The California way of Entertaining

Wine and Cheese Receptions Catch a Wave

An early, 1939 wine and cheese tasting was held by the Wine and Food Society of New York, a pioneering American branch of the International Wine and Food Society founded in London, U.K. in 1933. It was reported on that year by Charles B. Driscoll in the San Bernadino Sun in his column “New York Day By Day”.

Driscoll, out in sunny California, was mildly amused by this early foodie foray in New York. The New York Times was even more arch when reviewing a similar event in 1936, as I discussed here.

The 1939 soirée occurred at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel, one of the posh Manhattan venues the New York Wine and Food Society favoured for its events.

I’ve discussed the New York group’s early events in general, with a focus on its historic, 1940s beer and food tastings at the Waldorf-Astoria. See also here

The Society’s branches across America had a definite influence on American food and wine culture, on gastronomy if you will. Their 1930s-1960s events are remarkably rich in cultural reach and menu sophistication; we owe part of the lively and variegated modern food scene to their early dinners and tastings.

From the Driscoll piece:

The Wine and Food society is one of the interesting organizations of New York. It has grown from a nucleus of a few gourmets. Recently I attended a tasting at the Ritz-Carlton, and was astonished to find four or five hundred people filling the grand ballroom as they noseyed about, tasting a sliver of cheese here and a thimbleful of port wine there. On an occasion of this kind, there may be as many as 30 or 40 tables or counters, each numbered, and each dispensing only one kind of wine or food. The most accomplished gourmets sit at tables with rows of samples of wine and cheese before them, comparing, whiffing, making notes. The general membership and guests make a social affair of it, milling about and gathering in small groups, wine-glasses and cheese slices in hand.

With hundreds of attendees, the Wine and Food Society’s pre-war wine and cheese tastings were quite sophisticated affairs. Tickets must have been sold to the public as it seems unlikely, although possible, the Manhattan group had that many members then. Perhaps a current analogy is the whiskey and large beer festivals that occur regularly in North American cities.

Driscoll was clearly taken with the novelty of the event. Writing about it in southern California, he must have stimulated interest in the idea locally; it was a “natural” given restoration of commercial winemaking in California in 1933 and the richness of local agriculture.

The war hindered the revival of the California wine industry, and hence of gastronomic interest in wine with cheese. However, by the early 1950s interest had grown, stimulated by the postwar boom. The notion of wine with cheese was spreading but not necessarily, as yet, as a stand-alone event or reception.

By the early 50s in California, cheese and wine are suggested as a pairing in news ads as a course for a meal, or simply for casual home entertaining. This 1951 advertisement in Healdsburg offered free recipes to pair wine and cheese. They are described here as “flavormates”; quite so.

Wine with cheese was the subject of lectures by industry promotional associations, using filmed accompaniment at a 1951 Sausalito Womens’ Club meeting. It’s not clear if samples were available at the event but I’d think they must have been. This club appears to have been instrumental in introducing the wine-and-cheese idea to a broader audience.

California supermarkets were selling cheese platters and the wine to go with it in this ad in 1954 (“taste their ‘go-together goodness’ at dinner tonight”). Wine-and-cheese suited the informal style of West Coast entertaining, but the idea was germinating nationally.

At the same time, cheese and wine in a recipe (a Swiss fondue, say), or pairing them as an appetizer or dessert course, is not like a wine and cheese party. Still, the connection is evident especially as wine-and-cheese were also advertised for “snacktime”. It is a hop and skip from there to organizing a stand-alone event by invitation where different wines and cheeses are paired. In other words here, the wine and cheese form the centrepiece of the event, a kind of off-piste (as viewed then) cocktail party.

A similar idea was afoot in England about the same time according to the late English drinks writer Frederick Martin whom I quoted the other day. Culinary London, the posh side, would have known the kinds of events occurring at a parallel level in Manhattan in the 1930s. The various national branches of André Simon’s Wine and Food Society would have shared event programs and ideas.

I discussed earlier a pivotal, 1954 Greek Society (Kappa Nu) wine and cheese in Buffalo, NY. This event, together with the Manhattan tastings before 1941 and the California stirrings mentioned, are among the earliest “wine and cheese” activities in the U.S. to my knowledge.

Note re image: The image above was extracted from the 1954 news article linked in the text, available via the California historic newspapers digitized resource. All intellectual property in the source belongs solely to its lawful owner or authorized users, as applicable. Image is believed available for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.





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