Modern Food Culture – Present at the Creation (Part I)

The early workings of the International Wine and Food Society, founded in 1933 in London by French-born gastronome Andre Simon, are revealed in the press accounts of tasting events.

This quotation of founder Simon, from the website noted, explains with elegance the mission of the group:

The object of the Society is to bring together and serve all who believe that a right understanding of good food and wine is an essential part of personal contentment and health and that an intelligent approach to the pleasures and problems of the table offers far greater rewards than the mere satisfaction of appetite.

Today the Society has branches all over the world. The New York branch, an early foothold in the New World, was founded in 1935.

I have discussed two or three examples of the early press coverage. So new were these events for the general public that the very term, tasting, was often placed in quotes. The first stories, at least by my canvass, are more or less straight reportage, usually with an arch cast, even facetious.

This is not unexpected for the time, and tends to greet any phenomenon when breaking from its sub-culture pod. Early craft beer tastings were similarly handled by the general press, bemused by the concept of “boutique” or “designer” beer.

These accounts were followed by more personalized accounts of IWFS events, usually by columnists invited to a wine or other tasting. I’ll discuss a few of these here.

In general, a light or blasé tone prevails, but with more understanding of what the Society was trying to achieve.

In August 1945 the New York columnist Alice Hughes (d. 1977), then in her mid-40s, profiled the New York chapter and its long-time Secretary, Jeanne Owen. Her account referenced below appeared in the Buffalo Courier-Express as Hughes’ writing was widely syndicated.

Hughes was an experienced journalist, an early graduate of Columbia University’s famed journalism school. She had a stint as international correspondent and scored a coup interviewing Leon Trotsky in Turkey. By the war’s end she was focusing on fashion and women’s issues (as then termed).*

After explaining Owen’s background and that the New York chapter counted 500 members who met seven times a year, she writes:

The famous “tastings” are served buffet style at one of our flossiest hotels, and women members serve at the various tables. Some of the events were outstanding. Mrs. Owen believes the greatest was the late afternoon devoted to tasting (and swallowing) 11 different varieties of the succulent Long Island oyster. Over 18,000 went down the gullets of the devotees, and were washed in by 25 types of white wine and stout. You know, white wine with sea foods, ducky!

[This and similar quotations in this series all sourced from the Fulton History website, see www.fultonhistory.org ,with specific news source linked in each case as shown above).

In line with many American and Australian accounts of early IWFS events a certain democratic spirit is emphasized, as well as their commercial utility – really the same thing. This countered the perception of such groups as overly elite and frivolous.

Hughes writes:

This gang of eating and drinking exquisites serves as a liaison agent between wine, liquor and food companies and the people who insist that their browsing and sluicing be correct, and just exactly right in taste and punctilio. Yet Mrs. Owen says that the pish-posh about which wine to drink with has gone too far, and has reached idiotic proportions. In a recent message to her constituents, she advised them to “drink what you like and laugh at the wine snob sitting at the next table.” I am glad to hear this good sense from such a classy source.

I think it likely that the ongoing war – Germany had surrendered by the time of writing but Japan not quite yet – underlined the importance of not seeming out of touch.

True, one had to accept to begin with the notion that eating and drinking of this sort was not inconsistent with the war drive, but I have not seen one account yet that critiqued, even impliedly, wartime tasting events for this reason.

However one views this issue an equable tone was set in Hughes’ account, in my view.

The chapter’s annual Long Island oyster tastings attracted 600-700 persons, as members were allowed to bring guests. These were far from small numbers, yet comparatively in terms of national impact, infinitesimal.

It took decades for the Society’s work to percolate through the general culture, along with efforts of food and wine writers, the TV chefs, publicists, and the influence of international travel. By the mid-1970s everything gelled.

See Part II of this series.

………………………………..

*These and other biographical details appear from Alice Hughes’ obituary in the New York Times.