Culinary Grace Under Pressure
Earlier, I discussed various wartime menus of the Wine and Food Society of New York. Once war was afoot, the Society’s events did not table German or Italian wines. After France was fully occupied in the fall of 1940, French wines also disappeared, the odd minor exception apart.
The Society held its tastings at fashionable New York hotels. The Waldorf-Astoria was favoured, into the 1970s at least.
The wine list below is from a Waldorf wine menu dated December 31, 1942, for a New Year’s Eve supper with musical accompaniment. But this was not a Wine and Food Society event, and is interesting to contrast with the latter’s wartime programs.
The dinner was held, not in the Grand Ballroom, where Guy Lombardo and his Royal Canadians serenaded for New Year’s for years. The Waldorf Lounge was chosen, later called the Bull and Bear, a bar and steak restaurant.
The menu is rather spare and informal in layout except for the striking cover (above). I am not certain if war conditions caused this or it was dictated more by the nature of the supper. Such late-evening dining was a second evening meal for many. The practice may have been to offer a less-than-elaborate dinner, even perhaps before the war.
Yet, the Champagne list is luxurious – and heavily French. There are a total of 22 Champagnes and 10 domestic sparklers.
Indeed, the champagnes are weighted to vintage bottlings, with prices to match. The domestic sparklers were from different regions including New Jersey. The Garden State’s Renault winery, which is still going strong, supplied a bubbly. I profiled Renault some time ago here.
The glittering cover conveys traditional Waldorf elegance via a coiffed society figure, yet she is toasting a man in uniform. He might be in the armed services, but possibly a hospitality employee: doorman, bellman, chauffeur. A policeman is also perhaps implied.
My sense is the designer intended a democratic gesture in a time of international upheaval and the national war economy.
The menu is a curio that demonstrates despite the war, civilized life still carried on, probably to a greater degree than in most other nations. I attribute the Champagne indulgence to the fact that the U.S. was comparatively wealthy: if it could drink wine of the type traditional on New Year’s, it would.
Wine writer Michael Broadbent wrote, p. 427, that despite fine, postwar French Champagne being available in London, especially from the 1945 and 1947 vintages, these wines had a hard go of it for some years. The reason: plenty of prewar stock to use up first.
Evidently quality, prewar French wine in London was not exhausted during the war, whether from being hoarded or failing to fetch the prices asked. It’s hard to know if the same applied in New York between 1945 and 1950. Certainly the French wines still offered at the end of 1942 were listed at about double the domestic bubbly price.
For German wine, I’d think hotels in Allied countries did not offer them on general menus during the war years. If that is so, there must have been plenty to sell after the Germans surrendered in April 1945.
What appears to have been an eschewing of wines from Axis countries or nations under their yoke by the New York Wine and Food Society between 1940-1945 was probably, finally, a policy of that branch. What this did, by a sidewind, was give members the chance to taste wine from non-traditional areas such as South America and lesser known U.S. wine regions.
Putting it a different way, had the war never happened, one wonders if domestic American wine would be held in the high esteem it is today. But as the old adage has it though, necessity is the mother of invention. The war vectored America in a different, or at least multiple, wine directions, with implications for our wine taste today.
Note re images: the original 1942 menu, linked in the text from the Culinary Institute of America, is the source for the three images above. All intellectual property in the menu belongs solely to the lawful owner or authorized user, as applicable. Images are used for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.