A notable feature of New York dining in the mid-1900s was gourmet clubs. The Wine And Food Society, Inc. was a well-organized and influential such body. Its members included business figures, celebrities from the arts, and food writers. The New York branch still exists, part of the London-based The International Wine and Food Society.
Less visible in this period was the Gourmet Society of New York. Some of its menus survive in the New York Public Library’s menu archive, and elsewhere. They are fascinating curios, typed and mimeographed in contrast to the more polished productions of the Wine and Food Society. What they lack in presentation was more than made up by the passion and creative thinking of the group.
These dinners prove once more that public interest in local, regional, and ethnic cuisine is not new. It was being promoted by small groups in Manhattan, London and elsewhere where questing, intellectual spirits gathered.
The mission of the Gourmet Society was described briskly in the early menus:
A dinner club of gourmets and cosmopolites. Six or seven dinners per season at different selected dining places. Membership open to all who have palates aesthetically sensitive to good food and drink, and who have imagination enough to cherish the gourmet tradition.
The driving force was J. George Frederick, who ran a business statistics and research consultancy. His wife Christine assisted and is also remembered as a home economist and theorist of the consumer society. Representative dinners of the group featured cuisines of the East Shore, Maryland, Canton, China, European haute cuisine, and New England, but this is only a sampling.
The wines in menus that survive are mainly American even though American wine appreciation was in its earliest stage. Usually the producer was listed: Inglenook, Cresta Blanca, Beaulieu, or another of the few wineries that made a splash in epicurean circles then.*
A dinner in January, 1939 showcased New Orleans’ gastronomic heritage. The menu, as archived by the NYPL may be viewed here.
A special dinner guest, Midwestern poet, essayist, and biographer Edgar Lee Master, addressed the gathering. Also on the dais: folklorist and regional historian Carl Carmer, Thyra Winslow, and W. Irving Moss. The number of luminaries suggests the night was extra-special for the group.
Winslow was a literary celebrity originally from Arkansas. Moss was an insurance executive from New Orleans, and this background clearly helped Frederick organize the program.
Gourmet Society menus usually contained cultural notes on the dishes, which adds to their historical value. Often recipes were included as well.
Frederick spent time in New Orleans absorbing variations on Oysters Rockefeller, and designed on his own take for the 1939 gathering. The oyster type was noted, Robbin’s Island Box oysters. Robbin’s Island, in Peconic Bay, Long Island, is still known for oysters. They feature occasionally at the Oyster Bar of Grand Central Terminal, NYC.
After some 90 dinners, by the mid-1950s the group was engaging in bold exercises such as an all-New Jersey dinner. A press account of the latter is revealing, and appropriately mordant in tone – this was Eisenhower’s America. The offbeat nature of the locale was stressed, Newark Airport’s restaurant. Details of the meal are conveyed in bemused tone as e.g. the “blonde wine” served.
At the accacia-scented New Orleans night orange wine appeared with an unattributed “Chablis” from California.
Orange wine (not the modern brownish white wine) was a notable product of south Louisiana where navel oranges were grown and still are, despite Katrina. The Federal Writers Project noted the specialty around the same time. The recipe is old, probably British originally, and likely arrived in the South via the Caribbean.
Can one still get orange wine in Buras-Triumph, Louisiana, as the orange groves area is now known? I don’t know, some families may make it for their own consumption. Old manuals give recipes though for anyone interested.
A modern recipe book includes shrimp boiled in orange wine, which suggests down Louisiana way, the wine of the country has not been abandoned.
Note re image above: sourced from the aviation archive of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey see here. Used for educational and historical purposes.
*Foreign wines might figure at Gourmet Society events but for American menus, domestic wines were usually served, or a non-alcohol drink of some kind.