Welcome to the Hotel Pennsylvania, 1936
A vintage menu that points to the future of North American dining and wine culture is the December 1936 dinner of the New York-based Gourmet Society.
The full menu is archived here, from the invaluable menu archive of Johnson and Wales University. The charming document, typed and mimeographed for distribution, featured the pioneering radio journalist and author Mary McBride as speaker. You may read of her career here.
The Gourmet Society was helmed by writer and food authority J. George Frederick, and lasted from 1933 until about 1960. I profiled the group earlier and have discussed a number of their menus.
The 1936 dinner was held at Hotel Pennsylvania in New York, across from Penn Station and Madison Square Garden. Then comparatively new, the hotel is a New York stalwart although the glamour has faded.
In the late 1930s it was stylish, the perfect place to host a creative dinner of the type pioneered by the Gourmet Society and New York Wine and Food Society.
Each dish was typical of coastal or interior New England, from the Vermont turkey pie to Connecticut Oysters Casino and Maine stuffed potatoes. Really though, the menu can be styled Northeast rustic, it is as Canadian as American.
British readers will be forgiven for thinking the meal has an oddly familiar look. Oysters, a crusted pie of poultry, mashed winter vegetables, with a sweet sauce to accompany – it could have appeared in Dickens or Thackeray. Even New England rum was British, or British Colonial, originally.
New World influences include the tomatoes and perhaps the cranberry, although Cumberland Sauce is a hop and skip from that – or vice versa.
The “chablis”, a generic label from one of the restored California wineries, was a good choice. Yet, it took imagination at the time to choose such an item over French or German types.
1936 is only three years after liquor comes back, still the dark age of the American wine business. But even 1930s New York had the imagination to drink American at a gourmet dinner.
The Old Pilgrim rum was a conscious attempt to recall the grand era of New England’s Medford rum – grand in retrospect, of course. You don’t know what you have until it’s gone…
What makes the Hotel Pennsylvania dinner foodism, a construct? The menu was a conscious investigation, or interpretation, of regional foodways. It wasn’t just tonight’s dinner or even a festive menu as such. It was a group of “cosmopolites” – intellectuals leading the way – viewing food in a cultural lens, not just as sustenance or tradition.
It presaged an Anthony Bourdain visiting Cajun country or South America. It presaged the Iron Chef, Graham Kerr, the Time-Life cookery series, James Beard, and Ruth Reichl.
This way of dining gets the goat of some people, but it’s as valid a way to eat as any other way. Food and foodways belong to the world.
Note re images: the first image above was sourced via Pinterest here. All intellectual property therein belongs solely to the lawful owner, as applicable. Image used for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.