Early Beer Cuisine, “Mixed ale”
The Cliff, or Cliff Hotel, was an upscale hotel built in North Scituate, Mass. in 1896. Surviving postcards and other ephemera depict a handsome, rambling white clapboard. This image, showing a surrounding aspect, is courtesy Mass. Digital Commonwealth.
The Cliff remained a lodestone of the local social scene for much its lifetime but forever disappeared in a 1974 conflagration.
In 1900, the trade journal Hotel Monthly printed a menu served to a “company of actors”. Beer figured not a little – it is mentioned in the menu three times. Beer dinners before the 1980s were unusual in American gastronomy.
They still play a minor role, associated with the craft beer revival. Nonetheless beer dinners, or informal meals built around beer service, did exist in previous generations. I have described a number of them. They included a German-American dinner served in 1898 at the Pabst Estate outside Milwaukee, and Virginia Elliott’s menus of informal dining published early post-Repeal.
This menu for actors is interesting because it was a set affair, probably a luncheon or post-performance supper. No detail is given on the group, who must have performed in a local playhouse or perhaps the hotel.
Scituate is old, seaside New England, of which North Scituate is an extension. Scituate was settled by emigrants from Kent in the early 1600s. Today it functions as a suburban idyll, one that ramps up in summer for the “season”.
A town historical site offers good background.
The menu started with Manhattans, a cocktail already established in the Northeast as a pre-meal bracer. Some Europeans worried – still do – that strong drink ruins the food and wine to come.
Americans were insouciant – still are.
The next drink was “mixed ale”. Mixed ale, on the Beer et Seq radar for some time, had special significance between the 1880s and about 1910. It meant some combination of beer leavings, hence none too refined. Saloons specialized in it, sometimes adding camphor, grain alcohol, and other suspect ingredients.
At the bottom end of this trade the mixtures could induce a clattering or worse in the drinkers. The end was often criminality, judging from period press reports.
The term became a cipher for low living, for something disreputable or tawdry. A fighter past his prime might be called a mixed ale pugilist.
The theatre scene can have its raffish side, so the association with acting is not surprising. At least one burlesque was called Mixed Ale. Billy Golden, a vaudevillian of the period, had a song called Mixed Ale, a strange yodelling tune.
In an early social investigation The Sun in New York in 1894 inquired into mixed ale, you may read it here. It noted:
No drink ever invented by man for the delight or destruction of his fellow man so characterizes its imbiber as mixed ale. A man may drink whiskey sours and be either a Southern Colonel or a backwoods sport; he may drink gin fizzes and be a gay and giddy clubman or simply a sufferer from weak kidneys; he may stick to plain seltzer and not be a temperance advocate necessarily, but perhaps a penitent of last night’s revels … and simply because a man opens champagne, that does not stamp him as a millionaire; he may be a wine agent. As for beer, everybody drinks beer who drinks anything; but when you see an individual swagger up to the bar, fix the barkeeper with a menacing eye and growl, “Gimme a cooler o’ mixed ale”, you can set him down as a good person to keep away from.
The Sun explained, in a way the beer historian understands completely, that mixed ale originally was a worthy drink: simply new ale and old combined, but became something different, a cheap simulacrum.
Mixed ale in a high-end hotel would not have been the degraded form. It was likely lager and ale mixed (one form of American musty ale as I have written elsewhere), or a proprietary bottling from a reputed Massachusetts brewer.
Appearance on the menu was an in-joke, no doubt pleasing to the actors being served. Just as hippies of the 1960s neutralized the charge of “freak” by assuming it as honorific (“Gonna wave my freak flag high”, sang Jimi Hendrix), these patrons didn’t mind being typed a mixed ale troupe.
The festivity’ s respectable nature was emphasized by the second beer served, King’s Bohemian lager, from a Mass. brewery.
At Worthpoint is an actual pre-Prohibition bottle of King’s, probably the same as the actors drank. In that period, the brewery was called Continental Brewing Co.
(The same plant marketed a King’s malt tonic during Prohibition. It appears a King’s Bohemian Beer returned in 1933, but not for long sadly).
If two courses of beer weren’t enough for the players, a third was available, signalled by the laconic “More Beer”. Nothing sums up the beer ethos better.
As to the food, there was broiled lobster, much associated with beer in the Gilded Era. And tomato salad – tomato was just starting its career as a fresh vegetable on menus, not cooked to disguise its once-suspect origins.
Also, three sandwiches, of plain ingredients but surely toothsome in the all-organic, market days. To end, cheesed crackers, and fruit.
Poised, lovely provender for a beer-fuelled affair. Not too heavy, to allow room for the semi-food, beer.
The Cliff’s steward, L.F. Brundage, was an old hotel man, see p. 14 in the same volume of Hotel Monthly. He knew his trade, which included knowing his customers.
Mixed ale, by his plan clearly, was set dressing in the Cliff’s dining room that night, a playhouse different from the actors’ usual sort. Most actors are demonstrative either by nature or profession. I’m sure they toasted old Brundage with verve, for a grateful respite from a long tour on the provincial boards.
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