The 1936 Wine and Oyster Tasting in New York: an Attendee Reports

Present at the Creation

Only after I completed my posts yesterday on the New York Wine and Food Society’s 1936 Wine and Oyster Tasting did I locate an extraordinary document. It would be long odds that someone who attended that event was still living in the 2000s, but this is the case.

Edward B. Marks was an American who had a long career in refugee resettlement and assistance starting in the late 1930s. He worked for numerous American and international organizations including finally UNICEF.

Marks was born in New York in 1913, of German-Jewish origin. He was a Dartmouth graduate and gained a master’s degree in sociology from Columbia.

His long career in public service, as well as his occasional journalism and other writing, earned him numerous obituaries in well-known newspapers. See this one from the New York Times.

At the age of 92, not long before his death in 2005, he published the memoir Still Counting: Achievements and Follies of a Nonagenarian. Substantial portions can be read on Google Books including from the chapter on his 1930s days in alcoholic beverage publishing, here.

Between 1933 and 1938 Marks worked as a editor for a brewing industry magazine and later for a wine and liquor journal. The work is recalled in the chapter of his book I linked.

He describes attending numerous events of the New York Wine and Food Society in the mid-1930s as part of his work in beverages publishing.

He is very complimentary of these events, and mentions three in particular including a Champagne tasting at the Ritz-Carlton and the 1936 Oyster and Wine Tasting I profiled yesterday.

Marks is so precise in his recollections that he must have retained the menus. You can read them as well, in their entirety from the New York Public Library, here and here.

Marks later set up a small-scale winery at his property in Leesburg, Virginia, enough to pay its way at any event – clearly the early years in drinks publishing and gastronomy influenced his social habits.

Marks has a high regard for the early work of the International Wine and Food Society in America. He had met its mover and shaker André Simon and outlines Simon’s great efforts before and after WW II to improve American gastronomy and convert the nation to wine-drinking.

Marks gives great credit to the Society for introducing wine culture to America but considers that the work had a delayed reaction – in a word took longer than Simon had hoped. He states Simon would be amazed at how the country finally changed in regard to the use of wine as a beverage.

I don’t disagree but I feel that the influence of the IWFS and similar groups (e.g., Manhattan’s Gourmet Society) was noticeable well before wine-drinking became usual in America.

That’s how social trends develop: they appear first among small groups who exercise a disproportionate influence on the country – who are quite literally in this case, tastemakers.

The process never stops, today the culinary scene is led by people such as Anthony Bourdain, Gordon Ramsay, even Rachel Ray, or say the bake-off show wildly popular in the U.K. that has spun-off numerous imitations.

The thousands of tastings and dinners in the country by various IWFS branches between 1933 and 2000 came to the attention of food and wine writers, wine importers, grape growers and vintners, and radio and tv chefs. They would have attended its events, spoken and promoted their work there, and in turn brought the message of civilized living to a wider audience.

Marks is an example himself, as the book amply testifies.

A typical early sub-culture were those who bought Julia Child’s landmark books and who viewed her first TV show, The French Chef. Just as for the equally influential chef and author James Beard, she would have been known the IWFS and have attended some of its events.

A similar thing happened in England with people such as Elizabeth David, Jane Grigson, Hugh Johnson, the Craddocks, and so on.

In the U.S. I should mention also Zagat, “the” restaurant guide for New York that later migrated to many other cities. Its style echoes that of the 1930s Consumer Union publications, telegraphic but informed commentary.

The IWFS’s tasting menus were similar but more refined: in essence a blending of technical information originating with producers with a literary flair, but not too heavy-handed.

Social trends always involve a complex interaction of the moving parts, but that the IWFS had an outsize influence on American foodways cannot be doubted. Marks confirms it in its essentials.

He mentions that German wines featured at the 1936 tasting and does not suggest any annoyance at that, or being discomfited in any way by his Jewish background.

Perhaps because he worked in an industry in which Germans and German-Americans were prevalent in the 1930s he was able to set aside personal considerations. Had any Jewish person chosen not to attend a tasting at which German wine was served in the Hitler era, that might have lessened his career prospects, always a consideration no matter what the ethics are.

Or perhaps it was just the nature of the times as I suggested yesterday: bad things happening in foreign countries didn’t register in the same way around the world as they do now.

It is interesting that Marks had first-hand knowledge of Nazi perfidy since he worked with Jewish victims of the Nazis, but that work came later. In 1936 he was still a journalist in the wine and spirits industry.

In any case, at the end of a long life, this aspect is not adverted to in the book, from what I could tell.

Marks clearly remained influenced by his early years in the alcohol business: he states even in his nineties he enjoyed a glass of beer, plus of course wine as mentioned.

Marks had a high regard for the taste of the new beer in the 1930s, feeling only that it should be stronger than “3.2”. During Prohibition he sometimes drank Canadian beer bootlegged into the country, probably as a student in college, which he clearly admired.

In his brewing work he was struck by the massive aging tanks at some of the pre-Prohibition New York breweries: he mentions Jacob Ruppert in particular.

He learned a considerable amount about hops and says some interesting things about competition between American and imported hops. He visited most of the older breweries starting up again and some of the newer ones.

One feature of modern living that disturbed him was the prevalence of campus drinking. He states that during his college years there was little use of alcohol. Sometimes students made a kind of raw gin from alcohol and juniper, but drinking was restricted in those days.

He clearly disapproved of widespread use of alcohol on campus in the 2000s, and in this I can only agree. Perhaps it is a price to pay for making alcohol generally unobjectionable in society at large.

Note re image: the image above was sourced from the New York Public Library, as linked in the text. All intellectual property therein belongs solely to the lawful owner or authorized user, as applicable. Images are used for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.