The Greeks do Wine and Cheese

Back in 1954 Kappa Nu, a college fraternity now part of Zeta Beta Tau (ZBT), held a wine and cheese party at University of Buffalo in New York. A university newspaper, the Spectrum, chronicled the event together with doings of other Buffalo Greeks.*

The affair was dubbed Be Alive in ’55. You have to remember the “Red” and A-bomb scares of the Fifties to get the full humour in that.

The party was “open”, which meant presumably it was not restricted to fraternity members and pledges.

Kappa Nu has an interesting history, it was one of the early fraternities (pre-WW I) largely composed of Jewish members. It later amalgamated with organizations of a similar make up, of which today’s ZBT is successor.

ZBT, well-known among the Greek societies in the U.S., is today non-sectarian. Perhaps the open nature of Kappa Nu’s 1954 party was a harbinger of ZBT’s inclusiveness in 2017.

In the 1954 article linked, published nearing the year’s end, the words cocktail, beer, wine, and Champagne all appear. Of course it was the holiday period but still this conveys a flavour of fraternity social life in the 1950s. (Or is “frat social” a tautology?).

Beeretseq has nothing against fraternities but we moved in separate circles during my college years. Based on the Buffalo Greeks’ social calendar in 1954 a lot of it seemed good fun and socializing: wine tastings, “keggers”, football, and other sports – maybe I should have joined. To be sure, some of the doings today would be non grata, e.g., Apache parties, but this is 60 years ago: we live, we learn.

In my previous post I discussed a historic wine and cheese tasting held in 1936 by the Wine and Food Society of New York at the Waldorf Hotel. 18 years later a college social organization holds a similar event. What links them is the privileged social status of the groups involved, an elite gastronomic society, a distinguished university fraternity.

Participation required disposable income but in addition attendees were likely well-educated or travelled, or on the path. Some would have been exposed to wine culture either in Europe or at their parents’ dinner-table.

Further, both these events were held in the same state. The brother who hatched Be Alive in ’55 may have got the idea from his father or an uncle who attended the 1936 event at the Waldorf, or another similar event.

Bear in mind too that the Finger Lakes wine region is not far from Buffalo, NY. Long-established wineries there including Great Western Winery probably supplied some of the wine for these events. Perhaps their sales and marketing divisions helped organize them. I’d think the Greek organizations at Cornell University in Ithaca, NY were holding similar events in the 1950s.

Hence it was that from an elite social base in the 1930s-1950s the wine-and-cheese party went national as an American custom, or so it seems from early evidence we surveyed.**

The breweries of New York State and elsewhere in America should have perceived a similar opportunity but didn’t, not at that time. Ironically, on the same page as the Spectrum article a handsome advertisement appears from Iroquois brewery in Buffalo, a long-disappeared regional brewery, but the ad is otherwise conventional in nature.

Breweries didn’t see their product then as fit for self-conscious tastings and inventive food pairings. Beer at college meant “keggers”, basically.

There is further irony here in that the idea to pair beer and food intelligently probably predates the wine and cheese party. We’ll explore this soon.

Note re images. The first image was sourced at the clipartfest site and is believed in the public domain. The second was extracted from the news article linked in the text, obtained via the New York State historic newspapers digitized resource. All intellectual property in the sources of the images belongs solely to their lawful owner or authorized users, as applicable. Images are believed available for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.


*From Greek-letter social fraternity.

**See my last post mentioned, clearly pairing cheese with wine or beer did not start in the 1930s. But the idea of attending a party or reception to assess the flavours of different wines and cheese, where nothing else was consumed, seems a 20th century development.



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