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

A Stunning 1936 Tasting of Wines and Oysters

The International Wine and Food Society

I have written earlier of the historic role played by the Wine and Food Society of New York, now part of the International Wine and Food Society based in London, in creating the modern food and wine culture. (The full original programme discussed below can be viewed, and the extracts herein are included, courtesy www.nypl.org).

Many of their activities from the 1930s-1970s presaged important features of today’s food world. These include pairing foods and wines in formal tastings; comparing varietal wines of different countries, especially the U.S. and France (well before the 1976 Judgement of Paris); holding sophisticated beer tastings with historical and taste notes in the program; slowly but steadily covering American wines from the 1940s; and creating regional American, ethnic, and international menus, from a “Vermont breakfast” (late-40s)* to a Nordic smorgasbord (60s).

One of the founders of the New York branch was Robert Jay Misch, a New York advertising executive. He was only 30 in 1936 when the wine and oyster tasting described below was held.

André Simon, of the original London branch, was the driver behind the international expansion of the Society. I’ve previously referred to its activities in places as far afield as Liverpool, U.K.; Melbourne, Australia; Baltimore, MD; and San Francisco, CA.

The New York board of directors was a varied group comprising business executives including publishers, food or wine writers, and society figures.

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

Misch probably authored many of the notes on wine for the luxe 1936 wine and oyster tasting. At the height of the Depression, no effort was spared to present a luxury of choice among bivalves and products of the vine, in appropriately swank surroundings of the St. Regis Hotel, Manhattan.

A New Wine Writing Style?

The wine notes are crisp, authoritative, lively, not overly mannered. They probably inaugurated an international “style” for the Society in this regard. I would argue too they clearly influenced the wine writing of later generations in general.

There is probably some precedent for it in pre-1933 wine writing – in fact George Saintsbury’s 1920s Notes on a Cellar-book should be cited – but still the 1936 notes have a striking clarity and modernity.

Saintsbury can express well a wine’s attributes but his ornate Victorian style often gets in the way for modern readers.

Sometimes things are like that; something significant gets started almost from whole cloth and remains a totem, I guess that’s what classic means. The 1936 wine notes speak to us clearly today.

The Beer

The committee who organized the tasting were too clever to omit any reference to stout or porter in connection with oysters, so Guinness was included, the “wine” of Ireland, it was called.

And so it was then: long-aged, unpasteurized, somewhat lactic, the legendary black wine of Eire via – to begin with – raucous silk weavers’ pubs in Spitalfields, London with their three-threads and other porters-of-the-loom black beers. (“Porter” for beer derives from c. 1700 London weaving terminology, as I’ve argued earlier).

Guinness was last in the list, but better late than never. Later, from 1946 until the early 1950s, the New York branch included more beers in its oyster tastings although always fewer than the wines.

At its three beer tastings proper I have now identified in the 1940s, one of which (1944’s) I wrote up here two years ago, the foods served did not include oysters. Various smoked fish, cheeses, quality hams, and breads or crackers were served.

Beer then seemed to denote Central Europe for the food side more than English or Yankee food customs.

The Wines

The French wines included were well-chosen, from the classic Chablis – no less than four, appropriately, as it is “the” wine for oysters really – to some Alsatians, Graves, and Hermitage.

The latter included a dry rosé, Tavel’s, still a staple of the rosé scene internationally although somewhat eclipsed in recent years by the fashion for the drier rosés of Provence.

Numerous German wines were listed, Germany was second only to France in the number of wines represented. This is rather surprising given that by mid-1936 the Nazis were firmly in control of Germany and moreover had passed the Nuremberg “citizenship” laws that removed Jews from public life and helped set the stage for their annihilation.

The Jewish members of the New York Wine and Food Society, I’d guess Misch was one, must have gritted their teeth at German wines being served, nay lauded in dulcet tones. But this was a different time, few nations in general at the time spoke up in favour of persecuted peoples and least for the Jews.

I’d imagine that Jewish presence in any elite social organization of the 1930s was somewhat parlous, and any members lucky to gain entry didn’t protest at the anomaly – to say the least – of German wines being given a showcase.

After the Second World War began the Society set German, French, and Italian wines aside. Most stocks of these were probably exhausted anyway as trade embargoes prevented re-supply, but some vintage items would have remained in hotel and haute restaurant cellars even in the mid-40s.

Still, they stayed there as far as the Society was concerned anyway until after V-Day. Indeed because of the war, the tastings of the Society I’ve reviewed between 1941 and 1945 looked beyond the tried and true for new vinous inspiration.

This meant California of course but also New York, Ohio, Chile, Argentina, (neutral) Iberia, and South Africa.

These forays into secondary or tertiary wine regions later had a rebound effect in the form of the world-wide interest in regional wine, the “wine of the country”.

Had the Second World War never occurred, I’m convinced the vibrant viticulture and enology of many world regions today would have never have started, or at least be much reduced in importance.

The Oysters

The oyster section of the 1936 programme is nothing less than a short primer on the subject, masterfully written. An oyster promotion organization was enlisted to provide this help, and it did not fail.

The wealth of Long Island varieties alone in the 1930s was notable. Some oysters, including the Robbins Island type on the list, are still available but oystering on the Island has almost disappeared, sadly.

This is due to … you know it: overfishing; pollution; possibly climate change. But oysters still abound in other parts of the world, especially Canada. The Gaspé’s briny Malpeque! Not as creamy as Bluepoints, but world-class in their way: if you ask me, half-way between the Belons off Brittany and the Bluepoint type.

I may get some Malpeques for a dinner soon to host an English friend, or Nova Scotia smoked salmon, another stalwart of 1940s Manhattan gastronomy.

Recreating Historically Significant Gastronomic Events

I keep saying this to all and sundry, with little resonance so far, but someone should recreate classic early culinary and wine events such as this 1936 oyster and wine tasting. Doing so offers a unique opportunity to blend epicurean adventure with absorbing social history in numerous dimensions.

In other words, it would be fun.

I did this two years ago in Toronto for the Society’s 1944 beer tasting, and it went over very well.

It’s wine’s turn now. Many of the wines in the program still exist, certainly most of the shippers and estates do.

And Guinness does, even though it’s less like the original Guinness than the 1936 (Foreign Extra) Stout served at the stylish St. Regis. The closest form of Guinness today is probably its West Indies Porter although the current Extra Stout, or Foreign Extra Stout, will do nicely enough.

I’m happy to help out…

Note re images: the first five images were sourced from the New York Public Library, as linked in the text. The final image, of the top floors of the St. Regis Hotel in New York, was sourced at www.thecityreview.com, here. All property in the images belongs to their sole owner or authorized user, as applicable. Images used for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.

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*See the American menu collector’s Henry Voigt’s informed discussion of this event, here.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

2 thoughts on ““Now 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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