Foretelling the Future of Culinary America
The inaugural dinner of the Baltimore Wine and Food Society (the Society) was held at the tony Belvedere-Sheraton in May, 1947. The hotel, a Baltimore landmark, is still very much in business, known now (as originally) as the Belvedere.*
Perhaps appropriately for a regionally-based society, it offered up a program of regional food. Not Baltimore’s or the Eastern Shore’s, but the Creole cuisine of New Orleans. Here is the menu, another of the group preserved in the records of the Enoch Pratt Library donated with other materials by the Society.
The Society’s major domo was Frederick P. Stieff, from a prosperous German-American family who made their money in pianos. He was an interesting and influential figure in the American culinary renaissance ongoing since the end of Prohibition. More on him soon.
1947 is not long after World War II. America was opening the door again to matters of sensual enjoyment. The consumer society had, and does still, many strata. At a rarefied level of the food and drink world, a conscious effort was being made to find or rediscover things that were not just good, but interesting of themselves, culturally that is. This trend later broadened through society to the point where we have national bake-offs and other popular food shows and celebrity chefs/guides like Gordon Ramsay and Anthony Bourdain.
Small groups always get the ball rolling whether for music, fashion, or any other aspect of culture. Elite groups used to set the tone, but one difference from ’47 is that popular culture has more of an impact now, maybe a deciding one. The influences are always blended though.
One has to say that the Society hit it out of the park with this dinner. All notes struck were correct. The dinner itself seems drawn from the most authentic sources – redfish court bouillon, sweetbreads, Jambalaya, cherries jubilee, and more. It was presented by New Orleans native Ednard Waldo, an author and ethnographer who wrote on fish and game of his state, cookery, and travel.
The menu contains a detailed recipe for each dish, in some cases drawn from a published cookbook.
There was an enviable list of drinks served. It probably reflected the kind of wine service, or in part, seen in New Orleans traditional restaurants such as Antoine’s. To open proceedings the Sazerac cocktail was served, made with Park & Tilford rye whiskey. Park & Tilford was a carriage trade supplier, not a crowded segment at the time. Whiskey hadn’t quite shed its roughhouse image from the 1800s or the illicit aura of recently-ended prohibition.
Park & Tilford whiskey can also be found on a 1940s tasting menu of the New York Wine and Food Society, used in that case for eggnog. But in general, the appearance of America’s native spirit was rare at gastronomic events until fairly recently.
The Sazerac recipe is very precise. The writer explains that a twist of lemon, used in a way to inject the oils of the skin (vs. the pith), lends a keynote to the drink. It is stated too that absinthe must be used – of course it is traditional in this cocktail but had been illegal in the U.S. since the early 1900s.
Perhaps a well-stocked cellar of a grandee in the Society supplied a bottle from before the ban, or a substitute was used such as Pernod, a pastis.
I’ve written earlier on these pages that another pioneering epicurean group, the New York-based Gourmet Society, held a New Orleans dinner, in this case about seven years earlier. There are some parallels between the dinners. Louisiana orange wine, which I discussed in that post, was served at both.
The wines at the Society’s 1947 dinner were a fascinating international selection: E & K Ohio sherry, Paul Masson California champagne, a 1929 Musigny (Burgundy), Chilean chablis. Once again it must have been felt that regional, including American, wines suited a New World dinner. While American wines were represented occasionally in gastronomic events from the 1930s-1970s, they didn’t usually receive marquee treatment. But the attention given them slowly grew over the years, which helped to introduce the wines to a wider public.
The wines are not described in notes as for the Society’s 1948 wine tasting I discussed a few days ago. The inaugural event was primarily a dinner, evidently.
Maybe space limitations precluded adding wine notes to the program, which was designed and printed with a high degree of quality.
Of the “world” cuisines which found favour with early gastronomic societies, Creole food was of the select group. It captured the imagination of those who knew New Orleans, which then and still to a degree had a foreign character in America. Chinese cuisines often figured as well, from Sichuan, say. This was the beginning of the trend away from the generic Chinese-American food that had emerged in the wake of the first Chinese immigrations.
Do you want to know what a ’29 Musigny was like? Well, this review from only two years ago may help you, from Steen Öhman. Of course his sample was a little older. 69 years older. Still, a good idea is given of the palate, Hermitage-free in this period it seems.
(I’ll have to remember that term sous bois he used, I’ve had a few beers like that although in that case the effect was not appreciated. Hence perhaps one of the differences of malt and grape tasting? But I’m sure it is more complicated than that).
The 1947 dinner of the Society struck the perfect balance of modernity and hallowed tradition. In style and presentation, the dinner was within the range of traditional gastronomy. But the food and many of the drinks served foretold more the shape of things to come.
The dinner, perhaps simplified a bit, would be very nice to serve today. Most of the wines, or close enough, could be found. I’m not sure about Louisiana orange wine though. If necessary we could make our own, recipes date to Regency times and probably earlier, it’s one of those recipes that emerged with Colonial expansion by European powers. Some are spiced and sound like citrus fruit versions of meads or spiced ales. I’m in.
*See comment below from Greg who states building is now a condominium but with some services open to the public.