Beer Cuisine of the 1930s

Malt Grain Bread and More Foods With Beer



In some 40 pages, Virginia Elliott, a journalist and writer of the last century based in New York, set out her approach to beer cuisine. It forms a chapter of her book Quiet Drinking, an odd title perhaps but publication in late 1933 may suggest the reason.

With beer of moderate strength now legal, a new era of responsible drinking was forecast, vs. the raucous setting of illicit speakeasies and the old-time saloon.

Probably because legal beer was so new, Elliott describes its types simply as light or dark.

As to what to drink, she writes to buy a few brands and try each with a bit of white bread between. Decide which you like, and stick with that. She states it could end as a local brand and not the most expensive.

It’s one way to do it, and not necessarily the worst.

The book shines more in an area today relatively neglected in craft circles, beer-drinking accessories. A full range is discussed, not just glasses but mugs, trays, picnic hampers, and cooling devices.

Elliott spends time on service of draft beer, probably, or mainly, for a new generation of bar owners. As many homeowners at the time bought quarter-kegs, and she offers tips to avoid waste.

She states as a fact that draft beer is superior to bottled because not pasteurized. This is a topic oft’ raised in beer circles generations ago, but not so much today.

In part it is because most craft beer is not pasteurized, so people take for granted its extra-fresh character. Yet some craft beer is pasteurized, so the question is still of interest both from a flavour and stability point of view.

The what-foods-with-beer section is where Elliott sings the most. She offers a selection of hot foods felt suitable for beer, from kidneys to curry. Most are from the bourgeois cuisines of northern Europe, where beer is a tradition.

The cheesy specialty of Welsh rabbit features of course, also a variety of hot sandwiches, frankfurters or knockwurst with sauerkraut, smoked and pickled fish, cheeses, “wurst plates” (part of “Dutch lunch” then), and hams.

No less than four types of imported liverwurst come in for discussion. A German sausage containing donkey is even mentioned, without a frisson – sign of the gastronome.

1940s beer tastings by the New York Wine and Food Society featured many cold selections mentioned by Elliott – possibly she was an influence.

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

She lived until 1977 and so into a period of more advanced food culture than Thirties America.

Elliott’s beer chapter is a useful window on how food-with-beer was viewed in the mid-1930s. She reprises pre-Prohibition practices, e.g. Dutch Lunch along with modern suggestions, and encourages readers to develop their own ideas.

In sum, a step on the long path that led to today’s many books, articles and blogposts on how to pair food with beer or combine them in recipes.

Finally, some advice from Elliott on different breads that accompany beer and deli foods:

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.

Most will accept, and I have stated myself, that our time is more sophisticated for food than Elliott’s. Yet how many general food writers, and readers, are familiar with these gradations of breadmaking?
*Malt grain bread shares with beer the use of barley malt. Interesting that she types salt-rising bread as German. It is an old American specialty of the frontier lands. Presumably there is or was something similar in Germany, maybe a progenitor.