A Thespians’ Regale

Beer Cuisine; Mixed ale

The Cliff, or Cliff Hotel, was an upscale hotel in North Scituate, Mass., built in 1896. Surviving postcards and other ephemera depict a handsome, rambling white clapboard. This image with surrounding aspect is via Mass. Digital Commonwealth:

 

 

The Cliff was a lodestone of the area social scene for much its existence, but it all ended in a fierce 1974 conflagration. The hotel was never re-built.

In 1900 the trade journal Hotel Monthly printed a menu served at The Cliff to a “company of actors”. Beer figured not a little – it is mentioned three times – yet beer dinners were unusual in American gastronomy at the time.

 

 

Beer dinners – where beer is paired with food or used in recipes – now enjoy a modest place in the American culinary scene, boosted by the craft beer revival. Yet meals oriented to beer existed in earlier times. I have described a number of them in these pages. They included a German-American dinner held in 1898 at the Pabst Estate outside Milwaukee, and menus in Virginia Elliott’s book, published not long after the Repeal of Prohibition.

The Cliff’ menu was a set affair, probably a luncheon or post-performance supper. No detail is given on the show, the players must have performed in a local theatre, or perhaps the hotel.

Scituate is old seaside New England, of which North Scituate is an extension. It was settled by emigrants from Kent, England in the early 1600s. Scituate today is a suburban idyll that ramps up in summer for the season.

The town website offers good historical background on the area.

The menu of 1900 started with a pre-prandial bracer, the Manhattan cocktail, well established in the Northeast by then. Some Europeans worried – and still do – that strong drink before the food ruins the meal to come.

Americans were insouciant, some still are on such matters. The next drink was “mixed ale”, which had special significance from the 1880s until about 1910. This was a mixture of beer leavings or stale beer, hence none too refined a drink.

Saloons that specialized in mixed ale might add camphor, grain alcohol, or other suspect ingredients. At the bottom end of the trade the drink might induce a clattering or worse in the drinker. Criminality was often connected to the bibbing according to press reports of the time.

Mixed ale in figurative terms often denoted, therefore, low living or something disreputable, tawdry. A fighter past his prime might be termed a mixed ale pugilist.

The theatre can have its raffish side, so a connection with the stage is not surprising. At least one burlesque was entitled Mixed Ale. Billy Golden, a vaudevillian of the day, sang a song called Mixed Ale, a strange, yodelling tune.

The Sun in New York in 1894 conducted a social investigation into mixed ale, which you may read here, noting:

 

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 writer went on to explain, in a way the beer historian understands completely, that mixed ale originally was a worthy drink: new ale and old ale combined. But in time it became something different, a cheap simulacrum.

Mixed ale at a high-end hotel likely was not the degraded form. Quite possibly it was lager and ale mixed, which is one form of American musty ale. Alternatively, it was perhaps a respectable, proprietary mixture of beers, apparently marketed in the period.*

Mixed ale on the players’ menu was surely an in-joke and pleasing to the actors served. Just as 1960s hippies neutralized the charge of “freak” by adopting it as honorific (“Gonna wave my freak flag high” sang Jimi Hendrix), these diners could not have minded being typed a mixed ale crowd.

The respectable nature of the meal was emphasized certainly by the second beer served, King’s Bohemian lager, from a Massachusetts brewery. Nothing was more chic in the beer world than pale, light Bohemian lager, at the time.

At auction site Worthpoint, a pre-Prohibition bottle of King’s may be seen. In that period the brewery was called Continental Brewing Co. The same plant marketed King’s malt tonic during Prohibition. King’s Bohemian Beer returned to the market after Repeal in 1933, but it proved evanescent.

If two servings 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 food, there was broiled lobster, much associated with beer in the Gilded Era. And tomato salad – tomato was just starting its culinary career as a fresh vegetable. Earlier it was always cooked to neutralize any suspect properties.

Three sandwiches were offered, of plain ingredients but surely toothsome in the all-organic, local market days. To end, “cheesed crackers”, perhaps like cheese sticks, and fruit.

Suitable provender for a beer-fuelled affair – not too heavy, which made room for the semi-food, beer. The Cliff’s steward, L.F. Brundage was a seasoned “hotel man”, in the cant of the day, see p. 14 in the same volume of Hotel Monthly. He knew his trade, which meant knowing your customers.

Mixed ale, by his plan clearly, served as set dressing in the dining room that night, a gesture the actors had to appreciate. After all, a good dining room ends as playhouse itself.

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.

Note re images: source of images above is identified and linked in the text. All intellectual property therein belongs solely to the lawful owner, as applicable. Used for educational and research purposes. All feedback welcomed.

*See e.g. Alfred Rickerby’s registration for this and other beer mixtures. He was a bottler in Brooklyn, NY.

 

 

2 thoughts on “A Thespians’ Regale”

  1. I am absolutely certain that some of the bars around Toronto we students drank in back in the early eighties were proud purveyors of mixed ale. They just didn’t know to call it that. Just like I have no desire to visit a hot dog factory, I don’t think I want to know the provenance of what went into the pitchers in those days.

    Reply
    • I’ve heard something about this, can’t place where I read it. Something about hotels in the west end that would mingle jug ends (I hope not bottoms of glasses) and similar. And they would charge a cut price for it.

      In the UK, there was an actual system where pump drippings were re-cycled back to the barrels, until food standards laws stopped it.

      You may recall too that in the old days, when Brewers’ Retail sent back stock more than three months old (gone with the winds, that one), some brewers tipped the bottles back into the vats. Stock ale, so to speak.

      Mixing in various ways is age-old in brewing but the New York practice at end of 1800s seems particularly egregious.

      Reply

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