A 1950s Food Idea Needs Revival

Back to l’Avenir?

There is a tendency, despite the hits it has taken in recent decades, to consider “progress” as inexorable. When it comes to applied food technologies, for example, nothing in the past seemingly can compete with what we know today.

While older methods continue – canning, bottling, freezing, curing – today, sous vide – low temperature cooking in a sealed bag to retain taste and moisture – is commonly used in home, restaurant, institutional, and transport settings.

Sous vide was perfected in the 1960s and 1970s by industrial technologists (the technique itself is not quite new). Thence it sprang to the commercial world including some restaurants. Troisgros in France probably made it fashionable at the high end.

Other technologies have gathered pace since the ’60s: cryovac packing, aseptic packaging (which has its own separate history including in brewing), and food irradiation. Or take the stand-up pouches widely used today for soups and other fluid foods.

Some old school tech falls by the wayside, not from inherent defects of design or cost limitation, but due to public policy that overrides. Carbon emission control seems destined to end fossil fuel engines, gasoline or other. Plastics pollution measures are another instance, which impact food systems especially.

Sometimes though one finds in the past applied technology that seems due for revival. What follows is an example, in our view.

The famed citadel of cuisine Maxim’s of Paris, on rue Royale in the “8th”, is today a Pierre Cardin brand. In the ’50s, when the Vaudable family was the owner, Maxim’s deployed a clever idea: send out food to the United States in frozen, pre-packaged portions. This used an efficient, proven technology to sample French food, quite literally, far from home – and from an icon of haute cuisine.

In 1955 the press in Philadelphia carried a splashy story on the launch in that city, a fashionable dinner at John Wanamaker, the upscale department store. City “hostesses” arrived in force, one is pictured being kissed on the hand by a Parisian from Maxim’s displaying old-school charm.

Maxim’s partnered with Pan American Airlines to fly the food with dispatch to sales points Stateside. What did the matrons, captains of industry, and other notables eat?

The Belgian staple of beef carbonnade, for one. Maybe the hearty taste was thought to survive the freezing and trip over well, or American palates.

There was also veal blanquette, and lamb sauté, both postwar classics of “French cuisine”. And Normandy trout. Channel sole, too – Dover sole no doubt. It was planned that the sauces, then emblematic of French cooking, would ultimately be manufactured and sold in the U.S.

Maxim’s was an early proponent of scientific methods, always looking to expand its reach with new techniques, and methods of commercialization. It established a branch in Hong Kong as early as the late 1950s. Finally one arrived in New York, in 1985, although it closed 15 years later.

Exporting full meals in frozen form is one idea I’ve never seen here. It clearly occurs within the E.U., which after all is a polity of sorts, but I’m thinking of North America as a market for notable prepared foods of Europe, or Asia, say.

I’ve never seen French, British or German dinners sold frozen here, for example. Individual foods, yes: fish, ham, cheese, chocolate, etc., that goes without saying. It is always interesting to eat prepared fresh food* from another country, especially one with a storied food tradition.

Maxim’s merchandized its ready-to-eat meals through premium delicatessens in New York and Jersey. The same dishes enjoyed by society in Philly were advertised in 1954 by a “gourmets'” shop in Princeton, New Jersey. (The locale should give away the reason, all those academics…).

 

 

The idea seems to have lapsed, although perhaps Maxim’s still does a form of it, I don’t know. It has numerous restaurants around the world today, which perhaps made the export of pre-packaged meals seem unnecessary.

Of course as well, there was the rise of popular interest in international cooking. It was encouraged by the success of Julia Child’s and many other cookery books. Those interested probably focused on their own kitchen. Why buy a frozen imported meal when you make “the same thing” here?

Yet, foreign ingredients and preparation techniques often end as quite different to local emulations. The French beef I used to make a carbonnade in a Boulogne-sur-Mer apartment earlier this year had a different taste than our beef. The Gallic meat was seemingly softer and sweeter (sugar beet feed, perhaps?).

And, what better time to revive the idea than right now? International travel is almost at a standstill. As we can’t quite travel to foreign locales to sample a local meal, surely fast travel, improved logistics, and latest food technologies can conspire to bring it to us. A real Bolognese sauce, not in a bottle or can, would be something I’d like to try, on Italian-made pasta.

Government regulations may have to change to allow this in certain places. Governments have proved flexible in other ways to accommodate the current pandemic.

And the transport fleets of our carriers can use the business, eh?

Note re image: the image above, an 1899 Maxim’s menu, was sourced at Wikipedia, here, and is noted as public domain. Any and all intellectual property therein belongs solely to the lawful owner, as applicable. Used for educational and research purposes. All feedback welcomed.

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*I mean, not canned or bottled. So excluding, say, British baked beans as currently marketed in Canada.