A Pot-Pourri of Gastronomy in the Glitter Era

Paging through some 50 years of Wine and Food Society of New York menus in the NYPL’s digital menu archive, one is continually struck by the richness and variety displayed. Later menus seem to encompass more dinners and buffets, although it may be luck of the draw that more of these appear than “straight” wine tasting menus, the earlier pattern.

An April, 1973 menu created to accompany a Society meeting that year sets forth a stunning five buffets, some comprising cold and hot items. The buffets were: Chinese, French, Italian, Mediterranean (Greek-, Turkish-, and North African-influenced in this case), and Scandinavian. The event was held at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, NY.

Each buffet comprised about 20 items and the Scandinavian one had a dedicated cheese component. On top of all this, a separate cheese board was offered comprised of French and Italian selections. And on top of all this, there was a dessert table.

The wines were divided into aperitif, white, red, and rose sections, with a separate group of German Rieslings.

Numerous were in the popular category, which makes sense given the large number evidently in attendance. Some of the popular names are no less today, Riunite from Italy, Entre Deux Mers from Bordeaux, Liebfraumilch from Germany.

A similar approach could be taken today, except I think the rose category would be replaced by sparkling. Also, the sherry and vermouth offerings in the aperitif section have a period touch, one indeed that reaches back to the Thirties and Society events in its first 20 years. Today, cocktails more likely would be offered. At that time though, cocktails and hard liquor, except in the form of brandy or sometimes another spirit for post-dinner, were viewed askance. This was an article of faith in French-influenced circles, then.

There seems to have been an evolution in American drink habits as earlier events of the Society focused, for example, on “summer rum drinks”. With the increasing European influence on American gastronomy in the 50s and 60s, assisted by better communications and cheaper travel, the emphasis on the hard stuff lessened over time, at least judging by the menus available in the NYPL resource (perhaps 50, not a large sample to be sure). This has now changed and hard spirits and cocktails are much in vogue in all parts of the culinary world.

I can’t recall that bourbon or straight rye were ever the subject of a Society tasting. Park & Tilford had a blend of straight whiskeys in a late 1940’s tasting, but otherwise bourbon is rarely or never mentioned in the menus. Old New England rum, under the carriage trade label S.S. Pierce, was included in the after dinner drinks for another 40s tasting, which is nice. Someone saw that the New England rum heritage was passing and a taste of it should be included before it was too late.

There was no beer, which Beer Et Seq finds regrettable, but 1973 was just ahead of the start of the American beer renaissance. Beers would have been appropriate at least to accompany the smorgasbord (but then too no akavit was in evidence either). Tuborg beer would have been a good choice as it was a fine-flavoured lager in those years. Even Michelob would have worked, nay especially, as it too was a very sound product then. The New York-area breweries were closing fast but Schaefer was still being produced in New York I think, another good choice. No doubt such beers had a ballgame image then and weren’t considered. Ballantine IPA was still in the market though…

The thing that really stands out to me as unusual is the absence of American wines – not a single one was included. U.S. viticulture had greatly improved since the 1930s. The scene was already set for the Judgment of Paris. Given the popular focus of the wine table, a good Napa Chard or Cabernet would have fit well. Since the Society certainly occasionally tasted choice American wines from the 1930s through the 1950s at least, their absence seems odd. Perhaps since no element of the buffet was identified as American, it was felt no U.S. wines need be present. There was no German buffet presented, though…

I like the mix-and-match approach of the buffets. Apart from being typically American, or North American – our insouciance permits such helter-skelter – it shows the great strides foreign cuisines had made on the American culinary consciousness. It was people like James Beard, M.F.K. Fisher, Julia Child, Myra Waldo, Craig Clairborne, Graham Kerr, the Browns (husband and wife duo), and many others who laid the groundwork.

And so, what a party. Bang that gong.

Note re images: The first image above was sourced at the Bremer’s Wine & Spirits site, here. The second was sourced at the Culinary Institute of America’s website, here.  All intellectual property in the images belongs solely to their lawful owner or authorized users. Images are believed available for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.