A Food Column Reader Challenges le Maître
A 1940 column of food and wine critic G. Selmer Fougner demonstrates, with the page it is on, a number of features of 1940 gastronomy in New York.
First, note the impressive range of international cuisines featured in the Sun’s restaurant advertising section. I actually remember that typography and layout being used into the 1950s and early 60s in New York, Florida, and Montreal. You can still see it in some of the old-style tourist magazines and pamphlets in New York hotels.
But you could select from 20 or so international styles, from Armenian to “Rumanian” and more. New York was surely unique in the world in offering such palette of world cuisines then. As the home of noted gastronomic societies, old and new, of the best culinary and wine writers, of top liquors wholesalers, retailers, and importers, it was the nerve-centre for food and wine probably world-wide and remains so to this day.
Note the advertisement for Cribari Rielsing, from an ethnic Italian family that owned 1200 acres of vineyard in northern California, established in the state since 1865. The vineyards were finally sold decades ago but the name Cribari survives on brands of bulk wines distributed by CVI Bulk Wine and descendants are still involved with the business.
Gastronomic societies were, in some cases gingerly, in others with less inhibition, promoting American wines and Fougner was very much involved in the effort. I will return to this subject, but for now wish to point out his savvy as a classic wine man of the old school.
He stated in earlier columns that sherry in the traditional, French-influenced meal service was only served at the outset of a meal, with soup or nuts. A reader wrote in, as Fougner recounts in the column, in effect with an “ah-hah!”, or I’ve got you. The reader had sent an 1890 menu for the marriage celebration of the daughter of no less than Adolphus Busch of St. Louis. And the menu showed sherry was served in the middle of the meal. The reader asked Fougner: who is wrong, you or the Busches?
However, try as he might to embarrass America’s leading consumer authority on food and wine, he failed. I will let you read the account to see why.
(It is unlikely the reader thought the Busches made a social faux-pas, considering their standing in American life ever since the late 1800s).
On a different point, while Fougner didn’t mention it, your humble chronicler of 2019 was more than a little miffed to see that no beer appeared on the menu. Come on, America’s most important brewer, who unquestionably made great beers at the time, could not find a place on this impressive menu for one of his own products? It would have been a nice salute to the family’s origins and fortune, after all. A rich Doppel Bock might have worked, say, after the Champagne. Just as a gesture.*
But, no Bier is present, or so it appears from the menu as reproduced in this 1940 story. Probably Busch wanted the food service to be seen as of impeccable European pedigree; indeed Fougner found it no less.
We see from Fougner’s account that as much as a new school was developing in food and wine – interest in regional American dishes, promotion of California wines, interest in world cuisines – mastery of old school knowledge, Cordon Bleu-style, classified growth-style, was still important to culinary credentials.
And Fougner had it down pat. From time to time he showed it, as here, but together with other 1930s New York epicures he was prepared to enlarge his horizons, too. In the process, it influenced national American and finally international food habits. 2019 is a long way from Fougner’s 1940 New York but I think he would have felt very much at home here.
Still, had Adolphus Busch insisted that a beer appear on his daughter’s wedding menu, I wonder how Fougner would have reacted. We will never know.
*A blend of iced Champagne and porter, or Black Velvet, would have been ideal. Indeed Fougner once gave directions to make it.