Rebirth of Culinary Culture
The inaugural dinner of the Baltimore Wine and Food Society (BWFS) was held at the tony Belvedere-Sheraton Hotel in May, 1947. The Belvedere, a Baltimore landmark, is still standing.*
Not inappropriately for a regional group, it offered a program of regional American food, but not its own. It chose Creole cuisine from New Orleans. This is the menu, preserved at the Enoch Pratt Library, part of an archive contributed by the BWFS.
The group’s major domo was Frederick P. Stieff, scion of a German-American family that had made money in pianos. He was an influential figure in the American culinary renaissance that took root with the end of Prohibition in 1933.
But with a major war just ended and the long Depression before, America was still re-discovering sensual enjoyment in food and drink. The consumer society always has strata, and high society, then as now, was carving its version of this new path. Culinary societies such as the BWFS, usually dominated by the bon ton, led the way.
Certainly the BWFS had little to apologize for with this dinner. The offerings were evidently drawn from authentic sources. There was redfish court bouillon, sweetbreads, Jambalaya, cherries jubilee, and more. The dinner was presented by New Orleans native Ednard Waldo. He was a noted author and ethnographer, focusing on Louisiana fish and game, cookery, and travel.
The menu set out a detailed recipe for each dish, in some cases drawn from published cookbooks.
An enviable selection of drinks was served. It probably reflected the practice of traditional New Orleans restaurants such as Antoine’s. To open proceedings there was a Sazerac cocktail. It was made with Park & Tilford straight rye whiskey. Park & Tilford was a carriage trade label, not a crowded segment at the time.
American whiskey hadn’t quite shed its roughhouse image inherited from the 1800s, or the illicit aura that pervaded during Prohibition.
The same whiskey can be found in a 1940s menu of the New York Wine and Food Society, used there for eggnog. But in general, America’s native spirit was rare at gastronomic events until relatively recently. The Baltimore and New York diners were innovators, seeking the regional and authentic of America.
The cocktail recipe is precise. The author wrote that a twist of lemon, used properly to inject the oils of the fruit (vs. the pith), lends the keynote. He wrote too that absinthe should be used. Of course, this was traditional for the drink but the aniseed/wormwood spirit had been illegal since the early 1900s.
Maybe the well-stocked cellar of a BWFS grandee supplied a dusty bottle, or a substitute such as Pernod was used.
The wines were a fascinating, diverse selection, e.g. E & K Ohio sherry, Paul Masson California champagne, a 1929 Musigny (Burgundy), and Chilean chablis. Once again the regional American product was not ignored, even though it would be many years before American wines received benediction from top authorities.
There was also old-fashioned Louisiana orange wine, not the browned white wine of today, but the literal product of navel-type Louisiana oranges.
Taste notes were not included, although they were for the BWFS’s important, 1948 wine tasting I discussed earlier. Perhaps because the inaugural event was a dinner vs. a tasting, emphasis on the wines was kept within certain bounds.
American Creole food early captured the imagination of post-Prohibition gastronomes. Chinese cuisine did too, e.g. from Sichuan. That was the beginning of a trend – by epicures – away from the Chinese-American menu that had taken form since the first Asian immigrations.
So, what was the 1929 Musigny like, at the Belvedere in 1947? This review, from only two years ago at the Winehog site, gives a good idea, from Steen Öhman. Of course, his sample was a little older – 69 years older. Still, he expressed well the attributes of his glass. Sample note:
In the nose deep but slightly fragile mature red fruit .. orange zest .. orange notes .. sous-bois .. pure and quite vibrant. The minerality is energetic offering a lovely view to one of the best places in Chambolle.
The 1947 dinner struck the perfect balance between modernity and a Victorian-shaded old school. In style and presentation, the dinner evoked the traditional but withal told the future.
Perhaps simplified a bit the menu would be lovely to serve today. Most of the wines, or close enough, could be found although the orange wine might be harder. Well, we could make our own.
Recipes are easily available that date to Regency times, and probably earlier. Some are spiced, the citrus version of spiced mead or ale. We could even substitute a fruity, tropical-tasting India Pale Ale.
Beer et Seq is up for it. Meanwhile, he salutes the inaugural diners of the BWFS. Puzzling as the phrase doubtless would be to them, they hit the ground running.
*Note Comment below by Greg who states building is now a condominium, with some services open to the public.