G. Selmer Fougner on Beer

A Baron, but Perhaps not of Beer

I referred once or twice earlier to G. Selmer Fougner (1884-1941), a pivotal figure of 1930s gastronomic and culinary New York. He was famous for his column in the New York Sun, “Along the Wine Trail”. He authored three books on drinks or dining and also sold bound copies of his columns.

He was the Lawson, Oliver, Bourdain, Twitty of his time. He presaged them and intervening generations of food and wine personalities that included James Beard, Julia Child, Graham Kerr, Robert Parker, and Hugh Johnson.

Fougner was born in Chicago, of Norwegian ancestry on both sides.* He father had worked in sales advertising for an ethnic newspaper, which likely suggested to the son the press as a career, and seems later to have had a banking career in Chicago and possibly Paris.

Before and during WW I G. Selmer worked in New York for different newspapers including the Sun and Herald, with stints in Paris and London as foreign correspondent. He also translated into English a French war novel, Private Gaspard.

He was a member of noted gastronomic societies and created not a few, hobnobbing with other Thirties food luminaries that likely included George Frederick of New York’s Gourmet Society, Lucius Beebe, Alfred Knopf, and the main springs of the newly-formed (1934) New York Wine and Food Society. He travelled regularly to Europe and was well-known by its food and wine elite.

The knack Fougner had was to popularize and demystify these subjects. Today, the world of food is resolutely popular, or at least presents that mien to the world. Then, to be a “gourmet” suggested an exalted social status and pocket-book, and he aimed to break that down. He brought the art of good living to the people, at least the broad middle classes who read the Sun.

Many of the interesting pieces of 1800s beer journalism appeared in the Sun and it maintained a lively focus on food and drink until ceasing publication (1950). Indeed it was partly responsible for creating “food and wine” as a factor in the modern consumer lifestyle.

Now, Fougner was not really a beer man. Did he respect beer? Certainly. Did he write about it? Regularly, but with a sense of pro forma to my mind. His passions were saved for traditional French and other European gastronomy as well as American culinary traditions, hence encompassing wine, spirits, cocktails. (One column reproduces a letter from a reader who wrote that railway men at an 1880s clambake connected barrels of clams, corn, and potatoes to steam discharge hoses from their locomotives. When the engines were turned on the blasts made the casks “dance with joy”, cooking the contents in an instant. Wow!).

In 1933-1934 he had a nine-part series on whether post-Prohibition beer had the same quality as before the Volstead Act. He printed numerous letters from people who thought it hadn’t, either that the beer wasn’t as strong, or wasn’t aged as long as before, or used “malt syrup”. Rather than offer his own opinions he consulted persons in the brewing world, such as a Piel of Piel’s Brewery, or a Mr. Pearlstein of Pabst in Milwaukee. The brewery people sought to refute the charges of a lesser quality in the post-Prohibition beer.

However, some readers were not satisfied and he printed more than one plaint that stated in effect, “With all due respect Mr. Fougner, beer has changed, sorry, but it has”. And it may well have in some way we can never understand today. I’ve gathered most of the nine parts in the series here, for your perusal.

In 1940 he published a letter from a beer drinker who was convinced that Canadian ales were superior to the American, and displayed a “common denominator of taste”. He asked Fougner if he agreed but Fougner demurred. I think he was good at the politics, rarely, by my reading, disparaging his own country’s produce. Anyway, he stated while not an expert on ales he thought the American brands he favoured were on a par or better than the Canadian beers.

It may be he wasn’t sensitive enough to the beer palate to notice anything, or perhaps he didn’t want to say. The Canadian ales then, I suspect, had more malt, more hops, and less or no krausening (especially with lager) than the general run of American ales. I hoped he would at least recommend a New York-area India Pale Ale of the type I have been discussing recently, but he does not do that, or maybe its cost did not improve the prospects of the reader, who wanted a cost-effective alternative to the expensive Canadian beers.**

Finally, read this column from 1938 where, despite his limited interest Fougner defends beer as worthy of gastronomic attention. A reader derides, amusingly enough to be sure, beer as something essentially to be gulped and enjoyed at its best (“Pilsner”) with an exclamatory sigh rather than the dainty sipping and high-flown orations of wine appreciation. Fougner responded in disagreement, stating beer has always been appreciated by literature and the arts.

… there is almost as much delightful lore to beer as there is to wine. And as to literary associations, why, a good-sized library could be built up of books praising nothing but beer!

He deflated the subject by stating it is high time that the fancy phrasing be dropped in wine discussion, where it frequently serves as a pose. In this, I suspect he was catering to the American democratic impulse as much as venting a genuine sentiment, but there you have it.

Fougner, always portly and addressed by his friends as “Baron”, died of a heart attack in 1941 when driving south to visit his son in the army. There were appreciative remembrances in the New York press for this important figure in its wine and restaurant life, and at least one grand commemorative dinner was held. But his “Trailers”, as he called them, had forever lost their interlocutor willing to publish and (often) critique their comments.

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*After writing this post my attention was drawn to an (excellent) 2016 article on Fougner by American drinks writer David Wondrich, entitled “America’s First Drinks Writer: G. Selmer Fougner”. Wondrich states Fougner was partly French in origin, with interesting detail on his early life in France. A French upbringing would explain certainly his facility with French. My statement about his parents’ Norwegian ethnic origin was drawn from A. N. Rygg’s Norwegians in New York, 1825-1925, published 1941, see pg. 207.

**This ad from Lang’s Brewery in Buffalo, New York claimed its ale in a blind tasting easily trumped reputed Canadian brands, for what it is worth.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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