Miami and Birth of Modern Food Culture

The Miami Wine and Food Society: a getty that grew

The Miami Branch of the International Wine and Food Society was inaugurated in 1962 under tutelage of wine and food author Charles H. Baker, Jr., Dr. Lewis C. Skinner, Jr., Stephen A. Lynch, Jr., and others. From the current website of the IWFS, the following neatly pens the origins:

 

The Miami Branch was founded by Dr. Louis C. Skinner Jr., a world traveler and respected authority on wine and food.  In the summer of 1961, Lou and Society founder André Simon met in London.  Upon leaving London, Lou traveled to Bordeaux and purchased four cases of red wine of that glorious vintage from 52 different Bordeaux chateaux [en primeur], which he received in 1963 and cellared in his home.  This was reputed to be the best 1961 Bordeaux collection in the world.

In October 1961, the Miami Branch Organizational Committee convened its first meeting at Café Louis in Lou Skinner’s Home.   Lou declined to be the first Branch President, and the honor was bestowed upon Charles Baker.  The inaugural dinner was held on March 28, 1962 at the Columbus Hotel, Miami, FL

Similar to the Los Angeles branch founded 28 years earlier, the founders and leaders were the cream of society. Membership was limited for many years.

In 2009 Scott Bailey, a member since 1983, penned an account of the first decades which sparkles by its perceptive comments. He covers the evolution of the membership, the wine cellar of the branch and how it changed over the decades, and types of events held. For example, for many years black-tie was required and in fact the meals were stag: only later were women included.

This was of course a reflection of an older generation’s customs. My sense is the club was white-shoe and old-school, as many gastronomic societies were in previous times. I’d guess it is rather different today. The current website shows an interesting roster of activities and a membership of almost 80.

Bailey included dozens of menus with his account starting with the very first dinner in ’62. They make for absorbing reading but Bailey has helped us understand them with his insider’s perspective. We can conclude not just that the Miami branch changed with the times, but influenced them in its turn.

Initially the meals were European in focus and rather “Francophile”, not so much at the very beginning, as he notes the first meal, which started with oysters Rockefeller, was more “supper club chic” than truly French. But a 25th anniversary meal showed classic French cuisine at its most sophisticated. The wines included top classified Bordeaux, not just the Burgundy enthusiasm of early dinners.

Bailey notes that as late as 1994 the cellar did not contain any American wine. He states an early experiment was made to cellar California wine but it did not succeed, so this delayed the time Napa and other California vintages would be regularly offered the membership.

The focus for decades was noble French wines (Bordeaux, Burgundies, Champagnes), other French regions especially Alsace and Rhone, German wines, and to a degree Italian, Spanish and Portugal wines.

After ’94 however the percentage of New World wines grew albeit France still dominated at the date of writing.

In fact, a number of early Miami branch dinners did offer California wines. This would have resulted from a member hosting a gathering at his club, or from a restaurant’s list providing the offerings rather than the branch’s cellar.

By 1970 California wines were occasionally offered, sources included Inglenook, Beaulieu, Buena Vista, and Robert Mondavi. This January 6, 1970 meal is an illustration with well-penned product and taste notes included. It was held at the private The Bath Club (pictured). The meal is classic French but all the wines were American including a 12-year-old Cabernet Sauvignon.

My sense is in the early years the Miami chapter lacked the enthusiasm for California viticulture the Los Angeles chapter demonstrated as soon as the industry got on its feet after Repeal. This is understandable as L.A. was in America’s “wine central”: foodies, to use today’s rather unsatisfactory term, had access to what was happening on the ground.

As well, Lewis Skinner was internationally known for his matchless collection of French vintages especially from the great years 1929, 1945 and 1962. 1982 would be included as well, finally. Skinner and Baker were friends with Michael Broadbent, André Simon, Cyril Ray and other international wine luminaries and generously made their private collections available for epic branch tastings.

So a French perspective, one way or another, ended by dominating branch events for some time. Bailey uses the term “International” to denote the subsequent phase of branch activities. This means an increasing focus on New World wines and also regional and ethnic cuisines.

Even from the late 1960s menus on the website show a budding interest particularly for national (non-French) and regional dinners.

Hence, in the 1970s and 80s a Spanish-and-Basque dinner was held, a luxury Chinese one based on regional dishes (no alcohol served, only Chrysanthemum tea – Skinner was also a tea expert), various Italian dinners, a Provence-Côte D’Azur menu, an English “country house” menu (mostly French wines and a sherry, no beer), even a Belgian dinner (French wines again, no beer).

I haven’t inspected every menu, perhaps one did feature a beer sampling or include a beer or two with a meal, but I haven’t found one as yet. The same is true for whiskey, rum, and other spirits.

The arc of the Miami branch, as elucidated by Scott Bailey’s essay and the menus themselves, is a miniature lesson in American foodways evolution. To be sure the people enjoying the experience were a small group, privileged in numerous ways – prosperous, educated – but they were taste-makers.

With IWFS members in other cities, with other gastronomic organizations, with Julia Child, James Beard, Craig Clairborne, Mimi Sheraton, and TV cooking shows, they paved the way for today’s food culture.

I like the approach of the International Food and Wine Society as exemplified by its early years. There is a learned tone to it that appeals to me. Some of the “epicurean” language and attitudes seems a bit high-flown but at bottom they took food and drink seriously and made education a central part of their mission.

Today the world of the Ramsays, Bourdains, Rays, Olivers, Iron Chefs and bake-offs seems rather different. They bring good or interesting food to a broader range of people than in the old days, so it’s good as far as it goes. But the scholarly tone of old-style foodies has an intrinsic value that can’t be gainsaid.

And need I say: it’s wrong to think a deep interest in drink or food, shared with the like-minded and enjoying the best money can buy, is elitist or snobbish. It’s not, there is an old tradition for it going back to Socrates. It’s an area of endeavour as valid as miniature trains, go-karting, steam-punk or whatever drives your boat.

Because everyone needs to eat and drink something, some people take offence when others drill down for something purely quotidian for them. (Hey it’s just beer man, leave it alone).

But there’s no reason gastronomy should be exempt from the countless passions that move people to hyper-enthusiasm.

I’d guess today’s IWFS covers both the old-style approach for those inclined and the kind of popular interest the avatars mentioned cater to.

Finally, as Marcus Crahan put it in his 1955 book I discussed yesterday what is important is not the wine but the memories, meaning the learning, the discussions, disputations, community. Wine provides the impetus but isn’t the main thing, else why create a group centered around its elucidation and enjoyment?

His dictum applies to today’s nerve centres for good food and drink: the tv chefs and competitions, the glossy culinary mags, food festivals, all of it.

Net-net, the activity of the most cosseted of the early food societies can be likened to a good pub evening, a lively corner of a cask ale festival, an ardent Twitter thread.

Otherwise one might just as well drink his vintage Chateau Latour, or choice Imperial Stout, or historically interesting Horton Vineyards Norton, on his own. What fun is that?

Note re image: the image above was sourced from the website of The Bath Club in Miami, FL, here. All intellectual property in the image belongs solely to its lawful owner or authorized user, as applicable. Image is used for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.

 

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