cheese, and famously, cake.
Steak and ale were occasionally blended under the pie or pudding pastry but this was more haphazard than anything else: England had no beer cuisine vs. the odd dish that sometimes used beer as an ingredient.
Germany had its pairings, in which the sausage figured not a little (still does), and its beer soups and such, but there was no organized beer cuisine, and the same for Austria, the Czech lands, and other beer countries. Even Flanders’ beer dishes before the 1950s seem rather thin on the ground, as I’ve discussed earlier.
And so writing a menu to pair different beers with foods or offering recipes with beer is comparatively new. I’ve given numerous examples starting in 1898, the first was a German-American dinner at a restaurant owned by Pabst Brewery. This example may be viewed perhaps as the start of a practice that derived from commercial impulse rather than long social custom.
(Things often start with commercial aims and then become accepted practice, there is certainly nothing wrong with that).
Pairing wine and food, in which France notably excelled with the gentry following in England, provided the template for what we now call “beer dinners”.
While French culture and English gentility provided the analogy, a spur was needed given the lack of a parallel tradition for beer and food. This came again from commercial impulses. An early example is provided by the menu shown from 1937, a luncheon of the United Brewers Industrial Foundation.
The UBIF was later absorbed into what is now the Beer Institute, one of the two main beer lobbies in the United States.
A number of the dishes used beer in the preparation – even good old American chocolate cake. Beer chocolate cake sounds contemporary, something the local brewpub might offer at its next beer dinner. Here we see it in 1937, at the height of the Depression and when malign dictators were strutting around Europe.
Clearly these dishes, and even the service of beer only at the meal (no wine), came from a conscious attempt to make beer the theme of the meal. This kind of meal was never seen before in American or European custom, at least to my knowledge.
The 1898 Pabst dinner pictured below is not quite the same as its dishes did not apparently use beer in the cooking. Still, it is a kind of precedent for the later event and perhaps more so since it pairs specific beers with specific courses.
Eloise Davison, one of the speakers at the lunch, wrote a book sponsored by the UBIF called Beer in the American home. It contained numerous recipes with beer, things like beer and beef kidneys, beer cole slaw and probably the said chocolate cake. Clearly the beer recipes in the 1937 menu were from that book as the menu invites requests to be sent the recipes.
Davison was a home economist, a journalist and editor who had long written about food. She was the ideal person to write the book she did. I have not read it and perhaps she suggests sources in the book for her recipes – in effect this was so for the Bohemian beer soup – but I suspect most recipes with beer were of her own devise.
Janet Clarkson, the Australian food historian who blogs at The Old Foodie, discussed in 2010 a number of the recipes promoted by the UBIF. Start here for an illuminating discussion.
One would think that if anyone was to invent a tradition of beer cuisine it would be the various brewers associations, at least for their own dinners.
The New York Public Library menu archive discloses about a dozen dinners or lunches held by such groups in the first half of the 1900s, but the 1937 luncheon is the first I’ve seen to present beer as the (drinkable, edible) theme of a brewers’ dinner.
The other events either don’t mention any alcohol or list various wines and other liquors to accompany the meal. Beer was sometimes included but one can tell it was “thrown in”.
Why would brewers of all people not make beer the theme of their culinary gatherings? First, these affairs were partly working luncheons, it makes sense no alcohol was served at some, especially perhaps in communities with an abstinence image.
Second, brewers can be excused for wanting to drink something different from their daily stock-in-trade. The organizing committees would have been encouraged to choose some nice wine or other liquor as a treat.
By the 1930s though and with the increasing sophistication of public relations and business in general, clearly brewers thought they should showcase their wares as part of their business gatherings. Two beers were offered with the meal, brand(s) not specified but this was due to the nature of the UBIF – a trade organization engaged in generic promotion.
Still, a bock beer was offered, a style quite different to the light lager Americans were familiar with as beer, so that was unusual right there.
The Waldorf hotel’s 1937 beer dinner is a harbinger of the beer dinners that would become typical of the post-1960s beer revival.
It was easy for the Waldorf to switch modes for this purpose, from Bacchus to Gambrinus. Many of its chefs were European-trained. Also, the New York Food and Wine Society, as we’ve seen, was holding beer and food tastings at this hotel or would before long. The idea was in the air.
Note re images: all images except the third are from the New York Public Library (www.nypl.org), the links are given in the text. Third image is via the HathiTrust digital resource, also as linked in the text. All intellectual property in the images belongs solely to their lawful owner or authorized user, as applicable. Images used for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.
*The title of this post is taken from a passage in an 1887 book by Charles Wilkinson attesting to the enduring link of steak and ale in English culture. The book is set in Germany but one Temple, an English coach-driver on assignment in Germany, is depicted as a sedulous follower of ale and beef and thus an emblem of John Bull. His old-fashioned nature is highlighted by his preference for the dark and strong “London particular”, in other words porter, as against the light, clear pale ale. Even the Germans, no tyros at beer, were impressed with Temple’s bibbing. They said of him, Morgens ein Bier-fass, Abends ein Fass-bier.