Welcome to the Hotel Pennsylvania
A vintage menu of 1936 points to the future of American dining and wine, from the New York-based Gourmet Society.
The menu is archived here, in the invaluable collection of Johnson and Wales University. It was typed and mimeographed for members and presents today a charming aspect. Pioneering radio journalist and speaker Mary McBride spoke at the dinner, a notable figure of her time.
She is pictured below with Eleanor Roosevelt (via link above).
The Gourmet Society, a heterogenous group of New York movers and shakers, invited public figures to its events. Food and drink were primary, but not exclusive, for these “modernes”. They also engaged in debates of the day, increasingly fraught with the approach of WW II.
The Gourmet Society was helmed by J. George Frederick, an advertising executive turned food author. The Society was active from 1933 until c. 1960. I discussed the Society and a number of its menus earlier.
The 1936 dinner was given at the Hotel Pennsylvania in New York, across from Penn Station and Madison Square Garden. Then comparatively new, Hotel Pennsylvania is still a New York fixture although the mid-century glamour has faded.
But in the 1930s, the hotel was ideal to host a creative dinner of “cosmopolites”, as Frederick termed his band. The menu that night was representative of coastal and interior New England. Offerings included turkey pie, oysters casino, stuffed potatoes, and squash pie.
Different states’ names were attached to each dish but this was largely a flourish, e.g. Vermont turkey pie.
The dishes have more than a British tinge. Oysters, pie of poultry, or winter vegetables – all could have appeared in Dickens or Thackeray. The rum similarly, albeit the Victorian “quartern” measure had been abandoned in a modernes’ Manhattan.
The Anglophile flavour ties into the first European settlers in the Northeast U.S., and much of Maritimes Canada for that matter. Frederick would write notes for each dish, sometimes offering the recipe.
The “Sauterne”, a generic label from a restored California winery, was a brave choice. It took imagination for prewar epicureans to select such an item over established French or German wines.
1936 is only three years after Prohibition, which had wiped away a wine industry in full ascension prior to WW I. But in F.D.R.’s New York, the Gourmet Society found inspiration in a re-born industry to match its American food theme.
The rum recalled the heyday of New England rum manufacture, especially in Medford, Mass. It is doubtful Medford rum would have been served at a formal dinner before Prohibition. By the late 1930s, the product was viewed in a different light, as a tradition almost lost.
It was similar to how India Pale Ale was viewed by craft brewers after the last industrially produced example, Ballantine India Pale Ale, had departed the market.
The Hotel Pennsylvania dinner was a construct, a cultural event, not just tonight’s dinner or even festive dining as such. It was urbanites, hipsters if you will, viewing food as other than simply sustenance or tradition.
George Frederick and other leading figures of New York’s early food scene presaged luminaries to come: the Beards, Kerrs, Rays, Reichls, Flays, and many more. They forecast our food trucks, food halls, baking competitions, and Zoom dinners. And much else that constitutes today’s culinary world.