A notable feature of New York dining in the 1930s was nascent 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 co-founded by André Simon in 1933.
Less visible in this period was the Gourmet Society of New York, founded in ___ [GG to check]. 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 lacked presentation they more than made up in passion and creative thinking. Their dinners prove once more that public interest in local, regional, and ethnic cuisines is not new.
It was being promoted by small groups in Manhattan, London, and elsewhere where questing spirits gathered even before the Second World War.
Each Gourmet Society menu contained this brisk mission statement:
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 owned a business statistics and research consultancy. His wife Christine assisted him and is 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; haute cuisine; and New England, but this is just a sampling.
The wines in American-themed menus are mainly American even though in the group’s heyday, appreciation of domestic wines was at an early stage. Usually the producer was listed. Inglenook, Cresta Blanca, and Beaulieu, were some that made a splash in Gourmet Society menus.
A dinner held in Manhattan in January 1939 showcased the New Orleans gastronomic heritage. The menu, as archived at the NYPL may be viewed here.
A special dinner guest, the Midwestern poet, essayist, and biographer Edgar Lee Master, addressed the diners. Also on the dais was folklorist and regional historian Carl Carmer, Thyra Winslow, and W. Irving Moss. The number of luminaries that evening was unusual, suggesting a truly special occasion.
The Society would regularly invited speakers to its dinners, singing for their supper but also stimulating a higher level of discourse at the meal.
Winslow was a literary celebrity, originally from Arkansas. Moss was an insurance executive from New Orleans, a background which proved useful for the night’s dining.
Gourmet Society menus usually contained cultural notes, which adds to their historical interest. Often recipes were included as well.
Frederick had spent time in New Orleans absorbing variations on Oysters Rockefeller, designing on his own take for the 1939 gathering. The oyster type used was noted, Robbin’s Island Box oysters. Robbin’s Island, in Peconic Bay, Long Island, New York, is still known for oysters.
They feature occasionally at the historic cellar Oyster Bar in Grand Central Terminal in Manhattan.
At the accacia-scented evening the dishes were accompanied by “orange wine”, also an unnamed “Chablis” from California.
Orange wine – not the currently fashionable brownish white wine of that name – was a notable product of south Louisiana where navel oranges were and still are grown, despite Hurricane Katrina’s best efforts.
The Federal Writers Project noted this specialty around the time the dinner was held. Recipes for orange wine go back centuries, probably to Britain or a possession, originally. I suspect the drink arrived in the American South via the Caribbean. Old manuals give the recipes.
Can one still get such a thing in Buras-Triumph, Louisiana, as the orange district is now called? Some families may still make it for their own use.
A modern recipe book includes shrimp boiled in orange wine, which suggests the fruity fermentable is still available, at least to some.
After some 90 dinners, by the mid-1950s the Gourmet Society was engaging in recondite 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.
Details of the meal were conveyed by the journalist in bemused tone, e.g. a “blonde wine” served, or (surely) the locale, the Newark Airport restaurant.
The past is famously a foreign country but I found George Frederick’s culinary world rather modern (not moderne), withal.
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 figured at some Gourmet Society events but for American menus, domestic wines were usually served, or a non-alcohol of some kind.