The 1936 Wine and Oyster Tasting in New York: an Attendee Reports

Present at the Creation

Only after I completed my posts yesterday on the New York Wine and Food Society’s 1936 Wine and Oyster Tasting did I locate an extraordinary document. It would be long odds that someone who attended that event was still living in the 2000s, but this is the case.

Edward B. Marks was an American who had a long career in refugee resettlement and assistance starting in the late 1930s. He worked for numerous American and international organizations including finally UNICEF.

Marks was born in New York in 1913, of German-Jewish origin. He was a Dartmouth graduate and gained a master’s degree in sociology from Columbia.

His long career in public service, as well as his occasional journalism and other writing, earned him numerous obituaries in well-known newspapers. See this one from the New York Times.

At the age of 92, not long before his death in 2005, he published the memoir Still Counting: Achievements and Follies of a Nonagenarian. Substantial portions can be read on Google Books including from the chapter on his 1930s days in alcoholic beverage publishing, here.

Between 1933 and 1938 Marks worked as a editor for a brewing industry magazine and later for a wine and liquor journal. The work is recalled in the chapter of his book I linked.

He describes attending numerous events of the New York Wine and Food Society in the mid-1930s as part of his work in beverages publishing.

He is very complimentary of these events, and mentions three in particular including a Champagne tasting at the Ritz-Carlton and the 1936 Oyster and Wine Tasting I profiled yesterday.

Marks is so precise in his recollections that he must have retained the menus. You can read them as well, in their entirety, here and here.

Marks later set up a small-scale winery at his property in Leesburg, Virginia, enough to pay its way at any event – clearly the early years in drinks publishing and gastronomy influenced his social habits.

Marks has a high regard for the early work of the International Wine and Food Society in America. He had met its mover and shaker André Simon and outlines Simon’s great efforts before and after WW II to improve American gastronomy and convert the nation to wine-drinking.

Marks gives great credit to the Society for introducing wine culture to America but considers that the work had a delayed reaction – in a word took longer than Simon had hoped. He states Simon would be amazed at how the country finally changed in regard to the use of wine as a beverage.

I don’t disagree but I feel that the influence of the IWFS and similar groups (e.g., Manhattan’s Gourmet Society) was noticeable well before wine-drinking became usual in America.

That’s how social trends develop: they appear first among small groups who exercise a disproportionate influence on the country – who are quite literally in this case, tastemakers.

The process never stops, today the culinary scene is led by people such as Anthony Bourdain, Gordon Ramsay, even Rachel Ray, or say the bake-off show wildly popular in the U.K. that has spun-off numerous imitations.

The thousands of tastings and dinners in the country by various IWFS branches between 1933 and 2000 came to the attention of food and wine writers, wine importers, grape growers and vintners, and radio and tv chefs. They would have attended its events, spoken and promoted their work there, and in turn brought the message of civilized living to a wider audience.

Marks is an example himself, as the book amply testifies.

A typical early sub-culture were those who bought Julia Child’s landmark books and who viewed her first TV show, The French Chef. Just as for the equally influential chef and author James Beard, she would have been known the IWFS and have attended some of its events.

A similar thing happened in England with people such as Elizabeth David, Jane Grigson, Hugh Johnson, the Craddocks, and so on.

In the U.S. I should mention also Zagat, “the” restaurant guide for New York that later migrated to many other cities. Its style echoes that of the 1930s Consumer Union publications, telegraphic but informed commentary.

The IWFS’s tasting menus were similar but more refined: in essence a blending of technical information originating with producers with a literary flair, but not too heavy-handed.

Social trends always involve a complex interaction of the moving parts, but that the IWFS had an outsize influence on American foodways cannot be doubted. Marks confirms it in its essentials.

He mentions that German wines featured at the 1936 tasting and does not suggest any annoyance at that, or being discomfited in any way by his Jewish background.

Perhaps because he worked in an industry in which Germans and German-Americans were prevalent in the 1930s he was able to set aside personal considerations. Had any Jewish person chosen not to attend a tasting at which German wine was served in the Hitler era, that might have lessened his career prospects, always a consideration no matter what the ethics are.

Or perhaps it was just the nature of the times as I suggested yesterday: bad things happening in foreign countries didn’t register in the same way around the world as they do now.

It is interesting that Marks had first-hand knowledge of Nazi perfidy since he worked with Jewish victims of the Nazis, but that work came later. In 1936 he was still a journalist in the wine and spirits industry.

In any case, at the end of a long life, this aspect is not adverted to in the book, from what I could tell.

Marks clearly remained influenced by his early years in the alcohol business: he states even in his nineties he enjoyed a glass of beer, plus of course wine as mentioned.

Marks had a high regard for the taste of the new beer in the 1930s, feeling only that it should be stronger than “3.2”. During Prohibition he sometimes drank Canadian beer bootlegged into the country, probably as a student in college, which he clearly admired.

In his brewing work he was struck by the massive aging tanks at some of the pre-Prohibition New York breweries: he mentions Jacob Ruppert in particular.

He learned a considerable amount about hops and says some interesting things about competition between American and imported hops. He visited most of the older breweries starting up again and some of the newer ones.

One feature of modern living that disturbed him was the prevalence of campus drinking. He states that during his college years there was little use of alcohol. Sometimes students made a kind of raw gin from alcohol and juniper, but drinking was restricted in those days.

He clearly disapproved of widespread use of alcohol on campus in the 2000s, and in this I can only agree. Perhaps it is a price to pay for making alcohol generally unobjectionable in society at large.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Vision of Andre Simon of the Wine and Food Society

While brief, this video uploaded to Youtube in 2015 on the history of The International Wine and Food Society shows the unique features of its mission which reverberate to this day.

The sane approach advocated by founder André Simon for wine in one’s lifestyle fit naturally into the aspirational American ethos which took root from the 1930s – as indeed it did for England where the first branch was founded, in London in 1933.

This way of life was conditioned not just by the new (or perfected) element of Madison Avenue and West End advertising, but by the essence of the bourgeois morality: enjoy life but everything in just measure. Don’t drink too much, drink quality not quantity. If you can, learn something useful, or interesting, as you go.

Before Prohibition, a few epicures in big cities apart, drinking meant boozing, not necessarily continual but with the idea of excess encoded.

In Britain too, from Georgian times at least to the gin palace and workmens’ pubs of the 1800s, the use of alcohol in social life often was often synonymous with heavy drinking.

André Simon brought a new sensibility to this picture, informed by his French background.

The message: indulge in wine, one of life’s pleasures, but with enough discretion so you will last a reasonable time and continue as an upstanding citizen: a bon père de famille. Enhance your life over its normal span but don’t abbreviate it in the psycho or cirrhosis-treatment wards of your local hospital.

Where does the self-improvement come in? From the pedagogy that was implicit in Simon’s message from the beginning. Wine is worth learning about, pondering, studying. It’s a matter of culture and history; gastronomy is, in general.

Yes drinking is for relaxation and socializing but do it with food and try to learn something at the same time, be useful.

Previously, a tiny minority had this perspective, the George Saintsburys and Alfred Barnards in the U.K., the L.J. Vances in America: Simon opened it up to the upwardly mobile middle classes and after WW II it spread beyond. Lots of people know today about “Chardonnay”, not just a tiny privileged coterie in the largest coastal cities.

To be sure the initial members of most of the Society’s branches were probably grandees of one type or another; that’s how things get started, often*. But can anyone doubt that at bottom the group was and remains democratic in spirit?

Had this not been so it would never have spread around the world as it did, to Melbourne, Liverpool, Toronto, Auckland, New Orleans, Pasadena, and far beyond.

When you examine the some 100 menus of the New York Wine and Food Society in the NYPL menu archive covering the period from 1934 to the mid-1970s, these values resonate from its pages.

The menus were well and carefully written, but not baroque or affected in tone. The influence of the wine and liquor agencies which often supplied some of the table is there, but so is the need to speak literately to people without abstruse literary or other affectation, a tendency of pre-1930s drink literature.

Indeed some of the books issued in the 1930s in the U.S. to explain wine and alcohol to a newly enfranchised populace show those older traits. Selmer Fougner’s is one, IMO; I wrote about him earlier in these pages.

At day’s end, the style of the wine and food notes of The Wine and Food Society, forged in the 1930s and continuing for decades with a decided influence on the wider culture, were a kind of magic formula. They struck just the right notes of practicality and pleasure, of commercial reality and romantic history.

The influence is there to see in the work of countless food and wine writers post-WW II, in tv food shows, and in the colour weekend supplements and their current online equivalents.

The template still informs most consumer wine writing today. The same applies to beer and spirits which were greatly influenced by wine writing in their development.

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*Christel Lane, in her 2014 study of the fine-dining industry, puts it that upon formation the Society in London sought members from the “professional classes”. The New York group could not have been very different.

“Now if You’re Ready, Oysters Dear, we can Begin…”

A Stunning 1936 Tasting of Wines and Oysters

The International Wine and Food Society

I have written earlier of the historic role played by the Wine and Food Society of New York, now part of the International Wine and Food Society based in London, in creating the modern food and wine culture. (The full original programme discussed below can be viewed, and the extracts herein are included, courtesy www.nypl.org).

Many of their activities from the 1930s-1970s presaged important features of today’s food world. These include pairing foods and wines in formal tastings; comparing varietal wines of different countries, especially the U.S. and France (well before the 1976 Judgement of Paris); holding sophisticated beer tastings with historical and taste notes in the program; slowly but steadily covering American wines from the 1940s; and creating regional American, ethnic, and international menus, from a “Vermont breakfast” (late-40s)* to a Nordic smorgasbord (60s).

One of the founders of the New York branch was Robert Jay Misch, a New York advertising executive. He was only 30 in 1936 when the wine and oyster tasting described below was held.

André Simon, of the original London branch, was the driver behind the international expansion of the Society. I’ve previously referred to its activities in places as far afield as Liverpool, U.K.; Melbourne, Australia; Baltimore, MD; and San Francisco, CA.

The New York board of directors was a varied group comprising business executives including publishers, food or wine writers, and society figures.

Misch later turned to food-and-wine writing full-time. He was still giving tastings, one at the famed New York “Y” with wine maven Alexis Lichine, not long before his passing at 84 in 1990.

Misch probably authored many of the notes on wine for the luxe 1936 wine and oyster tasting. At the height of the Depression, no effort was spared to present a luxury of choice among bivalves and products of the vine, in appropriately swank surroundings of the St. Regis Hotel, Manhattan.

A New Wine Writing Style?

The wine notes are crisp, authoritative, lively, not overly mannered. They probably inaugurated an international “style” for the Society in this regard. I would argue too they clearly influenced the wine writing of later generations in general.

There is probably some precedent for it in pre-1933 wine writing – in fact George Saintsbury’s 1920s Notes on a Cellar-book should be cited – but still the 1936 notes have a striking clarity and modernity.

Saintsbury can express well a wine’s attributes but his ornate Victorian style often gets in the way for modern readers.

Sometimes things are like that; something significant gets started almost from whole cloth and remains a totem, I guess that’s what classic means. The 1936 wine notes speak to us clearly today.

The Beer

The committee who organized the tasting were too clever to omit any reference to stout or porter in connection with oysters, so Guinness was included, the “wine” of Ireland, it was called.

And so it was then: long-aged, unpasteurized, somewhat lactic, the legendary black wine of Eire via – to begin with – raucous silk weavers’ pubs in Spitalfields, London with their three-threads and other porters-of-the-loom black beers. (“Porter” for beer derives from c. 1700 London weaving terminology, as I’ve argued earlier).

Guinness was last in the list, but better late than never. Later, from 1946 until the early 1950s, the New York branch included more beers in its oyster tastings although always fewer than the wines.

At its three beer tastings proper I have now identified in the 1940s, one of which (1944’s) I wrote up here two years ago, the foods served did not include oysters. Various smoked fish, cheeses, quality hams, and breads or crackers were served.

Beer then seemed to denote Central Europe for the food side more than English or Yankee food customs.

The Wines

The French wines included were well-chosen, from the classic Chablis – no less than four, appropriately, as it is “the” wine for oysters really – to some Alsatians, Graves, and Hermitage.

The latter included a dry rosé, Tavel’s, still a staple of the rosé scene internationally although somewhat eclipsed in recent years by the fashion for the drier rosés of Provence.

Numerous German wines were listed, Germany was second only to France in the number of wines represented. This is rather surprising given that by mid-1936 the Nazis were firmly in control of Germany and moreover had passed the Nuremberg “citizenship” laws that removed Jews from public life and helped set the stage for their annihilation.

The Jewish members of the New York Wine and Food Society, I’d guess Misch was one, must have gritted their teeth at German wines being served, nay lauded in dulcet tones. But this was a different time, few nations in general at the time spoke up in favour of persecuted peoples and least for the Jews.

I’d imagine that Jewish presence in any elite social organization of the 1930s was somewhat parlous, and any members lucky to gain entry didn’t protest at the anomaly – to say the least – of German wines being given a showcase.

After the Second World War began the Society set German, French, and Italian wines aside. Most stocks of these were probably exhausted anyway as trade embargoes prevented re-supply, but some vintage items would have remained in hotel and haute restaurant cellars even in the mid-40s.

Still, they stayed there as far as the Society was concerned anyway until after V-Day. Indeed because of the war, the tastings of the Society I’ve reviewed between 1941 and 1945 looked beyond the tried and true for new vinous inspiration.

This meant California of course but also New York, Ohio, Chile, Argentina, (neutral) Iberia, and South Africa.

These forays into secondary or tertiary wine regions later had a rebound effect in the form of the world-wide interest in regional wine, the “wine of the country”.

Had the Second World War never occurred, I’m convinced the vibrant viticulture and enology of many world regions today would have never have started, or at least be much reduced in importance.

The Oysters

The oyster section of the 1936 programme is nothing less than a short primer on the subject, masterfully written. An oyster promotion organization was enlisted to provide this help, and it did not fail.

The wealth of Long Island varieties alone in the 1930s was notable. Some oysters, including the Robbins Island type on the list, are still available but oystering on the Island has almost disappeared, sadly.

This is due to … you know it: overfishing; pollution; possibly climate change. But oysters still abound in other parts of the world, especially Canada. The Gaspé’s briny Malpeque! Not as creamy as Bluepoints, but world-class in their way: if you ask me, half-way between the Belons off Brittany and the Bluepoint type.

I may get some Malpeques for a dinner soon to host an English friend, or Nova Scotia smoked salmon, another stalwart of 1940s Manhattan gastronomy.

Recreating Historically Significant Gastronomic Events

I keep saying this to all and sundry, with little resonance so far, but someone should recreate classic early culinary and wine events such as this 1936 oyster and wine tasting. Doing so offers a unique opportunity to blend epicurean adventure with absorbing social history in numerous dimensions.

In other words, it would be fun.

I did this two years ago in Toronto for the Society’s 1944 beer tasting, and it went over very well.

It’s wine’s turn now. Many of the wines in the program still exist, certainly most of the shippers and estates do.

And Guinness does, even though it’s less like the original Guinness than the 1936 (Foreign Extra) Stout served at the stylish St. Regis. The closest form of Guinness today is probably its West Indies Porter although the current Extra Stout, or Foreign Extra Stout, will do nicely enough.

I’m happy to help out…

Note re images: the first five images were sourced from the New York Public Library link given in the text. The final image, of the top floors of the St. Regis Hotel in New York, was sourced at www.thecityreview.com, here. All property in the images belongs to their sole owner or authorized user, as applicable. Images used for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.

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*See the American menu collector’s Henry Voigt’s informed discussion of this event, here.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Spirit of ’55

Waiter Please Bring me my Blatz

There will never be a completely satisfactory definition of “American cooking”. I use this term for convenience but Canadian cooking is pretty much the same.

Cooking changes with the times, of course. In turn the times are shaped by many things: growth of certain ethnic groups or their rising prestige; concepts such as “clean” or green eating; new food technologies; and other factors not always easy to delineate much less forecast.

(New Yorker magazine three years ago contained a provocative cover story,“The End of Food”. It profiled a young San Francisco-based entrepreneur and his product Soylent. Inspired by lifehacking and other ideas prevalent in Silicon Valley he developed a “meal replacement”, a kind of paste designed to store well and deliver all essential nutrients. 

Soylent was designed as cost-effective feeding for those who work almost non-stop, who don’t have time to shop or cook, or much extra money: a kind of converse of the market-shopping and slow food notions popular for the last 20 years. An interesting idea but I don’t think it’s time has come, at least nationally).

Still, American cooking is easier to recognize than to describe intellectually: you know it when you see it, at least in different periods over the last 100 years.

American cooking describes to a “t” the food offered in the 1955 menu below from Barney’s Market Club in Chicago (1919- c.1990). Rick Kogan in 2011, of the Tribune Newspapers, wrote a good short profile of the restaurant here. He also describes the current use of the site, a happening brewpub called Haymarket Pub and Brewery.

Barney Kessel was a classic old-time American maverick, “a character” as the phrase goes. He started up in 1919 and in the 1930s moved to larger premises in the West Loop. It seems the place was basically a tavern to begin with but later became a restaurant proper due to Prohibition.

Throughout Prohibition Barney Kessel sold beer delivered by Al Capone’s men. Due to Barney’s good relations with local power-brokers he had no trouble with the law until, one fateful day, a shooting at his bar compelled the law to sanction him for running a speakeasy.

Kessel spent a few months in jail, which hardly slowed him down as his big success came after liquor was made legal, from 1933 until his death in 1950. The restaurant continued in business for another 40-odd years, run by his son-in-law.

Kessel was the personification of the place in its heyday, a style often seen in dining then in North America. A “personality” who had the gift of gab and was likeable attracted business. We have much less of this today. Today, restaurants are distinguished more by their chefs and the difference they make in the kitchen.

In Barney’s day, what drew you there was not so much that his “Special Sirloin Steak” was the best in the Windy City, but that Barney was there.*

Restaurants are still set up by famous people, Wayne Gretzky’s place on Blue Jay Way downtown is an example, but almost invariably the restaurant is professionally run and managed. In the old days, the man on the sign was there much of the time. Kessel was, with his ever-ready catch-phrase, “Yes sir, Senator”.

He couldn’t remember peoples’ names and addressed everyone like that, which they loved.

Kessel made himself famous, or locally famous, in a way you don’t see much now. He made sure the Catholic fathers had a special corner, the local machine politicians had their favourite tables, the White Sox, and on it went. This could only happen in a time of real community, of “locality” to borrow from EU-speak. In a time of globality, which has rather done locality in, it’s harder to develop the kind of local celebrity a Kessel achieved.

In Chicago of course beef was popular due to the stockyards, in fact Kessel grew up in their shadow. So steak in all its variety was well-represented on his 1955 menu but there is plenty of other Americana too.

Stuffed squab (originally at least this was young pigeon). Broiled ham steak, with a sweet potato in this case, no ham slice. That sounds like a southern touch, perhaps contributed by a visiting blues musician or a migrating chef in the kitchen.

Roast turkey. Shrimp cocktail. Broiled chicken. Numerous fish from the Great Lakes – there’s your market cuisine, as the beef was.

Roast duck, chicken à la king with its creamy swath of sauce. Spaghetti, long Americanized by ’55 and needing no explanation on the menu.

Broiled English mutton chops, a vestige of pre-Prohibition grills and mens’ clubs, the aura of Albion mingling with the scent of sheep fat. Swiss steak, probably never very Swiss – out of fashion for decades now, a pity as it’s good if well-prepared.

Read the rest for yourself. That’s classic American eating, or was for much of the mid-1900s.

What would we add to it today? Fajitas, probably. BBQ, which at the time was strictly regional and didn’t therefore make the grade for a quality, “national” menu. A bigger salad repertoire than “combination salad”. More vegetarian options.

More Asian influences, too – sushi! (We are with the English writer David Benedictus who once wrote that he didn’t favour Japanese food in general and sushi in particular.  We all have our taste…).

But if you could go out tonight looking for a good meal you could do a lot worse than Barney’s Market Club circa 1955.

The drinks were carefully chosen, note that Kessel made sure to include Ballantine India Pale Ale – another pre-Prohibition salute. Wines are handled in no-nonsense terms: a glass of Burgundy, French or domestic, a couple of other varietals, and that’s it, but there was more on a separate list.

The beer got good attention. Heineken was on draft, surely a novelty in America then. For local he gave you Van Merritt, brewed in Wisconsin but long a Chicago favourite. The action was in the St. Louis and Milwaukee brands but this made sense as they were regional selections, familiar to a wide audience in the Midwest (and beyond).

I wonder what draft Heineken was like in 1955 in America – all-malt probably, as it is again today. The long trip couldn’t have done it any favours though. Me, I’d have gone for Ballantine IPA and maybe a Budweiser or Schlitz, which were good beers then (I think).

So that’s Culina americanus, at least from c. 1940-1980. Yes sir, Senators. 

Note re images: The first and third images are from the www.nypl.org archival menu linked in the text. The second was sourced from Tavern Trove, here. Images belong to their sole owner, as applicable. Used for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.

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*Nonetheless Darnell’s “vest-pocket” restaurant guide, the Zagat of its day, rated Barney’s Market Club in America’s Top 10 restaurants – this is late 1940s. The quality was there too…

The Athens of America Contemplates Wine and Beer

In the 1960s and 70s, if you were interested in wine as a middle-class pursuit – the same for beer was much less likely – the wine (and beer) menu of the Wursthaus in Cambridge, Mass. answered the call.

Its approach to the main wine styles was no-nonsense, sprinkled with doubtful humour: the menu queried why anyone would choose its California selections (all-Almaden Vineyards) over imported.

Good basic information is given on different German wines, a focus of the house, but also on Bordeaux and Burgundy reds, and more.

The selection was sound for the time, with well-known appellations from noted shippers, featuring both “vintages” and “estate-bottled”. A young prof at Harvard who dabbled in wine would have felt at home.

We are a distance nonetheless from the sophisticated vintages and scholarly notes of contemporary Wine and Food Society menus, or of Manhattan’s Gourmet Society from 1933-1960s. These elite groups served a different market – the “oenophile”, a comparative rarity.

The specimen inhabited large coastal centres, nesting in faculty clubs and epicurean societies.

The Wursthaus was aiming for a broader demographic, from its original student base in choc-a-bloc Harvard Yard to students’ parents, Harvard faculty, and young professionals. The wine notes are exactly in that zone.

This was of course before the wine boom, before the Judgment of Paris (1976), before anyone knew what Napa or Sonoma were other than (at best) agricultural sectors in distant California.

A sense how different that time was is that the menu notes Almaden’s wines came “all the way from California”. California was in many ways as foreign to The Hub as Isle of Man.

What about the beer notes to elucidate the styles and examples of Gambrinus’ domain? Of course, there weren’t any. Just a list of beers by country of origin.

But not a bad list certainly. They had oyster stout in 1961 you know, from Isle of Man. The beer is in the earliest writings of the late, great English beer critic Michael Jackson, and launched a thousand inky-briny imitations once craft brewing got its legs.

Do you think anyone ordering that stout – it was still on the menu in 1972 – ever thought to ask why “oyster” featured in the name? There must have been an unusually reflective professor who wondered about it.

If he (she) did, it’s a safe bet they never found out, unless they were still drinking beer decades later, perhaps.

The list also featured Carnegie “stout”, probably one and the same with renowned Carnegie Porter. That was – is – a taste of Georgian London via Sweden.

Carnegie had a decided influence on the beer revolution to come. The porter is about as intense as beer gets short of sours and wild beers – pretty good for ’61 in one of the larger American cities, or anywhere.

Also, there was Black Velvet from Trinidad, a rich sweet stout surely, and Murray’s stout from Scotland. The great Pilsner Urquell was present, and both Bass pale ale and Whitbread’s ditto from England.

A bunch of good German beers featured including Munich’s fine Augustiner in both helles and dunkel. No less than four beers from America’s former enemy, Japan, were offered – only 16 years after Japan collapsed in an atomic cloud.

Ekla was a brand of Vanderheuvel, a brewery with early-1800s roots in Brussels – think of Uccle, Brussels. The brewery lasted until absorbed in Watney’s maw, and was closed in 1975.

No style of Ekla is mentioned. Vanderheuvel in the 1950s was known for its pils, export, and stout, and it bottled lambic as a nod to its earliest days. Whatever was in the bottle, it was “Belgian” and that was enough for the Stateside taster.

What could “India” have meant for the Puerto Rican beer? Maybe it was a India Pale Ale that survived from Victorian times in the (not always…) languid Caribbean. The beer originated in the 1930s and the brewery still continues.

I suspect the 1961 India Cerveza was very good, perhaps like today’s India Pale lagers.

There was no rhyme or reason to the beer selection other than being international; this was typical for the era. A helter-skeler selection was made from wholesalers’ inventories, and people chose without guidance other than the, um, small beer of national origin.

To treat of beer in the way the menu did for wine would have elicited astonishment. It wasn’t done, wasn’t on anyone’s horizon.

In 1961 Anchor Brewery in San Francisco, which made a distinctive beer that would have fit well on the list, was in deep financial straits (later rescued by white knight Fritz Maytag with help of washing machine money). Anheuser-Busch had just started to put rice in Michelob. Brewery consolidation was picking up rapidly almost everywhere.

The world seemed intent on vapid yellow beer.

A new day would take a while to dawn.

Some of the other U.S. beer haunts then were the late-lamented Brickskeller in Washington, D.C., the Peculier Pub in New York, Barney’s Beanery in L.A., and Tommy’s Joynt in San Francisco. Their approach to beer would have been similar to the Wursthaus.

Brickskeller was a bridge certainly to the craft beer era so perhaps its menu offered some beer instruction in 1961, it’s possible.

Barney’s Beanery is still going strong in Los Angeles, indeed is now a small chain. Its bottled selection (check online) shows a vestige of the simple national classification of the 1950s-1970s, which is satisfying in a way.

What happened to Wursthaus? It closed in 1996, a victim of changing times. A deli in the Square was established in the 1950s by members of the family, so some influence continues from the Wursthaus era, after a fashion. I’d guess a few 1960s-70s wholesalers’ brochures languish in the deli’s basement…

If I ever get to Beantown again, I’ll ask.

Wursthaus had been founded by a German-American in 1917, and was sold to an Italian family in ’42.

The pre-’42 owner probably thought a German-theme bar wasn’t a good idea for the next few years but the new owners didn’t change the name or sign. The menu did evolve, retaining finally just a few German dishes. It became all-American, mostly.

Do wish I could have visited Wursthaus in its prime? No, because I did.

Back in July, 1970 I took a car trip from Montreal south to Cape Cod and visited Cambridge on the way, to see Harvard.

I stopped in Tanglewood, NJ – I wanted to see The Who but I missed them by a day. I remember asking in town about it and was told the lawns were completely filled to the back and people were hanging in trees.

(Do you want to see why? Look here).

In Cambridge, I had lunch at the Wursthaus, and remember it was dark inside, as current remembrances attest. I think I had schnitzel and certainly draft beer, probably a “dark”. This was before I had ever read a book on beer, but the germ of the interest was there.

September, 2017 is “all the way” certainly from 1961. And in that month Doug Holder released his new poetry collection, Last Night at the Wursthaus. See an informative local report, here.

The old joint isn’t quite effaced from memory, yet.

Note re images: The first three images are from the www.nypl.org archival menu linked in the text. The fourth was sourced from Pinterest, here. The fifth, of The Who, was obtained from Internet sources. The final image was sourced from the producer’s website linked in the text. Images belong to their sole owner, as applicable. Used here for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.

 

 

 

Manhattan’s New Beer Scene

A Library of Congress website neatly summarized the arc of Prohibition, as follows:

The 18th Amendment (PDF, 91KB) to the Constitution prohibited the “manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors…” and was ratified by the states on January 16, 1919. The movement to prohibit alcohol began in the United States in the early nineteenth century. On October 28, 1919, Congress passed the Volstead Act (PDF, 2.03MB), which provided for the enforcement of the 18th Amendment. Prohibition ended on December 5, 1933, with the ratification of the 21st Amendment(PDF, 88KB).

Of course, the reality was much more dense, in that many states had adopted prohibition in all or part of their territory well before the 18th Amendment was ratified. A delayed wartime prohibition measure was also enacted in the fall of 1919, ahead of the scheduled nation-wide liquor ban one year after the 18th Amendment was adopted.

Finally, the Volstead Act provided many practical rules for the working of Prohibition, including by defining what was alcoholic beverage, .5% was the threshold. Various exemptions were provided for medicinal alcohol and alcohol for religious rites. Homes could ferment up to 200 gallons of wine as well, i.e., for private use.

When Prohibition ended, beer was legalized first. The Volstead law was amended effective April 7, 1933 by the Cullen-Harrison Act to allow “3.2” beer, that is 3.2% ABW. There were exemptions again for ale, which could be stronger but lager, the standby of American beerdrinking before 1920, was henceforth permitted by the device of raising the non-alcohol ceiling to 3.2% ABW.

This is equivalent to 4% ABV beer, certainly beer by any definition albeit on the weaker side of the spectrum. English draft beer is about that strength, for example.

The states had to ratify the change in their territory, with some acting more quickly than others. New York acted fast and by the time the menu shown below (courtesy www.nypl.org) was printed, beer was legal again in Manhattan.

 

 

The menu is dated May 23, 1933, less than two months after Cullen-Harrison‘s liberation of the beer business. It is interesting to examine the menu to note that a reasonable beer selection was available despite the short time available to stock up. Clearly breweries had ramped up in anticipation of the legal sale of beer, and wholesaling mobilized quickly to get beer to the restored market, even from overseas as beer from Munich was available, and English beer.

Schaefer of Brooklyn could be supped, one of America’s oldest lagers. Trommer’s all-malt lager, too. And Ruppert, another great New York beer name, long associated with Yankees baseball. Rheingold, of the German-Jewish Liebmann family, was back. Bass Ale in two bottlings too, as often the case before Prohibition.

Pabst and Schlitz from Milwaukee could be ordered, Bud from St. Louis, and Pickwick Ale from the former beer hive of Jamaica Plain, Boston – many shrines of Gambrinus were represented.

The German beer appears to have been Zum Dürnbräu’s, one of Munich’s oldest restaurants and probably also a brewery in 1933 or with a brewery attached.

That was pretty fast, to get beer in from Germany like that. When New York wants something, they get it in the proverbial New York minute…

Even Canada pitched in (quite literally) via Oland’s ale from Nova Scotia, still available today but in the AB-In Bev family now.

The wine offerings seem rather a puzzle, as wine in its conventional sense, along with liquor, was legalized at the end of 1933 with the adoption of the 21st Amendment. The answer is that Cullen-Harrison permitted “3.2” wine. See footnote no. 132 in Thomas Pinney’s second volume of his American wine history.

The footnote gives a recipe for such dilute wine, it sounds like rather a concoction. But the familiar words, Burgundy, Medoc, etc. had a resonance from pre-Pro days.

Pinney writes that German winemakers refused to make such a weak wine for the U.S., but the McAlpin menu seems to offer one, a Moselle, as well as a real Burgundy.

The McAlpin’s menu was mostly American with a sprinkling of German and Italian dishes. The beef stew and beer – the Belgian beef carbonnades – is an unusual touch. Beer rarely influenced the kitchen in American cooking with the exception of the 1870-1920 Welsh Rabbit craze and some post-1950s interest in Beer and Cheddar Soup, a dish I’ve written about earlier.

I’d guess with the novelty of beer’s reappearance, someone thought a dish cooked with beer would attract attention.

The Hotel McAlpin was a New York institution, once the largest hotel anywhere. It still stands, today a residential building.

 

The Singleton of Dufftown

A Belter, Lads

Single malt Scotch has become wildly popular in the last 30 years. Prices are now much higher than even 10-15 years ago, and I buy much less of it as a result, ditto Irish whiskeys (the single pot still is the only one of interest to me, Redbreast and the like).

I look for values, and the availability in Ontario of Singleton 12 years old from Dufftown (in Banffshire) delivers traditional aged quality at a very attractive price.

Age statements are much less common now due to pressure on inventories, as for bourbon and straight rye. In and of itself this is not objectionable provided traditional profiles are maintained, which can be done through skilful mingling and batching, or close enough anyway.

Still, it is nice to see an old-fashioned age statement, especially in the range of 12-18 where the real quality lies.

When tasting almost any whisky, I try to forget the distillery narrative and just get on with the tasting and assessment. Knowing too much of the backstory can colour your judgement, for good and bad.

When you read too much of the legendary this and that, you can be inhibited, quite unconsciously, from stating your instinctive view.

Conversely, knowing that a whisky typically secures a low or average score can influence you to do the same when objectively the spirit deserves better.

At $59 in Ontario, The Singleton Dufftown is an outstanding value. It is creamy, malty, lightly phenolic, glycerine-smooth – mild as mother’s milk, as an old tribute (early 1800s) to good malt put it. What more can be asked of a whisky?

Mighty Diageo, owner of the distillery, also markets a Glen Ord and a Glendullan under the Singleton name. In a typically lush website spread it burbles how these whiskies are balanced and approachable.

It’s an old idea, probably started by Michael Jackson, of a bridge or “entry level” to more complex flavours.

More complex would mean the hair-raising quality of many Islay whiskies, or the sherry cavalcade some Highlands offer, that kind of thing.

Jackson used to rate Dufftown malt under or around 80 out of 100. The modulated, well-expressed formulae of the Singleton website, e.g. “symphony in oak”, conveys the idea well, so Diageo probably absorbed the notion finally.

But guvs, its whisky. Is it good, crawish, great, what? It’s very good, trust me. The price is just a bonus.

Yet, online reviews seem rather ho-hum about Singleton Dufftown. The scorings I’ve seen are similar to what Jackson gave the brand or the earlier Dufftown 12 years old.

Some don’t like the malty quality (Scotch is from a barley mash – malt is good), some detect a chemical note (it signals some distillation character- that’s good), and so on.

The general line seems to be “unoffending”, as if offensive whisky is good…?

We used to get Singleton Glendullan in Ontario and it was not nearly as good IMO: appley, coarse, a little edgy. The Dufftown is deeper, stylish, brandy-like, closer to the very first Singleton from 1986 (see below).

While the label vaunts oak, the wood effect is quite restrained for the age: a good primer in relation to bourbon, doubly woody at half the age. We think whisky should taste at least as much of whisky as wood; this one does.

I haven’t tried the Glen Ord but this Dufftown is hard to beat, indeed this bottling in particular. I say that because no two bottles of almost any decent whisky are really alike. Sometimes small differences can alter the next experience.

The current Singleton Dufftown reminds me of Highland Park 12 years old – I hope that classic expression is still available, at any rate. Singleton Dufftown is not “the same” but offers a similarly good-tasting set of malt whisky attributes.

The first Singleton was from Auchroisk in 1986, a relatively new distillery built to supply malt for big-selling blends. Its Singleton, at the same 12 years as the current line, was older than what went into the blends: soft, elegant, a touch oily, as close to brandy as one might imagine.

When the Glendullan Singleton was first available I recall keen disappointment as it was nothing like that whisky.

The Dufftown is much closer yet if anything is better, with more subtleties and Highland character. The Victorian whisky connoisseurs Alfred Barnard and George Saintsbury would have swooned for this dram. And they weren’t lads.

 

 

American Wines on the Seine

Gunflint and Gastronomy in Paris, Yankee-style

Below is a photograph of wine and liquor exhibits at the 1900 Paris Universal Exposition. As mentioned in our last post, many high quality American wines were excluded from the awards on the basis their labels infringed French “indications of origin”. In a word, their use of French wine or place names suggested an attempt to deceive, in the French mind.
This is even though the bottles clearly showed the wines were from vineyards in the State of California, U.S.A.

The image shown is from Volume 5 of the six-volume Report of the Commissioner-general for the United States to the International Universal Exposition, Paris, 1900. It detailed America’s role in the Exposition with a close examination of the exhibits offered and prizes won.

Volume 6 contains reports by Harvey Wiley, the chief chemist of the Department of Agriculture and pure food czar, whom we profiled earlier, and L.J. Vance. Wiley had been responsible to collect and present the wine samples as part of the American agricultural exhibit.

Leo Vance, a juror and New York-based writer, wrote a longer detailed analysis of the American exhibits, the American wine industry and the world wine industry; his account follows Wiley’s but both are well-worth reading.

Vance’s mini-essay provide a neat capsule of the industry in all these facets as the 20th century opened.

The great majority of the wines were provided of course by France, an enormous 6,000 vs. California’s tiny 80 and Canada’s near-infinitesimal, four. Still, the significance of the New World’s contributions far outweighed their numbers, as the awards to the United States at the 1889 Paris fair showed.

Reference to liquor’s morals was by 1900 virtually routine in any consideration of the wine, brewing, or distilling industries, even by the latter’s trade organs. Yet Vance’s account, which starts here, is notable for eliding a moralistic perspective. In this sense the piece sounds unusually modern.

The reasons are obvious: the exposition was a trade fair. There was no room to discuss political questions on booze including the desirability of limited or total prohibition. The interests of American industry needed to be advanced: end of story.

The value of this perspective though is that it shows clearly where the wine world was heading on its own terms. And clearly it had a bright future, the future it would fully reclaim only after the 1960s.

That first future was foreclosed to it by the advent of National Prohibition in 1920.

Vance and Wiley present an ambitious, forward-looking wine industry, one that unlike today was national, not just through distribution of wineries throughout the country, but in production as well. Data included showed states outside California still produced over 40% of the wine consumed in the country, see pg. 483.

Today, in contrast, California produces 90% of all U.S. wine.

New York was considered in fact a champagne specialist with the industry centered around Lake Keuka in western New York. You could still see remains of some of the large champagne houses in Hammondsport and Penn Yann, NY when I first visited there in the 1980s: large mouldering stone warehouses, for example. They probably still stand, perhaps repurposed for modern winemaking or other uses.

Had Prohibition, WW I and the Depression never come, this snapshot of 1900 wine culture would have matured into the wine world we know now – just much earlier. Whether the native grape tradition of the East described by Vance would have survived – or possibly flourished – is another question.

I think it may well have, but as things resulted, Vinifera, king in California by 1900, defined tastes nationally, finally.

Already in 1900 Vance offers a primer on wine-tasting. He recites a typically modern wine vocabulary, clearly by this time Franco-Anglo-American – international. One example is the term flinty, from pierre de fusil as the cosmopolitan Vance notes.

Vance was an epicure, obviously. The report uses neutral language to conceal the sensual and hedonistic aspects of wine, after all it was a government and bureaucratic document. Nonetheless between the lines, and not too far between them, is our consumer wine world of today.

Little seems to have survived on Vance himself. He is referred to in this restaurant history by Andrew Haley as a New York journalist important for having drawn attention to the city’s cosmopolitan food culture of the 1890s.

Clearly Vance was a progenitor of Manhattan’s 1930s food and wine clubs I profiled earlier, which in turn influenced the postwar food and wine boom. We are in a direct line of descent from Vance via the dusty pages of the solemn-looking Report.

Online sources suggest that Vance was also a business journalist; the sophistication of his commentary on the American and global wine business reinforces this conclusion.

In sum, Vance outlined the wine world we live in today, one in which American winemaking has had an outsize influence. It would have all happened much sooner – perhaps enlivened by a vibrant Eastern native grape tradition – but for the advent of repressive national laws, the Dirty Thirties, and World War.

Note re images: The first image above is from the Report referenced and linked in the text, via HathiTrust. The second is from the Wikipedia entry on the 1900 Paris Universal Exposition, also linked in the text. Images belong to their sole owner, as applicable. Used here for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.

 

From Livermore to Lutetia

Tuning in, Turning on: the Original California Wine Revolution

One of the great names in California wine was Cresta Blanca, founded in 1882, with its first wine produced in 1886. Atypically perhaps it was not a product of Sonoma or Napa Valley: the winery was located in Livermore Valley, an hour’s drive east of San Francisco. This valley has a microclimate informed by its east-west axis, also atypical in the state, and the foggy winds that cool the soils off the Bay waters.

Cresta Blanca was founded by a Maine-born, San Francisco-based writer and journalist, Charles Wetmore.  He brought cuttings from Margaux and Yquem following research that suggested Vinifera would thrive in northern California.

The winery was a success out of the gate. It survived Prohibition and while Wetmore died in 1927, his brother ran the business until liquor giant Schenley bought it on the eve of WW II.

Later, the winery was shuttered but in the 1980s the equally historic Wente winery, established 1883, bought Cresta Blanca. Wente was a neighbour in Livermore, so no better successor could be imagined. The Cresta Blanca fields were replanted and the handsome stucco and tile centrepiece converted to the Cresta Blanca Event Centre and Terrace Lawn.

And so the fields that supplied the grapes for Cresta Blanca’s historic “Claret”, “Burgundy” and “Chablis” now produce fine red wine for Wente. One brand is named, appropriately, Charles Wetmore Cabernet Sauvignon, listed by our LCBO.

Well after WW II California wineries continued their long tradition to use European appellation names, which raised hackles of course in Europe. Sometimes they used just the grape type, as e.g., Riesling in the image shown above.

This became finally the approved model – varietal names on the bottle – but not without a long battle by French winemakers to protect their names of origin.

Today, the World Trade Organization and other treaties, including NAFTA, protect various distinctive names for alcoholic drinks. Champagne of course is the best example.

It wasn’t only in the U.S. that winemakers sought to use names they felt had become a mere type-description, generic. In Canada, a battle was fought for years in the courts whether a Canadian winemaker could use the term Champagne. Finally the name disappeared from Canadian and indeed all American labels.

In 1889, a world international exposition was held in Paris and Cresta Blanca won grand prize for its wines, the highest honour accorded. A second Livermore winery and one in Napa were awarded gold medals. This achievement cemented Cresta Blanca’s reputation and it became a template for the Vinifera revolution in America.

Cresta Blanca sometimes used qualified terms such as Margaux Souvenir, but also occasionally stated the brand names without qualification, as you see above (Chablis, Burgundy, Port, etc.).

At the next world’s fair in Paris, the Universal Exposition of 1900, California wines with labels using French terms were excluded from competition on the protest of French winemakers.  This extended to Cresta Blanca even though its wines,  and other wines similarly named, were accepted for judging in 1889.

Perhaps seeing the glories achieved by California in 1889, French vintners didn’t want a repetition, although trade literature in the intervening period suggests the origin issue was becoming more acute generally.

Certainly it was not new in the beer world, as the complex “Budweiser” litigation history shows. By 1900, brewers and winemakers shipping internationally saw what happened to the pilsener name, Dortmunder is another example, and sought to prevent a repetition for their distinctive names.

Due to the complexity of national and international laws progress was intermittent although today in western markets at least appellations have obtained a high level of protection. It is a problem that never entirely goes away, of course.

In 1900 the California press was replete with high dudgeon at the exclusion of many California wines from the competition, but articles and letters also appeared which cautioned the industry to be more nuanced in its labelling.

In Paris, a kind of compromise was reached when the decision to exclude the wines was appealed. The tasting panels were instructed to rate the wines and deliver the results to the exposition adjudication body, but the latter were instructed not to issue any awards based on the ratings.

The ratings when made public showed California wines excluded from the competition (some received awards whose labels met the grade) would have attained very high standing. Cresta Blanca, all of whose wines were excluded, received a mark of 17 out of 20, which would have meant a gold medal.

The cause célèbre fizzled out with the irresistible pressure leading to National Prohibition and the worries of WW I.

For a flavour of the élan caused by the wines of Cresta Blanca in the heady 1890s, of the hopes they raised for America to share topmost rank with the great European wine countries, read this 1896 story from the Livermore Herald. Its photos and proud but simply-stated narrative tell a potent tale.

A sample:

The beautiful and picturesque property known as Cresta Blanca is situated about four miles south of Livermore. It consists of 420 acres of rolling and hill land, on which are the vineyards, olive and peach orchards which have made Cresta Blanca so famous. The vineyards were planted in 1882 with cuttings directly imported from the celebrated Margaux and Chateau Yquem vineyards of France, and the first wine made, in 1886, showed a marked resemblance to the famous wines made at those vineyards. The wine was carefully handled, and, when ready for bottling, was sold under the name of Cresta Blanca Souvenir Vintages. This brand of wine became popular from the start, and has increased in favor to such an extent that it is now found on the wine lists of every first-class hotel, restaurant, and club on the Pacific Coast.

The wines in the colour ads and product list above are from an early 1940s issue of Life magazine. The war had by now enveloped America, and I’d guess Lew Rosenstiel of Schenley Distillers wanted a bulwark against the looming prohibition to distil alcohol for beverage spirits.

Final note, to which I may return shortly: note in the product list the reference to a “crisp, dry” sauterne (spelled without the “s” in the U.S.). This was obviously in distinction to the classic honey-rich version, denoted “Haut Sauterne” here.

I recall reading articles in the last half-dozen years how a dry Sauternes is attracting attention, a novelty that, like “orange” wine, captures the imagination of wine bibbers from time to time. Except that dry Sauternes is seen by many as more than a minor key item, something that may save the Sauternes Graves producers since sweet wines are not as popular as in former times.

Some stories suggest the style is new or newish. This New York Times report from four years ago notes that Château d’Yquem introduced its dry Sauternes back in 1959. Other producers have taken to the idea much more recently, suggesting again the idea of a post-Second War innovation.

As so often, one sees dry Sauternes is far from new. If California was drinking its version around the time of Pearl Harbor, it seems a safe bet, given the origins of Cresta Blanca’s wine tradition, that Sauternes in La Mère Patrie Vinicole always knew a dry version.

Note re images: The images above were sourced from Google’s Life magazine archive, here. Images belong to the sole owner, as applicable. Used here for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.

 

 

Great Bitter Ale With Many Resonances

Amsterdam’s beer shown, Amsterdam Autumn Hop Harvest Ale, is undoubtedly one of the best pale ales ever brewed in Ontario, maybe the best.

Its clean, incisive, but emphatic hop character is due to the addition of wet Ontario hops sourced at a hop farm north of Toronto, Clear Valley Hops. This means the hop flowers freshly harvested, not dried in a kiln and baled as for traditional hops, are added to the boil or fermented beer in large amount.

This confers inimitable flavour and complexity. In this case, the benediction to the beer was done the very day the hops were harvested.

The procedure gives the beer all the flowery, resiny taste the alpha and beta acids afford with no processing as stated to dampen, or at least modify, the effect. As I flagged a while back, use of wet or green hops is not actually new, they were doing it locally in England centuries ago.

One can imagine that all beer in the primal community was so treated until hop processing, including kilning, became usual in the beer lands. Certainly the standard processing of hops, not to mention later refinements such as pelletisation, were a boon to the systematic production of good quality beer.

Last week I opened the can shown, took a small taste, and left it in the fridge for four days. It poured today like a cask ale, with the restrained bubble you would expect, perhaps a touch more.

Not only that, it tastes strongly English, it reminds me of draft English bitters on my first trips to England around 1980. It brought back Young’s Bitter in the Guinea, Mayfair, or Holt’s Bitter in Manchester’s Victorian houses, beers that descend from 19th-century pale ale.

You can still get beers like this in Britain but must mind what you order, as English bitter today often delivers the American, post-1976 pale ale or IPA flavour. A taste, that is, driven by the new crop of hops put on the U.S. market (initially) from about 1972.

That’s good beer too but the taste differs from classic English pale ale and bitter; to some it will never rank on the same gastronomic level.

At the soft opening recently of Amsterdam Brewery’s impressive new Barrel House at 87 Laird Drive, Leaside, Toronto, I was told the wet hop used was Cascade.

Clearly the Ontario soils have conferred a specific character, it doesn’t taste like West Coast Cascade. I don’t get any white pith-like taste à la Sierra Nevada Pale Ale or Anchor Brewery’s Liberty Ale. This Ontario Cascade gives a smooth but potent taste, a lot like English Golding, to my mind.

No one in England in 1980 was using wet hops, but the use of very fresh English hops may have lent – no doubt still lends – a character not all that different to this Ontario fresh, unprocessed Cascade hop.

Incidentally the preservative effect of a large amount of hops is obvious, as after four days in the fridge the beer is fresh as a daisy. That wouldn’t happen with a lot of beers you leave open in the fridge that long.

Occasionally one encounters a true epicurean treat; this is one, in Gambrinus’ world.