G. Selmer Fougner’s Landmark 1938 American Dinner

G. Selmer Fougner (1885-1941), the American food and drinks writer whom I have been chronicling here, was invited frequently to hundreds of dinners, tastings, and other gastronomic events in and outside New York where he was based, albeit he could attend only a comparative few.

On some occasions he created or at least inspired a dinner, and the most memorable I know is the historic All-American Dinner given at the University Club of New York on April 5, 1938. (The image below is sourced from Wikipedia’s article on the Club, see here).

In articles that appeared earlier in his “Along the Wine Trail” column in the New York Sun, Fougner described the genesis and planning for the event. His Sun column of March 15, 1938 explained the purpose of the dinner and the important role of the hosting venue:

The University Club, in undertaking to stage this event, is performing a distinguished service which will be appreciated by all those who have at heart the fine old traditions of American life. Coming as it does on the heels of a long series of so-called gourmet functions … the all-American dinner at the University Club will set a new mark for hotels and restaurants all over the land.

At readers’ insistence, he finally reproduced the menu in his column. The menu is notable for its resolutely American content. It fulfilled too Fougner’s wish that it be written in standard English, without the French flourishes commonly seen in high-toned menus then. He also wanted dishes that one might encounter in hotels and other frequent resorts – good food, not junk certainly, but avoiding in other words obscure or unduly costly specialties, and all prepared to a high standard, with American wines only to accompany.

Fougner was fostering here the creation of a sane national American cuisine, parallel and of equal value to the French cuisine then still daily presented for the Manhattan elite in top restaurants and hotels.

The University Club was a good place to test the idea. To be sure it was and still is an upscale, private social club but its membership went beyond the confines of the social register, for example. A college degree was the main prerequisite to join.

Approximately 250 people sat down for the dinner and by all reports it was a great success.

The service of all-American wines – indeed even one at a formal dining event – is notable for 1938, a bare five years after National Prohibition (1920-1933) ended. For decades to come indeed, epicurean societies would routinely (but not invariably) overlook American wines in favour of time-honoured European names. That has all changed and it is the vision of people like Fougner and the University Club organizing committee who helped make it so.

Below is the menu, from G. Selmer Fougner’s May 9, 1938 New York Sun column. See again the committee’s notes at the conclusion, and of course Fougner’s own commentary.

While the menu is largely self-explanatory, we might note the “Half-way Home”, which initially confounded us, was a serving of apple brandy, this was stated by Fougner in a July Sun column the same year on the famous (and still going strong!) Laird Distillery of New Jersey. In effect it was an American stab at the trou Normand, the serving of Calvados (Norman apple brandy) mid-meal to make a “hole” in digestion to allow the rest of the meal to be savoured.

As to the wines served, Fougner had a policy of not stating or recommending specific brands, especially for domestic products; hence the use of generic terms such as ” California Chablis”.

MENU

of the All-American dinner held at the University Club and Sponsored by ‘the Trail’.

Cocktails: Manhattan, Martini.

American Appetizers

Cape Cod Oysters on the Half Shell

American Sherry.

Celery, Carrots, Nuts,

Long Island Clam Broth

Parker House Rolls

Indiana Corn Sticks

Planked Shad and Roe – Delaware

California Chablis.

‘Half-Way Home’ 

Breast of Chicken—Maryland

Candied Yams-Louisiana

California Asparagus Tips, Butter Sauce

California Claret.

Boston Lettuce—Florida Avocado

Old Fashioned Strawberry Shortcake

American Champagne.

Sweet Catawba.

Coffee

American Cordials.

Description of Dishes…“.

One can see that inspiration was drawn from different parts of the country. The concept behind this menu did in fact have a precedent or two before Prohibition, nonetheless it represents with those events a milestone on the path to today’s heterogeneous, “food without borders” culture.

Today, not just American but non-French European, Asian, and other world cuisines are regularly featured in our eating places of high repute. They are valued as much or more so, today, than haute cuisine and French provincial dishes.

Indeed attempts are constantly made to mix and match the elements, fusion as it is known. Fougner may not have envisioned that but would be thoroughly happy, I think, with today’s culinary scene had he been aware of its intervening stages.

I’ll conclude by quoting, as he did to open the column enclosing the menu, a Trailer’s somewhat obtuse remarks. “Trailers” were followers of Fougner’s column. They often wrote him for advice, or to provide their own. It shows the stance, the idée reçue, to which the University Club dinner constituted a cultural response.

The reader’s thinking was widespread in the West at the time and it took many years for those attitudes to change, decades in fact.

“Recently you referred to the much heralded All-American dinner that was held at the University Club, and I had been awaiting with much interest the menu and wine list,” writes an East Eighth Street Trailer. “Being one of those benighted individuals who never eats anything, if it can be avoided, excepting what is prepared ‘a la Francaise,’ and drinks nothing but French wines (dinner without wine would not be worthy of the name to me) it would be interesting to read the menu and the wine list, both of which I had been looking forward to seeing in your column.”

Fougner’s determination to value American cuisine, to view it as more than a casual interest or daily fuelling, was lent weight by having lived in France and acquired French wine and culinary expertise at the highest level. No one could accuse him of culinary nativism, in a word.

Note re above image: Believed in public domain, sourced from the Wikipedia entry on the University Club of New York linked in the text. All feedback welcomed.

 

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