Rustic New England food in Bright Lights, Big City

Welcome to the Hotel Pennsylvania, 1936

A fine vintage menu which points to the future of American dining and wine culture is the December, 1936 dinner menu of the Gourmet Society.

The full menu in beautiful reproduction can be viewed here, on the invaluable menu archive of Johnson and Wales University. Below is simply a portion.

The New York-based Gourmet Society, helmed by the gourmet and food author J. George Frederick, lasted from 1933 until about 1960; I profiled the group earlier and have discussed a number of their menus.

The 1936 dinner was held at Hotel Pennsylvania in New York, across from Penn Station and Madison Square Gardens. Then comparatively young, the hotel continues as a New York stalwart albeit the glamour has faded.

In the late 30s it was a stylish resort and the perfect place to host a creative dinner of the type pioneered by the Gourmet Society and its boon companion, the Wine and Food Society.

Although not styled as a New England dinner, that is exactly what it was. Each dish is typical of the coast or interior of the region, from the Vermont turkey pie to the Connecticut Oysters Casino and Maine stuffed potatoes. The conceit of combining state dishes was used, but it is evident most dishes are broadly regional.

The squash pie is a variant of pumpkin pie, as discussed earlier in these pages. It is as Yankee as they come, the cranberry sauce no less.

British readers will be forgiven for thinking the meal has an oddly familiar look. Oysters, crusted pie of poultry, mashed winter vegetables such as turnip, sweet sauce to accompany – think Cumberland sauce or even mint jelly – adorned English tables long before they journeyed overseas to new homes.

The treatment of green tomatoes and red pepper jam recall dishes with medieval or later east colonial influences (Indian, often)

Even the New England rum was English, or English Colonial, before it was American. But the dishes melded into the fabric of America and acquired their own stamp.

(Still, I suspect a dinner could be assembled, say, of dishes traditional to Yorkshire that would have a not dissimilar impact).

The “chablis”, a generic label from one of the California wineries re-established after 1933, was a good choice for such a dinner. Yet, it took imagination for a gourmet society to choose such a thing over Champagne or another French, or German, wine.

1936 is only three years after liquor comes back, in the darkest ages of the American wine business short of Prohibition itself. But New York 1930s culinarians had the imagination to go American.

The other choice that would have suited is cider. I’m sure George Frederick would have agreed at any rate it was a good option. Cider is an old New England specialty and is again today. Rum too is being made in different parts of the first colonies by craft producers.

Old Pilgrim rum was served at the 1936 dinner with coffee. It was a conscious attempt to recall the grand era of New England’s Medford rum – grand only in retrospect. You don’t know what you have until it’s gone, as the popular song has it.

Felton’s rum revived after Prohibition and was made until well after WW II but the venerable distiller sold out to the Old Boston concern, known for liqueurs and cocktails, which closed the plant in the early 1980s. Thus ended the original New England rum business which had reached its apogee in the late 1800s but continued to Prohibition and even after.

Finally, what makes the Hotel Pennsylvania dinner foodism, a construct? Each component is a dish long known in the area, either very old or more recent: shellfish Casino dates from earlier in the century and the salad “moderne” seems a contemporary idea, but otherwise the meal is down-home Yankee.

What makes it what I said is, the menu was consciously planned as an investigation, an interpretation, an honouring of New England foodways. It wasn’t just tonight’s dinner, or a family dinner. It was a group of “cosmopolites” in the Society’s charming prewar vocabulary, viewing something in a new light.

It’s a good meal, yes, but also something devised, to learn from.

It presages as I’ve often said an Anthony Bourdain visiting Cajun country or South America. It presaged the Time-Life cookery series, Julia Child’s work, or Ruth Reichl’s encyclopedic looks at American cookery.

It’s looking at food and drink intellectually, ideationally, call it what you will.

This way of dining gets the goat of some people, but it’s as valid an endeavour as anything else. Food and foodways belong to the world.

Note re images: the first image above was drawn from the original menu identified and linked in the text. The second was sourced via Pinterest hereAll intellectual property in the images belongs solely to the lawful owners or authorized users, as applicable. Images are used for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.


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