One of the features of the New York-centered dining scene in the mid-1900’s was the idea of gourmet clubs. The Wine And Food Society, Inc. was a well-organized and influential such body, composed of senior business figures as well as personalities from the food and wine world. It still exists and is very active in the city. Another group, a number of whose lavish dinners beeretseq was pleased to attend in recent years, is James Beard House, the foundation set up to perpetuate the work of the New York-based cookery writer and food authority James Beard.
A less visible group, active from 1935 for at least 20 years and possibly continuing – the online trail has eluded us – is The Gourmet Society. Some of its menus from the early 1940’s survive, preserved in the NYPL’s menu archive, and are very interesting curios. They were typed and mimeographed, in contrast to the more polished productions of The Wine And Food Society. What they lacked in presentation they more than made up in the passion and ethnological curiosity shown. Their dinners prove once again that interest in local, regional and ethnic cuisines is not new. It was being cultivated by small groups of food and wine lovers in Manhattan, and no doubt as well in London and some other influential port cities.
The mission of the Society is described briskly in the early menus:
A dinner club of gourmets and cosmopolites. Six or seven dinners per season at different selected dining places. Membership open to all who have palates aesthetically sensitive to good food and drink, and who have imagination enough to cherish the gourmet tradition.
A driving force of the group was J. George Frederick, an executive who ran a business statistics and research consultancy. His wife Christine is remembered for her work as a home economist and theorist of the consumer society. Representative dinners presented the cuisines of the East Shore, Maryland, Canton, China, and the classic Paris kitchen. The wines listed (in the menus appearing in the NYPL’s archive) were solely American*, even in the 1930’s, supposedly the dark age of American wine appreciation. Usually the producer was shown, Inglenook, Cresta Blanca, Beaulieu or another producer making a varietal or other wine felt worthy to serve to epicures. The menu which follows details a dinner given in January, 1939 to showcase New Orleans’ gastronomic heritage. Note the compact description of the meal’s object under the engaging term, “General Idea”:
Many of the Gourmet Society’s functions featured well-known speakers, they might be from the literary, political or entertainment worlds. No doubt this added sparkle and interest to events which, apart from their epicurean interest, would have offered at most social or business networking opportunities.
At the dinner shown, the Midwestern poet, essayist, and biographer, Edgar Lee Masters spoke. Also on the dais were the folklorist and regional historian, Carl Carmer, Thyra Winslow, and W. Irving Moss. Moss was an insurance executive from New Orleans. Winslow was a literary celebrity originally from Arkansas, one of those unlikely combinations one finds only in America.
The Gourmet Society’s menus are notable for their annotations of the foods served or the related cultural traditions. Sometimes a recipe was included, as in the menu above. Frederick had spent time in New Orleans absorbing the variations of Oysters Rockefeller, and decided on his own version to offer the gathering. He noted the bivalves used: Robbin’s Island Box oysters. It may interest readers to know that Robbin’s Island, in Peconic Bay, L.I., is still noted for oysters. They’re on the menu occasionally at the Oyster Bar in Grand Central Terminal, NYC.
After some 90 dinners by the mid-1950’s, the group was engaging in bold exercises such as an all-New Jersey dinner. A good press account was published. It was appropriately mordant in tone – Eisenhower America – and noted the unusual locale, Newark Airport’s restaurant. Details of the meal were noted including a “blonde wine” served. Beeretseq would like to think George Frederick included some of Jersey’s great beers, not least, Ballantine India Pale Ale. One thing I’m fairly certain of is, even had beers not been considered, he’d have responded, “Good idea, Gillman: we’ll do that next year”. If anyone did that Newark Airport gig today, it might attract one of those food and road shows which comb the world for the odd and wonderful in food and drink. Let’s imagine if one of these shows had been with the Gourmet Society at Newark Airport circa-1955:
[Quick-talking host, we’ll call him Anthony]: “So George, who would have thought of next-door Jersey as an interesting place for food, how did you come up with that one?”.
George: “Well Anthony, there is an old Dutch community here you know, in fact the ‘Jersey Dutch’ language only died out earlier this century. They’ve got some interesting dishes and there’s also some food from around Bergen and Passaic which is a fusion of old European and native cuisines. Our Ramapo trout tonight might be from that tradition. The staff in the airport restaurant are mostly from Jersey and they still have these dishes in their family”.
Anthony: “Now that’s fascinating. [Goes into kitchen trailing cameras and tastes a soup from a tall metal “toureen”]. “And that’s amazing, all Jersey ingredients you say? We don’t need to go to the Texas border or Baghdad to find the exotic and tasty, it’s in our own backyard, too, huh?”.
George: “You said it. Try this Renault American Champagne, it’s wonderful!”.
Anthony: “Sure thing. I’ve just got to finish this amazing Laird apple brandy first. I thought only France made that”.
For the drinks served at its delectable, accacia-scented New Orleans dinner of 1939, orange wine was selected, and also an unattributed “Chablis” from California. The former perhaps was brought to Manhattan by Moss. Orange wine was a notable product in the areas of south Louisiana where navel oranges were grown (and they still are, despite Katrina). The Federal Writers Project took note of the winy specialty around the same time. The recipe is very old, probably arriving via the Caribbean and ultimately from England, home, native or adopted, of most of the world’s great drinks. Of the chablis, one guesses it was a worthy early Chardonnay of the Napa or Sonoma.
Can you still get orange wine in Buras-Triumph, LA, as the orange cultivation area is now called? I don’t know, I’d imagine some families still make it for their own consumption. I wasn’t able to track down a commercial example. Old manuals give recipes though for anyone interested. This modern recipe book offers a shrimp boiled in orange wine, which suggests that down Louisiana way, the old wine of the country has not been forgotten.
*See author’s note in the Comments section which revises this statement.
**Note re images shown: both images are believed in the public domain. The first image, the menu from 1939, is from the New York Public Library’s menu archive, here. The other image is no. 31185 from the aviation archive of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, specifically here.