Welcome to the Hotel Pennsylvania
A vintage menu of the New York Gourmet Society, dating from 1936, points to the future of American dining and wine culture.
The menu is archived here, in the invaluable collection of Johnson and Wales University in Providence, Rhode Island. It was typed and mimeographed for the diners, and presents today a charming aspect.
Pioneering radio journalist and speaker Mary McBride spoke at the dinner, a notable figure of her time. She is pictured below with Eleanor Roosevelt (via link just noted).
The Gourmet Society was a heterogenous group of New Yorkers from different backgrounds: publishing, hospitality, industry, journalism, advertising and the professions. While the food and drink were always primary hosting speakers enabled diners were keep up on and engage in debates of the day. The looming war in Europe was one, increasingly intruding on an isolationist nation.
The Society had an expansive approach to dining, foraging not just the European larder but, say, that of regional China, even ahead of World War II. It might hold dinners based on the products of one state, New Jersey, say. The Society’s modernes did world cuisine long before the notion was popularized in the early 2000s.
The group was helmed by J. George Frederick, an advertising executive turned food author. He explored Mennonite cuisine for example, he had issued from a Mennonite background in fact. His wife was the home economist Christine Frederick, who is probably better remember today.
The Society was active from 1933 until about 1960, hence contemporary to the early New York Wine and Food Society, founded in 1934, which still goes strong.
The 1936 event was held at Hotel Pennsylvania in Manhattan across from Penn Station and Madison Square Garden. Then comparatively new, the hotel remains a New York fixture although its mid-century glamour is faded.
But in the 1930s the hotel provided an ideal setting to mount a creative dinner of “cosmopolites”, as Frederick also termed his band. The menu that night was meant to represent coastal and interior New England eating. Offerings included turkey pie, oysters casino, stuffed potatoes, and squash pie.
Different states’ names were attached to each dish but this was largely a flourish, e.g. Vermont turkey pie. Turkey is hardly peculiar to Vermont need I say, or the pie preparation.
The dishes served have more than a British tinge. Oysters, pie of poultry, winter vegetables. The rum similarly, although long habituated to the New England environment. It was viewed I suspect here with nostalgia, as the rum trade had largely ended and newer drinks, whiskey, gin, held fashion.
It is doubtful Medford rum would have been served at a formal dinner before Prohibition – too raffish. By the late 1930s the product was viewed in a different light, perhaps since people realized the industry had almost disappeared.
The Anglophile flavour of the dinner reflects the early British settlement in the Northeast, and much of Maritimes Canada for that matter. Frederick would write notes for each dish, sometimes including the recipe.
The “Sauterne”, a generic label from a restored (post-Prohibition) California winery, was a brave choice. It took imagination for prewar epicureans to browse offerings from a barely revived domestic wine industry over established European marques.
1936 is just three years after Prohibition ended, which had dismantled a wine industry in full ascension prior to World War I. But the Gourmet Society was willing to investigate the industry’s 1930s phoenix, and assist the re-establishment we now take for granted.
The Hotel Pennsylvania dinner was a construct, a cultural sortie, not just tonight’s dinner or even a rousing regional event. Urbanites, our hipsters if you will, were viewing food as other than simply sustenance or tradition.
George Frederick and other leading figures of New York’s post-Prohibition, interwar food scene presaged many luminaries to come: the James Beards, Graham Kerrs, Rachel Rays, Ruth Reichls, Bobby Flays, Jehane Benoits, and so many more.
They forecast our food trucks, food halls, baking competitions, and Zoom dinners. And much else that constitutes today’s culinary world.
Frederick’s culinary world, finally, was modern, if not moderne.