Welcome to the Hotel Pennsylvania
A vintage menu of 1936, from the New York Gourmet Society, pointed to the future of American dining and wine culture.
The menu is archived here, in the invaluable menu 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 above).
The Gourmet Society was a heterogenous group of influential New Yorkers from different walks of life: publishing, catering/hospitality, industry, journalism, advertising, etc. Often the Society invited public figures to speak at its events, sing for their supper.
Food and drink were primary, but not exclusive, for these “modernes“. With aid of their speakers they engaged in debates of the day, increasingly fraught as the next war crept upon an isolationist nation.
The group had a catholic approach to dining and menus, engaging not just the classic European larder but, say, that of China (ahead of World War II). It would hold dinners as well based only on the products of one state, New Jersey, say.
The Gourmet Society was helmed by J. George Frederick, an advertising executive turned food author. His wife, the home economist Christine Frederick, is perhaps better remember today.
The Society was active from 1933 until about 1960. It was a contemporary of the New York Wine and Food Society, an early fruit of André Simon’s 1934 tour of America, he who co-founded what the International Wine and Food Society, based in London.
The 1936 dinner was held at the Hotel Pennsylvania in Manhattan across from Penn Station and Madison Square Garden. Then comparatively new, Hotel Pennsylvania is still a New York fixture although the mid-century glamour has faded.
But in the 1930s, the setting was ideal to host a creative dinner of “cosmopolites”, as Frederick also termed his band. The menu that night was meant as representative of coastal and interior New England eating. Offerings included turkey pie, oysters casino, stuffed potatoes, and squash pie.
States’ names were attached to each dish but this was largely a flourish, e.g. the Vermont turkey pie.
The dishes have more than a British tinge. Oysters, pie of poultry, winter vegetables – all might have appeared in Dickens or Thackeray. The rum similarly, albeit the Victorian “quartern”, which often held the Victorian distillate, was a dead letter in a moderne’s Manhattan.
The Anglophile flavour reflects early British settlement in the north-east U.S., and much of Maritimes Canada for that matter. Frederick would write notes for each dish, sometimes offering the recipe.
The “Sauterne”, a generic label from a restored California winery, was a brave choice. It took imagination for prewar epicureans to browse offerings from a barely restored American wine industry over established European wines.
1936 is only three years after Prohibition, which had wiped away a wine industry in full ascension prior to World War I. But in F.D.R.’s New York, the Gourmet Society found inspiration in a re-born industry to match its American food theme.
The rum recalled the heyday of New England rum manufacture, especially in Medford, Massachusetts. It is doubtful Medford rum would have been served at a formal dinner before Prohibition – too raffish then. By the late 1930s, the product was viewed in a different light. As the circa 1970 pop song goes, you don’t know what you have until it’s gone.
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.