Beer Cuisine in the 1930s

Malt Grain Bread and Other Specialties With Beer

In some 40 pages, Virginia Elliott, a 20th century journalist and writer based in New York, delineates in some detail an approach to beer cuisine. It’s set out in the seemingly oddly-titled Quiet Drinking, although the date of publication, late 1933, suggests I think the reason: raucous drinking in well-insulated speakeasies, or perhaps in the memories of some who knew the pre-Prohibition saloon, was now of the past.

Probably because legal beer was so new, Elliott does not explain the different styles or traditions. The most she gets into it is “light and dark”.

Her palate advice is restricted to: buy a few brands. Taste successively, eating a bit of white bread between. Decide which you like, and it may end as a local brand and not the most expensive (good advice). Lay in a supply and forget hence about brands.

It’s one way to go about it, and not necessarily the worst.

The book really shines, first, in the area of beer-drinking accessories. The full range of paraphernalia is discussed including glasses, mugs, trays, picnic hampers, and cooling devices – she did not appreciate warm beer, which perhaps suggests the limits of her expertise, but still.

She also spends time on draft service and how to do it properly, probably for a new generation of legal bar owners arising. Yet, it seems too people then regularly got in a quarter-keg for a party, and she insists on the right ways to handle such beer to avoid waste.

She states baldly that draft is superior to bottled because not pasteurized. It’s something often stated in beer or brewing literature of the early 1900s and late-1800s, but not often heard today. In part this is because most craft beer is not pasteurized, but it’s a point always to be retained, as the process does exact, I think, some cost albeit it provides benefits in some scenarios.

The food discussion in the beer chapter is where Virginia Elliott really takes flight. She describes a long list of hot dishes suitable for beer. Everything from kidneys to curry. Most dishes are from bourgeois cuisines, generally from northern Europe where beer is a tradition.

Welsh rabbit and variants feature, a host of different hot sandwiches, German-style frankfurters and knockwurst with kraut of course, smoked and picked fish, cheeses, cold Teutonic sausage plates (called “Dutch lunch” then), hams, and similar.

The foods are described in good detail including, say, four different kinds of imported liverwurst. One German sausage containing donkey is mentioned without the usual verbal frisson – sign of the true gastronome.

The 1940s beer tastings of the New York Wine and Food Society that I’ve referred to earlier featured selections from most of these categories except the supper dishes. One can see the influence Elliott’s book exercised.

I can’t find much on her biographically. She died in 1977, was married, and in the 1920s had collaborated on another drinks book with Iowa-born author Phil Stong (not her husband), famous for writing State Fair. A strange feature of 1920s gastronomy in the U.S. is the considerable number of books issued on drinks and related advice.

Even though it implied encouraging people to seek illegal alcohol, writing such guides was not unlawful as such. One book I saw even contained a recipe to brew beer at home.

Although part of a larger book on wines and cocktails, Elliott’s book is a useful window on how food was viewed from a beer standpoint in the mid-1930s. There is much from pre-1920 that she continues, but her discussion is perhaps the most comprehensive I’ve seen in America to that date.

There is no usage, except in Welsh rabbit, of beer in the supper recipes or theory advanced in that regard: otherwise conventional foods meant to accompany beer were the focus. No unusual combinations are suggested although she does encourage the reader to come up with his or her own ideas.

Beer used in recipes in the way of wine, or as accompaniment to non-traditional dishes, was still decades away. Still, Elliott’s book is a part of the long pathway that led to today’s plethora and beer-and-food books.

Some final advice from Ms. Elliott, on the different breads for beer and its foods:

The peasant or dark breads belong with beer. Pumpernickel of course is a German favorite. If you like the very heavy kind any good German deli­catessen can furnish you with an imported one, done up in many layers of foil, which is thinly sliced, very soggy and quite delicious.

The pumpernickel which is made by your local baker will not be as heavy nor have as decided a flavor, but is good. Jewish deli­catessens have one with a particularly nice twang. 

Imported Khommissbrot, the coarse, heavy bread eaten by the German soldiers, is good with cheese. It comes in pound packages, thinly sliced, and is only fifteen cents a pound. 

Malskorn* is the very heaviest of the pumpernickels. Black Russian bread is good with beer, but is not very popular because of its very strong flavor. Rye bread, with or without caraway seeds, should be served with salt fish, smoked meats, or the more piquant spreads. It should be thinly sliced. 

German salt-rising bread is delicious with beer, but should be eaten with butter only. It has a peculiar flavor which does not combine well with most foods. Swedish breads make a good carrier for pastes and fish. 

Rye Krisp is primarily a health bread and is less fattening than others. It is made in a large thin round wafer and has the consistency of asbestos. It may be served in the whole piece, and broken off as it is wanted. It costs fifty cents a pound and lasts forever.

Have you run into German salt-raised bread, lately? It sounds perhaps similar to the Jewish bialy roll, for which the term saline only starts to describe Neptune’s tight embrace. The bialy, named for the Polish city Bialystok, likewise suits only butter or at most the blandest cheeses.
*Malt grain bread, satisfyingly connected to beer via malt.




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