The Beer Buffet: Ein Bier, Kellner!

Or six or eight, Christine Frederick airily advised readers in her 1933 article, “The Beer Buffet”. She was informing hostesses of suitable foods to serve with beer once forthcoming repeal of Prohibition made such affairs proper again.

To emphasize: beer had never really gone away, speakeasies and many hotels served it sub rosa, hence without imprimatur of polite society.

Christine Frederick was the home economist wife of George Frederick, founder and head of the Manhattan-based Gourmet Society from the 30s-60s, I’ve profiled the group earlier. Its audience included the prosperous middle classes and aspirant hostesses.

The meals she suggests are mostly Teutonic in flavour and show the deep influence German customs and manners had imprinted on American life by then.

Her prose strides along, lots of impactful nouns and adjectives create a lively picture. You can see the influence of her work in brewers’ print advertising into the 1960s. The pretzels, hams, honest tankards, and brightly-coloured, checked or striped tablecloths were all staples.

The motif was downscale elegance, a kind of rustic chic really – that style in general has returned to fashion today, indeed for all food of any complexity or social scale, except perhaps in temples of old-school cuisine on the Right Bank in Paris.

Frederick did not discuss brands or types of beer, other than specifying both “ale” and “beer” (lager). Beer was still beer, for the most part, and in truth, families were happy to serve what they could get, parched as they were for the official stuff for half a generation.

But it was all about the food, anyway.

Beer, any kind, is firmly placed as companion for cold food of a simple, vigorous nature. The idea to pair different beers with courses for a normal dinner is far in the future although, as I’ve written before, culinary writers had already proposed beer as suitable to accompany specific cooked dishes, porter with hot lobster in mid-1800s Ireland, say.

It’s not really in fashion today, all that wurst, cheese, salty herring, dark sour bread, pickles, cole slaw, with beer, but in truth the combination is as good as ever. Families probably still serve beer much like Frederick advised but to find it this way, even at brunch, in the modern urban restaurant, is probably a rarity unless in beer heartlands such as Czech Republic, Germany, Belgium, maybe the Netherlands.*

Let’s organise a 1933 American “beer buffet”. For beer, we would use good blonde lager, good dark lager, still popular in the Thirties in the U.S., a cream ale, a porter or stout, an import or two such as an English pale ale or German seasonal type. Not so bad, eh?

A sample from her piece:

Now that beer is again legal, many a hostess is desirous to know how to serve it, what to serve with it, and the new tech­nique and etiquette of beer, which is far removed from the swinging door of the gas-jet age. Any light lunch may use beer as an accompanying drink, but hearty or simple, the foods served with the frothing glass are masculine in character. They are also salty, thirst-provoking and simple snacks, but it is a good rule to have plenty of them.

Strong colors are much at home on the beer-party table. Cloths or linens with bright gay stripes or checks in red, blue or green are the most suitable back­
ground for the tall tankards and mugs of the beer-service. Glass­ware may be equally bright red, blue or amber shades.

On a round table, especially a round barrel table, two narrow runners of crash toweling, placed crosswise, are good-looking. The accessories used with beer may be of pottery, copper or wood, but in every case they are of sturdy design, with serviceable base and stout handles. Pottery plates and mugs often have cartoon designs after the manner of the dear old Munchen and Heidel­berg days.

Beer has at least brought back the almost vanished taste for foods which are sour, sharp, spicy and bitter. We have perhaps gone “whipped cream and ice cream-sodaish” for just too long! Certainly the best foods to serve with this drink are sour, pickled smoke [sic] relishes and appetizers, or salted breads and crackers or the strong-flavored cheeses. Swiss cheese, Liederkranz, Gorgonzola and Cheddar cheese are pre­ferred choices, while Dill pickles, Chow-chow, Chutney, pickled beets and small white pickled onions take an important place on the beer party table. Breads are dark: pumpernickel, rye, rye crisps, Swedish health bread. All are together again with beer, while the meats used are also of the smoked or heavier types such as ham and the whole long list of sausages, head cheese, etc.

Note re images: the quotation above is from the newspaper article linked in the text, another from the excellent Fulton History archives. The buffet image is from Pexels at this source. All intellectual property in the sources belongs solely to the lawful owners, as applicable. Used for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.

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*Exception should probably be made for the charcuterie plate of the modern beer bar and brew pub: this is a descendant of the type of style Frederick described.

 

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