Of Pilsener and Poobahs

Mittel-Europa Forsakes Not a Native Son

A dish of Austrian cuisine, huhner-puree, is a mince or purée of chicken or perhaps partridge. It is or was typically served as an appetizer, probably on toast rounds. A 19th century recipe appears here. The original German has largely defeated us – any help from interested readers is appreciated – but we think we have the gist right.

The dish appeared on a menu from 1903, reproduced below. It was published in 1915 in World’s Fair Menu and Recipe Book; a Collection of the Most Famous Menus Exhibited at the Panama-Pacific International Exposition by Joseph Charles Lehner. Lehner is identified in the book as “the American gastronom”. The odd spelling offers a period charm. Half the book is a menu collection, the other half deals with what used to be called home economics. The latter was surely added to ensure relevance to a commercial exposition.

The book was drawn to our attention on Twitter by menu collector and blogger Henry Voigt, see www.theamericanmenu.com for details on his work.

We would guess Joseph Lehner was a German or Austrian who at some point during a hotel and catering career relocated to San Francisco, site of the Panama-Pacific International Exposition. The book collects menus gathered in the prior 25 years. It seems Lehner was often engaged to travel the world to prepare dinners for the great and good. Just as an example, he created a dinner in Cairo for General Viscount Kitchener, of Khartoum fame, offered by “past and present” officers of the Egyptian army. The striking menu cover is reproduced in the book.

Most of the menus pertain to royalty, senior military or political figures, society people, and similar. A number of White House menus are included. Many are of good interest, in part for the artwork often featured. As well, the cuisines were diverse, not always French albeit French food (then) was typical of “public catering”, as explained in the introduction.

The book explains too that Lehner had displayed his menus in various places around the world, and finally published them in the form of this book for people to buy. This must be an early example of the collecting and dissemination of dining menus to shed light on social and political events of the day, to record social history in a word.

Our interest in huhner-purree is that it is paired with pilsener beer, beer that is from Pilsen, Czech Republic. Pilsener is usually associated with the Urquell brand from the famous Burgher’s, or Citizen’s, Brewery, founded 1842. In that period through to WW I German cultural influence pervaded Pilsen and Bohemia, and this extended to the vogue for bottom-fermented beer, the lager of which Urquell is now avatar. But the Pilsen beer which accompanied the chicken offering was likely not Urquell. It was almost certainly from another brewery in town, Erste Pilsener Aktien-Brauerie. A foraging of early Pilsen beer history by the specialist on Czech beer and travel writer, Evan Rail, supports this inference.

Nonetheless, regardless of its precise origin, the beer at the dinner is notable simply for being –  a beer. It is the only beer, not just on that particular menu, but in the entire book. Given the formal nature of the entertainments recorded by Lehner, beer would generally be far from the scene. Dining at an epicurean level, then and to a large extent still, meant wine was served, not beer, cider, or hard spirits. But exceptions there always were.

The cuisines of central Europe were devised by peoples familiar with beer as an old tradition. Accordingly, they did not always neglect it for the table, even for formal occasions. The meal in question was Germanic in temper probably because it was served in the Vienna town hall, in honour of a local priest. But a bourgeois meal it was not, much less family-style. It blended hallowed local traditions with French influences such as the serried rank of wines accompanying the main courses (some vintage-dated), or salad after the savoury food. The dessert and cheese courses too suggest a French influence, including that an assortment of cheeses was offered.

The dinner was in essence “Continental”, a term old-fashioned today. It denoted a specific approach to cuisine that was neither purely local nor strictly Right Bank Escoffier.

I have referred earlier to the rare appearance of beer on early menus, I gave this example from 1900, a meal at an estate of the Pabst brewery in Milwaukee. Three beers, each named and of different style, were paired with specific courses. Even then, Champagne appeared and gave the beers a run for their money (see the account of the meal in the link I gave). Once again we have a blending of high and low influences.

Lehner appended a note to his menu to explain presumably why a beer appeared in a collection of haute“artistically designed” menus. He stated since “cocktail” doesn’t exist in Vienna, beer was served as an appetizer. It seems he considered the beer as much a food as the chicken it was partnered with. This was still the prevailing view then, at least in a German cultural context: beer was liquid bread.


Note re images: the images herein were sourced from Joseph Charles Lehner’s 1915 book linked in the text via HathiTrust. Images appear for educational and historical purposes. All intellectual property in the sources resides solely in their lawful owners, as applicable. All feedback welcome.