America – Culinary Desert Before 1920?


At 12th and Vine With a Bottle of … Paulliac Wine

Something taken for granted back in the 50s and 60s was North America was a desert for refined eating. To be sure there was good solid food, everything from steak to roast chicken to salads, potatoes and pie. Some areas offered noted regional specialties, New England, say for its clambakes and chowders. But appreciating food for its own sake was a rarity and often regarded as frivolous.

A few restaurants in any decent-size city carried the flag for good eating – steakhouses, Italian restaurants, a Chinese one or two, maybe a fish house , there wasn’t much more. Of course in New York and some other coastal cities more variety was offered, including the surviving ethnic restaurants like German ones, but again choice was restricted.

Things started to change with the arrival of James Beard, Julia Child, Graham Kerr, Jehane Benoit in Canada, and numerous others. Their tv appearances often caused a sensation. Discussion of wine started around this time. Earlier, such appreciation was restricted to tiny groups, the Wine and Food Society of New York, say (still going strong, it started in ’33 with Repeal).

I’ve written earlier also of The Gourmet Society, another small New York-based group intent on exploring international and regional American foods and interested in wines including American ones. Such inchoate interest barely registered in the larger culture.

Thus, it came as a shock to page through issues John Willy’s Hotel Monthly from 1898 to 1920 and find accounts of the most luxurious banquets imaginable. These were not the preserve of tiny gourmet clubs in cosseted Eastern cities or a wealthy elite wherever found. Many such affairs were held in the midwest and hosted by provincial associations of hoteliers or brewers, say.

7500d16b3a49cb23ab9064a5c0c7ad96In their menus you will find the finest emblems of haute cuisine: caviar, oysters, preparations of fish or beef from the pages of Escoffier or Carême, elegant consommés, expensive or rare morsels such as turtle, wild birds, imported cheeses, and the finest French and German vintages to accompany them.

First- and second-growth Bordeaux make regular appearances at these dinners, as did the finest marques of Champagne (Ruinart, Mumm, Veuve Cliquot), sherry and brandy. (To the Americans’ credit, you often see too “whiskies” added to the liqueurs at meal’s end, or “rye and bourbon”).

Consider the shebang thrown in 1900 by Kansas City lawyers and judges, described in the page above reproduced from Willy’s Hotel Monthly of that year. I need hardly elucidate; the luxury speaks for itself.

The other dinners on the page are hardly derisory. Some don’t mention alcohol but that is usually explained by the group involved, e.g., anyone involved with a quasi-public service like railroads or shipping, or government or a public service group (e.g., YMCA).

I can cite 20 more dinners like the Kansas City one, all held in the American regions. The Kansas City do was distinguished also by its creative displays of flowers and fruits, but the food and drinks served were typical for many groups and associations which, unlike perhaps the Missouri bar, hardly occupied the top rung of society.

How could this be? Clearly the hotels Willy wrote for had chefs and a brigade to create European-level haute eating with wines and liquors to match. Why was Julia Child needed c. 1960?

The answer must be: the reign of King Volstead between 1920-1933. With alcohol removed from the equation for 13 years, fine dining lost a lot of its appeal. Food returned to its utilitarian roots, even that is amongst a class who formerly knew differently. The Depression also quite naturally delayed a return to an older tradition. Then the war did. By the 50s, people forgot what great food and wine were all about; it had to be re-invented.

Another factor IMO is that until about 1920 when America tightened its immigration laws, huge numbers of incomers arrived from Central and Western Europe. Many had worked in fine European restaurants and hotels, indeed in the era when France in particular was developing the very concept of the haute in dining, service and wines.

Such skills were eminently transferable to an American context, counter-intuitive as it may seem. This was not just in large city hotels, but regional ones in Indiana, Missouri, Wisconsin, and other states often called today the red states. These regularly held banquets and dinners of a sophistication that is arresting when considering the state of national food and dining in 1955, say. By then, the sons and daughters of those master chefs and wine stewards were doing something else, dentistry, accountancy, or seeking tenure in the expanding college and university system.

I’ll revisit a further pre-1920 Willy banquet or two in the next post, and you will see the almost Lucullan Kansas City dinner was no one-off.

Note re images: the first image above, via HathiTrust, is from a 1900 issue of John Willy’s Hotel Monthly. The second image, of Kansas City c. 1906, is from this Pinterest collection of historic Kansas City photographs. All intellectual property therein or thereto belongs solely to their owners or authorized users. Images believed available for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.





5 thoughts on “America – Culinary Desert Before 1920?”

    • Good point, as Jan’s last comment. Perhaps with emerging evening entertainments, clubs, the pictures too, long dining and speech-making sessions became passe.

  1. I agree that Prohibition and immigration restriction were major factors in reducing the size, complexity, and luxuriousness of menus, but also a new image of the ideal figure which was slim rather than portly, and a more active youth-influenced lifestyle that shunned spending hours at the table for dinner parties.

  2. I have sometimes run across such menus and often wondered what must have happened to change North American culinary culture so drastically from the 19th century to the middle of the 20th. I remember special dinners with my Belgian-raised grandparents in the late 1960s and 1970s at Le Caveau in Montreal, with its enticing menu of classical French dishes, and I also remember wondering why more meals could not be that good. It took until the 1980s for that kind of food to be more widely available in Canadian cities, and what a huge change it was compared to the bleak supermarket fare of the preceding decades.

    • Thanks Andrew, most interesting. I think in a word: Prohibition. While it never affected Canada the same way, and differed by province, we were affected inevitably by The Great Experiment. Even Quebec had a form of prohibition during WW I…


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