Beer Cuisine of the 1930s

Malt Grain Bread and Other Specialties With Beer

In some 40 pages, Virginia Elliott, a 20th century journalist and writer based in New York, delineated her approach to beer cuisine. It’s a chapter of her Quiet Drinking, an odd title perhaps but the year of publication, late 1933, may suggest the reason. Raucous drinking in well-insulated speakeasies, or in the memories of those who knew the pre-Prohibition saloon, was replaced by the well-regulated bar of FDR’s bureaucrats.

Probably because legal beer was so new, Elliott’s description of styles or traditions is limited to “light” and “dark”.

Her advice on what to drink? Buy a few brands. Try some of each, eating a bit of white bread between, and decide which you like. She allows it may end as a local brand and not the most expensive (good advice). Then, she says, lay in a supply and forget about brands.

It’s one way to do it, and not necessarily the worst. The book shines more in an area now neglected, beer-drinking accessories. A full range of paraphernalia is discussed including glasses, mugs, trays, picnic hampers, and cooling devices.

Elliott also spends time on proper draft service, likely for the new generation of legal bar owners. People then regularly purchased quarter-kegs for home use, and she offers tips to avoid waste.

She states baldly that draft is superior to bottled because not pasteurized. It’s something often discussed in beer literature generations ago, but not as often today. In part this is because most craft beer is not pasteurized, but it’s an issue always to be recalled, as the process does exact some toll in flavour, IMO.

The foods-with-beer discussion is where Virginia Elliott really takes flight. She offers a long list of hot dishes felt suitable for beer, everything from kidneys to curry. Most are from the bourgeois cuisines, generally of northern Europe where beer is a tradition.

Welsh rabbit and its  variants feature, also a host of hot sandwiches, frankfurters and knockwurst with kraut, smoked and pickled fish, cheese, German “wurst” plates (called “Dutch lunch” then), hams, and similar.

The foods are described in good detail including four kinds of imported liverwurst. A German sausage containing donkey is mentioned without the usual frisson – sign of the true gastronome.

1940s beer tastings of the New York Wine and Food Society featured selections from most of these categories except the supper dishes. Elliott’s book probably had an influence.

I can’t find much on her biographically. She died in 1977, had been married, and in the 1920s collaborated on another drinks book, with Iowa-born author Phil Stong (not her husband, famous for writing State Fair).

A strange feature of 1920s gastronomy is the considerable number of American books on drinks.

Even though it implied seeking illegal alcohol, guides to drinking were not unlawful as such. One book even contained a recipe to brew beer at home.

Elliott’s beer chapter is a useful window on how food-and-beer was viewed in the mid-1930s. There is much from pre-1920, but glimmers of modernity exist too – the simple fact that it was written by a woman, for example. And while no unusual combinations are suggested, she does encourage readers to come up with their own ideas.

In sum, Elliott’s book is a step on the long path that led to today’s plethora of books and blogs on beer cuisine.

To conclude, here is some detailed advice from Ms. Elliott on the different breads that accompany beer and deli.

The peasant or dark breads belong with beer. Pumpernickel of course is a German favorite. If you like the very heavy kind any good German deli­catessen can furnish you with an imported one, done up in many layers of foil, which is thinly sliced, very soggy and quite delicious.

The pumpernickel which is made by your local baker will not be as heavy nor have as decided a flavor, but is good. Jewish deli­catessens have one with a particularly nice twang. 

Imported Khommissbrot, the coarse, heavy bread eaten by the German soldiers, is good with cheese. It comes in pound packages, thinly sliced, and is only fifteen cents a pound. 

Malskorn* is the very heaviest of the pumpernickels. Black Russian bread is good with beer, but is not very popular because of its very strong flavor. Rye bread, with or without caraway seeds, should be served with salt fish, smoked meats, or the more piquant spreads. It should be thinly sliced. 

German salt-rising bread is delicious with beer, but should be eaten with butter only. It has a peculiar flavor which does not combine well with most foods. Swedish breads make a good carrier for pastes and fish. 

Rye Krisp is primarily a health bread and is less fattening than others. It is made in a large thin round wafer and has the consistency of asbestos. It may be served in the whole piece, and broken off as it is wanted. It costs fifty cents a pound and lasts forever.

Much of this lore has been lost in our seemingly more sophisticated time.
*Malt grain bread, sharing with beer the use of malt.