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

A Stunning 1936 Tasting of Wine and Oysters

 

 

The International Wine and Food Society

The Wine and Food Society of New York is a chapter of what is now called the International Wine and Food Society, based in London. I have discussed numerous times their significance in modern food and wine culture.

The program of the New York group explained below was sourced from the New York Public Library’s invaluable menu archive, at www.nypl.org

Many activities of the group from the 1960s until the 1970s presage important features of today’s culinary scene. These include pairing food and wine in formal tastings, comparing varietal wines of different countries (well before the 1976 Judgement of Paris), holding sophisticated beer tastings, and taking American wines seriously from the 1940s onward.

The Society also examined at early events regional American, ethnic, and international cuisines. An example among many was its Nordic smorgasbord, 1960s.

A founder of the New York branch was Robert Jay Misch, a New York ad executive. In 1936 when the oyster tasting described below was held he was only 30.

French-born André Simon, of the parent London branch, drove the international expansion. I’ve mentioned their activities in places as dispersed as Liverpool,  Melbourne, Baltimore, and San Francisco.

In New York, the board of directors in the formative years included business executives, publishers, food and wine writers, and theatrical figures.

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

Misch may have authored the notes for the 1936 wine and oyster tasting. At the height of the Depression, no effort was spared to present a luxury of choice both for shellfish and wine, in the appropriately swank St. Regis Hotel.

 

 

A New Writing Style for Wine?

The wine notes are crisp, authoritative, lively – and not mannered. They may have inaugurated an international “style” for the Society, at least. I would argue the style influenced wine writing of later generations, in general.

There is surely some precedent in pre-1933 wine writing. George Saintsbury’s 1920s Notes on a Cellar-book should be cited here. Still, the program notes for the 1936 tasting have a tone that rings modern.

Saintsbury, born in the Victorian era and trained as a literary scholar, expressed well a wine’s attributes, but his ornate style can irritate, today.

 

 

The Beer

The committee organizing the oyster tasting knew stout or porter was traditional with bivalves, so Ireland’s famed Guinness was included. The “wine” of the country, they called it.

From 1946 until the early 1950s the New York group added further beers for its oyster tastings, although wine always predominated.

 

 

The Wines

The French wines were well-chosen, from classic Chablis – “the” wine for oysters, really – to Alsatian, Graves, and Hermitage.

Numerous German wines were included, Germany being second only to France for the number of wines represented. This is perhaps surprising given that by mid-1936 the Nazis were firmly in control of Germany and had commenced their persecutions in earnest.

The Jewish members of the New York Wine and Food Society may have gritted teeth at German wine being served, not to mention lauded in dulcet tones. But it was a different time.**

When the Second World War began the Society set aside German, French, and Italian wines. Most stocks were probably exhausted anyway and trade embargoes prevented re-supply, but I’d like to think it was a policy decision.

During the war California resources were plumbed, also from New York, Ohio, Chile, Argentina, Iberia, and South Africa. Such forays into secondary or tertiary wine regions presaged the modern avidity for regional wine wherever it may be found, the “wine of the country”.

Had the Second World War never occurred, I’m convinced the vibrant viticulture and enology of innumerable, disparate regions would have never have gained the legs they have (!)

 

 

The Oysters

The introductory narrative in the 1936 programme is well-written, indeed almost scholarly.

The wealth of Long Island varieties still available in the 1930s cannot fail to impress. Some oysters, including from Robbins Island, are still available but much of the variety is lost to our grasp today, at least commercially speaking.

This is due to, well you know: overfishing, pollution, maybe climate change. But oysters still abound in large quantities in other places, e.g. Canada. The Gaspé’s briny Malpeque is not as creamy as the Long Island Bluepoint, but world-class still. I would describe it as half-way between the salty Belon of Brittany and the Bluepoint.

Recreating Significant Gastronomic Events

Someone might recreate this classic early culinary encounter of wine and mollusk, using resources available today. It would offer a unique opportunity to blend epicurean adventure with social and cultural history. And it would be fun.

 

 

Note re images: the first five images were sourced from the New York Public Library, as identified and linked in the text. The final image, of the top levels of St. Regis Hotel in New York, was sourced from www.thecityreview.com, here. All intellectual property in the images belongs solely to their lawful owner, as applicable. Images used for educational and research purposes. All feedback welcomed.

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*From Lewis Carroll’s The Walrus and the Carpenter.

**Nonetheless, according to a 1935 article in the French-language press of Mandate Palestine, New York hotels had stopped importing German wine under the anti-Nazi boycott. The trend was against usage of German wine in Manhattan, evidently.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

2 thoughts on ““… if You’re Ready, Oysters Dear, we can Begin…”*”

  1. Gary, it seems to me that these wine notes are generic in nature, similar in style to other efforts in the mid-1930s to reintroduce wine to the American public which had lost its taste for wine during the long years of Prohibition. (In fact, many of the vineyards that opened in California immediately upon Repeal soon went bankrupt because there was not enough demand for their product.) However, what’s particularly interesting about this document is that it is also reintroducing oysters to the public. No such introduction would have been required 25 years earlier when fine dining was still going strong in the United States before Prohibition finished off most of the best restaurants.

    • Henry, I’d argue it’s not just that a range of oysters is re-introduced here, but it is done in an organized fashion with a beginning, middle and an end (the envoi in the form of the Lewis Carroll quote I reprised for the title) – and of course with support of the oyster industry’s lobby. I doubt those elements existed before Prohibition.

      This approach finds its middle class echo in the Consumer Union publications c. 1940 I’ve referred to earlier, a progenitor of Fodor and Zagat. They and the 30s American wine writers were all getting at the same thing but it is notable IMO that the Food and Wine Society, representing the commanding heights of gastronomy in Manhattan and therefore the U.S., adopted a relatively plain and didactic style.

      All the Latin and folderol of the 19th century is left behind here. I am reminded for example of that 1890s article I discussed a while back from the New York Times addressing trends in gastronomy and the supposed Anglo-Saxon-centric nature of American food – this 1930s style is light years away from that.

      There is some precedent in the journalist L.J. Vance’s article of 1900 on American wines in Paris at the World Exposition that year, but here we have an updated version in an upwardly mobile consumer context, Madison Avenue already in place, where Misch worked. Vance was talking to a narrow carriage trade class.

      I don’t regard the wine notes as generic but you can see where some phrases must have been taken from wholesalers’ or bottlers’ promotional material. It’s exactly the way it’s done today, there is nothing of pre-1900 I see in it, and little of pre-1920.

      So the influence of the Wine and Food Society IMO is important because it promoted a new style that became the lingua franca of post-WW II cuisine – sophisticated but not affected and with the didactic element I mentioned. Didactic, not just hedonistic.

      You can see the influence in Julia Child, James Beard, the Time-Life series, the Consumer Reports ratings, the early tv food programs, etc., it all rolled in postwar and not only because of this Society but it had a lot to do with it IMO, as did the war which I’ve mentioned a number of times now in this regard.

      Gary

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